Dr. Moira Fitzgibbons, Professor of English, Core Director

"The Nun's Priest's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer

"The sonne," he seyde, "is clomben up on hevene
Fourty degrees and oon, and moore ywis.
Madame Pertelote, my worldes blis,
Herkneth this blisful briddes how they synge,
And se the fresshe floures how they sprynge;
Ful is myn herte of revel and solas!"

Translation:

"The sun," he said, "has climbed up in the skies
Over forty-one degrees and more, indeed.
Madam Pertelote, bliss of my life,
Listen to these blissful birds, how they sing,
And see the fresh flowers, how they spring;
Full is my heart of joy and pleasure!"
-- translation by Moira Fitzgibbons

Watch Professor Fitzgibbons read the poem in both Modern and Middle English

I've been reading and teaching Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for several centuries now (well, almost), and this poem still keeps me off balance. As you probably know, Chaucer doesn't tell the tales in his own voice--he creates fictional pilgrims who tell stories to other people traveling alongside them. Many of these fictional tale-tellers turn around and create characters with voices and agendas of their own.

In the passage above, a male speaker reacts to a conventionally beautiful morning in a conventionally beautiful way. Praising the rising sun, his lovely companion, the chirping birds--these are all things that we would expect a medieval poet to do. But Chaucer's own voice is layered underneath that of the Nun's Priest, who is telling the tale about this sunny day. And the Nun's Priest isn't describing his own experiences: he's put these words in the mouth of a male who is truly "ful" of himself--a gorgeous, lustful, slightly paranoid rooster.

Knowing that our speaker here is a chicken draws our attention to a seemingly unimportant phrase: "he seyde." Who is really talking here? Since it's a rooster, should we picture him clucking or crowing? Does our speaker understand that he's at least theoretically one of the "blisful briddes" himself? Have the Nun's Priest and Chaucer disappeared altogether?

The fact that there aren't any simple answers to these questions makes this a great poem to discuss with students. It also reminds me that speaking, and poetry itself, can be a form of evasion as well as self-expression.

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