Academic journal article Text Matters

Eros and Pilgrimage in Chaucer's and Shakespeare's Poetry

Academic journal article Text Matters

Eros and Pilgrimage in Chaucer's and Shakespeare's Poetry

Article excerpt

(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 swete breeth

(6) Inspired hath in every holt and heath

(7) The tendre croppes; and the yonge sonne

(8) Hath in the Ram his half 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,

(17) The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

(18) That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

(Chaucer 23)

Chaucer's famous hymn to spring at the beginning of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales can be read as a self-contained text, even though it constitutes an integral part of the collection, being a chronographia employed as a preface to a longer work. The first eighteen lines introducing the renowned story collection are marked offas a separate unit in the Ellesmere manuscript, where the coloured, decorated capitals are used in lines 1 and 19: the scribe has thus divided the passage from the following text, recognizing the author's intention signalled by the rime riche (Wilcockson 345) that binds the ninth couplet (ll. 17-18) and falls decisively like the hymn's final note. The brilliant lines certainly draw attention to themselves. The multiple long vowels and diphthongs along with liquid and nasal consonants underscore the melodic quality, which rivals the evoked "melodye" made by the "smale foweles." The musical effect is strengthened by a particularly satisfying proportion of foreign to native English diction: words like licour, engendred, inspired, nature, melodye, corages- polysyllables of Franco-Latin origin, exotic-sounding and elevating the style, contrast with and diversify the dominant homely, native English sonority. The poetic melody is sustained by the use of enjambment, which creates the effect of flowing: the passage constitutes one long sentence, an expanded "when" clause, ultimately completed only at the end of line 18, the closure being reinforced by the perfect rhyme seke/seeke, which brings under the same sound different meanings and parts of speech.

This distinctness of sound makes one think in the context of Chaucer's lines of a sonnet (Italian sonetto, diminutive of suono, sound). Most sonnets consist of fourteen lines, though-at least such is the classroom dictum. Let us, nevertheless, toy for a moment with the idea of the first fourteen lines of the General Prologue being a sonnet, for it may help us understand the working of the text. The lines would be a sonnet of the English or so-called Shakespearean type, for Chaucer's five-stress lines closely approach the latter's characteristic iambic pentameter, and his division of thought readily falls into the pattern of three four-line segments and a final couplet. Like Chaucer, Shakespeare also uses "when...when... when."1 The volta, so crucial in a sonnet, could be identified in Chaucer's passage in the word "pilgrimages" closing line 12, an important juncture leading to the couplet that rounds up the argument in lines 13-14. And although Chaucer writes in couplets throughout, it seems that this is not a major obstacle for viewing his text as a Shakespearean sonnet, since Shakespeare himself actually wrote one sonnet, number 126, in couplets. The only problem with this reading would seem to be that it is the eighteen, not just fourteen, lines that constitute a seamless entity in Chaucer's work.

But what is a sonnet? And must all sonnets consist of fourteen lines? In a recent article, Amanda Holton questions "the distinctiveness and modernity of the sonnet" and its "otherness" in relation to pre-Renaissance English poetry (373, 392). …

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