Chaucer – The General Prologue

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The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales opens with an essentially sexual image to explain seasonal change:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath percedt o the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendered is the flour

From the piercing liquid of April’s showers comes new life, the flower. Successive images of the wind breathing life into “tender croppes” and the young sun racing through heavens complete the picture of an inanimate world transformed by vital energy. Then the poet moves on to subhuman animals (small birds that sleep with open eyes, “so priketh hem nature in her corages”) and finally to “folk” whose thirst for extraordinary realms of experience – “straunge strondes/ [And] fern halwes, kowthe in sondry londes” – becomes by its place in an ordered, ascending sequence, an expression of the life force precisely analogous to the restlessness of the birds and the renewed fertility of the earth. This connection is fascinating in the light of the widespread medieval view, descended from Augustine, of Christian life as a pilgrimage through this world, holding aloof from natural delights for the sake of supernatural delights in the world to come.

Having established a principal of recreation at work at all levels of experience in spring time, the poem proceeds to show how human beings, impelled on pilgrimage “with ful devout corage”, order the vital energies in annual resurgence within them. These energies force people out of normal routines into chance encounters that they very quickly organize into associations:

At nyght was come into that hostelrye

Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye,

Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle

In felaweship, and pilgrims were they all

Man-the-pilgrim is also man-the-social-being; to join an adhoc group is to partake in ordering it.

It is with such a suggestive framework of strong impulses, precisely ordered, that the narrator, appealing to ‘resoun” proceeds to recount the “condicioun” of each pilgrim, that is, gives vent to another basic impulse, that of representing life in all its variety, by describing the appearance, behaviour, and character of one’s fellow human beings. In other words, the ordering impulse that creates society anew in the Tabard Inn provides the material for the “representational” impulse of the narrator.