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THE LIFE OF CHAUCER.
İn the beginning of the eleventh century, our vernacular poetry received from the Normans, the Tudiments of that cultivation which it has preserved to the present times.
In the two succeeding centuries, the principal efforts of our yet untutored versifiers, were rhyming Chronicles and metrical romances, the style of which was rough, and the harmony of the numbers very defective.
In the reign of Edward I., the chara&ter of our poetical composition was considerably changed, by the introduction and increase of the tales of chivalry, and the popular fables of the troubadours of Provence.
Fictitious adventures were then substituted by the minstrels in the place of historical and traditionary fa&s, and a taste for ornamental and exotic expression gradually prevailed over the rude limplicity of the native English phrascology.
These fabulous narratives, afterwards enlarged by kindred fancies, derived from the crusades, and enriched by the marvellous machinery of the Italian poets, formed the taste, and awakened the imagination of GeoFFREY CHaucer, the illustrious ornament of the reign of Edward III. and of his fucceffor Richard II., the father of the English heroic verse, and the first Englifh versifier whe wrote poetically.
of the great poet, with whose compositions this colle&ion of classical English poetry commences, the curiosity which his reputation must excite, will require more ample information than can now be given. His contemporaries, who reverenced his genius, recorded few particulars of his life; and all who have since written of him, selate nothing beyond what casual mention, uncertain tra. dition, and discordant conje&ure, have supplied.
This meagre narration, therefore, scarcely merits the title that is given to it; but the materials for a fuller account are not to be found, without supplying the deficiency of facts by the comments and inventions of his biographers, which have nothing to recommend them to credit but the single circumstance of being often repeated.
The birth of Chaucer, in 1328, has been settled, from the inscription on his tomb-stone, signifying that he died in 1400, in the 720 year of his age.
Of the place of his nativity there is no memorial, any more than of his parents. Bale says he was a Berkshireman; Pits would entitle Woodstock in Oxfordshire to his birth; and Camden affirms that London was his birth-place : “ Edmund Spenser,” says he, “ a Londoner, was so smiled on by the Muses at his birth, that he excelled all the English poets that went before him, if we except only his fellow citizen Chaucer.” But Chaucer himself seems to have determined the point. In his Teftament of Love, he calls himself a Londonois or Londoner, and speaks of the city of London as the place of his engendrure.
His descent has been variously afligned. Leland says that he was of a noble ftock ; Pits, that he was the son of a knight; Speght, that his father was a vintner; and Hearne, that he was a merchant.
This difference of opinion shews, that nothing can be said with any colerable assurance of his family; but the patronymic name seems to indicate, that it came originally from Normandy; and there is somewhat more probability of his being the son of a gentleman rather than of a tradesmann
His biographers are as much in the dark about the place of his education. They tell us that he received the rudiments of his education in Solere's Hall, Cambridge, where he wrote his Court of Love ; and afterwards completed his Audies in Merton College, Oxford.
In his Court of Love, he speaks of himself under the name and character of “ Philogenetof Cambridge, Clerk.” This is by no means a decisive proof that he was really educated at Cambridge ; but it may be admitted as a strong argument, that he was not educated at Oxford, as Leland has supposed, without the shadow of proof. The biographers, however, instead of weighing one of these accounts against the other, have adopted both, and tell us very gravely that he was first at Cambridge, and afterwards removed from thence to complete his education at Oxford.
After he left the university, he is supposed to have added to his accomplishments by travelling into France and the Low Countries ; but when he went abroad, or at what time he returned, are circumstances not determined.
His biographers agree, that on his return, he entered himself of the Inner Temple, and prosecuted for some time the study of the law. Speght has given us a record in the Inner Temple (which he says a Mr. Buckley had seen), where “Geoffrey Chaucer was fined two shillings, for beating a Franciscan friar in Fleet-street.” It were to be wished that he had given the date. Leland says, “ Collegia Legulciorum frequentavit, after his travels in France, and perhaps before.” These travels in France rest entirely on the authority of Leland, whose account is full of inconsistencies.
He appears to have been early conversant with the court, and particularly attached to the service of the king's son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, by whose favour he obtained in marriage Philippa, daughter of Sir Payne, or Pagan Rouet, a native of Hainault, and lister of the famous Catherine Swynford, thc duke's mistress, and afterwards his wife.
As the credit of the Duke of Lancaster increased with his father, Chaucer's also rose in a like proportion; and the liveliness of his parts, and the native gaiety of his disposition, rendered him a very popular and acceptable character in the English court, at that time the most gay and fplendid in Europe.
That he had distinguished himself before this time by his poetical performances, is almost certain ; and there is a tradition supported by some passages in his Dream, and Cukoo and Nightingale, that when he attended the court at Woodstock, he resided at a square stone house near the park ftile, which still retains his name.
The first authentic memorial of Chaucer, is the patent in Rymer, 41. Edward III. by which the king grants to him an annuity of 20 marks, by the title of Valettus nofter. He was then in the 39th year of his age. How long he had served the king in that or any other station, and what particular merits were rewarded by this royal bounty, are points equally unknown. There is, however, no ground for supposing that this mark of his Majesty's favour was a reward of Chaucer's poetical merits. If it is considered that a few years after (48. Edward 111.), the king appointed him Comptroller of the Wool, &c. in the port of London, with the following injunction in the patent : “ So that the said Geoffrey write with his own hand his rolls, touching the said office, and continually reside there, and do and execute all things pertaining to the faid office in his own proper person, and not by his fubftitute;"—it should seem that Edward, though adorned with many royal and heroic virtues, had not the gift of discerning and patronizing a great poct : a gift which, like that of genuine poetry, is only bestowed on the chosen few, by the peculiar favour of Heaven;
neque enim, nisi carus ab ortu Diis superis, poterit magno fuisse poetæ.
From this time Chaucer is frequently mentioned in various public instruments. In the 46. Edvard III., (Rymer) the king appoints him Envoy (with two others) to Genoa, by the title of Scutifer uefter. This embaffy might probably have afforded him an opportunity of visiting Petrarch at }'adua, where he tells us, in the prologue to the Clerkes Tale, he learned from him the story of Grifeldis. But it is uncertain whether he ever went upon the embassy; and the biographers of Petrarch, who died the year following (1374), have not recorded the riverential visit of the English envoy.