Chaucer on Our Doorstep

Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World

by Donald R. Howard
Dutton, 636 pp., $29.95

After six hundred years Geoffrey Chaucer still inspires active, spontaneous interest, as well as fresh perceptions. This is the more surprising because the language in which he wrote is thoroughly obsolete. English, only in its infancy in the fourteenth century, was rapidly changing its character even as Chaucer wrote, and he himself helped to change it by bringing into the written language a great many new words. By the seventeenth century Chaucer’s work was so antiquated that Dryden took occasion to re-English some of the poems. Since then we have learned a bit more about Chaucerian metrics, so his lines no longer seem uncouth; but the vocabulary and the syntax—not to speak of the pronunciation—that Chaucer used still have to be studied in classrooms.

As for the scholarship on and about Chaucer’s life and writings, it has piled up to formidable proportions: along with Shakespeare and Milton, he must be among the most discussed authors in English. Yet for all this, there is a recurrent theme in the criticism that Chaucer is not a difficult or inaccessible writer. The human comedy he wrote about—noting its nuances with the lightest and most caressing of touches—is still no further away than our doorstep. Matthew Arnold (may he be forgiven for it) made it a point against Chaucer that he lacked the “high seriousness” requisite for a classic author. In fact for modern readers that very lack may be part of what keeps Chaucer’s verse fresh when high seriousness is starting to smell a bit moldy.

Professor Donald Howard’s new book is a lavish and detailed account of Chaucer’s life and work. It is also, unhappily, a posthumous book. The author died in March 1987, leaving the manuscript, it seems, essentially complete. It had been a ten-year task; and one can’t help deploring the hard fate that kept him from seeing it in its handsome published form.

The three emphases of this exuberant, learned, and accessible biography are evenly proportioned. As a result of the heroic efforts of the University of Chicago team investigating Chaucer’s life records for decades, far more is now known about the details of Chaucer’s life than is known or ever will be known about Shakespeare’s. From early youth, Chaucer occupied official positions in and around the royal court, and as a functionary working for powerful aristocrats. He did real jobs in these capacities, for which he got real salaries: as a result, he had relatively few patrons of his poetry and enjoyed an unusual measure of personal independence.

His jobs ranged in dignity from head of diplomatic-commercial missions on the Continent through commissioner of customs in the port of London to assignments as supervisor of canals, subforester, and guardian of the royal buildings. He was a protégé of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster and fourth son of Edward III. His wife Philippa occupied a slightly more exalted station, being an attendant (demoiselle) to Blanche, the first duchess of Lancaster, and Costanza, the second; she was also a sister of Katherine (Swynford), longtime mistress and eventually third wife of the duke. Thus the records for the Chaucer household are little less than lavish. There are indeed a few gaps and question marks in his life, but not many extended periods that remain unaccounted for.

On the other hand, what the clerks and scribes recorded about their fellow bureaucrat is not closely connected to what Wordsworth would baptize “the growth of a poet’s mind.” Chaucer got paid back (almost always belatedly and after much pleading) sums advanced by him on his various missions; both he and his wife had pensions (or, as we might say, salaries), receipt of which was recorded. A secondary grant, which sounds opulent if odd, was for a gallon of wine a day. We know the exact date on which this gift was formalized, April 23, 1374; but what it was all about is much less clear. Was the grant a reward for the poet’s Italian mission just concluded? Did it have anything to do with his poem on the death of Blanche, John of Gaunt’s first duchess (September 1368)? Does an unusual condition of the grant (that the recipient come to pick up his gallon a day from the king’s butler in the port of London) suggest pressure to attend his office regularly—with the implication that otherwise he couldn’t be trusted to do so? Or, to complete the list of possibilities, some scholars of the National Enquirer persuasion have speculated that John of Gaunt, in addition to Katherine Swynford, took her sister Philippa Chaucer as his mistress, and that the daily gallon of wine, along with a more substantial £10 a year for life, granted to Philippa in 1372, was payment for complaisance received.

There are some coincidences that argue for the scandalous theory and some inherent improbabilities that argue against it. The possibilities here are wide open; and so are others repeatedly throughout Chaucer’s life. The documents provide hard pebbles of fact but only ambiguous leads about what they mean. Professor Howard is generous in laying out the possibilities, but he must have been exasperated by the number of details that come close to the point of meaning something, and then fall short.

Did Chaucer, for example, actually get to speak with Petrarch, whom he deeply revered? At the second marriage of Prince Lionel (third son of Edward III) to Violante, daughter of Galeazzo Visconti, in 1368, Petrarch was briefly present, and Chaucer may have been there too. But Petrarch was overcome with grief at the death of his grandson on the very day of the wedding; and Chaucer, if present at all, was a very junior, very busy messenger with tiring errands to run between London and Pavia. Two round trips in less than five months can have left him little time to meditate on much besides saddle sores. Six years later, Chaucer was in Italy again, and might have made a dangerous detour to see Petrarch at Padua; but there is no evidence that he did, and neither man ever mentioned such a meeting.

So we must conclude, reluctantly, that he did not exchange words with Petrarch. Nor is there evidence of a meeting with Boccaccio. Chaucer could conceivably have met him in Florence in 1373, when he was thirty and Boccaccio sixty; but neither man ever mentions the other. Of course Chaucer knew Boccaccio’s work; fully a third of the Troilus and Criseyde is translated directly from Boccaccio’s II Filostrato. But when he cites an author as his authority for the Troilus story, Boccaccio is nowhere in evidence; Chaucer’s source is a certain mysterious “Lollius.” Surely Professor Howard is right, if somewhat dispiriting, in his conclusion that Chaucer never encountered either of his Italian idols. It was an old story: in the winter of 1359–1360, Chaucer was in the English army besieging Reims while within the city were Guillaume de Machaut and his protégé Eustache Deschamps—three major poets who were or would soon be known to one another by their works. Yet they never met.

The picture of “gentle Geoffrey” is very much an image of Chaucer’s own creation. The Host in The Canterbury Tales makes fun of his demure, downcast expression:

Thou lookest as thou woldest fynde an hare,
For ever upon the ground I se thee stare;

and a talky eagle in The House of Fame ridicules him as one who always has his nose in a book:

In stede of reste and newe thynges
Thou gost hoome to thy hous anoon,
And also domb as any stoon
Thou sittest at another boke
Till fully daswed [dazed] is thy look.

He writes a lot about love, says this loquacious fowl, but he isn’t any good at it. That’s one of the traits that make us think about Chaucer when we read about Pandarus.

But what then are we to make of the episode of Cecily Champain, who in a document dated May 1, 1380, released Chaucer from “actions of whatever kind either concerning my rape or any other matter”? The word “raptus” used in the document could mean either forcible rape, seduction, kidnapping, or even eviction from a property. In a different context it could mean as little as carelessness; Chaucer complaining to Adam his scrivener (copyist) says he has to work overtime correcting the copy—“And al is through thy negligence and rape.” So we don’t know what wrong Cecily underwent, only that Chaucer was scared enough to recruit four of his most influential acquaintances to vouch for him, and that after some fancy legal footwork, she received £20, probably indirectly from Chaucer.

Wherever we have a document that looks explicit, it turns out not to be, and trying to go beyond the document, we enter uncharted seas of speculation. For example, Chaucer writing a decade later a treatise on the astrolabe for his little son Lewis lets fall that Lewis is just ten years old. Was he possibly the illegitimate son of Cecily Champain? Chronologically, he could be. If the poet escaped what was potentially a very serious charge by paying a mere £20 (but he may have made other payments, unknown to us), it may have been because the lady was thought to have consented—of which strong evidence, in her day, was conception. But this is only part of a larger morass of uncertainties. We don’t know if the poet’s recognized children were his own or begot by John of Gaunt. We don’t know much more about his relations with his wife than that she was first called Philippa Chaucer in an official letter of September 12, 1366, and after 1387 she didn’t collect her pension any more, so she must have been dead. A passing allusion in the poetry implies that someone had trouble getting the poet up in the morning: it may have been Philippa. The “Envoy to Bukton” says a few general words about the bondage of matrimony, but they are in the teasing vein of an old man cackling over commonplaces. What Chaucer’s personal life was like we don’t know and can’t guess. It’s a mystery at the heart of a quiet but by no means simple existence; a reader of the evidence must decide for himself.

There is always a temptation to fill empty spaces in a biography with the formulas of modern psychology, as ancient cartographers filled blank spaces on their maps with legends like “Here Be Monsters.” Howard has maintained a light touch in speculating about the inner life that his subject kept well concealed. But he quietly encourages reflection, above all about the quirks and connections of Chaucer’s literary imagination. There is a splendid and wholly imaginary scene on pp. 258–259, in which Chaucer reads The House of Fame at the court of Richard II: the poem’s conclusion is a shaggy-dog conclusion, exactly appropriate to the non-news just arrived from Italy about a proposed matrimonial treaty. The spirit is so exactly right that one readily overlooks the lack of evidence. Most of the biography’s interpretative suppositions are gentler, but they beckon us toward an appreciation of the poet’s humane and subtle warmth of comic feeling.

Because Chaucer was, in his own modest way, a man of the court, Professor Howard had to represent with some fullness the climate of the court and the factions active in and around it. Here sometimes the story gets fairly far removed from the poet himself, and tangled to boot. Edward III had no fewer than twelve children, most of whom had or acquired several titles—for example, Lionel Prince of England (called “of Antwerp” because he was born there) became Duke of Clarence but also Earl of Ulster. Keeping these several names and many persons straight is a problem. Again, the political infighting during the years when Richard II was under a council rather like a regency, and forced to struggle with an unruly set of so-called appellants, was both fierce and intricate; it has to be explained, but the main thing to be known is that Chaucer, though he knew some of the players, managed to stay on the margin of the scrimmage. For most readers, it seems likely that this dynastic and political material will contain the largest proportion of inert material in the biography. Especially after the poet had resigned his official posts and written almost all of his major poetry, the intrigues that deposed Richard II and brought Henry IV to the throne feel like automatic mechanisms running down on their own inertia.

One perhaps significant element of Chaucer’s later life Professor Howard overlooked either deliberately or by oversight: the poet’s association with some members of the reform-minded group known as “Lollard knights.” It is a delicate topic because enthusiastic Protestants in the sixteenth century and after were eager to show that Chaucer in his heart was one of them. Of course he wasn’t, but in his late poetry he changed from a courtly to a popular poet, and that entailed other changes, not directly political or for that matter religious ones, but involving nuances of perspective, closure, and perhaps unresolved ambiguity. In fact, the Lollard knights were not really Lollards (reformist followers of Wyclif); yet they, and apparently Chaucer with them, did assume in the last years of the fourteenth century a position not unlike that of the contemporaneous Brethren of the Common Life in the Low Countries. They didn’t subscribe to a worked-out philosophy, they were far from formal heretics, but they began to emphasize the individual conscience, direct intuition of the Deity, and a sense of the sacred dwelling within the common such as can be sensed, for example, in the Wyf of Bath’s famous prologue.

The arguments for a semi-Lollard tinge in Chaucer’s late work are made, with the necessary qualifications and limitations, in Derek Brewer’s fine book Chaucer and His World (Dodd, Mead, 1978). Whether the thesis is historically tenable or not, it does answer to a feeling one gets from the two final achievements of Chaucer’s art, Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales. One wishes it had been discussed in Howard’s generally circumstantial biography.

At least in part, the virtues of Troilus have kept it from being appreciated as generally as the Tales. Troilus is a perfectly shaped and completely finished poem; it has to be read as a whole. It is given structure by the codes of knightly honor and courtly love, but ambiguously—in practice, they work out ridiculously or miserable. It is a romance that builds toward the emptiest, most agonizing, and extended anticlimax in literature when Criseyde betrays Troilus by falling—if not in love, at least into intimacy—with the Greek Diomede. It is a deeply affectionate book and a frighteningly tough one.

As for Chaucer’s generous borrowings from Boccaccio for Troilus, what is most important about them is what he did with them. For Chaucer’s apprenticeship had been served in the school of French romances, which were fascinated by the intricacies of human motives, the endless duplicity of erotic-spiritual intentions. Boccaccio’s Filostrato, as Professor Howard finely says, must have struck Chaucer as stark and coarse. In Boccaccio Troilo arranges a businesslike assignation; the lady, once her reputation is assured, responds with like alacrity; and when she breaks off the affair, it is with no more misgivings than if she were returning an unsatisfactory pair of shoes to a store. But Chaucer’s Troilus seems like a dreamer strayed into Troy out of the Romaunt de la Rose; he is afflicted with mauvaise honte, deceived by faux semblant, and so crushed by his own unworthiness that at the crucial moment he faints dead away, and has to be stuffed into Criseyde’s bed by her busy uncle Pandarus.

By contrast with the high-minded Troilus, Criseyde and Pandarus appear as worldly characters, and there has been much virtuous abuse (perhaps stimulated by Shakespeare’s sour version of the story) of Criseyde in particular. But that is not true to Chaucer. He portrays her as a young widow, well aware of her own attractions, but fearful in the society of Troy because of her father’s defection to the Greeks. She needs the shelter of masculine authority, and seeks it out. She is nobody’s fool, she has a streak of independent judgment, but she is not a “daughter of the game.” Not at first, anyhow; perhaps later, when, in the old phrase, she has “become the Helen to too many Parises,” but not at once. When Troilus first catches sight of her, blonde and beautiful in her widow’s weeds, yet hesitating to enter the Trojan “church” because fearful of Trojan society, Chaucer catches exactly her mingled wavering and assurance, her hanging back and looking out, her demure mien and touch of defiance.1

Among thise othre folk was Criseydá
In widwes habit blak; but natheles,
Right as our firsté lettre is now an A,
In beauté first so stood she makelés:2
Her goodly loking gladed all the prees:
N’as nevere seyn thing to be praysed derre3
Nor under cloude blak so bright a sterre,

As was Criseyde, as folk seyde everychone
That her behelden in her blake wede.
And yet she stood ful lowe and stille alone
Behinded othre folk in litel brede4
And nigh the dore, ay under shames drede,
Simple of atir and debonair of chere,
With ful assured loking and manére.

To Troilus right wonder wel with-alle
Gan for to like her moving and her chere,
Which somdel deignous5 was; for she let fall
Her look a lite aside in swich manére
Ascaunces, ‘What! may I nat stonden here?’
And after that her loking gan she lighte,6
That neveré thought him sen so good a sighte.

Her dialogues with Pandarus, through which she is maneuvered, between mockery and flattery and self-interest, into accepting Troilus as her “servant,” are the showpiece of the poem; but they also prepare for the deep, scarcely visible, cruelty of the conclusion, in which the first lover’s image fades from the mistress’s mind like thin spring ice under a hot sun. Through this slow withering of hope, the poem as it focuses on forlorn Troilus dwindles down to a bleak despondency suggestive of some of the most powerful pages of Proust. As for Pandarus, once so buoyant and cynical, he has nothing to say after the debacle except that he’s sorry. None of the characters in the story undergoes punishment, either here or in the hereafter; they have done nothing deeply wrong, they have just been weak, and for weakness there is no appropriate poetic justice. A century after Chaucer’s death Robert Henryson wrote a moralistic epilogue to Chaucer’s poem, in which Criseyde, after contracting leprosy and sinking into the gutter, encounters Troilus (still quite prosperous, thank you) and is made to feel proper anguish at what a bad girl she’s been. Henryson’s work is not a bad performance, but nothing could make it more evident what Chaucer didn’t want to do at the end of his poem.

Though The Canterbury Tales is by general acclaim the highest achievement of Chaucer’s art, there is less to be said about the tales because readers who know Chaucer at all generally know him by this vast medieval salmagundi of common folk and their ragbag of stories. The immediate model was, of course, Boccaccio’s Decameron; but Chaucer enriched his social minestrone by adding roughnecks and rascals, a knight, a parson, a bourgeois housewife from the provinces, clerics and workmen, merchants and bureaucrats of his own intermediate social class. Then he contrived for the tales being told to comment subtly on the character of the tellers, he enriched the story of the pilgrimage with squabbles and interruptions, and he flavored the poem with his own quiet humor and irony.

Which of the tales are self-parodic, which satiric, and which reflect Chaucer’s personal situation—these and similar questions provide matter for scholarly and critical rumination, of which there has been no lack: Professor Howard’s copious notes and ample bibliography list plenty of places to look. But there is no better place than The Canterbury Tales to try out the old theory that Chaucer can be read for pure enjoyment, with minimal apparatus. No doubt the language is a problem, and always will be; but there are modern English versions of both the Tales and of Troilus, in verse as well as prose, which can be used as trots, if not as substitutes for the original.7 Most Old English reprints provide equivalents for the unfamiliar forms, and there is a separate Chaucer Glossary, edited by Norman Davis et al. (Oxford University Press, 1979). The reader who is intrigued by Professor Howard’s inviting biography can look forward to a long spell of reading on his own.

  1. 1

    There are two marks in the Chaucer passage: a dot over certain vowels (as e) and an accent aigu over others. The first indicates the vowel is to be pronounced, the other that it is to be given special emphasis.

  2. 2


  3. 3

    more dear

  4. 4

    a narrow space

  5. 5


  6. 6


  7. 7

    Nevill Coghill’s version of both works is in verse (which doesn’t have to be immortal poesy to be better than prose) and is no further away than Penguin Books.