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Chaucer Spied Poetry in Barnyards


On gray winter days, I find my eyes traveling up from the computer screen to the framed words of an old friend, Geoffrey Chaucer.

As Father of the English Language, Chaucer did the unthinkable. He dallied among the privileged, danced continental measures, bandied logic with fancified ambassadors, and wore the latest cloaks and vests-then wrote the first major English poem in working-class language.

What kind of man would spend his talent on the words of the barnyard, the sentences of the gatekeeper, the phrases spoken by the innkeeper's daughter every time she drew ale from the tap?

What kind of poet would pass over the music of French or the pomp and majesty of Latin for "Angle-ish"?

Obviously, Chaucer knew a thing or two about the people who lived around him. He couldn't bring himself to snub the stable boy or sneer at the unschooled cook who basted pheasant for his supper.

Instead, he immersed himself in the splashy patterns of everyday English life, locating wit in the humble plowman, grace in a jovial white-haired landowner, humor in the lusty, gap-toothed Wife of Bath.

When I read over the first best-seller the English language ever produced, I hear the words that caromed through Chaucer's mind and settled into the upbeat verse prefacing The Canterbury Tales.

What was he thinking, you ask? What did he have to say to the first readers of literary English, the kind who studied at Oxford and Cambridge?

Like most Britishers, Chaucer grew weary of slush and sleet, howling night winds, and rime frost. He turned his calendar pages as quickly as he could past the first months of the year so he could escape the March drought and enjoy the zephyrs of April.

Looking forward to a fictional pilgrimage from Southwark to the cathedral where Thomas Becket was martyred, Chaucer organized a Madame Tussaud's gallery of followers, each mounted and riding the wet trails sprinkled with April's "sweet showers."

To pass the time and break the monotony, he suggested that his made-up companions tell stories, each in characteristic style. At the end of the journey, he vowed a prize to the one who did the best job at entertaining the troupe.

Mixed into his enthusiasm for lively storytelling were his personal pleasures in nature-damp green shoots, spring-tinged heaths, new-dug vegetable plots, and the trilling of birds so excited about April that they slept all night with open eyes.

More than any other emotion, Chaucer recognized the over-wintered spirit's need to stir about, come April-to get a fresh start on life, to gad about, and gossip a bit. From all the shires of England, pilgrims like his were journeying-lawyer with preacher, soldier with farm accountant-in motley streams of seekers, each hoping to gain some blessing, some cure for the rheumatiz from their visit to the holy shrine.

Although schooled in courtly daintiness, Chaucer was never too fine-haired for a belly laugh and remained eager to hear what others had to share, whether pious moral or farfetched tale.

To Chaucer, it was all one. And so his imagination made up an April journey that continues into modern times. For Geoff the poet and those who read him, spring brings out the best in a body.

Charlotte Observer
"Catawba Valley Neighbors,"
January 31, 1993

 

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Mary Ellen Snodgrass Tel/Fax: (828) 324-0155