Every year near the start of spring, I am reminded of an English professor I had in college who made us memorize and recite the first 18 lines of the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Middle English, for those who are not literary scholars, is the language written and spoken in England from the early 1100s until about 1500. Geoffrey Chaucer is the best-known English poet to write in Middle English, the vernacular of his time.
If you don’t care to read the Middle English version of Chaucer’s Prologue below, I’ve also included a more modern version. If you don’t care to read that either, Chaucer’s general premise is that the arrival of spring makes people long to go on a road trip, the primary road trip of the time he was writing (sometime between 1387 and 1400) being a religious pilgrimage. Those road trip books and movies everyone likes, the ones that celebrate the journey over the destination — their origins are in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to check it out for yourself.
I’m reminded of Chaucer and my professor this week because Spring is in the air here in the Bay Area. It’s been sunny, and flowers are beginning to bloom. A fresh breeze (as opposed to a howling winter wind) blows through the air. I look out the window and see the daffodils bloom, and my mind thinks, “Whan that Aprill. . .” For some reason, I can still recite most of the lines from Chaucer’s Prologue in Middle English, and nearly two decades later, so can those friends of mine who studied under Mr. Osberg. In fact, in our nerdy, English-major ways, we have been known to greet each other with the lines, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote…” even though many years have passed since those happy school days.
I was also reminded of Chaucer today because I received the alumni magazine from my college in the mail and, sadly, learned that the professor who taught me those 18 lines and helped me to appreciate their beauty died of brain cancer in October. Mr. Richard Osberg (he had a Ph.D. in Middle English, but always wanted to be called “Mister” as opposed to “Doctor”) had a great teaching style that made seemingly dusty, ancient works like Canterbury Tales (written even before Gutenberg’s printing press) seem like new discoveries for his students. He even looked the part of the academic — full mustache, Chaucer tie, vest, tweed jacket with elbow patches, and — though perhaps it is a trick of my memory, I can’t be certain — a pipe. I took Mr. Osberg’s Chaucer class, and then his Critical Composition class, and, as a senior, wrote my thesis on Arthurian legend under his direction. Being an English major at a university in the middle of the then up and coming Silicon Valley, surrounded by technology and the idea that worth was defined only by IPOs and stock options, I found it comforting to know that this man made a good life being a prominent Medievalist and a splendid teacher.
I didn’t keep in close touch with Mr. Osberg after graduation, but I did enjoy the end-of-quarter potluck dinners at his and his wife’s house, his wonderful poetic ability, his championing of the Oxford English Dictionary, and his amazing powers of making the old new for us students. He’ll be much missed, and he’ll also be fondly remembered as one of the people who showed me that a life spent studying old books and sharing their lessons is a life of great value indeed.
THE GENERAL PROLOGUE TO THE CANTERBURY TALES
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 halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(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.
When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England they to Canterbury went,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.