Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Excerpt from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer

     Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Canterbury

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
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 blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght were come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by áventure y-falle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we were esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everychon,
That I was of hir felawshipe anon,
And forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey, ther as I yow devyse.

But nathelees, whil I have tyme and space,
Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun
To telle yow al the condicioun
Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
And whiche they weren and of what degree,
And eek in what array that they were inne;
And at a Knyght than wol I first bigynne.

As it is a beautiful spring day today, I can't stop thinking of the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  I've presented here the first three stanzas of Chaucer's introduction to his magnum opus, and while it is in Middle English, if you take it slowly, it's still fairly easy to understand.  I have posted poems in Middle English before, but if you haven't read one before, here are a few general guidelines:

1)  Pronounce vowels as if they are Latin vowels.  Think of vowels in Spanish, for reference.  A, instead of being our English A, which is a dipthong, is a pure "ah" sound.

2)  Pronounce consonants!  The word "Knyght" rather than being pronounced knight, as we would say today, is closer to kuh-nicht.  Think of the bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with the French soldier taunting King Arthur and his coterie.  Rather than just being silly, his pronunciation is actually fairly historically authentic.  That's just another layer to a great joke!

3)  If there's a word you don't know, don't worry too much about it.  There are going to be words you don't recognize, but don't let it stop you.  Context can usually help, and in cases where it doesn't, hopefully I either provide you with a little help, or you can look it up.  Don't be afraid to sound things out.  A word like "ye" would be pronounced "ee-uh" which means "eye."  You may feel silly sounding words out, but you shouldn't!  Reading silently was not common practice, and Middle English often makes use of puns that only make sense when audible.

With all that said, let's take a bit of a closer look at the poem itself!

Here begins the Book of the tales of Canterbury!  Chaucer so declares, and so it is!  It's the start of a long journey.  17,000+ lines, in fact.  And Chaucer didn't even finish his tale!  Initially he planned to have each of the thirty pilgrims he introduces tell four tales each, two on the way there, two on the way back, in a story-telling competition while they took their pilgrimage to Canterbury (and the shrine of St. Thomas of Beckett).  This would have been a common pilgrimage, as St. Thomas of Beckett was visited by those who felt themslves to be sinful.

To begin, Chaucer starts setting the scene.  It's April, which is the season of "shoures soote" (sweet breath) that pierces the drought of March.  April is the season in which the countryside comes back to life.  Here in my native Connecticut, it seems to have taken until May for that to really happen, but no matter!  I don't mind posting a poem a day late.  April has "bathed every veyne (vine) in swich licour (sweet liquor)" that has woken every "flour" (flower).

One word that comes up in Middle English is "eek" or "eke."  This simply means "also."  So when Chaucer writes, "Whan Zaphirus eek with his swete breeth" you can simply think "also."  So those lines, loosely translated, can read, "When Zephirus (the Greek god of the west wind) also breatheed his sweet breath, he raised the tender crops (brought life to the fields).  If we go slowly through lines, it's not so hard, right?  "Smale fowles maken melodye, That slepen all the nyght with open ye."  Small birds sing, that sleep all night with open eyes.  Chaucer is just setting the scene here, and painting a vivid image of a lively spring, animated with images that tickle every sense.

But what happens to us people when Spring starts happening like this?  "So priketh hem Nature in his corages, / Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages."  Why, we want to go on pilgrimages, of course, and enter out into the beautiful world!  (Translated, Nature pricks us with its courages, so we long to go on pilgrimages.)  Where do we especially want to go?  "Specially, from every shires ende / Of Engelond, to Canterbury they wende."  Ah, we want to go to Canterbury, from every shire's end, from all corners of England!

Now, many presentations of the General Prologue stop after that first stanza, but I feel a little more context makes it much richer.  Don't worry, we don't have to read all 800 lines of the General Prologue, though I certainly encourage you to do so on your own time!  The second stanza introduces Chaucer as the narrator of this tale.  He is at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, which operated from 1300 until 1873!  Chaucer there was "redy to wenden on my pilgrymage / To Caunterbury wil ful devout corage" when that night another group arrived.  "nyne and twenty in a compaignye" arrived, all going to Canterbury.  Nine and twenty plus Chaucer gives us thirty in total.  Worth noting, the word "wend" means to go.  We sometimes still use that in modern English, though it is somewhat archaic.

In the last stanza that I've included, Chaucer addresses us directly, with an aside.  It's a very straightforward stanza, which translated, effectively says, "Nevertheless, while I have the time, before I go any further, I think I'll tell you about each of the travelers: who they are, their condition, how they were dressed, and I'll begin with the Knight."  I stopped there, because what follows in the prologue is Chaucer going on to describe each character in detail.  They certainly are characters, too, and Chaucer gives us a clear picture of each of them, both in terms of disposition and appearance.  I included that last stanza to give you a glimpse at the more human element of this narration.  Chaucer, through his narrator, speaks to us readers directly.  It's like any storyteller saying, "Oh, while I've got time, let me tell you about these folks."  It really brings to bear the directness of the storytelling, and throughout the whole of the Tales, Chaucer uses that narrator as a character in rich and interesting ways, acting in a shockingly modern, self-deprecating manner.  That's neither here nor there in the General Prologue, but I felt that the third stanza could give you a glimpse of the character of the later work by letting Chaucer speak more frankly.

I hope it hasn't been too hard or boring getting through this Middle English with me.  I dearly love the challenge and sound of Middle English, and feel that it is still accessible without too much ornery scholarship.  And once you get into the rhythm of it, it becomes a true delight.  I've attached for you a reading of the Prologue so that you may hear what I mean about how Middle English sounds.  It's my hope that one day, you will attempt reading Middle English on your own, not in translation, reader, and take great satisfaction from it, much as I do when presenting it to you.

And to further get you in the mood for a pilgrimage, here is a wonderful album of music from the time of Chaucer, specifically, drinking songs!  Start this playlist, read along, and get caught up in the time!  There's something especially buoyant about this music and this poetry, as if it captures the very essence of Spring.

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