Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pop History Moment: English Literature Is Born

On this day in 1397 Geoffrey Chaucer first read The Canterbury Tales at the court of Richard II. The book is actually an unfinished frame narrative, built around 24 individual stories, but was intended to contain 120; it is modeled after The Decameron. Scholars and historians agree that the pilgrimage in the book - from Southwark to the tomb of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral - was begun on the same day a decade earlier.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe Canterbury Tales' signal achievement is in its use of English (in fact, Middle English), then an emerging language and much looked down upon by the French-speaking nobility. Many have referred to Chaucer as the father of English literature; many others (mostly jocks) have referred to him in far less charitable terms. Invariably, I would have to tutor many of those in the latter group, which was still better than getting shoved into lockers - especially since te lockers in question were usually closed at the time of said shoving.

A n y w a y... I liked it, but wasn't 'in like' with it, if I may continue to use the high school vernacular. As with Shakespeare, I admired Chaucer's use of language, and the cobbling together of high art and low (some of the tales are quite raunchy). As much as I admire rococo diction, though, I also like things that get to the point.

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
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(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.

It is pretty, though; I'll have to give it that.
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