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Chaucer had nearly done with pensions and Court favor. He died on the 25th of October, 1400.
Chaucer the Flower of Two Civilizations. Chaucer's relation to literary history has been already indicated. Through him those foreign influences which for three centuries had been enriching the civilization of England found expression in English poetry. Ignorant of the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer's work marks a final break with the literary traditions native to the English people. Not only is he un-English in manner, but he also has a lightness of touch, an easy cheerfulness, grace, and humor, very different from the somber earnestness and ponderous strength of the Anglo-Saxon. He is indeed sensitive to suffering, quickly touched by the sadness "in mortal things;" but, like a lighthearted child, he turns away from this aspect of life with relief. In his own phrase, he is " so weary for to speke of sorwe." Arcite, in the Knight's Tale, dies in the strength of his youth, and Chaucer accepts the fact with characteristic philosophy. It is tragic, but why should we cry over spilt milk? Can he thank us if we make ourselves miserable? "Nay, God woot, never a del." Let his rival and sworn brother be sensible. Why should he wish to die also? has he not "gold enough and Emely?" In such passages there is an avoidance of painful reflection, a Gallic gaiety foreign to the natural bent of the Teutonic mind.
But we must not think of Chaucer as a mere transmitter, or Anglicizer of foreign influences. His genius had another side. He chooses to write in the English language, while his contemporary, John Gower, composes the greater part of his poetry in Latin and in French. If Chaucer began by translating French romance, he became before he died the great painter
of the contemporary life of England. His foot was firmly planted on English soil, and few poets of any age have surpassed him in his power to observe and reproduce the external aspects of the world around him. His genius is objective; he has a strong grasp of plain fact. He has no touch of morbid grief or of maudlin sentimentality. He hates shams; he is eminently frank, robust, and wholesome. Dryden called him "a perpetual fountain of good sense." Now in these things Chaucer seems essentially English. In his frank realism, his appreciation of human nature, he resembles Shakespeare and Scott; his broad humor, free from malice or restraint, suggests the robust presence and hearty laughter of Fielding. Chaucer, then, is neither Norman nor Saxon, but a mixture of both. He united the Norman spirit of romance with English solidity and common sense. His very language, a fusion of French and English, shows that in him a long process of amalgamation is nearly completed, and that once separate elements are being welded into one.
Chaucer and the Renaissance. Nor must we forget that Italy, as well as France and England, contributed to the full development of Chaucer's powers. Dante, the first great poet of modern Europe, stands at the end of the Middle Ages: Chaucer, born three quarters of a century later, stands at once at the close of the medieval and at the beginning of the modern world. The inheritance of the past and the promise of the future mingle in his work; and, like his century, he marks both the end of an old order and the beginning of a new. His Genius. Genius is often associated with the excessive or abnormal development of a single faculty. In such cases one side of the man's nature grows at the expense of the rest. From this besetting weakness of
genius, Chaucer is conspicuously free. The artist in him did not warp or spoil the man; the varied life of the man contributed to the triumph of the artist. Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Chaucer is his ability to keep each of the diverse elements that make up life in its proper place, and his ability to use all, while he prevented any one from gaining an undue ascendency. Chaucer's healthy contact with life and his marvelous equipoise of character give a sane, wholesome, normal quality to his work. He is truthful, setting down what he sees honestly and naturally; he can enjoy life with almost the frank delight of a child, capable of laughter without malice; and, boisterous or coarse as he may sometimes seem, he is at heart surprisingly gentle and compassionate. If he is the poet of the Wife of Bath, he is also the poet of Griselda and Constance. He reveres a good woman; he writes of little children with a wonderful tenderness. He is not bitter, rebellious, or complaining, but accepts what life gives him with a cheerful courage and manly resignation. There is something natural, almost childlike, in his delight in birds and grass, in flowers and sunshine, in "Maytime and the cheerful dawn." He is among the greatest comic writers; the father of English humor, he has a Shakespearian sympathy with the follies or the absurdities which he describes.
The Music of His Verse. When Chaucer wrote, our English language, with its more frequent vowel sounds, was softer and smoother in men's mouths, and Chaucer, the master of this melodious English, is one of the most musical of English poets. When we compare the line, "And smale fowles maken melodie,"
"And the small birds make melody,"
or some such modern equivalent, we see that the English of Chaucer's day, as he used it, could rival the liquid flow of the Italian.
His Narrative Skill. Chaucer added to these varied gifts the power of telling a story in a clear, rapid, and effective manner. He was a great narrative, as well as an excellent descriptive, poet. He could reveal his characters through action, interest us in their adventures, and bring before us striking scenes or situations with vividness and dramatic force.
Poet of the Court. With all this comprehensive excellence, there were aspects of life that Chaucer touched lightly or ignored. He pictures men and women of various social conditions, from the knight to the miller and the plowman, but he shows breadth of observation rather than breadth of sympathy for the miseries or wrongs of the poor. The laureate of the Court, something of the courtier clings to him, and he remains the poet of a feudal society, the outcome of the voice of chivalry in its class distinctions and exclusiveness, as well as its splendor. His easy-going nature has in it no touch of the reformer, the martyr, or the fanatic. He takes the world as it is; he loves the good, but the sight of the evil stirs in him no deeps of moral indignation; on the contrary, he often regards grossness and vulgarity with an amused tolerance. He painted medieval life in its outward aspects, while Dante, revealing its soul, probed to the center. He seems to dwell at his ease in his broad, sunshiny world of green fields and merry jests; but if he took life and its graver issues lightly, this buoyant good-humor is not only his limitation but also his enduring charm.
EDWARD I, who greatly furthered national unity
Scottish Victory at Bannockburn
RICHARD ROLLE writes in the north of England The Prick of
1272-1307 1307-1327 1314
Beginning of the Hundred Years' War with France
Battle of Crecy (gunpowder first used)
Battle of Poitiers (won under the leadership of Edward the
Begins poetical work
The Canterbury Tales.
LAWRENCE MINOT's poems on the Wars of Edward III. . about 1352 The Black Death first appears in England
[about 1370 about 1370
Sir Gawayne and the Greene Knight | In the west of
1383 1340?-1400 probably 1360 after 1386
Froissart, author of the Chronicles (of the Hundred Years'