Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Praise of Spring and Adventure

In my beginning…..

These were days when the sweet coastal towns just north of San Diego were minimally populated so that you might know each neighbor to capacity and yet not find that punishing.

The one public high school for six or ten towns was in Encinitas. It had a large campus and small enrollment. Open brown grass courtyards and a sometimes tall palm divided several buildings. Covered walkways edged the rows of one story classrooms which had the bare wood simplicity of an army barracks. There was little done to prettify or fuss.  For despite a setting in roiling paradise it was a serious place of learning.

When I reached Grade 10 I was placed in Mr. Walker’s English~ Language and History Class. He taught to restless sun-drenched kids who wanted more than sitting to be barefoot in a wet run on surf you could hear distantly breaking from the classroom’s open doors, the classrooms of San Dieguito Union High School.

Mr Walker was a sweet, enlightened man, trim and small in stature, crisply groomed right to his perfect bow tie in the collar of an ironed short-sleeved shirt, gray trousers with a good leather belt and polished buckle, and he had a bristling crew cut that was gray.  I can picture this today.  I am older now than he was then.

He presented for our pleasure a love of our native tongue, its history and classic treasures because he knew of their intrinsic thrill. Mr Walker interrupted our narrow focus, our brainless noise, our confused electrifying romances, and saturated our questing hearts. He taught us Chaucer in old English. It was stun-to-the-quick beautiful, to hear, and learn, and group-recite, and understand (as all juveniles can) complex poetry. I remember every line Mr Walker said and wrote on chalkboard. And I am older now than he was then.

And if I were to properly credit the lust for adventure that seized the aching heart of the child I was, surely it would come chiefest that Mr Walker told in hushed but robust reverence of a man who lived 600 years before my birth, a poet who described the impact of spring in every dancing molecule around his head and eye on his way to unknown lands as commonplace March became brilliant April, on his pilgrimage for wisdom, from companions, to an unseen healing sage, caught in a thrall for new experience.

Chaucer, 1340 to  1400  

The Prologue to The Book of the Tales of Canterbury in Middle English

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
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.
Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In southwerk at the tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To caunterbury with ful devout corage……..

A translation to modern English…maybe not the best but adequate…
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who help ed them when they lay so ill and weal
Befell that, in that season, on a day
In Southwark, at the Tabard, as I lay
Ready to start upon my pilgrimage
To Canterbury, full of devout homage……

Get thee to thy Canterbury, stranger and friend.


4 thoughts on “Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Praise of Spring and Adventure

  1. What a wonderful post! I’ve just been reading “The Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson and am in the middle of the chapter on how our words evolved (including the journey from Chaucer’s English to the multitude of variations we find today). Really fun stuff. Great tribute to a fantastic teacher. Wish the good ones weren’t so few and far between…. and appreciated more. The really great ones should be compensated at least on a scale with adult men who play ball. 😀

    PS loved the tribute to you at Giblets and Flapdoodle!

    • Thanks for all you said, Gunta. I’m so glad this hit with someone else interested in English origins. I didn’t go into that but it was part of the excitement, the where does THAT come from curiosity. I had a copy of Canterbury Tales in paperback from high school I ended up selling in the gallery in Big Sur. Passing Mr Walker on to the next bright-eyed student. It still amazes me that I learned it so thoroughly, it went to places inside I have yet to understand. I think English is really the most beautiful, precise language of all, full of play, good humor, and a plethora of choices for expressing feeling. I get the same experience reading poet John Dunne. And Byron. And Shelley. She walks in beauty like the night. For instance.
      And thanks about John Hayes blog on my life. My goodness, what a tribute he made, very touching to me that he did. Beaming for days!

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