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Ten Reasons to Love Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
At first I was going to title this "Ten Reasons The Canterbury Tales is the greatest work of literature ever written," but I thought it was a bit wordy for what is going to be a long series of posts. I truly believe that, though: I’ve never read anything so interesting, creative, and ahead of its time as Canterbury Tales, and in the coming days and weeks I hope to demonstrate why, beginning with...
Reason #1: The Language
I’ll be honest: The Canterbury Tales is not easy to read. Originally composed in the late 14th century, it was written in Middle English, which resembles our modern speech more closely than Beowulf, but not as much as Shakespeare. Most of the words are early forms of words we use today, but spelled and pronounced quite differently. Here are the opening lines from the General Prologue:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem Nature 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.
I was very fortunate in college to have a professor who brought this antiquated language to life. He helped me to not just understand the words, but gain an appreciation for the beauty of Chaucer's language. He even had each students memorize the first 42 lines of the prologue, telling us it would come in handy as an impressive trick at cocktail parties. The process of memorizing, with the repeated recitation, also gave me an appreciation for the music of Chaucer's poetry.
As a result, the only way for me to read Chaucer is in the original language. For one thing, I have yet to find a modern English translation that can match the beauty of Chaucer's writing. In addition to that, though, is something I'll explain more later. It seems that modern scholars are much more prudish than Chaucer, and in translating the work they replace references to anatomy and body functions with either more polite terms or similarly antiquated words that most readers aren't familiar with. The result is that they smooth over the commonness and outright dirtiness that made audiences love The Canterbury Tales throughout history.
I understand, though, that not everyone has the resources, patience, or geeky fascination with language that is needed for an understanding of Middle English. So if you must read The Canterbury Tales in translation, I insist that you read a complete poetic translation. There are plenty of prose books that paraphrase some of the tales. These miss the point completely. As with Shakespeare, the greatness of the tales is not just in the stories, but in the way they are written. Of the modern English translations available, Nevill Coghill's seems the best. Here is his version of the passage quoted above:
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially, from every shire's end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick.
Finally, since I've already revealed my geeky, stuck-up love for the original language of The Canterbury Tales, here's a link to a wonderful site where you can view full scans of William Caxton's 1476 and 1483 print editions of the book. They're a lot of fun to look at for Chaucer nerds.
In my next post I'll abandon talk of the language and get into the actual subject matter of the book, which will hopefully be more interesting for those who don't necessarily love Middle English poetry.
To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.
http://brendoman.com/kyle/2007/06/14/ten_reasons_to_love_chaucer_s_canterbury_3">Reason #2: The Pilgrims and Reason #3: The Knight's Tale
I found this when searching for the phrase “making melody” after a fellow poet workshopped one of my pieces. She said it reminded her of Chaucer, so I wanted to check it out.
Love the Chaucer t-shirt and appreciate your thoughts and how you’ve shared the prologue here.