AUTHOR:Rodney Stenning Edgecombe
TITLE:Chaucer, Lucretius and the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales
SOURCE:Classical and Modern Literature 20 no2 61-5 Wint 2000

    As we all know, Chaucer launched the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales with a reverdie or spring song. This served to funnel in a host of influences, some of which he may have consciously reworked, while others he might have admitted (unconsciously, so to speak) as part of the reverdie's generic baggage. F. N. Robinson's notes to the opening show how difficult it is to disengage the various skeins from a plait as densely woven from commonplace and allusion as this is: "Several passages have been pointed out as possible sources of the introductory lines on spring.... From any of these places Chaucer may have received suggestions. Taken together they show that he was dealing with a conventional theme, in the treatment of which commonplace features inevitably reappeared. Such descriptions were especially frequent at the beginning of poems."(FN1) "Possible," "may have," "commonplace features"--an adjective of contingency, a subjunctive, and a catch-all generality--these betray the editor's difficulty in fixing influence when influence is multifold and multichannelled. But while such debts cannot be fixed with certainty, neither can they be written off on that account. In this note I want to add another possible ingredient to the mix, an ingredient that, while it cannot unequivocally proved to be there, cannot be excluded out of court, if only because it might have entered through a back door--as an allusion within an allusion.
    Recalling Robinson's observation that reverdies often play a proemial role in long poems, we ought not to be surprised at finding one near the start (if not quite at the start, and with a rather different function) of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. It predates those in the Georgics and the Pervigilium Veneris that commentators have linked to Chaucer's Prologue, and was almost certainly the inspiration behind both of them:
    postremo pereunt imbres, ubi eos pater aether in gremium matris terrai praecipitavit: at nitidae surgunt fruges, ramique virescunt arboribus, crescunt ipsae fetuque gravantur; hinc alitur porro nostrum genus atque ferarum; hinc laetas urbes pueris florere videmus, frondiferasque novis avibus canere undique silvas;(FN2)

In fine, the raindrops pass away when father Ether has cast them into the lap of mother Earth; but bright crops arise, the branches upon the trees grow green, the trees also grow and become heavy with fruit; hence comes nourishment again for our kind and for the wild beasts; hence we behold happy cities blooming with boys and leafy woods all one song with the young birds;

    This passage contains an element absent, so far as I can tell, from the English tradition of the reverdie before Chaucer--viz., Spring as the sexual congress of heaven and earth. Such poems as "Sing! cucu, nu"(FN3) and "Betwene Mersh and Averil"(FN4) anticipate the Prologue by tracking the growth of shoots and the mating of birds, but in neither do we find the notion of the imber maritus or imber fecundus. For these we must turn to the Pervigilium Veneris (nemus comam resolvit de maritis imbribus(FN5)) and to the Georgics (tum pater omnipotens fecundis imbribus Aether / coniugis in gremium laetae descendit(FN6)). And yet Lucretius, himself clearly the "imber fecundus" that fathered both these passages in turn, sounds a note that resonates more fully with Chaucer than with Virgil and the Pervigilium. The rain in De Rerum Natura falls heavily: praecipitare is a verb nuanced with violent overtones. Compare the neutrality of Virgil's verb--descendere--and the gentle loosening of resolvere in the Pervigilium. Praecipitare has a phallic energy closer to the Prologue than either of the later texts, both of which have been adduced as likely sources for Chaucer's poem. His consecutive references to piercing and to root intensify the penile connotations already implicit in the words, which, taken together, also impart a seminal colour to the "shoures soote"(FN7) and the liquor, whose "vertu," we must recall, is etymologically bound up with the virility of "vir-tus." The effect is reduplicated in Nature's pricking, for even though the penile meaning of "prick" surfaces only in the sixteenth century, it is very nearly activated avant la lettre when Chaucer applies it to birds that cannot sleep for all their courting. Clearly, then, piercing and pricking more closely resemble the impact of the precipitate pater aether in De Rerum Natura than they do the comparable moments in Virgil and in the Pervigilium.
    Lucretius also offers us what in diatonic harmony would be called the "contrary motion" of flung-down rain and rising growth. Surgunt balances praecipitavit in a way that anticipates the subterraneous piercing and the upward surge of the engendered flower in Chaucer--an antimeric balance we find neither in Virgil nor in the Pervigilium. Singing birds link all three of the classical passages, so there is nothing sui generis about them, but in Lucretius the explicit shift from resurgent nature to resurgent humankind (laetas urbes) can be paralleled only in Chaucer ("Thanne longen folkes to goon on pilgrimages"(FN8).
    Now what to make of these faint similarities between the Prologue and De Rerum Natura? For a start, none offers unequivocal proof of influence. A poet with Chaucer's invention could easily have rung the changes on reverdie commonplace by himself. Moreover, when one is dealing with similarities of treatment rather than explicit verbal echoes, one necessarily treads on speculative ground. Whatever is Lucretian in the Canterbury Tales could simply be a "secondary infection" from a more easily demonstrated debt to Virgil and the Pervigilium. And indeed the textual transmission of Lucretius seems at first blush to bear this out. According to its Victorian editor, A. J. Munro, the modern history of De Rerum Natura dates from 1417, when Poggio Bracciolini found it languishing in a German monastery.(FN9) Even so, we could ask whether it remained inert during all those centuries of eclipse between the time of Charlemagne and its "rediscovery" by Poggio, or whether it leaked some influence even in its seclusion. As L. D. Reynolds has noted, "despite this promising start, Lucretius went underground for the rest of the Middle Ages, an eclipse which may be partly explained by the passionately anti-religious nature of his message. All we have until the fifteenth century are a few fleeting glimpses."(FN10) By the same token, R. W. Hunt has pointed out that there "are enough traces to show that [De Rerum Natura] was being used in parts of [medieval] Germany more than one would have expected, and lines from it were used as illustrations in works on prosody."(FN11) Out of sight, but not therefore out of mind, and it is not inconceivable that some German monk, stumbling across Poggio's MS in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, composed a reverdie that focused on the congress of Pater Aether and Mater Terra.
    An alternative scenario (more likely, but equally unsusceptible of proof) is to assume that De Rerum Natura was known in Italy before Poggio's discovery. Here, for example, is Morton Bloomfield's way of accounting for the apparent influence of Lucretius on Boccaccio's Filostrate--though the evidence seems no stronger than that I have adduced for the Latin poet's influence on The Canterbury Tales. Having posited the possibility of "at least one manuscript of De Rerum Natura (or part of it) circulating or at least present in Italy, probably in Naples or the south (where Boccaccio wrote his romance) before 1338," Bloomfield accounts for this lacuna of transmission history by suggesting that much "can happen to a codex, and it may well have been destroyed, lost, or have found an unpublicized quiet resting place before ever becoming known to the Italian Renaissance scholars of the fifteenth century."(FN12) Nor is he alone in assuming life for Lucretius pre-Poggio. Some speculate that the Paduan prehumanist Lovato Lovati might have been familiar with De Rerum Natura, though modern scholarship has had its doubts. As Reynolds and Wilson observe:

It has been claimed that Lovato knew Lucretius, Catullus, the Odes of Horace, the whole of Tibullus, Propertius, Seneca's Tragedies, Martial, the Silvae of Statius, Valerius Flaccus, and Ovid's Ibis. Some of the items in the list have succumbed to a more sceptical scrutiny: the evidence for Lovato's knowledge of Catullus and Propertius has largely dissolved ... and the evidence of Lucretius looks dubious; but precision is impossible ...(FN13)

    "Precision is impossible"--well might that stand as an epigraph for the suggestion I am making in this note.
    These imprecise but possible Italian sightings don't put Lucretius at Chaucer's doorstep, of course, but at least they push back the chronology, and make the possibility of firsthand influence a touch more plausible. To get the codex over the English Channel we would have to invoke another theory (now largely discredited) of there having once been an "insular intermediary" for Lucretius. But even while Virginia Brown eloquently argues the case con, she is still forced to acknowledge that finality is hard sought on an issue as dark and mysterious as this: "The fact that no insular manuscript of the De Rerum Natura survives is not a strong enough argument in itself to abolish the myth."(FN14)
    John Speirs seems to have written Chaucer the Maker with an eye cocked nervously on the editor of Scrutiny, and we sense the Leavisite bias above all when he claims that the Prologue's proem, suffused though it might be with reverdie commonplace, is, even so, based on concrete observation: "The creative uprush of new life from the roots in spring is profoundly and accurately experienced and realized in poetry that is liberated from conventional diction."(FN15) It would be ironical, therefore, if that "creative uprush" (indeed different in some respects from the spring song cliché, and different again from Virgil and the Pervigilium in its stress on male potency) should after all have owed its inspiration to Lucretius (first- or second-hand, as the case might be).
    Rodney Stenning Edgecombe
    University of Cape Town, South Africa

1 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson (1933; Rpt. London: Oxford U Pr, 1957), 651.
2 Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, ed. Adolphus Brieger (Leipzig: Teubner, 1909). Translation is that of W. H. D. Rouse, Lucretius: De Rerum Natura (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Pr, 1943).
3 R. T. Davies, ed., Medieval English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology (London: Faber, 1963), 52.
4 Davies (above, note 3), 67.
5 Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilium Veneris, trans. F. W. Cornish, J. P. Postgate, J. W. Mackail (London: Heinemann, 1968), 348-349.
6 Virgil, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1967), I:138-139.
7 Robinson (above, note 1) 17.
8 Robinson (above, note 1) 17.
9 Lucretius. De Rerum Natura, ed. A. J. Munro, 6 vols. (Cambridge: Deighton Bell, 1893), 2.
10 L. D. Reynolds, "Lucretius" in L. D. Reynolds, ed., Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford: Clarendon Pr, 1983), 218-22, 220.
11 R. W. Hunt, "The Deposit of Latin Classics in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance," in Classical Influences on European Culture: A.D. 500-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge U Pr, 1971), 51.
12 Morton W. Bloomfield, "The Source of Boccaccio's Filostrato III, 74-79 and Its Bearing on the MS Tradition of Lucretius, De Rerum Natura," Classical Philology 47 (1952): 164.
13 L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature (1968; Rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Pr, 1991), 125.
14 Virginia Brown, "The 'Insular Intermediary' in the Tradition of Lucretius," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 72 (1967): 303.
15 John Speirs, Chaucer the Maker (London: Faber, 1967), 100.