(Another post from my project from last year; click on the label “Chaucerian Investigation” to read the other content from this project; I am not sure if I will continue this project at any point, but for now, I am moving this content to this blog along with the rest of my old content.)

This post is the first installment in my previously advertised ‘Chaucerian Investigation’ series, where I engage with Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English spelling to better help me familiarize myself with the language that is called middle English. Such posts will feature a variety of textual engagements, such as the phonetic inscriptions for each word in each line, a scanning of each line’s iambic pentameter rhyming scheme, and a brief interrogation of various modern translations of The Canterbury Tales. Although I do not want to make pronouncements on when exactly these posts will be published, I hope that these investigative posts will be posted twice every week or, at the minimum, once a week. Since this is a new series, however, the contents of these posts are liable to shifts as the investigation proceeds. When such changes are made, though, they will be announced at the beginning of each post.

                Cited are the following texts: The Canterbury Tales (ed. Jill Mann; Publisher: Penguin); The Canterbury Tales (trans. David Wright; Publisher: Oxford U.P.); The Canterbury Tales (ed. Walter William Skeat & George Stade; trans. Peter Tuttle; Publisher: Barnes and Nobles); The Canterbury Tales (trans. Ronald L. Ecker & Eugene J. Crook; Publisher: Hodge & Braddock); A Concise Dictionary of Middle English (Anthony Lawson Mayhew and W. W. Skeat, revised by Michael Everson; Publisher: Evertype).


                Our first Chaucerian foray will cover the first five lines of the “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales. The text, of course, is written in Chaucer’s Middle English.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veine in swich licour

Of which vertu engendered is the flour,

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth (Mann 3)

Now, for that same stanza again but with the phonetic symbols[1] appearing bracketed within a set of parenthesis for each word. Since I am still learning and practicing the dynamics of the IPA, I do not claim that the following transcriptions are wholly correct and free from error.

Whan ([w][h][a][n]) that ([Ɵ][a][t]) Aprill ([a][p][r][ɪ][l]) with ([w][ɪ][Ɵ]) his ([h][ɪ][s]]) shoures ([tʃ][u][r][ɛ][s]) soote ([Ɵ][u][t][ǝ])

The ([Ɵ][ɛ]) droghte ([d][r][ɔ][x][t]) of ([ɔ][f]]) March ([m][a][r][tʃ]) hath ([h][a][Ɵ]) perced ([p][ӕ][r][s][ɛ][s]) to ([t][o]) the ([ð][ɛ]) roote ([r][o][t][ǝ]),

And ([a][n][d]) bathed ([b][a][ð][ӕ][d]) every ([ɛ][v][r][i]) veine ([v][ɛ][i][n]) in ([ɪ][n]) swich ([s][w][i][tʃ]) licour ([l][ɪ][k][u][r])

Of ([u][f]) which ([w][h][ɪ][tʃ]) vertu ([v][ɛ][t][u]) engendered ([ɛ][n][g][ɛ][n][d][r][ɛ][d]) is ([i][s]) the ([Ɵ][ɛ]) flour ([f][l][u][r]),

Whan ([w][h][a][n]) Zephirus ([z][ɛ][p][h][ɪ][r][u][s]) eek ([e][k]) with ([w][ɪ][Ɵ]) his ([h][ɪ][s])sweete ([s][w][e][t][ǝ]) breeth ([b][r][ɛ][Ɵ])

                In regards to scanning these lines, however, the passage quoted earlier would, I feel, have the following series of accented and unaccented symbols. But, as with the previous caveat, as I am still engaging with iambic pentameter, I will not guarantee that the scanning of this line is without flaw or one which follows literary convention.

                                                               U      /       U    /   U     /    U       /    U  /  U

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

                                                     U     /             U  /          U       /            U  /    U    /  U

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

                                                             U      /       U  /        U        /   U   /   U    /

And bathed every veine in swich licour

                                                            U          /   U   /  U  /           U   /   U    /

Of which vertu engendered is the flour,

                                                          U        /         U    /      U     /    U      /   U      /

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Now that both the phonetic inscriptions and scanning for this passage is completed, let us move on to examining how translators have rendered this passage into modern English.

Just to remind ourselves the passage we are examining, however, here is the passage once again, again in its original Middle English:


Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veine in swich licour

Of which vertu engendered is the flour,

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth (Mann 3)


A literal translation of the above passage would read something like the following:


When the April with its showers sweet

The drought of March have pierced to the root,

And bathed every vein in sweet liquid

Of whose power engendered is the flower,

When the west wind also with its sweet breath


                Obviously, this makes little sense: word order is all out of synch; verbs and adverbs don’t match up and object and effect have gone the way of the do-do bird—extinct. So, let’s see how actual translators have rendered these lines.

The first translation comes from David Wright. He writes:


When the sweet showers of April have pierced

The drought of March, and pierced it to the root,

And every vein is bathed in that moisture

Whose quickening force will engender the flower

And when the west wind too with its sweet breath (3)


Wright’s translation is a much-celebrated effort if one which is not a tad academically dated at just past thirty-one years. We notice something right off the bat—the first two lines are a tad imposed on one another; ‘pierced’ has, somehow, been moved up into the first line. I understand why this happens: to us Moderns, it is awkward to have a thought (line one) expressed but then not followed up upon until later (line 2). It feels off. Language conventions change, so it is understandable why some aspects would need to be re-ordered. I am not positive, however, on Wright’s rendition of lines three and four; they appear to make a presumed leap—his use of “will” is not seen in the original Middle English. “Engendred” is used by Chaucer, which if we want to translate into contemporary speak, I feel would be better expressed by “births,” which would connote the idea of flowers being born of spring weather but without the clutter (“is the”) and odd phrasing (“engendred”).

The next translation is a more modern translation by Peter Tuttle. He writes:


When April with his shower sweet

The drought of March has pierced to the root,

And rain, like virtue

Made those flowers grow;

When west wind with his sweet breath has (3)


                Tuttle’s translation is vastly different from Wright’s own. He translates “his” into a literal ‘his’ instead of its modern equivalent of ‘its.’ “His” in Middle English did not mean ‘his’ as it does in modern English, but rather, ‘its.’ So why Tuttle is translating it so I can only imagine results from his personification of April, something which, since Chaucer has related to God—the Spring weather is resultant from God’s power—would mark Tuttle’s translation as an unintentionally pagan enterprise, since what is being personified is nature itself, not God’s power. Line two has remained more or less the same from previous translations but line three takes on, once more, a dramatically different tone: lines three and four have been collapsed—additionally, Tuttle has added a caesura, a space, as represented by the comma between ‘rain’ and ‘like,’ which greatly alters the grammatics of the stanza; this is further complicated by his use of our modern ‘virtue’ as a translation of ‘vertu’ which, in the dictionary I am using does list a definition as ‘virtue,’ lists it as the fifth definition on the list of probable meanings (thus problematizing the entire definition to at least a minor extent). Then we see the elimination of “engendred,” an act which I more or less support. Line five sees a reprisal of the heady translation of “his” as well as the “the” inherent in the word “Zephirus.” Overall, Tuttle’s translation is a markedly different beast from Wright’s translation. It has taken many liberties with Chaucer’s Middle English and I am not sure how to react to such a rendition; given that I will have many more engagements with Tuttle’s text, however, I suppose this is best left to future contemplation.

Moving on to our next translation, we have Ronald L. Ecker’s effort:


When April’s gentle rain have pierced the drought

Of March right to the root, and bathed every sprout

Through every vein with liquid of such power

It brings forth the engendering of the flower;

When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown (1)


                ‘Sprout’ is an odd inclusion. Ecker seems to want and connect it to the later ‘flower,’ but there is merely nothing in the original Middle English would justify the inclusion of a sprout. There is “veine” but this suggests a deposit or earthen void of some kind, plus, “veine” is already used later in the third line, so why Ecker is using this word twice, each to indicate different aspects, I am unsure. Aside from this curious oddity, however, I am not feeling Ecker’s rather blasé formulation of the ending rhymes—‘drought’ to ‘sprout,’ and ‘power’ to ‘flower’ seem fairly expected, almost base in their easy rhyming. Maybe at this point, I am splitting hairs too deeply, but I feel that something is being forced and seeing as how the poem has only just begun, I feel it is not a positive omen of things to come. Interestingly enough, however, it is worth noting that ‘Zephirus’ has only been updated in spelling to its modern form (“Zephyrus”) and is still retained in its original compared to the other translators who have translated it as “West Wind.” Why Ecker has chosen this I cannot say, but perhaps it has to do with religious affiliations of some kind since Ecker is, after all, focused on Biblical scholarship (simply my guess, however, it could also mean nothing). I see this as a mere stylistic difference, so do not have any strong opinions on how it should be rendered one way or the other and so see it as a curious deviation from how the other others have thus far translated the passage.


                And so ends the first part, of what I predict will be legion, of Chaucerian engagement posts. Hopefully you have gotten something valuable from slogging through my ramblings, even if it is a mere appreciation for not having to slog through Chaucer’s writing for yourself; regardless, and as I said earlier in the post, these engagements will be posted twice weekly, always in the afternoon, following the notes to Seth Lerer’s Great Course lectures on Chaucer’s life and works. If you have any suggestions for how these posts might be improved—whether it be directly related to pedagogy or something as simple as spicing up the posts a bit—do not be hesitant in commenting with your thoughtful suggestions. Thank you.

[1] For this post and all subsequent posts, the phonetic system used is the International Phonetic Alphabet (I.P.A).

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