Sunday, October 25, 2009

Who's First in the Poets' Corner? Hint: It's Not the Wife of Bath!

While there may be other Poets' Corners, I'm referring to the one in Westminster Abbey - the final resting place of many of England's writers, poets, and playwrights. And who was the first person buried there? Geoffrey Chaucer - whose body had been originally buried elsewhere in the Abbey. Today is the anniversary of his death - October 25, 1400. Generally acknowledged as the Father of English Literature (or poetry), his most famous work 'The Canterbury Tales' continues to delight. Ask any alumae of my alma mater about The Tales and you will get a recitation of the prologue - at least the first few lines. For more than a century, all freshmen have learned those lines and for some inexplicable reason they stick with you long after you've forgotten the bawdy Miller and the oft-wed Wife of Bath. The middle English pronunciation may be a bit Southern, but the idea is still there: sweet April showers pierce the March drought to the root, or root-uh, as we say . . .

If you've never been forced to read Chaucer, you've probably not read Chaucer. After all, most of us do not reach for an 850 line Medieval poem when we want some light reading. However, you can find a modern translation and you'll see that The Canterbury Tales has something for everyone. It's about a group of pilgrims who set out to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury and along the way they have a contest to see who can tell the best tale. The narrator's descriptions and pilgrims' tales are like a modern soap opera - murder, sex, intrigue, revenge, forgiveness, comic relief. And here's the brilliant part - more than 600 years later, you'll recognize the characters and situations. People don't change . . . and I think that's why we still like to read Chaucer.
So, here's to Geoffrey Chaucer on the anniversary of his death! I'm off to cook a meal that would please the Summoner - full of garlic and onions . . . hmmm, what would Chaucer say about that?


  1. You're absolutely right; human situations and interactions are still basically the same. And that's why we still love Shakespeare too. Just close your eyes and imagine Chaucer's or Shakespeare's characters talking on their cell phones, watching TV, and chewing gum...oh, maybe not. And that's the difference that makes me like the old characters all that much more.

  2. Christine - I'm with you on the old characters, but thanks for the image of Romeo texting Juliet . . . Leah


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