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Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

1 April 2011

In honor of the beginning of April—and fully feeling the drought of March—here’s the prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, read in Middle English. Middle English text and Modern English translation below.

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.

Bifil that in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght were come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by áventure y-falle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everychon,
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey, ther as I yow devyse.

But nathelees, whil I have tyme and space,
Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun
To telle yow al the condicioun
Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
And whiche they weren and of what degree,
And eek in what array that they were inne;
And at a Knyght than wol I first bigynne.

Modern:

When fair April with his showers sweet,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root’s feet
And bathed each vein in liquid of such power,
Its strength creates the newly springing flower
When the West Wind too, with his sweet breath,
Has breathed new life – in every copse and heath -
Into each tender shoot, and the young sun
From Aries moves to Taurus on his run,
And those small birds begin their melody,
(The ones who ‘sleep’ all night with open eye,)
Then nature stirs them up to such a pitch
That folk all long to go on pilgrimage
And wandering travellers tread new shores, strange strands,
Seek out far shrines, renowned in many lands,
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England to Canterbury they wend
The holy blessed martyr there to seek,
Who has brought health to them when they were sick.

It happened in that season that one day
In Southwark, at the Tabard, where I lay
Ready to travel to that holy site -
To Canterbury, with my spirits bright,
There came at evening to that hostelry
A group of twenty-nine, a company
Of various folk, to new found friendship come
By happy chance – and pilgrims every one
That for the Canterbury shrine were bound.
The bedrooms and the stables were well found.
There for our comfort was none but the best.
And briefly, when the sun had sunk to rest,
Since I spoke to them all in a friendly way,
I was quite soon ‘one of the crowd` you might say.
We planned next day to be ready to go
At first light; to where, you already know.

Nevertheless, while I have space and time,
Before I go further in this tale of mine,
I feel the most natural thing to do,
Is to picture each of this group for you,
To tell you how they all appeared to me -
What sort they were and what rank they might be,
And what they wore, the clothes they were dressed in;
And first then with a knight I shall begin.

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