Chaucer: 1340-1400: The Life And Times Of The First English Poet, by Richard West
This book leaves one with a somewhat ambivalent feeling about Chaucer, and it likely reflects some ambivalence on the part of the author himself. Containing a great deal of quotation from the author’s writings and translations–and with Chaucer, the line between the two is always challenging because of the way that he openly acknowledged his plagiarism  of earlier writers–the book also looks at some of the more unsavory aspects of the author’s life. While the author is in praise of Chaucer’s sunniness and wit and his ability to always look at the bright side of life, the author also notes that Chaucer appears to have taken the anti-Semitic blood libel seriously and passed it along in one of his stories while also engaging in behavior with younger women that left him open to at least one public rape accusation. Like many creative and talented people, Chaucer was a complicated one and wrestling with his life is more complicated than it would be for many, especially since he left his views implicit on some of the more notable political and social matters of his day that people want to enlist him as a backer for their own views today.
This biography follows a rather conventional course from the author’s birth to his death and, as it promises in its subtitle, looks not only at Chaucer’s life and times but also the context of those lives in the greater society. In the case of Chaucer, that context includes a particularly rich one, from the quickly forgotten horrors of the Black Death during his childhood to the celebrated horrors of the Hundred Years’ War and the conflict between the Papacy and its opponents in Italy that encouraged violence by mercenaries, to conflicts about feminism, about taxation without representation in war-torn England, and about the preaching of John Wycliffe and his supporters. As Chaucer appears to have shared many of the concerns of the Lollards, and was a known and public supporter of ousted King Richard II and his loyal uncle John of Gaunt, towards the end of the life he was in considerable danger over high politics. The author spends a great deal of time, though, looking at Chaucer as a landmark English writer, a poet whose personal reticence and complacent attitude towards life helped form the stereotypical view of English writers to the present day, including Wodehouse and the writers from Monty Python, one of whom is critiqued for his attempts to enlist Chaucer as a pacifist.
Someone who reads this book fairly will find much to enjoy and appreciate, but will likely find Chaucer to be a somewhat difficult figure to wholeheartedly cheer on. To be sure, Chaucer was vital in the English language, not the least because his appropriation of Latin, French, and Italian writing into English for a literate audience that was rapidly growing less bilingual allowed English to have enough culture to develop as a respected language, eventually. Chaucer’s writing, precisely because it was not particularly original, allowed Middle English to appropriate much of the great literature of Europe and to set the stage for later English writers like Shakespeare to further increase the cultural capital of the language. Chaucer’s own personal life was full of drama and excitement as a diplomat, politician, soldier, and literary celebrity, and like our celebrities today this was not an unmixed blessing or a sign of a spotless personal life. The author does a good job at reminding us of Chaucer’s personal shortcomings and frailties while also pointing out why his writing remains so important for those of us who speak and write in the English language even today.
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