Stories from Old English Poetry/Geoffrey Chaucer

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YOU have heard of Dr. Samuel Johnson, have you not? He who made a great English dictionary, who was famous for saying wise things, and was in his way a very great man. One of his sayings was, that a poet ought to know everything and to have seen everything. And this seems to be proved true by the fact that most of the really wonderful poets have been men of very wide experience in life, or else they observed so closely and were gifted with such clear insight, that all things of which they wrote were as real to them as if they were a part of them.

So Shakespeare has been thought to be a school-teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, a soldier, as well as an actor and manager of a theatre. And Chaucer, about whom I wish to tell you, has been thought just such another Jack-at-all-trades.

Geoffrey Chaucer, who is called the “Father of English poetry,”—think what a title that is to wear for four centuries and a half!—was born in London in 1328—nearly two hundred and forty years before Shakespeare, and over one hundred and fifty years before Columbus discovered this Continent. It is so long ago that all things about him are uncertain, except that he was a great poet. That will stand, I hope, while the English language lasts. Like Shakespeare, he is said to have studied law, and been a soldier, but the first we really know of him he is a courtier in the palace of King Edward III.

He was in great favor there, and a daily pitcher of wine used to be sent him from the king’s own table,—a gift which was afterwards changed into a pension. So from this mark of the king’s favor he has sometimes been called the first poet-laureate of England.

Several times Edward sent him to the Continent on political errands, and there he had many new opportunities to learn and observe things.

During Edward’s reign he became attached to John of Gaunt,—whom Shakespeare calls “Time-honored Lancaster,”—and, by his advice, the poet married a lady of Hainault, a province in Belgium. After Chaucer’s marriage, John of Gaunt himself married an older sister of the same family. So the poet and his patron were brothers-in-law.

After Edward came Richard II., and in his reign were hot times. Wyclyfe, the great preacher, who fought stoutly against the bad and ignorant priests, and tried hard to make the Church better, began his career. John of Gaunt favored this great reformer, and so Chaucer did also. So the poet got in disgrace with the court. He fled to Hainault, where his wife’s family lived, and was very kind to his fellow-countrymen there, who were also obliged to flee on account of these quarrels about religion. Wyclyfe was a very noble, fearless man, and it is one of the best things we know of Chaucer that he was on his side.

After a while he came back to England—a little too soon, however, for he was arrested and stripped of his revenue. Then he went to live in retirement on the estate of John of Gaunt, and here, when nearly sixty, he wrote “The Canterbury Tales,” his greatest work.

These were the days of romance, of crusades, and tourneys, and Chaucer had plenty of material for stories. And at his ripe age he brought ripe learning and ripe experience to his work.

After a while Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, became king. This was the “cankered Bolingbroke,” whom Hotspur quarreled with. Through his accession to the throne Chaucer came into the sunshine of royal favor again. But he was quite an old man at this time. The last we find of him he hired a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey, in which he lived till his death. Then he was buried in the great Abbey, the very first of a long line of poets who sleep there, in what is called the “Poets’ Corner” of the grand old church.

Chaucer is said to have been very handsome, and I fancy it is true, since his beautiful works must have made him beautiful. But the only description I find of him does not read very flatteringly. This is it:—

His stature was not very tall;
Lean he was, his legs were small;
Hosed with a stock of red,
A buttoned bonnet on his head.”

His poetry is old-fashioned now—much of it is unfit to read. But in many of his verses, especially when he describes nature, we seem to see the daisy or the dewy grass, or smell the odor of new-mown hay in country pastures, and hear the cattle lowing, and feel the fresh air blowing from woods and fields.

The stories which I shall tell you from Chaucer, are all taken from “The Canterbury Tales.” Each story is supposed to be related by one of a party of travellers who are journeying together. The one which follows is told by a knight, and is the story of the “Two Noble Kinsmen.”