Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
Chaucer’s long, long poem begins with an extremely long, 18-line sentence; it was conventional for long poems to begin like this, to prove the poet’s skill on a microcosmic level before moving on to the macrocosm.
We’re also introduced to the verse form that will run through the whole poem— rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter (these would later be called is ‘heroic couplets’, which jargon but does save time). So, the end-syllable of one line rhymes with the the end-syllable of the next. That’s a rhyming couplet. ‘Pentameter’ refers to the fact that there are usually 5 stresses, or beats in the line. ‘Iambic’ refers to the way the stresses are arranged. An iamb is an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed one.
Say the first two words out loud: ‘The droghte’. You can hear how ‘droghte’ takes up a slightly longer period of time to say— it is ‘stressed’, so together, the two words are an iamb.
Now say the whole line, bearing in mind that ‘perced’ would have been pronounced as two syllables: ‘The droght of March hath perced to the roote.’ You can hear how the stress falls roughly on every other word:
The droght of March hath perced to the roote.
Another poetic convention: Chaucer refers to March as being dry, with the rains coming only in April. Anyone who’s spent any time in Chaucer’s native England will know this is clearly not the case. A dry March was needed to sow seeds, but is much more likely to be found in Greece or Italy, countries whose longer poems Chaucer was imitating.
T. S. Eliot borrowed (and darkened) Chaucer’s April imagery for the opening of his masterpiece, The Waste Land:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
To help improve the meaning of these lyrics, visit “The Canterbury Tales (General Prologue)” by Geoffrey Chaucer and leave a comment on the lyrics box