Last night I finished memorizing “The Cook’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is the final poem in a set known as “Fragment I” of the Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English in the late 1300s. I’ve now memorized all five poems in Fragment I, a total of 4,424 lines, or about 39,816 words.
I do it because I like it. Every day I try to memorize ten new lines, though with skipped days and etcetera it actually comes out to about six lines a day over not-quite-two-years. My dream is that if the covids ever pack up and leave town and the world’s travel borders open, I will go to England, walk from the site of the Tabard Inn in Southwark to Canterbury, and recite the Canterbury Tales along the way. Maybe even do it by bike …
Memorization is hard but it is simple and fun once you have the thing pounded in. It may not make even the tiniest sliver in this pie chart of how Americans spend their leisure time, but so what? In a country where the overwhelming leisure activity is watching TV, you simply can’t expect Middle English poetry recitation to get much, uh, traction.
I look around and see a lot of people doing things that they don’t really appear to enjoy doing. Cyclists with Extreme Serious Face. Runners who look like they are dragging a log tied to a boulder attached to a sunken ship. Golfers with worry lines deeper than the Marianas Trench. Weekend gardeners who take weeds personally. And of course the bored visages of people staring at their phones.
Guess what? There’s nothing on your phone, and punching the little icons won’t change that.
One of the hardest things about a thing is admitting that you like it and not worrying about whether anyone else cares or thinks it’s weird. In fact, the weirder it seems to you, the more certainly there’s a group of people somewhere who like exactly the same thing.
I’m still looking for a Chaucer Middle English poetry recitation group. Will let you know when I find it.
In them meantime, here is a video of my poetry recitation so that you can see what you’re missing. The entire thing takes 6-7 hours depending on the speed, so I’m just posting a little snippet recitation of the General Prologue and part one of the Knight’s Tale, until the video memory runs out. I’m pretty nervous on camera and there are many glitches and fumbles … oh, well!
If you want to follow along you can visit this online transcription of the Canterbury Tales at the Harvard Chaucer web site.