Geoffrey Chaucer

 

Selected Poems

 

Translated by A. S. Kline © 2008 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.

 


Contents

 

 

Truth. 4

Nobleness. 5

Lack of Steadfastness. 6

To Rosamund. 7

Fickleness. 8

Merciless Beauty. 9

 

 


Truth

 

Or ‘Ballade de bon conseyl” (To Sir Philip de la Vache)

 

Flee from the crowd, and dwell with truthfulness,

Let your thing suffice, though it be small;

Hoarding brings hatred, climbing fickleness,

Praise brings envy, and wealth blinds overall;

Savour no more than ‘tis good that you recall;

Rule well yourself, who others advise here;

And truth shall deliver you, have no fear. 

 

Trouble you not the crooked to redress,

Trusting in her who wobbles like a ball.

Well-being rests on scorning busyness;

Beware therefore of kicking at an awl;

Strive not like the crockery with the wall.

Control yourself, who would control your peer;

And truth shall deliver you, have no fear.

 

That which is sent, receive in humbleness,

Wrestling for this world asks but a fall.

Here’s not your home, here is but wilderness.

Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beast, out of your stall!

Know your country: look up, thank God for all;

Hold the high way, and let your spirit steer,

And truth shall deliver you, have no fear.

 

Envoy

 

Therefore, La Vache, cease your old wretchedness;

To the world cease now to be in thrall;

Cry Him mercy, that out of his high goodness

Made thee from naught, on Him especially call,

Draw unto Him, and pray in general

For yourself, and others, for heavenly cheer;

And truth shall deliver you, have no fear.


Nobleness

 

Our first stock, the father of nobleness –

Whatever man desires nobility,

Must follow his footsteps, and his wits address

To loving virtue, and all vice must flee.

For to virtue belongs worth’s dignity,

And not the reverse, I safely claim,

Whether of mitre, crown or diadem.

 

Our first stock was full of righteousness,

True, sober, generous, and full of pity,

Pure in spirit, one who loved busyness,

To counter the vice of sloth, honourably;

And unless his heir loves virtue as did he,

He’s not noble though wealth be his and fame,

Whether of mitre, crown or diadem.

 

Vice may well be the heir to old riches;

But there is no man, as men well see,

Who can bequeath his heir his nobleness;

That is no degree’s sole property,

But is the first father’s in his majesty,

Who makes his heirs of those he does name,

Whether of mitre, crown or diadem.


Lack of Steadfastness

 

Once this world was so steadfast and so stable

That a man’s word was his obligation,

And now it is so false and mutable,

That word and deed, in their conclusion,

Are unalike, for so turned upside down

Is all this world, by gain and selfishness,

That all is lost for lack of steadfastness.

 

What makes this world of ours so variable

But the pleasure folk take in dissension?

Amongst us now a man is thought unable,

Unless he can, by some vile collusion,

Wrong his neighbour, or wreak his oppression.

What causes this but such wilful baseness,

That all is lost for lack of steadfastness?

 

Truth is put down: reason is held a fable;

Virtue has now no domination,

Pity is exiled, no man is merciful.

Through greed men blind discretion;

The world has made such a permutation

Of right to wrong, truth to fickleness,

That all is lose for lack of steadfastness.

 

Envoy (to King Richard II)

 

O Prince, desire to be honourable,

Cherish your folk, and hate extortion!

Order that nothing which may prove shameful

To your office, be done in your kingdom.

Show openly your sword of castigation,

Dread God: seek law, love truth and worthiness,

And wed your folk again to steadfastness.


To Rosamund

 

Madame, you are of all beauty the shrine

Within the circle of the mappamund;

For as the crystal glorious you shine,

And like ruby are your cheeks round.

And therewith you’re so merry and jocund

That at a revel when I see you dance,

It is a salve for my every wound,

Though you with me suffer no dalliance.

 

For though I fill a cask with tears of mine,

Yet that woe may my heart not confound;

Your demi-voice that so small you twine

Makes my thought with joy and bliss abound.

So courteously I go with love bound,

That to myself I say, in penance,

It suffices me to love you, Rosamund,

Though you with me suffer no dalliance.

 

Never did pike so wallow in galantine

As I in love do wallow, and am wound,

For which full oft I of myself divine

That I am truly Tristan the second.

My love will not grow cold or be unsound;

I burn with amorous pleasure, at every chance.

Do what you will, I will your thrall be found,

Though you with me suffer no dalliance.


Fickleness

 

(Attributed to Chaucer by Skeat)

 

Madame, through your new-fangled-ness,

Many a servant you have put out of grace.

I take my leave of your un-steadfastness,

Full well I know, while you fill life’s space,

You cannot love a half-year in one place.

To new things your desire is ever keen;

Instead of blue, thus may you wear all green.

 

Just as a mirror nothing may express,

Unless light as it comes it goes apace,

So fares your love, and your work bears witness.

There is no faith that may your heart embrace;

But, like a weathercock, that turns its face

With every wind, you fare, and it is seen;

Instead of blue, thus may you wear all green.

 

You could enshrine, as showing fickleness,

More than Delilah, Cressida, or Candace,

For ever in changing lies your stableness;

That defect from your heart none can erase.

If you lose one, two others you well purchase.

All light for summer, you know well what I mean,

Instead of blue, thus may you wear all green.


Merciless Beauty

 

(Merciles Beaute)

 

 

Your eyes two whole slay me suddenly;

I may the beauty of them not sustain

So wounds it, throughout my heart keen.

 

Unless your word will heal, all hastily,

My heart’s wound while it is yet green,

  Your eyes two whole slay me suddenly;

   I may the beauty of them not sustain.

 

By my truth, I tell you faithfully

That you are of my life and death the queen,

For at my death the truth shall be seen:

  Your eyes two whole slay me suddenly;

  I may the beauty of them not sustain,

  So wounds it throughout my heart keen.

 

So has your beauty from your heart chased

Pity, that it avails not to complain,

For Pride holds your mercy by a chain.

 

Though guiltless, my death you have purchased.

I tell you truly, needing not to feign,

  So has your beauty from your heart chased

  Pity, that it avails not to complain.

 

Alas, that Nature has in you placed

Such great beauty that no man may attain

To mercy though he die from the pain,

  So has your beauty from your heart chased

  Pity, that it avails not to complain,

  For Pride holds your mercy by a chain.


Since I’m from Love escaped yet so fat,

I never plan to be in his prison lean;

Since I am free, I count it not a bean.

 

He may answer and say this and that;

I care not: I’ll speak just as I mean.

  Since I’m from Love escaped yet so fat,

  I never plan to be in his prison lean.

 

Love strikes my name from his slate flat,

And he is struck out of my books clean

For evermore; my sole course it has been.

  Since I’m from Love escaped yet so fat,

  I never plan to be in his prison lean;

  Since I am free, I count it not a bean.


Notes:

1. Mappamund is mappa mundi, a map of the known world encircled by the ocean. Rosamund is rosa mundi, the rose of the world.

2. Merciless Beauty, one of the great glories of English poetry, is particularly difficult to translate without damage. I have chosen here, for the sake of clarity, to substitute eyes for eyen, thus losing some of the music, and to use the modern sustain replacing sustene thus destroying the strict rhyme.