Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the most influential poets in the history of literature and his poetry has survived hundreds of years. We discussed his life in an earlier blog, Authors, Poets, & Playwrights: Geoffrey Chaucer. Today we want to discuss the incredible works that he created.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s primary source of income came from his service to three different English Kings. Today, however, he is best remembered for his writing. He wrote a number of translations from French and Latin. These translations influenced his own writing later.
He occasionally wrote prose, including two sections of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer even wrote a scientific paper, A Treatise on the Astrolabe, which he dedicated to his son Lewis. Poetry, however, was his forte making him one of England’s greatest poets.
Chaucer’s many works of poetry had great impact and were popular even during his time.
Chaucer wrote in an era when books were copied by hand. His work was so popular and respected, though, that much of his writing has survived. The Middle English that Chaucer spoke and wrote was very different from English as it was spoken even in Shakespeare’s day 200 years later, let alone English today. While it has some similarities to modern English, the language had yet to undergo some important evolutionary changes. As a result, many publications today include modern translations of the original language.
Most of his work is a blend of humor, philosophy, and religion. He often contrasted secular life and joys with the divine, exploring the intersection of earthly love and joys, faith, and holy love. And while I can’t review them all, I have chosen to focus on four of his poems. These are The Book of the Duchess, Parlement of Foules, Troilus and Creseyde, and The Canterbury Tales. I picked these so we could show the range of his writing over the course of his life.
The Book of the Duchess was Chaucer’s first major poem.
John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, asked Chaucer to compose the poem in memory of his wife Blanche, who died of the plague in 1368. Chaucer drew his inspiration for the long poem from both French and Roman poetry traditions. In it, Chaucer uses a first person narrative and dream allegories in a new and innovative manner.
The poem merges the fantastical dream elements with a philosophical and religious contemplation. It remembers the Duchess and offers consolation to the Duke. Even in this early work, readers can see Chaucer’s skillful manipulation of language.
Parlement of Foules
Chaucer wrote the Parlement of Foules, sometimes called The Parliament of Birds in 1381. Many scholars claim that he wrote it in honor the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. Like The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer employed a dream allegory to frame his story.
In Parlement of Foules, Chaucer used a gathering of birds choosing their mates as an allegory for an exploration of courtly love across the social classes. Gathering together before Nature on St. Valentine’s Day, the birds would choose their mates. This is the first known reference that associates St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love.
As the birds sought to persuade the mate of their choosing, they broke into an energetic debate. This debate, very characteristic of Chaucer, combined philosophy with humor.
While Parlement of Foules is one of Chaucer’s earlier works, it marked a shift in his writing. He drew extensively from both Boccaccio and Dante. The chattering Parliament of Birds, from which the poem got its name, is largely original to him. It has thematic elements in common with his later works, particularly the nature of love.
The birds, each representing different characters from different social classes, have their own distinctive voice. Later in The Canterbury Tales and some of his other poetry you get to see how this developed. It became a hallmark of his work.
Troilus and Creseyde
Written in the mid 1380s, many consider Chaucer’s Troilus and Creseyde his best work (Biography.com Editors 2019). Chaucer based this poem on Filostrato by Boccaccio. Troilus and Creseyde is the tragic tale of two lovers during the Trojan war. Troilus, the son of the Trojan king, falls in love with the Grecian Criseyde. They are separated when Creseyde goes to her father in the Greek camps. Though she had promised to return, Creseyde falls in love with another Greek instead. The despairing Troilus is killed in battle.
Chaucer merges the romantic tragedy with religious philosophy. In it he explores the concepts of free will, determinism, and the comparison between earthly and Godly love. Chaucer’s experiences while serving on the 1386 Parliament likely influenced his version of the story. Unlike the sources he based his poem on, he places the responsibility for the decision on the exchange of Greek prisoners on Parliament rather than the king. He talks quite a bit about how parliament overruled the power of the king.
The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer’s best known work, is The Canterbury Tales. It isa collection of tales Chaucer wrote in the 1390s, near the end of his life. The Canterbury Tales is his largest and most ambitious project. The pilgrims have gathered to travel to the shrine of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, Kent.
The poem starts with a general introduction where the pilgrims meet and agree to the storytelling competition. Then The Canterbury Tales consist of 24 stories. These stories are connected by short narratives of the pilgrims interacting with each other.
Chaucer drew his inspiration for the structure of The Canterbury Tales from Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Unlike The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales has storytellers from across the social classes. This construction and mixed cast of characters let Chaucer explore a wide range of story types, from sermons to courtly romance to bawdy tales.
The storytellers interact both between the stories but also in the stories themselves. They use the stories to respond to the previous teller’s tale. Chaucer’s initial plan was for a total of 120 stories, but it was never finished. It is not entirely clear what order Chaucer had intended the existing stories be organized. As a result, some of the tales are fragmented. Despite this, Chaucer’s incredible skill with language and his hallmark cleverness and humor have resulted in the enduring popularity of The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer’s legacy and poetry endure through time.
800 years later, Chaucer’s incredible skill with language and his realistic characters still thrive. His unique blend of religion and philosophy with humor allow his writing to continue to appeal to modern readers. Today he is taught to students around the world. Both school children and adults memorize the first stanza of The Canterbury Tales. He is one of our favorite authors and we hope you enjoy him as well.
Want to know more about Chaucer and his poetry, check our these posts, too!
- Authors, Poets, and Playwrights: Geoffrey Chaucer
- The Poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer
- Geoffrey Chaucer: His Impact on English Literature