»  Geoffrey Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales


Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1343(?)-1400


•  Background

This is the first eighteen lines of Chaucer's long — about 17,000 lines — poem, read in Middle English. (Which, by the way, is nothing like as difficult to read as it looks. If you persevere with Chaucer for a couple of hours, the number of "eye-stopper" words falls off dramatically, though of course it never falls to zero.)

The Canterbury Tales was written from the late 1380s to the late 1390s, when English had triumphed over Norman French as the speech of high society, and there was a demand for literature in the language. Chaucer was at this time aged roughly 45 to 55. For the first half of this period, having already lived a busy and well-traveled life, Chaucer was in charge of maintenance work on the palaces and other properties of the young king Richard II. From 1391 he held a position as one of the king's foresters. He died in October 1400, a few months after Richard, who had been forced to abdicate the previous year. However, he seems to have been in favor with the new king, Henry IV, who granted him a pension.

•  Notes

"shoures soote" = sweet showers [of rain]

"droghte" = drought, dry spell

"veyne" = vein [of a leaf]

"swich" = such

"Zephirus" = personification of the west wind, which in England blows in the Spring

"eke" = also

"the yonge sonne … in the Ram" = in springtime, when the Sun is "young," he passes (as seen from the Earth) through that zone of background sky known as the Ram, corresponding to the first — i.e. the first after the Spring equinox — zodiac sign Aries.

"smale foweles" = small birds

"priketh" = pierces

"hem … hir" = them … their

"palmeres" = palmers, holy pilgrims

"straunge strondes" = strange shores

"ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes" = distant shrines, known in various lands

"blisful" = blessed

"sike" = sick


•  Play the reading

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•  Text of the poem

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 eke with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye —
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were sike.