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The Life and Times of Chaucer by John…
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The Life and Times of Chaucer (1977)

by John Gardner

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Is there some law somewhere that biographers of Chaucer are obliged to ignore facts?

Other reviewers have commented on what might be called the aesthetic beauty of this biography. But I can't help but wish that I could trust it. Case in point: p. 102: "King Edward, though a small man, was one of the world's greatest jousters." Small man? Best guess is that he was six feet, three inches tall -- at a time when most men were far shorter than today. Nor was Edward III's mother Isabella of France insane at the time Edward III took the throne -- nor, in fact, thereafter. I was constantly chafing as I read the book, with the result that you're reading this review....

The parts about Chaucer himself seem, based on what I can tell from other biographies of the poet, to be slightly more accurate. But I never know what to trust.

All biographies of Chaucer seem to be given to wild flights of imagination -- perhaps because the people inspired to write them are all professors of literature rather than history. But the others I've read (by Pearsall and Howard) at least seem willing to admit facts insofar as they are known. Gardner... doesn't seem to be sure what the word "fact" means.

So enjoy the book -- as the historical fiction it is. ( )
  waltzmn | Jan 19, 2014 |
Although John Gardner is best known as a novelist, he was also a professor of medieval literature at various universities including Oberlin, Northwestern and Bennington, a translator of medieval literature The Complete Works of the Gawain Poet, and a scholar. His biography of Geoffrey Chaucer, published in 1977, is a rich trove of information about not only the poet, but about 14th century English life and the Plantagenet courts of Edward III, Richard II, and, to a lesser extent of Henry IV.

It's a dense piece of chocolate cake for any lover of Chaucer. Gardner explores the poet's relationship with the mercantile life of London into which he was born and made his way; the scholarship and philosophy of the universities whose ideas he mined; the humanism of Petrarch's and Boccaccio's Italy where he went on diplomatic missions; his close friendship with John of Gaunt (more later), kingmaker and son of Edward III; and most importantly, his innovations and inventions of English poetry. Chaucer is undoubtedly, the father of English poetry -- in a century in which English was, after the Norman conquest, finally being recognized as the language of the land.

Gardner's biography is a biography written by a novelist. He speculates about what Chaucer must have thought and how he proceeded in the treacherous world of 14th c. England. Yet his speculations are grounded in serious scholarship and reflections in Chaucer's own writings. There is ample reference to his poetry to support Gardner's assertions about Chaucer's observations and experience.

Perhaps the most interesting personal relationship is that between Chaucer and John of Gaunt. They were close contemporaries -- both born about 1340 (John of Gaunt's birth is recorded, Chaucer's may have been a year or two later). Gaunt died in 1399, Chaucer in 1400.
As Duke of Lancashire, John of Gaunt was the wealthiest baron in England. The two would have met at court, probably in their late teens or early twenties, where Chaucer was in service to John's mother Queen Philippa. Chaucer's Book of the Duchess is an elegy for Gaunt's beloved first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. Eventually the two would become brothers-in-law -- Chaucer marrying Philippa Roet (who may have been Gaunt's mistress) and Gaunt marrying Philippa's sister, Katherine Swynford, his longtime mistress, and matriarch of the Beaufort line -- see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Swynford.

At any rate, Chaucer long enjoyed the patronage of the royal courts, serving as poet and reader for entertainments as well as diplomat and overseer of public works and customs. Gardner revels in Chaucer's broad scope. While recognizing him as a conservative royalist and survivor, loyal to any king in power, he definitely asserts that "Chaucer's position is clear and unvarying. He defends one virtue, charity: the good man's willingness to give the benefit of the doubt, to find some nobility in even the wretched and deplorable of men; and though he treats many vices, there is only one that he attacks ferociously, again and again: self-righteousness." ( )
3 vote janeajones | Sep 25, 2013 |
John Gardner has a passion for the poetry of Chaucer and this comes across in this well judged biography The introduction starts with the arresting opening gambit
"No poet in the whole English tradition not even Shakespeare is more appealing either as a man or as an artist than Geoffrey Chaucer."
Gardner avoids this being a mere hagiography and concentrates on the historical background. Gardner is at pains to point out that any critic of Chaucer's writing must determine what elements of the poetry are part of the general medieval style and also How Chaucers life was in accordance with the times in which he lived. he achieves this by bringing to life the late medieval period: He discusses religious thought, philosophy, chivalry and the expectation that courtiers to the king (which Chaucer was) would also be soldiers. He guides us through the diplomacy and the hard travelling that Chaucer frequently undertook on royal business.

Gardner also links events in history and Chaucer's own life to his written work, Sometimes the links are a little tenuous but always well thought through and interesting. There are plenty of excerpts from the poetry and the reader can make up his own mind.

There are of course no contemporaneous biography's of Chaucer and information about him has to be gleaned to a large extent from official documents or from Chaucer's own writing. Therefore intelligent guesses have to be made and Gardner does make it clear when he is surmising or relying on other academics conjectures.

Not only is this a very good and balanced biography with references to differing views by other scholars, but is also an excellent introduction to the history of the period. ( )
  baswood | Nov 29, 2010 |
Tends toward the impressionistic. I love the bit where he suggests Chaucer sitting in his house over Aldgate in London watching the rebellious peasants charge into London -- as though Chaucer were stupid enough to sit in his house and watch London burn around him. On the other hand, his instructions for pronouncing Middle English (in an appendix) are unrivaled for their sense and good humour.
  noramunro | Nov 11, 2005 |
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