Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chaucer's The Tales of Canterbury--from the Prologue

Many years ago in grad school, I had to take
a course in Chaucer. I wasn't looking forward
to this since I had always preferred works in
which the language was transparent. In other
words, one simply sat down and read it, and
not have to struggle with the wording also.
This was certainly not going to be the case
in this course for we were going to read the
work in Middle English.

I survived the course, and I surprisingly
felt sad as I left the classroom on the last
day of class. I felt as though I were
leaving some special place to which I would
never return. I had seldom felt that way
after any class I had taken.

A year later, I had to take some major exams
for which I had to review The Tales of
. I was going to play it smart
this time and get a modern rendering of the
work. I sat down with the translation and
found it uninteresting. I dug out my old
textbook and happily read through it, still
struggling a bit, even so.

I had gotten the point that language is
important, even above the standard level
of proper usage. I also found myself
more interested in poetry from then on.
There must be a connection here, somewhere.

For me, anyway, reading The Tales of Canterbury
is much like reading a time travel story. I
find that I really do go back to the late
14th century. It contains much about the
people, their customs, the way they
thought, as well as some great stories.

Following are the first 34 lines of the
prologue. If you aren't familiar with
the language, try reading it out loud.
You may be surprised at how much more
you will understand by doing that.
Perhaps some day you might even take up
the complete work.

Geoffrey Chaucer The Tales of Canterbury


WHANNE that April with his shoures sote

The droughte of March hath perced to the rote,

And bathed every veine in swiche licour,

Of whiche vertue engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eke with his sote brethe

Enspired hath in every holt and hethe

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,

And smale foules maken melodie,

That slepen alle night with open eye, 10

So priketh hem nature in hir corages;

Than longen folk to gon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seken strange strondes,

To serve halwes couthe in sondry londes;

And specially, from every shires ende

Of Englelond, to Canterbury they wende,

The holy blisful martyr for to seke,

That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

Befelle, that, in that seson on a day, is

In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,

Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage

To Canterbury with devoute corage,

At night was come into that hostelrie

Wei nine and twenty in a compagnie

Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle

In felawship, and pilgrimes were they alle,

That toward Canterbury wolden ride.

The chambres and the stables weren wide,

And wel we weren esed atte beste.

And shortly, whan the sonne was gon to reste,

So hadde I spoken with hem everich on,

That I was of hir felawship anon,

And made forword erly for to rise,

To take oure way ther as I you devise.


  1. You are very right-I just read this aloud and it is much easier to understand when spoken-I am not sure I am up for reading the entire work that way, however

  2. chuckle...

    That would be hard on the throat. How about just doing short segments and spreading the work out over a long period of time?

    We spent the entire semester, almost four months on it. The first time through, I simply read for a general understanding of what was happening. I then went back for a second read to get a better understanding of it.

  3. You have just reminded me of how much I like the prologue. Thanks indeed for sharing!


  4. Hannah,

    You are welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it.