Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

Geoffrey Chaucer (1328-1400)

"Father of English Poetry."

If you could suddenly go back five hundred years, you would find yourself among very funny people. You would hear a curious kind of English talked, and you would see the people wearing long hoods and cloaks, not a bit like those we wear now. They would spell their words too quite differently, and I dare say, though it was your own English language, you would not be able to read.

In this England, more than five hundred years ago, there lived a man who wrote a great deal of poetry, and wrote it all in this queer kind of English, called Chaucer. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London. His father was a wine-seller, a hard-working, honest man, but not rich.

We do not know much about Chaucer when he was a little boy, only we know he must have worked hard and learnt his lessons well, or he would never have been the learned, clever man that he was. I dare say too he was a bright, amusing boy, for as a man he wrote such funny things about people, and he was always merry to everybody. Out of school and after play the boy would probably help his father in the shop, and perhaps fill some of the jars with wine. It was the custom in those days for young men to go to some nobleman's house as a page. Chaucer's father was in attendance on the king, Edward III., so at the age of seventeen, Geoffrey Chaucer was sent as a page to the house of Lionel, the king's son. There he had to wait on Lionel: he rode out with him, learnt to shoot and do many other things that he would never have learnt anywhere else. Lionel and his wife became very fond of Chaucer, and the boy made friends with many great men of the time. Among others he knew John of Gaunt, a younger brother of Lionel's, who was very kind to him afterwards.

Soon after this Chaucer became a soldier and fought under the king, Edward III., in a battle against the French. He was taken prisoner, and had to stay in France more than a year, till the king paid a ransom. Then he was set free and hurried back to England.

Now you must try and picture to yourself what Chaucer looked like at this time. He did not wear a coat and trousers as men do now, but a long gown of grey or green, with big, loose sleeves, he wore bright red stockings and black boots. On better occasions he wore a tight-fitting tunic with a splendid belt and dagger at his side. On his head he wore a dark hood with a long tail to it. This tail hung down his back, when he was indoors, and was twisted round his head when he went out, to keep the hood firmly on.

Chaucer had a kind, pleasant face; he never said an unkind thing, though, as I have told you, he was very fond of laughing at people in a merry way. He was rather fat, and had a curious forked beard; he had too a queer habit of staring on the ground, as if he was looking for something very small, but this was mostly shyness.

When Chaucer returned from France, he married one of the Queen's maids of honour. He was very fond of her, and has written about her in his poems. We know that Chaucer had two children; one of them was called Lewis, and Chaucer wrote a paper for him, when he was ten years old. He was very fond of his little Lewis, and speaks to him very lovingly in his paper.

After Chaucer's return he was more at court than ever, and John of Gaunt was his faithful friend. When John of Gaunt was in any trouble Chaucer helped him, and when Chaucer was in difficulty John of Gaunt came to his aid.

After a time the king sent Chaucer to France on private business, and gave him a great deal of money for it. When he came home he was in high favour with the king, who sent him every day "a pitcher of wine from his own table," and gave him some more work to do.

At this time the Black Prince died, and soon after, his father, Edward III. Then the Black Prince's little son was made king, but being only eleven years old, he was too young to reign, so John of Gaunt, his uncle, helped to govern England for him.



Of course John of Gaunt did not forget his friend Chaucer, when he became rich and powerful, but treated him very kindly. But the people of England did not like John of Gaunt. He was severe and grasping, and they were angry with him and all his friends too. So John of Gaunt had to go out of England. As soon as he was gone, the people turned on Chaucer; they said he had done his work badly, and because he was John of Gaunt's friend, they sent him away. His friend could not help him now, and Chaucer had to submit to disgrace and poverty. About ten years before his death, there was another change in England. John of Gaunt returned, and one of his first thoughts was for Chaucer. He gave him some work, and the last few years of Chaucer's life were very busy. When Chaucer was sixty, John of Gaunt died, and his old friend did not survive him long. Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey, and a monument has since been raised to the memory of the great poet.

Now you know a little about Chaucer himself, what he was like and how he lived, you will like to hear a little about his poetry and stories. His chief work was called the "Canterbury Tales." He tells us that one fine spring morning he was going on horseback to the tomb of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. He put up at an inn for one night, and there he found a great many more pilgrims going to the same place. Chaucer, being a merry man and fond of talking, proposed that they should all go on together next day, and to pass the time each of them should tell a story as they rode along. They all agreed cheerfully, and the next day they started. All this Chaucer tells us in delightful poetry; he tells us how when they started the little birds were singing, the buds were bursting in the hedges, the crops were just peeping above the ground, the sun had just risen. Then he describes to us the other pilgrims. There was a young squire, who had very curly hair and wore a tunic embroidered with flowers. He could sing very well, and dance, and draw pictures. There was also a nun with them; she was very fond of animals, especially dogs, or as Chaucer calls them "smale houndes." He says:—

"Sche was so charitable and so pitous

Sche wolde weepe if that sche saw a mous

Caught in a trappe."

Then there was a doctor, and a woman called "The Wife of Bath," who had very few teeth; she was rather deaf, and had a red face. She wore bright red stockings, and a very showy gown. There was a cook too, a ploughman, and many others.

Then Chaucer tells us all the stories told by each of them in his quaint poetry, and these he calls the Canterbury Tales.

He wrote many other poems as well, all quaint and musical and pretty. He loved to write about Nature, the little birds, the May blossom, the green grass, the music of the lark, the little daisy in the field. All was sunshine to Chaucer. His life had not been an easy one: he had been a page, a soldier, a courtier, student, exile and prisoner, he had been in poverty and disgrace, but it left him the same kind, gentle, pleasant man with a good word for all. He loved the English language, he loved the English people, and the English nation was proud of him, as it ever will be of its "first great English poet."