By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) is the most famous English writer of the Middle Ages. Although he was by no means the only celebrated poet of his time – we should mention William Langland, the Gawain poet, and John Gower, just for starters – Chaucer is the writer whose work had the broadest range, writing dream poems, long narrative poems about doomed love affairs, royal commissions, translations, and even early works of science writing (his ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’, supposedly written for his son Lewis, is perhaps the first work of popular science written for children).
And then, of course, there’s the vast ragbag that is the unfinished Canterbury Tales.
Here are ten of Chaucer’s best works.
I have gret wonder, be this lyght,
How that I live, for day ne nyght
I may nat slepe wel nigh noght,
I have so many an ydel thoght
Purely for defaute of slepe
That, by my trouthe, I take no kepe
Of nothing, how hit cometh or gooth,
Ne me nis nothing leef nor looth …
We begin this pick of Chaucer’s best works with an early work from around 1370, when Chaucer was still probably only in his late twenties. Sometimes known by the alternative title The Deth of Blaunche, this poem is an example of the dream-vision, a popular genre in medieval poetry. It was written for John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, following the death of his wife Blanche, probably from the Black Death, in 1368.
The poem opens with a speaker, suffering from insomnia, announcing that he has lost all feeling because of his lack of sleep. Something is on his mind. After reading Ovid, he falls asleep (an experience many classically educated schoolchildren may readily identify with), and experiences the dream which makes up the main section of the poem.
2. ‘The Parliament of Fowls’.
For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thynke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place …
This is another early work, thought to date from around 1382. It has a curious link with the establishment of Valentine’s Day as a romantic date in the calendar.
The poem features a parliament, or assembly, of birds, which have gathered together in order to choose their mates.
God turne us every dreem to gode!
For hit is wonder, by the rode,
To my wit, what causeth swevenes
Either on morwes, or on evenes;
And why the effect folweth of somme,
And of somme hit shal never come;
Why that is an avisioun,
And this a revelacioun …
Although it’s nowhere near as long as The Canterbury Tales, The House of Fame is still a substantial work, in which the poet falls asleep and dreams he’s in a glass temple adorned with images of glorious and famous people from history (including the poets Ovid and Virgil). This prompts Chaucer to consider what fame actually is, and the relationship between poets and fame.
The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!
After The Canterbury Tales (of which more below), this is Chaucer’s greatest achievement: a long narrative poem, written in rhyme royal stanzas, detailing the doomed love affair between the Trojan prince Troilus and the beautiful woman Cressida during the Trojan War.
A number of scholars believe that this, rather than the next item on this list, is Chaucer’s best work, and it’s certainly a more polished, even, and complete work (well, he never completed the next one!). As with a number of the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s source for this story was the Italian writer Boccaccio, but Chaucer worked the tale of tragic love into great English poetry.
Not so much one poem as a whole series of poems, The Canterbury Tales was begun in the mid-1380s and remained unfinished upon Chaucer’s death in 1400. To begin exploring the sheer range and scope of Chaucer’s eclectic compilation, begin at the beginning with his General Prologue, in which he sets the scene – a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St Thomas Becket – and introduces his cast of colourful characters, including a monk, knight, miller, reeve, manciple, prioress, nun’s priest, and, of course, the Wife of Bath …
But of course, The Canterbury Tales is vast, so in the remainder of this pick of Chaucer’s best works we’ll break down that huge work into five shorter works …
6. ‘The General Prologue’.
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne …
Okay, so this isn’t one of the tales, but it is part of The Canterbury Tales and is obviously the best place to start reading, since it opens the work. It also offers a rich and colourful picture of fourteenth-century English life and the various people found in the new society that was being formed in the wake of the Black Death in the 1340s. The descriptions of the pilgrims taking part in the tale-telling contest are brilliantly vivid, illuminating, and entertaining.
7. ‘The Knight’s Tale’.
The inspiration for William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s play The Two Noble Kinsmen (and, more recently, for the title of a 2001 film starring Heath Ledger, and featuring Paul Bettany playing Chaucer), this tale kicks off the storytelling competition among the pilgrims. A story of rivalry (between two Athenians, Palamon and Arcite) and love, its pure, straight-faced nature prompts the Miller to tell his tale of bawdy high-jinks that follows.
8. ‘The Miller’s Tale’.
Perhaps the most famous – and best-loved – of all of the tales in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is told as a comic corrective following the sonorous seriousness of the Knight’s tale. The tale is an example of the fabliau or comic skit, and concerns a lecherous young student at the University of Oxford, Nicholas, and his adulterous relationship with Alison, the young wife of an old carpenter. Flood warnings, farting, and frantic ark-building all ensue, in one of the great jewels in the comic crown of medieval literature.
We have analysed this tale here.
9. ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’.
The Wife of Bath is more famous as a character in The Canterbury Tales than her tale, which is a tale set in Arthurian England. After he violates a maiden, a young knight is sent away to undergo his penance, tasked with finding out what it is that women want. If he fails, he will be killed. He meets an ugly hag who promises to tell him the answer – but only if he agrees to grant her a favour in exchange. He agrees to her terms, and – well, we won’t give away what the hag’s answer is.
10. ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’.
The Canterbury Tales is huge fun (as long as you skip the overlong and overly religious Parson’s Tale). And some of the tales even see Chaucer having fun writing about animals. Another genre here: this time, the medieval ‘beast fable’, featuring Chaunticleer the rooster, who, having been kidnapped by a fox (modelled on Reynard the Fox from French literature), devises a plan to escape.
You can find all of the above works by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Riverside Chaucer: Reissued with a new foreword by Christopher Cannon – the book that no fan or student of Chaucer’s work should be without! A vast book, it contains lots of helpful notes and information about each Chaucer work.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.