The "naturingang" or
"nature beginning" from Guido dello Colonne, Historia
"It was the time when the aging ("maturans") sun in its oblique circle of the zodiac had already entered ("cursum suum") into the sign of Aries, in which the equal length of nights and days is celebrated in the Equinox of Spring; when the weather begins to entice eager mortals into the pleasant air; when the ice has melted and breezes ("Zephiri") ripple the flowing streams; when the springs burst forth in fragile bubbles; when moistures exhaled from the bosom of the earth are raised up to the tops of trees and branches, for which reason the seeds sprout, the crops grow, and the meadows bloom, embellished with flowers of various colors; when the trees on every side are decked with renewed leaves; when earth is adorned with grass, and the birds sing and twitter in music of sweet harmony. Then almost the middle of the month of April had passed when . . . the aforesaid kings, Jason and Hercules, left port with their ship" (ed. Griffin, 1936, 34-35; tr. Meed, 1974, 33-34).
Compare the way the first passage of Chaucers "General Prologue" both participates in this well-known continental poetic device and changes it to emphasize the spiritual and cultural issues pertinent to his pilgrims journey:
"Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote 1
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote, 2
And bathed every veyne in swich licour 3
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; 4
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth 5
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth 6
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne 7
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne, 8
And smale foweles maken melodye 9
That slepen al the nyght with open ye 10
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages), 11
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, 12
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, 13
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; 14
And specially from every shires ende 15
Of Engelonde to Caunterbury they wende, 16
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, 17
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke." 18
Some interpretive issues
1) Notice the Latin and Norman-French loan words in boldface. How do they combine with the keywords in the previous clause to eroticize the coming of Spring? If you have no French, look up "vertu" in a French dictionaryits meaning in the fourteenth-century was closer to the French than to the Modern English "virtue." If Latin and French are the languages of court and the city elite, what is the effect of slipping into those idioms in this prologue, and then falling back into Anglo-Saxonisms like "breeth," "holt," and "heeth." How is Chaucers word choice negotiating among the class and linguistic differences present in his audience?
2) The religious motive for the pilgrimage emerges only after eleven lines about natural processes of regeneration and procreation. What does that suggest Chaucers religion have to do with these things? How do "straunge" and "ferne" places the pilgrims travel to affect their experience of religion, and what does Chaucer suggest by juxtaposing all that foreign travel with the forces of nature?
3) Performed in Middle English, this passage presents some delicious sounds, especially in the alternations between Norman-French loan words and the vocabulary that survived from Old English in lines 1-11. Enjambment, or the running over of a lines grammatical sense into the following line without a pause or stop, also increases in frequency: 5-7, an inspiration ["inspired hath"]; 7-8, running a course ["his half course yronne"]; 9-11, another inspiration ["priketh"]; and a setting forth ["wende"]. Also, as a result, the poem gradually builds up a "breath debt" because the enjambments stretch the performers capacity to sound the line without pause. Finally, in the true predicate of this long sentence (16-18), a series of alliterative "h" sounds force the breath out, especially on the expressive verb phrase "hem hath holpen" (had helped them) which will virtually exhaust the breath in the unwary performers lungs just before the need for the final push in "whan that they were seeke." Think about "inspiration" as a drawing in of breath, and the pilgrims "going forth" as a spiritual "exhalation," forcing them out of their homes and into the flow of pilgrimage. In what other ways might the poet set up relationships between the action described and the sound-effects of the poems performance or the grammatical constructions that accumulate and release meaning in a poetic sentence? Especially see the description of Alison in the Millers Tale (3233-3270 in the Riverside Chaucer; 113-162 in the Norton)., and the action scenes which conclude the Millers and Reeves Tales.
4) The "naturingang" or "reverdie" was a well-known poetic maneuver in Continental poetry during Chaucer's era, much like the modern "Blues" singer might recast the familiar "I been down so long it looks like up to me" into a familiar but changed lyric in a new song. Frederic Koenig points out that the reverdie or ‘re-greening’ of the world in spring is used in such a variety of forms that it is less a genre than a widespread topos to which authors refer when praising spring or turning to other matters in their narration [‘Le reverdie semble donc n’avoir pas été un genre, mais plutôt un topos, très répandu d’ailleurs.’] ‘Sur une pretendue reverdie de gautier de Coinci,’ Romania 99 (1978): 255-63. In ‘The Reverdie Convention and “Lenten is come with love o toune’” (Annuale Mediaevale 12 (1971): 78-89), Peter Heidtmann discusses the convention as it may inform the lyric, which Sir Thomas Malory’s Launcelot certainly might have sung in his late struggles with Gwenyvere (‘Wymmen waxeth wounder proude’ l. 32). More extensive treatments of the convention are difficult to find, but Marc le Person provides a thoughtful survey of the reverdie’s features as it typically appears in French romances Chaucer and Malory would have known, in ‘L'insertion de la "reverdie" comme ouverture ou relance narratives dans quelques romans des XIIe et XIIIe siècles’ (Grail MA: Groupe de Recherche et d'Analyse de l'Ancienne Langue du Moyen Âge).