These also feature in the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, April being chosen for the imaginary pilgrimage, as a month of stirring activity alive with a general spirit of enterprise and adventure.
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;
When April’s sweet showers had penetrated to the roots, after the drought in March, and had saturated every vein with that liquid whose nature begets the flowers
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 half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al thenyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
When the sweet West wind had breathed upon the tender shoots of woodland and heath, and the young Sun had completed half of his transit of Aries, and little birds make music, sleeping all the night with one eye open, so does nature stimulate their hearts.
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.
Then people feel an urge to go on pilgrimages and regular pilgrims seek foreign shores far off holy shrines well known in various countries, and in particular from every county in England they turn their steps towards Canterbury, there to seek the shrine of the holy blessed martyr, St Thomas a Becket who has been their help in time of sickness.
Befell that in that season, on a day,
In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay
Ready to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Canterb’ry with full devout courage,
At night was come into that hostelry
Well nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry folk, by adventure yfalle
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Canterbury woulden ride.
The chambers and the stables weren wide,
And well we weren eased atte best;
And shortly, when the sunne was to rest,
So had I spoken with them everyone
That I was of their fellowship anon,
And made forward early for to rise
To take our way there as I you devise.
It happened one day in that season of the year, while I was staying in the Tabard Inn in Southwark, as a pilgrim full of devotion, and ready to proceed to Canterbury, there arrived for the night a company of some twenty-nine various persons, who had by chance become travelling companions. They were all pilgrims, and they also planned to ride to Canterbury. The bedrooms and stables were roomy, and we were accommodated in the best style. In brief by sunset I had so happily conversed with every one of the, that I was straightway accepted into their fellowship, and agreed to rise early to be on our way, as I am explaining to you.
So opens Chaucer’s masterpiece “The Canterbury Tales”, that panorama of mediaeval life and character. Each pilgrim effectively described, is an exemplar of the class of the particular class of society to which he belongs, and each tells a story to beguile their leisurely journey from the Tabard Inn Southwark to Canterbury. There is a noble stream of English poetry springing from “Dan Chaucer, well of English undefilèd,” as Edmund Spenser hailed him, Dan here meaning Domine or Master. The stream runs through Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson and other poets we shall meet in our monthly progress to Masefield, Poet Laureate of our own century.