Here, I want to introduce another idea central to this blog: that we are connected to the past, too, whether or not any of you know Chaucer (or any other old poet). We don’t earn this connection: it is ours because we are here, and it links us to other people who have lived, and to the ideas that circulate in the world – all of them.
I love the tree I’ve chosen for this post’s image. It sits – lies, really – in a bird sanctuary in Chicago. I paid it no attention at first, until a friend pointed out that it wasn’t dead; I’m not sure I would have noticed, otherwise, the stubborn new saplings growing from its hefty and broken trunk.
They are wee, after all, and in the picture it’s hard to spot them. We photographed the tree from multiple angles, and each time the camera seemed defiant, the branches incognito.
It was hard to tell, in the pictures, that the saplings were connected to the old tree at all.
As it so often is, I think, with new things.
We tend to think of new things as divorced from what is old, and of renewal as constituting a rebirth – an erasure of what was there in the past, a new beginning, a fresh start. Whence New Year’s Resolutions, Renaissances. Whence consumer culture itself; the new dress, the new haircut, the new car. All expressing, somehow, a break with the past, an absolute change, a turning of the page – as if the previous page erased itself the moment it was no longer visible.
But what if, instead, what was new came, inevitably and invariably, from what is old? And what if all this detritus – of the body, of the spirit, of the mind – comprised the recipe for genesis, over the course of a lifetime, over the course of human history?
For out of olde feldes, as men seith,
Cometh al this newe corn fro yeer to yere;
And out of olde bokes, in good feith,
Cometh al this newe science that men lere.
[For out of old fields, as men say,
Comes all this new corn from year to year;
And out of old books, in good faith,
Comes all this new knowledge that men learn.]
In these lines, Chaucer talks about the way new things emerge from what is old – that what is old provides cultivated, rich ground in which new things can grow. And just so, old books need not lie fallow. They, too, give rise to what is new – to what feeds us – because they have the power to teach every neophyte, to inspire any expert.
Chaucer gives me hope that good things can happen, even when you least expect it, even in the most unusual circumstances. New science – new knowledge – from old books, dusty and smelly, having sat closed for decades, maybe. Food, the stuff of life, from fields long worked over, having perhaps lain barren for a time.
New shoots from what seems, at first glance, to be a long-dead and decaying tree.
Chaucer saw the ways in which stories preserve what has already passed us by, but also that stories are, themselves, new things that come, inevitably, from old things. After all, no matter how many times grief has been experienced the world over, it is always new. So is love. And friendship. We rediscover these things again and again, in books, and in life, too.
At the very end of the Parliament of Fowls, the poem from which I take these lines, the dreamer has the following to say:
Other bokes took me to
To rede upon, and yet I rede alway;
In hope, y-wis, to rede so som day
That I shal mete som thing for to fare
The bet; and thus to rede I nil not spare.
[I took myself to other books
To read, and still I always read;
In hope, indeed, of reading something, someday
That I might dream something in order to do
Better – and thus to read I will not spare.]
It’s meant to be funny – the narrator doesn’t have much life experience; the entire poem was a dream he had because of a book he read. And what he wants, really, is something to write about, even as, here, he says he wants to have a good dream so he can learn something.
Chaucer’s dream-vision narrators tend to be a bit like Shakespeare’s fools – ridiculous, removed from reality, but full of profound insight. (Two-hundred years, it must be added, before Shakespeare.)
These lines are no different, both ridiculous and insightful. They illustrate the unspoken communication and interconnectedness that books permit. After all, here I am, in 2019, writing about a tree that exists in a park in Chicago – an ocean away from where Chaucer lived, in London – a full 638 years after Chaucer wrote those lines in the first place. It’s nice to think of that as making something new from something old.
It’s also nice to think that, like the new saplings in the fallen tree, my own experience of the world is yoked to Chaucer, grows out of what I have read, allows me to ‘fare the bet.’ That reading connects me to what is, now, and what has come before, too.
And thus to read I will not spare.