Friday, June 13, 2008


I started rereading The Canterbury Tales yesterday. I'm teaching Chaucer again for the first time in four+ years, so I have some serious rereading to do. I'm also rereading some criticism, and reading some for the first time.

I know, all of you who don't get to call it "work" when you read great literature are wondering how you can get in on this plush gig!

So, I'm reading along, through the worst sentence in the whole work (okay, there MAY be something worse in Sir Thopas, but you get my drift), which happens to be the first sentence. Let's just say, it's doing all this work, and wound up around itself in ways that aren't exactly inviting. Maybe some people know about Zephirus and his "sweete breeth," but I have to look it up. And the running of the Ram? At least I have a vague memory of the atrology stuff at this point, and don't look it up. (And how pathetic is it that scholars still study bits of astrology in order to read stuff? At least I'm not a Simon Forman fan!) The first sentence, by the way, is 18 lines long, so that by the time you get to "Thanne longen folk to goon on pigrimages," you're ready for a breath and a new start. Happily, that's when the sentence gets fun. (Well, except that the bit about nature pricking the birds in their "corages" is fun.)

It reminds me of the opening sentence of Paradise Lost. Get students through that (only 16 lines, because Milton was a whuss!), and you can get them through the whole 12 books!

So, as I said, I've started in, and I notice a handwritten note. It's miniscule, so I must have written it before I started wearing reading glasses. Oh the day! I've translated "holt and heeth" to "grove and field" in the margin, copying the gloss from below. (It's something you'd only do for the first lines, or your margins would be covered in re-glossings.)

And then I get to this, at line 16: "3 syl"
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende

And at line 22: "3 syl"
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage

And at line 27: "4 syl"
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.

Yes, at some point in my past, I decided to note the number of syllables you'd use for the word "Canterbury" in order to make the verse come out "properly" decasyllabic. (Yeah, it LOOKS iambic pentameter to me, too, but real medievalist verse types will tell you that it's not; it's something something decasyllabic verse. Yet more evidence that I belong to the early modern period: I no longer remember what it's supposed to be called, but I'm pedantically anxious enough to worry about it.) Now, if you're like me, you did the finger count thing with the syllables, touching fingers in order as you say the lines. My students see me do this all the time in class, and seem to think it's funny that I can't count without using my fingers.

So, there's all sorts of assumptions there about the whole ten syllable thing, but I'm trying to remember if I should make the schwa sound at the end of the lines or drop it. (If I say it, it's basically feminine rhymes. But I seem to remember that Chaucer was already dropping lots of word ending schwa sounds.) And now I'm feeling truly inadequate.

My Chaucer is a Riverside Chaucer, printed back in 1987, and purchased not long after when I took my second Chaucer class, a class on Troilus and Criseyde. So we've been through nearly 20 years together, off and on.

The first layers of notes (in Troilus) are in thin black indelible ink pen, the kind I used after learning to take field notes in it as an undergrad. The alternative was pencil, which I switched to when I started grading and indelible was a disadvantage, and erasable vital. (Because how often have you written something on a student's paper that just wasn't worded right, and had to reword?)

There's an ink note referencing line 76, wondering why the knight's tunic is "besmotered" (a word I absolutely adore and would love to use in day to day conversation, as in "my goodness, [dog name,] you're all besmotered!")

Then there's a later pencil note about Saint Eligius being famous for refusing to take an oath (referencing line 20, where the Prioresse, we're told, swears her greatest oaths "but by Seinte Loy"). Where did I get that bit of information?

Later pencil notes actually cite some sources of information (Muscatine, for example); I think those come from once I started teaching Chaucer and needed to be able to explain where I was getting ideas.

My most recent layer of notes are in larger, more reading glasses friendly sizes, from the last time I taught Chaucer, probably.

You'll be glad to know that once again, the pilgrims decided to have a story contest on the way to Canterbury! Today, I begin the "Knight's Tale"! You may laugh, but I'm smiling as I type this and plan my reading for the day!

And inevitably, I'll pencil in a few more notes, in even bigger writing. Another class on Chaucer, another layer of notes. What could be better?

I'm also getting a book from the library. Chaser highly recommended David Treuer's The Hiawatha, so I couldn't resist asking my public library to borrow it from another public library in their consortium thing for me!


  1. In Donka Minkova's chapter on Chaucer's language and verse in Chaucer: An Oxford Guide (ed. Ellis), she calls Chaucer's 10-syl poetry iambic pentameter. She also says that the modern reader may choose whether to read his lines ending in -e as feminine or masculine rhymes, since there's no conclusive way to tell whether those particular -e's were articulated. Choose one way and be consistent, I tell my students.

  2. Thanks for the book suggestions. I smile at the thought of you puzzling over your 4+ year old Chaucer notes. I do have to say that the first line in Paradise Lost almost cost me my will to live, back in my "Early and Medieval English Literature Class" in college.

  3. These old glosses can be wonderful - there is a book about modern German history by Sebastian Haffner that I had to read as an undergraduate, which is heavily glossed in his chapter where he speculates that the Berlin Wall might never come down. Which it was doing at the very moment I was reading it.

    The idea that you are creating a whole family of marginal glosses in a copy of a medieval text made me smile - primary sources should be printed with very, very wide margins, don't you think?

  4. Dr. V, thanks! If Donka uses iambic pentameter, then I'm going to lose my anxiety about that.

    MWAK, Teaching PL gives me the same feeling!

    Carine, YES for wide margins!