The Canterbury Tales
Video Length 1:16
Who Should Read It
Anyone wishing for rowdy, raucous storytelling…who can also stomach long allusions to obscure classical works.
Why Should We Read It
Our high school teacher was right- it is worth reading!
What Will We Learn
People from the 14th century to the 21st century haven't changed at all.
"Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,"
My 11th grade English teacher was an ordained Catholic clergyman named Brother Aquinas Cassin. He was a 64 year old Irishman- stern and proper with a flair for irony and sarcasm- whose tall thin frame effortlessly projected the authority imbued in his black clerical robes. His very first words to my class were, "Who here knows The Canterbury Tales?" No one dared to answer, if anyone knew at all. "How can this be!" exclaimed Brother Aquinas. "It is only the greatest work in all of English literature! I am afraid even to ask now- who can recite the first eight lines of this epic poem? In its original Middle English please!" Silence continued to reign, and Brother Aquinas lowered his head with resignation. "What a sad state of affairs. Go ask the hobo on the corner of the Jack In the Box that you all like to frequent. Even he can recite the first eight lines!" Thus began our introduction to English literature, with Geoffrey Chaucer's magnum opus, The Canterbury Tales.
"And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;"
In the following weeks, Brother Aquinas would lecture on the significance of The Canterbury Tales. In Chaucer's time, French and Latin were the dominant languages of the English nobility; the English language itself was marginalized until Chaucer demonstrated its creative power in The Canterbury Tales. In between our analyses of The General Prologue, Brother Aquinas would hear and critique each of our memorized recitations of its first eight lines (in Middle English of course). "Don’t pause at the end of each line just because you reached the end of the line! Pause when there is punctuation. 'Inspired hath in every holt and heeth'…that by itself means nothing! 'Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth/Inspired hath in every holt and heeth/The tendre croppes…' Now that is beautiful! If you don't believe me, ask the hobo at Jack in the Box." He made it very clear that he would not suffer the indignity of having any student less literate than the infamous Hobo at Jack in the Box.
"Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth"
Nearly fifteen years later, I happened upon a book store selling different editions of The Canterbury Tales. I was in a high literary mood, and I settled upon the "Barnes and Noble Classics" edition, the only copy with the complete and original Middle English text along with the Modern English translation (by Peter Tuttle). My class never actually read The Canterbury Tales beyond the first eight lines of The General Prologue, and I decided to give both The General Prologue and the first story, The Knight's Tale, a shot. To my surprise, the entire book was a delight. Certainly, it was not an easy read- even with the Modern English translation, the poetry is bogged down by obscure classical allusions that drone on for pages at a time. But if we can maintain focus, we find characters who are at once hilarious, tragic, petty, and even heroic. And if we peek over to the Middle English text to recite out loud, we find that Brother Aquinas was right all along- what a beautiful and epic poem this is!
"'The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,"
It would be difficult nowadays to convince the average 21st century reader to read The Canterbury Tales. Why suffer reading the full Modern English translation when a succinct summary is freely available online? Why even bother memorizing it in Middle English? We now live in an age of text message acronyms and emojis, and being able to recite Geoffrey Chaucer feels anachronistic, and perhaps high browed snobbish (IMHO😀). For the busy reader who does decide to invest time in reading Chaucer's work, I will wager that they will find a cast of characters whose viewpoints and stories, despite living over 600 years ago, remain surprisingly fresh and relevant today. I still find inexplicable joy in reciting the first eight lines of The Canterbury Tales in my head, albeit a joy I celebrate alone. For those select few who do decide to memorize some Middle English lines, I offer Brother Aquinas's final advice: "You're butchering this poem with your robotic iambic pentameter!"