But the heart of England was sound the while. The national spirit of enterprise was not dead in any class, from knight to shipman; and faithfulness and chastity in woman were still esteemed the highest though not the universal virtues of her sex. The value of such evidence as the mind of a great poet speaking in his works furnishes for a knowledge of the times to which he belongs is inestimable. For it shows us what has survived, as well as what was doomed to decay, in the life of the nation with which that mind was in sensitive sympathy. And it therefore seemed not inappropriate to approach, in the first instance, from this point of view the subject of this biographical essay,--Chaucer, "the poet of the dawn." For in him there are many things significant of the age of transition in which he lived; in him the mixture of Frenchman and Englishman is still in a sense incomplete, as that of their language is in the diction of his poems. His gaiety of heart is hardly English; nor is his willing (though, to be sure, not invariably unquestioning) acceptance of forms into the inner meaning of which he does not greatly vex his soul by entering; nor his airy way of ridiculing what he has no intention of helping to overthrow; nor his light unconcern in the question whether he is, or is not, an immoral writer. Or, at least, in all of these things he has no share in qualities and tendencies, which influences and conflicts unknown to and unforeseen by him may be safely said to have ultimately made characteristic of Englishmen. But he IS English in his freedom and frankness of spirit; in his manliness of mind; in his preference for the good in things as they are to the good in things as they might be; in his loyalty, his piety, his truthfulness. Of the great movement which was to mould the national character for at least a long series of generations he displays no serious foreknowledge; and of the elements already preparing to affect the course of that movement he shows a very incomplete consciousness. But of the health and strength which, after struggles many and various, made that movement possible and made it victorious, he, more than any one of his contemporaries, is the living type and the speaking witness. Thus, like the times to which he belongs, he stands half in and half out of the Middle Ages, half in and half out of a phase of our national life, which we can never hope to understand more than partially and imperfectly. And it is this, taken together with the fact that he is the first English poet to read whom is to enjoy him, and that he garnished not only our language but our literature with blossoms still adorning them in vernal freshness,--which makes Chaucer's figure so unique a one in the gallery of our great English writers, and gives to his works an interest so inexhaustible for the historical as well as for the literary student.
CHAPTER 2. CHAUCER'S LIFE AND WORKS.
Something has been already said as to the conflict of opinion concerning the period of Geoffrey Chaucer's birth, the precise date of which is very unlikely ever to be ascertained. A better fortune has attended the anxious enquiries which in his case, as in those of other great men have been directed to the very secondary question of ancestry and descent,--a question to which, in the abstract at all events, no man ever attached less importance than he. Although the name "Chaucer" is (according to Thynne), to be found on the lists of Battle Abbey, this no more proves that the poet himself came of "high parage," than the reverse is to be concluded from the nature of his coat-of-arms, which Speght thought must have been taken out of the 27th and 28th Propositions of the First Book of Euclid. Many a warrior of the Norman Conquest was known to his comrades only by the name of the trade which he had plied in some French or Flemish town, before he attached himself a volunteer to Duke William's holy and lucrative expedition; and it is doubtful whether even in the fourteenth century the name "Le Chaucer" is, wherever it occurs in London, used as a surname, or whether in some instances it is not merely a designation of the owner's trade. Thus we should not be justified in assuming a French origin for the family from which Richard le Chaucer, whom we know to have been the poet's grandfather, was descended. Whether or not he was at any time a shoemaker (chaucier, maker of chausses), and accordingly belonged to a gentle craft otherwise not unassociated with the history of poetry, Richard was a citizen of London, and vintner, like his son John after him. John Chaucer, whose wife's Christian name may be with tolerable safety set down as Agnes, owned a house in Thames Street, London, not far from the arch on which modern pilgrims pass by rail to Canterbury or beyond, and in the neighbourhood of the great bridge, which in Chaucer's own day, emptied its travellers on their errands, sacred or profane, into the great Southern road, the Via Appia of England. The house afterwards descended to John's son, Geoffrey, who released his right to it by deed in the year 1380. Chaucer's father was probably a man of some substance, the most usual personal recommendation to great people in one of his class. For he was at least temporarily connected with the Court, inasmuch as he attended King Edward III and Queen Philippa on the memorable journey to Flanders and Germany, in the course of which the English monarch was proclaimed Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire on the left bank of the Rhine. John Chaucer died in 1366, and in course of time his widow married another citizen and vintner. Thomas Heyroun, John Chaucer's brother of the half- blood, was likewise a member of the same trade; so that the young Geoffrey was certainly not brought up in an atmosphere of abstinence. The "Host" of the "Canterbury Tales," though he takes his name from an actual personage, may therefore have in him touches of a family portrait; but Chaucer himself nowhere displays any traces of a hereditary devotion to Bacchus, and makes so experienced a practitioner as the "Pardoner" the mouthpiece of as witty an invective against drunkenness as has been uttered by any assailant of our existing licensing laws. Chaucer's own practice as well as his opinion on this head is sufficiently expressed in the characteristic words he puts into the mouth of Cressid:--
In every thing, I wot, there lies measure: For though a man forbid all drunkenness, He biddeth not that every creature Be drinkless altogether, as I guess.
Of Geoffrey Chaucer we know nothing whatever from the day of his birth (whenever it befell) to the year 1357. His earlier biographers, who supposed him to have been born in 1328, had accordingly a fair field open for conjecture and speculation. Here it must suffice to risk the asseveration, that he cannot have accompanied his father to Cologne in 1338, and on that occasion have been first "taken notice of" by king and queen, if he was not born till two or more years afterwards. If, on the other hand, he was born in 1328, both events MAY have taken place. On neither supposition is there any reason for believing that he studied at one--or at both--of our English Universities. The poem cannot be accepted as Chaucerian, the author of which (very possibly by a mere dramatic assumption) declares:--
Philogenet I call'd am far and near, Of Cambridge clerk;
nor can any weight be attached to the circumstance that the "Clerk," who is one of the most delightful figures among the Canterbury Pilgrims, is an Oxonian. The enticing enquiry as to so WHICH of the sister Universities may claim Chaucer as her own must, therefore, be allowed to drop, together with the subsidiary question, whether stronger evidence of local colouring is furnished by the "Miller's" picture of the life of a poor scholar in lodgings at Oxford, or by the "Reeve's" rival narrative of the results of a Trumpington walk taken by two undergraduates of the "Soler Hall" at Cambridge. Equally baseless is the supposition of one of Chaucer's earliest biographers, that he completed his academical studies at Paris-- and equally futile the concomitant fiction that in France "he acquired much applause by his literary exercises." Finally, we have the tradition that he was a member of the Inner Temple--which is a conclusion deduced from a piece of genial scandal as to a record having been seen in that Inn of a fine imposed upon him for beating a friar in Fleet-street. This story was early placed by Thynne on the horns of a sufficiently decisive dilemma: in the days of Chaucer's youth, lawyers had not yet been admitted into the Temple; and in the days of his maturity he is not very likely to have been found engaged in battery in a London thoroughfare.
We now desert the region of groundless conjecture, in order with the year 1357 to arrive at a firm though not very broad footing of facts. In this year, "Geoffrey Chaucer" (whom it would be too great an effort of scepticism to suppose to have been merely a namesake of the poet) is mentioned in the Household Book of Elizabeth Countess of Ulster, wife of Prince Lionel (third son of King Edward III, and afterwards Duke of Clarence), as a recipient of certain articles of apparel. Two similar notices of his name occur up to the year 1359. He is hence concluded to have belonged to Prince Lionel's establishment as squire or page to the Lady Elizabeth; and it was probably in the Prince's retinue that he took part in the expedition of King Edward III into France, which began at the close of the year 1359 with the ineffectual siege of Rheims, and in the next year, after a futile attempt upon Paris, ended with the compromise of the Peace of Bretigny. In the course of this campaign Chaucer was taken prisoner; but he was released without much loss of time, as appears by a document bearing date March 1st, 1360, in which the king contributes the sum of 16 pounds for Chaucer's ransom. We may therefore conclude that he missed the march upon Paris, and the sufferings undergone by the English army on their road thence to Chartres--the most exciting experiences of an inglorious campaign; and that he was actually set free by the Peace. When, in the year 1367, we next meet with his name in authentic records, his earliest known patron, the Lady Elizabeth, is dead; and he has passed out of the service of Prince Lionel into that of King Edward himself, as Valet of whose Chamber or household he receives a yearly salary for life of twenty marks, for his former and future services. Very possibly he had quitted Prince Lionel's service when in 1361 that Prince had by reason of his marriage with the heiress of Ulster been appointed to the Irish government by his father, who was supposed at one time to have destined him for the Scottish throne.