Chaucer’s primary source of income came from civil service jobs and royal annuities, but he made the biggest impact in his life within the realm of literature. An enormously successful poet in his lifetime, his poetry went on to shape future of English Literature.
In addition to his extensive body of literature, his poetry made three important contributions to English literature: he wrote in the English Vernacular and he is credited with introducing iambic pentameter and the Rhyme Royal to English poetry. He is best known for The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer is the father of modern day English literature.
While old English had been the language of literature before 1066, French literature took over with the Norman invasion and remained the language of court in Chaucer’s day. The English court in the 14th century spoke primarily in French and wrote primarily in Latin. Like his contemporaries, his early poetry was strongly influenced by the French poetry tradition. He was also inspired by Ovid, his favorite Roman poet. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio influenced his poetry as well, both in style and subject.
Chaucer, however, chose to write his poetry in English instead of either French or Latin. Writing in Middle English, the vernacular as it was spoken in the 14th century, indicated a major shift in British Literature. Chaucer was a master of the language. He managed to create realistic characters and replicate a natural conversational tone within the constraints of formal poetry. While his poetry often addresses serious topics of philosophy and religion, he does so with humor.
Chaucer introduced two poetic conventions, iambic pentameter and the rhyme royal, to English poetry.
Chaucer’s poem “The Legend of Good Women” is the first known English poem to use iambic pentameter. Meter in poetry refers to the rhythm of the spoken words. Iambic Pentameter is a pattern consisting of five repetitions of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Chaucer also used iambic Pentameter in The Canterbury Tales, creating the illusion of an effortless storytelling narrative. Iambic Pentameter remains one of the most popular meters in English poetry. William Shakespeare is one of the most famous poets and playwrights to use Iambic Pentameter.
Chaucer first used the Rhyme Royal rhyming scheme in Parlement of Foules. Rhyme Royal consists of stanzas that are seven lines long, organized in an ABABBCC pattern. Chaucer drew his inspiration for Rhyme Royal from Boccaccio’s Ottava Rima, but uses the seven line variation to mix the normally serious topic of romantic love with humor, with the rigidly structured poem contrasting with the chatting birds. Chaucer went on to use the Rhyme Royal rhyming in scheme in other works, including Troilus and Criseyde and for parts of The Canterbury Tales.
William Shakespeare admired Chaucer’s writing.
Chaucer’s poetry influenced and inspired many of Great Britain’s authors, poets, and playwrights who followed him, including William Shakespeare. Shakespeare borrowed some of his stories from Chaucer’s poetry. In particular, Shakespeare drew heavily on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde for his play, Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare’s play The Two Noble Kinsmen was similarly drawn from the Knight’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.
Beyond the stories themselves, Shakespeare drew on Chaucer’s poetic techniques, including iambic pentameter and the Rhyme Royal. Perhaps most critically, however, Shakespeare learned from Chaucer’s use of language and narrative framing techniques to create strong characters with distinctive voices. Shakespeare also learned from Chaucer’s poetry to use dialogue to convey actions which translated well on the stage. Shakespeare drew on the lessons he learned from Chaucer’s poetry to push the limits of play manuscripts, making him one of Great Britain’s best playwrights.
Thus Chaucer is one of Great Britain’s most respected poets in his own right, but his influence has helped shape generations of poets, authors, and playwrights who followed.