Literary London – The Month that links Chaucer and T S Eliot
Literary London starts on 1st October and the Footprints of London Guides are talking about their favourite London literary connections. This time Tina talks about Chaucer and T S Eliot
Geoffrey Chaucer born about the year 1342 and died 25th October* 1400 is considered the father of the English language. An unusual choice at the time when French and Latin were the prominent means to spread the word by message, song, poem or to record business. This is one of the many threads that will be explored in more detail as part of my Chaucer His Life and Work in the City walk. Another great poet 500 years later would also walk in the footsteps of Chaucer, not deliberately but by default, as most of the medieval street plan remained as it was in the C14th.
So T S Eliot is my second literary offering for the festival. He worked for Lloyds Bank on Cornhill and gives us a rather stark and uncomfortable view of the C19th City. Perhaps not surprising as ‘The Waste Land’ was written just at the end of World War I and published in 1922.
Both men start their most famous works by intoning ‘April’ in the very first line to completely different effect. Generally we think of April as the period after a long cold winter when nature awakes and the weather gets warmer. Also April also has religious connotations, or an excuse to go out and buy more chocolate in the shape of eggs; or perhaps fast? Whichever is your preference, but Chaucer sets us up with cheery engagement:
‘When April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower ….’
The Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, goes on to write of sun and nature awakening and the mood changing so you feel jaunty and spry and ready to go on pilgrimage to thank the Saint for your survival over the winter, the crusades or the sickbed. A positive move to action to prepare yourself for the journey you are about to take (also the reader) and the excitement of meeting new folk along the way, all with a story to tell.
Whereas Mr Eliot, somewhat puts a dampner on the things very early on, if the title The Wasteland, had not alerted you to ‘beware who enter here’, perhaps the title of the first part Burial of the Dead might give you a whiff of what was to come. If that had not warned you then this certainly might:
‘April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.’
Where Chaucer was pleased to see the back of Winter Eliot felt it ‘kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow …’ As you can imagine there are plenty of critiques as to what this might actually mean. One is that it is deliberately a contrast to Chaucer’s upbeat opening. Another, which I quite like, is reference to a poem by Rupert Brooke ‘The Old Vicarage, Granchester’ 1912 – a delightful poem of childhood memory and the English countryside in springtime. Bookes died in the Aegean in 1915 a young and gifted man in his prime, struck down by war. A deliberate use of similar style perhaps, by Eliot, to compare what was, carefree days of childhood and what is now, the aftermath of a bloody and devastating war. The ‘forgetful snow’ covering the fields of death. There are two Wasteland walks on the 9th and the 19th October.
Neither walk is long enough to explore all the many possible explanations of what is written by both of these great men, but I hope that bringing some parts of the works to life in the City of London itself will add that little extra frisson to any future readings.
I just want to reassure you that we will definitely have a jolly jaunt with Geoffrey Chaucer and I promise you it will not be all doom and gloom with Mr Eliot.
*25th October 2014 is the anniversary of Geoffrey Chaucer’s death. There is a walk on this day.