Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Golden Oldies

Each week I receive a certain amount of email concerning my blog posts.  The messages are mainly encouraging, but I am sometimes surprised by the source mentioned, as it is not always my blog’s web page.  Several in recent weeks refer to encountering an essay on “Senior Correspondent”, a site that appears to anthologize  on-line journalistic gerontology for the pleasure and instruction of our fellow-seniors.  I know of this site at least by name.  Twice I rashly promised to write something for them and twice I ignominiously forgot to do so—at which point the editors sensibly decided that a purloined essay was probably just as good as a commissioned one, and maybe even better, in that it was actual rather than unconvincingly potential.

            From the pirating of my essays I take absolutely no offense—far from it.  The truth is the Lord’s, as Augustine says, and as for the Internet, it’s as free as the air we breathe or the water from a mountain spring.  That I am a senior is valuably documented by my reduced-fare MetroCard.  That I am a correspondent is perhaps slightly less certain, but still plausible.  That I am communicating with other seniors is the subject of this essay.

            Just yesterday I taught the fifth of six seminars in a Chaucer course I am teaching at the Evergreen Forum, one of several “adult schools” in our town.  The phenomenon of “continuing education,” an important one nationally, is related to a number of demographic trends.  People are living longer and healthier lives.  The number of college-educated retirees is quite large in absolute terms, and steadily increasing.  Many retired people, anticipating perhaps decades of mentally active life, have made such opportunities as tend to be found especially in the environs of college towns an important factor in their choice of retirement location.

            Seniors are delightfully tolerant and forgiving as students—which is perhaps a way of saying they have pretty low expectations.  They also tend to be smart and cultured and to have heard of such historical events as World War II.  And the curriculum on offer from the Evergreen Forum is pretty relaxed too.  Among my competitors are courses with such titles as “Devils, Demons and the Supernatural in Opera,”  “What to Eat?  Do Not Worry,” and “Curiouser and Curiouser: 150 Years of Alice”—all of which I’d like to take myself.  Still, the idea of teaching an introductory Chaucer course on the Middle English text of the “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales seemed a bit eccentric to me even as I was proposing it.  The question is not really whether you can spend six weeks on 850 lines of poetry, but whether such an activity can in any sense constitute an “introduction” to Chaucer.

            The answer, I have been delighted to discover, is in the affirmative.  I have a full load of thirty students, and at least half of them already had read some Chaucer.  As recently as half a century ago Chaucer featured in high school English courses, and several of my students still hold in their memories, after all those years, some or even most of the first immortal sentence, florid and nearly endless (128 words), with which the poem begins: Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote…New students of Chaucer often think, mistakenly, that the hardest part is the language, but it takes no more than half an hour to correct that misapprehension, and to bring them to an understanding that a “modern version” of Chaucer’s text is not merely not the same thing as Chaucer, but something inevitably feebler and less interesting.

            One can have a great experience for the first time only once, and it is really rather thrilling to see a septuagenarian first reading, and then really “getting” some of the great lines in the Prologue for the first time.  Take, for example, Chaucer on gold.   What Milton would later call “the precious bane” appears seven times in the Prologue and crucially controls the descriptions of six of the pilgrims.  The spiritual failures of the Prioress and the Monk, two professional ascetics with high station but without vocation, are signaled by the inappropriate gold ornaments that are a part of their accoutrements.  From the Prioress’s string of beads, rather in the manner of a modern girl’s “charm” bracelet is appended “a brooch of gold full sheene [bright]”, while the Monk fastens the chin-strap of his cowl in a somewhat extra-ecclesial fashion.  “He had of gold ywroght a ful curious pyn.”  To the Clerk of Oxenford (the original glad learner and glad teacher, incidentally) he offers the following couplet:
                        But al be that he was a philosophre,
                        Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre—
an idea dependent upon a “groaner” of a quibble then available on the word philosopher, meaning both an aspirant to wisdom and a money-grubbing alchemist!   The concluding couplet of the description of the medical doctor—the medical profession (Little Pharma, perhaps?) was often taxed with the charge of cupidity in the fourteenth century—is less kindly:
                        For gold in phisik is a cordial,
                        Therefore he loved gold in special.
Here we see both the medicinal and the linguistic roots of my old grandmother’s “elderberry cordial”.  Do you think the Doctor’s love of gold was really based in its value as a heart medicine?  Finally, there is the Good Parson’s characteristically simple statement of an aspiration met by far too few of his colleagues in this poem—that of clerical holiness.  In the middle of the seventeenth century Milton would famously say of the corrupt English clergy that “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.”  Chaucer had anticipated him with his version of a biblical aphorism:…if gold ruste, what shal iren do?  Then he tells it like it is.
                        For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,
                        No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;
                        And shame it is, if a preest take keep,
                        A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.

The Clerk of Aberystwyth: the late Roger Roberts took his degree at the age of 82