The First Great English Poetry

The First Great English Poetry

The Kingis Quair, the autobiographical poem written by James I of Scotland, is unique in its royal authorship. In style and content, however, it fits neatly into the first great age of English poetry.

“English poetry” is not necessarily written by Englishmen! It is poetry written in the English language – and in the 1300s it was still a novelty. Before then, English had been considered unsuitable for expressing deep thoughts or lofty feelings. Poems were, instead, written in the courtly language of French.

English poetry was, however, transformed in the 14th century. Occasionally, without explanation, an inspired moment occurs that changes history.

For English poetry, that moment came with the birth of two brilliant writers, John Gower (ca. 1330-1408) and Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-on 25 October 1400). Their groundbreaking verses would make it possible for James, writing sometime after 1423, to express both his love and his philosophical beliefs in poetry – and in vernacular language.

In writing his poem, James was more indebted to Chaucer than to Gower. James adopted Chaucer’s rhyme scheme, meter and format.

Gower and Chaucer were, however, linked in the 14th century mind. They were also linked in life. The two great poets were not only acquaintances; they influenced and respected each other’s work, and were personal friends. When Chaucer was sent on a diplomatic mission to Italy in 1378, he gave Gower power of attorney for his English affairs.

The Poetry of John Gower

Gower is particularly known for three long poems, only one of which was written in English (the others were in French and Latin). His English poem, just to confuse matters, has the Latin title “Confessio Amantis” or “Love’s Confession.”

It is a series of rather detached stories, often based on classical mythology, about the difficulties of love. The stories themselves have little emotional resonance, but isolated short vivid descriptions abound.

Gower’s stanzas are each six lines long (with the break between stanzas being unrelated to the “sense” of the poem) with a rhyme scheme of a-a-b-b-c-c. His meter is vaguely and irregularly iambic (daDA daDA daDA daDA).

Herewith a selection from “Confessio Amantis,” describing a queen, riding on a white mule, entering into a city prepared to jubilantly receive her. Gower’s original words are broken into short, manageable segments and followed by a modern (non-poetic) translation.

This lusti queene in good arrai Was set upon a Mule whyt:
To sen it was a gret delit The joie that the cite made;
With freisshe thinges and with glade
The noble toun was al behonged,
And every wiht was sore alonged
To se this lusti ladi ryde.
“This vibrant queen in grand array
Was set upon a mule white;
To see it was a great delight
The joy that the city made;
With fresh things and with glad
The noble town was all behung,
And everyone was so longing
To see this vibrant lady ride.”
The poem continues:

Ther was gret merthe on alle syde;
Wher as sche passeth be the strete,
Ther was ful many a tymber bete
And many a maide carolende:

“There was great mirth on every side,
Wherever she passed by the street,
There was full many a tambour beat
And many a maid caroling;”
ending with

And thus thrughout the toun pleiende
This queene unto a pleine rod,
Wher that sche hoved and abod
To se diverse game pleie,
The lusti folk jouste and tourneie;
And so forth every other man,
Which pleie couthe, his pley began,
To plese with this noble queene.
“And thus throughout the town, green-filled
This queen into a greenway rode,
Where she halted and abode
To see diverse games played.
The strong folk joust and tourney
And so forth every other man
Who knows knightly sports, his sports began
To please this noble queen.”
Gower undoubtedly had seen many a queen riding into her city. An independently wealthy man with lands in Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent, he was London-based in his later years. He was a financial patron of the Priory of St. Mary Overie (“Over” the Thames on its south bank), now Southwark Cathedral, and had rooms there. His tomb, with a very colorful effigy, still stands in the cathedral.

Gower-TombJohn Gower’s tomb in London’s Southwark Cathedral.

The Poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer
Chaucer did Gower one better, both in death and in his reputation after death. Chaucer was the first poet to be buried in what is now “Poet’s Corner” at Westminster Abbey. And his “Canterbury Tales” is probably one of the best known pieces of medieval literature, prose or poetry.

Although Chaucer was famous even in his own lifetime as a poet, he also had a busy and successful career as a bureaucrat and diplomat. His first known position was in the household of Blanche of Lancaster, a great heiress who would, at age 18, marry John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III. The couple would have seven children before Blanche’s death at age 28 in 1368. Only three of their children would live to adulthood; one became Henry IV of England.

Chaucer’s first great work was an elegy for Blanche, entitled “The Book of the Duchess.” In this long poem, Chaucer used a format that he himself seems to have invented and that became a standard in English poetry (and was used by James I): stanzas of seven lines, iambic pentameter meter (daDA – daDA – daDA – daDA – daDA) and a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b-b-c-c.

Chaucer-BritLibThe great English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

This short selection from “The Book of the Duchess” describes Lady Blanche of Lancaster, with Chaucer’s original words followed by a modern translation.

I have of sorwe so gret won
That joye gete I never non,
Now that I see my lady bryght,
Which I have loved with al my myght,
Is fro me ded and ys agoon.
“I have of sorrow so great won
That joy get I never none,
Now that I see my lady bright,
Whom I have loved with all my might,
Is from me dead and is a-gone.”
These segments, you may have noticed, actually do rhyme – in both the original and the translation!

Allas, deth, what ayleth the,
That thou noldest have taken me,
Whan thou toke my lady swete,
That was so fair, so fresh, so fre,
So good that men may wel se
Of al goodnesse she had no mete!”
“Alas, death, what aileth thee,
That thou would not have taken me,
When thou took my lady sweet,
That was so fair, so fresh, so free,
So good that men may well see
Of all goodness she had no match!”
Chaucer continues:

… For I dar swere, withoute doute,
That as the someres sonne bryght
Ys fairer, clerer, and hath more lyght
Than any other planete in heven,
The moone or the sterres seven,
For al the world so hadde she
Surmounted hem alle of beaute…
“…For I dare swear, without doubt,
That as the summer’s sun bright
Is fairer, clearer, and has more light
Than any other planet in heaven,
The moon or the stars seven,
For all the world so had she
Surpassed them all in beauty…”
In addition to his service to the Duchess of Lancaster, Chaucer had another, ongoing and more personal link to the Duchess’ husband, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

Sometime around 1366, he married Philippa de Roet, sister to Katherine Swynford. After the death of Blanche of Lancaster, Katherine had become John of Gaunt’s mistress. She was the mother of his illegitimate “Beaufort children” (later legitimized and powerful, indeed!) and, finally, became his third wife.

Geoffrey and Philppa’s descendants themselves entered the ranks of royalty. Although courtly connections were undoubtedly helpful, their rise was primarily due to their ability, ambition and, presumably, charm. Geoffrey’s son Thomas Chaucer became Speaker of the House of Commons. Thomas’ daughter Alice Chaucer made three successively more prestigious marriages. Her last was to William de la Pole, Earl and later Duke of Suffolk. Their son John, 2nd Duke of Suffolk, married Elizabeth, sister to Edward IV and Richard III.

Dizzying heights, indeed – and it all started with a poet! A poet of such talent and power that his works remain part of the canon of English literature. Chaucer’s brilliance is recognized today, as it was recognized in the 14th century.

His best-known work, “The Canterbury Tales,” remains in print today. Here is the start of his great poem, first in Chaucer’s original words and then followed by a modern translation. In “The Canterbury Tales,” the rhyming scheme is more sophisticated and thus less obvious than that used in “The Tale of the Duchess.”

It is clear indeed that pronunciation of English words has changed significantly since Chaucer’s day. It doesn’t take much work, however, to read Chaucer in small doses. So take a deep breath – and read Chaucer’s actual words to see his rhyming scheme.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the younge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye.
“When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March hath pierced to the root
And bathed every vein in such liquor
Of which power engendered is the flour
When Zephyr also with his sweet breath
Inspired has in every holt and heath
Tender crops, and the young son
Has in the Ram his half-course run,
And small fowls make melody,
That sleep all the night with open eye.”

Canterbury-Tales-BritLib-PrologueThe opening lines of “The Canterbury Tales.” Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

James I owed – and acknowledged – his poetic debt to Chaucer. James specifically thanked both poets, Chaucer and Gower, for their inspiration in his own poem’s grand finale. The very last of the 197 verses in The Kingis Quair reads:

Unto the Impnis of my maisteris dere,
Gowere and chaucere, that on the steppis satt
Of rethorike, quhill thai were lyvand here,
Superlative as poetis laureate
In moralite and eloquence ornate,
I recommend my buk In lynis sevin,
And eke thair saulis un-to the blisse of hevin.


“Unto the Imprimatur of my masters dear,
Gower and Chaucer, that on the steps
Of rhetoric sat, while they were living here,
Superlative as poets laureate
In morality and eloquence ornate,
I recommend my book in lines seven,
And also their souls unto the bliss of heaven.
And so say we all. Amen!