Medieval English Poetry
Geoffrey Chaucer: The Legend of Good Women
14th century, Middle English. Numerous printed copies.
Zephyrus and the goddess Flora give to the flowers, softly and tenderly, their sweet breath, as god and goddess of the flowery mead.
In his prologue to The Legend of Good Women, Geoffrey Chaucer tells us: 'A thousand times have I heard men tell, that there is joy in heaven and pain in hell, and I accord well that it is so; but nonetheless' – he cautions – nonetheless, there is no one alive today who can testify to the existence of these places by ever having been to them and returned to tell the story. A remedy is at hand, however. We must believe what we read in old books. But which old books? Pagan or Christian?
Geoffrey is constantly immersed in his old books, and they are often books of classical myth and legend. Only one thing will draw him away from these manuscripts and that is the sight of the daisy opening her flowers on a May morning. Geoffrey wakes before dawn in May and rushes down to his garden to see the daisy opening her petals to the sun. 'Now, it happens,' he tells us, 'that of all the flowers in the meadow, the ones that I love the best are those red and white ones that men call daisies here in London. I have such great affection for these flowers, when, as I said, the may blossom is out, that there’s no dawn that lights my bed which doesn’t see me already up and walking in the meadow, in order to see them spreading their petals against the rising sun. And when the sun gets low again in the sky, I see this flower closing its petals again until the next morning, so afraid it is of the night. The daisy is the most wonderful of all the flowers, filled with virtue and honour, always beautiful and fresh-looking, and I love it!'
In one of the two surviving versions of this poem, Geoffrey hears the birds singing in the meadow:
'Welcome, somerour governour and lord!' And Zephyrus and Flora gentilly yaf to the floures, softe and tenderly, hir swote breth, and made hem for to sprede, as god and goddesse of the floury mede; in which me thoughte I mighte, day by day, dwellen alwey… 'Welcome summer, lord and master!' they sing. And Zephyrus and Flora gave to the flowers, softly and tenderly, their sweet breath and made them flourish, as god and goddess of the flowery meadow, in which I had a mind to be in as often as I could…'
Geoffrey dreams, that night, that he rises and goes back to the meadow, where, perhaps, he expects to encounter once more
Flora and Zephirus, they two that make floures growe… But instead, he encounters the god of Love and his consort, who turns out to be Alcestis – a mortal woman in Classical mythology who went to Hades but was rescued by Heracles and brought back into the light of day. In Geoffrey's dream she is dressed as a daisy.