Chaucer's pilgrims still follow me

Whan that April with his showres soote

The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veine in swich licuor,

Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;

Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,

And smale fowles maken melodye

That sleepen al the night with open y -

So priketh hem Nature in hir corages -

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seeken straunge strondes

To fern halwes, couthe in sondry londes;

And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond to Canterbury they wende,

The holy blisful martyr for to seeke

That hem hath hoplen whan that they were seke.

From 'The General Prologue' of

'The Canterbury Tales' (c. 1386-1400) by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Source: 'The Longman Anthology of British Literature' (1999).

If someone offered you a lifetime of encounters with fascinating people, what would you do? When the offer was made to me, I asked no questions. I said "yes" emphatically.

The opportunity came in my high school days. Somewhere between "Beowulf" and Shakespeare, our English teacher brought it up. Mrs. Whitner said that if we memorized the beginning of the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," she could assure us we'd begin to discover one fascinating person after another who had memorized it, too. It didn't feel like an assignment. The way she presented the idea so charmed us that we fairly clamored to memorize those 18 lines.

While the memorization process wore on for us as homework, in class we learned of Chaucer's impact on English literature. By writing graceful, musical, expressive couplets in Middle English, he gave respectability to what had been considered a crude "people's" language. Our teacher suggested that the giants of English literature owed Chaucer their very tools - the vital, varied words of English.

"The Canterbury Tales" was an ambitious project. Delightfully diverse characters, bound together on a springtime pilgrimage, were to entertain each other along the way with stories. Imagine the potential of so many storytellers. Chaucer had intended to include 120 tales in this work, but only completed 24. What he did, however, with those 24 tales was quite a marvel. He created a vivid, rich tapestry of life in 14th-century England.

The day came when we were ready to earn our prize. Before the first volunteer started the cavalcade of recitations, our teacher delivered a final pep talk. She reminded us that as we recited our lines, we'd be wrapping our tongues around the very roots of our English language. The wrapping went off without a hitch.

Through the next weeks, over the heads of fellow students in the crowded halls of our high school, we favored few exchanged knowing glances. We had taken the challenge, succeeded, and were ready for the richness that now awaited us. College decisions and senior-year events soon became distractions, and the immediate expectations of fascinating encounters ebbed.

As my life has unfolded, though, just as my teacher promised, memorizing the prologue has indeed opened the door of discovery to fascinating people.

Those fragments of polished Middle English have unexpectedly surfaced on a wilderness trail in Wyoming, an archaeological dig in South Africa, a rumbling train platform in Chicago, a humming classroom in Seattle. The people I have met this way have been as diverse as Chaucer's pilgrims. Each seems to have a fervent embrace on life.

I am in a reverie about all this now because our daughter recently came home from her high school English class with an option to memorize and recite the beginning of Chaucer's prologue. It was an optional task, with a few extra-credit points as the motivation. Her teacher had done a good job to share with her students the influence of Chaucer on the English literary tradition. I took it from there to inspire my daughter with the prospects my teacher had described to me all those years ago.

In moments, she was up and struggling, couplet by couplet, to get the job done. For days our house rang with "Whan that April with his showres soote...." On recitation day, my daughter and I slapped hands with affirmation. She was ready.

Around the dinner table that evening, we listened with anticipation to hear how the recitation had gone. She began slowly, expressing some disappointment that her teacher had needed to prompt her twice. After a pause, she continued, "I was a little more nervous reciting it for the class because," - and here her features crinkled to a delighted smile - "it turned out I was the only one who memorized the lines!"

There was more. As the day wore on, kids from her class stopped to congratulate her. Some raved about how her accent sounded just like the British recording they'd heard. Others exclaimed, "How'd you do it?"

Too bad the other kids didn't get to revel in accomplishment. Going the extra mile is even better with traveling companions.

Maybe Chaucer would agree. Having wended off to Canterbury more than 600 years ago, his pilgrims are still an inspiring, entertaining, fascinating lot to encounter along our way.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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