Chaucer and the Blue Marble
for the open access companion to the canterbury tales
This essay will appear in The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales in Fall 2017.
The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales is a scholarly companion for first-time, university-level readers of Chaucer. The OA Canterbury Tales features chapters that weave every Canterbury Tale together with a topic of broad interest, as well as reference chapters that provide key information on context and scholarship. It’s created by an international team of scholars and will be delivered in an open access format free to all. To learn more about the project, click here. The OA Canterbury Tales is in the process of a public Open Review of polished chapter drafts, accessible here; we invite scholars, teachers, students, and readers to share their comments on the in-progress drafts. The Open Review goes until December 15, 2016.
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¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 What connection could Chaucer possibly have to our own environmental moment? At first glance, it seems that Chaucer’s poetry could only tell us about a long-lost earth that has radically changed. The earth that now seems depleted, fragile, and at risk, back then seemed dense and vast, stretching well beyond human reach. Today, we feel ourselves to be facing an unprecedented environmental crisis. Our responses to the earth also feel unprecedented to us. Environmental writing today is calling for a new “posthuman” consciousness that deeply values the more-than-human world.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Despite the differences that separate Chaucer’s 14th century from ours, I found that Chaucer sends us a signal of his attentiveness to the earth right at the beginning of his Parliament of Fowls.  In a lucky coincidence, I was reading about the first years of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s just as I was also reading Chaucer’s Parliament. For the environmental movement, one early inspiration was space photography: how the earth looked from far away. The Parliament of Fowls begins from a similar viewpoint.
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¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Chaucer’s narrator recounts the Dream of Scipio, in which Scipio’s ancestor Africanus came to him in a dream and lifted him up to “a sterry place. . . Thanne shewede he hym the lytil erthe that here is,/ At regard of the hevenes quantite” (a starry place…And he showed him…the earth here, so little in comparison with the hugeness of the heavens) (lines 43, 57-8).
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¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The photos from NASA’s Apollo missions between 1968 and 1972 gave our contemporaries their first look at a “little earth,” widely dubbed “the blue marble,” afloat in vast space. The Apollo program was designed to lead outward, to the moon and beyond, but it also turned back to look at earth from far away.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 These two perspectives from above—from Scipio’s eighth sphere and Apollo’s moon orbit—gave rise to two very different ethical responses. In Scipio’s dream, the radical change of physical perspective urges us to turn away from earthly things:
Than bad he hym, syn erthe was so lyte,
And dissevable and ful of harde grace,
That he ne shulde hym in the world delyte. (lines 64-66)
(Then Africanus instructed him not to take delight in this world, since earth is so little and so full of torment and ill favor.)
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Life on earth, says Africanus, is “but a maner deth”; life on earth should be directed toward winning a place in heaven (lines 54, 73-77). In contrast, the Apollo missions, aimed up and away from earth, ironically launched a public movement of concern for earth’s finite, fragile materiality. The first of the Apollo photos, “earthrise,” was “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken” according to nature photographer Galen Rowell. It was an inspiration for the first international Earth Day in 1970. The astronaut who shot “earthrise” while orbiting the Moon, William Anders, later commented on this turn of events, “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
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¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Caring about the “little earth” goes against Africanus’s instruction to transcend earthly concerns. Chaucer’s narrator, however, aligns himself with the earth, rather than with transcendence, by refusing to join the celestial perspective of Africanus on “the litel erth that here is.” This wording locates Chaucer’s narrator down on earth, here and now. He could easily have joined the lofty perspective of Africanus by ending his line with “the litel erth below” or “the litel erth adoun.” Instead, Chaucer’s narrator differentiates his perspective from that of Africanus, and emphasizes the differentiation by placing a verb at the line’s eleventh syllable, producing a potential sixth stress in the line “and shewed him the litel erth that here is.” The reference to here and now conjures a wider public around the narrator, shifting the perspective point back to earth. Africanus, like the Apollo missions, aimed outward and upward to ponder the heavens; Africanus, like the Apollo missions, turned to look back on earth in an instructional mode—philosophic, scientific—but in both cases an audience, Chaucer’s narrator and the public of 1968, felt a response of concern for and interest in the earth.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Thanks to reading about the public reaction to space photography, I noticed that Chaucer’s first scene rejects the belittling perspective of Africanus and his pedagogical certainty about turning our attention beyond earthly things. Then the rest of this wonderful poem opens as a longer correction to the authoritative Dream of Scipio. Chaucer’s narrator has his own dream, in which wise and preachy Africanus reappears—but he does not lift Chaucer’s dreamer to the heavens. Instead, he takes the dreamer to a beautiful earthly landscape and then vanishes, leaving the dreamer to puzzle out his place in the natural world. The Dream of Scipio taught transcendence; Chaucer directs our attention to “the litel erthe that here is.”
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Notes:
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0  Except where otherwise noted, citations from The Canterbury Tales in Middle English throughout this chapter are taken from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson. Print. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. Modern English translations of the Tales are taken from Gerard NeCastro, Chaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century. Web. 29 July 2016.