“When in April the sweet showers fall/And pierce the drought of March to the root,” is the first line of which work of classical literature?

And the answer: The Canterbury Tales.
Photo credit: public domain.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales begins with the following prologue:

“When in April the sweet showers fall,
And pierce the drought of March to the root
and all And veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially, from every shire's end
In England, down to Canterbury they wend
To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick.”

A modern English translation of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, translated by Neville Coghill and published in 1952 by Penguin Classics.

The book is a collection of 24 tales, each told from the perspective of a different character as they make their pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. An important piece of medieval literature, Chaucer's work includes insightful depictions of the 14th century's social class structure.

Few works have withstood the test of time like Goeffery Chaucer’s masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. Still widely read, published, and discussed over 600 years after its original publication, Chaucer’s text has several popular translations and is not only a window into the past but also a tragic, powerful narrative of Medieval life and culture. The classic work was written in Middle English: a linguistic period which lasted about 300 years, from 1150 to around 1450 CE, and is characterized by its transitional nature between Old and Modern English. Chaucer’s choice to write the tales in English was a significant decision, as most of England’s elite during this time spoke and read French. By choosing to write The Canterbury Tales in the language of more common folk, Chaucer cemented his literary legacy and created one of the first major works in English literature.

Some of the major themes and ideas which Chaucer grapples with in his epic poem include (but are not limited to) the meaning of life, class struggles, romance, social caste, gender, morality, and more. Chaucer almost exclusively writes in iambic pentameter in The Canterbury Tales, thereby establishing the gold standard of English poetic meters and English poetry—including Shakespeare’s—for years to come.

Learn more about the antics, tropes and characters in this essential work here.


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