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Whan that Aprill

May 2, 2010

When I was in college, as an English major I had to take a course in Chaucer and in Shakespeare. As luck would have it, I ended up taking them in the same semester, which meant that I spent the term weightlifting using the Complete Works of Chaucer and the Riverside Shakespeare stuffed in a bookbag as my equipment. I think it’s entirely possible that had it not been for that term, I would be a couple of inches taller.

While I would surely have taken Shakespeare no matter what, Chaucer is a class I might not have signed up for if it hadn’t been required. I was obsessed with the early twentieth century — Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, Eliot. But it turned out to be one of my favorite classes. It wasn’t just the stories — I’d read a lot of The Canterbury Tales in high school and already knew they were funny as hell. But it was the language. I had expected the class, like most of my lit classes, to be all about picking apart text references, analyzing relationships to other texts and historical events. And there was plenty of that — Chaucer is rich in that way. But We also spent a lot of time learning how to read it out loud. I fell in love with the sound of Middle English and began to think of it more as a separate language. There was enough of an emphasis on the spoken word that part of our final exam involved an oral component, for which we were required to memorize and accurately speak the first 18 lines of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. I practiced a lot, not so much because I was worried about it, but because it was fun. It felt to me like speaking English with some kind of Scandinavian accent. When my turn came to step into my professor’s office, I was positively dramatic.

That was more than 20 years ago. I can’t say I’ve found my fascination with Middle English to be particularly useful save for one occasion about ten or twelve years ago, when I was conducting some choral works written in a similar time period. Without much guidance, I was able to fairly accurately render the pronunciation based solely on my experiences in Chaucer class. I certainly haven’t given much thought to The Canterbury Tales in some time.

But last night, over the courses of several dreams, I found myself recreating the opening of the Prologue in my head. Although I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten much beyond the second line yesterday, today I woke up remembering all 18. Which makes me wonder: where has this data been living in my brain for the last twenty years? Why is it still there? And why am I suddenly remembering it now???

[second post this morning]

4 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    May 2, 2010 2:25 pm

    Well, I didn’t dream about Chaucer, that’s for sure. I dreamt first that I was dating an old high school boyfriend which was shocking and disturbing. Esp since he wasn’t an asshole anymore. Then I dreamed a non-Red daughter and I visited Lass and got to see a sculpture she’d made for a soon -to-be ex. I don’t know what’s going on in my subconscious. I don’t know where any of this stuff resides in my gray matter or why my brain had to put on such a show for me this morning.

  2. readersguide permalink
    May 2, 2010 5:11 pm

    Whan that Aprille with its shoures soute
    Hath perced the dought of Merche to the roots.

    (Or something — I love Chaucer, too. I should dig out my copy and reread the prologue.)

  3. May 3, 2010 9:54 am

    I didn’t expect to like Chaucer–we were allowed to skip two literary periods for the PhD comprehensive exam, and I skipped Medieval and early American–but I loved, of all things, Troilus and Cressida in middle English. When I got to Shakespeare’s Troilus the next year, I didn’t think much of it, because I had already fallen in love with Chaucer’s.

    My sleep was dreamless because there wasn’t enough of it.

  4. readersguide permalink
    May 3, 2010 1:01 pm

    I dreamed that I got M to the AP US Govt exam 2 hours too late.

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