Chaucer's Contemporary Reputation

By the 1380s, Chaucer was widely acclaimed for his poetry; his fame had reached France, where the poet Eustache Deschamps learned of his works; he sent some of his poems to Chaucer, whom he praises as a "great translator" as well as "the Ovid of the English tongue." His younger English contemporary, Thomas Usk, emphasizes the philosophical side of Chaucer's Troilus (his mention of it helps to date that poem, since Usk was beheaded in 1388). Chaucer's friend, John Gower, praises Chaucer as a poet of love, and has Venus tell him it is time to make his own "testament of love." (What this means is not clear; the Confessio amantis, in which the passage quoted below appears, is a collection of stories – does Gower mean for Chaucer to get on with The Canterbury Tales? – but it is also a serious meditation of society and life – does Gower mean that Chaucer should leave the frivolity of his earlier work and emulate Gower's moral earnestness?).

Both Hoccleve and Lydgate praise Chaucer for his style, as a "flower of eloquence." This is the theme of most praise for Chaucer in the fifteenth century; see Derek Brewer, Chaucer: The Critical Heritage. London. 1978 [PR 1924.C24], and Caroline F.E, Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Allusion, 1357-1900. Cambridge. 1925. 7 vols. [Widener 12422.67.25].

Eustache Deschamps (1340?-1410?), a Ballade sent to Chaucer (1385):

O Socratès plains de philosophie,
Seneque en meurs, Auglius en pratique,
Ovides grans en ta poëtrie,
Briés en parler, saiges en rethorique ...
Grant translateur, noble Geoffrey Chaucier.

O Socrates, filled with philosophy,
Seneca in morals, Aulus Gellius in practice,
Great Ovid of your poetry,
Brief in speech, wise in rhetoric,
Most high eagle, who by your science
Enlumined the realm of Æneas.
The Isle of giants, of Brut, who has
Sown the flowers and planted the rose bower
For those ignorant of French,
Great translator, noble Geoffrey Chaucer.

You are the god of earthly love in Albion,
And of the Rose – in the Angelic land,
Which, from the Saxoness Angelica, has flourished
Into Angle-land, from her whose name is applied
As the last in this etymology –
You have translated in good English;
And a garden for which you ask for plants
From those who compose in order to be authorities,
You have long since created,
Great translator, noble Geoffrey Chaucer.

From you therefore, from the fountain of Helicon,
I have asked to have an authentic drink,
From the stream that is entirely in your power,
In order to quench my fevered thirst,
I who shall be shall be paralyzed in Gaul
Until you send to give me drink.
I am Eustaces; you shall have some of my plants;
Take in good grace these works of a schoolboy
Which you will recieve from me by Clifford,
Great translator, noble Geoffrey Chaucer.


High Poet, glory of the esquires,
In your garden I would be but a weed;
Consider what I first said –
Your noble plants, your sweet melody;
But for me to know this, I pray you to reply,
Great Translator, noble Geoffrey Chaucer.

(For the original see T.A. Jenkins, 'Deschamps' Ballade to Chaucer,' Modern Language Notes 33 (1918), 268-87).

Thomas Usk (d. 1388), in his Testament of Love, (1386-87) (Usk, imitating Boethius, is instructed by Love; he asks her about God's foreknowledge):

Quod Love,"I shal tel the, this lesson to lerne: myne owne trewe servaunt, the noble philosophical poete in Englissh [spe]che, evermore hym besyeth and travayleth right sore my name to encrease. Wherfore, al that wyllen me good owe to do him worshyp and reverence bothe; trewly, his better ne his pere in schole of my rules coude I never fynde.

"He," quod she, "in a treatise that he made of my servant Troylus, hath this mater touched, and at the ful this questyon assoyled. Certaynly his noble sayenges can I not amende; in goodnes of gentyl manlyche speche, without any maner of nycite of st[o]rieres ymagynacion, in wytte and in good reason of sentence he passeth al other makers. In the Boke of Troylus, the answere to thy questyon mayste thou lerne.

John Gower, Confessio amantis, Prologue (1387-90); Venus sends greetings to Chaucer:

And gret wel Chaucer whan ye mete,    
As mi disciple and mi poete:
For in the floures of his youthe
In sondri wise, as he wel couthe,
Of Ditees and of songes glade,
The whiche he for mi sake made,
The lond fulfild is overal:
Wherof to him in special
Above alle othre I am most holde.
For thi now in hise daies olde
Thou schalt him telle this message,
That he upon his latere age,
To sette an ende of alle his werk,
As he which is myn owne clerk,
Do make his testament of love,
As thou hast do thi schrifte above,
So that mi Court it mai recorde.' (2941-*2957)

Thomas Hoccleve (c.1368-c.1430) in his Regiment of Princes (1412):

Symple is my goost and scars my letterure
Unto your excellence forto wryte
Myn inward love, and yit in aventure
Wole I me putte thogh I can but lyte.
My deere maistir, god his soule qwyte,
And fadir Chaucer, fayn wolde han me taght,
But I was dul and lerned lyte or naght.
Allas, my worthy maistir honurable,
This landes verray tresor and richesse,
Deeth by thy deeth hath harm irreparable
Unto us doon; hir vengeable duresse
Despoillid hath this land of the swetnesse
Of rethorik; for unto Tullius
Was nevere man so lyk amonges us.
Also who was heir in philosophie
To Aristotle in our tonge but thow?
The steppes of Virgile in poesie
Thow folwedist eek, men woot wel ynow. (2073-90)
Althogh his lyf be qweynt, the resemblance
Of him hath in me so fressh lyflynesse,
That to putte othir men in remembrance
Of his persone, I have heere his liknesse
Do make to this ende, in soothfastnesse --
That they that han of him lost thoght and mynde,
By this peynture may ageyn him fynde. (4992-98)

John Lydgate (1370-1449), "The Flower of Courtesy" (c.1400):

Ever as I cam surprise in myn hert
Alway with fear betwixt drede and shame,
Lest out of lose, any word asterte
In this metre, to make it seme lame;
Chaucer is deed that had such a name
Of fayre making that was without wene
Fayrest in our tongue, as the Laurer grene

We may assay forto countrefete
His gay style but it wyl not be;
The welle is drie, with the lycoure swete
Both of Clyo and of Caliope. (stanzas 34-35)