01 April 2016

Poem of the Week bonus: #whanthataprilleday16

Welcome to the third annual Whan That Aprille Day, a celebration of all languages called Middle, Old, Ancient, Archaic, or even Dead. Go here to read a full statement on the celebration by the founder of the feast, the Internet's own Geoffrey Chaucer. You know it's official because the day has its own hashtag: #WhanthatAprilleday16.

You may go here to read the 2014 entry, here to read the 2015 entry, and I'm surprised to realize this is the first year I've used an excerpt from Chaucer (though he has been featured twice before in Poem of the Week; go here to read an excerpt from The Second Nun's Prologue and here for the opening of The Canterbury Tales; the latter entry also has a link to a Middle English pronunciation guide.)

This is an excerpt from the Nun's Priest's tale in The Canterbury Tales. He starts with a description of the small farm of a poor widow (the she of the first line of the excerpt), to which the richly jewel-like appearance of her glamorous rooster provides an ironic contrast. This charming and gently satirical beast fable has always been one of the most popular of the variegated Tales of Canterbury. In an amusing touch in this excerpt, you'll note that the justifiably smug rooster among his harem of hens displays his swete acord by singing a song about how his love has gone away. (Perhaps the rooster surrounded by his hens is a gently self-mocking image by the Nun's Priest himself?)

I've put a crib in italic black text below each of the Middle English lines.* As for the lines about the celestial equator, I have to admit that, in a shameful and unscholarly way, when it comes to technical descriptions of medieval science I am sometimes content with comprehension that is "vague but close enough". The basic sense is that the rooster knew exactly when it was the moment to crow, more precisely than any timepiece. Speaking of timepieces, they were fairly new and expensive technology when Chaucer wrote these lines – an abbey clock-tower might be the only clock for miles around.

The text I used is the Penguin Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales (which they call, rather oddly, an "original spelling" edition), edited by Jill Mann, whose notes bravely explain all about the celestial equator as well as medieval clocks.

* For some reason the Google Machine is unable to handle the text colors I've now carefully put in at least three times; either that, or it's playing an April Fool's joke on me. Apologies for the way this looks but I think it's clear which lines are Middle English and which are not.

The rooster Chauntecleer & his beloved Pertelote

. . . 
A yeerd she hadde, enclosed al aboute
She had a yard, enclosed all around
With stikkes, and a drye dich withoute,
With stakes, and a dry ditch around it,
In which she hadde a cok heet Chauntecleer.
In which she had a cock named Chauntecleer;
In al the land, of crowing nas his peer;
In all the land, he had no peer for crowing;
His vois was murier than the mirye orgon
His voice was merrier [happier, sweeter] than the merry organ [music]
On masse-days that in the chirche gon.
That went on in the church during a feast-day.
Wel sikerer was his crowing in his logge
More certain [reliable] was his crowing in his coop
Than is a clokke or an abbey orlogge.
Than is a clock or an abbey clock-tower.
By nature he knew ech ascencioun
By nature [instinctively] he knew each ascension
Of th'equinoxial in thilke toun;
Of the celestial equator in that town;
For whan degrees fiftene were ascended,
For when fifteen degrees were ascended,
Thanne krew he, that it mighte nat ben amended.
Then he knew [to crow], so that it could not be improved upon.
His comb was redder than the fin coral,
His comb was redder than the finest coral,
And batailled as it were a castel wal.
And crenelated like a castle wall.
His bile was blak, and as the jeet it shoon;
His bill was black, and shone like jet;
Lik asure were hise legges and his toon;
Like azure [lapis lazuli] were his legs and his toes;
Hise nailes whitter than the lilye flour,
His claws whiter than the lily;
And like the burned gold was his colour.
And like burnished gold was his color [the color of his feathers];
This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce
This gentle [noble and refined] cock had in his care
Sevene hennes, for to doon al his plesaunce,
Seven hens, to obey his commands [do his pleasure],
Whiche were hise sustres and his paramours,
Which were his sisters and his paramours,
And wonder like to him, as of colours;
Wondrously like him as to colors;
Of whiche the faireste hewed on hire throte
Of which the fairest hued on her throat
Was cleped faire damoisele Pertelote.
Was called the fair lady Pertelote.
Curteis she was, discreet, and debonaire,
Courteous she was, discreet, and gentle and refined,
And compaignable, and bar hirself so faire
And sociable, and carried herself so beautifully
Sin thilke day that she was seven night oold,
Since that day that she was seven nights old,
That trewely she hath the herte in hoold
That truly she held fast the heart
Of Chauntecleer, loken in every lith.
Of Chauntecleer, locked in every limb.
He loved hire so that wel was him therwith.
He loved her so much that all was well with him because of it.
But swich a joye was it to here hem singe,
But it was such a joy  to hear him sing,
Whan that the brighte sonne gan to springe,
When the bright sun began to rise,
In swete acord, "My leef is faren in londe".
In sweet accord [harmony], "My love has gone away".
– For thilke time, as I have understonde,
– For at this time, as I am given to understand,
Beestes and briddes kouden speke and singe.
Beasts and birds could speak and sing.
. . . 

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, from The Nun's Priests's Tale, ll 2847 - 2881

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