Poem of the Month: The General Prologue to Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ (1478)

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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
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
(That slepen al the nyght with open eye)
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

If anyone feels up for an enjoyable and seasonal reading challenge, as the days get longer and energy levels get higher, then I highly recommend Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  As the general prologue states, the action of the poem begins in April, with the sweet showers of rain (in both Middle English and modern England) breaking through the winter drought.  The beginning of Chaucer’s monumental poetic achievement is itself a beautiful metaphor, describing the flowers of spring breaking through the harsh winter soil.  The cycle of the seasons is evoked with a focus on liveliness of spring, birds sing and don’t even close their eyes at night, so affected are they by the natural drive of this time of year.

After this natural and classical imagery (Zephirus is the West Wind and the ‘Ram’ is a reference to Aries) it may seem like a jump to start talking about Christian Pilgrimage, but that’s the Canterbury Tales all over.  A mismatch of classical, folk traditional and original tales and characters, bound by the same aim, but by very little else.  During the prologue, a disparate collection of pilgrims meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark (travelling is dangerous business in the middle-ages and it’s safer to go in a group). Their guide and host decides that to pass the time on the journey they will tell each other stories, and these stories are the most wonderful window into fifteenth-century English life.  Covering the three estates (those who work, those who pray and one member of the nobility), both genders and all levels of society this is a surprisingly democratic group and we get to see professional and societal rivalries played out in a way which shows that, while language might change over time, human behaviour really doesn’t.

Speaking of the language, I’m an English geek, so of course I get very excited by the non-Standard spelling and grammar of the period.  I love that ‘eek’ and ‘eke’ used to mean ‘also’ and there’s something enduringly entertaining about the original spelling of husband (‘house bound’).  Reading English from this period is a bit like unpacking a simple code and it’s about as close to succeeding in cross-word puzzles as I will ever get.

Not everyone has time to go on holiday, sorry, pilgrimage, at this time of year, but we can hopefully take the time to remember some great Spring poems.  Happy April everyone!

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This wonderful image is from www.bl.uk, where else?

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13 Responses to Poem of the Month: The General Prologue to Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ (1478)

  1. Wonderful Shoshi! I love Chaucer – I’m going to dust off my Riverside edition and immerse myself in medieval pilgrimage for a while 🙂

  2. I love how you read so widely!

  3. Sarah says:

    I’ve not read Chaucer since school, but found it to be a revelation at the time – so witty! I shall dig out my copy (if I can remember what colour it is – the downside of chromatic shelving!) 🙂

  4. BookerTalk says:

    One day I should dust off my copy and read a few more of these tales.

  5. Maybe you can help me dust off the damage academia did to my enjoyment of Chaucer. Lovely post!

    • It makes me so sad to hear of studying ruining books. I know there’s always plenty to read so one author more or less won’t destroy your reading pleasure, but Chaucer can be so enjoyable! I hope at least that reading the start of the prologue wasn’t too traumatic…

      • No – As said, I did Chaucer at A level – Prologue and I think Nun’s Priest’s tale, and enjoyed it, but foundered later. I know I ended up taking complete Chauser, Middle English, to the charity shop, finally, but I see a Penguin (modern English) Canterbury tales, still languishes on the bookshelf………who knows……

  6. MarinaSofia says:

    I loved Chaucer – the fun, the bawdy humour, the wit – I’ve got the Riverside Chaucer (somewhere) and a modern(ish) rendering of it too, which I recommend to all beginners, just to get a feel for how much fun it can be. My children read a children’s retelling of Canterbury Tales and (though parts of it were too ‘adult’ for them) they enjoyed it enormously.

  7. Pingback: The Medieval Mindset: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (12th century) | Shoshi's Book Blog

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