Poem 1: The Canterbury Tales

It’s terribly obvious to begin with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but it’s not here for the obvious reasons. This is the poem I think of every April. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t opened my Chaucer texts in years. These are the lines that I whisper to myself every Spring:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu 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 fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yë—
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages—
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

I never think of a modern English translation. A college professor had us memorize those 18 lines when I was an undergraduate, so they’ve been tucked away in my memory ever since.

I had changed my major to English (from Elementary Ed) by the time I met up with Chaucer in college. He turned me into what I’ll call an amateur medievalist. I would never claim to be a true medieval scholar. I just don’t know enough to wear that title gracefully, but in my heart, I am a medievalist.

Everyone knows (well, at least those of us who are English teachers know anyway) that The Canterbury Tales is a great poem for beginnings—the start of spring, the start of an epic pilgrimage, the start of a classic poem.

For me, The Canterbury Tales kicked off my love for all things medieval. Occasionally I daydream about getting a PhD in medieval studies. It’s not that I have any great desire to have a PhD in literature at this point. Instead, I know that would be the only way I could justify spending days lost in medieval texts.

It’s certainly the only way that I’d ever get access to a real medieval manuscript. I’ve seen wonderful facsimiles, but if I ever had an actual Chaucer manuscript on the library table in front of me, I’m certain I’d break down in tears. The idea of it even makes me weepy. I’ve tried to resign myself to the fact that it will never ever happen, but on the first day of April, as I recall the poem that started me down this path, I think it’s okay to dream on it a little more.