Pilgrim out of town: Chaucer’s Modern Echoes

by Gail Ashton

St. Pancras, Gray’s Inn Road, to Holborn… Holborn viaduct with its knight flanked by two dragons guarding one of the old city gates…on to Cheapside, Poultry, Bankside…and there ahead London Bridge streaming with traffic and people: to the left, upriver, Tower Bridge, to the right St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the dirty old River Thames chopping and surging below and everywhere crowds walking as if they know where they’re going, contemporary buildings scraping the skyline. And, as if from nowhere, Southwark Cathedral tucked into a hollow, its perfect rising tower the centrepiece to long sweeps of stone fanning out on either side.

This is the oldest church building in London. It stands at the oldest crossing point of the tidal river Thames and was for many centuries the only entrance to the city this side of the river. Some believe there was a place of worship here as far back as Roman times but the ‘modern’ cathedral was re-founded in 1106 by 2 Norman knights. It has had a long and colourful history thereafter.

Yet, as befits this evening’s event with its title Chaucer’s Modern Echoes, this is not simply a medieval shrine but a building at the heart of contemporary life. It’s ringed by the Thames, by bridges and tenement-style wharfsides. In the closing years of the last century the Millennium Buildings were created where the priory of the religious community once stood. Soon there will be a new railway viaduct and the tallest building in Europe, the Shard, standing nearby. Around a corner and along an alleyway and here are the ruins of Winchester Palace, home to a host of medieval bishops. There’s a replica of the Golden Hinde ship, a sign to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and the Clink Museum, site of the former Clink Prison, the oldest gaol in England dating back to 1140.To the left of the cathedral, the small busy Borough market is crammed beneath the railway viaduct, and all the time trains grind along the track, postmodern structures in glass and steel mesh lean into the cathedral yard, straining for a share of its light.

This is a narrow cathedral, the eye drawn to the altar with its small high window. I almost overlook John Gower’s gaudy tomb tucked into the wall and just beyond it Chaucer’s window which depicts the Canterbury pilgrims about to set off on their journey. And before I can even get in to look around I have to wait for the close of a memorial service dedicated to one Michael Cox, master vinter and part of a family owned UK wine company; it’s as if Chaucer has just stepped from the shadows for a last glance at the evening to come.

Tom Eveson and Gabby Meadows intersperse the performances with extracts from Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales, Tom in his fabulous rendition of Middle English and Gabby with her mellifluous modern readings. I speak about Chaucer’s literary heritage and his contemporary afterlives with special nods to the fabulous LeVostreGC aka Brantley Bryant and to the medieval meme rendition of the Mamas and the Papas (I never thought I’d be singing in Southwark Cathedral). Lavinia Greenlaw took us on a narrative journey through her haunting A Double Sorrow. And Patience Agbabi blew the roof off with her dramatic performances from Telling Tales: Harry Bailly’s fictional biography; the Prologue’s Grime Mix; her Prioress’s Tale or the amazing Sharps an Flats; the sassy Things alias The Shipman’s Tale; Unfinished Business or the Melibee, her clever and disturbing mirror poem; before ending with Makar, the Franklin’s Tale.

Best of all, as we take turns to speak, in my left ear all night is the rumble and clatter of trains, a helicopter whirring, and Patience stepping into her Sharps an Flats with its call to Damilola stabbed in real life and left to bleed to death in a stairwell, a police siren wailing in time to Chaucer’s still ticking pulse.

My warmest thanks to Poet in the City, especially to Isobel Colchester, Suzy Cooper and Gabby Meadows for hosting and organising this amazing event. And too to the Dean of Southwark Cathedral for bringing over 300 people into such an iconic space.

Watch out for audio interviews when they’re released.


Poet in the City & Chaucer: Modern Echoes

logoAn update on the Poet in the City’s upcoming event, Chaucer: Modern Echoes.  Thanks, Gail!

Guest post by Gail Ashton.

The life so short, the craft so long to learn. Who said that?

I have been in Geoffrey Chaucer’s company for a quarter of a century now, one way or another. I’m still no nearer than the merest echo of him, and, truth to tell, if we met in a dark alley I don’t know which of us would be more afraid. I read books the whole night long. Come morning I’m convinced I know less than I did the day before , and sitting here with my student copy of Riverside literally falling to pieces before my eyes I have a horrible feeling of déjà vu.

The event is Poet in the City’s “Chaucer: Modern Echoes,” held at Southwark Cathedral 10 April 2014. I have done this once before at a similar evening in September 2012 somewhere in the depths of the British Museum, London, where Patience Agbabi thrilled us with trial runs of her then work-in-progress Telling Tales. And I met Professor Helen Cooper into the bargain. All this name-dropping! This time Lavinia Greenlaw (A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde) is on the bill with Patience. You will have heard all this, dear reader. What you might not know is that at 7pm this coming Thursday, someone is going to ask me to talk about our Geoffroi.

When I open my mouth I fear I’ll have nothing to say and – heaven forfend – if I’m called as any kind of expert witness in audio-interview, then the world will see that after all I know nothing, and the only sound from this old house of fame will be but babble whirled into London skies.

If you can, be there. Just don’t expect any authority.

The others are worth listening to over and over. And the cathedral has cake, I’m told, if you’re early enough.

Whan That Aprille Day 2014

by Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy

#WhanThatAprille trending on twitter
Snapshots from twitter: #WhanThatAprilleDay is trending! The day has just begun, but participants around the world have already posted videos; images of books, texts, and cakes; and tweets in languages ancient and modern.

Happy April!

In a recent posting, the famous Chaucer blogger and tweeter (@LeVostreGC) called for “Whan That Aprille Daye”: an occasion for people around the world to perform, tweet, or otherwise “celebrate al the langages that have come bifor, and alle their joyes and sorrowes and richesse.” The mission is to “remynde folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studyinge the wordes of the past.”

Follow #WhanThatAprilleDay hashtag on twitter and social media to join in on the fun.

Some excellent items of note that have already appeared online:

To join in this spirit of play, we are posting renditions of the opening lines of the General Prologue in diverse and sundry modern languages. Some are in prose, some in verse (free verse or rhyme). Those of you know the Middle English lines very well will certainly recognize many echoes in the Romance and Germanic languages.

Afrikaans (John Boje, 1989)

Wanneer Aprilmaand milde reënbuie bring
wat Maart se droogheid heeltemal deurdring
en elke aar met daardie vog bedek
wat kragtig bloome tot die lewe wek,
wanneer die westewind met soete geur
sy asem uitblaas op swak lote deur
die bos en hei, en die jong son gegaan
het tot de helfte van die Ram se baan,
en al die voëltjies opgeruimd uitsing
wat hele nagte met oë oop verbring
(dus prikkel die natuur hul handelswyse),
dang an mense graag op pelgrimsreise,
en swerwers hunker na die vreemde strande
van verre heiliges in vele lande.

Arabic (Majdī Wahbah Abd & Al-Ḥamīd Yūnis, 1983)

Screen Capture





Catalan (Marià Manent, 1955)

Quan l’abril amb les pluges ve que alleuja
l’eixut del març, que penetrà a la rel,
i banya cada vena aquella limfa
que amb la seva virtut farà brotar la flor;
quan el Zèfir suau, amb la dolça alenada,
fa sortir en tots els boscos i brugueres
les tendres fulles, i el Sol, jove encara,
es troba a mig camí de Capricorni,
i ocells menuts fan una melodia
dormint tota la nit amb ulls oberts
(així els dóna coratge la Natura),
la gent ja té desig de romiatges
i busquen els romeus camins estranys
cap a temples famosos, per llunyedanes terres;
i assenyaladament, des dels confins de tots
els comtats d’Anglaterra, a Canterbury acuden
cercant el màrtir sant i beneït
que els donà ajut en temps de malatia.

Mandarin Chinese (Fang Chong, 1983)

[for more information, see this previous blog posting]

General Prologue in Mandarin Chinese (Chong, 1983).

Danish (A. Hansen, 1901)

[see this previous posting for more on Danish translations]

Naar i April de friske Byger trænge
Ned i den tørre Muld paa mark og Enge
Og alle Rødder bade sig i Regn
Og skyde Blomster frem som Livsenstegn,
Naar Zefyr med sit friske, milde Pust
Hen over Krat og Hede lunt har sust.

French (Louis Kazamian, 1908, repr. 1942)

Quand Avril de ses averses douces
a percé la sécheresse de Mars jusqu’à la racine,
et baigné chaque veine de cette liqueur
par la vertu de qui est engendrée la fleur;
quand Zéphyr aussi de sa douce haleine
a ranimé dans chaque bocage et bruyère
les tendres pousses, et que le jeune soleil
a dans le Bélier parcouru sa demi-course;
et quand les petits oiseaux font mélodie,
qui dorment toute la nuit l’œil ouvert,
(tant Nature les aiguillonne dans leur cœur),
alors ont les gens désir d’aller en pèlerinage,
et les paumiersde gagner les rivages étrangers,
allant aux lointains sanctuaires, connus en divers pays;
et spécialement, du fond de tous les comtés
de l’Angleterre, vers Canterbury ils se dirigent,
pour chercher le saint et bienheureux martyr
qui leur a donné aide, quand ils étaient malades.

Frisian (Klaas Bruinsma, 2013)

Wannear’t april mei al syn swiete buien
oant yn ’e woartel poarre ’t maartske druien,
en alle ieren baaid’ yn sok in sop,
waans krêft it blomte wer ta libben rôp.
en bywannear’t ek Zéfirus wer aaide
mei swiete amm’ yn alle hôf en heide
de teare leaten, en de jonge sinne
heale baan rûn hat troch Aries hinne
en lytse fûgels melodijen meitsje
dy’t nachts wol sliepe, mar mei d’ eagen weitsje
(sa priket de natoer har yn ’e herten),
dan langet folk in beafeart yn te setten,
en pylgers sykje fiere, frjemde strannen
om hilligen bekend yn folle lannen;
om dan foaral út eltse krit’ en hernen
fan Ingelân nei Kenterboarch te tsjen en
de hill’ge, sill’ge martler op te sykjen,
dy’t harren holpen hat yn harren sykten.

German (Martin Lehnert, 1962)

Wenn milder Regen, den April uns schenkt,
Des Märzes Dürre bis zur Wurzel tränkt,
In alle Poren süßen Saft ergießt,
Durch dessen Wunderkraft die Blume sprießt;
Wenn, durch des Zephyrs süßen Hauch geweckt,
Sich Wald und Feld mit zartem Grün bedeckt;
Wenn in dem Widder halb den Lauf vollzogen,
Die junge Sonne hat am Himmelsbogen;
Wenn Melodieen kleine Vögel singen,
Die offnen Augs die ganze Nacht verbringen,
Weil sie Natur so übermüthig macht: –
Dann ist auf Wallfahrt Jedermann bedacht,
Und Pilger ziehn nach manchem fremden Strande
Zu fernen Heil’gen, die berühmt im Lande;
In England aber scheint von allen Enden
Nach Canterbury sich ihr Zug zu wenden,
Dem heil’gen Hülfespender aller Kranken,
Dem segensvollen Märtyrer zu danken.

Japanese (Masui Michio, 1995; repr. 2012)

General Prologue in Japanese (Masui 2012)

Korean (Dongil Lee, 2007)












Brazilian Portuguese (José Francisco Botelho, 2013)

[See this preview and previous blog posting]

Quando o chuvoso abril em doce aragem
Desfez março e a secura da estiagem,
Banhando toda a terra no licor
Que encorpa o caule e redesperta a flor,
E Zéfiro, num sopro adociacado,
Reverdeceu os montes, bosques, prados,
E o jovem so, em seu trajeto antigo,
Já passou do Carneiro do Zodíaco,
E melodiam pássaros despertos,
Que à noite doormen de olhos bem abertos,
Conforme a Natureza determina
–É que o tempo chegou das romarias.

Turkish (Nazmi Ağıl, 1994)

Nisan that yağmurlarıyla gelip
Kırınca Marttan kalan kuraği ve delip
Toprağı köklere işleyince, kudretiyle
Çiçekler açtıran bereketli şerbetiyle
Yıkayınca en ince damarları,
Zephirus da dolaşarak kırları, bayırları
Soluyunca can katan ılık,
Tatlı nefesini körpecik
Filizlere, toy güneş yarı edince
Koç burcunkaki devrini, bütün gece
Uyumayıp börtü böcek
Şarkılar söyleyince (tabiat dürtükleyerek
Uyanık tutar onları) işte o dem,
Hacca gitmeye büyük bir özlem
Duyar insanlar.

P.S. Follow @JonathanHsy on twitter; he’ll tweeting and retweeting throughout the day!