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It pretends to give the experiences of the author, an English knight, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, starting from St. Albans in Hertfordshire in 1322. It pretends to be a guide for other pilgrims, and hence has somewhat of a religious flavor; but its best claim to distinction now is as the first English prose work of which the aim is entertainment. Its effect comes chiefly from a trick used afterward with great success by Defoe and Swift, the use of exact figures and of numerous circumstantial details in connection with the wonders described.
In a certain lake, for example, grow reeds thirty fathoms long; and others apparently longer, at the roots of which are found precious stones of great virtues. A further evidence of his truthfulness is the occasional admission that he speaks from hearsay; as when we read: "In the Isle of Lango is yet the daughter of Hippocras, in form and like
ness of a great dragon, that is a hundred fathoms in length, as men say; for I have not seen her." Or: "Of Paradise I cannot speak properly, for I was not there."
That the work was immensely popular is shown by the existence to-day of some 300 manuscripts of it. Its setting forth what was accepted as fact by the best thinkers of Mandeville's time makes it worthy of attention to-day. Notable examples of this are his account of the cotton plant and his belief in the roundness of the earth. (It must be
remembered that he wrote a century before Columbus sailed westward for India.) The Travels is, moreover, written in an almost uniformly easy, smooth style: open the volume quite at random, and one will assuredly find interesting
GEOFFREY CHAUCER, 1340-1400
There remains to be treated in this period one writer whose fame rests on a far solider basis than any yet men
tioned. No concession need be made on historical or other grounds to place Chaucer high, not only among medieval poets, not only among English poets, but among poets of all times and lands. Even Matthew Arnold, who denies Chaucer a position among "the great classics," admits that his poetry shows a "large, free, simple, clear yet kindly view of human life"; that he is "a genuine source of joy and strength"; and that he has "the power to
survey the world from a central, a truly human point of view." If these admissions are justified, the denial of 66 classic standing to the poet must be due to a very re
stricted use of the term.
We have, along with much uncertainty, more information regarding Chaucer's life than regarding any writer previously considered. For these additional facts we are indebted not at all to great appreciation in his day of his literary efforts,
"The Study of Poetry," in Essays in Criticism, Second Series.
but to his activity in public affairs. At various times he held a municipal appointment in London, sat in Parliament, served in the army, and performed diplomatic errands on the Continent.
Geoffrey Chaucer was a Londoner, the son of a wine merchant, who at one time, possibly but by no means surely at the time of the poet's birth, lived in Thames Street. The location gains interest from the fact that near at hand is the bridge across which pilgrims to Canterbury passed. The occupation of the poet's father was no hindrance to social aspirations; and at the age of seventeen Geoffrey was attached to a royal household that of Lionel, Duke of
Clarence, third son of Edward III. Although there is no evidence regarding the character or extent of his education, his writings show that he was well informed along all lines of interest in his day. His enjoyment of the King's favor is shown by the fact that, on his being captured while serving in the army in France a few years later, Edward himself contributed to the fund for Chaucer's ransom.
Continued in the Favor of the Great. Chaucer also profited by the favor of Edward's fourth son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. One of his earliest poems, The Death of Blanche the Duchess, was written in memory of John's first wife. It is thought by some that Philippa, the poet's wife, was a kinswoman of Gaunt. Finally, it is known that Gaunt's son, Henry IV, on his accession to the throne in 1399, restored to Chaucer the pension stopped in the last years of Richard's reign when Gaunt was out of the country. This continued association with great folk was of immense help as a preparation for his work. Even the Canterbury Tales, though none of the pilgrims are from the higher walks of life, are written, not for the uneducated, but for the cul
tured. This fact becomes quite plain when one compares Chaucer's work with Wiclif's or with Piers Plowman.
Under Italian Influence. With the exception of The Death of Blanche no work of Chaucer written prior to his
thirtieth year calls for mention here. Before his next important work appeared he had visited various cities of Italy 1
1 It should, perhaps, be remarked that the Life of St. Cecilia, assigned to the Second Nun in the Canterbury collection, was probably written about the time of the first Italian journey. The Knight's Tale also may be a revision of an earlier work of the poet.
on government business, and had come under the influence of the great Italian writers, Boccaccio and Petrarch; and that of Dante, who had been dead fifty years and who was already a literary saint.
To this "period of Italian influence" belong The Parlement of Foules (Assembly of Birds), celebrating the betrothal of King Richard II in 1382; The House of Fame, an unfinished dream poem, the meaning of which is still in dispute; Troilus and Criseyde, a very free adaptation of Boccaccio's version of the Trojan hero's love story; and the Legend of Good Women, an apology (real or pretended) for earlier unfavorable presentations of women.
"The Canterbury Tales "; (1) The Form. - While he was writing the Legend, Chaucer was probably planning his greatest work, The Canterbury Tales, of which the Prologue and most of the tales may be dated between his forty-fifth and fiftieth years. For a number of tales sources have been found; for yet another number, close parallels; for the collection as a whole no model has been suggested offering resemblances enough to be worth discussing. The idea of setting a number of stories in a "frame" is very old; but Chaucer's pilgrimage is distinctly a frame of his own. making, the material of which he obtained from personal experience.
(2) The Plan. The plan of the Canterbury Tales, which should be read by all in Chaucer's own words, Prologue, lines 1-42, 715-858, is as follows:
The poet stopping one April evening at the Tabard Inn in Southwark (south side of the Thames, just across the bridge from Thames Street) finds a party of twenty-nine "sundry folk" gathered, ready to start next day on a pilgrimage to Canterbury especially to the tomb of Thomas à Becket the martyr. He becomes one "of their fellowship" immediately,