A great obstacle in the way of a new English literature had been the lack of a national language, but about the middle of the XIV century, one of the dialects, that of the region of London and of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, prevailed and became the official language of the country. It was in this dialect, called "the King's English", that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his poetical words, and in this way the literary language of England was born.
Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived in London in the second half of the XIV century and travelled in France and Italy, is the first great English poet. He has been called the Father of English poetry.
The most celebrated among his works are: Troilus and Criseyde, a love story about the Trojan war, and the Canterbury Tales, a collection of romantic and comic stories told by pilgrims going to the tomb of St. Thomas of Canterbury. The general plan of the work reminds us of Boccaccio's Decameron, thought there is a remarcable difference in style. Chaucer's subject matter was medieval, made up of old legends and popular tales, but his masterly style was something quite new in English poetry.
His great dramatic gift appears at its best in the Prologue of the Tales, which gives us a vivid picture of the "merry England" of his times and of the Canterbury pilgrims themselves, who are not poetical shadows but real people: e.g., the pretty well-bred prioress; the fat, vulgar wife of Bath; the merry young squire; and the learned student of Oxford.
To the age of Chaucer belong two writers worth mentioning: John Gower, who wrote at first in Latin and French, and then produced his Confessio Amantis, a long series of tales, with a Latin title but written in English; and William Langland, the author of Piers Plowman, a series of allegorical visions entirely written in the old allitterative verse.
The Merchant and the Clerk
from The Canterbury Tales
A Merchant was there with a forked beard
In motley dressed, and high on horse he sat;
Upon his head a Flemish beaver hat,
His bootes clasped fair and handsomely;
His reason spake he full solemnély,
Harping always on increase of winning.
Guarded he wished the sea, 'gainst everything,
Bitwixe Middleburg and Orewelle.
Well could he in exchange shieldes sell.
This worthy man full well his wit beset,
No wight there was that thought he was in debt,
So stately was he of his governance,
With his bargains, and with his chevissance.
Forsooth he was a worthy man withal,
But sooth I cannot say what men him call.
A Clerk there was of Oxenford also,
That unto logic turned long ago,
As leane was his horse as is a rake,
And he was not right fat, I undertake,
But looked hollow and also soberly.
Full threadbare as his overest courtepy,
For he had got him yet no benefice,
Nor was so worldly for to have office:
For he would rather have at his bed's head
Twenty bookes clad in black or red,
Of Aristotl' and his philosophy,
Than robes rich, or fiddle or gay psaltry.
But yet withal he was a philosopher,
Yet hadde he but little gold in coffer;
But all that he might of his friendes hente,
On bookes and on learning he it spent,
And busily gan for the souls to pray
Of them that gave him wherewith to scolay.
Of study took he most care and most heed.
Naught a word spake he more than was need,
And that was said in form and reverence,
And short and quick and full of high sentence.
Sounding in moral virtue was his speech,
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.