Whan That April

“Whan that April,

With his shoures sote,

The Drought of March

Hath percèd to the rote,

And bathed every veyne

In swich liquour

Of which Vertu engend’red

Is the flouwr.

Whan Zephyrus eke

With his sweete Breth

Inspired hath in every holt and heath

The tendre Croppes,

And the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne.

And smalle fowles maken melodye,

That slepen all the nicht with open eye.”–Chaucer, Canterbury Tales


My humble translation:

When April,

With his soft showers,

Has pierced the drought of March

To the root,

And bathed every vine

In such liquor

By which virtue

The flower is engendered.

When the west wind himself

With his sweet breath

Has inspired the tender crops,

In every hold and heath,

And the young sun

Has run half its course

In the sign of the Ram (Aries)

And small birds sing,

That slept through the night with open eyes.


I recorded this prologue but was unable to upload it because wma is not acceptable to the wordpress gods. Nevertheless, I did want to share this celebration of April with my readers. As a graduate student in Dr Baird’s Chaucer class, I was required to memorize this opening to the marvelous Canterbury Tales with correct pronunciation in Middle English. Like the nursery rhymes of my childhood, this poem is as fresh in my memory as this morning’s coffee. Since you can’t hear it, you must imagine the sound of ‘night’ as ‘nicht,’ ‘fowls’ as ‘fool-les,’ every ending vowel being sounded, and today’s long vowels like ‘open’ sounding short in Medieval times as ‘opp-en.’ It still reminds me a bit of a Scots dialect.

One of the good things about my choice of French and German as languages to learn was that they helped me understand Middle English far better than my confused classmates. What was gibberish to them was poetry to me. Our huge text was entirely written in Middle English, except for clear introductions and an excellent glossary that assisted our translations. I spent many an hour each night reading and translating Chaucer’s marvelous stories, making notes in the margins of my two-ton book, preparing for the challenge of the class. Dr Baird was a demanding teacher with a medieval sense of humor and a kind heart for those who travailed as I did, night after night. He did not, however, suffer fools gladly, as others discovered when they were late or unprepared.

I learned invaluable lessons about textual analysis, placing literary works in the context of their surroundings, deepening my love for our language, and following mythic archetypes, allusions, and metaphors to the brink of insanity (and back, usually). Some of us would be called upon to read a passage in Middle English and then translate it for the class prior to our discussion of the story, its context, and what it reveals about conflicts in Medieval England. It was a small class, due to Dr Baird’s reputation as a ‘hard ass,’ but those too cowardly to face him missed one of the best intellectual challenges of their careers. I always sought out the tough, demanding professors, for I knew that the difficulty faced would be worth it as I learned far more from them than from their cavalier compatriots. A ‘B’ from a hard taskmaster was far more valuable, in my mind, than an ‘A’ from a lesser light.

If you have missed out on the literary adventure that is Chaucer, remedy that loss immediately, even if you must settle for a modern English version. If you’re a scholar at heart, you may find yourself demanding the Middle English version later. No namby-pamby nature poet was Chaucer. His poetry still strikes you in your gut and his stories may be serious or hilarious, ribald or tender. We all owe a debt to this author extraordinaire. I still miss that class.



©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD (except for Betty Boop)