Saturday, April 13, 2013

Getting Through College and The Canterbury Tales

The fourteen line prologue to  Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, posted yesterday, brought a couple readers back to their college days - their late 60s college days - when just about every student was required to take British Lit! No matter what their major. 

Now, English majors at Dartmouth aren't  required to take even Shakespeare. How culture changes culture.

Kathy,who graduated from high school with me, commented that she could actually read Chaucer's introduction ("with effort" ) thanks to a college professor who drove her crazy  - both years she attended her class! (I'm guessing that was in British Lit I and British Lit II, recalling the canon of the day). 

Jack, a fellow writer, recalled how beautifully his "Brit lit prof" recited those lines, back in the day. Recently, Jack read the entire poem, as bawdy as it is beautiful. (About the length of ten-chapter novel, it's available online free for Kindle users, along with other ebook readers, and audiobook formats).

Kathy and Jacks' Chaucer tales of their own bring me to mine. 

During the late 1960s, at my small, all women, Catholic college, every student had to take British Lit - I and II. In order to get through British Lit I, every one of those students had to memorize and recite the first fourteen lines of Chaucer's prologue.Even as an English major, I felt challenged! 

Practicing for days in my dorm, amidst  a backdrop of Beatles posters and the sounds of folk music, rock music, and a blending of both (thank you Bob Dylan), I discovered I could best learn and remember the archaic yet mellifluous Middle English when I sang the words to the tune of "Leaving on a Jet Plane," a John Denver song (most popularly covered by Peter Paul and Mary).

When I arrived for my "recitation appointment" I brought my guitar. Left it outside the good professor's office  until, after stumbling through a few, "Whan that aprill -s," I asked her if I could go get it. Use it. The poetry/music connection further intrigued her.

Strumming away I breezed through the fourteen lines. Still can - if I sing them!

Try it for yourself!

And, oh yes, here's the modern English translation of the prologue I posted yesterday.
How did you do?

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands. 

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