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Five hundred and eighty years ago there was recorded in the household account book of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, the wife of Edward III's third son, the purchase for a lad named Geoffrey Chaucer of one paltock, a pair of red and black breeches, and a pair of shoes. Thus did the Father of English Poetry, as he has been heroically emblazoned for schoolboys of the world, enter history. Adorned in his new garments, the youth accompanied the retinue of the pretty countess as she moved in medieval splendor between the great houses of England. He attended court festivities and visited the lions in the Tower of London.
Two years, later, in 1359, like his own gay "yong Squier," he was a soldier in the large army with which Edward invaded France. Captured and ransomed by the King, he was shipped back across the Channel with dispatches. With this as a beginning for his long diplomatic career, he spent part of the next seven years as a law student at the Inner Temple. For seven more years he held the rank of esquire in King Edward's domicile. Winter and summer he had to amuse the lords of the court with talk of politics, with piping, harping, or signing.
A decade and a half slipped by, at the end of which he received the appointment of Comptroller of Customs on wools, hides, and woll-fells in the port of London. By grant of the mayor and aldermen he occupied an entire dwelling on top of Aldsgate, ten minutes' walk from the quay known as Wool wharf where he worked over dull figures in heavy ledgers. Here at the eastern edge of turbulent little London, high over a busy street, and above his modestly-stocked buttery, the poet passed another decade--reading, writing, and drinking from the King's daily pitcher of wine. Only one passage in all his work refers to the multitudinous affairs of his crowded life:
"And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book
Tyl fully daswed ys the book,
And lyvest thou as an heremyte . . ."
The middle of this period saw him sent on a second diplomatic errand to Italy to treat with Bernabo, tyrant of Milan, that "God of delit, and scourge of Lumbardye." Despite his business he discovered for himself Dante, Boccaccio, and Petarch, and the powerful city states of Genoa, Milan, and Florence enriched his observations. But his own London furnished him with the intimate knowledge of the many actors in his human comedy, and there he underwent an unconscious training for his masterpiece.
While the "Tales" were in production, he was appointed "clerk of our Works at Westminster Palace" and of other royal residences. In an inventory of Westminster he acquired, among innumerable objects, eight pairs of andirons, two of which had broken feet; two small carts, of which one was rickety; and a little bell called Wyron.
With his pension doubled and a grant of an annual ton of wine, Chaucer ended his life in comfort. Ten months before his death he leased, in a sanguine mood, for fifty-three years a house in the garden of St. Mary's Chapel at Westminster. Surrounded by those distinguished men who loved both the poet and man, Chaucer slipped peacefully into eternity at the turn of the century, a round-numbered date that no English student has difficulty in remembering.
Today the Vagabond hears Fred N. Robinson, Gurney Professor of English Literature, broadcast, in his beautiful reading voice, a lecture on "Chaucer" from the lectern of Emerson D at 4:30.
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