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The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer


Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
          (General Prologue, 1–12)

These are the opening lines with which the narrator begins the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. The imagery in this opening passage is of spring’s renewal and rebirth. April’s sweet showers have penetrated the dry earth of March, hydrating the roots, which in turn coax flowers out of the ground. The constellation Taurus is in the sky; Zephyr, the warm, gentle west wind, has breathed life into the fields; and the birds chirp merrily. The verbs used to describe Nature’s actions—piercing (2), engendering (4), inspiring (5), and pricking (11)—conjure up images of conception.

The natural world’s reawakening aligns with the narrator’s similarly “inspired” poetic sensibility. The classical (Latin and Ancient Greek) authors that Chaucer emulated and wanted to surpass would always begin their epic narrative poems by invoking a muse, or female goddess, to inspire them, quite literally to talk or breathe a story into them. Most of them begin “Sing in me, O muse,” about a particular subject. Chaucer too begins with a moment of inspiration, but in this case it is the natural inspiration of the earth readying itself for spring rather than a supernatural being filling the poet’s body with her voice.

After the long sleep of winter, people begin to stir, feeling the need to “goon on pilgrimages,” or to travel to a site where one worships a saint’s relics as a means of spiritual cleansing and renewal. Since winter ice and snow made traveling long distances almost impossible (this was an age not only before automobiles but also before adequately developed horse-drawn carriages), the need to get up, stretch one’s legs, and see the world outside the window must have been great. Pilgrimages combined spring vacations with religious purification.

The landscape in this passage also clearly situates the text in England. This is not a classical landscape like the Troy of Homer’s Iliad, nor is it an entirely fictionalized space like the cool groves and rocky cliffs of imaginary Arcadia from pastoral poetry and romances. Chaucer’s landscape is also accessible to all types of people, but especially those who inhabit the countryside, since Chaucer speaks of budding flowers, growing crops, and singing birds.

The Firste Moevere of the cause above,
Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love,
Greet was th’effect, and heigh was his entente.
. . .
For with that faire cheyne of love he bond
The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond
In certeyn boundes, that they may nat flee.
         (The Knight’s Tale, 2987–2993)

This passage is from the conclusion of the Knight’s Tale, as Duke Theseus explains why Emelye must marry the knight Palamon. Theseus bases his argument on concepts drawn from the fifth-century a.d. Roman philosopher Boethius, whose ideas appealed to medieval Christians because he combined Plato’s theory of an ideal world with Christian teachings of a moral universe. Chaucer took it upon himself to translate and provide a commentary for Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Chaucer’s translation, a long prose text, is informally known as his Boece.

The “Firste Moevere” (first mover) is the Aristotelian notion of God. The story the Knight tells takes place long before Christ. Although medieval Christians could not condemn classical writers and philosophers, since much of Virgil’s poetry and Plato’s philosophy formed the basis for Christian literature, they had difficulty imagining a time before people believed in Christ. Chaucer (or the Knight) has carefully given Theseus a pagan notion of God that nevertheless resonates with Christianity. Having a supreme ancient Greek or Roman god would be idolatrous and therefore immoral (although the gods appear as lesser entities in the second half of the tale), because, according to medieval Christians, there was only one god and that god was the Trinity.

The “faire cheyne of love” is a medieval view of cosmology, or the natural order of things. It is the idea that every thing has its place in the hierarchy of the world, from the smallest flea to the hand of God. The fifty lines or so that follow this passage contain ideas that are taken almost word for word from Chaucer’s Boece. Theseus argues that Emelye’s overly long mourning threatens to disrupt the great chain of love, and that the only way to maintain the chain’s balance is for her to marry Palamon and be happy.

Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,
For al his kepyng and his jalousye;
And Absolon hath kist hir nether ye;
And Nicholas is scalded in the towte.
This tale is doon, and God save al the rowte!
          (The Miller’s Tale, 3850–3854)

This passage, the rhyming conclusion to the Miller’s Tale, neatly resolves the story by offering a reckoning of accounts. Everyone in the story has learned his or her lesson and gotten the physical punishment he or she deserves. The carpenter’s wife, Alisoun, was “swyved,” or possessed in bed by another man, in this case, Nicholas. John, the ignorant and jealous carpenter, has been made a cuckold, despite his watchful and possessive eye. Absolon, the foolish and foppish parish clerk, has kissed Alisoun’s behind, fair punishment for evading his clerical duties. Nicholas, the smart-alecky student who cheated on the carpenter with Alisoun, has been burned on his bottom with a red-hot poker as payback for farting in Absolon’s face. Still, the distribution of punishments is not entirely equal. John is dealt the worst lot—he ends up with a broken arm and the whole town believing he has gone insane. Alisoun’s “swyving” is a double punishment for John, while Alisoun herself escapes unscathed.

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