Monday, April 02, 2007

Whan that Aprille -- a National Poetry Month post

And now, for something completely different: a few lines from Chaucer to start the day. Here, in their Middle-English glory, are the first 18 lines from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth &emsp &emsp 5
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 fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye, &emsp &emsp 10
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende &emsp &emsp 15
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

Here is one possible translation of those lines:

When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath, &emsp &emsp 5
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye &emsp &emsp 10
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.
And specially from every shire's end &emsp &emsp 15
Of England they to Canterbury went,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they were sick.

A few thoughts. First, if you haven't read The Canterbury Tales, you needn't be embarrassed about it, but I must tell you that you've been missing some very funny stuff. Interesting, funny, and even bawdy stuff.

Geoffrey Chaucer is widely credited with being the father of all English literature. For one thing, he actually wrote in what was then the common dialect, whereas most literature of the time was written in Latin or French. Second, he wrote fiction. That's right -- he made up characters (the people he depicts as being collected at an inn during the pilgrimage to Canterbury) and he made up stories for them to tell. And they speak with different voices, too.

The bit of the Prologue you read is part of the scene-setting, but most of the Tales are the different stories told by his fictional characters. After the Knight tells a tale of gallant courtly love, the Miller responds with a highly bawdy tale that involves a man climbing a ladder in order to kiss a woman's naked posterior -- and that's pretty much the tamest bit in his story. And so it goes -- a pious story is followed by a licentious one, a serious tale by a comical one. Point, counterpoint.

Second -- about the language. Is the Middle English a bit of a chore? Yep. (At least for most people -- if Middle English is your bag, then you simply must check out Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog.) But if you read the Middle English aloud slowly, you'll catch much of it's meaning, even when the phrasing is a bit odd or the modifiers aren't quite where you're used to seeing them in modern English. Or, you can read a translation of it into modern English, which makes for much quicker going, although some of the word play is lost when you do that. Still, the stories themselves are worth the effort.

Finally, if you ever have the opportunity to see The New Vic Theatre's production of The Canterbury Tales in the round (they tour periodically), you simply must go. They were in Philadelphia with the production in 2001 and it was riotously funny.

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