This epic poem of the 8th century is in Anglo-Saxon, now more usually described as Old English. It is incomprehensible to a reader familiar only with modern English. Even so, there is a continuous linguistic development between the two. The most significant turning point, from about 1100, is the development of Middle English – differing from Old English in the addition of a French vocabulary after the Norman conquest. French and Germanic influences subsequently compete for the mainstream role in English literature.
The French poetic tradition inclines to lines of a regular metrical length, usually linked by rhyme into couplets or stanzas. German poetry depends more on rhythm and stress, with repeated consonants (alliteration) to bind the phrases. Elegant or subtle rhymes have a courtly flavour. The hammer blows of alliteration are a type of verbal athleticism more likely to draw applause in a hall full of warriors.
Both traditions achieve a magnificent flowering in England in the late 14th century, towards the end of the Middle English period. Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain are masterpieces which look back to Old English. By contrast Chaucer, a poet of the court, ushers in a new era of English literature.
Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain: 14th century AD
Of these two great English alliterative poems, the second is entirely anonymous and the first virtually so. The narrator of Piers Plowman calls himself Will; occasional references in the text suggest that his name may be Langland. Nothing else, apart from this poem, is known of him.
Piers Plowman exists in three versions, the longest amounting to more than 7000 lines. It is considered probable that all three are by the same author. If so he spends some twenty years, from about 1367, adjusting and refining his epic creation.
Piers the ploughman is one of a group of characters searching for Christian truth in the complex setting of a dream. Though mainly a spiritual quest, the work also has a political element. It contains sharply observed details of a corrupt and materialistic age (Wycliffe is among Langland’s English contemporaries).
Where Piers Plowman is tough and gritty, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (dating from the same period) is more polished in its manner and more courtly in its content. The characters derive partly from Arthurian legend.
A mysterious green knight arrives one Christmas at the court of King Arthur. He invites any knight to strike him with an axe and to receive the blow back a year later. Gawain accepts the challenge. He cuts off the head of the green knight, who rides away with it.
The rest of the poem concerns Gawain, a year later, at the green knight’s castle. In a tale of love (for the green knight’s wife) and subsequent deceit, Gawain emerges with little honour. The green knight spares his life but sends him home to Arthur’s court wearing the wife’s girdle as a badge of shame.
Geoffrey Chaucer at court: AD 1367-1400
In 1367 one of four new ‘yeomen of the chamber’ in the household of Edward III is Geoffrey Chaucer, then aged about twenty-seven. The young man’s wife, Philippa, is already a lady-in-waiting to the queen.
A few years later Chaucer becomes one of the king’s esquires, with duties which include entertaining the court with stories and music. There can rarely have been a more inspired appointment. Chaucer’s poems are designed to be read aloud, in the first instance by himself. Their range, from high romance to bawdy comedy, is well calculated to hold the listeners spellbound. Courtly circles in England are his first audience.
Chaucer’s public career is one of almost unbroken success in two consecutive reigns. He undertakes diplomatic missions abroad on behalf of the king; he is given administrative posts, such as controlling the customs, which bring lodgings and handsome stipends. Even occasional disasters (such as being robbed twice in four days in 1390 and losing £20 of Richard II’s money) do him no lasting harm.
A measure of Chaucer’s skill as a courtier is that during the 1390s, when he is in the employment of Richard II, he also receives gifts at Christmas from Richard’s rival, Bolingbroke.
When Bolingbroke unseats Richard II in 1399, taking his place on the throne as Henry IV, Chaucer combines diplomacy and wit to secure his position. Having lost his royal appointments, he reminds the new king of his predicament in a poem entitled ‘The Complaint of Chaucer to his Empty Purse’. The last line of each verse begs the purse to ‘be heavy again, or else must I die’. Henry IV hears the message. The court poet is given a new annuity.
Henry is certainly aware that he is keeping in his royal circle a poet of great distinction. Chaucer’s reputation is such that, when he dies in the following year, he is granted the very unusual honour – for a commoner – of being buried in Westminster abbey.
Troilus and Criseyde: AD 1385
Chaucer’s first masterpiece is his subtle account of the wooing of Criseyde by Troilus, with the active encouragement of Criseyde’s uncle Pandarus. The tender joys of their love affair are followed by Criseyde’s betrayal and Troilus’s death in battle.
Chaucer adapts to his own purposes the more conventionally dramatic account of this legendary affair written some fifty years earlier by Boccaccio (probably read by Chaucer when on a mission to Florence in 1373). His own very long poem (8239 lines) is written in the early 1380s and is complete by 1385.
Chaucer’s tone is delicate, subtle, oblique – though this does not prevent him from introducing and gently satirising many vivid details of life at court, as he guides the reader through the long psychological intrigue by which Pandarus eventually delivers Troilus into Criseyde’s bed.
The charm and detail of the poem, giving an intimate glimpse of a courtly world, is akin to the delightful miniatures which illustrate books of hours of this period in the style known as International Gothic. Yet this delicacy is only one side of Chaucer’s abundant talent – as he soon proves in The Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales: AD 1387-1400
Collections of tales are a favourite literary convention of the 14th century. Boccaccio’s Decameron is the best-known example before Chaucer’s time, but Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales outshines his predecessors. He does so in the range and vitality of the stories in his collection, from the courtly tone of ‘The Knight’s Tale’ to the rough and often obscene humour of those known technically as fabliaux.
He does so also in the detail and humour of the framework holding the stories together. His account of the pilgrims as they ride from London to Canterbury, with their constant bickering and rivalry, amounts to a comic masterpiece in its own right.
The pilgrims, thirty of them including Chaucer himself, gather one spring day at the Tabard in Southwark. The host of the inn, Harry Bailly, is a real contemporary of Chaucer’s (his name features in historical records). He will act as their guide on the route to Canterbury and he proposes that they pass the time on their journey by telling stories. Each pilgrim is to tell two on the way out and two on the way back. Whoever is judged to have told the best tale will have a free supper at the Tabard on their return.
Of this ambitious total of 120 stories, Chaucer completes only 24 by the time of his death. Even so the collection amounts to some 17,000 lines – mainly of rhyming verse, but with some passages of prose.
The pilgrims represent all sections of society from gentry to humble craftsmen (the only absentees are the labouring poor, unable to afford a pilgrimage of this kind). There are respectable people from the various classes – such as the knight, the parson and the yeoman – but the emphasis falls mainly on characters who are pretentious, scurrilous, mendacious, avaricious or lecherous.
The pilgrims are vividly described, one by one, in Chaucer’s Prologue. The relationships between them evolve in the linking passages between the tales, as Harry Bailly arranges who shall speak next.
The pilgrims for the most part tell tales closely related to their station in life or to their personal character. Sometimes the anecdotes even reflect mutual animosities. The miller gives a scurrilously comic account of a carpenter being cuckolded. Everyone laughs heartily except the reeve, who began his career as a carpenter. The reeve gets his own back with an equally outrageous tale of the seduction of a miller’s wife and daughter.
But the pilgrim who has most delighted six centuries of readers is the five-times-married Wife of Bath, taking a lusty pleasure in her own appetites and richly scorning the ideals of celibacy.
Edmund Spenser: AD 1579-1596
Edmund Spenser, who has the greatest lyric gift of any English poet in the two centuries since Chaucer, is a graduate of Cambridge and by inclination a humanist pedant. His inspiration comes largely from a desire to rival his classical and Renaissance predecessors.
His first important work, The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), consists of twelve eclogues – a form deriving from Virgil but imitated by many subsequent writers. With one for each month of the calendar, Spenser’s eclogues cover a wide range of subjects in many metres and styles of poetry. But they are skilfully held together to form a convincing single poem within the pastoral framework.
Just as Virgil moved on from the pastoral themes of the Eclogues and Georgics to the patriotic epic of the Aeneid, so Spenser progresses to The Faerie Queene. In undertaking this ambitious project (he states in a letter to Walter Raleigh in 1590), his models have been ancient and modern poets alike – Homer and Virgil, Ariosto and Tasso.
The framework of the poem is an allegory in praise of the Faerie Queene or Gloriana (Elizabeth I), in whose interests the Red Cross knight (the Anglican church) fights to protect the virgin Una (the true religion) against the wiles of many hostile characters including the deceitful Duessa (variously the Roman Catholic church or Mary Queen of Scots).
It is evident from these details that the poem is deeply rooted in national politics of the late 16th century, and many of its allusions must have been of far greater interest to contemporary readers than to any generation since. Spenser himself is a close witness of the struggles of the time. From 1580 he is employed in the English government of Ireland. In 1588 he becomes an ‘undertaker’ in the first Elizabethan plantation, receiving the forfeited Irish estate of Kilcolman Castle.
Here he is visited in 1589 by Walter Raleigh, who is so impressed by Spenser’s readings from The Faerie Queene that he persuades the poet to accompany him to London in the hope of interesting the real queen in it.
Publication of the first three books in 1590 is followed by Elizabeth’s awarding the poet, in 1591, a pension of £50 a year. Spenser’s original scheme is for twelve books, each consisting of an adventure on behalf of Gloriana by one of her knights. In the event he completes only six, the second group of three being published in 1596.
Spenser, spinning his elaborate allegory in rural Ireland, stands at the end of a long and retrospective poetic tradition – though others will soon develop less archaic versions of the epic (as in Paradise Lost). Meanwhile something much newer and more popular is taking place in London. When Spenser is there in 1590, Christopher Marlowe is the new excitement in the city’s theatres.