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!

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26 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: In defense of the Canterbury Tales

  1. Great post, Sarah. The Knight’s Tale has always been my favorite, but the Wife’s is tops too. I had to memorize that portion for a class about 5 years ago so it’s really fresh for me. I hope it still comes this easily in 20 or 30 years.

  2. Bringing me back to my Canterbury Tales class in college. Suffice to say that I understood nothing the entire semester, and the teacher tried to speak that way for the entire class.

    I had completely forgotten about that. And life was good…

    I had no idea that there was another version, one where I could actually understand it until after the class ended. It was just me muttering and frantically studying the Cliff Notes.

  3. Love that line: “to give the English language prestige as a medium for the best that could be thought or said.” I’m embarrassed to say I completely missed Chaucer in my education so I’m off to crack open my daughter’s copy. Great post. And what a very cool mother.

    • Don’t be embarrassed, Nina—idyllic childhoods are not to be sneezed at! 😉

      And Mom is seriously the awesome (though naturally, I didn’t always think so—growing up has its perks).

  4. I was introduced to The Canterbury Tales in my high school senior year english and literature class. Nestled between Beowulf and Hamlet, we were introduced to Chaucer (though not in the middle english, we had a nice translation). We didn’t the study the bawdier parts, though the teacher often referred to the Miller’s tale with a “wink wink, nudge nudge,” She also laced our study of the Aurthurian legend with Monty Python references. She was cool like that. I also took her creative writing class (though I didn’t necessarily excel, or didn’t think so, at the time). I like writing a lot more now as I think about it…

    But I digress…

    Chaucer, even in translation, wasn’t an easy read. I can’t imagine trying to study it in its original form. And props to you for throwing in a Jabberwocky reference (one of my all time personal faves).

    BTW, I found the The Witch a la mode at Gutenberg, read it, and stand by my assessment that Winifred is as much at fault for the situation as Bernard. Being “firey” in personality, she kept egging on the discussion, providing the spark that ignited their passion…and the fire. Bernard, being caught up in his passion, was unsettled by his loss of control, and chose to flee. Fight or flight…he chose….poorly *

    I’ve put way too much into this blog post! Have a nice day.

    * Monty Python reference, can’t help myself.

    • Jabberwocky has come up in frequent and odd ways in my life . . . Weird defense mechanism, that.

      I re-read “Witch,” too, after your comment, and I agree that Winifred is equally to blame. I wonder if my group overcompensated because the story is from Bernard’s POV and they didn’t care for him?

      (I thought “choosing poorly” was a Indiana Jones reference . . . obviously, I have to go watch my entire Monty Python collection to make sure!)

    • Yep.

      Upon an amblere esily she sat,
      Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat
      As brood as is a bokeler or a targe;
      A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large,
      And on hir feet a paire of spores sharpe.
      In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe.
      Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,
      For she koude of that art the olde daunce.

    • Chaucer needs to be taught by someone who loves him—you need to work up a certain level of enthusiasm to tackle the Tales! 🙂

      And I think Middle English sounds best with an English (or Scots) accent — but don’t tell Mom.

  5. The wife of bath was the queen of discussion in my women’s studies class; she found a special place in my heart then and there she will always remain. I also took a little tour in London when I was 10 and the conclusion of the tour was a book of the Canterbury Tales. It oddly fascinated 10 year old me.

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