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Geoffrey Chaucer: The Father of English Literature


British Literature  •  21 May, 2024  •  1,655 Views  •  ⭐ 1.0

Written by Shivani Chourasia


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Geoffrey Chaucer is often hailed as the "Father of English literature." His contributions to the literary world in the 14th century laid the groundwork for the development of English as a legitimate language of art and storytelling. Best known for "The Canterbury Tales," Chaucer's body of work reflects a profound understanding of human nature and social dynamics. His innovative use of the English vernacular, intricate characterizations, and narrative techniques have ensured his lasting impact on literature. He was so famous that an entire age is named after him, that is, The Age of Chaucer in English Literature. John Dryden called him the Father of English literature. Let's explore his life in this blog.

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Early Life

In An Honor To 'The Father of English Poetry' - Geoffrey Chaucer
Image Credits: Reflections.live

Geoffrey Chaucer was born around 1343, likely in London. His father, John Chaucer, was a prosperous wine merchant, which afforded Geoffrey a comfortable upbringing and access to a good education. The Chaucer family had connections to the court, providing young Geoffrey with opportunities to interact with influential figures and ideas of the time.

Chaucer's education was extensive for the period. He was fluent in several languages, including Latin, French, and Italian, all of which influenced his writing. This multilingual ability allowed him to draw from a wide range of literary traditions and styles, enriching his works.

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Career and Public Service

Geoffrey Chaucer-The father of English Literature | Journal
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Chaucer's career was diverse and prestigious. He entered the service of the royal court as a page to Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, around 1357. This early position exposed him to the upper echelons of society and the political and cultural life of England. He later fought in the Hundred Years' War, was captured by the French in 1360, and subsequently ransomed.

Throughout his life, Chaucer held various positions, including serving as a diplomat, a comptroller of customs for the port of London, and Clerk of the King's Works. These roles not only provided financial stability but also enriched his understanding of different societal classes and occupations. His experiences in these roles often found their way into his literary works, providing a rich tapestry of characters and settings.

Literary Works: Early Works

Calaméo - The Cantebury Tales
Image Credits: Calaméo

Chaucer's literary career can be divided into several phases, each marked by distinct works that showcase his evolving style and thematic focus. Chaucer's early works include translations and adaptations of existing literary texts. These works helped him develop his poetic voice and narrative skills. Notable early works include:

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The Book of the Duchess (circa 1368-1372)

The Book of the Duchess – The Medieval Kingfisher
Image Credits: The Medieval Kingfisher

An elegy for Blanche of Lancaster, this poem is one of Chaucer's earliest major works. It tells the story of a dreamer who encounters a knight mourning the loss of his lady. The poem explores themes of loss, grief, and consolation, reflecting Chaucer's ability to blend personal emotion with allegorical elements. Through the dream-vision format, Chaucer presents a heartfelt tribute to Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, capturing the depth of sorrow and the desire for solace. The knight's lament and the dreamer's reflections provide a deeply moving meditation on love and loss.

The House of Fame (circa 1379-1380)

The Poetry of R.E. Slater: Geoffrey Chaucer - The House of Fame
Image Credits: The Poetry of R.E. Slater

This dream vision poem delves into themes of love, fame, and fortune. The narrator, who resembles Chaucer himself, is taken on a fantastical journey to the House of Fame, where he observes the fickle nature of reputation and the arbitrary ways in which fame is bestowed. The poem is noted for its imaginative scope and its critique of social and literary pretensions. Chaucer's exploration of the transitory nature of fame and the role of poets in society is both whimsical and profound, offering insights into the medieval worldview. The journey through the heavens, guided by an eagle, allows Chaucer to explore philosophical questions and literary traditions playfully and engagingly.

The Canterbury Tales (circa 1387-1400)

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales | The British Library
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Chaucer's most famous and ambitious work, "The Canterbury Tales," is a collection of 24 stories presented as part of a storytelling contest by a group of pilgrims travelling to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Each pilgrim represents a different segment of medieval society, providing a panoramic view of the social classes and occupations of the time. The tales range from bawdy and humorous to moralistic and philosophical, showcasing Chaucer's versatility as a writer.

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General Prologue

An Overall View of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales | Geeks
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The General Prologue sets the stage for the tales, introducing the diverse group of pilgrims and outlining the structure of the storytelling contest. Chaucer provides detailed and often humorous descriptions of each pilgrim, from the noble Knight to the bawdy Miller, highlighting their personalities, social status, and sometimes their moral failings. The Prologue serves as a microcosm of medieval society and provides a framework for the individual tales.

The Knight's Tale

The Knight's Tale - streetsofsalem
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A story of chivalry, romance, and rivalry, focusing on two knights, Palamon and Arcite, who fall in love with the same woman, Emily. This tale explores themes of honour, fate, and the nature of true nobility, set against the backdrop of classical mythology. The knights' competition for Emily's love and their eventual reconciliation in death underscore the ideals of courtly love and knightly honour.

The Miller's Tale

The Miller's Tale by Chaucer - Medieval Histories
Image Credits: The Miller's Tale

A bawdy and comedic tale about a carpenter, his young wife, and her two lovers, highlighting themes of deception and cunning. The tale's humorous and irreverent tone contrasts sharply with the Knight's Tale, demonstrating Chaucer's skill in varying narrative styles and content. The outrageous tricks played by the lovers and the comeuppance of the carpenter provide a satirical look at human folly and sexual politics.

The Wife of Bath's Tale

Book Review: 'The Wife of Bath,' by Marion Turner - The New York Times
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A story that addresses issues of gender and power, featuring a knight who must discover what women truly desire to save his life. The Wife of Bath herself is one of Chaucer's most memorable characters, known for her boldness and insight into the dynamics of male-female relationships. Her prologue, in which she discusses her multiple marriages and her views on sovereignty in marriage, adds depth to her tale of transformation and redemption.

The Pardoner's Tale

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A moral tale about greed and hypocrisy, centring on three men who seek to kill Death but find their demise instead. This tale is particularly noted for its dark humour and its critique of corruption within the church. The Pardoner's admission of his deceitful practices and the chilling fate of the three rioters serves as a powerful indictment of avarice and moral corruption.

Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1385)

Troilus and Criseyde | Middle English, Epic Poem, Love Story | Britannica
Image Credits: Britannica

This tragic love story is set during the Trojan War and tells the tale of Troilus, a Trojan prince, and Criseyde, a widow. Written in rhyme royal, the poem explores themes of love, fate, and fortune. Chaucer's nuanced portrayal of the character's emotions and the complex plot make it one of his greatest achievements. The story delves into the psychological depths of its characters, particularly Troilus' gradual realization of Criseyde's betrayal, offering a profound meditation on the nature of love and loss. Chaucer's use of irony and detailed character development enhances the emotional impact of this narrative. The shifting perspectives and the intense internal conflicts of the characters add layers of complexity to this poignant tale.

The Parliament of Fowls (circa 1382-1385)

Parlement of Foules - Wikipedia
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This dream vision poem set on St. Valentine's Day, portrays a debate among birds choosing their mates. The poem explores the nature of love and the complexities of choice, using the allegorical setting to reflect on human relationships and social structures. It is notable for its humour, vivid imagery, and the blending of classical and contemporary themes. The poem's playful exploration of courtship and its reflections on social hierarchy provide a charming and insightful commentary on medieval society. The various bird species, representing different social classes, engage in a lively debate that mirrors human courtship rituals and societal norms.

The Legend of Good Women (circa 1386-1388)

De dood van Dido | Guercino (1591 1666) (after)
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This series of stories about virtuous women from history and mythology is framed by a prologue in which Chaucer is chastised by the god of love for his earlier works' perceived misogyny. The poem aims to rehabilitate his reputation by presenting tales of faithful women, such as Cleopatra, Dido, and Lucrece. Through these narratives, Chaucer explores themes of fidelity, sacrifice, and the complexities of female virtue. The work serves as both a literary apology and a showcase of Chaucer's narrative skills, highlighting his ability to adapt classical stories to his own time. The prologue, with its playful self-critique and invocation of classical figures, sets the tone for the tales that follow, each highlighting the virtues and trials of its heroine.

Writing Style and Themes

Geoffrey Chaucer - Historic UK
Image Credits: Historic UK

Chaucer's writing is characterized by its vivid characterizations, humour, and use of satire. He often employed a narrative framework, such as a pilgrimage or a dream vision, to bring together a diverse array of stories and voices. His works explore themes such as love, social class, corruption, and human folly, reflecting the complexities and contradictions of medieval society.

Chaucer's use of irony and his ability to capture the speech and mannerisms of different social classes make his characters come alive. His mastery of various poetic forms, including the heroic couplet, rhyme royal, and the use of vernacular English, greatly influenced the future of English poetry.

In "The Canterbury Tales," for example, Chaucer employs a range of narrative voices and perspectives, allowing each character to present their own story while revealing their personal biases and flaws. This technique not only adds depth to the individual tales but also creates a rich, multi-layered portrait of medieval life.

Later Life

Why did Chaucer not make it into Treasures of Heaven? | Geoffrey Chaucer |  The Guardian
Image Credits: The Guardian

In his later years, Chaucer continued to serve in various official capacities, including as a Member of Parliament for Kent. He also leased a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey, where he spent his final years. Despite personal and financial difficulties, Chaucer remained a prolific writer, continually refining his craft and producing works that reflected his deepening insight into human nature.

Chaucer's later works, such as "The Canterbury Tales," show a mature writer at the height of his powers, adept at blending humour, pathos, and social critique. His ability to engage with contemporary issues and portray them through a timeless lens has ensured his lasting relevance.

Death and Legacy

It's more than Chaucer – Lisa Melonçon
Image Credits: Lisa Melonçon

Geoffrey Chaucer died on October 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, a testament to his significant contributions to English literature. Posthumous recognition of his work solidified his status as a literary giant. His impact on English literature is immeasurable; he is credited with legitimizing the use of Middle English in literary works at a time when Latin and French were the dominant literary languages in England.

"The Canterbury Tales" remains a seminal text in the study of English literature, appreciated for its narrative brilliance and insight into medieval life. Chaucer's works have inspired countless writers and poets over the centuries. His innovative use of language, character, and narrative structure set a standard for future generations of English writers. Today, Chaucer is celebrated as a foundational figure in English literature, whose works continue to be studied, adapted, and enjoyed.

Conclusion

Geoffrey Chaucer's legacy as the "Father of English literature" is well-deserved. His ability to capture the human condition with humour, compassion, and insight has ensured that his works remain relevant and beloved. Through his pioneering use of the English language and his masterful storytelling, Chaucer laid the groundwork for the rich literary tradition that would follow, securing his place as one of the greatest poets in history.

Chaucer's exploration of universal themes, his innovative narrative techniques, and his deep understanding of human nature have made his works timeless. As readers continue to engage with his stories, Chaucer's influence endures, highlighting the enduring power of literature to connect us across the ages. His works invite readers to reflect on the human experience, making Geoffrey Chaucer a timeless voice in the canon of English literature.

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