When April with its sweet-smelling showers
Has pierced the drought of March to the root,
And bathed every vein in such liquid
By which power the flower is created;
When the West Wind also with its sweet breath,
In every wood and field has breathed life into
The tender new leaves, and the young sun
Has run half its course in Aries,
And small fowls make melody,
Those that sleep all the night with open eyes
(So Nature incites them in their hearts),
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
And professional pilgrims to seek foreign shores,
To distant shrines, known in various lands;
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England to Canterbury they travel,
To seek the holy blessed martyr,
Who helped them when they were sick.
— General Prologue, The Canterbury Tales
Opening The Canterbury Tales calls to mind the old joke, “I went to a Shakespeare play but left because it was so full of clichés.” Indeed, Chaucer was the first to coin such pithy phrases as, “All that glitters is not gold,” (The House of Fame), which Shakespeare later immortalized in The Merchant of Venice, as well as the following from The Canterbury Tales: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained;” “Love is blind;” and, “Time and tide wait for no man.”
Considered the Father of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340 – 1400) was one of the first writers to use English language in his works, at a time when French and Latin had preeminence, as well as the first to be buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. He was also an astronomer and philosopher and served as a courtier, diplomat, and government official. His writings had an immense influence on those of Shakespeare some 200 years later, most overtly in his use of iambic pentameter. Now after more than 600 years, The Canterbury Tales is not only still considered important canonical literature in school curriculums, but it is also still highly entertaining. Any who think that the culture of the Middle Ages was all piety and decorum should turn their attention to the second story in the collection and spend a moment perusing “The Miller’s Tale” for the epitome of bawdy humor.
I had not read any of the tales since studying Chaucer in school when, on a whim, I began listening to a recording a few months ago on Audible. The music of the rhythm and rhyme makes it an ideal auditory experience, and the various stories are incredibly diverse. “The Knight’s Tale,” the first of the stories told by members of the group on their pilgrimage to Canterbury, is full of classical allusions to the ancients and brims over with the ideals of courtly love, contrasting sharply with the subsequent “Miller’s Tale.” The late John T. Winterich wrote, “In drawing up his cast of characters, Chaucer was obviously aiming at a cross section of contemporary English society, and he scored a bull’s-eye.”
For those who prefer to study the original text on the printed page, Calla Editions has published a lovely reproduction of The Kelmscott Chaucer. Created by William Morris in 1896, this complete edition of Chaucer’s works is considered to be not only the most beautiful edition of England’s first great poet, but it is also recognized as one of the most incredible typographic achievements of all time. The Golden typeface was designed by Morris especially for the book to embody his love of medieval literature and the artistic quality of 15th century handpresses. His friend Edward Burne-Jones, who drew 87 full-page woodcut illustrations for the project, declared it a “pocket cathedral.” The ornamentation of the original Middle English yet maintains a classic simplicity, making it easy to read and achieving Morris’ goal of restoring the connection between society, art, and the artist.
This particular edition has the added benefit of an eight-page glossary to help with the more obscure Middle English words, as well as an insightful introduction by the above-quoted John T. Winterich. A large and beautiful volume, it is perfect for the coffee table or any book collector’s library.