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GEOFFREY CHAUCER, the Father of English Poetry, was born in London, in 1328, and died in October, 1400, at the advanced age of seventy-two years. He was consequently the contemporary of Petrarch and Boccacio, and familiar with the stirring events of Edward III. and the Black Prince. He was a soldier and a man of the world, and mingled much in public affairs. He wrote the Dream, the Court of Love, the Flower and Leaf, Troilus and Cresseide, the House of Fame, and some other minor poems. That, however, upon which his fame chiefly rests, is the Canterbury Tales.
The plan of this poem is as follows: A company of persons of various descriptions meet by chance at the Tabard Inn, in a suburb of London, all bent on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas à Becket, at Canterbury. The Pilgrims resolve to beguile the way by requiring of each one in the company a Tale, both in going and returning. These Tales, and the characters of the narrators prefixed, form the Poem.
It was composed when the author was sixty years old, and gives the fruit of the observation and experience of a long life, by one still in the full vigour of his
powers. The characters composing the party of Pilgrims are from every walk in life, and are drawn with inimitable skill and truthfulness. The Poem therefore presents a lively picture of the age and country in which the author lived. His contemporaries and their successors were justly proud of it as a truly national work.
Chaucer's language is styled by Spencer “ the pure well of English undefiled,” and should be studied by all who wish to be acquainted with the history and resources of our mother tongue. There are two serious difficulties however in the way of any attempt to introduce portions of his poems into books intended for general circulation. These are the obsolete spelling and the obsolete words. The spelling and consequently the mode of syllabication are so different from those adopted now, that no little study and practice are required to enable a person to appreciate the rhythm. Very many words, too, are met with in Chaucer that are no longer in common use, or are used by him in a sense which they have since lost.
These subject the reader to the vexatious interruptions of a glossary. The following specimen will give some idea of the extent of this difficulty. The modernized version of the same will be found a few
pages farther on,
also magnificent imitation by Dryden in another part of the book.
A good man ther was of religioun,
Benigne he was, and wonder diligent,
Wide was his parish, and houses fer ascnuer,
He sette not his benefice to hire,