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proof of his love. Chaucer's poems are full of allusions to the art of hawking; one of them, indeed, “The Parliament of Love” is quite devoted to that subject.
Much cannot be said for the morality of the age. The monks were too often corrupt and gluttonous hypocrites; the barons spent much of their time in feasting and fighting; and the poor, with their rough garments seldom changed by night or day, grew sullen and reckless.
A writer of those times describes a poor ploughman and his half-starved family. The man is in rags from head to foot; "his ton (toes) toteden (peeped) out,” and his oxen are so starved that men might“reckon each a rib."
Here is a touching picture, as we know the distress was real:
“ His wife walked him with
To wearen her from weathers.
A little crumb bowl.
Upon another side.
A careful * note.
Chaucer, though a close student of books (or rather manuscripts written on parchment, for books were then almost unknown), was a great lover of nature, as may casily be seen from his writings. Early poetry, like venison, has a flavor of the wild-woods; its very words are redolent of nature.
* Full of care.
Bacon says, that what we call antiquity, was really the youth of the world, and Chaucer's poetry seems to breathe of a time when humanity was younger and more joyous-hearted than it now is. “The first great poet of any country has this advantage, that he converses with Nature directly, without an interpreter, and his utterances are not. so much the echo of hers as in very deed her living voice; carrying in them a spirit as original and divine, as the music of her running brooks, or of her breezes among the leaves." For this reason Chaucer's rhymes are still the freshest and greenest in our language, disfigured as they are by the coarseness of the times and obsolete spelling.
Chaucer had a child's love for birds. Some of his best. lines are descriptions of them and their sweet songs, and he could not bear to see them imprisoned. He says:
“Where birds are fed in cages,
No gentleness of home his heart may bind." Like a child, too, he mourned over the decline of the charming illusions that, in his early days, had such power in the land. But the elf-haunted glades were so searched by the stern limitour (or friar licensed to beg within cer
tain limits) that all the fairies were driven away, and danced no more at midnight on the moonlit greensward. There is something so comically pathetic in Chaucer's way of telling of this change, that I must give you his own words :
“In olde dayes of the King Artour,
He lived in stirring times and an illustrious age, the brightest ornament of the reigns of Edward III, and Richard II., the one the ablest, and the other, perhaps, the weakest of all the English sovereigns.
WICKLIFFE, the first translator of the whole English Bible, was his contemporary, and I am sure a few words in regard to this great teacher and reformer will not be thought a useless digression.
* The Bible was to the mass of the people a sealed book, locked up in a dead and foreign tongue. Wickliffe commenced his “ Apology” for his noble work in this way: “Oh Lord God! sithin at the beginning of faith so many men translated into Latin, and to great profit of Latin men, let one simple creature of God translate into English for profit of Englishmen.” Of course, the priests raged at this innovation, and abused him without mercy. They complained that “the Gospel is made vulgar, and laid more open to the laity, and even to women who could read, than it used to be to the most learned of the clergy and those of the best understanding. And so the Gospel jewel or evangelical pearl is thrown about and trodden under foot of swine.” They openly rejoiced at his death, which occurred in 1384, and the far-famed Council of Constance, which also condemned Huss and Jerome to the stake, determined, thirty years later, to wreak their vengeance on his bones, which by their decree were taken up and burned, and the ashes thrown into the waters of a brook which runs into the Avon. A poet of a later day thus alludes to this sacrilege:
“ The Avon to the Severn runs,
The Severn to the sea,
Wide as those waters be." “Quaint old Thomas Fuller" also remarks that “the ashes of Wickliffe are the emblems of his doctrine, which are now dispersed all the world over."
From this sturdy, unconquerable, outspoken, greathearted reformer, our poet learned not only lessons of wisdom, but those religious doctrines which he ever after supported, though a Catholic by birth and education. There is much uncertainty about his early life, but we have good reason to believe that his father was a wealthy London merchant, and that his childhood was spent in that city. In the “Testament of Love,” his longest prose work, we find these words: “Also the citye of London, that is to me so dere and swete, in which I was forth growen, and more kindly love have I to that place than to any other in yerth.” He studied at Cambridge, and perhaps at Oxford also.
His first poem, “The Court of Love," was written .while at college, when only eighteen. An entry in some old register of the Inns of Court, stating that “Geoffrey Chaucer was fined two shillings for beating a Franciscane friar in Fleet Street," is the only recorded event of his supposed law studies in the Inner Temple.
In some way he obtained the patronage of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and so well played the courtier's part, as to gain honor, preferment, position, and, above all, after eight years of faithful courtship, the hand of one of Queen Philippa's maids of honor, sister-in-law to the duke.
In 1372, he was sent on an important mission to Genoa, and during this embassy visited Petrarch in Northern Italy, who told him the story of Patient Griselda," which he afterward wove into the “Canterbury Tales.”
“I woll tell a tale which that I
Enlumined all Itaille of poetrie." How pleasant, in this prosy, matter-of-fact age, to look back to the fourteenth century, and picture the meeting of those master-minds !
Chaucer's path was now onward and upward, brightened by frequent tokens of royal favor; not empty praise mêrely, but gold and silver, were generously given to the court poet by the brave old king. His cup was full of blessings, but, like other mortals, he was destined to trials and disappointment.
When King Edward died, in 1377, Chaucer lost his best friend. For several years all went well; but at last Richard quarrelled with the Duke of Lancaster, and Chaucer nobly sided with his patron. He was accused of joining in a riot in London, and was obliged to flee to the Continent. There he remained nearly two years, with his wife and children, “becoming at last almost penniless, through generosity to his fellow-exiles, and the failure of supplies from home, where his agents had treacherously