15 December 2006

More on POETRY PHYSICAL PLEASURE: Chaucer

(following two earlier posts)

It may not be fair to consider Chaucer. For one thing, the stories are rollicking, sometimes bawdy, good fun, and that’s a joy not difficult to find within their narratives. But for another, the language is just different enough from modern English that we take a particular joy in voicing it. Is there anyone who has not enjoyed, at some time in his or her life, trying on an accent or dialect? You set your mind and mouth in a different manner – and I’ve already begun, letting “mind” and “mouth” and “matter” begin to alliterate a consciousness of language as play. Here’s the beginning of The Canterbury Tales.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
(When the sweet showers of April)
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
(Have pierced to the root March’s drought)
And bathed every veyne in swich liquor,
(And bathed every vein in such liquid)
Of which vertue engendred is the flour
(Which in virtue causes the flower to grow)

It’s not particularly exciting to pronounce the translated lines I have parenthetically inserted. It may be, for those first trying, somewhat perplexing to speak the Middle English. But as soon as one knows they are nearly perfect iambic pentameter, the rolling rhythm takes over, the guttural vowels let the reader linger, and soon we are off on a pilgrimage of language, invoking Anglo-Saxon (soote), German (droghte), French (vertue), and Latin (perced), sometimes within just a few words, with pleasure purchasing the pearl of moral knowledge without price, yet never leaving pleasure behind.

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