Geoffrey Chaucer, an English poet, born probably in London in 1328, died there, Oct. 25, 1400. Sharon Turner, however, suggests that the year 1340 is more likely to have been that in which Chaucer was born than 1328. The principal events of his life are tinged with uncertainty. Leland represents him to have studied both at Cambridge and at Oxford, and at the latter place to have diligently frequented the public schools and disputations, and even there to have affected the opinions of Wycliffe in religion. Tyrwhitt doubts his having studied at either university. He appears to have been entered at the Inner Temple; but the evidence of this is stated to rest simply upon the record of one Geoffrey Chaucer having been fined two shillings for beating a Franciscan friar in Fleet street. Leland states that he engaged in the practice of the law, while Mr. Tyrwhitt contests the point. He had undoubtedly early ingratiated himself into the friendship of persons of distinction, was a page to King Edward III., and was rewarded by that monarch in 1367 with an annuity of 20 marks, equivalent to about £200 of present money.
These facts are verified by public documents appended to the biography by Godwin. He appears afterward to have become gentleman of the bedchamber to the king, and in 1370 was sent abroad as a royal envoy. Two years later he was sent to Genoa, with two other ambassadors, to negotiate for ships for a naval force; and it appears that his success was so great as to win many proofs of royal favor. He was made on his return partial comptroller of the customs of London, and was allowed to receive daily from the butler of England a pitcher of wine. In 1377 he is referred to by Froissart as an English envoy employed on the continent on secret service. The object of this mission, according to the same authority, was a treaty of peace and a marriage of the king's grandson, afterward Richard II., with the French princess Mary. Neither of these aims was accoin-plished, and Edward dying in June of the same year (1377), there was an end of this great patronage. In the mean time the poet and diplomatist had married one of the maids of honor to the queen, Philippa Rouet, whose sister, the widow of Sir Hugh Swinford, became first the mistress and then the wife of John of (Jaunt, " time-honored Lancaster." This high connection obtained for Chaucer a continuation of royal favor under the new king, Richard II., and he was commissioned upon several urgent matters in various parts of the kingdom.
For the safe prosecution of these unknown errands, the king granted him a species of safe conduct, or protection from arrest or injury. After Richard's deposition in 1399, all his donations to Chaucer were immediately confirmed by Henry IV., who, being the son of the duke of Lancaster, stood somewhat in the light of nephew to the poet. Toward the close of 1399 we find Chaucer taking a lease of a residence in the garden of the priory of Westminster. The foregoing facts rest upon official documents appended to the life of Chaucer by Godwin. Other events, less authentic, are gleaned from passages in his works. As an adherent of the duke of Lancaster, he embraced the opinions of Wycliffe, and formed a close connection with that divine. Persecution and reverses followed in consequence of this. Godwin refers his personal misfortunes to his support of a Wycliffian candidate for the mayoralty of London, John of Northampton, who was arrested and imprisoned. Chaucer escaped to the continent, where, during some years in France and Denmark, he wrote many of his books. He suffered much privation meanwhile from the faithlessness of agents who appropriated his income, and was at length induced to return secretly in hopes of recovering his dues.
He was discovered and arrested, but at length obtained pardon and liberty by disclosing the designs of the men with whom he had been associated. This drew upon him a flood of obloquy, which he appears to have attempted to parry by offering an appeal to arms. He was certainly thereafter received again into royal favor; and expressions of remorse are discoverable in his subsequent writings, although somewhat vaguely. Soon after these events he removed from the turmoil and intrigues of public life into literary retirement. His first retreat was at Woodstock, and finally, upon the death of the duke of Lancaster, at Donnington castle, where an aged and favorite oak tree, under whose branches the poet often meditated, long afterward bore his name. It was here that he wrote his most remarkable and latest work, the "Canterbury Tales." Their general plan is of a company of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury assembling at an inn, and agreeing each to tell a tale in going and returning; he who should tell the best tale to be treated by the others with a supper at the inn.
In this work Chaucer is considered to have improved upon his model, the "Decameron" of Boccaccio, especially in variety of character and delicacy of discrimination; but the introduction or introductory machinery is contrived with less felicity. This work, in verse, begun in declining years, was left incomplete. Chaucer's command over the language of his day, and his exhibition of existing character and passing incident, constitute his attraction. His early works bear the stamp of the corrupt tastes of his age, but are everywhere remarkable for delineation of character. The "Ro-maunt of the Rose" is professedly a translation of the French Roman de la rose. "Troi-lus and Cresseide," his second poetical essay, taken chiefly from Boccaccio, contains passages of much pathos and beauty. The story of "Queen Annelida and False Arcite" was acknowledged by the author to have been taken from Stace and Corinne. The opening is from Statius, but Corinne has not, we believe, been identified. The opening of the "Assembly of Foules" is founded upon the Somnium Scipionis of Cicero. The "House of Fame" has been supposed to have been originally a lay of Provence; but this idea has been combated by Tyrwhitt, whose studies of Chaucer were profound.
This commentator suggests a doubt of the "Flower and the Leaf" being from the pen of Chaucer, which Dryden modernized without expressing a suspicion of its authenticity. It was printed for the first time in Spegh's edition of Chaucer in 1598. The prose works are a translation of Boethius, the "Treatise on the Astrolabe," and the "Testament of Love." The translation of Boethius, and occasional quotations from Juvenal and Seneca, prove that he retained an acquaintance with the Roman classics. It is impossible to ascertain the exact chronology of his works. He left by his wife two sons, Thomas and Lewis, the first of whom was speaker of the house of commons in the reign of Henry IV., and was ambassador to France and Burgundy; and a daughter, Alice, who married the duke of Suffolk. He was buried in Westminster abbey, being the first poet there interred. A century and a half after his death a monument was erected there to his memory by Nicholas Brig-ham. - The principal biographers and editors of Chaucer are Speght, Leland, Tyrwhitt (5 vols. 8vo, London, 1798), and Godwin (2 vols. 4to, London, 1803). Some of his poems have been modernized by Dryden, Pope, Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt, R. H. Home, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In C. C. Clarke's "Riches of Chaucer" (2 vols., 1835) the best X>ieees are given with only the spelling modernized.
The Chaucer society published in 1868 an edition of the "Canterbury Tales," giving the six principal texts.