Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature Geoffrey Chaucer

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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



John Larson
[Written while the author was a freshman at
The University of Oregon, and should be read
with understanding of the same. —JL]


Effectively Reading Chaucer

With careful study, the language of Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales is usually clarified and understood as the beautiful verse narrative it is. There is, however, the common problem which comes when one is unable to comprehend it in Middle English enough to coherently study it. The question has been raised as to whether it might be more useful to study a translated version of the poem so that it can be understood on first reading. The main problem with this idea is that in nearly every translation, the great beauty of the language is lost in translation, thus subtracting a great deal of the poem's power and charm. Some gloss, however, is required to make it accessible for the average reader. Therefore, the best answer is moderation between translation and language which captures the beauty in a manageable form.

Such a form is presented in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, from which can be pulled the following four lines:

Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr; (ll. 1-4)

The above is a mix of the original spelling with some gloss (in side notes) and spelling translations meant to aide in reading, but not change the poem completely. With relatively little study in the pronunciation of Middle English, most readers could understand and read aloud the poem with its intended lyricism. After some getting used to, it reads almost smoothly, and with concentration is certainly coherent.

In the original manuscript, the reading is difficult enough that coherency is less feasible. The original spelling of "April," for instance, is "Averylle." In the context of the line (see above), it could easily be mistaken for a specific character's name, or a historical reference. Without changing the meter at all, the replacement in cases such as that can smoothly be made. Other examples of this almost invisible but greatly helpful re-spelling can be found in such changes as "euery veyne" to "every vein" (l. 3), and the otherwise nearly illegible "whan Þat they weere seeke" to "whan that they were seke." (l. 18)

This helpful spelling should not be taken too far, however. In Michael Murphy's "modern-spelling" edition, there are certain lines in which reading the Middle English in proper inflection would be difficult. The main changes occur when, in the modern spelling of the words, the "e" is deleted from the end. In Middle English, that letter is not always silent. Directly from the first line, this change becomes apparent, as the modern spelling version reads, "When that April with his showers soot / The drought of March hath piercèd to the root." This seemingly minor change not only affects the pronunciation and presentation, but in fact goes to change the flexibility of the meter that the optionally pronounced "e" provides.

Further translations go even further to lose the lyrical feel of the original. A modern translation by David Wright has the alliterative feel of the original, but none of the rhyming which lends smoothness to the lines. Another by Neville Coghill attempts to preserve the rhyme scheme. This is perhaps the worst of all, because it loses the richness of the language, the alliteration of sounds, and frustratingly changes the length of lines, which lends a choppy feel to the poem from the start. "When in April the sweet showers fall / And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all." This is a collection of most of the above arguments compiled into one translation that comes out sounding like mediocre modern poetry. The reader could more easily pick up the themes, true, but in reality they are only half of the Chaucer experience.

While there are a variety of modern translations which completely reorient The Canterbury Tales for today's readers, most fall short in expressing the impressive control that Chaucer had over his native language. Changes can be made to his text if we want to understand it, but the best of these modifications interferes little or not at all with the authentic reading; this way the rich sound of the original is maintained and upheld.

Text copyright ©1999 John Larson. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on February 10, 2003. Last updated September 5, 2009.


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