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 …

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