Geoffrey Chaucer (C. 1343-1400) was among the foremost poets of late-medieval England. Having been, among other things, a soldier, ambassador, and customs agent, he was also a man of letters who found time to keep abreast of literary developments at home and abroad. Appreciated by 15th-century readers as a moralist, Chaucer appeals to modern audiences largely because of his lively storytelling and judicious insights about human nature.
Chaucer’s poetry reveals his acute interest in time, evident even in his choice of poetic genres. Although they focus primarily on love relationships in the manner of the medieval historical romance, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and the Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales are clearly indebted to the epic, set as they are in the remote eras of the Trojan War and the siege of Thebes. Time is no mere abstraction in Chaucer; nor is it simply a feature of the background of his narratives. His antique settings in the aforementioned two works complement the aristocratic status and the idealized, heroic behavior of his characters as well. Very different are the Miller’s Tale and Reeve’s Tale: as examples of the fabliau, these stories feature coarse characters, scatological humor and frequent deception, and unfold in the narrator’s present, a world apart from the epic past. Their peculiar form of entertainment depends on immediacy of action and fast-paced storytelling in the here and now.
Partial or complete sources or analogues can be found for many of Chaucer’s works, originality not having been as prized in the Middle Ages as it is in our own day. Despite his frequent debts to earlier and near-contemporary works of literature, however, the poet also saw a good deal of life itself. Born in London in the early 1340s, Geoffrey Chaucer may have attended one of the schools in the district near the River Thames where his father would have plied his trade as a vintner. He also served, possibly as a page, in the court of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster, an opportunity likely brought about by his father’s influence as a wealthy wine merchant. Before he was 20 years old he gained firsthand experience, while in the army of King Edward III under Prince Lionel, Elizabeth’s husband, of what historians call the Hundred Years’ War between France and England (1337-1453). His military years marked the beginning of a varied career as a civil servant. Indeed, it was his service in three royal administrations, not his brilliance as a poet, that led to his being buried in Westminster Abbey in 1400. He was married to Philippa (de) Roet, and one of his children, Thomas, enjoyed an even more brilliant public career than his own.
It is tempting to assume that his political connections and involvement in matters of state must have spurred Chaucer to make overt references to his times. This assumption would be incorrect, however, as the poet seldom mentions significant contemporary events. Whether in his short lyrics or in his longer works, explicit “timeliness” is rare, though his avoidance of topicality also makes it relatively easy for modern readers to enjoy his poetry for its lyrical or narrative qualities.
Although it did not lead him to write social criticism or protest literature in the manner of William Langland, author of The Vision of Piers Ploughman, Chaucer’s interest in time did find expression in the way he crafted meaning. It appears subtly, for example, in his use of timing in the development of his own fictional personae within his poems. The Book of the Duchess, for example, is early work (dating probably to the late 1360s) whose speaker, apparently an unsophisticated, naive version of the poet himself, recounts a dream of his in which he encountered a grieving knight in a meadow. The farther we read in the account of this dream, the more obvious it becomes to us that the Black Knight is mourning the death of his beloved, the Lady White. Chaucer, however, deliberately portrays his narrator as one who offers consolation and counsel without fully understanding the reason for the grief-stricken knight’s suffering until very late in their conversation—until nearly the end of the dream, in fact. After many hundreds of lines, the knight is finally compelled to do away with elaborate, poetic mourning and simply tell the uncomprehending Chaucerian persona that White has died. The bluntness of the revelation leaves the narrator almost speechless, and it is the poet’s deliberate strategy to contrast the knight’s despair with the narrator’s shallowness, prolonging the sense of failed conversation to an extent that makes us aware of the oddly comic quality of the situation.
Although Chaucer wrote short lyrical poems, he is best remembered for longer works like The Book of the Duchess, The Parliament of Fowls, The House of Fame, Troilus and Criseyde, The Legend of Good Women, and of course The Canterbury Tales. Their length makes it necessary to understand in premodern terms what was said above about Chaucer’s sense of timing. Like other writers of his age, Chaucer was fond of long, detailed descriptions and digressions recounted at a leisurely pace. Although modern students occasionally complain that these are distracting features of his work that bog down their progress through it, medieval writers and readers who aspired to literary sophistication (as their culture conceived it) enjoyed them as hallmarks of good verse.
Apart from Chaucer’s conscious ideas about narrative time and historical periodization, the poet’s place within time, specifically literary history, has aroused much scholarly debate over the past decade and a half. Conventionally labeled a “medieval” poet, Chaucer is often placed within surveys of Western European literature before the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch (13031374), who lived roughly two generations earlier than the Englishman. This anachronism is related to the modern scholar’s sense that Petrarch, having been fascinated with the classical Roman past, was more “modern” than Chaucer: The remnants of that past abounded in 14th-century Italy, and thus a “Renaissance” poet could arise much more naturally there than in contemporary England. Also of relevance is Petrarch’s personal distaste for the Scholastic philosophy of his own day, articulated in a Latin that he condemned as barbarous. For his part, Chaucer had a real interest in historical and cultural change, but he had none of Petrarch’s despondent yearning to rebuild antiquity on the ashes of his own time or to cleanse the Latin language of its alleged postclassical impurities. Important work in the field of Chaucer studies by David Wallace and others has challenged the kneejerk temptation to label Chaucer a product of the “Middle Ages” and Petrarch the herald of the “Renaissance.”
See also Alighieri, Dante; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Eliot, T. S.; Poetry; Shakespeare’s Sonnets; Novels, Time in; Woolf, Virginia
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