English 383 -- Fall 2004
Washington State University
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales begin in a very formal voice, celebrating the awakening of Spring and the marvels of Nature. In Chaucer's portrayal a personified April and March, together with the "sweete breeth" of Zephirus, catalyze revitalization in Nature and all life contained therein. The first ten lines point the reader towards the vast Cosmos and the harmony with which Nature continually transforms and regenerates new life. This depiction conjures the image of a holistic unity with all intricacies intertwined. Even the foweles, Chaucer points out, are following "hir corages." Next, however, enters man, and the prose in response takes a rather interesting turn, bringing the reader amid a pilgrimage.
"Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages" (12), Chaucer claims, promptly pulling his tale away from the Heavens and very intimately down to Earth. The notion of a pilgrimage now conjures an image of people wandering across the countryside towards a reputed Holy site. The reason for doing so Chaucer reports as, "The hooly blissful martir for to seke / That hem hath hoplen whan they were seeke" (17-18). Yet one cannot help but wonder why, in the picturesque Nature that Chaucer only just portrayed, the "folk" are not "mayken melodye" too. Instead, they are depicted as roving miracle seekers that seem in need of some sort of external support and relief for their ebbing health and questionable deeds. So what, one might wonder, is Chaucer hoping to convey with such a contrasting presentation and in what aspects does this particular backdrop allow him to better express a genuine conception of human "being-ness"?
Chaucer could have had various reasons for choosing this particular milieu, the most important perhaps being that this environment allowed for interaction amongst individuals of a very dissociated variety. It is not every day that one encounters a Knight, a Miller, and a Prioress together, in a tavern, no less. Chaucer's particularity of characterization clearly demonstrates the great care that was taken in developing multiple unique and emblematic auras. He would have, therefore, been in need of a scenario in which he could parody all of these numerous prototypes on an even echelon. Thus, a pilgrimage is rather fitting, as the characters are all conveniently united through a shared and apparently humble goal: to journey to a Holy place and pay credence. "In felaweshipe, and pilgrims were they alle" (26), Chaucer informs the reader. Yet, at the same time, each enigmatic character is clearly intended to differ significantly in their external and internal dispositions, allowing Chaucer to profit significantly on this variable assembly.
A further aspect of this setting is the journey that it entails. A pilgrimage demands a rather utile span of time throughout which Chaucer can manifest his various analysis and messages. The duration and "lack of anything better to do" aspect of the journey facilitate Chaucer bountiful time for reflection and the relaying of revealing, or those one "can't 'er bury," tales. This structure also aides in bringing a sense of connectedness to the varying spectrum of personalities and tales that, when taken individually might seem slightly disjointed. This setting would have been very familiar to the Tales' original audience, as well. "And specially from every shires ende/ Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende" (15-16), Chaucer declares, allowing his audience literally to stay "right at home" in the narrative.
Several intriguing metaphoric and metaphysical allusions are also presented in the introductory prose that reveal a compelling further dimension as to what Chaucer is attempting to convey about human beings and their relationship to the world in which they live. Chaucer would have undoubtedly been extremely scrupulous concerning his vocabulary and word choice. This craft is repeatedly demonstrated in his intricate prose. It, therefore, seems highly unlikely that he just happened to utilize Genesis invoking vocabulary, by chance, in the general prologue.
One cannot read the first ten lines and not sense a resonating reference to Genesis and how God's creation of the Earth is there depicted. The idea of Zephirus' "sweete breeth" inspiring life in Nature seems to echo directly, "and [God] breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (Genesis 2.7). It is interesting to note, as well, that this monumental event in the Genesis account takes place immediately after "a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground" (Genesis 2.6). In Chaucer's account it is the "shoures soote" of April that replenish the "droghted" Earth, but again the imagery and vocabulary is essentially consistent between the two. Chaucer then seemingly selects a word that shatters the harmony of his elegantly ordered cosmos stating, "Bifil that in that seson on a day" (19). Genesis also has a rather infamous "Falling" that this somewhat unusual word choice seems to blatantly allude to, especially in light of the "Genesis-esque" introduction the reader has already received.
Now what, one should rightly wonder, would be Chaucer's motive for perceptibly including this Biblical aspect into his prologue and what this elucidation seems to suggest about the tales that are to come en route. Presently, only a "prologue in," I am yet to know what this journey will in truth amount to. However, embedded in this somewhat off-beat introduction exits a rather finely honed indication.
Even though there is a specific direction the pilgrims are headed and it seems to be a relatively pious deed, there is a subtle component of aimlessness and superficiality in this activity, as well. Just as God booted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in the Genesis account, Chaucer also seems to isolate his pilgrims from the cosmic grandeur. In the picture of Nature that Chaucer provides it seems all other life simply "goes with the flow." Humans, however, hit the road. This behavior suggests that in a sense they are in search of something that the harmony of Nature alone is insufficient for. In the tales that are to come it, therefore, seems fitting that Chaucer will explore in what ways each of these individuals are deficient that would account for this rather bizarre need to journey to an external and physical site in order to be contented.
Taking into consideration the very pointed references to Genesis made in Chaucer's introduction, along with the backdrop of a pilgrimage, a very compelling stage on which to examine human nature has been set. These variables allow for rather interesting investigations into the ramifications of "knowledge of good and evil" and the human condition and psychology in general. Thus, the reader is surely in for a symbolic and thought provoking journey as they travel along with a very colorful array of pilgrims towards Canterbury.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. In The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 3rd. ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.