Richard Nisley

Geoffrey Chaucer, poet and hopeless optimist
History - World Released - Mar 26, 2017

You have to love a guy who can laugh at himself. You can be sure he likes people and above all enjoys life. Now imagine that someone is a poet, not any poet but one of the greatest poets of English literature. That someone would be Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), the author of “The Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer was more than a great poet. He was a trailblazer. He wrote at a time when French was the language of poetry, of the English court and European diplomacy, and Latin was the language of education and the church. English was the language of common folk. Chaucer changed that by choosing to write his poetry in English, and not in the standard four-beat of French poetry, but in something more demanding, in the five-beat cadence of iambic pentameter. What Chaucer did was make English respectable. His poetry was so influential that within his lifetime the language of the English court changed from French to English.

The poet who emerges in “Geoffrey Chaucer of England,” by independent scholar Marchette Chute, is a delightful fellow—mild tempered, broad-minded, unprejudiced, hopelessly optimistic. He doesn’t have a mean-spirited bone his body. He enjoys people from all walks of life. He appreciates the beauty of nature, the travel that comes with being in the king’s service, and especially in having a good laugh, even at his own expense. “There are few writers who are so well worth knowing,” says the author. Geoffrey Chaucer was a medieval poet, to be sure, but in Chute’s recounting of his life the 600-year gap between his time and ours seems inconsequential. The characters who inhabit his lengthy narrative poems, particularly “Troilus and Criseyde” and “The Canterbury Tales,” are as familiar as the people who live on your street.

Chaucer was raised in what today would be considered a middle-class family. His household spoke both English and French. In school, he learned to read and write in Latin. At some point, he gained an appreciation of French poetry, which was mostly about courtly love. Chaucer was a romantic but he was also a realist. His early poems, many of which are lost, were written in French. He worked very hard at his craft, and as he became more sure of himself and of what he wanted to say he began writing in English and about people as they actually lived, warts and all. Like Shakespeare, he wrote to please himself. The fact people were drawn to his stories was a happy coincidence.

The author reviews all of Chaucer’s major works, with special emphasis on “The Canterbury Tales” and “Troilus and Criseyde.” The latter is a love story set amidst the Trojan War. Shakespeare also wrote a version of “Troilus and Criseyde.” His play is remarkable for its cynicism; the heroes are all villains (especially the Greeks), and the lovers are fools. This is very far removed from the tone of Chaucer’s narrative poem, which possesses a sweetness and innocence that is at the heart of young love. Indeed, Chaucer becomes so caught up in the love story of Troilus and Criseyde that he writes himself into a corner. The story, which dates from the eighth century, calls for Criseyde to betray Troilus which Chaucer finds troubling. Writes Ms. Chute: “The truth is that the creative interest that Chaucer experienced so powerfully in the first four books of ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ is almost totally lacking in Book Five. Chaucer does his best, but he cannot bring himself to any real enthusiasm for a plot from which the bright lady of his own creation has vanished.”

The idea for “The Canterbury Tales,” on the other hand, was entirely of Chaucer’s own creation, and not only had nothing like it ever been written before nothing like it was ever done again. Writes Ms. Chute: “He never finished his narrative poem; his ambitious plan was still much more in his head than it was on paper when he had to leave it. He had planned to write a hundred and twenty tales, and he only completed twenty-one.” As it stands, “The Canterbury Tales” is only a collection of fragments. Yet, Chaucer completed enough of “The Canterbury Tales” to make it one of the literary masterpieces of the world. He visualized his characters so clearly that they are still as real and familiar as the day they met each other at the Tabard Inn in London to begin their journey south to Canterbury.

Chaucer was the first English poet to be buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. “He left behind him the men and the women he had created and they went on without him,” writes the author wistfully. “They are more real now than any of Chaucer’s contemporaries, and they will continue to be real five hundred years hence.” Ms. Chute’s fascination with her subject makes for lively reading. I can’t imagine how much research she did before writing a single word. The neat map at the back of the book, of fourteenth century London, is of her own creating.

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