Pilgrims on the Cam

The Canterbury Pilgrims by William Blake (1757 - 1827)
The Canterbury Pilgrims by William Blake (1757 – 1827)

You are about to read a poem, below, modeled on a core text, The Canterbury Tales by the 14th century celebrated Middle English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s original sequence of tales features a Host/Narrator/Pilgrimage leader, in Chaucer’s famous Prologue, who proposes that each pilgrim tell two tales each, coming and going, to pass the tedium of travel. Cycles of tales in medieval Europe were popular, and for today’s students, the concept is easy to grasp and manageable to imitate.

In Fall 2015 Concordia University Irvine began its Concordia Cambridge Program offering students general education and elective options in affiliation with Westfield House and Cambridge University. To immerse the first group of eleven students as fully as possible in the work of one of the world’s master poets, we decided, for additional fun, we would write profiles of each Concordia Cambridge student but each should freely imitate and incorporate expressions from Chaucer’s descriptions of his pilgrims. We received permission from our Chaucer translator (Joseph Glaser) to borrow his words. He graciously responded positively and that, after all, he hadn’t gotten Chaucer’s permission to vary his words either.

The first poem, offered here, was modeled on the Prologue with Jim and me, the Cambridge Program directors, acting/writing as joint Hosts. The students in class and readings learn the essentials about Chaucer and his poetic achievements. His place in history, working as a commoner in a civic profession and writing poetry as an avocation, helps students perceive poetry isn’t as remote as one might think.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1349-1399), was the first English poet to be honored with burial in what would become Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. But beneath the glam, he’s really one of us. Chaucer was endowed by his Creator with sharp powers of observation and expression combined with a fun-loving spirit. He makes us wish he had finished the cycle beyond the tales and unfinished bits we have. He worked for volatile, powerful kings, but kept his head off the spikes at the south end of London Bridge despite good-humoredly pillorying people through his poetry.

As a high-ranking official under Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV, Chaucer had not been “to the manner or manor born.” He was middle class, a wine merchant’s son, and, like us, had to earn a living. A trusted upper-level administrator with personal and political skills, he did the bidding of England’s court and was trusted with negotiating crown business abroad.

Chaucer wrote poetry as an avocation, his works imply, because it was good creative exercise and, above all, a way to get at the fullness of life.

Good for him, good for his compatriots—who chuckled behind their handkerchiefs at the barbs and innuendos—and good for us his works were published and cherished. Chaucer manages to “tell the whole truth” but through irony and allusion, to “tell it slant” so we can accept the joy and challenge of unraveling his thoughts, comparing them with ours.

Chaucer could write prose and did too. His “Treatise on the Astrolabe” is shaped as a prose letter to his, we think, ten-year-old son Lyte Lowys (Little Lewis). Like a parent today who gives a daughter her first Smart Phone, Chaucer wrote charmingly as a parent to a child who now has an expensive brass or bronze Christmas present. Poetry, however, was his championship medium, with its restrictions and necessary compressions via meter and story, to delights and teach us.

In Concordia Cambridge’s English classes, we read Geoffrey Chaucer, despite the Middle English and centuries of cultural distance, because we feel his every-day-ness through his poetry. We teach Chaucer in translation. There’s no shame in that. Translators join the fun, and like relay racers, we have more virtuosos to watch. Like Virgil and Dante before him, Chaucer freely, shamelessly, borrowed from others. Hence, we have students try their hand at imitations, thereby joining the great pilgrim throng of literature.

Chaucer is too often credited with creating the maturity of the language known as Middle English. That’s false. Chaucer had the good fortune to be born speaking the variety of English that, because of London, with or without him, was to become the most muscular branch of English. Chaucer read, listened, and poetically compressed the language that had grown from an Anglo-Saxon base, through acquisitions from Latin, then from Norse/Viking incursions, and across 300 years, now armed with 10,000 new French words in the English vocabulary. The English Chaucer inherited shows us on each page layers of related words, nuance of tone and usage, coinages specific to age, gender, class, or education. Chaucer heard and incorporated a full range of Englishes, and everyone could hear the varieties.

Chaucer’s words fit our Cambridge experience particularly well. The Canterbury Tales and its pilgrimage begin in Trumpington, a now-tiny, residential suburb of Cambridge.  He respects but makes healthy fun of church people, educators, the high and the low—that’s us all—and dishes a dose of humble medicine to knights and knaves, saints and sinners alike. Not a bad job and legacy for a moonlighting poet.

Our words in the Prologue set the stage for our modern day pilgrimage going on in Cambridge, and the students follow with their descriptions of fellow travelers.  (For student writing, see the Concordia on the Cam blog.)

The Concordia on the Cam Tales:  Prologue, Pilgrims on the Cam, Autumn 2015, with continuing additions to come with new waves of Cambridge Pilgrims.

When summer’s pool-side pastimes ceased

And academic hopes increased,

Inspired by painters, Harry Potter,

The Tardis or a favourite martyr,

To Cambridge town, up Castle Mound

We came to Westfield for a first look round.

 

And thus a merry group arrived

Eleven strong, Concordia’s pride,

Girls and guys of every station,

Pilgrims to savor this great nation

Wide-eyed sometimes with reckless mirth,

We read and write for all we’re worth.

 

But do grant us a little space

Before we stir another pace

To set forth, as Directors should,

The qualities both bad and good

Our students show us every day

How deeply here we learn and play.

 

And as for us, well, we’re logicians

Singers, bikers, rhetoricians

We work in libraries and churches

And, boring—sure—we love researches.

Whether German, math, or speech,

We’re glad to learn and glad to teach.

Susan and James Bachman are, respectively, Professor of Rhetoric and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Concordia University Irvine; they are also co-directors of the Concordia Cambridge Program