From Dr. Megan Murton
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…
These lines are the first two lines of the long, beautiful sentence that begins the Canterbury Tales – a sentence that I require students in English 351 to memorize each fall. Many of them proudly report that they remember it and perform it years later, and once, I had it recited to me by a man in his 70s who still remembered it from his college days.
The sentence has many merits, but meteorological accuracy is not among them. The windy, rainy days of March are not a drought. We certainly don’t have to wait until April for rain to come in Washington, DC, and I know from my time living in England that Chaucer’s March was a damp month, too. So what’s going on? Chaucer is describing not the weather of his own lived experience, but the weather patterns of the Mediterranean region, as they are described in the Latin literature that influenced him so deeply. Most of his Classical allusions are more obvious, like his reference a few lines later to Zephirus, the West Wind – but calling March a “drought” is another way of linking his poetry to this ancient tradition.
It’s a little strange that when describing the weather, Chaucer chose to look not outside his window, but to his books. But to me, this moment is just a trivial example of a deeper and more significant truth seen throughout Chaucer’s writings: the power of books to shape how we experience the world. Chaucer’s writings engage with all kinds of perennial human questions – how we fall in and out of love, why bad things happen to good people, how much freedom we have to choose our paths in life – and they always do so in conversation with what he calls “olde bookes.” Chaucer firmly believed that these questions are best answered in dialogue with a long tradition of others who have wrestled with them. He found books essential for reading and understanding the world around us.
Chaucer’s books may have led him astray when it came to describing the weather, but they gave him a rich imaginative and intellectual life – and he then shared it with us by writing more books of his own. The best part of studying English is welcoming books as companions, mentors, debate partners, and even sometimes as friends. I hope we can all find joy in books as we persevere through the last days of winter and look for the coming of spring.