During a late evening effort to escape the pandemic-ridden present, I slipped into the past by rekindling an old acquaintanceship with Geoffrey Chaucer and his poem The Parliament of Fowls—a long, romantic dream.
I have always found the opening line to the poem compelling: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” (Hippocrates said something similar some centuries earlier about the craft of medicine.) Chaucer, with his always alluring alliteration, is said to have composed the line in reference to the craft of writing, though in the context of his poem, the words refer to the craft of love. Of course, Chaucer being Chaucer, the words certainly embraced both meanings.
Reading the poem in this curiously miasmic moment, as we all question familiar assumptions, expectations, and habits, I found myself wondering if Chaucer’s line might also refer to the craft of life. Then it occurred to me, Chaucer being Chaucer, they likely did. It just took me five and a half decades and a pandemic to notice.
I think what I find so compelling about the line is its humility. Whether describing the craft of medicine, writing, love, or life, there is always far more craft to learn than there is life ahead to learn it, which may well be the most important life lesson we can absorb—and teach.
In the wide world of education, it has been de rigueur thinking in recent decades that we must educate our young to be “lifelong learners.” Yet few schools have translated that admirable thought into a tangible curriculum. Maybe that’s because many schools still teach the answering of questions and not questioning of answers.
I’d like to think, in our best moments, that my Halifax Grammar School, where I’m headmaster, has had the wisdom to lean toward the latter (part of our iconoclastic spirit, I suppose), always encouraging students to keep open hearts and minds, always encouraging students to question life’s many mysteries and uncertainties and challenges, knowing that questions may only bring more questions.
At least I hope so. Chaucer certainly encourages as much. He finishes A Parliament of Fowls this way:
I woke, and other books to read upon
I then took up, and still I read always;
I hope in truth to read something someday
Such that I dream what brings me better fare,
And thus my time from reading I’ll not spare.
If nothing else, this riotous year has provided a good prompt for reflective reading and a reminder to stay humble in the craft of “lyf.” As always, there is still so much more to “lerne.”