Flow over rigorousness in Chaucer's case

2020-08-19 @Literature

Reading a medieval work akin Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I become severely overwhelmed by the extent of supplementary material. In addition to the footnotes, my particular edition features an appendix, the glossary, the over-insightful and spoiler-bound introduction, the publication history, timeline, grammar lessons, etc.

Roughly forty percent of it constitutes meta-content. And granted, there is much scholarly value in it. But if scholarly pursuit is not your enterprise, you’ll probably benefit more by, well, in plain words, not giving a fuck.

When it comes to poetic works of this sort, focus on maintaining rhythm and enjoying the flow. Sacrifice a few explanatory remarks.

You’ll ultimately miss but a small fraction of the really important, but make leaps in your appreciation. That is provided you aim to extract maximum overall utility per the moment, rather than aim for an arbitrary academic goal a-posteriori.

Anyhow, that’s my take. Once I let myself proceed without interruption for even a couple of dozen lines of Chaucer’s Middle English verse, something magical transpires. I begin to legitimately enjoy a piece of sensational narrative poetry written 650 years back.

That despite having neglected almost as many footnote references as there are lines of verse. I gradually (more on this below) began to simply disregard them.

Now much of the introductory and appended meta-content doesn’t actually steal attention. But the in-line footnote references will, if you indulge them. I had to exert certain discipline and stave them off … like mosquitoes, during a humid summer night.

And it’s so incredibly worth it, as you’re reading an ancient primary source; not a retelling, not a modernization, not a blasted translation. All the magic is in the unhampered original language. (Well, notwithstanding the editorial revisions the old manuscripts get subjected to, often from multiple conflicting sources).

To the contrary and you fall into the clutches of the translator’s/adapter’s poetic liberties, not the original author’s. The product might be good, but it ain’t the same thing.

I’d feel especially privileged, were I capable of reading ancient Greek or Latin. The latter perhaps one day. This with the goal of enjoying the respective primary sources in the original. But hey, I can apparently read medieval English; at least Chaucer’s, the one spoken around London and most influential towards the English spoken today. Not a bad consolation.

Alright, but let’s step back. What about all that confounding vocabulary and ancient grammatical structure?

At the beginning, I had to indeed engage the references. A lot. In brief time, less. And soon, quiet very soon, hardly.

As with any language adaptation, you’ll find the small minority of constructs to appear disproportionately often. Do make an effort to assimilate these quickly and abandon the footnote regime early on.

In my case, these constructs quickly settled into memory, already towards the end of the General Prologue, and further reinforced during the immediately proceeding Knight’s Tale. By then, it was mostly flow. Really, it’s liberating not having to toss attention back and forth.

By the way, anyone with any German language aptitude bears further advantage yet. I’ve repeatedly asserted German to share far more in common with Middle English than with the contemporary. Romance language background also grants notable momentum.

Anyway, my remarks here apply to any poetic work: plays in verse, sonnets, narratives, nonsense poetry, song lyrics, prose poetry, etc.

Be pragmatic. Emphasize flow and enjoyment over scrupulous comprehension.

Questions, comments? Connect.