Lead book review

A window on Chaucer’s cramped, scary, smelly world

A review of The Poet’s Tale by Paul Strohm describes a pivotal year in the life of the father of English poetry

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and The Year that Made the Canterbury Tales Paul Strohm

Profile Books, pp.284, £15.99, ISBN: 97817812505945

Proust had his cork-lined bedroom; Emily Dickinson her Amherst hidey-hole; Mark Twain a gazebo with magnificent views of New York City. Where, then, did the father of English poetry do his work? From 1374 till 1386, while employed supervising the collection of wool-duties, Chaucer was billeted in a grace-and-favour bachelor pad in the tower directly above Aldgate, the main eastern point of entry to the walled city of London.

‘Grace and favour’ makes it sound grander than it was. With the help of a wonderfully ingenious pattern of inferences — in particular an architectural drawing from 200 years later which happened to include a sketch of Aldgate’s north tower at its margins — Paul Strohm is able to reconstruct the room in which, after a long day weighing bags of wool and writing down columns of figures, Geoffrey Chaucer retired to scratch away at his verse.

Chaucer occupied a single bare room of about 16’ x 14’. The only natural light would come from ‘two (or at most four) arrow slits’ tapering through the five-foot thickness of these walls (the towers were a defensive feature) to an external aperture of four or five inches. ‘Light, even at midday, would have been extremely feeble. Arrangement for a small fire might have been possible. Waste would be hand-carried down to the ditch that lapped against the tower and dumped there.’

You can imagine how cosy it was in winter. And the noise! Chaucer slept directly over the main London thoroughfare. Every morning at first light the portcullis would go rattling up, and thereafter ‘the creak of iron-wheeled carts in and out of the city, drovers’ calls, and the hubbub of merchants and travellers pressing for advantage on a wide but still one-laned road, probably made sleep impossible, five-foot walls or no five-foot walls’. That’s if he could hear anything over the incessant bong-bonging of bells from each of the three churches within a couple of hundred feet of his front door.

Meanwhile ‘a stench wafted from the open sewer known in its northern extension as Houndsditch that ran (or festered) just outside the city wall’; Houndsditch was so called because of the many dead dogs dumped there. In addition to rotting garbage, dead dogs, and faecal waste from the next-door Holy Trinity Priory (‘a populous foundation’, Strohm tells us jauntily), you’d find ‘the occasional human corpse’. ‘And then,’ Strohm adds with excellent tact, ‘there was the matter of felons’ and traitors’ rotting heads…’ This was an occupational hazard of living in a gatehouse tower. On the other hand, there was a nice view from the roof…

It’s a great vindication of Strohm’s project that we are able to gain so vivid a sense of how Chaucer would have fared in one of those ‘Writers’ Rooms’ features. And that is, in very large part, the point: Strohm’s is one of that mini-genre of books that take a single decisive year in the life of a writer and use it as a window onto their world. The prototype, I guess — what our man would have called ‘myn auctor’ — is James Shapiro, with his 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005). Shapiro had a hard row to hoe: there’s a lot we don’t know about Shakespeare. Strohm has a harder: there’s almost nothing we do know about Chaucer the man or Chaucer the poet. Every scrap of contemporaneous evidence — there are 493 documents gathered in Chaucer Life-Records (1966) — relates to his public life. You’d know from no contemporary record that he was a poet.

Even reading back from the work into the life can be done with little or no confidence. For all the slanginess of his presentation, Strohm is too fastidious a scholar to cross that line. He’s at pains to remind us of how wired into literary convention Chaucer was. So he allows himself — in the context of Chaucer’s living apart from his wife — a page and a half noting how negative the portrayals of marriage are throughout the works (‘to speke of wo that is in marriage’); before pulling back to remind us that ‘literary tradition rather than veiled autobiography seems to undergird most of Chaucer’s antimarital sentiments’. This is what our man would have recognised as occultatio — a.k.a. eating your cake and having it.

Portrait of Chaucer himself, from the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales
Portrait of Chaucer himself, from the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales

Why was 1386 decisive? Because that was the year in which it all went south. As a young man, Chaucer had forsaken the safe, conservative route of following his father into trade as a vintner and sought a higher-risk career in aristocratic service. He became, in due course, an esquire — the right side (just) of the line separating gentlefolk from the rest of the population. But he would always be, as it were, from trade. His wife Philippa, his social superior to start with, was the family’s real ticket to promotion when her sister became mistress of John of Gaunt, the most powerful (and hated) man in the country.

For most of their adult lives Chaucer and his wife lived apart — she, and their sons Thomas and Lewis, were with the Lancastrian household in Lincolnshire. The adult Thomas used his father’s seal only once (‘S Gofrai Chaucier’); the piercing dedication to Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe — ‘Little Lowys my sone’ — is the only thing to connect Lewis Chaucer to his father.

What was Chaucer, in his rather solitary existence, like? (We know he didn’t bother taking up citizenship of London, or guild membership.) The work does provide tantalising, elliptical, jokey, modest self-portraits — remember the narrator of the Canterbury Tales, such a duffer that when he tries to recite a poem the host, Harry Bailly, finally exclaims: ‘Namore of this, for Goddes dignitee […] Thy drasty riming is nat worth a toord!’ — but they are suggestive rather than decisive. Still, the story of Chaucer’s professional life — congruent with his wanly disarming self-portrayal — does seems to invite the word ‘hapless’.

At the Wool-Wharf, effectively, his role as customs controller was to keep the customs collector honest. And the customs collector — who put Chaucer in the job in the first place — was an epic crook called Nicholas Brembre, who as London mayor, plus the largest wool profiteer in the country, plus the man in charge of taxing his own exports (and those of his competitors), took conflict of interest into a surreal new realm. That Chaucer didn’t himself get rich suggests he was honest; that he survived in the job indicates that he wasn’t stupidly so.

When a stooge was needed, Geoffrey was your man. He was packed off to the 1386 parliament as a shire knight — most likely because as the mood turned against the King’s faction the Ricardians wanted some cannon fodder. He sat on his hands as the King stormed out of the Parliament and it looked as if Richard II would face what Strohm (an American) calls ‘an ouster’. Chickens were coming home to roost for Chaucer’s London patron Brembre, too.

By the end of the year Chaucer had no job, and nowhere to live — a city-wide resolution on the occupancy of gatehouses having been made by Brembre’s successor as mayor with the sole apparent purpose of booting Chaucer out of his digs. Chaucer left London for Kent, where having been England’s crappest MP he now became England’s crappest JP. But, it seems, he had the idea for some stories….

Strohm’s big argument — which is both ingenious and satisfying; the two things that make me suspect it — is that the crisis of 1386 was what freed Chaucer to write The Canterbury Tales; indeed, that it effectively dictated their form; and that, what’s more, it precisely maps onto a shift in the whole landscape of literary reception and authority. In short, Chaucer had been skeptical of fame and authorial peacocking; and concomitantly of written transmission: his poems had been read for pleasure and amusement to a small group of friends in London. With his exile in Kent, he lost an audience; and so he channelled the companionable orality of his verse into a polyphonic anthology of stories whose audience — the pilgrims — he invented for himself. Lonely, in other words, Chaucer put the audience for his poem into the poem itself. At the same time, the envoi to Troilus and Criseyde (‘go, myn litel boke’), along with other hints including a squib berating his over-hasty scrivener, suggests he started to expect to be read on the page.

More than six centuries later, he still is. And on the page, he lives. That is amazing. The best of Paul Strohm’s constantly involving, frequently funny and sometimes moving little book is that, just now and again, it feels like you can catch his eye.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • “With his exile in Kent, he lost an audience; and so he channelled the companionable orality of his verse into a polyphonic anthology of stories whose audience — the pilgrims — he invented for himself. Lonely, in other words, Chaucer put the audience for his poem into the poem itself.”

    Whether Sam Leith’s or reflecting Paul Strohm’s, I find that observation a very deep insight into Chaucer’s life and work. Having read and thought about Chaucer since the mid 1970s, I think it’s quite compelling and highly suggestive of the imaginative world that Chaucer created and–partly–why.

    Frederick Glaysher

    • davidofkent

      Why do you describe the stories as polyphonic? Is that a clever way of saying that they are told by various pilgrims?

      • monty61

        Worked for me.

      • gwbnyc

        and dialects, I believe.

  • Helen of Troy

    HIs noise problem sounds even worse than mine. And mine is a torment: I have chainsaw massacres of trees, and motor-mowing and blowing, every single day all around my house (to say nothing of other power tools and pressure washers). It is simply incessant — and distracting, and obnoxious — but nobody seems inclined to do anything about it. Least of all the janitorial landscape crews that earn their living by this racket (in both senses of the term!).

    • Ned of the hills

      Where there is man there is noise. And in the last hundred years he’s invented a lot more things to be noisy with. Most of what you complain about Helen wasn’t to be heard when I were a lad. There should be a tax on noise. The louder the noise a machine can produce the higher the tax. That, of course, would lead to manufacturers making quieter machines. Presently no heed is given to how much noise a machine makes. Till then use earplugs! – si é mo thuarim!

      • Helen of Troy

        Hi Ned. I heartily agree with most of that — except that earplugs do not work sufficiently well for anything but high-pitched sounds. With long wavelengths they are hopeless. They might slightly dull the roar, but that’s it. I pop earplugs in and out virtually every day for one reason or another — I have excellent hearing and I want to keep it that way. And I wish we had those quieter days!

    • JohnAtl

      Try a pair of Bose QuietComfort 25 noise canceling headphones. You will be amazed, and more productive.

  • Brendan

    “Mark Twain [had] a gazebo with magnificent views of New York City”

    Uh, Twain’s sister-in-law’s house (with the gazebo) was in Elmira, N.Y., which is about 200 miles northwest of the city. Also, I’m not sure whether the definition of “hidey-hole” is different in Britain, but somehow I don’t think it connotes a second-floor bedroom overlooking a well-kept garden.

  • Gwangi

    Sounds just like a slum I used to rent in Hackney…

  • Liberanos

    He obviously read the Sun.

  • Dream apartment.