Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Anyone know of any good Canterbury Tale readings?

So, when I have a long period in which I require background noise, it's not uncommon for me to put on the full concert video of The Last Waltz.  It's four ours and twentyish minutes long, and it's good music.

The break in the middle with poetry reading, however, utterly fails to impress me except for one part.  A guy walks out and with no introduction to his reading whatsoever starts reciting a poem in a Germanic language I originally couldn't place, and it's fucking beautiful.

I know now that the language was Middle English (it sounded really damned familiar), the guy was Michael McClure (he is announced, but it was kind of iffy to me as to exactly what his last name was), and the poem was the introduction to The Canterbury Tales.

For any who are interested, here is the reading:

I finally got around to looking up if McClure ever recorded a larger reading of The Canterbury Tales, and the answer is, unfortunately, no.

So, I was wondering, anyone have a reading they recommend?  It is the case that Chaucer's work isn't fully in verse, but where it is . . . with the proper reader it's not just poetry, it's a form of music.

For my own part, I can't read Middle English for shit.  There's a reason I didn't initially recognize the reading as English.  If I were to try to do a reading it'd be a horrible discordant thing that bashed Chaucer's language into more or less my own modern American English and destroyed its beauty in the process.


  1. (gets geek on)
    This is very close to the Neville Coghill reading I heard once on audio cassette and never forgot when I was reading the General Prologue for 'A' level (Brit pre-university exams). I remembered it well enough to be able to read aloud at my college interview and hear in my head when later studying other chunks of the Canterbury Tales at college.

    Pre-Great Vowel Shift, so the vowels sound like the vowels in the other European languages--"ah", "ay", "ee", "o", "oo" (or u-umlaut/French u) rather than "ay", "ee", "I" "owe" "you". Incidentally, AFAIK, nobody knows why The Great Vowel Shift happened. It just turned up one day, like an early version of Brexit, and cut us off from the continent (in linguistic terms) "Gh" is sounded out like the final consonant in Scots Loch. All final 'e's are sounded. Some of the pronunciations are influenced by French, as one might expect from court or merchant class Southern English after the Norman Conquest, but the poet admits in the case of the Prioress that she speaks French "after the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe/For Frensshe of Paris was to hir unknowe".

    It's worth noting that a lot of pronunciation differences between standard educated Southern English and the more 'common' or 'lower-class' Northern English are still in place in modern English but turn up fairly clearly in Chaucer, I think the short 'a' as in 'bath' (longer a in the Southern dialect) is in there somewhere.

    The 'Gawain' poet (author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) uses a dialect called West Midlands that is far more influenced by German/Norse/Old English models so it's much harder for a modern reader. It begins "Sithen the sege and the assaut was sesed at Troye/The borgh brittened and brent to brondes and askes/The tulk that the trammes of tresoun there wroght/Watz tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe". Alliterative hammer-blows, like Norse or Old English. Although there are some French-influenced words which are easier for a modern reader to follow, things like "tulk", "trammes", "brondes and askes" (burning brands and ashes) and "trewest" for "most dreadful" are harder to follow.

    You do have to piece through Chaucer a bit, but once you've got the 'tune' in your ears it's not too hard to follow (even if you may need notes).

    And one detail in the General Prologue has been bizarrely validated by modern science: small birds actually do sleep (in flocks) with one eye open in that the birds on the outside keep watch with one eye although their brains are mostly asleep--ready for escape is necessary.