- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005


By Peter Ackroyd

Doubleday, $19.95,

208 pages, illus.


The pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s great work, “The Canterbury Tales,” set forth on their journey in April, that time of year when nature stirs into life. Looking backward across more than six centuries, biographer Peter Ackroyd sees Chaucer as a poet of springtime rather than autumn: someone who “believed himself to come from a freshly minted civilisation.”

It is probably no mere coincidence that this poet of fresh beginnings, the progenitor of Shakespeare, Milton and much of the rest of English literature, is the first subject Mr. Ackroyd has chosen to treat in his new series of short biographies bearing the title “Ackroyd Brief Lives.” Biography, Mr. Ackroyd maintains (recalling Emerson’s well-known pronouncement), offers the best way of understanding history: “To enter the consciousness and personality of a man or woman, of any period, is to see that period from within.”

It’s generally true, however, that the farther back in time a biographical subject is, the less is known about him or her. Biographers of such contemporary or near-contemporary figures as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, or Christopher Isherwood are swamped with letters, journals, interviews, and personal recollections. But any clues as to what might have gone on in Chaucer’s mind and heart can only be gleaned indirectly and not always reliably from his works.

Indeed, not all that much is known even about the outward events of his life, which ended in 1400 and began sometime between 1341 and 1343. We know that he came from a prosperous London mercantile family, that he was attached to the courts of Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV, that he held various offices and was sent on various diplomatic missions, that he married a woman who was also attached to the royal household, and, of course, that he was esteemed as a court poet. But how he felt about his parents, or what his marriage was like, or his views on various political and religious questions are subjects that can only be guessed at.

A life pieced together from patchy official records is likely to present a rather skewed picture. We hear that in his teens, Chaucer was part of a group captured by the French and held for ransom, and that later, in his 30s, he was charged with rape. But his poetry contains no personal memories of his military adventure, and as for rape, it is hard to imagine the genial, modest, self-effacing character we meet in his poetry, creator of the Wife of Bath, that proto-feminist icon of “female sovereignty,” forcing himself on anyone.

Mr. Ackroyd’s method of presenting Chaucer combines literary criticism and history, on one hand focusing on his poetic creations, while on the other evoking and explaining the age in which he lived. Both are tasks to which the author of “Albion” and “London,” an accomplished poet, critic, biographer, and historical novelist, is eminently well suited. Mr. Ackroyd’s intimate knowledge of London and its past enables him to paint a vivid portrait of the cosmopolitan city in which the young Chaucer grew up:

“So we can imagine him standing in one of the principal thoroughfares of London, Cheapside, which he knew all his life. He was the poet of sunrise rather than of sunset, which is as much to say that he was medieval rather than modern, and at dawn, in Cheapside the whole city would awake around him.

“The bell rang at the church of St. Thomas of Acon, at the corner of Ironmonger Lane, on the hour before sunrise; then the wickets beside the great gates of the city were opened, and through the darkness trailed in the petty traders, the chapmen, the hucksters with baskets of gooseberries or apples, the journeymen, the labourers and the servants who lived outside the walls in the crowded and malodorous suburbs which were the city’s shadow. At dawn the bells in the churches rang to proclaim the ending of the curfew, but already the majority of working citizens were awake and washed.

“Rise at five, dine at nine,

Sup at five, and bed at nine,

Will make a man live to

ninety and nine.”

Although Mr. Ackroyd waxes lyrical in recalling the pious atmosphere of that bygone age, he also notes that it was a time when murder, rape, and abduction were commonplace. Chaucer’s maternal grandfather was murdered close to his home in Aldgate; Chaucer’s father, a successful wine merchant, had been kidnapped in his youth. As for the rape charge against Chaucer himself, which seems to have been settled out of court less than a year after it was brought, Mr. Ackroyd comes up with an interesting, quite plausible, explanation.

The lady who accused Chaucer was the stepdaughter of a friend. Given the fact that their duties at separate households kept Chaucer and his wife apart much of the time, Mr. Ackroyd speculates that there might have been an affair between Chaucer and the lady, who, in turn, might have made the accusation as a way of forcing him to acknowledge or take responsibility for his actions.

Drawing connections between literary creations and episodes in the lives of their creators is generally a misleading practice, and in Chaucer’s case, especially so. Chaucer, in Mr. Ackroyd’s view, was a poet whose imagination was inspired by literature rather than life. To some readers this may seem an odd judgment, given the liveliness and realism of “The Canterbury Tales,” but Mr. Ackroyd is certainly right in pointing out that the poet seldom drew directly on events in his own life. Considered as a whole, his literary output bears out Mr. Ackroyd’s characterization, from his early translation of the “Roman de la Rose” to his brilliant treatment of an old story in “Troilus and Criseyde.”

Being inspired by literature in no way precludes originality. As Mr. Ackroyd observes of “Troilus and Criseyde”: “It is a love story and a farce, a lament and a philosophical enquiry, a social comedy and a threnody upon destiny; it is a novel of manners and a poem of high deeds. It is a commodious and accommodating epic poem, and such a new thing in English that it can really be given no fixed or definite name. It can only be said, perhaps, that it is the first modern work of literature in English.” Mr. Ackroyd is an enthusiastic and illuminating guide to Chaucer’s other works as well, successfully conveying the magnitude of his achievement.

This poet was also a courtier, a diplomat, and a civil servant, and by all accounts very able in those capacities. Mr. Ackroyd does a good job of portraying this side of his character: “Here was a poet who, having acquired his reputation as a courtly poet of dream vision, now found himself surrounded by London businessmen and clerks who were hard-headed, argumentative and not averse to sharp practice. He had of course known these people all his life, and it can be assumed he had already evolved a way of dealing with them. We may imagine a man of infinite bonhomie and tact, but shrewd and quick-witted none the less. He may even have prided himself upon his ability to move between two worlds — between the court and the city, between the poetry of love and the prose of business.”

Where this biography falls short, however, is in providing a clear and detailed enough account of the political and dynastic machinations going on at the time. Mr. Ackroyd’s mind — like Chaucer’s — is primarily a literary one, and in this realm he excels, giving us a biography that brings to life both the poet and his poetry. “Chaucer” is an enticing start to Ackroyd’s projected series, leaving one eager — and curious — to see whom he will tackle next.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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