Politics Magazine

Two Aprils

Posted on the 07 November 2011 by Erictheblue

Chaucer is my new coffee-break companion--I've now finished the 850 or so lines of the "General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales, wherein the pilgrims are expertly limned.  My tentative plan is to read the tales of the miller, the reeve, the nun's priest, the wife of Bath, the merchant, the franklin, and the pardoner.  I don't think you want to read the whole thing:  according to Robert K. Root, author of The Poetry of Chaucer (1922), the parson's tale--actually a sermon--is "interminably long" and "interminably dull."  I can see that it's long and am going to trust him about the dullness.

It's not on account of being an advanced Chaucerian that I claim familiarity with the criticism of Dr Root.  Years ago, as a student at the University of Minnesota, I took "the Chaucer course" taught by Andrew Macleish, who had us buy Allan H. Maclaine's The Students Comprehensive Guide to the Canterbury Tales.  In less than 300 pages, this helpmate collects a significant portion of the scholarly commentary on The Canterbury Tales, including Root's stricture regarding the parson's sermon.  My copy is alternately pristine and marked with underlinings and marginalia, so I can tell which tales were and weren't assigned.  The ones I mean to read are the ones I read years ago. 

Here are just a few lines from the portrait of the miller in the Prologue:

Upon the cop right of his nose he hade
A werte, and thereon stood a tuft of herys,
Reed as the bristles of a sowes erys;
His nosethirles blake were and wyde.

You would not say of The Canterbury Tales what Dr Johnson said of Paradise Lost--that it lacks in human interest on account of the lack of human characters.  Chaucer is the first English poet whose name we know and, with the exception of Shakespeare, it's not clear that his achievement has been matched.  For those of us for whom the Middle English is opaque, it can be exhilirating how again and again initial perplexity gives way to bursts of enjoyment of the type often associated with a "modern" literary sensibility.  Chaucer's urbane realism.  His many-minded mastery of the whole human scene.  In Joyce's Ulysses, one of the characters sniffs his own toe jam, but that kind of thing was not invented by Joyce.  Chaucer casts a long shadow.  The Tales open:

Whan the Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendered is the flour. . . .

More than 600 years later, what is probably the most famous long poem in English of the 20th century, Eliot's Waste Land, begins:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. . . .


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