Now welcome, somer, with they sonne softe,
That hast this wintres wedres overshake,
And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!
Chaucer – excerpt from The Parliament of Birds
Author of The Canterbury Tales and the greatest English poet before Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400) is considered the Father of the English Language because his writings legitimized the literary use of English vernacular at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were French and Latin. His works varied, with topics running the gamut from fart jokes to spiritual union with God, but they consistently reflected a pervasive humor even as they explored serious philosophical questions.
Born into an affluent family, Chaucer attended school at Saint Paul’s cathedral, where he was influenced by the writings of Virgil and Ovid. As a teenager, his father secured him as a royal page – a stepping stone to knighthood and future advancement. He spent his adult as a courtier, civil servant, and diplomat. In his teens, he took part in the opening of the Hundred Years’ War, was captured, and ransomed by the king for a considerable sum.
His earliest major poem was The Book of the Duchess, an elegy to the deceased wife of John of Gaunt, son of king Edward III and father of future king Henry IV. Written in the early 1370s, it earned Chaucer a comfortable annuity from the powerful widower. He penned most of his major works between 1374 and 1386, when he was comptroller of London – a job that afforded him plenty of free time in which to write major works such as Parliament of Birds and The Legend of Good Women. It was during this period that he began his signature work, The Canterbury Tales.
He became the towering literary figure of his day, and after his death in 1400, he was the first to be buried at what became known as “Poets’ Corner” in Westminster Abbey, where literary luminaries such as Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Hardy joined him over the succeeding centuries.