Tag Archives: Chaucer

“This poem was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the ladder part of his career.”

Of course I knew what she meant: she meant “the latter part of his career,” when in fact Chaucer did write The Canterbury Tales, or as much as he managed to finish before his death. Pretty clearly, she knows the meaning of “latter”; she just doesn’t know it’s a word.

This kind of problem is not limited to student writers. All of us mis-hear words and phrases: when the mis-hearing makes a new kind of sense we can call it a mondegreen, if we’re so inclined.

Sometimes we’re mis-hearing words we actually know, but confuse because of sound. I certainly know the words “bad,” “moon,” and “rise,” but when Creedence Clearwater Revival sang it, I (and evidently a lot of other people, if Google is to be believed) heard “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” For years I wondered why someone would put directions to a lavatory into a popular song….

Sometimes the confusion arises because we hear a word that is not familiar, but it sounds sufficiently like one we know that we assume it’s the one intended: “We know he’s Jewish because his grandson had a brisk,” for example. And we blithely go on to use the word we think we heard. As long as we’re just speaking, we might get away with it; but when we have to commit it to paper, we reveal our confusion to others, if not to ourselves.

And that’s all that happened here.

For me, of course, the sentence suggests Chaucer climbing to the heights of literary celebrity or achievement. But such a “ladder” part of his career would have predated The Canterbury Tales. The Book of the Duchess was probably the first real rung, an elegy commissioned by John of Gaunt for his dead wife. And up he went, with Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde, among other works. The ladder part. Top rung: The Canterbury Tales. If he had lived longer, he would have needed a taller ladder.

Chaucer prepares to climb his career ladder.
Chaucer image: the Ellesmere manuscript.

“John the carpenter has had a fool made out of him.”

This is a reference to the gullible and jealous husband in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.” My student is right: the point of the Tale is the cleverness with which his young wife Alisoun and Alisoun’s inamorato, “hende [clever, courteous] Nicholas,” trick John into not only ignoring but also actually facilitating their tryst. There’s a lot more to the tale, some comic moments that amaze modern students (who assume scatological jokes were invented shortly after their own birth), but the subplots involve making fools out of others—the vain and randy cleric Absolom and then Nicholas himself.

If you haven’t read “The Miller’s Tale” lately, you should. If Middle English scares you, just read it with a German accent and you’ll understand almost every word. Otherwise, there are numerous modern-English translations online of this great and witty tale.

Anyway, the meaning of my student’s sentence is accurate.

But some verbs play better in the active voice: to make a fool of would be one of those. And the intrusion of “out” into the proper phrase “to make a fool of” makes the sentence even odder, because when you make something out of something else you are usually constructing it using something else that already exists. My student’s sentence would then imply that John isn’t actually a fool: Alisoun used John as raw material to make something new, a fool, out of.

Okay, to begin: Alisoun made a fool of John. But my student says Alisoun made a fool out of John.

So, similarly, thus: I am making a braided rug out of old blue jeans.

The blanket was made out of yarn she spun out of her dog’s shed undercoat.

Scarlett O’Hara made an impressive visiting gown out of the old velvet drapes.

He’s trying to make something out of nothing.

Now, if we grant my student permission to use the “out” and make John into something else, we run into more problems, because the other sentences above, similarly constructed, really cannot be made passive:

The old blue jeans have had a braided rug made out of them.

The dog’s shed undercoat has had yarn spun out of it, and the yarn has had a blanket made out of it.

The old velvet drapes have had an impressive visiting gown made out of them by Scarlett O’Hara.

Nothing has been tried to be made something out of.

These sentences are absurd because, for one thing, the raw material has no agency. A sentence such as “I have had a rug made for me out of old blue jeans” works because when I had this done, I had it done by somebody at my behest. John was made a fool of by somebody, but not at his behest, and so the “has had” works in a completely different manner because “has” means something else.

The only way my student’s statement can stand, I’m afraid, is if it means that John the carpenter hired someone to make a fool using him as raw material.

But, dupe though he was, facilitator though he proved, it was all without his intent; in fact, it was completely contrary to his intent, the jealous old cuckold.

Alisoun and Nicholas made a fool of him, sure enough. But my student has made a fool of himself with a sentence that should have adjusted its garb before venturing into the light of day.

“‘Bob and wheel’ is used in ‘The Miller’s Tale.’ It is almost like a small boat.”

When I lament that students don’t see language as pictures in their mind’s eye, I am forgetting this lovely gem. This student went astray by a combination of sloppy exam preparation, inattentive reading, and a chain of associations that started with a little mental picture.

For those of you who haven’t studied Gawain and the Green Knight lately, I will note that “bob and wheel” refers to a rhyme-and-rhythm pattern distinct to that poem: a stanza of unrhymed 4-stress lines concluding with a 1-stress line followed by four 3-stress lines (more or less iambic) that rhyme  b a b a, if you count the short line as an “a.”

For example, here’s part of one stanza, including the bob and wheel:

Then the first course came with a clamor of trumpets
whose banners billowed bright to the eye,
while kettledrums rolled and the cry of the pipes
wakened a wild, warbling music
whose touch made the heart tremble and skip.
Delicious dishes were rushed in, fine delicacies
fresh and plentiful, piled so high on so many platters
they had problems finding places to set down
their silver bowls of steaming soup: no spot
was clear.
Each lord dug in with pleasure,
and grabbed at what lay near:
twelve platters piled past measure,
bright wine, and foaming beer.

Besides the fun of the “wild, warbling music,” “delicious dishes,” and “bright wine and foaming beer,” the poet offers us the jaunty charm of that stanza closer. And that closer is called the “bob and wheel”—the one-stress line is the bob and the quatrain the wheel. It hangs there at the end of the stanza—the layout in our textbook makes it even more obvious—and an attentive (or even semi-attentive) reader can’t help but notice it. The textbook’s introductory material explains “bob and wheel,” and so do I.

So I thought it would be a nice little objective question: “What is a bob and wheel, and in what work read this semester is it used?”

Many students left the question entirely blank, so I have to give this student a tip of the hat (but no credit) for his effort.

Now, where did his notion come from? The reference to “The Miller’s Tale” suggests another source of confusion for many of my students, who take Chaucer’s clear image of three tubs suspended from the rafters of the carpenter’s house (the carpenter thinks that when Noah’s flood comes again he and his wife and his lodger can creep into the tubs and, when the waters rise to the level of the tubs, cut the ropes suspending them and float free) and for some reason or other think that the carpenter has put three little boats (always so handy in the medieval household) on top of the roof.  Thus the three flood refugees would have to clamber outside and onto the roof in order to get into the boats, instead of using the little ladders the carpenter has provided in the tubs. Students forget the ropes entirely, which must give them some pause when the carpenter mistakenly cuts the ropes on his tub and falls straight down to the ground, breaking his arm—but they never ask for clarification. I know this “boats” theory from several papers courageously written despite confusion.

How would little boats in “The Miller’s Tale” infect the phrase “bob and wheel”? Well, I don’t know about you, but I certainly have associated wheels with ships ever since I saw Peter Pan. How does one steer a ship? With a WHEEL, so large, so ornamental, so omnipresent in nautical decor and seafaring movies. (The “bob” goes, as they say asea, by the board.)

Bob and WHEEL.

Ship’s WHEEL.

The BOAT in “The Miller’s Tale.”

And there you have it.

Luckily no automobiles appear in British Literature Before 1660, or we might have had little cars in Gawain.

“April showers have begun to embody the dry earth.”

Ah, Spring!

My student was attempting to paraphrase the opening of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. You know:

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
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve 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….

Those soft showers pierce March’s drought, and bathe the underground roots in sweet liquid that engenders flowers. That, combined with sweet zephyrs breathing life into crops, the young sun half-through Aries shining down, and little birds singing, makes people want to get out and travel—in this case, travel to a holy shrine somewhere.

This is an interesting illustration used to represent the "sun in Aries" on http://midheavenastrology.com but is neither original to that site nor originally an astrological illustration. This same image appears on Soulja Boy's album, The Last Crown. Of course we cognoscenti know that the original is the anonymous 1888 engraving published by Flammarion in 1888, with color added. Colorized, it does feel like "The sun in Aries," doesn't it? And the kneeling, reaching man might just be inspired by that desire to break out of winter's cabin fever and GO somewhere! Is that a walking stick?

Has my student found a new meaning for “embody”? As far as Webster’s knows, that word means “to give a body to (a spirit); to make concrete and perceptible; to cause to become a body; to personify.” The OED offers the same definitions, but also notes a meaning in chemistry and physics: “To coalesce; to solidify.”

This last reminds me of the time when, naïve, ignorant, and enthusiastic, I decided to replace the sand in my theater’s outdoor “butt bucket” (a nice rustic wooden half-barrel used as a big ashtray). I went to Home Depot, where whatever they say you CAN’T have a really constructive conversation with a worker—unless you’re planning at least a bathroom renovation—and bought the only sand that came in bags lighter than 50 pounds. I dragged the 25-pounder into the car, and then out again at the theater, dumped the dirty old sand-and-butts mixture, and poured in my nice clean sand. After the first rain, we had a half-barrel filled with rock-solid cement. I don’t know what I bought, but April’s shoures soote certainly did solidify it. If you misunderstand the “concrete” in Webster’s  “to make concrete and perceptible,” you might also think of my sand-barrel.

Perhaps my student was thinking of “embody” in the sense of “give body to,” but “body” as heft rather than corpus: without the rain, the soil is dry (and eventually dusty); with watering, it acquires mass, weight, what a costumer might call “hand”—it gets some body to it. This is actually a pretty nice idea, although it’s a new usage and therefore isn’t likely to communicate effectively with a reader (e.g., me).

We had a fairly dry March this year, for sure, and almost no snow, so the soil is rather dry, although Spring seems to be finding enough swich licour in the ground to get going. But other years have enabled Connecticut to join Vermont in experiencing that Vermont special, Mud Season, when the melting snows mingle with early-spring rains and bathe more than roots in swich licour—when the world is, in fact, what e.e. cummings calls “mud-luscious.” If my student had wanted to describe that kind of earth, he might have availed himself of the word listed directly after “embody” in the OED:


“According to the Wife of Bath, women want…”

Another short-answer question from the same exam as yesterday’s post: According to the Wife of Bath, what do women want?

I know I posted her picture yesterday, but I can't resist showing her to you again. Again, from the Ellesmere ms. You can't see her gap-toothed smile from here.

Everyone loves her, I do believe. In her Prologue she has the guts (and the reading too, pretty much) to take on the male-centered thinkers of the Church and the wife-beaters of the general population. She knows how to work the male-dominant culture and the marriage bed to her own advantage, and she doesn’t mind saying so. The tale she tells is somewhat more ladylike than she leads us to expect, but the moral of the story is right on. Guinevere and the ladies of Camelot charge an errant (in more ways than one) knight to answer this question: What do women want? The correct answer:

Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee

As wel over hir housbond as hir love,

And for to been in maistrie hym above.

Students could have written “sovereignty over their husbands,” “mastery in the marriage,” “mastery,” “sovereignty,” or “maistrye.” They also could have written “authority over themselves,” “equal power in a relationship,” “dignity,” or “the last word,” all of which are slightly off-target but still in the spirit of the thing.

Here’s one answer they really should not have written, but one student nevertheless did:

“According to the Wife of Bath, women want to go out and be shown as trophies and have sex.”

Well, the Wife is a strong advocate for women’s right to have, and enjoy, sexual relations, in and out of wedlock. As for marriage, she is a serial monogamist (five and counting), but she points out many instances of polygamous marriages in the Bible and asks why women shouldn’t be able to follow suit. Furthermore, Chaucer describes her as “gat-tothed,” or “gap-toothed,” thought to be a sign of lustiness. If my student had answered that “women want to have sex,” I really couldn’t have denied credit, although it wasn’t the answer I was looking for.

But “be shown as trophies”? The “trophy wife” in our society surely isn’t expected to think and act independently; and while she may be in it for the money, the man who acquires her certainly doesn’t expect her to let that show when they “go out”: she is supposed to be living for adoration alone. Furthermore, if “be shown as trophies and have sex” are related activities both done while “go[ing] out,” then I don’t think the proud winner of the trophy wife will be pleased, since the sentence’s implication is that the sex is part of going out and being shown, not limited to the boudoir back home.

This answer shows something, that’s for sure, and it ain’t trophies: It shows that the student never actually read the Prologue or Tale of the Wife of Bath, but only half-listened to class discussion and some time later, stewing over a question on a test, half-remembered that half and flung it down onto the page, hoping that somewhere in there was an answer I would take.

I suppose I could have given 1/4 credit for that half of a half, but in the end, I didn’t take the answer at all, except to write it down in my little book. And now you have it.

“Hotel receptionist who takes the journey with them.”

No, this is not some new job opportunity or luxury-tour feature.

This is part three of the response to a short-answer exam question.

The question (or, more accurately, the “challenge”): Name three of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales.

This student’s answer: “The Wife of Bath, the Miller, and the hotel receptionist who takes the journey with them.”

Yes, the pilgrims did gather at the Tabard Inn. Yes, Harry Bailey was the Host of the Tabard Inn. Yes, the medieval Inn was more or less the equivalent of today’s Holiday Inn (etc.).

But no, Harry did not stand behind a counter, consult bookings on a computer, hand out room keys, mention the Continental Breakfast, or provide travel brochures. He mixed with the guests, made sure they were drinking their ale, actively presided over the comings and goings, kept an eye on the cook and tapster and hostler and other staff…and owned the inn. On the pilgrimage he served as judge and moderator in the story-telling competition, and in his own establishment too he was the boss.

The Wife of Bath, from the Ellesmere ms.

No matter how many pictures the texts offer, how many sites we refer students to for background, how often (in this case) I pass around my Ellesmere Manuscript pamphlet with its centerfold of the manuscript’s illustrations of the pilgrims, the actuality and completeness of life in an earlier time never quite gets through. The Middle Ages are not the only times my students don’t seem to be able to imagine; I’ve had students wonder why Desirée, of Kate Chopin’s “Desirée’s Baby” (set in antebellum Louisiana), would not simply drive up North and get a secretarial job instead of drowning herself and her infant son when her husband accuses her of having Negro blood. Someone will inevitably wonder why characters insist on driving around in horse-drawn carriages instead of using their cars. This kind of dyschronicity coexists with a cartoon version of the past where, as we all know, NO women had ANY rights and ALL women felt oppressed by their husbands, NO women could read or write, and in the U.S before 1865 ALL Africans and their descendants were slaves. Lest anyone think I’m claiming that ALL my students are like this, let me hasten to say that some do have a more informed and nuanced view of the past and many are capable of imagining lives that differ from their own. But just when I begin to let myself think that one year’s students are all of this latter type, along comes another remark in a paper or on an exam or in classroom discussion that shatters my illusions yet again.

Could my “hotel receptionist” student really have imagined the pilgrims to Canterbury traveling along the road, some on foot and some on horseback, some roughly clad and some more elegantly got up, and jogging along in their midst someone like the hotel receptionist who greeted me at the Omni Shoreham last summer, an elegant and sleekly coiffed young woman in a dark-blue business suit (with short pencil skirt and very high heels, I discovered when she stepped from behind the counter to speak with a porter), speaking with warm politeness and an Indian accent?

Harry Bailey of the Tabard Inn . . . or the receptionist at the Swiss hotel in "The Bourne Identity"?