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Chaucer and the magic of spring

Fiona McAllister/Getty

Some time in the Middle Ages, says Eleanor Parker in Engelsberg Ideas, “English poets began to notice the spring”. Before that, for the first few centuries of recorded English literature, authors “don’t seem to have been especially interested”. Spring might have brought blossom and a little more sun, but it was seen as a “turbulent” season – still cold and prone to “blustery storms” – and often a time of hunger, when winter provisions had run out and before the earth had begun producing food again. If Anglo-Saxon writers had a favourite season, it was winter: its “bleak landscapes and harsh weather” spoke of life’s hardship and “the suffering that leads to wisdom”. On the rare occasions they did write about spring, it was in grim terms. One summed it up: “Spring is frostiest; it’s cold the longest.”

Then, in 1066, the Norman conquest brought with it new stories and new themes. Winter went out of fashion, and in came spring’s “reverdie” or re-greening. English poets quickly cottoned on and joined their French counterparts in hailing the beauties of spring: “blossom, cuckoos, daisies, nightingales”. By the late Middle Ages it was agreed that May was “the most magical time of the year”. Many of Chaucer’s works are set in spring, most famously The Canterbury Tales, in which April’s “showers sweet” (or “shoures soote”) inspire the pilgrims with an irresistible longing to go travelling. Elsewhere he writes of “fair, fresh May” and “green and lusty May”. Today, our perception of spring is shaped by the literary associations – of freshness and novelty, of “joy, love, and sex” – that the season has acquired in the centuries since. But in all that time, few have matched Chaucer’s “lyrical praise” for the finest month in Troilus and Criseyde:

In May, that moder is of monthes glade,
That fresshe floures, blewe, and whyte, and rede,
Ben quike agayn, that winter dede made,
And ful of bawme is fleting every mede.