AN OXFORD SCHOLAR DREAMS THE U.S.
Two thousand four, reading—a sunny morning at Hammer’s coffee house in downtown Spokane with gusty wind rearranging the city trash. Then come scattered clouds as The Canterbury Tales ghost through my thoughts after all these years, and I tumble seven centuries into the agrarian past.
I first read The Tales in 1963 or 1964 at the University of Dayton in Geoffrey Chaucer’s original middle-English with help from a heavily footnoted text. To read them like that allowed me to experience the guttural, Frenchified sound of an early form of what became, eventually, our American language. Much later, I added a course in Old English and experienced an even earlier form of English. I’ve read the original King James version of the Bible too, and Shakespeare. Throw in a little French, Russian and Spanish and...? Ah, well, too bad I could never use them in insular America. If only I had reason to use them, become proficient in them and keep them current, but....
“There was also an Oxford student, one
Whose logic studies long since had begun....
Of highest moral virtue was his speech,
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”
With a twinge I read “gladly would he learn and gladly teach” and meet a ghost of myself long abandoned and remember how I used to repeat that line to others and feel the virtuous calling call me toward an idealistic and better self. So warmly I dreamed! I dreamed the whole scene on a lonely 1964 road to Southern Illinois University one night as I stood under stars that filled the rural sky while my wife and child slept peacefully in the car. We were on our way to take up my first teaching assistantship. But nothing was as it was supposed to be and everything became more real than I could have imagined and, then, the early self I knew died as the hobo America of the Great Depression of my dreams crumbled about my ears to be replaced by Vietnam and left me beside the railroad track while the lonesome whistle wailed.
THE CHARACTER OF MERCHANT NEVER CHANGES
In Chaucer’s poetry, you can see the influence of genetic types going way back as you recognize the man (woman) who is, was and ever shall be “the merchant”:
“He spoke with pomp on everything he thought,
And boasted of the earnings he’d collected.
He felt the trade route had to be protected
Twixt Middleburgh and Orwell by the sea.
He speculated in French currency.
He used his wits so well, with such finesse,
That no one guessed the man’s indebtedness,
So dignified he was at managing
All of his bargains and his borrowing.
He was a worthy fellow all the same;
To tell the truth, I do not know his name.”
Anonymity’s dead in America,
Given our Trumps, Lays and Stewarts, Martha.
“Reading the book is like waiting for the first shoe to drop.” —Ralph Novak
(Dear reader, I should admit that all these quotes at the ends of daily posts come from the book, The 2,548 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, compiled and collected by Robert Byrne.)