The Romance de la Rose

In this work, Chaucer translates one of the most popular in the Middle Ages. It survives in over 200 manuscripts, many of which are richly illuminated. It influenced many medieval poets such as Deschamps, Machaut and Froissart as well as Chaucer.

Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first part (4058 lines) in about 1225. This section sets the scene of Amant (the Lover) who approaches the beautiful, walled Garden and finds amongst its many delights the Rose, protected by thorns and guardians such as Daunger ‘rebuff’ and Amant, who is is advised by Lady Reason. It is the archetypal courtly love story of young love, set in May in a beautiful garden with those advising both the Lady (the Rose) and the Lover how to conduct their affair. It is a textbook of the laws of love which outlines how lovers should behave.

The remaining 18,000 lines composed by Jean de Meun, an early 14th century Parisian writer and intellectual. Written in Middle French in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, the poem is important for being the first example in French of both a sustained first-person narrative and of narrative allegory.

Begun in c.1225-40 and completed by c.1270-7, the poem is an encyclopedic, allegorical dream vision about love, in which a young man endeavours to possess the rosebud with which he has become enamoured. In the course of his journey, he experiences just about every kind of love possible. The tale ends, some 22,000 lines later, as a battering ram bursts through the front gate of a castle, hardly the romantic ending we might expect of sweet, gentle romance. On the other hand, how else does one penetrate a maidenhead?

The Middle English version, of which the first 1,705 lines were translated by Chaucer, covers all of Guillaume's section and some 3,000 lines of the second part. The original poem can be said to be the most important single literary influence on Chaucer's writing.

Nothing is known about the writer of the first part of the poem, Guillaume de Lorris. His charming and lyrical section relates the story of the narrator's dream; it is a work of courtly love that has been praised for its perceptiveness in the expression of character through allegorical symbols.

Set in the allegorical Garden of Delight (representing courtly society), the dreamer meets the god of love, and consequently falls in love with a rosebud that he sees while gazing into the fountain of Narcissus. The lover experiences a succession of hopes and despairs, but although he eventually manages to kiss the rose, his love is never truly consummated: his efforts are thwarted after Jealousy constructs a fortified tower around the rose. It is possibly at this point that the poem was meant to end.

Chaucer's interest in French literature: In early 1360 Chaucer accompanied Lionel, the Earl of Ulster, on a military campaign to France, where he was taken captive. He was ransomed by Edward III, king of England. By 1367 the young Chaucer, then around 25, was a valettus--a sort of squire or yeoman--in the king's court. Chaucer would have had some minor duties such as serving and running small errands, and he would have had ample opportunity to observe the doings of the court: the feasts, the hunting, the music, the visits, the flirtations, the manners, the entertainments.

During this period Chaucer tried his hand at poetry, imitating the work of French poets such as Froissart, Machaut, de Meun, Granson, and Deschamps. Those who like to think of "periods" in a writer's life can think of this time--up through the early 1370s--as Chaucer's "French period." Given his French models, it was astonishing that Chaucer decided to write poetry in his mother-tongue English rather than in French. To be sure, there was some English poetry in existence, but it tended to be quite different from what Chaucer was learning about in a London court that aspired to the language and customs of France.

What little poetry there was in English tended to be in a different dialect from his own and to be robustly alliterative rather than delicately end-rhymed, and there is little evidence that Chaucer knew such poetry or admired it. Although Chaucer wrote in English rather than in French, it is fair to say that Chaucer's first poetic efforts tended to be tentative and imitative rather than original. They can best be described as Englished French rather than natively English. Indeed, Chaucer's first long poem was a faithful translation of the French Roman de la rose.