Rote Works

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote…”

I am not fond of Education Departments.  I hold the opinion that the origin of the problems with our educational system has been our penchant for throwing out our old methods and replacing them with the newest, latest and greatest (hot off the burners of our Education Departments) every five years of so.  I suspect no one ever got a PhD out of an Education Department with a thesis entitled, “The Usefulness Of Traditional Teaching Methods.”

Of all the traditional methods, none is despised more in the Education Departments than rote learning.  To dismiss something as utterly beyond consideration you need only compare it with “mere rote.”  In an instant it is done, dead, damned.

From the point of view of such pedagogues, I am one of the last, sad products of a bygone age.  My unenlightened teachers  apparently never heard of how rote learning is useless.  How it wastes the student’s time, stunts the creative impulse and is actually a bad teacher’s substitute for real teaching.

The benighted victim of this child abuse, I find I can still recite (and, being contrary, draw considerable pleasure from) one whole section of Poe’s The Bells, quite a lot of Noyes’ The Highwayman and quite a few others.  As icing, I can still remember the first seventeen lines of the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

To those not similarly misused, this last must seem a bit peculiar.  Why part of the prologue?  Why just seventeen lines?

But for those of us old enough or blessed with sufficiently antediluvian teachers, memorizing those seventeen lines was part of a universal rite of passage into English Literature.  It was a ritual, arcane and secure unto itself.  Once you had managed it, you were joined with a long line of others, stretching back into time, who had undergone the same baptism.  Like a secret handshake, you could then amuse each other and confuse outsiders at parties by referring to your beverage as the “shoures soote.”

Beyond all that, I came to love the Canterbury Tales in their own right.  Not only were they lively and bawdy (not inconsiderable assets in a Catholic boys’ school) but they served as a kind of bridge between the old classics and English Lit.

Chaucer wrote in Middle English, a marvelously loose transitional tongue where both spelling and grammar could be modified to suit the author.  It gave him a flexibility that allowed English to be shaped into a tight rhyme scheme without the contrived feel of Longfellow, Dryden or Poe.

It was also a time when English still preserved many of its broad vowels and gutturals, so learning to pronounce it (more or less) in the original was a throat rasping experience.

It was strange, too, like learning a song or poem in some cousin tongue, near enough to tantalize, not near enough to understand.  It was memorizable only phonetically, syllable by syllable.  Every time you recognized in a word its modern descendent, you mispronounced it.

Rote is based on repetition.  Repeating it was silly and fun, as apparently useless and ephemeral an exercise as I can recall.

Yet, for some strange reason, its odd sounds stuck in the memory like glue.  Years later, my friends and I could echo each other with near perfection.  (Actually, I can recall some fairly pixelated college students weaving our way along the dark streets of San Francisco singing it in Gregorian chant…but that’s another story.)

Beyond the sounds, part of its fascination lies in the universality of its topic.  Written six hundred years ago, it sings of the joys of spring, when the plants, the animals, and the people come alive with rising juices and restless energy.

Whatever the reason, for me April will always have a flavor of “Aprill” (initial ‘ay’ sound replaced with a broad ‘ah’ and the trailing ‘l’ held for a bit).  Those from the East or Mid-West will know more about the “shoures soote” (sweet showers ..I won’t even try the pronunciation) of April than the Californians, but all of us know that wonderful feeling of just being alive that comes with spring.

My favorite image from it is that of the little birds (“smale fowles”) that make melody and sleep all night with one eye open, so pricked are they in their hearts by the joy of spring.

Its a lovely image, but part of the fun for me comes from its sounds.  The Middle English “fowles” is pronounced more like ‘fool-ays.”  Somehow I always heard that ‘fool’ more strongly than anything else.

Which brings up rehearsals.  One of the spring rituals is the rehearsals for all those amateur shows with which we will pummel conventions, commencements, spring flings, and the like.  All across the land one can imagine groups of aspiring singers beginning to panic as the date of their unveiling draws near.  Behind each group, visualize a desperate accompanyist pounding the keys ever harder, trying to convey the beat to those blessed with no sense of rhythm.

I have been among that desperate number.  I have spent many a nervous April struggling to remember the words, be on key and be on tempo.  To my sorrow, there are many who can attest to the fact that I rarely managed all three at the same time.  (Occasionally, in a catastrophic attack of hubris, we would add choreography to the mix, bringing it very near to collapse.)

Each year, as we tried yet again, in a flat triumph of optimism over experience, to have it somehow magically all come together, I would look down the line and hear this small voice in the back of my head saying “And small-ay fool-ays maken melodye”

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