Poetry: Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales

Whan that Aprille 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 palmers 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.

Chaucer, The General Prologue

I was terrified when I learned that I would have to memorize this for a class. I was a freshman, and I had been told this class would be difficult, but I did not expect that I would need to memorize something in MIDDLE ENGLISH with PERFECT pronunciation. I slaved over this prologue for weeks, listening to videos and reading stuff on how to emphasize certain syllables. (I’m a high anxiety sort of person, can you tell?) So when the day finally came for me to go to my professor and recite the prologue, I was ready. Well, mostly. I was still skimming the text as I was waiting outside his office. Nothing was going to mess this up. My grade depended on it.

The first student walked out, and I took their chair. I was a nervous wreck, and my professor noticed. Confused, he asked why I was so nervous. I told him that I was afraid that I wouldn’t have it memorized properly and I’d get a bad grade. And that is when he laughed. He reassured me that, though I did need to know the prologue and he wanted proper pronunciation, this wasn’t, in fact, a life or death situation. I could even read it straight from the book. So I did. Flawlessly. And I got my A.

Now, if you listen to my recording over on Instagram, you’ll probably notice that my recitation is not flawless. Here’s another little secret: I didn’t do it by memory either. But every time I think of this poem, I think of this story. Yes, I remember bits of the class. We never read the whole thing (not that anyone can now, ha ha), but the parts we did talk about I only remember bits and pieces of, and mostly just the bawdy parts because they made us laugh. And the etymology studies we did (LOVED those). And the version from Book a Minute. But I think perhaps my favorite memory of this piece is from the history class that I used to teach. I’ve talked about that class several times; I loved those kids. But it is not a specific memory I have, more of a general set of emotions and lessons that came with my reading and discussion of this prologue.

The kids got a kick out of me reading things from the past. But they especially liked it when I made them “sound funny.” And the funnier, the better. I often “thickened” my “accent” just to get more laughs out of them. When I finished, they’d want to look at what I was reading and often were surprised (and maybe disappointed!) at how normal the words looked. But these kids didn’t care if I pronounced the words right, nor did they care if they made sense. They just loved it because it was new and fun, and I made it connect to them. I didn’t get into the details of the whole tale. After all, I think the Wife of Bath might be a bit too much for middle schoolers. My only goal was to give them a little piece of history, specifically a piece that links the language they spoke today with that of the past, and connect the religion they adhered to today with an even deeper past with pilgrims beyond number.

I loved that class, and I love this poem. I read it for enjoyment now, just as I read many things without stress. That class helped me take things down a notch and remember to enjoy what I was reading. Life is more than academics, but it includes a love of literature and learning. So I taught my class the same way. They had no homework, no memorization (though I wonder sometimes if I should have had a little). But my kids learned. They learned the material, most of them, anyhow. And they learned to listen for tidbits to bring to me every week and listen for what new things I would share with them. They learned to listen for points that made them laugh and things that made them quiet. And perhaps they didn’t listen close enough to learn how to pronounce every syllable of “The General Prologue” perfectly, but I think they got a little glimpse of what it was like to love to learn and read for only its simple pleasure.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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