Dryden’s description of Chaucer as the ‘Father of English Poetry’ and Puttenham’s demarcation of late fourteenth-century English poetry as a ‘first age’ have had varied fortunes in recent histories of poetry. Although Chaucer’ sobriquet was roundly defended on the occasion of his sexcentenary, the ‘age of Chaucer’ and ‘Ricardian poetry’, key terms for the New Critics, have yielded to more varied and nuanced periodisations. However, there remain indisputable grounds for regarding the contribution of Chaucer and certain of his contemporaries as foundational in the history of English poetry, and for viewing the late fourteenth century as a distinctive and crucial literary period. Late fourteenth-century England produced the first English poetry that has continued to be read, and responded to, throughout all subsequent periods. We have incontrovertible evidence that the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and the author of Piers Plowman (whom, following tradition, I shall call William Langland), all composed in the last three, perhaps four, decades of the fourteenth century, has never since fallen out of sight. This chapter outlines the opportunities and constraints that attended the making of poetry in English in the later fourteenth century, and explores the ways in which Chaucer, Gower and Langland responded to them. The final section of the chapter briefly turns to the legacy of these poets and the story of how they first became recognised as founders of a tradition of English poetry.
Several models of composition were available to and valued in late fourteenth-century England. None of these models was English. The metres and figures of the classical poets were transmitted as part of education in grammar and rhetoric. Schoolboys were required to compose Latin verse on set themes in prescribed metres. Valorised models of vernacular composition were available in French and Italian. The nobility and their servants moved in a multilingual environment where French was the language of polite intercourse, diplomacy and letters. War, diplomacy and marriage were among the circumstances that provided for the dissemination of French poetry in England.