One of the earliest and greatest works of literature in English also contains one of poetry’s most enchanting evocations of Spring. The opening 18 lines of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer from about 1385 until 1400, celebrate earth’s rebirth in early spring. Have you ever heard a more elegant way to say, “April showers bring May flowers”? Nature’s revival, the end of winter’s “droghte,” inspires travel to faraway places, or “sondry londes” (l. 14). — from medieval pilgrimages to Spring Break trips of today.
The General Prologue provides the frame for The Canterbury Tales, a book-length collection of stories told in verse by a fellowship of pilgrims as they travel from London to Canterbury. The Prologue is narrated by a fellow pilgrim—a fictionalized version of Chaucer himself—who, while staying at the Tabard Inn, Southwark—a district of central London on the south bank of the River Thames—joins 30 other pilgrims for the journey. During this season of renewal, “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” (l. 12)—people might in turn seek spiritual renewal by making a pilgrimage to a Christian shrine, one of the most prominent of which in England is the shrine containing relics of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury—about 50 miles from London. Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170 due to conflicts with King Henry II, was canonized by Pope Alexander III. Pilgrims wend their way from every English shire, or county, to seek blessing from the holy martyr, who was reputed to have the power of healing the sick and absolving the sinful.
At the end of the 858-line Prologue, in which each pilgrim is introduced and described, the innkeeper (Host) proposes that the group ride together and entertain one another with stories. The ensuing stories, told by a varied cast of characters representing a cross-section of medieval society—knight, squire, miller, monk, man of law, clerk, and wife, to name a few—are often based on European traditional stories and run the gamut from courtly romance to religious legend to beast fable to ribald comedy. The frame of a spiritual journey echoes every man’s journey from birth to death—or more broadly, the progress of the soul, whose hoped-for destination, as noted by the Parson, is “the heavenly Jerusalem.”
This spiritual dimension is apparent even in the work’s opening lines. Each aspect of Nature is alive and personified. April “pierces” the earth to its deepest depths with “his” showers, like a courtier wielding a sword, then gives the earth a reviving bath; these lines may even be seen as containing sexual overtones. Zephirus, the West Wind, breathes life into—“inspires”—the woods and fields. Birds sing, but why they sleep with their eyes open is beyond me! Helios, the “yonge” sun—newly warmer because closer to Earth—has “run” his chariot halfway through the constellation Aries, the first sign of the Zodiac (March 20-April 21)—whose symbol is a ram, or male sheep. All of these natural references, especially those to the sun, wind, and stars, emphasize the connection of earth to the heavens—from which the “shoures soote” are sent.
The most pleasing aspect of this celebrated poetic introduction—and the reason it is so important to hear it read in its original language—is the beauty of its music. “Probably influenced by French syllable-counting in versification, Chaucer developed for The Canterbury Tales a line of 10 syllables with alternating accent and regular end rhyme—an ancestor of the heroic couplet,” which consists of rhyming lines of iambic pentameter and became the principal meter used by John Dryden and Alexander Pope in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The brilliant end rhymes seamlessly convey Chaucer’s meaning. Musical sound effects are created by the use of alliteration—with “maken melodye” (l. 9), “seken straunge strondes” (l. 13), or “hem hath holpen” (l. 18)—and assonance with “HAth in the rAm his hAlf cours yronne” (l. 8) or “from Every shires End / Of Engelond” (l. 16). It is fascinating to trace the evolution of word meanings still in use today, such as “corage,” translated here as heart, that became our courage, or “vertu,” translated as power, that later took on a moral dimension with virtue.
I hope you were lucky enough to read and discuss The Canterbury Tales in high school and/or college, and to have a professor who could read it to you in the original Middle English. Some of us were even required to memorize it! If not, or if you have forgotten the enchanting music of the original, check it out on YouTube. I recommend this version from Steve the Vagabond, which projects the Harvard translation underneath the original text of each line as it is read: youtube.com/watch?v=mVG77xTPH6E.
Geoffrey Chaucer is considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, and is often called the “father of English poetry.” He is credited with legitimizing the literary use of Middle English when the dominant literary languages in England were still French and Latin. He also led a successful career as a courtier, diplomat, and member of parliament. He married Philippa de Roet and had at least three children. Writing The Canterbury Tales, considered Chaucer’s greatest work, occupied the last fifteen years of his life and remained unfinished at his death in 1400. It was enormously popular in its time. Chaucer’s other notable works include The Parliament of Fowls and Troilus and Criseyde. He is buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.
Has a more eloquent tribute to April ever been written? This glorious description of spring unites us with one of English’s greatest poets from over half a millenium ago. In an era of rapid change, it is comforting to know that the change of seasons still reaffirms our connection with Nature, with literature, and with history.