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The Canterbury Tales

by: Geoffrey Chaucer

Important Quotations Explained

1
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.