Monday, 9 November 2015

Completed Challenge: Geoffrey Chaucer's Complete Works.

Contents of The Kelmscott Chaucer.
It's hard for me to believe, but I have now read the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer. I began this on the 17th November 2014, and almost a year later I have now read:

The House of Fame (1379-80) 
Anelida and Arcite (late 1370s) 
Boece (1378-81) 

I also read two biographies: Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd (2004) and Geoffrey Chaucer by Peter Brown (2011), and Virginia Woolf's 'The Pastons and Chaucer'. Finally, by way of preparation for The Canterbury Tales I read Boccaccio's Decameron, and for preparation for Troilus and Criseyde I re-read William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.

There are, sadly, three things I didn't get to read -

Of the Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde
Origenes upon the Maudeleyne
The Book of the Leoun

These final three works have been lost.

So, that's twenty-nine posts in total on Chaucer (this is the thirtieth), not counting the ten posts on Boccaccio - it's been quite a challenge! But I have honestly loved every minute of this, and I can't say that about any other challenge I've done. It's not been easy, reading Middle English can be very tricky and one would think at the end of all of this I would be positively fluent by now but I'm not by any stretch of the imagination. Fortunately my Riverside Chaucer (which I'll say more on later) had a good glossary and there are translations of most of Chaucer's works available online (again, more about that later).

He is now, it goes without saying of course, one of my favourite authors. His style is very simple and straightforward - there isn't anything designed to trip up or confuse: Chaucer told stories, beautiful and wonderful stories either from old myths and legends, or inspired by the ordinary people of his own times. Through him we get a snapshot of 14th Century society from the lower ranking yeoman up to the knights of the realm and even King Richard II, King Henry IV and some dukes and duchesses, and we learn of popular culture - those legends and tales that people loved then that dated back to ancient times, as well as poetry and prose from a range of eras that the people loved then. But it was also escapism - the 14th century was particularly tumultuous with The Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453), the Black Death (1346–53), which killed between 75 to 200 million people in Europe, and the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 to name but a few. Chaucer brings peace to people's minds, even today when society is once again in difficult times. He offers peace and tranquillity - he is an author to hold on to when times are bad. The darkness he faced and generations that followed have space to breath in his light and airy works. Whilst some of his poems are difficult, it is not so complex as to confuse and bewilder. Chaucer is focussed in each of his works, but his range of subject matter for his various poems is wide. Though his sources of inspiration may not be as popular as they once were, his works cover familiar themes and his retellings or translations have inspired me to read the originals and learn more. In this respect, I do view Chaucer as a gateway to other works.

Kelmscott Chaucer.
For this and many other reasons Geoffrey Chaucer is thought of as the 'father of English literature'. This is true, I believe; he is the first great author of England. But if he is the father of English literature then we owe a debt to other countries and their great works, not just England. France, not least for his translation of The Romaunt of the Rose; Italy for some of his rhyming schemes, many of his stories, the whole concept of The Canterbury Tales, his translation of Boethius (Boece) and allusions to Dante, Petrarch, Virgil, Statius, and Ovid; the Middle East and South Asia for works such as One Thousand and One Nights; Syria's Zenobia, a queen that inspired 'The Monk's Tale'; Greece, for example Homer's The Iliad and its impact on Troilus and Criseyde. This list could go on - it's safe to say Chaucer was very well-read and it shows in his works.

The only problem readers may face now is the difficulty of reading in Middle English, however there are so many translations online and to buy this is no longer a difficulty - everyone can read Chaucer now, especially those who read English. For those who want to read in Middle English - it is hard but one does get used to it somehow, and there are some great Chaucer resources online -
My own favourite resource was The Riverside Chaucer: this contains all of Chaucer's works, has footnotes for difficult words and a glossary at the back. Each part has a detailed introduction, and it also contains a Chaucer biography, notes on language, and detailed explanatory notes at the back for each of his works. 

So what now? I will re-read Chaucer, there is much more to discover and share, but I do think this has been a successful 'first read'. I do want to read more of his contemporaries - John Gower and the Pearl Poet, and those that came a bit later - particularly Thomas Mallory. And I do want to turn my focus to another author and focus on another 'complete works' or 'complete novels' at least. That I will write about tomorrow - I still haven't quite decided yet! 


  1. i read the complete chaucer some years back in the original; quite an effort! but rewarding and interesting. i got a little tired of his descriptions of long suffering ladies undergoing trials and tribulations, but i was fascinated by his discussion of determinacy: whether humans could make changes in the way they lived or whether it was all determined beforehand by god. i got the impression this was a big topic in those days, maybe not so much now. anyway, it was a wonderful journey; thanks for your explanatory posts and all the associated labor...

    1. It was very rewarding definitely. Fortunately I didn't get tired of the ladies, and I don't know what that says about me! :)

  2. This is quite an accomplishment! I doubt that I'll ever read Chaucer's complete works, but I've made a note of The Riverside Chaucer. That might come in handy even for reading only a little bit.

    1. I do recommend the Riverside Chaucer - even if you only read one part of it the notes are still good, and you do get a biography at the beginning. Plus it's nice to have, one never knows when one might want to dip into it :)

  3. Oh my, congratulations! Now you must give yourself a pat on the back and pour yourself a glass of wine, or something. I really love to hear what you say about re-reading. Classics should always be re-read. If we could just figure out how to add another few centuries to our lives. ;-)

    1. Thank you Cleo, and thanks for being my partner for The Canterbury Tales! Your posts were very helpful, as well as it being fun to read with someone else :D

  4. Well done. A worthwhile task. I haven't done it.

    It's funny how readable Chaucer is, in the original, with only a little bit of work, while the Pearl Poet, Chaucer's exact contemporary, is impossible. I mean, I found him impossible and needed a translation. English was changing so quickly.

    1. I haven't read the Pearl Poet yet but I have seen the original - I think it is impossible without some serious Middle English lessons! I think I only picked out the odd few words!

      And yes Chaucer is very readable indeed - very relaxing too, especially in Middle English.


Popular Posts of the Year