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Category Archives: Poetry

An illustration from the second edition of The Canterbury Tales, printed in 1483

Sometimes the wide range of things that I manage to find interesting surprises even me. Regular readers of this blog – including Batman, Dracula, Cinderella, and several other seriously non-imaginary people – may even realize that the name of the blog was chosen because of my interest in humanity as a whole, and all of the inconsequential little things that humans get up to (Cf. “About this Blog).

For no good reason, I’m currently reading The Norton Anthology of English Literature (“Revised Edition”; but seriously, has that ever induced anyone to buy a second copy of the same book? Would anyone notice if they branded the first printed edition of the book that way? ). I’m barely two hundred pages into the 1900+ page tome, but already I’m having a lot of fun.

Right now, I’m reading The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400). Chaucer’s lively narration shines especially bright in comparison to the grave, dignified prose of Beowulf, which preceded it in the book. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re willing to take Beowulf on its own terms – a mental exercise that mainly entails picturing very big, hairy, well-armed and belligerent Vikings (it was written in the 8th century AD) listening around a roaring fire as one of their elders intones the lines of the poem – it’s a marvelous work. But there’s something much more human about Chaucer’s wit, his impudence, and his use of believable characters.

As an example, I’ve included a few lines in italics below. They’re all from “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, which might be considered as one of the “chapters” of The Canterbury Tales. And in case you didn’t know, the language that Chaucer wrote in wasn’t quite the one of modern English-speakers; it’s now known as Middle English. It came into use after the Norman Conquest of England (1066 AD) and was replaced by Early Modern English mainly in the Elizabethan Era (1558 – 1603), the time of Shakespeare.  Old English – the language in which Beowulf was written – is a bit of a misnomer, because, trust me, it’s nothing like English.

I think you don’t really get the feel of Chaucer’s work unless you read it in his language, so I’ve given the lines first in Middle English, then included a Modern English translation as well. The Canterbury Tales were composed in rhyming couplets and in iambic pentameter; what that means is that generally, each line is supposed to have five stressed syllables, and the endings always rhyme. And without going into any technical details, here’s a quick tip on how to pronounce the words: with a heavily exaggerated Scottish accent. Anyway, give it a shot:

“For hadde God commanded maidenhede,

Thanne hadde he dampned wedding with the deede;

And certes, if there were no seed ysowe,

Virginitee, thane whereof sholde it growe?”

And in Modern English:

“For if God had commanded maidenhood [it means ‘virginity’ here]

Then with that same word had he condemned marrying.

And certainly, if no seed were sown,

From where then should virgins spring?”

And to further translate into vernacular, here’s what those last two lines mean: “God can’t have been that fond of virgins, because where are virgins supposed to come from unless – well, unless people lose their virginity once in a while?” The irony is delicious.

There’s one vital fact that you must keep in mind when considering those lines: they were written at the height of the Catholic Church’s dominion over the Western world. And yet Chaucer had the audacity to use a female character – the eponymous “Wife of Bath” – to poke fun at Christian doctrine, making her unapologetically challenge several commonly held preconceptions about women.

And here’s another pair of lines that would have gained the approval of some Medieval Barney Stinson:

“In womman vinolent is no defence –

This knowen lechours [lechers] by experience”

Here’s a (rough) translation of that: “As every player knows, a drunk chick can’t say no.”

And finally, here’s another part that I really liked:

“Of alle men yblessed mote [may] he be

The wise astrologen [astrologer] daun [master] Ptolemy,

That saith this proverb in his Almageste:

‘Of alle men his wisdom is the hyeste [highest]

That rekketh [cares] nat who hath the world in honde [hand].”

Those lines translate to:

“May he be blessed of all men,

That wise astrologer, Sir Ptolemy,

Who says this proverb in his book Almagest,

‘Of all men, he who never cares who has the world in hand

Has the greatest wisdom.’”

I can’t help but feel that there’s Deep Truth in those last two lines. In fact, they’re going on The Folly of Human Conceits’ “Memorable Words” page.


A wise old owl sat in an oak

The more he saw the less he spoke

The less he spoke the more he heard.

Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?

‘A WORKER READS HISTORY’ by Bertolt Brecht (1947):

 Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
 The books are filled with names of kings.
 Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
 And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
 Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
 That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
 In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
 Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
 Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
 Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
 Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
 The night the seas rushed in,
 The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

 Young Alexander conquered India.
 He alone?
 Caesar beat the Gauls.
 Was there not even a cook in his army?
 Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
 was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
 Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
 Who triumphed with him?

 Each page a victory
 At whose expense the victory ball?
 Every ten years a great man,
 Who paid the piper?

 So many particulars.
 So many questions.