Havre de Grace. -- In the cool nights the libidinous crescendo of the peepers almost shakes the house. Cows, their hormones raging, ignore their nursing calves and bawl for the bull. Egg-laden rockfish are moving into the Chesapeake shallows. It must be April.
T.S. Eliot, who never fed cattle through a February cold snap or spent a steambath August working in Baltimore, obscurely called April the cruelest month. Could he have meant that in an intellectual sense? Anyway, in the winter-deadened brain of an aging English major, when April comes old memories stir.
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . .
hTC Unwieldy Middle English or not, the opening lines of "The Canterbury Tales" come spilling up onto the cerebral screen at this time of year, as reliable in their appearance as the return of the barn swallows from Argentina. And as always, the hacker at the synaptic controls reflects that the words don't entirely make sense.
Yes, April has sweet showers, but the "drought" of March? Not ** usually around here, where most years mud's the word as winter fades into spring. Maybe in 1388, when Geoffrey Chaucer made his inspirational pilgrimage to Canterbury, March was dry.
. . . And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . . '
That's right enough, a Middle English way of remarking that April showers bring May flowers. Chaucer goes on to talk about the soft spring wind, the tender new sprouts in woodland and field, and the sun passing through the astrological sign of the Ram. Six centuries later, we know what he means. He sounds like Norm Lewis, sort of.
In the night there is singing, and Chaucer relates it to the spring. . . . small fowles maken melodye That slepen al the nyght with open ye, So priketh hem Nature in hir corages . . . By that he means small birds which sing all night, so full are their hearts with desire. Yet this observation is a little odd. It rings not quite true.
Hereabouts, not many birds sing at night until the mockingbirds get into it later in the summer. But Chaucer was a city boy, the son of a London wineseller, who spent much of his life abroad. Perhaps on his Canterbury journey he listened to the peepers trilling and didn't realize that those were frogs, not birds, that he was hearing.
It doesn't really matter; his point is that in the season of renewal many dormant old longings reawaken. In men and women these can be spiritual as well as physiological. Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, And palmers for to seken straunge strondes . . . In spring especially, human beings long to go on pilgrimages, and to explore unknown shores. In 1388, and in 1995.
In England in Chaucer's time, for some 200 years pilgrims had been going to Canterbury in the spring to give thanks to the martyred archbishop, Thomas a Becket, for their answered prayers. And no doubt many of them told stories as they traveled, to pass away the time, just as Chaucer's 29 pilgrims do in the Tales.
Probably nobody reads Geoffrey Chaucer much any more, and why should they? He's a 600-years-dead white male, he wrote in heroic couplets, and he used quite a lot of words we don't generally recognize. For poetic inspiration today's undergraduates dutifully turn to Maya Angelou, first donning shades so no one will notice their eyes glazing over.
There was a time not so long ago when Chaucer was considered a little raunchy. College freshmen used to get an illicit chuckle from reading the earthy parts of the Tales that the professor never mentioned in lecture. But now that pornography has been incorporated into the curriculum at the most forward-looking high schools, and everyone can punch up sado-masochist bulletin boards on the Internet, even the Reeve's Tale has lost its tickle.
But April hasn't, especially early April. It's too early to plant the garden or cut the grass, but late enough to find wildflowers. March is cold and windy, and May is overwhelming, but April remains the moment between freeze and frenzy when there is time to -- what? Walk in the woods? Shake the mice out of the canoe? The choices seem endless, but in a moment the time for making them will be gone.
"April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go," wrote Christopher Morley. Well, yes and no. There is a sense now that things are beginning again, and by the end of the month the year will be wearing its summer outfit and racing away at full speed. The corn will be planted, the tax returns filed.
But right now, with April just beginning, there is a magical sense of anticipation, of limitless possibilities. It's a good time to go on a pilgrimage, or at least read about one.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.