It was a new kind of day on Sunday here in Lewes, Southern England. The snow had gone and the sun was shining. I was feeling as enervated by the false Spring air as the birds who were singing in celebration of the Sun. So I went for a Sunday morning walk up into the hills above town.
There were a few reminders of the snow that had practically brought England to a halt over the last couple of weeks but mostly we were back from white to green and the views from the top of Mount Harry showed that the flood plains bordering the River Ouse had been doing their job.
Standing there with the meadow pippins singing, the sun on my back, I felt that primieval urge that all creatures seem to have at the turn of the seasons. It was heightened as the sunlight sparkled off the London train as it headed North. This feeling of new birth is what the 14th. Century Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer felt when he wrote the Prologue to his Canterbury Tales. He is talking about the surge of Nature in early April but on a day such as today you get the first glimmerings of that mood even in early January.
Here it is in all the beauty of its original Middle English with a modern translation underneath. The old words are worth the struggle as they are not only exquisite in their own right but they remind us when we take those moments to stand and stare that we are in a long human tradition going back to the dawn of mankind.
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende…..
(When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England they to Canterbury wend…)
Back at home, inspired and renewed, I see that every trace of that snow has left my garden. It is now already a distant memory, its inconvenience is forgotten but its beauty lingers on.