Chaucer's Pilgrims Still Follow Me

By Pavish, Marie | The Christian Science Monitor, February 18, 2000 | Go to article overview

Chaucer's Pilgrims Still Follow Me


Pavish, Marie, The Christian Science Monitor


Whan that April with his showres soote

The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veine in swich licuor,

Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;

Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,

And smale fowles maken melodye

That sleepen al the night with open y -

So priketh hem Nature in hir corages -

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seeken straunge strondes

To fern halwes, couthe in sondry londes;

And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond to Canterbury they wende,

The holy blisful martyr for to seeke

That hem hath hoplen whan that they were seke.

From 'The General Prologue' of

'The Canterbury Tales' (c. 1386-1400) by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Source: 'The Longman Anthology of British Literature' (1999).

If someone offered you a lifetime of encounters with fascinating people, what would you do? When the offer was made to me, I asked no questions. I said "yes" emphatically.

The opportunity came in my high school days. Somewhere between "Beowulf" and Shakespeare, our English teacher brought it up. Mrs. Whitner said that if we memorized the beginning of the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," she could assure us we'd begin to discover one fascinating person after another who had memorized it, too. It didn't feel like an assignment. The way she presented the idea so charmed us that we fairly clamored to memorize those 18 lines.

While the memorization process wore on for us as homework, in class we learned of Chaucer's impact on English literature. By writing graceful, musical, expressive couplets in Middle English, he gave respectability to what had been considered a crude "people's" language. Our teacher suggested that the giants of English literature owed Chaucer their very tools - the vital, varied words of English.

"The Canterbury Tales" was an ambitious project. Delightfully diverse characters, bound together on a springtime pilgrimage, were to entertain each other along the way with stories. Imagine the potential of so many storytellers. Chaucer had intended to include 120 tales in this work, but only completed 24. What he did, however, with those 24 tales was quite a marvel. He created a vivid, rich tapestry of life in 14th-century England.

The day came when we were ready to earn our prize. Before the first volunteer started the cavalcade of recitations, our teacher delivered a final pep talk. She reminded us that as we recited our lines, we'd be wrapping our tongues around the very roots of our English language.

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