Poetry Friday: The sequel to Tuesday’s post

I have several favourite poems, but one stands out more than all the others.

Interestingly, however, it’s not exactly a poem.

If you had a chance to read my post on Tuesday , you know how much I value memorization of poetry.  It had a profound effect on me, as I developed my love of poetry – and began my journey as a writer of poetry – only after reading the classic works of people like Shakespeare, Shelley, and Chaucer.  It is the latter I am featuring today.

It was in 9th or 10th grade – I don’t recall exactly – that my British Lit teacher, Mrs. Jencks, gave us a memorization project.  We were in the process of reading early- and middle-English verse literature (like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) when she told us we would need to memorize the first 18 lines of the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  We could choose either the original middle-English version or a contemporary translation, and each one of us would recite it before the entire class and have it recorded onto cassette tape so we could listen back to it.

Ah yes, the good ol’ days – when embarrassing students by making them perform in front of the class was a standard part of the curriculum.

Being an actor even then, I had no qualms about doing anything in front of the class, and since I always liked to take the road less travelled, I opted for the middle-English version; it was, after all, the way the writer had intended it to be read, and it had been written so beautifully I couldn’t bear to do the injustice of committing to memory a pale reproduction of the original.  (Yes, I realize there are some beautiful translations out there – along with some less-than-impressive ones – but none can compare to Chaucer’s words)

So…getting back to Tuesday’s post…all this talk about memorization got me to thinking about the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  I recited it to myself, wondering if I could still remember it.  Sure enough, I did.

So I present to you this Poetry Friday, two firsts for my fledgling blog:  the first poem I’ve featured that is not my own, and the first time I’ve posted audio.  (A number of people have suggested I should record a poem; being a voiceover artist, I’m not sure what took me so long, but I thought it was a good idea!)  The pronunciations are close but probably not perfect – but I’m basing this reading on a recitation I performed from somewhere in the mid-’80’s – so try, if you can, to cut me some slack.  😉

Hope you like it!  And for the rest of the Poetry Friday posts from across the interweb, Amy at The Poem Farm has rounded them all up for you!  Feel free to click the link below to play the audio and follow along with the text.  The player shouldopen up in a new window, but if it doesn’t, just right click the link and select ‘Open in New Window.’  (And if you’re not sure of a particular word or phrase, click here for a modern-day translation!)

Chaucers CT Prologue – Matt Forrest Esenwine vx (10-8-12)

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue
By Geoffrey Chaucer, 1340–1400

Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

18 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: The sequel to Tuesday’s post

  1. Oh the joys of recitation! I went to an English boarding school – many hours spent, therefore, memorizing and reciting. Some of my efforts were successful, others I shudder to remember. Thanks for bringing Chaucer into my classroom today – I played the audio for my sixth graders who were rather in awe!


  2. Catherine Johnson

    I used to live in Canterbury and I took students to the museum there many times. The old language, the poetry and the visuals. I need a translation still. His tales can be really rude if I remember 🙂


      1. Thanks, Catherine. Yes, Chaucer could get a bit inappropriate; the ‘rude’ tale you’re probably thinking of is the classic Miller’s Tale! Also, the movie ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ was based on the Pardoner’s Tale, which many folks don’t realize.


  3. Marvelous reading! Didn’t understand a word, but didn’t really have to. 🙂

    I am all for memorization and dramatization, and my students did both constantly, usually with costumes and props. One of my favorite exercises was the Hamlet warm-up I did with my 10th graders. I divided the “to be or not to be” soliloquy into one line per student, had each memorize his line, plus the one before and the one after it (in case someone was absent), and then do a group recitation (with pizzazz) in a circle at the beginning of each class. So much fun!


    1. That does sound like fun, Renee! Being a theatre guy in high school & college (heck, I STILL enjoy it), I really enjoyed memorizing poems – they were a lot easier than an entire book of lines! Thanks for listening.


    1. So happy you liked it, Andi! I think that’s my favourite line, too, along with the following lne, “That slepen al the nyght with open ye.” Such a beautiful way of saying ‘little birds sing, and keep an eye open at night when they go to sleep.’


  4. Oh Matt, I have to admit that my eyes glazed over for a bit with words that seemed so foreign to me – it IS an acquired taste, really – one that is worth all the trouble and the initial struggle – especially when everything unlocks and clicks into place and the words simply roll off your tongue. I also love what you mentioned about memorizing poems, my own ten year old daughter enjoys it. I don’t know though about middle-English versions – we shall see where that one leads eventually.


    1. Thanks, Myra! The thing is, all it takes is a reading of the translated text – and suddenly the original just comes alive. Once you realize phrases like “smale foweles maken melodye / that slepen al the nyght with open ye” means “small birds make melody / that sleep all night with an open eye,” you start to get a sense of what’s being said, and the beauty of it takes over!


  5. I am in agreement with you about the memorization. There is something about being able to draw up someone’s words from memory. Kind of like the piano player who can sit at the piano and play their favorite song even after years of not playing. It feels good.


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