Chaucer And His Times -- By: M. P. Case

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 011:42 (Apr 1854)
Article: Chaucer And His Times
Author: M. P. Case

Chaucer And His Times

M. P. Case

Mr. Addison has somewhere said, that “a reader seldom peruses a book till he knows whether the author of it be a black or a fair man; of a mild or choleric disposition; married or bachelor, with other particulars of the like nature that conduce very much to the right understanding of an author.” Whether we accept the assertion and adopt the implied conclusion or not, it is a fact that, in seeking for a life of many of the imperial geniuses of the world, we are obliged to reverse this process and read their biography chiefly in their works. Of Homer we know neither how nor where he lived nor when he died. Very little of outward biography has come to us of most of the great poets of antiquity; and, even in respect to Shakspeare, the most of his external life seems to have got equally beyond the research of the antiquary and the industry of the historian. How intense, indeed, would be our interest in the details of his early life, and that succession of years which intervened between his marriage and his flight to London, where his

genius first became known to the world. A life of Shakspeare, as full and reliable as Mr. Lockhart has given us of Scotland’s great novelist, would be the book for its time, in the English language. But while the works of the great bard are everywhere known, read and admired, in every language which has a literature in Christendom, the bard himself stands before us a dim and shadowy form, as much almost a mythical character as a historical reality.

Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English verse, is no exception to this unfortunate rule. While of his writings no inconsiderable amount has come down to our day, all that we are sure of respecting his external life and relations, may be brought within the compass of a few pages. The man Chaucer, as he lived and moved among men, — the courtier, the citizen, the poet, — we would fain behold with more distinctness than veritable history will at present allow. His contemporaries are provokingly silent respecting him. Even Sir John Froissart, himself a poet who must have known him well, hardly mentions his name, though inclined to gossip of every body whom he knew. Was the aristocratic old canon jealous of his brother poet? Or, what is more probable, did he purposely pretend ignorance of the man who did not scruple to satirize the corrupt ecclesiastics of his time?

As he has told us himself, he was a native of London; and, as the inscription on his tomb in Westminster Abbey tells us, he was born in 1328, one year after the accession of Edward III, whose long and eventful reign is distinguished in English history. His father has been supposed to have been a merchant, which, i...

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