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The Wisdom of Chaucer


Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400) is known as the Father of English literature and is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages.

Author, philosopher, and astronomer, Chaucer had an active career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. Among his many works are The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde. He is best known today for The Canterbury Tales.

He was the first poet to be buried in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Before Chaucer, the dominant literary languages in England were French and Latin. His work marks the beginning of the rise of the new language of English, and you will recognise some of the sayings in this selection of quotes from his work.

'And high above, depicted in a tower,

Sat Conquest, robed in majesty and power,

Under a sword that swung above his head,

Sharp-edged and hanging by a subtle thread.'

'Patience is a conquering virtue.'

'But Christ's lore and his apostles twelve,

He taught and first he followed it himself.'

'The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.'

'If no love is, O God, what fele I so?

And if love is, what thing and which is he?

If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo?

If it be wikke, a wonder thynketh me.’

'What is better than wisdom? Woman. And what is better than a good woman? Nothing.'

'One flesh they are; and one flesh, so I'd guess,

Has but one heart, come grief or happiness.'

'People can die of mere imagination.’

'And once he had got really drunk on wine,

Then he would speak no language but Latin.'

'Yet do not miss the moral, my good men.

For Saint Paul says that all that’s written well

Is written down some useful truth to tell.

Then take the wheat and let the chaff lie still.'

'Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained'

'The greatest scholars are not usually the wisest people.’

'You are the cause by which I die.'

'No empty handed man can lure a bird.’

'Time and Tide wait for no man.’

'The life so brief, the art so long in the learning, the attempt so hard, the conquest so sharp, the fearful joy that ever slips away so quickly - by all this I mean love, which so sorely astounds my feeling with its wondrous operation, that when I think upon it I scarce know whether I wake or sleep.'

'By God, if women had written stories,

As clerks had within here oratories,

They would have written of men more wickedness

Than all the mark of Adam may redress.'

'Then you compared a woman's love to Hell,

To barren land where water will not dwell,

And you compared it to a quenchless fire,

The more it burns the more is its desire

To burn up everything that burnt can be.

You say that just as worms destroy a tree

A wife destroys her husband and contrives,

As husbands know, the ruin of their lives.'

'The guilty think all talk is of themselves.'

'Forbid Us Something and That Thing we Desire.’

'Ful wys is he that kan himselve knowe.'

'Purity in body and heart

May please some--as for me, I make no boast.

For, as you know, no master of a household

Has all of his utensils made of gold;

Some are wood, and yet they are of use.'

'And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.'

'Love will not be constrain'd by mastery.

When mast'ry comes, the god of love anon

Beateth his wings, and, farewell, he is gone.

Love is a thing as any spirit free.'

'How potent is the fancy! People are so impressionable, they can die of imagination.'

'. . . if gold rust, what then will iron do?/ For if a priest be foul in whom we trust/ No wonder that a common man should rust. . . .'

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