But the genius of Chaucer was neither French nor Italian, whatever element it might borrow from either literature, but English to the core, and from 1384 all trace of foreign influence dies away. The great poem on which his fame must rest, the "Canterbury Tales," was begun after his first visits to Italy, and its best tales were written between 1384 and 1391. The last ten years of his life saw a few more tales added; but his power was lessening, and in 1400 he rested from his labours in his last home, a house in the garden of St. Mary's Chapel at Westminster. The framework - that of a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury - not only enabled him to string together a number of tales, composed at different times, but lent itself admirably to the peculiar characteristics of his poetic temper, his dramatic versatility, and the universality of his sympathy. His tales cover the whole field of mediaeval poetry; the legend of the priest, the knightly romance, the wonder-tale of the traveller, the broad humour of the fabliau, allegory and apologue are all there.
He finds a yet wider scope for his genius in the persons who tell these stories, the thirty pilgrims who start in the May morning from the Tabard in Southwark - thirty distinct figures, representatives of every class of English society from the noble to the ploughman. We see the "verray perfight gentil knight" in cassock and coat of mail, with his curly-headed squire beside him, fresh as the May morning, and behind them the brown-faced yeoman, in his coat and hood of green, with the good bow in his hand. A group of ecclesiastics light up for us the mediaeval church - the brawny hunt-loving monk, whose bridle jingles as loud and clear as the chapel-bell - the wanton friar, first among the beggars and harpers of the country side - the poor parson, threadbare, learned, and devout ("Christ's lore and His apostles twelve he taught, and first he followed it himself") - the summoner with his fiery face - the pardoner with his wallet "bret-full of pardons, come from Rome all hot" - the lively prioress with her courtly French lisp, her soft little red mouth, and "Amor vincit omnia " graven on her brooch.
Learning is there in the portly person of the doctor of physic, rich with the profits of the pestilence - the busy serjeant-of-law, "that ever seemed busier than he was" - the hollow-cheeked clerk of Oxford, with his love of books, and short sharp sentences that disguise a latent tenderness which breaks out at last in the story of Griseldis. Around them crowd types of English industry; the merchant; the franklin, in whose house "it snowed of meat and drink;" the sailor fresh from frays in the Channel; the buxom wife of Bath; the broad-shouldered miller; the haberdasher, carpenter, weaver, dyer, tapestry-maker, each in the livery of his craft; and last, the honest ploughman, who would dyke and delve for the poor without hire. It is the first time in English poetry that we are brought face to face not with characters or allegories or reminiscences of the past, but with living and breathing men, men distinct in temper and sentiment as in face or costume or mode of speech; and with this distinctness of each maintained throughout the story by a thousand shades of expression and action.
It is the first time too, that we meet with the dramatic power which not only creates each character, but combines it with its fellows, which not only adjusts each tale or jest to the temper of the person who utters it, but fuses all into a poetic unity. It is life in its largeness, its variety, its complexity, which surrounds us in the " Canterbury Tales." In some of the stories, indeed, composed no doubt at an earlier time, there is the tedium of the old romance or the pedantry of the schoolman; but taken as a whole the poem is the work not of a man of letters, but of a man of action. Chaucer has received his training from war, courts, business, travel - a training not of books, but of life. And it is life that he loves - the delicacy of its sentiment, the breadth of its farce, its laughter and its tears, the tenderness of its Griseldis or the Smollett-like adventures of the miller and the clerks. It is this largeness of heart, this wide tolerance, which enables him to reflect man for us as none but Shakspere has ever reflected him, and to do this with a pathos, a shrewd sense and kindly humour, a freshness and joyousness of feeling, that even Shakspere has not surpassed.
It is strange that such a voice as this should have awakened no echo in the singers who follow; but the first burst of English song died as suddenly and utterly with Chaucer as the hope and glory of his age. The hundred years which follow the brief sunshine of Crécy and the "Canterbury Tales " are years of the deepest gloom; no age of our history is more sad and sombre than the age which we traverse from the third Edward to Joan of Arc. The throb of hope and glory which pulsed at its outset through every class of English society died at its close into inaction or despair. Material life lingered on indeed, commerce still widened, but its progress was dissociated from all the nobler elements of national well-being. The towns sank again into close oligarchies; the bondsmen struggling forward to freedom fell back into a serfage which still leaves its trace on the soil. Literature reached its lowest ebb. The religious revival of the Lollard was trodden out in blood, while the Church shrivelled into a self-seeking secular priesthood.
The secret of the change is to be found in the fatal war which for more than a hundred years drained the strength and corrupted the temper of the English people. We have followed the attack on Scotland to its disastrous close, but the struggle ere it ended, had involved England in a second contest, to which we must now turn back, a contest yet more ruinous than that which Edward the First had begun. From the war with Scotland sprang the hundred years' struggle with France. From the first France had watched the successes of her rival in the north, partly with a natural jealousy, but still more as likely to afford her an opening for winning the great southern Duchy of Guienne and Gascony - the one fragment of Eleanor's inheritance which remained to her descendants. Scotland had no sooner begun to resent the claims of her over-lord, Edward the First, than a pretext for open quarrel was found by France in the rivalry between the mariners of Normandy and those of the Cinque Ports, which culminated at the moment in a great sea-fight that proved fatal to 8,000 Frenchmen. So eager was Edward to avert a quarrel with France, that his threats roused the English seamen to a characteristic defiance. "Be the King's Council well advised," ran the remonstrance of the mariners, "that if wrong or grievance be done them in any fashion against right, they will sooner forsake wives, children, and all that they have, and go seek through the seas where they shall think to make their profit" In spite, therefore, of Edward's efforts the contest continued, and Philip found an opportunity to cite the King before his court at Paris for wrongs done to him as suzerain.