Poetry Wednesday: In defense of the Canterbury Tales

My junior year, I dragged myself home and asked my mother if she’d had to read Chaucer when she was in high school.

She cleared her throat and said,

Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in sich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tender 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 courages
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende.
The hooly, blissful martir for to seke
The hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

I took that as a yes,* though she could have been reciting the Hobbit in Scots-Elvish, for all I knew at the time.

It wasn’t until a linguistics class in college** that I found an appreciation for the language and discovered why Mom had been a bit startled four years back when I told her was supposed to recite the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in class—and why she’d  been so  relieved that no one had been assigned the Miller’s Tale.***

This particular professor liked to immerse his students in the rhymes and rhythms of a given period to the point where we went around campus muttering in Middle English about vowel shifts and completely lost our ability to spell things the same way twice.^

Language is usually the point of studying the Canterbury Tales.  Though he wrote in the upper class vernacular of an educated man, Chaucer didn’t use formal Court language for this work—instead, he used common phrases . . .  and the occasional rude idiom. He wasn’t the first poet to write in English, though French was much more common, but, as the intro to my favorite copy says, he was the first poet, “to give the English language prestige as a medium for the best that could be thought or said.”^^

Whether you agree with that or not, Chaucer was the first to promote English as a language worth writing in—and he did it, in great part, with this rather lengthy poem about a diverse group of people taking a church-sanctioned walking tour of England and deciding to hold a storytelling contest to keep their minds off their blisters.

So it’s historically important.

But this poem’s status as a Classic-with-a-capital-C has become such a given that most people seem to forget why Chaucer’s work had such an impact in the first place.  I mean, it obviously knocked the sockyes off its original audience, or I’d be struggling with les verbes irréguliers here every Wednesday, non?^^^

For all the difficulty modern readers might have slogging through the vocabulary and cultural peculiarities and symbolism—for over five hundred blinkin’ pages—this is, and always has been, a good narrative poem.  Solid storytelling in poetic form.

Not every section is a gem, maybe, but overall, this poem has humor, pathos, satire, hypocrisy, piety, sex, truth, a healthy skepticism, and unreliable narrators out the wazoo.

The characters are simply fascinating.  For the most part, these people are pointedly flawed and Chaucer seems to enjoy taking potshots at them.  There are exceptions—the young squire, the preacher and his plowman brother, and a few others are treated respectfully—but the initial descriptions of the rest are often slyly snerkworthy:

In sangwn and in pers he clad was al,
Lyned with taffeta and with sandal;
And yet he was but esy of dispence,
He kepte that he wan in pestilence.
For gold in phisik is a cordial;
Therefore he lovede gold in special.

Or to sum up, this doctor’s other horse is a Porsche . . .

But the prologues are where the character development shines.  I’m still fond of the Wife, who has worn out five husbands and intends to keep going, God willing—and argues with pretty decent logic (at least from my point of view) that He is.  And the Pardoner, bless his self-satisfied hide,  just punks himself.

The tales that these characters tell are interesting, too.  The pardoner tells a decent (so to speak) near- gothic morality tale; the knight’s story is a romantic saga verging (in my opinion) on the bardic; and the Miller . . . well.

See?  Chaucer wasn’t just some old dude who wrote this rhyming doorstop that makes Shakespeare look sane just to torture high school students.  He wrote stuff people really enjoyed.

He wrote stuff people still enjoy, 600-plus years later—or would, if they’d give it a chance.

So, what do you say?

C’mon—you know you’re curious about the Miller’s Tale.  And no one’s going to deduct points for using a modern translation.  Though once you read through a section or two, why not try it in Middle English?

You can always pretend it’s Elvish.


*I called her yesterday and asked her if she could still do it.  Of course she could—barring three mumbles and one long uhhhm, which I feel shouldn’t count, considering.  She told me that she’d spent so long trying to memorize that passage that she was damned if she was going to forget it.  I feel the same way about wandering freely as a cloud over all those blasted daffodils and brightly burning tygers.

**English Ed requirement.  Beats math.

***No. Read it, if you want to know why— Averil, this means you, and try the Wife as well.  She’s our kind of people.

^I haven’t held onto the Tales half as well as Mom has—I’m retaining way too many daffodils—and when I try to dig up fragments of the prioresse’s introduction, dear madame Eglentine tends to gyre and gimble in the wabe.  ‘Course I’d always suspected she would, given half a chance.

^^Okay, so it’s my only copy—but the intro rocks:  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, with an introduction, notes, and a glossary by John Matthews Manley of the University of Chicago. (New York: Henry Holt and Company), 1928.

^^^And I do mean struggle.  Merci for the assistance, Grace!