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the general awakening in Europe, learning was held in greater esteem and prosecuted with more vigor. It was no longer confined to the representatives of the church. Ecclesiastical and secular schools were greatly multiplied for the instruction of the young. Universities and colleges were founded in considerable numbers, some of the most illustrious colleges at Oxford and Cambridge being established at this time. Along with scholasticism, which rigidly applied the logic of Aristotle to the development of theology, the ancient classics of Greece and Rome were beginning to receive attention. The nobility began to take interest in letters. In Italy brilliant writers-Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio — made permanent contributions. to the literature of the world. Thus a great store of material was accumulated in the fourteenth century material that awaited the master-workman soon to appear.
ABOVE all his contemporaries of the fourteenth century stands the figure of Geoffrey Chaucer. He is called by Tennyson
First of all, he
He owes his pre-eminence to several facts. was gifted by nature with extraordinary poetic genius, which embodied itself in a number of imperishable works. He is justly called by Dryden "the father of English poetry." Besides, he was peculiarly favored in the circumstances of his life. In the field, at the court, in his business relations, he acquired a wide range of knowledge, which lent support to his great natural abilities. His culture exhibited, for the age in which he lived, almost a cosmopolitan completeness. And lastly, beyond any other man of his time, he fixed the fluctuating language of the age in a permanent form, and laid a firm basis for the English of the present day. Like Homer in Greece, Chaucer stands pre-eminent in the early literature of England; and among the great English poets of subsequent ages, not more than three or four- Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, and Tennyson - deserve to be placed in the same rank.
As with some other great authors, comparatively little is known of Chaucer's life. The most painstaking investigations have been comparatively fruitless. The time of his birth is a matter of dispute the two dates given for that event being 1328 and 1340. His father, as well as his grandfather, was a
London wine-dealer. Nothing definite is known in regard to his education. The opinion formerly held that he studied at Cambridge or Oxford is without any satisfactory foundation. In the year 1357 an authentic record shows him attached to the household of Lady Elizabeth, wife of Prince Lionel, in the capacity of a page. In 1359 he accompanied Edward III. in an invasion of France; and having been captured by the French, he was ransomed by the English king for sixteen pounds. The time and circumstances of his marriage are involved in obscurity, though it is tolerably certain that his domestic life was not happy. He subsequently served on embassies to Genoa, Flanders, and France, and acquitted himself to the satisfaction of the Crown. He filled the office of comptroller of customs in the port of London; and like many others of strong literary bent, he appears to have felt the irksomeness of his routine duties:
"... When thy labor done all is,
And hast y-made reckonings,
Instead of rest and newe things
Thou go'st home to thine house anon,
Thou sittest at another book."
In 1386 Chaucer was elected a member of Parliament, where he did not distinguish himself. In 1387, as well as can be determined, he lost his wife. After some vicissitudes of fortune, in which he found it necessary at one time to address a "Complaint to his Purse," he died in circumstances of comfort and peace, Oct. 25, 1400. His body lies in Westminster Abbey, where his tomb is an object of tender interest in the famous Poets' Corner.
Chaucer was small and slender in stature, looked upon the ground as he walked, and seemed absent or distracted in manner. This much is brought out in the few graphic touches with which the host of the Tabard and leader of the Canterbury pilgrims draws the poet's portrait. After a most pathetic
tale related by the prioress, Harry Bailly, as was meet, was the first to interrupt the silence :
"And then at first he looked upon me,
And saide thus: "What man art thou?' quoth he;
For ever upon the ground I see thee stare.
Now 'ware you, sirs, and let this man have space.
He in the waist is shaped as well as I;
This were a puppet in an arm to embrace
For unto no wight doth he dalliance.'"
While the outward circumstances of Chaucer's life are so imperfectly known, we have abundant means to judge of his character and attainments. He is revealed to us in his writings. He was familiar with the court life of his time, but we cannot believe that he surrendered himself entirely to its vices and empty formalities. While he was not indifferent to the enjoyments of social life, he set his heart on higher things. He recognized true worth wherever he found it, regardless of the accident of birth or wealth. He seems in no small measure to have embodied the integrity and gentleness which he fondly ascribes to the character of the gentleman: —
"Look, who that is most virtuous alway
Privy and open, and most intendeth aye
Christ wills we claim of Him our gentleness,
Not of our elders for their old riches."
Chaucer was a diligent student, with a passionate fondness for books:
"And as for me, though I have knowledge slight,
In bookes for to read I me delight,
And to them give I faith and full credence,
And in my heart have them in reverence."
He was familiar with the scholastic learning of his time. He was acquainted with French, Latin, and Italian, and drew upon the literature of all these languages for the material of his writings. Unlike his contemporary Gower, he was not overborne by the weight of his learning. His native intellectual strength was exhibited in his extraordinary power of assimilation. In common with many other great poets, he was a prodigious borrower, using his lofty genius, not in the work of pure invention, but in glorifying materials already existing. He is a striking illustration of the personal element in literature. Gower and Langland worked in the presence of the abundant literary materials of the fourteenth century; but only Chaucer had the ability to lay hold of it and to mould it into imperishable forms.
Chaucer's love of nature was remarkable. It rivalled his passion for books. He tells us that there is nothing that can take him from his reading,
"Save, certainly, when that the month of May
Is come, and that I hear the fowles sing,
And see the flowers as they begin to spring,
His poetic nature responded to the beauties of the morning. landscape, the matin carols of the birds, and the glories of the rising sun. The May-time was his favorite season; and long before Burns and Wordsworth, he loved and sang of the daisy. "The sight of this flower, as it opened to the sun, lightened his
"And down on knees anon right I me set
Upon the small, and soft, and sweete grass."
But he was a sympathetic and keen observer of men. has never been excelled in portraiture. No other literature possesses such a portrait gallery as is contained in the Prologue