A friend of mine sent me this link today of three guys rapping the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fc8XPv_qstA. It’s pretty great, although you’re getting that from someone who knows way more about Chaucer than rap. What’s interesting is how nicely the poem fits into the beat; these lads don’t seem to be straining at all, which reminds us of a couple of things. First, poetry and music have always been close cousins going all the way back to the early days of oral poetry. What we know from the oldest reports about poetry performance is that it was accompanied, in pretty much every culture, by music of some sort even if that was only percussion–you know, like rap. Or 1950s Beat poetry. Second, Chaucer himself belonged to the oral tradition of performance and was a part of the early era of English culture to marry that orality to written texts.
We do well to remember that Chaucer was a big fan of the new. He wrote in the vernacular, a trend which had only begun earlier in the century with Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320), and writing in the language of the people rather than in Latin was a radical departure. Beyond that, in one work he adapted Dante’s interlocking rhyme scheme, rather freely adapted, to English iambic pentameter for the first time. And he took the central concept of Boccaccio’s Decameron, a group of people thrown together who share stories on disparate topics and themes, moving them from the hills above Florence during the Plague to the road to Canterbury during Lent. As another friend said, he would likely have had no problem with interjecting “Yo” in the manner of rappers. This friend also noted, however, that he would probably have inclined more toward poetry slams than rap per se. And since he is a medievalist, I defer to his greater wisdom in this matter.
So consider what Chaucer would have thought about rap music. Or Shakespeare or Spenser or Marlowe (although he was more of a punk, I think). Just remember, being dead and white and male is no impediment to being way cool.