Less than 40 years ago Chaucer was still a critical part of the progression of an English student. At the very least there would be the expectation of having studied ‘The Canterbury Tales’ if you went to a relatively good school in the UK or a private academy in the US. If you studied English in University you could expect to also read ‘The Parliment of Fowls’ and ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ of Chaucer, ‘Piers Plowman’ by William Langland, and ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ by an unknown poet today called ‘The Gawain Poet’ or ‘The Pearl Poet.’ These are magnificent and hugely influential writings that have been slowly forgotten by modern English speakers. And, although they are seldom read outside of academic settings, their influence is still felt in the literature. Old poetry like this doesn’t die, the tales and themes live on in the works of men who had read them.
This is one of the greatest arguments for studying Middle English (beyond the fact that it is really easy to pick up), you will begin to see the influence that ME works had and still have on English today! It is almost as eye opening as when one reads the bible for the first time and starts to see biblical themes everywhere in literature. The influence of poets like Chaucer is difficult to shake!
In the old way, my school still required public recitation in class. And one of the things that we had to memorize was the first lines of the Prologue of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ These are lines that have been studied for over 700 years and used to be common knowledge among all educated adults. Please listen to them read aloud, the are really quite beautiful:
It sounds foreign and difficult to understand but read read the beginning here:
1: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
2: The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
3: And bathed every veyne in swich licour
4: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5: Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
7: Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
8: Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
9: And smale foweles maken melodye,
10: That slepen al the nyght with open ye
11: (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
12: Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
13: And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
14: To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15: And specially from every shires ende
16: Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
It really isn’t the difficult to understand, and with a well annotated reader, one could be reading it as easily as Modern English by the end of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ People who haven’t read ‘The Canterbury Tales’ tend to think that they are rather short, but these are not tales in the vein of Grimm rather these are short stories – some 40 pages long. Unfortunately fewer and fewer people are reading these wonderful stories. And the few that do read them on translation! A real shame because ME is so easy to pick up with a little effort.
If you are at all on the fence about learning this wonderful poetic and literary tradition (a tradition you are a part of as an English speaker), please read the Miller’s Tale. It is as funny as South Park, but you’ll also be able to brag about it.