Chaucer & Spring

First off, it was a beautiful day in D.C. today. It seemed like the first real Spring day we have had in the Washington area. It was 70 degrees (F, not C), the first wildflowers bloomed, and I went for a long walk with my evil spawn. On a day like this, there is only one way I can sum up my feelings. And that way, is to whip out the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Aside from being a great collection of stories and allegories, the Tales have the best summary of what Spring really means – and best of all, it’s really bawdy, once you know your literary history. Matter of fact, the Canterbury tales are pretty much one long dirty joke, in a lot of ways.


Too bad you have to study Medieval History, Literature, Arts, Semiotics, Alchemy, Biology, and Middle English to get the punchline. To read and know Chaucer, is to realize that Shakespeare never could have crafted his works, had Chaucer not paved the way for densely written, clever, jokey, smart, philosophical literature. Chaucer basically invented literature as we understand it. Compared to Chaucer, as Sergeant Major Plumley might have put it, Shakespeare’s a pussy. Yet despite Chaucer’s brilliance, he isn’t as accessible as Shakespeare due to the archaic Middle English vernacular of his day, and the fact that a lot of brilliant enlightenment thinkers wrote of the Medieval ages as the “Dark Ages” – thereby ignoring Chaucer and his Italian sorta-counterpart, Bocaccio. Nevertheless, until you study Chaucer formally (which I urge you to do, it is a mental picnic) I will translate – my translations denoted with a hyphen

1: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
– When the sweet rainshowers of April
2: The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
– Have quenched the March drought, soaking the roots of the plants
3: And bathed every veyne in swich licour
– And soaked every root in such sweet fluid
4: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
– Exemplified in the blooming flowers
5: Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
– When the warm wind, with its sweet breath,
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
– Has inspired in every field and forest,
7: Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
– Tender crops of vegetables; and the Son of the early astrological year
8: Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
– Is halfway through the phase of the Ram
9: And smale foweles maken melodye,
– And the little birds sing
10: That slepen al the nyght with open ye
– The birds that keep one eye open at night,
11: (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
– So nature encourages them to sing and carouse;
12: Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
– That’s when people want to go on pilgrimages,
13: And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
– And pilgrims want to seek strange lands,
14: To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
– To distant shrines well known in strange lands;
15: And specially from every shires ende
– And especially the folks from the boondocks, out in the counties
16: Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
– of England — they make their way to Canterbury Cathedral.
17: The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
– To pray at the internment site of the holy martyr
18: That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
– Who helped them when they were sick.

Okay, so it works pretty well as a straight up poem. But it works as a dirty joke, too, the smut is denoted with asterisks (*)
1: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
– When the sweet rainshowers of April
2: The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
– Have quenched the March drought, soaking the roots of the plants
***Ahh, we’re talking about spring. Fertility, people. Bathing things in life-giving fluids…
3: And bathed every veyne in swich licour
– And soaked every root in such sweet fluid
4: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
– Exemplified in the blooming flowers
*****Hmmmm… flowers, eh? Nothing a man loves more than to pick the flowers, nothing better in nature than soaking the seed of life with fluid so it grows… this is about sex & virginity here, and reproduction & fertility.
5: Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
– When the warm wind, with its sweet breath,
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
– Has inspired in every field and forest,
7: Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
– Tender crops of vegetables; and the Son of the early astrological year
8: Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
– Is halfway through the phase of the Ram
*****Um, the warm weather is making everyone horny. The plants are reproducing, and the Ram – a symbol of virility – is halfway through executing his plans thanks to the mere occurrence of warm spring weather. There was a theory in those days, about blushing and sweat – you know where this is going. Yep, the wind blows, and the horny goat runs around. Whew, I’m getting warm just thinking about it.
9: And smale foweles maken melodye,
– And the little birds sing
10: That slepen al the nyght with open ye
– The birds that keep one eye open at night,
****Those birds that are singing with one eye open at night are cuckoos. Some cuckoos breed by eating and removing one egg from another bird’s nest, and laying one of their own to be raised by the unsuspecting host bird. Hence the term “cuckold.” Chaucer is saying that randy guys are all over the place looking to get a leg over, even with married women if the chance presents itself.
11: (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
– So nature encourages them to sing and carouse;
***Priketh means to “spur onward”; the term “prik” also meant “prick”, as in penis. So Chaucer is saying that nature makes everyone drop trou and run wild, thinking with the little head yet again.
12: Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
– That’s when people want to go on pilgrimages,
***People used to walk a long distance to famous chapels. The pilgrimage journey might take weeks or months, and there would be some prayer involved. There was also some boozing, and some Girles Gawne Wilde involved. Walk and pray all day, eat and booze (and if you were lucky, screw) all night. Yes, that’s right, a trip to Canterbury or San Jaun Compostela might just as easily be holy, or be “holy shit it’s MTV (Medieval Transubstantiation and venery) Spring Break 1381! Woooooohooo!”
13: And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
– And pilgrims want to seek strange lands,
*** Palmers – pilgrims carrying symbolic Eastertime palm fronds. Not to be confused with the Palmers (chiropractors) insulted by H.L. Mencken.
14: To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
– To distant shrines well known in strange lands;
****Hmmmm… head for “strange” lands.
15: And specially from every shires ende
– And especially the folks from the boondocks, out in the counties
16: Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
– of England — they make their way to Canterbury Cathedral.
17: The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
– To pray at the internment site of the holy martyr
18: That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
– Who helped them when they were sick.
*****You pray to the martyr, or go to see him, to cure what ails you. If you were sick and prayed, you get healthy. If you are horny, well, you can maybe get some sexual healing. Fix you right up.
There’s a lot of other good stuff in Chaucer. He was a bit of a court poet, yet he was also a radical critic of social problems of the day. This made his position quite touchy – he really slams the Catholic Church for clericalism (he was arrested once for punching out a corrupt friar); he slams the nobility as bloodthirsty jackasses, he rants about golddigging middle class women, you name it, he attacks it. And almost everything is a filthy double entendre.
When he read his poetry before his Duke – Lancaster, as I recall – he no doubt inspired a lot of laughter. And a lot of “I think he was joking… he was joking right?” comments as well.
There you have it: Geoffrey Chaucer wasn’t the Shakespeare of his age – he was the Lenny Bruce.

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5 comments

  1. Steve

    Decent weather here so we celebrated Robert Frost’s birthday by looking to see if any rocks in our fences were out of place due to the ravages of the winter’s ice.
    And while it ain’t April yet, I did notice your comment at the end. My olde professor from whom I learned the words and ways of Chaucer is likely rolling over and over and over in his tomb at that mention of Lenny Bruce. But that’s OK. After all he’s dead.
    I did not take all those courses you mention, nor did the professor explain all the finer points, but when one character or another went to farting or found hisself horny I and /me classmates seem to find our way OK. Besides which, we had some of the lectures of Prof. Tolkien to leade the way on the doin’s o’ Beowulf and whut come before old Geoff so after we figured out what the Green Knight was doin’ prancing around the countryside and sech perhaps we was prepared for Geoff’s stuff.
    As to the influence of Chaucer on Shakespeare I fear you may be on a short limb that’s being worked on with a saw by some of those who followed my professor in the teaching game, but tis an interesting idea.
    Cheers.

  2. Al Maviva

    Thanks for the comments. Chaucer’s definitely a moveable feast. You don’t have to be fluent in Middle English or High Medieval history to “get” him – it’s just easier to understand the densely layered allegory and double entendre. One marvelous aspect is that there is plenty for the Groundlings – the Miller’s tale, for example, with the old cuckold up on the roof in a boat when it starts to rain, and so forth; not to mention the farting and sex jokes.
    My argument about Chaucer is that he basically invented English literature as we know it. He cribbed quite a bit from Bocaccio, as did Shakespeare, but his original efforts (and the fact that it was in the vernacular) broke ground. Chaucer also strayed away from pure allegory – the Green Knight, etc. – and developed a multi-stranded narrative which works on a lot of levels. Prior tales were allegorical and meant to be interpreted according to a strict semiotic vocabulary. Chaucer introduced more ambiguity, relying on the reader to bring something of his own mindset to interpreting the story.
    In that sense, Shakespeare’s densely layered narratives are the direct descendant of Chaucer.

  3. Sasha Castel

    I remember reading CT in hgh school. My favorite way to re-read it is with my original copy, the Bantam Classics paperback edition, which has the original text on one page and corresponding modern English translation on the facing page. Brilliant idea. I also remember being amused at the fact that a school-assigned book had words like “fart” and “arse” in it. Tee hee.

  4. Steve

    Al: Talk about “moveable feast,” your phrase struck a chord and I’m presently parked at Audible.com in another window looking at two different versions of the CT trying to decide which to buy. The available samples of both are fairly good. While the written word will never be replaced by digital audio in my not so humble opinion the portability, aye, the “moveability,” of the audio book is quite an attraction. Trust anything said in my original post in no way suggested I did not enjoy your article. And I definitely admit to stumbling a few times as I read the text aloud…have been too long in reading tales removed from those of the first Great Bard.

  5. Steve

    (sigh) I was distracted at Audible.com by their subscription service for the CSPAN series of the 911 hearings. When I started reading the ratings given by listeners to the various witnesses I loss interest in all things audible quickly as you might guess who got the highest and the rave reviews….I sometimes think that site is populated by every Liberal in the universe…….