1 Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
: When April with its sweet-smelling showers
2 The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root,
3 And bathed every veyne in swich licour
And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid
4 Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
By the power of which the flower is created;
5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
When the West Wind also with its sweet breath,
6 Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
In every holt and heath, has breathed life into
7 The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
The tender crops, and the young sun
8 Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
Has run its half course in Aries,
9 And smale foweles maken melodye,
And small fowls make melody,
10 That slepen al the nyght with open ye
Those that sleep all the night with open eyes
11 (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
(So Nature incites them in their hearts),
12 Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages…
Geoffrey Chaucer, General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales
This is beautiful poetry, but back in the day, I didn’t see that. There I was, in the “Aprill” of my “yonge lyfe” and Middle English was the last thing on my mind. I will never know if it was the way my teachers taught, my moment in lyfe, or what exactly, but medieval poetry? I mean, just, why? We had Rod McKuen for the love of god, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and the meaningful lyrics of top 40 — The Rolling Stones, Tim Buckley, John Kay of Steppenwolf, The Moody Blues… And any other artists you might have liked or still like.
I did not realize that put me square in the middle of the poetic ethic of Medieval poets who wrote mostly about love and their disenchantment with the status quo. Generally, Medieval poetry is not “deep,” though the ever-popular “hidden meaning” might be jabs at the politics of the age, discontent at the greed of one pope or another and the plundering of ignorant people by the church. There are ubiquitous metaphors for every wrinkle of Jesus’ story that would be clear to medieval listeners but are obscure to us. Many medieval poets were nobles — knights, lords and kings! — some were women, many were churchmen and women, etc. A large, long-lived group were disaffected clergy. Medieval poets sang their poems.
Under the Linden, Walther von Der Vogelweide
translation by Raymond Oliver
Under the linden tree
On the heather,
Where we had shared a place of rest,
Still you may find there,
Flowers crushed and grass down-pressed.
Beside the forest in the vale,
Sweetly sang the nightingale.
I came to meet him
At the green:
There was my truelove come before.
Such was I greeted —Heaven’s Queen! —
That I am glad for evermore.
Had he kisses? A thousand some:
See how red my mouth’s become.
There he had fashioned
A bed from every kind of flower.
It sets to laughing
Whoever comes upon that bower;
By the roses well one may,
Mark the spot my head once lay.
If any knew
He lay with me
(May God forbid!),
for shame I’d die.
What did he do?
May none but he
Ever be sure of that — and I,
And one extremely tiny bird,
Who will, I think, not say a word.
Lyfe is filled with booby traps and, in my case, a lot of them involve stuff I rejected out of hand, much of which became consummately important to me later, like not learning anything about the history of China in high school and then going to China, or not paying attention to medieval literature and then becoming, oops, a “Swiss medievalist historian.”
P.S. Medieval for me is before 1400 CE, before the first great plague changed the political structure of the world.