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The World of Geoffrey Chaucer : CHAUCER His Life, His Works, His World by Donald R. Howard (E.P. Dutton: $29.95; 704 pp., illustrated)

December 20, 1987|Christopher Hibbert | Hibbert's most recent book is "The English: A Social History, 1066-1945." and

The very name of Geoffrey Chaucer, the "father of English poetry," conjures up a vivid image of the times in which he lived. Yet we know so little about him as a man that a conventional biography presents insuperable problems. Even the dates of his birth and death are not known for sure; and, in the chronology that prefaces this book, the author is obliged to qualify almost every statement concerning his subject's career. Scarcely more can be said for certain than that he was born in London in 1343, the son of a well-to-do vintner, that as a boy of about 14 he went to live in the household of a son of Edward III, that he was later taken prisoner while serving in the army in France, that he subsequently undertook various diplomatic missions on the Continent, that he entered the King's service as Esquire of the Royal Household in the 1360s and held a number of important posts under the Crown, and that he was a justice of the peace in Kent and held a seat in Parliament. He may have attended St. Paul's Cathedral School; he was possibly for a time with the army in Ireland; he perhaps studied at one of the Inns of Court; he might have raped one Cecily Champain after marrying Philippa Roet, by whom he probably had three children; on one of his visits to Italy he conceivably met Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the "Decameron," by whose work he was evidently influenced.

Daunted by the task of gleaning verifiable fact from so bewildering a thicket of surmise, Donald R. Howard once declared that "no real biography" of Chaucer could ever be written. "We do not know enough. To have a biography, even a 'portrait,' we need to know about a man's family and education, his marriage and domestic life, his beliefs, his attitudes, his friends, his work and amusements"; and such information as can be acquired about those of Chaucer are too scanty as material for the biographer's art. Gradually Howard changed his mind; but although he calls his book "Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World," it must be said that it is in his interpretation of Chaucer's works and world rather than in his necessarily sketchy account of his life that the merits of the book must be sought.

Fortunately, we now know enough of Chaucer's world to understand the background of his work. He was old enough in 1348-'49 to remember in adult life the horrors of the Black Death; he also witnessed the Peasants' Revolt; he knew at first hand what it was like to live as a page in a great castle--the cold rising from bed as soon as the sun came up, the attendance at chapel for Mass, breakfast of bread soaked in wine, Latin lessons with the family's chaplain, riding, shooting and dancing lessons with a trusted knight, the setting of places at the long trestle tables in the hall and the heavy, highly spiced and brightly colored meals eaten to the music of minstrels, the study of books of courtesy, lively games after dinner, splendid jousts and tournaments beneath the castle walls, illicit dalliances with servant girls.

All this, and his later experiences of life, provided rich material for Chaucer's verse; and in his discussion and interpretation of the verse Howard excels himself. Some of his more fastidious readers may regret his occasional anachronistic colloquialisms, his "sexpots" and "mugshots," his elisions, his sometimes verbless sentences; but he is clearly master of his material and has written a compelling and illuminating book that can be read with profit by the student and with pleasure by all. Particularly acute is his analysis of Chaucer's masterpiece, "The Canterbury Tales," through whose pages pass that fascinating band of pilgrims, a perfect microcosm of 14th-Century society. Among them rides the knight in his fustian tunic stained and dark with smudges where his armor had left its mark; the young squire who "loved so hotly that, till dawn grew pale, he slept as little as the nightingale;" the threadbare Oxford cleric; the wary lawyer; the grasping doctor; the bold and bossy, five-times-married woman from Bath; the kindly parson and his brother; the poor and honest ploughman; and the dreadful miller, boastful, rough and coarse whose "Mighty mouth was like a furnace door. A wrangler and buffoon, he had a store of tavern stories, filthy in the main. He was a master hand at stealing grain." And, as these marvelously realized characters pass before our eyes, they close the gap of centuries and take us into the heart of the medieval world.

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