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To which is prefixed
THE LIFE OF THE AUTHOR.
Old CHAUCER, like the morning far,
His light thofe mifts and clouds diffolv'd,
DENHAM'S VERSES ON THE DEATH OF COWLEY,
PRINTED BY MUNDELL AND SON, ROYAL BANK CLOSE
THE LIFE OF CHAUCER.
In the beginning of the eleventh century, our vernacular poetry received from the Normans, the
rudiments of that cultivation which it has preferved to the present times.
In the two fucceeding centuries, the principal efforts of our yet untutored verfifiers, 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 character of our poetical compofition was confiderably changed, by the introduction and increase of the tales of chivalry, and the popular fables of the troubadours of Provence.
Fictitious adventures were then fubftituted by the minstrels in the place of historical and traditionary facts, and a taste for ornamental and exotic expreffion gradually prevailed over the rude fimplicity of the native English phrascology.
These fabulous narratives, afterwards enlarged by kindred fancies, derived from the crufades, and enriched by the marvellous machinery of the Italian poets, formed the taste, and awakened the imagination of GEOFFREY CHAUCER, the illuftrious ornament of the reign of Edward III. and of his fucceffor Richard II., the father of the English heroic verse, and the first English verfifier who wrote poetically.
Of the great poet, with whose compofitions this collection of claffical English poetry commences, the curiofity 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 fince written of him, relate nothing beyond what cafual mention, uncertain tradition, and difcordant conjecture, have fupplicd.
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 circumftance of being often repeated.
The birth of Chaucer, in 1328, has been settled, from the inscription on his tomb-stone, fignifying that he died in 1400, in the 72d year of his age.
Of the place of his nativity there is no memorial, any more than of his parents. Bale fays he was a Berkshireman; Pits would entitle Woodstock in Oxfordshire to his birth; and Camden affirms that London was his birth-place : " Edmund Spenfer," 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 affigned. Leland fays that he was of a noble stock; 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 fhews, that nothing can be said with any tolerable assurance of his family; but the patronymic name feems 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 tradesman 2 2
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 ftudies in Merton College, Oxford.
In his Court of Love, he fpeaks of himself under the name and character of "Philogenetof Cambridge, Clerk." This is by no means a decifive 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 fuppofed, without the fhadow 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 fupposed 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 circumftances not determined.
His biographers agree, that on his return, he entered himself of the Inner Temple, and profecuted for some time the study of the law. Speght has given us a record in the Inner Temple (which he fays a Mr. Buckley had seen), where " Geoffrey Chaucer was fined two fhillings, for beating a Francifcan friar in Fleet-ftreet." It were to be wished that he had given the date. Leland fays, “ Collegia Legulciorum frequentavit, after his travels in France, and perhaps before." These travels in France reft entirely on the authority of Leland, whofe 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 fon, 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 sister of the famous Catherine Swynford, the 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 splendid 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 refided at a square stone house near the park stile, which ftill 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 fuppofing that this mark of his Majesty's favour was a reward of Chaucer's poetical merits. If it is confidered that a few years after (48. Edward III.), 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 refide there, and do and execute all things pertaining to the said office in his own proper person, and not by his substitute;"-it fhould feem that Edward, though adorned with many royal and heroic virtues, had not the gift of difcerning and patronizing a great poet : a gift which, like that of genuine poetry, is only bestowed on the chofen few, by the peculiar favour of Heaven;
neque enim, nifi carus ab ortu Diis fuperis, poterit magno fuisse poetæ.
From this time Chaucer is frequently mentioned in various public inftruments. In the 46. Edward 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 vifiting Petrarch at Padua, 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 embaffy; and the biographers of Petrarch, who died the year following (1374), have not recorded the reverential vifit of the English envoy.