Whan that Aprill with its shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne is 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;
It is the real Spring equinox, now. We crossed the line, officially, a week ago, but it is April and I can finally sing the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with “full-throated ease.” I do feel the “vertu,” the quickening force of spring that engenders the flower. The young sun is in the sky and Zephirus, the wind, is blowing its sweet breath over Vancouver … it is spring in all its glory, and thank God for that!
I find these lines intoxicating. They are timeless and wise and beautiful and speak from ancient times of the changing seasons — the same way the season is changing now, in front of my eyes. The lines have been with me from the moment they registered on me in university. The Middle English sounded foreign, strange, but I was connected on some level. And as the words seeped into me, I began to hear the voice of Chaucer, the gentle cadences, the music … and all its mystery. How unusual to connect with a voice from the 14th century!
The words, of course, were meant to be listened to, not read. Chaucer was a court poet, among other things, and he was expected to perform his poetry to kings, diplomats, courtiers. His poetry was strange, even in his own time, as no one had really used English in this form of expression. The language had only recently been made the official language of court, which had previously been French. And Latin was commonly used in religious and academic circles. Poetry was meant for other languages, like French or Italian, not English.
The language has moved on since the time Chaucer first read to the English court. He launched a sublime exploration of English’s expressive powers, taken up by the likes of Shakespeare, Keats, Joyce … so many others. But what are we to do Middle English in these times of Twitter and the web and television? Even modern poetry is on the fringe. Great writing occasionally gets the attention of popular culture, but even the most remarkable books couldn’t hope to match the appeal of a Slumdog Millionaire or Milk. Is the language in retraction?
Well, I’m not the one to answer that. Besides, it is Spring and Chaucer’s music is still in me as I type these words.
I had the idea of posting a good audio or video file to introduce a few readers to the sound of Chaucer and Middle English. Most of what was available were goofy attempts by high school students rapping to Chaucer’s words. Others were of university professors reading Chaucer in thin, empty voices, with meticulous Middle English pronunciation.
One of the best readings I found comes directly from popular culture: 1978′s The Last Waltz, a Martin Scorsese film about The Band’s last concert at the Winterland Arena in San Francisco. It features a star-studded cast of musicians, powerful performances and great music. Early in the film, there is an interlude between artists, and the Beat poet, Michael McClure, walks on stage and begins reading the first few lines of the “General Prologue.”
Can you imagine this? A rock show with the likes of Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Neil Young — perhaps “the mother of all concerts,” at the time! In the film, Rick Danko has just finished a powerful performance of “It Makes No Difference,” and out walks a poet who begins reading Middle English, in a gentle, sweet voice. Do you think this would have a snowball’s chance in hell of being noticed by a rock audience looking for more cowbell? But Chaucer’s words have magic.
As Michael McClure’s voice gradually becomes audible through the din, a hush falls over the audience. We only hear the last eight lines of the first stanza, but when he finishes, there is silence. McClure pauses for a moment, smiles, and the crowd begins to cheer. He nods and walks away from the microphone. Chaucer’s words had had their airing, the audience was captivated, and McClure knew he had made a mark as he made way for the next act, Dr. John.
Well, the reading was blessedly short, that’s one thing. But I think the audience was truly enchanted, for that moment, by the strangeness of the language and the gentle voice of the poet.
Not many remember The Last Waltz for McClure’s short performance. But it was picked up in poetry circles. The Atlanta Poetry Review, wrote that McClure had “lilted, rolled, and seduced the audience into the lyric tonality of Middle English.”
But I would love to think he left an impression on some in the audience that human expression is deeper and richer, more profound and lasting than all the tweets, the cats and dogs websites, all the sitcoms and news shows … and more profound than even the hallowed cowbell.
And it’s nice to be reminded of Geoffrey Chaucer when the sun is shining and spring is in the air.
Postscript: Inspiratorium reader Mary Jo Kennard asked where she could hear more Middle English. Excellent question, Mary Jo! I recommend The Chaucer Meta Page. There are several audio files of people reading excerpts from the Canterbury Tales. It’s a bit academic and not quite as charismatic as the Michael McClure video above, but it’s good listening if you want to get a real blast of Middle English as Chaucer would have spoken it.