The first in a new series, Ackroyd Brief Lives, offers a fascinating portrait of the man who has been called the father of English poetry.
Ackroyd (The Origins of the English Imagination, 2003, etc.) vividly depicts 14th-century London and the busy life of Geoffrey Chaucer. The poet, Ackroyd makes clear, was not an ivory-tower figure but a man of the world: a courtier entrusted by successive kings with diplomatic missions abroad and a civil servant who supervised royal building projects and oversaw the collection of taxes on wool and leather in the Port of London. Though brief, the biography is filled with details bringing Chaucer’s world and work to life. We see the younger man being educated in the royal court, rising in the diplomatic service, absorbing the culture of France and Italy, and acquiring a reputation as a courtly poet. Records are scanty, but Ackroyd cites evidence of his various financial dealings and legal entanglements, including an indictment for rape as well as lawsuit over debt. Given the many gaps in the records, speculations are inevitable, and when discussing specific events, Ackroyd relies on hedges like “might have,” “could have,” “it has been argued that,” and “we can possibly imagine.” The core of the book, however, concerns Chaucer’s work as a poet, and here Ackroyd is on firmer ground. He quotes frequently from the poems—The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde, The Legend of Good Women, and, of course, The Canterbury Tales—explaining allusions, discussing style, illustrating the influences of French and Italian poets, especially Boccaccio, and pointing out Chaucer’s skill at manipulating the English language. You get a clear sense of English as an evolving language, and, for those puzzled by Chaucer’s version of it, Ackroyd includes an appendix with modern translations of all the quoted material.
A splendid introduction to a pivotal figure in the history of English literature. (21 b&w illustrations)