The General Prologue - The General Prologue

WHEN APRIL with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,(5)
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye(10)
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)—
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire’s end(15)
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.
Befell that, in that season, on a day
In Southwark, at the Tabard, as I lay(20)
Ready to start upon my pilgrimage
To Canterbury, full of devout courage,
There came at nightfall to that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry persons who had chanced to fall(25)
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all
That toward Canterbury town would ride.
The rooms and stables spacious were and wide,
And well we there were eased, and of the best.
And briefly, when the sun had gone to rest,(30)
So had I spoken with them, every one,
That I was of their fellowship anon,
And made agreement that we’d early rise
To take our way, as to you I’ll devise.
But nonetheless, whilst I have time and space,(35)
Before yet farther in this tale I pace,
It seems to me accordant with reason
To inform you of the state of every one
Of all of these, as it appeared to me,
And who they were, and what was their degree,(40)
And also what array they all were in;
And with a knight thus will I first begin.

Footnotes

  1. The narrator prefaces his story with a brief description of his companions. Again, the narrator breaks down the barrier between his audience and the text in order to set up the next part of his poem: a long catalogue of descriptions in which he introduces each of his characters.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Here Chaucer's narrator speaks directly to the audience. In breaking down this barrier between the reader and the text, Chaucer positions his narrator as an interpreter or presenter of events. The narrator here suggests that he knows what will come and promises the reader that he will eventually tell them how events took place.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. This is an antiquated way of saying 29. The narrator references the other 29 people that he meets at the inn who are on the same pilgrimage to Canterbury that he has undertaken. He uses this as the first introduction to the characters who will dominate the rest of the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. Chaucer abruptly shifts from describing the natural world to describing folk going on a pilgrimage. While the flowers are blooming, the sun is shining, and the birds are getting busy, people are going on a pilgrimage, a religious journey to a sacred place. The juxtaposition of humans going on a religious journey and the lusty birds is meant to be humorous. This humorous beginning sets the tone for the rest of the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Chaucer’s use of this word is twofold. He both invokes the melodic quality of birdsong, something that is prevalent in spring time, and uses the euphemism “make melody” to reference the mating season. Spring in this sense is figured as a time of rebirth, growth, procreation, and abundance.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. “Holt” here means wood and “heath” means open uncultivated lands. Here Chaucer creates a list of images to demonstrate how far Zephyr’s breath reaches. The image he creates shows spring coming to every piece of wood, uncultivated land, plant shoots, and flower buds.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Zephyr is the Greco-Roman god for the west wind, one of four directional wind gods in Greco-Roman mythology. He is generally winged, handsome, and young in artistic depictions. The god is generally portrayed as the *personification* of spring, holding or associated with unripe fruit. “Sweet breath” here refers to a wind commanded by Zephyr. By characterizing this breath as “sweet,” Chaucer creates an implicit connection between Zephyr blowing and spring approaching.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. Chaucer uses “vein” here to refer to the veins in leaves of plants. He begins a long description establishing the setting of the story he is about to tell. He is talking about the change of seasons from the dryness of March to the blossoming and new birth of April, the time of year when winter becomes spring.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. Here the narrator makes his bias clear: he's beginning the introductions with the Knight because in his opinion the Knight has the highest social rank and, thus, the best character. All subsequent introductions proceed according to rank: first the Knight, then his squire and yeoman, then those with the highest status in the Church (the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. Note that these opening lines are written as a rhyming couplet, with the words "fruit" and "root" establishing an AA rhyme scheme. Additionally, each line is written in iambic pentameter, which consists of five pairs of one stressed and one unstressed syllable. The Canterbury Tales is written almost entirely in rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter, with a few exceptions.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. Southwark is a borough just to the south of London Bridge, and the Tabard was an inn whose symbol was a smock (like the blue tabard with white cross worn by the three musketeers).

    — Stephen Holliday
  12. This holy martyr is a reference to Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170 for a dispute with King Henry II of England. Only three years later, Pope Alexander III canonized Becket as a martyr. On the 50th anniversary of his death, Becket’s remains were put into a shrine in the Canterbury Cathedral which would gain an almost cult-like following. Every year people would travel to venerate this shrine and attend a feast in Becket’s honor. This is where Chaucer’s narrator and characters are going.

    — Stephen Holliday
  13. Palmers are professional pilgrims, who act as substitutes for people who cannot make a pilgrimage.  Their symbol is a palm frond.

    — Stephen Holliday
  14. The “Ram” is Aries, the zodiacal time period from March 12 to April 11. The personified sun has “run” half his course, which means the Aries period is half over. This places the pilgrimage around the 27th of March.

    — Stephen Holliday