The first eighteen lines of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales describe the setting and the basic blot of the poem’s frame story: in the springtime, as nature reawakens, people of England are drawn to go on pilgrimages to the town of Canterbury to pay respects to Saint Thomas Becket. The bulk of The Canterbury Tales is made up of poetic stories that a group of pilgrims share with each other en route to Canterbury.
The language of the first eighteen lines of the General Prologue is special, however. Instead of describing the characters journeying to Canterbury (like the majority of the prologue) or telling the plot of the story (like the poetic tales themselves), those eighteen lines provide a lyrical description of spring brimming with poetic language. This includes personification. The Zephyr or West Wind, for instance, is said to breathe life into nature:
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tendre croppes
When the West Wind also with its sweet breath,
In every wood and field has breathed life into
The tender crops
Likewise, nature itself is said to create stirrings in people’s hearts: “So priketh hem Nature in hir corages” (“So Nature incites them in their hearts”).
The adjectives used throughout emphasize youth, renewal, and energy, all characteristics associated with spring. April’s showers are “soote” (“sweet”) as is the Zephyr—the crops are “tender,” the sun is “yonge” (“young”), and so on. The imagery mentioned is also classically evocative of spring. There are flowers, sunshine, and songbirds—“And smale foweles maken melodye” (“And small fowls make melody”).
The first eighteen lines close by turning attention away from spring, however, and toward the blessings of St. Becket—“That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke” (“Who helped them when they were sick”)—reminding readers of what was motivating the pilgrimage.