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The Canterbury Tales—General Prologue, Lines 1-18

by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)
Translated by Evan Mantyk

When April’s sweetest showers downward shoot,
The drought of March is pierced right to the root
Through every vein with liquid of such power
And virtue that it generates the flower;
When Zephyrus too exhales his breath so sweet
Inspiring in ground beneath the feet
The tender crops, and there’s a youthful sun,
His second half course through the Ram now run,
And little birds start making melodies
Who sleep all night eyes open in the trees
(For Nature pricks them in each little heart),
On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.
The palmers seek to make their travel plans
For far-off shrines renowned in sundry lands.
Especially from every English town
To Canterbury now their steps are bound,
To seek the holy blissful martyr quick
Who helped them out when once they had been sick.

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Key Concepts and Vocabulary

Pilgrimage: a traveler, usually on a holy journey.

Palmer: a pilgrim; implying a pilgrim who once traveled all the way from England to the Holy Land (where Jesus lived and taught, in and around present day Israel), which was a significant distance at the time, and brought back a palm leaf.

Canterbury: the site of Canterbury Cathedral and the Archbishop of Canterbury (the priest with the highest position in England), and the site of the holy shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, who was a martyr (a person killed for his faith). Becket’s shrine was associated with miraculous healings.

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Reading in Original Middle English and Text

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Original Middle English

Chaucer

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature 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.

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16 Responses

  1. Jay Gold

    I applaud you for writing a version that in meter and rhyme matches the original. But in doing so, you’ve made Chaucer say any number of things he didn’t actually say. Too much of a tradeoff for me.

    Reply
    • Evan Mantyk

      Dear Jay, you have an excellent point. If there is a meter and rhyme translation you find that does a better job, please paste it or link to it in another comment. This is meant to be an introduction to Canterbury Tales or Renaissance poetry for students as young as middle school age, and for whom English may be a second language. Moving to the more mature readers, I’ve made sure to include the original as well as a reading of the original. Also, this particular video has a prose rendering of the same lines, which may be useful.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      For Jay Gold and anyone else who wonders at some different meanings between an original and a verse translation, I suggest taking a look at “Comparing Translations of Charles d’Orleans.” There I explain how even a prose translation never says exactly the same thing. Of readers who responded to that essay with seven different translations of the same brief poem, most preferred a translation with modern flair to others that stayed closer to possible original word meanings. The very point of presenting a verse translation is, however, to translate the music as well as the words of the original text.

      Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      The variations that Mr. Mantyk introduces into his version of Chaucer’s text are basically to maintain the rhyming couplet structure (sweet – feet, melodies – trees, heart – start). As a guide for new students they allow for the rhythm of the text to be appreciated first, and with the facing Middle English text and some follow-up explanations from the teacher about obsolete words (soote, corages, strondes), it should be a wonderful learning experience.

      Chaucer’s Middle English is not that tough once you jump into it and start, when you have this kind of en-face arrangement of texts.

      Reply
  2. Margaret Coats

    This timely translation helps show modern English readers they can indeed comprehend both Middle English and its music, with a little help. Evan, your word choices smooth out difficulties, and introduce a double meaning I admire in the last two lines. The pilgrims go quickly to seek the martyr who is quick–very much alive! Their inconveniences of travel were understood as meritorious penance suitable to the Easter season (50 days beginning on Easter Sunday).

    Reply
  3. Brian Yapko

    Evan, I think this is an extremely fine translation of Chaucer’s Middle English into Modern English. When I studied Chaucer I learned how to properly pronounce the Germanic sounding pre-vowel shift language of The Canterbury Tales and, in doing so, actually memorized these first 18 lines. The original language is not actually that difficult (once you get used to the spelling, the old pronunciation, words that have shifted meaning and a few lost words) so I’ve always been disappointed by translations in which blank verse is substituted for Chaucer’s couplets and the language loses its archaic charm. That you have managed to create a translation which respects the original and which preserves the couplets is a marvelous achievement. Just as important, I think you manage to retain a real sense of the Middle English — the syntax, the word-choice, the musicality of it. Your version seems admirably suited to an introduction to Chaucer and to Middle English in general.

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    • Evan Mantyk

      Thank you, Brian. I too was disappointed by other translations, which is precisely why I did this.

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  4. Paul Freeman

    A translation / transcription of the first 18 lines, keeping the iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets in tact is indeed a feat, Evan, and would indeed help school students. I remember at school the abject fear felt of Middle English passed down from senior students to those about to embark on Chaucer.

    It seems to be an American, badge-of-honour thing to learn the first 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales by heart. I learned them some years back (though with somewhat dodgy pronunciation). They have come in useful though. I used to jog three times round a park with a steep incline on one side and to take my mind off the sore legs, I’d recite those 18 lines. Same with swimming and the last 18 lengths (laps in the US, I believe?) of 50 in a 25m pool.

    I must see about getting some of my other ‘Lost’ Canterbury Tales published. I originally wrote them as an introduction to Chaucer’s style. Three and an extract out of about 20 I’ve had published so far – it isn’t much of a hit rate.

    Do you read (or recite) Chaucer in an accent? I tend to have a yokelly Somerset accent in my head and when I read, though to my ear a softened Geordie accent is the perfect accent.

    Thanks for sharing your work and such an interesting thread.

    Reply
    • Evan Mantyk

      Paul, I laud any American school who keeps up that badge of honor. It would be a worthy one. I was never taught Canterbury Tales in high school or college and read it on my own, with no particular accent in mind. The next time I cover it for my students I feel inspired by you and Brian to attempt a reading of the original in a more Chaucerian accent (I won’t attempt to differentiate on the particulars as you have). I wonder if you can comment on the video above as to whether it is a good reading in your view or if you recommend another you can post (or perhaps you could do one yourself?).

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      • Paul Freeman

        Alas, my pronunciation of the first 18 lines of The General Prologue are all over the place – I try to make it more understandable to non-Middle English scholars. The pronunciation in the video sounds well-researched, so I imagine it’s quite authentic.

        If you check on the Internet, there are a couple of rap versions that are quite entertaining.

  5. Yael

    Very interesting and educational, thank you. I love to learn a new thing every day and I appreciate language translation because it helps me understand how other people think and experience life and language.
    Happy Mother’s Day to all you fine poets.

    Reply
  6. Cynthia Erlandson

    This is beautiful, Evan! I’d think your students must love it.

    Reply

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