Geoffrey Chaucer is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to have been buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. While he achieved fame during his lifetime as an author, philosopher, alchemist and astronomer, composing a scientific treatise on the astrolabe for his ten-year-old son Lewis, Chaucer also maintained an active career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier, and diplomat. Among his many works, which include The Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, the Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde, he is best known today for The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is a crucial figure in developing the legitimacy of the vernacular, Middle English, at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were French and Latin. Chaucer’s major work,The Book of the Duchess, was an elegy of Blanche of Lancaster (who died in 1369).
A possible indication that his career as a writer was appreciated came when Edward III granted Chaucer “a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life” for some unspecified task. This was an unusual grant, but given on a day of celebration, St. George’s Day, 1374, when artistic endeavours were traditionally rewarded, it is assumed to have been another early poetic work. It is not known which, if any, of Chaucer’s extant works prompted the reward, but the suggestion of him as a poet to a king places him as a precursor to later poets laureate.
Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the greatest poets of England, is also regarded as the father of English literature and represents the two conflicting worlds—the Medieval and the Renaissance. During those dark years, when the light of modernism was not yet visible on the horizon, Chaucer anticipated the modem taste and the modern mind and his poetry introduced qualities far in advance of his times. His poetry reflects the medieval spirit as well as that of the Italian Renaissance, which was making its first influence felt in the England of his times.
With Chaucer, English literature systematically developed. He fitted by both natural genius and the circumstances of his life to become the most technically accomplished, the most wide ranging and the most universally appealing of medieval English writers, and indeed, one of the most skillful and attractive of English writers of any period. He was the first great English poet, who combined the French and the Italian streams of literature and brought forth a type of poetry unrivalled in its sunny realism. Chaucer’s modernism is best reflected in his realism. He reflects the real life of the England of his day. The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is an epitome of 14th century England; with great force and realism he has painted the life and people of his times. His portrayal of character is quite realistic; with a few deft touches, he brings his characters to life. They are individuals as well as types. His twenty nine pilgrims come from all the different classes, peoples and professions of his time and find a vivid expression in his poetry.
The major break of Chaucer from his medievalism is his dissociation from the medieval religious dogmas. Ecclesiastic ideas and medieval habits of the mind were still the controlling elements in Chaucer’s period, but in him their sway is broken by the spirit of Italian Renaissance. He is the morning star of Renaissance and it is through him that its free, secular spirit expresses itself in English poetry. He loves human nature, including all its weakness and takes a frank joy in the good things of life. He is aware of the corruption in the churches, but nowhere lashes it fiercely as does Langland. His wide sympathy, gentle humanity, tolerance etc. make him really the first of the great moderns. His humour is the expression of his joy in life and of his wide sympathy and tolerance. Humour is also present in the predecessors and contemporaries of Chaucer, but in them only occasionally and fitful flashes of humour are found. Humour is the life and blood of Chaucer’s work. His humour is multi-sided and all-pervasive. He never lashes bitterly at folly or vice, but ever looks on and smiles.
Chaucer is also a great linguistic contributor. By emancipating himself from the foreign influences and by using his own native language as the medium for his art, he became the pioneer for modern English poetry. He found English a dialect and left it a language. While all others of his age were local or provincial, he alone is national. He is the first national poet of England, for he gave to the people a language, so reformed and reshaped as to be a potent instrument for the expression of thought. Similarly, Chaucer is one of the most musical of all English poets. His English looks very difficult at first, but it can easily be mastered with a little perseverance. He struck a modern note when he abandoned altogether the old English irregular lines and alliteration and adopted the French method or regular motto and end rhymes. Under his influence, rhyme regularly displaced alliteration in English poetry. He discarded complicated stanza form for the first time, in his verse, and achieved simplicity and freedom, which is the characteristic note of modern English poetry.
His descriptions are masterpieces. Chaucer’s best descriptions of men, manners and places, when giving details of a conventional spring morning and flowery gardens, have a vivacity that makes his poetry unique. He takes joy in the beauty of nature, as he did in life and in the company of his fellow men. His descriptions of the countryside are, to some extent, things of tradition only. But he has a real nature, particularly of the spring.
Chaucer’s realism, his characterisation, his rejection of, medieval conventions, his love for life and last but not least, his service to the English language and versification—all give him the title of “the father of English poetry”. At once, he marks the culmination of the medieval spirit and initiation of the, yet-to-come Renaissance spirit.