This article was first published in The New Quarterly.
Chaucer By Heart
Marvin Mudrick was my teacher at university. He taught English literature and creative writing at the College of Creative Studies (which he founded) at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Professor Marvin Mudrick is the reason why I have a particular affection for women’s "haunche-bones." This little-used term for a woman's thighs comes from a scene in Chaucer's Miller's Tale, and Professor Mudrick used to recite the passage with great relish and, we all assumed, expert knowledge:
That on a day this hende Nicholas
Fil with this yonge wyf to rage and pleye,
Whil that hir housbonde was at Oseneye,
As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte,
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, "Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille."
And heeld her harde by the haunche-bones ...
I can't vouch for the authenticity of his Middle English accent (I always thought it had a Philadelphia edge to it), but he certainly communicated Chaucer's supremely generous understanding of sex, desire, and good, good lovin'.
I ended up memorizing the Miller's Tale, all 600 lines of it, inspired by my friend Ellen Yeomans, another one of Mudrick's students in the late sixties. We were at the College of Creative Studies, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. One hot summer afternoon a few of us had climbed up Mission Canyon and were skinnydipping in one of the rock pools by Seven Falls. As we and the salamanders stretched out naked on the smooth stone, Ellen recited the entire, hour-long story. When I got back to Toronto, I spent a whole summer jamming every couplet into my faulty memory. I was driving around Ontario on a storytelling tour, so there were many hours on remote highways where I could talk to myself in the car, unafraid that other drivers would take me for a lunatic as I went over my lines.
Learning the Miller's Tale by heart is one of the most useful things I've ever done. Mudrick had a way of teaching literature that made it feel practical, important, as if novels, poems, and plays carried real weight in the world. As if it mattered that those pilgrims made their way to Canterbury, yarnspinning on the King's Highway; or that Boswell caught and commemorated Dr. Johnson's conversation; or that we ourselves, scratching away at fiction in his creative writing classes, were doing something of value in the late twentieth century, and sometimes something noble.
How is it useful knowing all that Middle English in my head? For one thing, I can recite Chaucer as I swim laps. If I swim a mile, I'm usually climbing out of the pool about the time Alisoun, the Carpenter's wife, and Nicholas, the horny student who rents a room in their house, are finally hopping into bed: "and ther was the revel and the melodye." The best use to which I put the poem was when our second son was in the neo-natal intensive care unit at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. Once we got over the shock of catastrophe that attended his birth, I started sitting by his crib telling stories, reciting Chaucer, reading The Jungle Book and Just So Stories aloud and trying to convince him the world was too beautiful for a short visit. We used to say that, if he survived, his first words would either be "beep beep beep" from the ubiquitous monitors or "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote ..." Our son lived, thanks to the doctors and nurses and his own fierce courage, and we've wondered ever since if hearing a non-stop stream of words and stories -especially about love and desire, likerous young women and guys who know they'll spill if they don't get their fill - may have provided the beacon his soul needed to find its way in. I've heard that Buddhists chant sutras to the dying. Perhaps we need to sing lullabies and tell fairytales to the fragile babies in the NICU.
Another useful thing about knowing poems in your head is that you've got a stock of quotes that tend to pop up at life's odder moments. Sometimes when I'm not sure where someone is, I remember what the monk told Absolon, Alisoun's unlucky admirer, when he asked where John the Carpenter was: "Wher that he be, I kan nat soothly seyn." When I hear a friend has broken up with boyfriend or girlfriend, I remember what happened when Absolon falls quickly out of love with Alisoun after kissing her, not on her mouth, but in an unexpectedly rough and long yherd place, considerably south of her beautiful face: "His hoote love was coold, and al yqueynt."
Speaking of queynts, there are things you learn about a poem or story when you memorize it and say it out loud. As a storyteller, you catch the rhymes and echoes on your tongue, and that opens a new sense of the poem. For example, the Miller's Tale may be the only example in world literature of a quadruple entendre. The first entendre of one of Chaucer's favourite words is in the passage I quoted above, when we find out that Nicholas, the horny astrologer-clerk, has figured out his landlord is out of town and that voila, his gorgeous young wife has just come into his room: As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte; that is, cunning. He has pIanned his assault on her virtue well. In the very next line, just before Nicholas confesses his desire to Alisoun while holding her hard by her haunche-bones, he starts his courtship with a part of her anatomy just above them: "And prively he caughte hire by the queynte." She wasn't too impressed, at least not until he gan mercy for to crye, and spak so faire, and profred him so faste. We may well imagine just what he was proferring to convince her to become his lover. So the second queynte is what the Wife of Bath sweetly calls her belle chose. The third entendre shows up when the Carpenter, convinced by Nicholas that the flood is coming, runs to tell his beloved Alisoun the bad news. She's in on the plot, of course: And she was war, and knew it bet than he, what al this queynte cast was for to seye. In this context, it again means something like ingenious or clever. But what a splendid pun - for the trick they're playing on the stupid, jealous husband is indeed all about her queynte. The fourth change Chaucer rings on it comes in the line I quoted above, the one I remember when my friends' hearts are broken, as Absolon's hot love became instantly cold and, graphically, yqueynt: quenched. The same word rhymes with cleverness, cunt, ingenious, and quenched; and echoes the progress - or lack of it - of the protagonists seeking access to Alisoun's belle chose.
When you read it aloud, or tell it from memory, you quickly discover that Chaucer wrote for the ear. Apparently he would read his pieces aloud to the lords and ladies at court. Besides hearing the astonishing music in the language, it seems to me the stories unroll in a cinematic way when you say them out loud. Sometimes you realize that Chaucer has pointed his camera at angles and scenes the words only hint at. For example, after the Carpenter has entered Nicholas's room - after breaking down the door with his knave, "who was a strong carl for the nones" - he finds Nicholas sitting immobile, just as the knave described (he'd come up earlier and peeked in through a hole at the bottom of the door). After the Carpenter exhorts him to wake up and think on God "as we doon, men that swynke" - that is, work - Nicholas says that he'll reveal the terrible secret of the impending aquatic destruction of the world, but only and privately to John. He says, "Fecche me drynke, and after wol I speke in pryvetee of certeyn thyng that toucheth me and thee." As a teller of this story, I know exactly where he's looking as he says this line. Chaucer doesn't spell it out, but if you let your mind's eye dwell on the scene you'll catch a glimpse of the knave standing over by the now-doorless doorway. How could he tear himself away from the strange mise-en-scene? He's lurking there, hoping to find out why Nicholas was staring up into the air for two days straight, and especially hoping to hear the revelation that Nicholas has just promised to tell his boss, the good, dumb, hard-swynking Carpenter. As he tells the Carpenter to bring the beer that his apocalyptic secret requires, he glances over at the hovering, eavesdropping knave. "I wol telle it noon oother man, certeyn," he whispers to John, glaring at the strong carl who is by now scurrying away, daunted by Nicholas' baleful gaze.
It doesn't matter if this is in the text. Beyond Chaucer's words is the story, the world, if you will, where the various shenanigans of the Miller's Tale take place. In Tanzania, the traditional storytellers begin: "I have been and I have seen." Their audience calls back: "See so that we may see." Chaucer doesn't need to tell us where Nicholas is looking because he trusts that we, hearing the tale, are seeing it as fully and richly as our imaginations allow.
Another example of how telling the story releases new meaning comes early on, when we first meet Nicholas. He's a typical student, from the thirteenth or twenty-first century. He likes to jam on a stringed instrument, drink way too much beer, chase girls, dabble in things spiritual, and mooch off his friends. Describing his musical talents, Chaucer tells us:
And al above ther lay a gay sautrie,
On which he made a-nyghtes melodie
So swetely that al the chambre rong;
And Angelus ad virgenem he song;
And after that he song the kynges noote.
Ful often blessed was his myrie throte."
Generations of scholars, apparently, have struggled to figure out just what song "the kynges noote" may be. In the text Mudrick used, Chaucer's Major Poetry, edited by Albert C. Baugh, we learn in a footnote that "All attempts to identify this song or tune are unconvincing." However, if you've ever been a student, and sat around drinking beer and playing guitars or sautries, thinking of all the girls in town who may be angels or virgins or likerous eighteen-year-olds, but are, most of them, just plain unavailable, you'll know that this isn't a song at all. It's very likely that Nicholas - after singing his holy, seduction-worthy ballads - let go with a good, lonely-guy-in-his-bedroom burp. "The kynges noote" is Medieval slang for the slightly subversive rude noise that somehow needs to be expressed just after hymns, ballads, or reverences to distant authorities. Or it could be a fart. But I vote for a traditional undergraduate burp - and when better than after singing, lustily and longingly, Angelus ad virginem. Can I prove my theory? Of course not. But it seems to me true to the scene, to the character, to the story, and to my own memory of student life. So when I recite the Miller's Tale I imagine Nicholas's hearty burp. You'll see and hear your own mind-movie, of course.
Professor Mudrick used to teach us that Chaucer was the greatest poet in the history of literature, not only because he dwelled at the very wellsprings of the English language (all of its linguistic streams had come together recently, and are still audible in Middle English); not only because, Mozart-like, he was able to write with humour about terribly serious things; he was the greatest poet because he measured and expressed human life with the greatest and most compassionate moral compass. There was room for everyone on the pilgrimage. One little phrase gives a clue to this moral vision. Nicholas and Alisoun are in the midst of planning the ruse that will buy them a night of amorous bliss. It involves, you'll recall, convincing the Carpenter that a flood of Noah-like magnitude is coming, and that he must hang three tubs in the rafters so they can all escape the water. In plotting their trick, while the Carpenter was again out of town,
Hende Nicholas and Alisoun
Acorded been to this conclusioun,
That Nicholas shal shapen hym a wyle
This sely jalous housbonde to bigyle;
And if so be the game wente aright,
She sholde slepen in his arm al nyght,
For this was his desir and hire also.
The scene ends on a purely Chaucerian note. We're reminded that, yes, it was the impetuous Nicholas who initiated this affair, but it is, in fact, a mutual choice of intimacy. Without her sovereign decision to take him as her lover (and we know from the Wife of Bath that sovereynetee is the thing that all women most desire), love would not be possible. The last three words - and hire also - come almost as an afterthought, a throwaway line to cap the scene; but in Chaucer's moral universe they become a delicate reminder of the nature of true desire even in the middle of his bawdy yarn.
I was a student at the College of Creative Studies from its first year until 1972. Once I stopped being scared of him, I spent as much time as possible in Mudrick's classes and office. Chaucer led me to Homer, then on to Icelandic sagas, then into the world of storytelling. That journey has taken me to festivals and gatherings all around the world. I often think that Mudrick, who died in l986, was like Harry Bailly for his Californian literature students. Harry was the Keeper of the Taberd Inn on the high road to Canterbury, and it was his passion for stories that launches the Tales. Seeing this likely group of travellers show up at his Inn, he insists that each of them tell their own story - "tales of best sentence and moost solaas" - along the way: For trewely, confort ne myrthe is noon, to ride by the weye doumb as a stoon. Mudrick believed that a life lived without literature and music and art is indeed to live stoon-doumb.