It is this new gladness of a great people which utters itself in the verse of Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer was born about 1340, the son of a London vintner who lived in Thames Street; and it was in London that the bulk of his life was spent. His family, though not noble, seems to have been of some importance, for from the opening of his career we find Chaucer in close connexion with the Court. At sixteen he was made page to the wife of Lionel of Clarence; at nineteen he first bore arms in the campaign of 1359. But he was luckless enough to be made prisoner; and from the time of his release after the treaty of Brétigny he took no further share in the military enterprises of his time. He seems again to have returned to service about the Court, and it was now that his first poems made their appearance, and from this time John of Gaunt may be looked upon as his patron. He was employed in seven diplomatic missions which were probably connected with the financial straits of the Crown, and three of these, in 1372, 1374, and 1378, carried him to Italy. He visited Genoa and the brilliant court of the Visconti at Milan; at Florence, where the memory of Dante, the "great master" whom he commemorates so reverently in his verse, was still living, he may have met Boccaccio; at Padua, like his own clerk of Oxenford, he possibly caught the story of Griseldis from the lips of Petrarca. He was a busy, practical worker; Comptroller of the Customs in 1374, of the Petty Customs in 1382, a member of the Commons in the Parliament of 1386, and from 1389 to 1391 Clerk of the Royal Works, busy with building at Westminster, Windsor, and the Tower. A single portrait has preserved for us his forked beard, his dark-coloured dress, the knife and pen-case at his girdle, and we may supplement this portrait by a few vivid touches of his own.
The sly, elvish face, the quick walk, the plump figure and portly waist were those of a genial and humorous man; but men jested at his silence, his love of study. " Thou lookest as thou wouldest find an hare," laughs the Host, in the " Canterbury Tales," " and ever on the ground I see thee stare." He heard little of his neighbours' talk when office work was over. " Thou goest home to thy own house anon, and also dumb as any stone thou sittest at another book till fully dazed is thy look, and livest thus as an heremite, although," he adds slyly, " thy abstinence is lite " (little). But of this abstraction from his fellows there is no trace in his verse. No poetry was ever more human than Chaucer's; none ever came more frankly and genially home to its readers. The first note of his song is a note of freshness and gladness. " Of ditties and of songes glad, the which he for my sake made, the land fulfilled is over all," Gower makes Love say in his lifetime; and the impression of gladness remains just as fresh now that four hundred years have passed away. The historical character of Chaucer's work lies on its surface. It stands out in vivid contrast with the poetic literature from the heart of which it sprang.
The long French romances were the product of an age of wealth and ease, of indolent curiosity, of a fanciful and self-indulgent sentiment. Of the great passions which gave life to the Middle Ages, that of religious enthusiasm had degenerated into the pretty conceits of Mariolatry, that of war into the extravagances of Chivalry. Love, indeed, remained; it was the one theme of troubadour and trouvére, but it was a love of refinement, of romantic follies, of scholastic discussions, of sensuous enjoyment - a plaything rather than a passion. Nature had to reflect the pleasant indolence of man; the song of the minstrel moved through a perpetual May-time; the grass was ever green; the music of the lark and the nightingale rang out from field and thicket. There was a gay avoidance of all that is serious, moral, or reflective in man's life: life was too amusing to be serious, too piquant, too sentimental, too full of interest and gaiety and chat. It was an age of talk: "mirth is none," says the Host, "to ride on by the way dumb as a stone;" and the trouvére aimed simply at being the most agreeable talker of his day.
His romances, his rimes of Sir Tristram, his Romance of the Rose, are full of colour and fantasy, endless in detail, but with a sort of gorgeous idleness about their very length, the minuteness of their description of outer things, the vagueness of their touch when it passes to the subtler inner world. It was with this literature that Chaucer had till now been familiar, and it was this which he followed in his earlier work. But from the time of his visits to Milan and Genoa his sympathies drew him not to the dying verse of France, but to the new and mighty upgrowth of poetry in Italy. Dante's eagle looks at him from the sun. "Fraunces Petrark, the laureat poete," is to him one " whose rethorique sweete enlumyned al Itail of poetrie." The " Troilus " is an enlarged English version of Boccaccio's " Filostrato," the Knight's Tale bears slight traces of his Teseide. It was, indeed, the " Decameron" which suggested the very form of the " Canterbury Tales." But even while changing, as it were, the front of English poetry, Chaucer preserves his own distinct personality.
If he quizzes in the rime of Sir Thopaz the wearisome idleness of the French romance, he retains all that was worth retaining of the French temper, its rapidity and agility of movement, its lightness and brilliancy of touch, its airy mockery, its gaiety and good humour, its critical coolness and self-control. The French wit quickens in him more than in any English writer the sturdy sense and shrewdness of our national disposition, corrects its extravagance, and relieves its somewhat ponderous morality. If, on the other hand, he echoes the joyous carelessness of the Italian tale, he tempers it with the English seriousness. As he follows Boccaccio, all his changes are on the side of purity; and when the Troilus of the Florentine ends with the old sneer at the change-ableness of woman, Chaucer bids us "look Godward," and dwells on the unchangeableness of Heaven.