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Monday, April 20, 2015

“To Caunterbury they wende . . .”

Canterbury Cathedral by L L Raze
This is the time of year that the Chaucer pilgrims started on their journey to Canterbury. I saw in Jeff Kacirk’s Forgotten English calendar that April 13 was the week, but I think they would have waited another week until the weather was better. Not that you can ever guarantee a pretty day in ever-changeable April, but the 20th seems a nice, round number to start with. And so, as old Geoffrey Chaucer began it:
Chaucer as a pilgrim
(Ellesmere mss.)
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

I saw a lovely modern translation by Neville Coghill, who created a new rhyme scheme for it:
The Pilgrims Feast in Southwark
before Starting
by William Caxton, 1483
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half course in the sign of the Ram has run
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye,
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially from every shires’ end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
The holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick

Canterbury Cathedral window, circa 1180, King Henry and Archbishop Thomas a Becket
The present Canterbury Cathedral was built about 1070 through the next few centuries. One hundred years after the rebuilding was started, the Archbishop of Canterbury was Thomas a Becket, a thorn in the side of King Henry II. Henry is supposed to have said one late December day, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” The knights who heard him took him literally and rode down to Canterbury and killed Becket. Very soon Becket was popularly held to be a martyr with special healing powers for any who would visit his shrine at the place in the cathedral where he was struck down. He was sainted by the Church. The Cathedral was rebuilt, enlarged and made very beautiful by all the money that poured into the church's coffers from the pilgrims.

In the high summer of 1982 a group of us went on a Canterbury pilgrimage. I had awakened sick with allergies or something like them, probably clogged up with dirty London air. Staying in our hotel room was not an option, so I dragged myself out to the van and huddled in my seat, miserable as could be. But the fresh air of Canterbury was wonderful. Or maybe it was the magic of the hooly blisful martir who healed me. I wrote a rather silly poem about it afterward:
Wife of Bath
(Ellesmere mss.)

I have heard how pilgrims rode on down
In April’s early days to Canterbury town,
Some for blessings, some in thankfulness,
Some to seek excitement, more or less . . .
But that was ages past, and now we go
To tour the church and watch the endless show
Of life in English towns. We do not seek
A martyr’s healing gift—perhaps we’re weak
In faith these days—we don’t believe
St. Thomas can effect our souls’ reprieve.
We told no stories as we rode along,
Nobody lifted up a voice in song.
One student, sick that day, had thought
She’d rather die than tour there to be taught
About the Cathedral as the ancient shrine
Where Chaucer’s pilgrims journeyed in their time.
When at Canterbury, she dragged inside
And paused there where they said the martyr died.
If ever pilgrims found the boon they sought,
This pilgrim, in a sudden thought,
Begged the powers that rule to hear a plea
And grant a boon of health, taking for the fee
That she had come there, as some used to do,
Without desiring to begin anew,
But somehow, seeing something, thought again,
And asked as pilgrims did, to leave the pain,
Exchanging it for deeds that ever raise
Such glory to the King as hymns of praise.
Her plea was granted, healthy now I tell
Her tale as ranks of Chaucer-pilgrims swell.
Thirty-some-odd years later I have a monstrous ache. Anyone for a Canterbury pilgrimage? We shall not be riding on saddles of any kind . . . but we could tell some tales along the way.

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