Chaucer, Jeffery

, styled the Father of English poetry, is one of whose birth and family nothing has been decided. It has been contended on the one hand, that he was of noble origin; on the other, that he descended from persons in trade. Even the meaning of his name in French, Chaucier, a shoemaker, has been brought in evidence of a low origin, while the mention of the name Chaucer, in several records, from the time of William the conqueror to that of Edward I. has been thought sufficient to prove the contrary. Leland says he was nobili loco natus but Speght, one of his early | biographers, informs us, that, “in the opinion of some heralds, he descended not of any great house, which they gather by his arms;” and Mr. Tyrwhitt is inclined to believe the heralds rather than Leland. Speght, however, goes farther, and makes his father a vintner, who died in 1348, and left his property to the church of St. Mary Aldermary, where he was buried. This is confirmed by Stowe, who says, “Richard Chawcer, vintner, gave to that church his tenement and tavern, with the appurtenance, in the Royal-­streete the corner of Kerion-lane, and was there buried, 1348.” But neither Stowe nor Speght afford any proof that this Richard Chawcer was the father of our poet.

With respect to the place of his birth, we cannot produce better authority than his own. In his “Testament of Love,” he calls himself a Londoner, and speaks of the city of London as the place of his “kindly engendrure.” In spite of this evidence, however, Leland, who is more than usually incorrect in his account of Chaucer, reports him to have been born in Oxfordshire or Berkshire. The time of his birth is, by general consent, fixed in the second year of Edward III. 1328, and the foundation of this decision seems to have originally been an inscription on his tomb, signifying that he died in 1400 at the age of seventy-two. Collier fixes his death in 1440, but he is so generally accurate, that this may be supposed an error of the press. Phillips is more unpardonable; for, contrary to all evidence, he instances the reigns of Henry IV. V. and VI. as those in which Chaucer flourished.

His biographers have provided him with education both at Oxford and Cambridge, a circumstance which we know occurred in the history of other scholars of that period, and is not therefore improbable. But in his “Court of Love,” which was composed when he was about eighteen, he speaks of himself under the name of” Philogenet, of Cambridge, clerk.” Mr. Tyrwhitt, while he does not think this a decisive proof that he was really educated at Cambridge, is willing to admit it as a strong argument that he was not educated at Oxford. Wood, in his Annals (vol. I. book I. 484.) gives a report, or rather tradition, that “when Wickliff was guardian or warden of Canterbury college, he had to his pupil the famous poet called Jeffry Chaucer (father of Thomas Chaucer, of Ewelme in Oxfordshire, esq.) who following the steps of his master, reflected much upon the corruptions of the clergy.” This is | something like evidence if it could be depended on; at least it is preferable to the conjecture of Leland, who supposes Chaucer to have been educated at Oxford, merely because he had before supposed that he was born either in Oxfordshire or Berkshire. Those who contend for Cambridge as the place of his education, fix upon Solere’s hall, which he has described in his story of the Miller of Trompington; but Solere’s hall is merely a corruption of Soler hall, i.e. a hall with an open gallery, or solere window.*


Mr. Warton thinks that Solere-­hall was Aula Solarii, the hall with the upper story, at that time a sufficient circumstance to distinguish and denominate one of the academical hospitia. Hist. of Poetry, vol, I. p. 432, note n.

The advocates for Oxford are inclined to place him in Merton college, because his contemporaries Strode and Occleve were of that college. It is equally a matter of conjecture that he was first educated at Cambridge, and afterwards at Oxford. Wherever he studied, we have sufficient proofs of his capacity and proficiency. He appears to have acquired a very great proportion of the learning of his age, and became a master of its philosophy, poetry, and such languages as formed the intercourse between men of learning. Leland says he was “acutus Dialecticus, dulcis Rhetor, lepidus Poeta, gravis Philosophus, ingeniosus Mathematicus, denique sanctus Theologus.” It is equally probable that he courted the muses in those early days, in which he is said to have been encouraged by Gower, although there are some grounds for supposing that his acquaintance with Gower was of a later date.

After leaving the university, we are told that he travelled through France and the Netherlands, but the commencement and conclusion of these travels are not specified. On his return, he is said to have entered himself of the Middle Temple, with a view to study the municipal law, but even this fact depends chiefly on a record, without a date, which, Speght informs us, a Mr. Buckley had seen, where Jeffery Chaucer was fined “two shillings for beating a Franciscane frier in Fleet-street.” Leland speaks of his frequenting the law colleges after his travels in France, and perhaps before. Mr. Tyrwhitt doubts these travels in France, and has indeed satisfactorily proved that Leland’s account of Chaucer is full of inconsistencies—Leland is certainly inconsistent as to dates, but from the evidence Chaucer gave in a case of chivalry, we have full proof of one journey in France, although the precise period cannot be fixed. | Whatever time these supposed employments might have occupied, we discover, at length, with tolerable certainty, that Chaucer betook himself to the life of a courtier, and probably with all the accomplishments suited to his advancement in the court of a monarch who was magnificent in his establishment, and munificent in his patronage of learning and gallantry. At what period of life he obtained a situation here, is uncertain. The writer of the life prefixed to Urry’s edition supposes he was not more than thirty, because his first employment was in quality of the king’s page; but the first authentic memorial, respecting Chaucer at court, is the patent in Rymer, 41 Edward III. by which that king grants him an annuity of twenty marks, about 200l. of our money, by the title of Valettus noster,*


Mr. Ellis observes that “this office, by whatever name we translate it, might be held even by persons of the highest rank, because the only science then in request among the nobility was that of etiquette, the knowledge of which was acquired, together with the habits of chivalry, by passing in gradation through the several menial offices about the court." Ellis’s Specimens, vol. I. p. 202.

“our yeoman,” and this occurred when Chaucer was in his thirty-ninth year. Several mistakes have arisen respecting these grants, from his biographers not understanding the meaning of the titles given to our poet. Speght mentions a grant from king Edward four years later than the above, in which Chaucer is styled valettus hospitii, which he translates grome of the pallace, sinking our author, Mr. Tyrwhitt observes, as much too low, as his biographer in Urry’s edition had raised him too high, by translating the same words gentleman of the king’s privy chamber. Valet or yeoman was, according to the same acute scholiast, the intermediate rank between squier and grome.

It would be of more consequence to be able to determine what particular merits were rewarded by this royal bounty. Mr. Tyrwhitt can find no proof, and no ground for supposing that it was bestowed on Chaucer for his poetical talents, although it is almost certain that he had distinguished himself, as a poet, before this time. The “Assemblee of Foules,” the “Complaint of the Blacke Knight,” and the translation of the “Roman de la Rose,” were all composed before 1367, the sera which we are now considering. What strengthens Mr. Tyrwhitt‘ s opinion of the king’s indifference to Chaucer’s poetry, is his appointing him, a few years after, to the office of comptroller of | the custom of wool, with an injunction that “the said Geffrey write with his own hand his rolls touching the said office in his own proper person, and not by his substitute.” The inferences, however, which Mr. Tyrwhitt draws from this fact, viz. “that his majesty was either totally insensible of our author’s poetical talents, or at least had no mind to encourage him in the cultivation or exercise of them,” savours rather too much of the conjectural spirit which he professes to avoid. He allows that, notwithstanding what he calls “the petrifying quality, with which these Custom-house accounts might be expected to operate upon Chaucer’s genius,” he probably wrote his “House of Fame” while he was in that office. Still less candid to the memory of Edward will these inferences appear, if we apply modern notions of patronage to the subject; for in tvhat manner could the king more honourably encourage the genius of a poet, than by a civil employment which rendered him easy in his circumstances, and free from the suspicious obligations of a pension or sinecure?

Chaucer’s biographers have given some particulars of his life, before the office just mentioned was conferred upon him. He is said to have been in constant attendance on his majesty, and when the court was at Woodstock, resided at a square stone house near the park gate, which long retained the name of Chaucer’s house; and many of the rural descriptions in his works have been traced to Woodstock park, the favourite scene of his walks and studies. But besides his immediate office near the royal person, he very early attached himself to the service of the celebrated John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and from this connection his public life is to be dated. The author of the life prefixed to Urry’s edition observes, that the duke’s “ambition requiring all the assistance of learned men to give it a plausible appearance, induced him to do Chaucer many good offices, in order to engage him in his interest.” But although the assistance of learned men to an ambitious statesman is very well understood in modern times, it is somewhat difficult to conceive what advantage could be derived from such assistance before the invention of printing. It is more probable that the duke had a relish for the talents and taste of Chaucer, and became his patron upon the most liberal grounds, although Chaucer might afterwards repay his favours by exposing the conduct of | the clergy, who were particularly obnoxious to the duke by their monopoly of power.

One effect of this connection was the marriage of our poet, by which he became eventually related to his illustrious patron. John of Gaunt’s duchess, Blanche, entertained in her service one Catherine Rouet, daughter of sir Payne, or Pagan Rouet, a native of Hainault, and Guion king at arms for that country. This lady was afterwards married to sir Hugh Swinford, a knight of Lincoln, who died soon after his marriage, and on his decease, his lady returned to the duke’s family, and was appointed governess of his children. While in this capacity, she yielded to the duke’s solicitations, and became his mistress. She had a sister, Philippa, who is stated to have been a great favourite with the duke and duchess, and by them, as a mark of their high esteem, recommended to Chaucer for a wife. He accordingly married her about 1360, when he was in his thirty-second year, and this step appears to have increased his interest with his patron, who took every opportunity to promote him at court. Besides the instances already given, we are told that he was made shield-­bearer to the king, a title at that time of great honour, the shield-bearer being always next the king’s person, and generally, upon signal victories, rewarded with military honours. But here again his biographers have mistaken the meaning of the courtly titles of those days. In the 46 Edward III. 1372, the king appointed him envoy, with two others, to Genoa, by the title of scutifer noster, “our squier.” Scutifer and armiger, according to Mr. Tyrwhitt, are synonymous terms with the French escuier; but Chaucer’s biographers thinking the title of squier too vulgar, changed it to shield-bearer, as if Chaucer had the special office of carrying the king’s shield. With respect to the nature of this embassy to Genoa, biography and history are alike silent, and from that silence, the editor of the Canterbury tales is inclined to doubt whether it ever took place, or whether he had that opportunity of visiting Petrarch, an event which his biographers refer to the same period.

But although history is silent as to the object of Chaucer’s embassy, his biographers have endeavoured to supply the defect, by conjecturing that it might be for the purpose of hiring ships for the king’s navy. They find that in those days, though we frequently made great naval | armaments, we had but very few ships of our own, and were therefore obliged to hire them from the free states either of Germany or Italy. Having thus discovered an object for Chaucer’s embassy, they represent it as heing so successful, that the king bestowed new marks of favour upon him; and it is certain, whatever might be the cause, that at the distance of two years, namely, in the 48th year of that reign, 1374, he had a grant for life of a pitcher of wine daily; and in the same year a grant, which has already been mentioned, during pleasure, of the offices of comptroller of the custom of wools, and comptroller of the parva custuma vinorum, &c. in the port of London. This office, we are told, he filled with great integrity, as well as advantage, his conduct not being in the least tainted with any of those connivings or frauds which had become frequent in the customs, and were detected towards the latter end of Edward’s reign.

About a year after this, the king granted to him the wardship of sir Edmund Staplegate’s heir, for which he received 104l. and in the next year some forfeited wool to the value of 71l. 4s. 6d. These, and his other pecuniary advantages, are said to have raised his income to a thousand pounds per annum, a prodigious sum at that time, but quite incredible. Whatever his income was, however, he informs us in the “Testament of Love,” it enabled him to live with dignity and hospitality. In the last year of king Edward III. 1377, he was sent to France, with sir Guichard Dangle, and Richard Stau or Sturry, to treat of a marriage between the prince of Wales, Richard, and a daughter of the French king. Such is Froissart’s account; but the English historians, Hollingshed and Barnes, inform us, that the principal object of this mission was to complain of some infringement of the truce concluded with the French, and that although they were not very successful in that remonstrance, it produced some overtures towards the said marriage, and this ended in a new treaty.

Whichever of these accounts is the true one, it appears that this was the last political employment which Chaucer filled, although he did not cease to take an interest in the measures of his patron, the duke of Lancaster. On the accession of Richard II. in 1377, his annuity of twenty marks was confirmed, and another annuity of twenty marks granted to him in lieu of the daily pitcher of wine. He was also confirmed in his office of comptroller. | When Richard II. succeeded his grandfather, he was but eleven years of age, and his uncle the duke of Lancaster was consequently entrusted with the chief share in the administration of public affairs. One of his first measures was to solemnize the young king’s coronation with great pomp, previously to which a court of claims was established to settle the demands of those who pretended to have a right to assist at the ceremony. Among these, Chaucer claimed in right of his ward, who was possessed of the manor of Billington in Kent; and this was held of the crown, by the service of presenting to the king three maple cups on the day of his coronation; but this claim was contested, and if it had not, is remote enough from the kind of information which it would be desirable to obtain respecting Chaucer. All we know certainly of this period, is, that the duke of Lancaster still preserved his friendship for our poet, and probably was the means of the grants just noticed having been renewed on the accession of the young king.

Soon after this, however, Chaucer’s biographers concur in the fact that he experienced a very serious reverse in his affairs, which in the second year of Richard II. were in such disorder, that he was obliged to have recourse to the king’s protection, in order to screen him from the importunities of his creditors. But as to the cause of this embarrassment, we find no agreement among those who have attempted a narrative of his life. Some think his distresses were temporary, and some that they were artificial. Among the latter, the writer of his life in the Biographia Britannica hazards a supposition which is at least ingenious. He is of opinion that Chaucer about this time found out a rich match for his son Thomas, namely, Maud, the second daughter of sir John Burghershe; and in order to obtain this match, he was obliged to bring his son somewhat upon a level with her, by settling all his landed estates upon him: and that this duty might occasion those demands which put him under the necessity of obtaining the king’s protection. The conclusion of the matter, according to this conjecture, must be, that Chaucer entailed his estates upon his son, and found means to put off his creditors, a measure not very honourable. But we are still in the dark as to the nature of those debts, or the existence of his landed property, and it is even doubtful whether this | Thomas Chaucer was his son.*


After reading, in the circumstantial accounts of Chaucer’s biographers, that he was married in 1360 to Philippa Rouet, by whom he had issue Thomas Chaucer and other children, we are surprised to learn that it is doubtful whether Thomas Chaucer was his son; that the earliest known evidence of his marriage is a record of 1381, in which he receives a halfyear’s payment of an annuity of ten marks, granted by Edward III. to his wife as one of the maids of honour (domicillæ) lately in the service of queen Philippa; that the name of Philippa Rouet does not occur in the list of these maids of honour, but that Chaucer’s wife may possibly have been Philippa Pykard; that notwithstanding this, his said wife was certainly sister to Catherine Rouet, who married a sir John Swynford, and was the favourite mistress, and ultimately the wife, of the duke of Lancaster; and that Chaucer himself mentions no son but Lewis, whom he states to have been born in 1381, a date which seems to agree with the record above mentioned, and to place the date of his marriage in 1380.” Ellis’s Specimens, vol. I. p. 206.

We know certainly of no son but Lewis, who was born in 1381, twenty-one years after his marriage, if the date of his marriage before given be correct.

It appears from the historians of Richard II. that the duke of Lancaster, about the third or fourth year of that monarch’s reign, began to decline in political influence, if not in popularity, owing to the encouragement he had given to the celebrated reformer Wickliffe, whom he supported against the clergy, to whose power in state affairs he had long looked with a jealous eye. Chaucer’s works show evidently that he concurred with the duke in his opinion of the clergy, and have procured him to be ranked among the few who paved the way for the reformation. Yet when the insurrection of Wat Tyler was imputed to the principles of the Wicklevites, the duke, it is said, withdrew his countenance from them, and disclaimed their tenets. Chaucer is likewise reported to have altered his sentiments, but the fact, in neither case, is satisfactorily confirmed. The duke of Lancaster condemned the doctrines of those followers of Wickliff only, who had excited public disturbances; and Chaucer was so far from abandoning his former notions,

His biographers say he died a member of the church of Rome. Fox claims him as a reformer. Acts and Monuments, vol. II, p. 42, edit. 1684. Dr. Warton (Essay on Pope) observes that Chaucer, as well as Dante, asserted that the church of Rome was Antichrist, a notion Bossuet has taken much pains to refute.

that in 1384, he exerted his utmost interest in favour of John Comberton, commonly called John of Northampton, when about to be re-chosen mayor of London. Comberton was a reformer on WicklifFs principles, and so obnoxious on that account to the clergy, that they stirred up a commotion on his re-election, which the king was
| obliged to quell by force. The consequence was, that some lives were lost, Comberton was imprisoned, and strict search was made after Chaucer, who contrived to escape first to Hainault, then to France, and finally to Zealand. The date of his flight has not been ascertained, but it was no doubt upon this occasion that he lost his place in the customs.

While in Zealand, he maintained some of his countrymen who had fled thither upon the same account, by sharing the money he brought with him, an act of liberality which soon exhausted his stock. In the mean time, the partizans of his cause, whom he left at home, contrived to make their peace, not only without endeavouring to procure a pardon for him, but without aiding him in his exile, where he became greatly distressed for want of pecuniary supplies. Such ingratitude, we may suppose, gave him more uneasiness than the consequences of it; but it did not lessen his courage, as he soon ventured to return to England. On this he was discovered, and committed to the Tower, where, after being treated with great rigour, he was promised his pardon, if he would disclose all he knew, and put it in the power of government to restore the peace of the city. His former resolution appears now to have forsaken him, or, perhaps, indignation at the ungrateful conduct of his associates induced him to think disclosure a matter of indifference. It is certain that he complied with the terms offered; but we are not told what was the amount of his confession, or what the consequences of it were to others, or who they were whom he informed against. We know only that he obtained his liberty, and that an oppressive share of blame and obloquy followed. To alleviate his regret for this treatment, and partly to vindicate his conduct, he now wrote the “Testament of Love;" and although this piece, from want of dates, and obscurity of style, is not sufficient to form a very satisfactory biographical document, it at least furnishes the preceding account of his exile and return.

The decline of the duke of Lancaster’s interest contributed not a little to aggravate the distresses of our author, and determined him to take leave of the court and its intrigues, and retire in pursuit of that happiness which his years and habits of reflection demanded. With this view it was necessary to dispose of those pensions which had been bestowed upon him in the former reign; and which, | notwithstanding his espousing a cause not very acceptable to the sovereign, had been continued to him in the present. Accordingly in May 1388, he obtained his majesty’s licence to surrender his two grants of twenty marks each, in favour of one John Scalby. After this he retired/ to his favourite Woodstock; and, according to Speght, employed a part of his time in revising and correcting his writings, and enjoying the calm pleasures of rural contemplation. It is thought that the composition of his “Canterbury Tales” was begun about this time, 1389, when he was in the sixty-first year of his age, and when, contrary to the usual progress of mind, his powers seem to have been in their fullest vigour.*


Chaucer’s fame rests chiefly on his Canterbury Tales, and Dryden’s on his Fables, both written towards the decline of life. Dryden was se venty, and Chaucer before he finished what we have of his Tales was probably not much less.

It was not long after this period that the duke of Lancaster resumed his influence at court; but whether Chaucer was enabled to profit by this reverse, or whether he had seen too much of political revolutions to induce him to quit his retreat, his biographers are doubtful. It appears, however, probable that the duke of Lancaster had it still as much in his will as in his power to befriend him; and it might be owing to his grace’s influence, that in 1389 we find him clerk of the works at Westminster; and in the following year at Windsor and other palaces: but Mr. Tyrwhitt doubts whether these offices were sufficient to indemnify him for the loss of his place in the customs. In the “Testament of Love,” he complains of “being berafte out of dignitie of office, in which he made a gatheringe of worldly godes;” and in another place he speaks of himself as “once glorious in worldly welefulnesse, and having such godes in welthe as maken men riche.” All this implies a very considerable reverse of fortune; although Speght’s tradition of his having been possessed of “lands and revenues to the yearly value almost of a thousand pounds,” remains utterly incredible.

But the king’s favour did not end with the offices just mentioned. In the seventeenth year of his reign, 1394, he granted to Chaucer a new annuity of twenty pounds; in 1398, his protection for two years; and in 1399, a pipe of wine annually. From the succeeding sovereign Henry IV. he obtained, in the year last mentioned, a confirmation | of his two grants of 20l. and of the pipe of wine, and at the same time an additional grant of an annuity of forty marks. Notwithstanding this dependent state of his affairs, some of his biographers represent him as possessed of Dunnington castle in Berkshire, which he must have purchased at the time he received the above annuity of twenty pounds; for up to that date (1394) it was in the possession of sir Richard Abberbury. Mr. Tyrwhitt remarks that the tradition which Evelyn notices in his Sylva, of an oak in Dunnington park called Chaucer’s oak, may be sufficiently accounted for, without supposing that it was planted by Chaucer himself, as the castle was undoubtedly in the hands of Thomas Chaucer for many years. During his retirement in 1391, he wrote his learned treatise on the Astrolabe, for the use of his son Lewis, who was then ten years old; and this is the only circumstance respecting his family which we have on his own or any authority that deserves credit. Leland, Bale, and Wood place this son under the tuition of his father’s friend Nicholas Strode (whom, however, they call Ralph) of Merton college, Oxford; but if Wood could trace Strode no farther than the year 1370, it is impossible he could have been the tutor of Chaucer’s son in 1391.

The accounts we have of Chaucer’s latter days are extremely inconsistent. His biographers bring him from Woodstock to Dunnington castle, and from that to London to solicit a continuation of his annuities, in which he found such difficulties as probably hastened his end. Wood, in his Annals, informs us that although he did not repent at the last of his reflections on the clergy, “yet of that he wrote of love and baudery, it grieved him much on his death-bed for one that lived shortly after his time, maketh report,*


Th. Gascoigne in 2 parte Dictionar. Theolog. p. 377. ms. “Fuit idem Chawserus pater Thomæ Chaw­ seri Armigeri, qui Thomas sepult, in Nuhelm juxta Oxcmiain.”

that when he saw death approaching, he did often cry out, ‘Woe is me, woe is me, that I cannot recall and annull those things which I have written of the base and filthy love of men towards women: but alas! they are now continued from man to man, and I cannot do what I desire’.” To this may be added, that the affecting lines “Gode Counsaile of Chaucer,” are said to have been made by him when on his death-bed, and in great anguish. | It seems generally agreed that he died Oct. 25, 1400, and was buried in Westminster-abbey, in the great south cross-aile. The monument to his memory was erected above a century and a half after his decease, by Nicholas Brigham, a gentleman of Oxford, a poet, and warm admirer of our author. It stands at the north end of a magnificent recess, formed by four obtuse foliaged arches, and is a plain altar, with three quatrefoils, and the same number of shields. The inscription, and figures on the back, are almost obliterated.

Although Chaucer has been generally hailed as the founder of English poetry and literature, the extent of the obligations which English poetry and literature owe to him has not been decidedly ascertained. The improvement he introduced in language and versification has been called in question, not only by modern but by ancient critics. The chief faults attributed to him, are the mixture of French in all his works, and his ignorance of the laws of versification. With respect to the mixture of French words and phrases in Chaucer’s writings, it must be observed that the French language was prevalent in this country several centuries before his time. Even previously to the conquest, the Normans had made it a fashion to speak French in the English court, and from thence it would naturally be adopted by the people; but after the conquest this became the case in a much greater proportion. It was a matter of policy in the conqueror to introduce his own language, and it would soon become a matter of interest in the people to acquire it. We uniformly find that where new settlers appear, even without the superiority of conquerors, the aborigines find it convenient to learn their language. The history of king William’s conquest and policy shows that his language must soon extend over a kingdom which he had parcelled out among his chiefs as the reward of their valour and attachment. One step which he took must above all others have contributed to naturalize the French language. He supplied all vacancies in the ecclesiastical establishment with Norman clergy; and if, with all this influence, the French language did not universally prevail, it must at least have interfered in a very considerable degree with the use of the native tongue. At schools, French and Latin were taught together in the reign of Edward III. and it was usual to make the scholars construe their Latin lessons into French, a practice which must have greatly | retarded the progress of the native tongue towards refinement. Some check, indeed, appears to have been given to this in the reign of the same sovereign; but the proceedings in parliament and the statutes continued to be promulgated in French for a far longer period.

These circumstances have been advanced to prove that Chaucer ought not to be blamed for introducing words and phrases with which his countrymen were familiar long before his time, and which they probably considered as elegancies. If Chaucer was taught at school, as other youths were, it is plain that he must have learned French while he was learning his mother tongue, and was taught to give a preference to the former by making it the vehicle of translation.

The language, therefore, in use in Chaucer’s days, among the upper classes, and by all that would be thought learned, was a Norman-Saxon dialect, introduced by the influx and influence of a court of foreigners, and spread wherever that influence extended. Journeys to France were also common, for the purposes of improvement in such accomplishments as were then fashionable, and this kind of intercourse, which is always in favour of the country visited, would perhaps tend to introduce a still greater proportion of French phraseology. But still the foundation was laid at home, in the prevailing modes of education. With respect to the progress of this mixture, and the effects of the accessions which in the course of nearly three centuries, the English language received from Normandy, the reader is referred to Mr. Tyrwhitt’s very elaborate “Essay on the Language and Versification of Chaucer,” prefixed to his edition of the” Canterbury Tales.” It appears, upon the whole, that the language of our ancestors was complete in all its parts, and had served them for the purposes of discourse, and even of composition in various kinds, long before they had any intimate acquaintance with their French neighbours.” They had therefore “no call from necessity, and consequently no sufficient inducement, to alter its original and radical constitutions, or even its customary forms.” And accordingly, notwithstanding the prevalence of the French from the causes already assigned, it is proved by Mr. Tyrwhitt that “in all the essential parts of speech, the characteristical features of the Saxon idiom were always preserved; and the crowds of French words which from time to time were | imported, were themselves made subject, either immediately, or by degrees, to the laws of that same idiom.”

As to what English poetry owes to Chaucer, Dr. Johnson has pronounced him “the first of our versifiers who wrote poetically,” and Mr. Warton has proved “that in elevation and elegance, in harmony and perspicuity of versification, he surpasses his predecessors in an infinite proportion; that his genius was universal, and adapted to themes of unbounded variety; that his merit was not less in painting familiar manners with humour and propriety, than in moving the passions, and in representing the beautiful or the grand objects of nature with grace and sublimity. In a word, that he appeared with all the lustre and dignity of a true poet, in an age which compelled him to struggle with a barbarous language, and a national want of taste; and when to write verses at all, was regarded as a singular qualification.”

The Saxons had a species of writing which they called poetry, but it did not consist of regular verses, nor was it embellished by rhime. The Normans, it is generally thought, were the first who introduced rhime or metre, copied from the Latin rythmical verses, a bastard species, which belongs to the declining period of the Latin language. To deduce the history of versification from the earliest periods is impossible, for want of specimens. Two very trifling ones only are extant before the time of Henry II. namely, a few lines in the Saxon Chronicle upon the death of William the Conqueror, and a short canticle, which, according to Matthew Paris, the blessed virgin was pleased to dictate to Godric, an hermit near Durham. In the time of Henry II. Layamon, a priest, translated chiefly from the French of Wace, a fabulous history of the Britons, entitled Le Brut, which Wace himself, about 1155, had translated from the Latin of Geffry of Monmouth. In this there are a number of short verses, of unequal lengths, but exhibiting something like rhime. But so common was it to write whatever was written, in French or Latin, that another century must be passed over before we come to another specimen of English poetry, if we except the Ormulum,*


A paraphrase on the Gospel histories, written by one Orme or Ormin.

and a moral piece upon old age, &c.

A specimen of this is given in Dr. Johnson’s Introduction to his Dictionary.

noticed | by Mr. Tyrwhitt, and which he conjectures to have been written earlier than the reign of Henry III.

Between the latter end of the reign of Henry III. and the time of Chaucer, the names of many English rhimers have been recovered, and many more anonymous writers, or rather translators of romances, flourished about this period; but they neither invented nor imported any improvements in the art of versification. Their labours, however, are not to be undervalued. Mr. Warton has very justly remarked, that “the revival of learning in most countries appears to have first owed its rise to translation. At rude periods the modes of original thinking are unknown, and the arts of original composition have not yet been studied. The writers, therefore, of such periods are chiefly and very usefully employed in importing the ideas of other languages into their own.” But, as many of these metrical romances were to be accompanied by music, they were less calculated for reading than recitation.

These authors, whatever their merit, were the only English poets, if the name may be used, when Chaucer appeared, and the only circumstances under which he found the poetry of his native tongue, were, that rhime was established very generally; that the metres in use were principally the long Iambic, consisting of not more than fifteen, nor less than fourteen syllables, and broken by a cæsura at the eighth syllable; the Alexandrine metre, consisting of not more than thirteen syllables, nor less than twelve, with a cæsura at the sixth; the octosyllable metre; and the stanza of six verses, of which the first, second, fourth and fifth were in complete octosyllable metre, and the third and last catalectic, i.e. wanting a syllable, or even two.

Such were the precedents which a new poet might be expected to follow. But Chaucer composed nothing in the first or second of these four metres. In the fourth he wrote only the Rhime of sir Thopas, which being intended to ridicule the vulgar romances, seems to have been purposely written in their favourite metre. In the third, or octosyllable metre ,*


So called by Mr. Tyrwhitt, (whose opinions are chiefly followed on this subject) from what he apprehends to have been its original form, in which, although it often consists of nine, and sometimes of ten syllables, the eighth is always the last accented syllable.

he wrote several of his compositions, particularly an imperfect translation of the Roman de la Rose, | the House of Fame, the Dethe of the Duchesse Blanche, and his Dreme, all which are so superior to the versification of his contemporaries and predecessors, as to establish his pre-eminence, and prove that the reformer of English poetry had at length appeared.

But the most considerable part of his works entitle him to the honour of an inventor. They are written in the heroic metre, and there is no evidence of any English poet having used it before him. He is not indeed to be considered as the inventor in the most extensive sense, as the heroic metre had been cultivated by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccace, but he was the first to introduce it into his native language, in which it has been employed by every poet of eminence, to the present day.

The age of Chaucer had little of what we now understand by refinement. The public shows and amusements were splendid and sumptuous. They had all somewhat of a dramatic air; at their tournaments and carousals the principal personages acted parts, with some connection of story, borrowed from the events, and conducted according to the events and manners of chivalry. But the national manners and habits were barbarous, unless where the restraints of religion repressed public licentiousness; and, with respect to taste, the spectacles in which the higher orders indulged, were such as would not now be tolerated perhaps even at a fair. What influence they had on public decency, it is difficult to ascertain. In Chaucer’s time there was indeed no public, because there was little or nothing of that communication of sentiment and feeling which we owe to the invention of printing.

In such an age, it is the highest praise of Chaucer, that he stood alone, the first poet who improved the art by melody, fancy, and sentiment, and the first writer, whether we consider the quantity, quality, or variety of his productions. It is supposed that many of his writings are lost. What remain, however, and have been authenticated with tolerable certainty, must have formed the occupation of a considerable part of his life, and been the result of copious reading and reflection. Even his translations are mixed with so great a portion of original matter as, it may be presumed, required time and study, and those happy hours of inspiration, which are not always within command. The principal obstruction to the pleasure we should otherwise derive from Chaucer’s works, is | that profusion of allegory which pervades them, particularly the “Romaunt of the Rose,” the “Court of Love,” “Flower and Leaf,” and the “House of Fame.” Pope, in the first edition of*his Temple of Fame, prefixed a note in defence of allegorical poetry, the propriety of which cannot be questioned, but which is qualified with an exception which applies directly to Chaucer. “The incidents by which allegory is conveyed, should never be spun too long, or too much clogged with trivial circumstances, or little particularities.” But this is exactly the case with Chaucer, whose allegories are spun beyond all bounds, and clogged with many trivial and unappropriate circumstances.

For upwards of seventy years after the death of Chaucer, his works remained in manuscript. Mr. Tyrwhitt enumerates twenty-six manuscripts which he had an opportunity of consulting in the various public and private libraries of London, Oxford, Cambridge, &c. but of all these he is inclined to give credit to only five. Caxton, the first English printer, selected Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” as one of the earliest productions of his press, but happened to copy a very incorrect manuscript. This first edition is supposed by Mr. Ames to have been printed in 1475 or 1476. There are only two complete copies extant, one in his majesty’s library, and another in that of Merton-college, both without preface or advertisement. About six years after, Caxton printed a second edition, and in his preface apologized for the errors of the former. No perfect copy of this edition is known. Ames mentions an edition “collected by William Caxton, and printed by Wynken de Worde, 1495, folio,” but the existence of this is doubtful. Pynson printed two editions; the first, it is conjectured, in 1491, and the second in 1526, which was the first in which a collection of some other pieces of Chaucer was added to the Canterbury Tales. Ames notices editions in 1520 and 1522, but had not seen them, nor are they now known. In 1532 an edition was printed by Thomas Godfrey, and edited by Mr. Thynne, which Mr. Tyrwhitt informs us, was considered, notwithstanding its many imperfections, as the standard edition, and was copied, not only by the booksellers, in their several editions of 1542, 1546, 1555, and 1561, but also by Mr. Speght, in 1597 and 1602. Speght’s edition was reprinted in 1687, and in 1721 | appeared Mr. Urry’s, who, while he professed to compare a great many manuscripts, took such liberties with his author’s text as to render this by far the worst edition ever published.

There is an interleaved copy of Urry’s edition in the British Museum, presented by Mr. William Thomas, a brother of Dr. T. Thomas, who furnished the preface and glossary, and upon whom the charge of publishing devolved after Mr. Urry’s death. This copy has many manuscript notes and corrections. From one of them we learn that the life of Chaucer was very incorrectly drawn up by Mr. Dart, and corrected and enlarged by Mr. William Thomas; and from another, that bishop Atterbury prompted Urry to this undertaking, but “did by no means judge rightly of Mr. Urry’s talents in this case, who though in many respects a most worthy person, was not qualified for a work of this nature.” Dr. Thomas undertook to publish it, at the request of bishop Smalridge. In the Harleian collection is a copy of an agreement between William Brome, executor to Urry, the dean and chapter of Christ Church, and Bernard Lintot the bookseller. By this it appears that it was Urry’s intention to apply part of the profits towards building Peckwater quadrangle. Lintot was to print a thousand copies on small paper at 1l. 10s. and two hundred and fifty on large paper at 2l. 10s. It does not appear that this speculation succeeded. Yet the edition, from its having been printed in the Roman letter, the copiousness of the glossary, and the ornaments, &c. continued to be the only one consulted, until the publication of the “Canterbury Tales” by Mr. Tyrwhitt, in 1775. This very acute critic was the first who endeavoured to restore a pure text by the collation of Mss. a labour of vast extent, but which must be undertaken even to greater extent, before the other works of Chaucer can be published in a manner worthy of their author. Mr Warton laments that Chaucer has been so frequently considered as an old, rather than a good poet; and recommends the study of his works. Mr. Tyrwhitt, since this advice was given, has undoubtedly introduced Chaucer to a nearer intimacy with the learned public, but it is not probable that he can ever be restored to popularity. His language will still remain an insurmountable obstacle with that numerous class of readers to whom poets must look for universal reputation. Poetry is | the art of pleasing; but pleasure, as generally understood, admits of very little that deserves the name of study. 1


Johnsen and Chalmers’s English Poets, 1810.—Biog. Brit.—Tyrwhitt’s Canterbury Tales.—Ellis’s Specimens.—Warton’s Hist. of English Poetry; see Index.