- Bird Sounds and the Framing of The Canterbury Tales
W. H. Auden's poem "Their Lonely Betters" describes the experience of listening to the sounds of birds, insects, and rustling flowers in the garden. It concludes by contemplating the difference between these sounds and human language:
Let them leave language to their lonely betters,Who count some days and long for certain letters,We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:Words are for those with promises to keep.1
The poem suggests a boundary between animal and human experience that is permeable only in one direction. While we humans make animal-like noises, animals do not have access to language and all of the obligations and anxieties that go with it. This essay will suggest that Chaucer, too, is interested in this human/animal boundary as defined by sound, though, at least in his world of narrative, it is permeable in both directions.2 I will further posit that this permeable boundary frames the entire narrative of the Canterbury sequence and that it opens up questions regarding the nature of language, culture, and the relationship between humans and their environments. This framing happens in a very specific way, as the sequence opens with birdsong and closes with the curtailing of birdsong in The Manciple's Tale, as the fictional space of the sequence opens and then closes.
We think of Chaucer as a supremely visual poet, from the parade of vivid portraits of his pilgrims in The General Prologue to the tableaux of The Knight's Tale, to the dazzling sequences of images in the dream visions. V. A. Kolve and many others have long since charted all of this imagery, considered it in historical context, and described its widely varied iconographical and typological significances. Sound in Chaucer has received considerably less attention, and animal [End Page 1] sounds even less.3 While there have been studies of phonetics, oral delivery of poetry, and aural reception, Chaucerian soundscapes have mostly been overlooked.
That Chaucer thought about sound in some technical detail is clear from the ridiculous conclusion of The Summoner's Tale. The idea that the fart would divide into appropriate substances to stimulate the different senses of smell and hearing of the hypothetical receiving friars is, of course, used for comical purposes, but it demonstrates Chaucer's familiarity with the science of the time on the subject. According to Albertus Magnus, the sound of a bell, for example, radiates outward in concentric circles until the appropriate part of the medium reaches the ears to be heard.4 This theory marks a significant medieval expansion of classical ideas of sound and smell, and its appearance in this tale "shows Chaucer making use of medieval science (as opposed to the classical science of such men as Euclid, Ptolemy, Vitruvius, or Boethius)" (Pratt, 268). It may be, according to the same theory, that if one is too close to the origin of the medium, the senses could become confused because it has not had enough time and space to break into its component parts. This may explain why Absolon is "yblent" by Nicholas's "thunderdent" of a fart in The Miller's Tale rather than deafened. Chaucer's attention to the science of sound in these tales, as well as in the Eagle's discourse on the subject in The House of Fame, suggests more than a passing interest.
Furthermore, and most importantly for this study, some sounds, and particularly animal noises, have specific effects on their human hearers and signal certain vital connections between humans and their environments. In particular, I would like to consider two examples of animal sounds that actually frame the narrative of The Canterbury Tales: the birdsong in the opening lines of The General Prologue and the cry of the crow anticipated at the end of The Manciple's Tale.
Unless we count the April showers and the "sweete breeth" of the west wind, the first sound recorded in the poem is birdsong. Put another way, birdsong is the first noise recorded in the text that is made by a living creature. Before we encounter any spoken language, there is birdsong. It is...