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by Adolphus William Ward

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But, in accordance with the taste of his age, which shunned such sheer straightforwardness in poetry, the "Book of the Duchess" contains no further transparent reference to the actual circumstances of the wedded life which had come to so premature an end--for John of Gaunt had married Blanche of Lancaster in 1359;--and an elaborate framework is constructed round the essential theme of the poem. Already, however, the instinct of Chaucer's own poetic genius had taught him the value of personal directness; and, artificially as the course of the poem is arranged, it begins in the most artless and effective fashion with an account given by the poet of his own sleeplessness and its cause.

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The biography of Geoffrey Chaucer is no longer a mixture of unsifted facts, and of more or less hazardous conjectures. Many and wide as are the gaps in our knowledge concerning the course of his outer life, and doubtful as many important passages of it remain - in vexatious contrast with the certainty of other relatively insignificant data - we have at least become aware of the foundations on which alone a trustworthy account of it can be built. These foundations consist partly of a meagre though gradually increasing array of external evidence, chiefly to be found in public documents, - in the Royal Wardrobe Book, the Issue Rolls of the Exchequer, the Customs Rolls, and suchlike records - partly of the conclusions which may be drawn with confidence from the internal evidence of the poet's own indisputably genuine works, together with a few references to him in the writings of his contemporaries or immediate successors. Which of his works are to be accepted as genuine, necessarily forms the subject of an antecedent enquiry, such as cannot with any degree of safety be conducted except on principles far from infallible with regard to all the instances to which they have been applied, but now accepted by the large majority of competent scholars. Thus, by a process which is in truth dulness and dryness itself except to patient endeavour stimulated by the enthusiasm of special literary research, a limited number of results has been safely established, and others have at all events been placed beyond reasonable doubt. Around a third series of conclusions or conjectures the tempest of contro-versy still rages; and even now it needs a wary step to pass without fruitless deviations through a maze of assumptions consecrated by their longevity, or commended to sympathy by the fervour of personal conviction.



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