01 April 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/14

Here, for the start of National Poetry Month, is the start of one of the great works of English poetry:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine 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 foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open eye -
So priketh hem nature in hir corages -
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martyr for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, lines 1-18

Yes, it's Middle English! Don't freak out! I've put a paraphrase below. And if you have no idea how to pronounce the passage, check out this page, which also includes audio of these lines read by Larry D. Benson, General Editor of the Riverside Chaucer. (I took the text from the Penguin Classics "original spelling" edition, which I see differs a bit in spelling and punctuation from my Riverside edition.)

A paraphrase: When April with its sweet showers has pierced the dryness of March to the root, and bathed each root and leaf in that liquid by whose power the flowers are born; when Zephyr (the gentle West Wind) has also with his sweet breath breathed life into the tender crops in every grove and field, and the young sun* is halfway through the constellation Aries, and small birds sing and sleep with open eyes all night (so Nature inspires their hearts): then folks long to go on pilgrimages, and palmers [pilgrims] seek strange shores, and distant shrines known in various lands - and especially from every shire's end of England they make their way to Canterbury, seeking the holy blissful martyr [St Thomas a Becket] who helped them when they were sick.

* "Young" since it has just passed the vernal equinox.

Chaucer died over 600 years ago but these lines are as fresh and dewy-green, as essentially spring-like, as when he first wrote them. Despite changes in language and circumstance and custom we can still recognize the signs he notes of the earth's annual rebirth: the gentle winds and rains bringing forth tender new buds and shoots, the birds returning to caroling life, the restless stirring that urges us out into the world after gloomy sickness.

About National Poetry Month: I was hoping to post a daily poem as I did last year, but for a number of reasons I am not going to be able to do that this year. So feel free to re-read last year's poems - they're still good! And, remembering the economic basis of our culture, if you read a poem you like, click on the link (there's one in each of these entries) and buy the book(s).

Also, the Knopf publishing house will e-mail you a poem each day in April if you like; you may sign up on their homepage. Again, if you like the poem . . . support the arts and buy the book.


Sibyl said...

I am going to give you my most favorite poem, in honor of the month, and because in my own perversity, such a deeply, deeply flawed poem is a fitting favorite to reveal on April Fool's Day. It is so very Matthew Arnold, falling short of his goals over and over (never the titan his father was, never the thinker he wanted to be, never able to achieve the sensuality of Tennyson, nor the perceptive depth of Browning hiding behind a character)and yet...that very yearning after what he does not have the power to express creates such tension that it actually creates the tension he's getting at. Poor Arnold! Happy April: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-buried-life/

I could have chosen Musee des Beaux Arts, any Keats Ode, For the Union Dead, The Second Coming, all of Dylan Thomas, Don Juan, Mariana, Rabbi Ben Ezra, Four Quartets, or The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner as my most favorite, but this is it. There is apparently no fool like an April fool.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I was hoping to say something about the poem but my attempts to read it were met with so many interruptions that I'm afraid I have nothing to add -- I shall print it out and give it some time to work on me.