Monday, April 10, 2006

The Unexpurgated Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer, ca. 1343-1400
(image borrowed from Harvard's Chaucer Website,
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Everybody knows that Chaucer incorporates a lot of sex in his Canterbury Tales, but since he's a respected English poet, we get to teach him anyway.

His famous prologue to the Canterbury Tales, memorized by every college student at Baylor University taking the first half of the English literature survey course with Professor Thomas Hanks (cf. audio), goes as follows (and keep an open eye for the sex):
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 foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(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 seeke.
Did you catch the sexual allusions? Perhaps the Middle English was too archaic. Here's an interlinear translation (but note my bracketed suggestion in red at line 11) taken from a University of Saint Thomas-Saint Paul, Minnesota website that also (as above) uses the Middle English text from Larry D. Benson, general editor, The Riverside Chaucer (Houghton Mifflin Company):

1.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
When fair April with his showers sweet,

2.

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root

3.

And bathed every veyne in swich licour
And bathed each vein in such liquid,

4.

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
The strength of which creates the flower;

5.

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
When the West Wind, with his sweet breath,

6.

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Has breathed life into every copse and heath,

7.

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Into each tender shoot, and the young sun

8.

Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
Has moved halfway through the house of Aries,

9.

And smale foweles maken melodye,
And small birds sing their songs,

10.

That slepen al the nyght with open ye
Those birds who sleep all night with open eye

11.

(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
(For nature stirs up their spirits),
[For nature pricks them in their hearts]

12.

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
Then folk long to go on pilgrimage,

13.

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
And "professional" pilgrims to seek strange strands,

14.

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And distant shrines, famous in foreign lands,

15.

And specially from every shires ende
And specially from every shire's end

16.

Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
Of England to Canterbury they wend,

17.

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek,

18.

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Who watched over them when they were sick.

The lines 9-11 reek of sex:
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Here's my version:

And little birds make melody,
Sleeping all the night with open eye
(For Nature pricks them in their hearts);

The season is spring, and the 'birds' stay up all night having sex because nature 'pricks' them in their hearts. I have to wonder in line 11 if Chaucer is making a pun on a double meaning of "pricks."

I don't have my Oxford English Dictionary here at home to check. The Online Etymological Dictionary doesn't provide much support, for it states that the "[e]arliest recorded use for 'penis' is 1592," about 200 years later than Chaucer.

Yet, I still wonder if Chaucer isn't punning...

9 Comments:

At 12:18 AM, Anonymous Nathan B. said...

I read through the Canterbury Tales in Neville Coghill's translation when I was a high school student. I regret that I've never read them, apart from the opening section, in Middle English. Not taking formal Middle and Old English courses is actually one of the biggest regrets in my life.

Anyway, I particularly enjoyed the naughtiest tales, and I always marveled at the cultural difference between Chaucer and people like my grandparents, who lived much later, but are far more socially conservative.

As for "pricks," even if Chaucer is not consciously punning, the Freudian similarities between pointed objects like Cupid's arrows, April's impregnating showers, and the good old ko-shi-gi are too strong to be dismissed. The first three lines seem to already set the stage for springtime adventures.

 
At 3:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nathan, that's an interesting point about the Freudian symbolism.

I'm actually a Freud skeptic, partly in reaction to an early fascination with Freud on my part, but there certainly is a lot of sexual -- or at least fertility -- symbolism in the lines quoted (e.g., "licour" with its "vertu").

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 7:23 AM, Anonymous Nathan B. said...

Hi there, Dr. Hodges!

I agree that some skepticism is warranted as regards Freudian literary criticism and symbols. I do think there is a place for a certain amount of Freudian analysis, provided it does not get taken to extremes. I agree that there is a lot of fertility and sexual symbolism in these opening lines.

 
At 7:52 PM, Anonymous faith abbey said...

actually the books are interesting but you can also get more books like that in university of Nigeria unn.edu.ng

 
At 8:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nigeria is very far for most students, and you also failed to set up a link properly.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 10:57 PM, Blogger obinna ononniwu said...

THE UNIVERSITY OF NIGERIA HAS ONE OF THE BEST ACDEMIC GROUNDS FOR THE EVERY ENGLSH COURSES, TRY THIS LINK http://www.unn.edu.ng/

 
At 4:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That's certainly more complete, but one ought to do two things when promoting a university:

1) Link directly to the webpage.

2) Write in correct English.

Absent either of these, the 'promotion' will have an unintended effect.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 1:50 AM, Blogger Obuzome Ayadiuno said...

Interesting book... visit http://www.unn.edu.ng/department/english-and-literary-studies/

 
At 4:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Can none of you who are boosting UNN's English Department write proper English and read my instructions on how to link properly?

This doesn't bode well for anyone considering a course of study at UNN.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 

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