poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London sometime between 1340 and 1344 to John Chaucer and Agnes Copton. John Chaucer was an affluent wine merchant and deputy to the king's butler. Through his father's connections, Geoffrey held several positions early in his life, serving as a noblewoman's page, a courtier, a diplomat, a civil servant, and a collector of scrap metal. His early life and education were not strictly documented although it can be surmised from his works that he could read French, Latin, and Italian.

In 1359, Chaucer joined the English army's invasion of France during the Hundred Years' War and was taken prisoner; King Edward III of England paid his ransom in 1360. In 1366, Chaucer married Philipa de Roet, who was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's wife. In 1367, Chaucer was given a life pension by the king, and began traveling abroad on diplomatic missions. During trips to Italy in 1372 and 1378, he discovered the works of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch—each of which greatly influenced Chaucer's own literary endeavors.

Chaucer's early work is heavily influenced by love poetry of the French tradition, including the Romaunt of the Rose (c. 1370) and Saint Cecilia (c. 1373), later used as the "Second Nun's Tale" in the Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer was named Controller of Customs on wools, skins, and hides for the port of London in 1374, and continued in this post for twelve years. Around that time, Chaucer's period of Italian influence began, which includes transitional works such as Anelida and Arcite (c. 1379), Parlement of Foules (c. 1382), and Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385). Chaucer established residence in Kent, where he was elected a justice of the peace and a member of Parliament in 1386. His wife died the following year.

His period of artistic maturity is considered to begin at this time, marked by the writing of the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, which Chaucer continued to work on for many years—most likely until his death in 1400. Considered a cultural touchstone, if not the very wellspring of literature in the English language, Chaucer's tales gather twenty-nine archetypes of late-medieval English society and present them with insight and humor.

Now considered the "Father of English literature," Chaucer wrote in the English vernacular while court poetry was still being written in Anglo-Norman or Latin. The decasyllabic couplet Chaucer used for most of the Canterbury Tales later evolved into the heroic couplet, commonly used for epic and narrative poetry in English. Chaucer is also credited with pioneering the regular use of iambic pentameter.

As the American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay "The Poet" in 1844: "...the rich poets, such as Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Raphael, have obviously no limits to their works, except the limits of their lifetime, and resemble a mirror carried through the street, ready to render an image of every created thing."

Until less than a year before his death, Chaucer remained Clerk of Works of the Palace of Westminster. He leased a tenement in the garden of the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey. After his death, he was buried at the entrance to the chapel of St. Benedict, in the South Transept. In 1556, a monument was erected in Chaucer's honor. When the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser died in 1599 and was buried nearby, the tradition of the "Poets' Corner" in the Abbey began. Since then, more than thirty poets and writers are buried there—including Browning, {C}Dryden, Hardy, Jonson, and Kipling—and more than fifty others are memorialized.

Chaucer died on October 25, 1400.


Selected Bibliography
 

The Canterbury Tales
Troilus and Criseyde
Treatise on the Astrolabe
The Legend of Good Women
Parlement of Foules
Anelida and Arcite
The House of Fame
The Book of the Duchess
Roman de la Rose
Translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (as Boece)

Canterbury Tales, The Nun's Priest's Tale [Excerpt]

Geoffrey Chaucer, 1343 - 1400
This Chanticleer stood high upon his toes,
Stretching his neck, and both his eyes did close,
And so did crow right loudly, for the nonce;
And Russel Fox, he started up at once,
And by the gorget grabbed our Chanticleer,
Flung him on back, and toward the wood did steer,
For there was no man who as yet pursued.
O destiny, you cannot be eschewed!
Alas, that Chanticleer flew from the beams!
Alas, his wife recked nothing of his dreams!
     This simple widow and her daughters two
Heard these hens cry and make so great ado,
And out of doors they started on the run
And saw the fox into the grove just gone,
Bearing in his mouth the cock away.
And then they cried, "Alas, and weladay!
Oh, the fox!" and after him they ran,
And after them, with staves, went many a man;
Ran Coll, our dog, and Talbot and Garland,
Ran cow and calf and even the very hogs,
So were they scared by barking of the dogs
And shouting men and women all did make,
They all ran so they thought their hearts would break.
And now, good men, I pray you hearken all.
     Behold how Fortune turns all suddenly
The hope and pride of even her enemy!
This cock, which now lay in the fox's mouth,
In all his fear unto the fox did clack
And say: "Sir, were I you, as I should be,
Then would I say (as God may now help me!),
'Turn back again, presumptuous peasants all!
A very pestilence upon you fall!
Now that I've gained here to this dark wood's side,
In spite of you this cock shall here abide.
I'll eat him, by my faith, and that anon!'"
The fox replied: "In faith, it shall be done!"
And as he spoke that word, all suddenly
This cock broke from his mouth, full cleverly,
And high upon a tree he flew anon.
And when the fox saw well that he was gone,
"Alas," quoth he, "O Chanticleer, alas!
I have against you done a base trespass
Inasmuch as I made you afeared
When I seized you and brought you from the yard;
But, sir, I did it with no foul intent;
Come down, and I will tell you what I meant.
I'll tell the truth to you, God help me so!
"Nay then," said he, "beshrew us both, you know,
But first, beshrew myself, both blood and bones,
If you beguile me, having done so once,
You shall no more, with any flattery,
Cause me to sing and closeup either eye;
For he who shuts his eyes when he should see,
And wilfully, God let him ne'er be free!"
"Nay," said the fox, "but God give him mischance
Who is so indiscreet in governance
He chatters when he ought to hold his peace."
     But you that hold this tale a foolery,
As but about a fox, a cock, a hen,
Yet do not miss the moral, my good men.
For Saint Paul says that all that's written well
Is written down some useful truth to tell.
Then take the wheat and let the chaff lie still.
     And now, good God, and if it be Thy will,
As says Lord Christ, so make us all good men
And bring us into His high bliss. Amen.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London sometime between 1340 and 1344 to

by this poet

poem
A Triple Roundel


I. Captivity

Your yën two wol sle me sodenly,
I may the beaute of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit through-out my herte kene.

And but your word wol helen hastily
My hertes wounde, whyl that hit is grene,
     Your yën two wol sle me sodenly; 
     may the beaute of hem not sustene
poem
     But now, sire,—lat me se—what I shal seyn?
A ha! by God, I have my tale ageyn.
     Whan that my fourthe housbonde was on beere,
I weep algate, and made sory cheere,
As wyves mooten, for it is usage,
And with my coverchief covered my visage;
But for that I was purveyed of a make,
I wepte but smal, and that
poem
Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, 
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, 
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur 
Of which vertú engendred is the flour; 
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth 
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth