A Biography for Beginners
Chaucer, the founder of the English language, started writing poems in English in a period in which written works were usually written in Latin, the lingua franca (a language which was used to communicate between people who did not speak the same language) and in French, the language of the upper class.
Geoffrey Chaucer was probably born in London between 1340 and 1345. Little is known of his early life and education except that his father was a wine merchant, connected with the court. Chaucer started serving as a page for Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster (wife of Edward III's son.) He served as attendant, messenger and entertainer as well. It is probably the period in which he started to think of himself as a poet. The Countess was French so it is commonly believed that works by French poets were available and may have provided an inspiration for the poet's earliest poems: The Book of the Duchess and The Parlement of Foules (The Parliament of Birds.)
Chaucer took part in military expeditions in France and was captured by the French in 1359. The king paid his ransom. Then Edward III sent him on various diplomatic missions to France and Italy (Genoa and Florence.) During these missions he was probably exposed to the works of Froissart, Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch.
From his marriage with Philippa Roet (circa 1366), the queen's lady-in-waiting, he had four children. He then got related to the king's fourth son when Philippa's sister married John of Gaunt, Chaucer's patron.
From 1374 to 1386 Chaucer held various public offices: comptroller of London customs, member of parliament for Kent, justice of the peace. In 1389 while working as clerk of the king's works he oversaw royal building projects. He served in various royal posts both under Edward III and Richard II.
The poet's first major work was The Book of the Duchess, an elegy in honour of his patron's first wife. The poem contained 1,300 lines in a dream-vision form (1369-1370). Chaucer wrote other works using this literary device: Parlement of Foules and The Legend of Good Women.
In his dream-vision poem for St Valentine's Day, Parlement of Foules (Parliament of birds) Chaucer reworks a myth, borrowed extensively from Dante and Boccaccio,. This 699 lines poem tells the story of birds gathering in front of the goddess Nature on Valentine's Day to choose their mates. Various kinds of love are examined here always considering "common profit."
The last of his dream-vision poems, The Legend of Good Women, is made up of a prologue and 9 stories. In the introduction the god of love is angry because Chaucer's previous poems presented many women who betrayed men. To redeem himself, the poet has to write about good women. This poem shows how Chaucer structures a long poem as a collection of stories within a framework.
Between circa 1382 and 1386 Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde that many consider his masterpiece. This poem follows the plot of Boccaccio's Filostrato. It shows the pervasive influence of Boethius's book1 The Consolation of Philosophy which was the most influential medieval book. Chaucer translated it carefully. The love story of Troilus (son of Troy's king Priam) and Criseyde (daughter of a priest) unfolds against the Trojan war background. They love each other but she is sent to the Greek camp outside Troy to join her father. She promises to return but meets the Greek Diomedes and falls in love. Troilus, desperate, is killed in the war. This poem is held together by a narrator who comments and shows sympathy towards the lovers.
1 Boethius's The Consolation of philosophy (6th century) discusses free will, destiny, fortune and true/false happiness.
The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), a collection of verse tales, is Chaucer's most famous work. It deals with a group of people on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury.
Chaucer is considered the father oh English: he was the first to write in vernacular English, a standardization of the London dialect of his time combined with the Kentish and Midlands dialects. This is not his only innovation, though. In his Treatise on the Astrolabe, probably written for his son, Chaucer describes the form and the use of that instrument in detail. It is a kind of instructions manual before its time.
He innovated meter as well: he put in being an alternative to the alliterative Anglo-Saxon meter. He invented the rhyme royal. He extensively used a decasyllabic verse, very similar to the iambic pentameter, especially in The Legend of the Good Women. It consists of five-stress lines, arranged into rhyming couplets and soon became one of the standard poetic forms.
Chaucer died in 1400. He was the first poet to be buried in what is now known as the Poet's corner in Westminster Abbey because of the high number of poets, playwrights and writers commemorated there.