Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April Is for Chaucer

I’ve discovered Poetry Daily, which is sending out a poem of the day during National Poetry Month as part of a fund-raising project for the site’s work. Poets select older poems and offer commentary…which is always helpful when one is contemplating Chaucer.

Here’s today’s pick, selected by Elise Partridge, who was at VCCA with me. I recently bought her new collection, Chameleon Hours, and it is amazing. To read some of Elise’s poems, you can go here (Writer’s Almanac) or here (Washington Post’s "Poet’s Choice" column).

As for Chaucer and what all those unspell-checkable words mean….read on!

Balade de Bon Conseyl
by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Fle fro the prees, and dwelle with sothfastness,
Suffise unto thy good, though it be smal;
For hord hath hate, and clymbyng tykelnesse,
Prees hath envye, and wele blent over-al;
Savour no more than thee bihove shal;
Reule wel thyself, that other folk canst rede;
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

Tempest thee nought al croked to redresse,
In trust of hir that turneth as a bal:
Gret reste stant in litel besynesse;
Be war also to spurne ayeyns an al;
Stryve not, as doth the crokke with the wal.
Daunte thyself, that dauntest otheres dede;
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

That thee is sent, receyve in buxumnesse;
The wrestling for this world axeth a fal.
Here is non home, here nis but wyldernesse:
Forth, pilgrym, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!
Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al;
Hold the heye wey, and lat thy gost thee lede;
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

Therfore, thou Vache, leve thine old wrechedenesse;
Unto the world leve now to be thral;
Crie him mercy, that of his hye godnesse
Made thee of nought, and in especial
Draw unto him, and pray in general
For thee, and eek for other, hevenlych mede;
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

Elise Partridge Comments:
This poem has been a favorite of mine for many years because it combines wisdom with humor, and may also have been written to cheer and encourage a friend. I first heard it read aloud one night at dinner by one of my own friends; a few weeks later, I signed up for my first course in medieval literature. W. H. Auden once suggested that one good reason for taking English courses was to get needed assistance with poets such as Milton or Chaucer; I was lucky enough to have a wonderfully undogmatic professor who made The Canterbury Tales my happiest literary discovery at college.

Sympathy for and generosity toward his fellow human beings are marked features of Chaucer’s poetry, and one scholar has proposed that these qualities could have motivated this lyric too. According to Edith Rickert, “Trouthe” was addressed to a friend of Chaucer’s, Sir Philip la Vache (1346-1408), who, though successful and wealthy, may have suffered setbacks at some point, to which this poem responds. “Trouthe”’s advocacy of austerity and self-discipline draws on the work of the Roman Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in 524 AD when he was imprisoned awaiting execution. Like other medieval writers, Chaucer conveys a Boethian rejection of worldliness in a Christian context.

As readers familiar with him will recall, Chaucer used the rhyme royal stanza frequently, both in some of his longer works and in lyrics like this one. The rhyme has helped various sections stay in my memory, and they’ve returned to me often, for example when I’ve gone through difficult times or witnessed others struggling.

“Trouthe” exhorts its readers to depart “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”; dwell with truthfulness and, have no fear, it will deliver you. Let what you have suffice, even if it’s meager, because piling things up and hoarding them involves a kind of hatred. (The Variorum Chaucer explains that the expression “Suffise unto thy good” comes from a Latin proverb—“Si res tue tibi non sufficiant, fac ut rebus tuis sufficias”: If your possessions are not sufficient for you, make yourself sufficient for your possessions.) Rank ambition is a ticklish thing; envy abounds. Prosperity can blind; don’t indulge a taste for more than behooves you. Govern yourself well, so you can advise others well (Vache, a powerful man, apparently bore many responsibilities). Don’t rush around frantically trying to fix everything that’s wrong with the world; fortune changes so constantly that it’s na├»ve to expect your repair-work to last. Don’t invest in futile battles that will be as productive as tussling with an awl, or bickering like a crock with a wall. Whatever you’re given, receive it in humility. Wrestling for things of this world is asking for “a fal[l]”.

But Chaucer doesn’t recommend simply withdrawing and giving up; far from it. “Forth, pilgrym, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!” (Many scholars see a pun here on Vache’s last name, French for “cow.”) “Know thy contree”—one scholar glosses this as “know [your] proper sphere”; take the high road, and let your conscience lead you.

As I’ve paraphrased it, of course, all this might sound about as welcome as a Polonius lecture. But Chaucer’s jokes keep the tone light, even as the sturdiness of the stanza and the refrain help make the advice memorable.

The fourth stanza strikes me as somewhat colorless, lacking the appealing imagery and wit of the first three. In other poems where Chaucer uses an envoy, such as "Complaint to his Purse," this section can also seem rather bland. In the French balades which are models for this poem, it was conventional for the concluding envoy to address a patron or other recipient, and/or to provide a summary of the poem's content.

As Chaucer readers know, we can’t be sure how medieval English was pronounced, but what evidence we have suggests that long “i”’s (which can also be written in Middle English as “y”) were pronounced like long “e”’s, and long “e”’s like the long “a” in “day.” Chaucer’s long “a,” in turn, is like the “a” in “father.” “Ou” is pronounced like the vowel in “goo,” and “oo” somewhat like that in “go.” (Modern versions of Chaucer's words are your best guide to which vowels are long; vowels that are long in the modern words usually will be long also in Middle English.) In addition, the short “u” in “but,” for example, is like the vowel in the modern “put,” rather than that in "putt." Explanations like this, though, are cumbersome; if you would like to download an MP3 sound file of the poem being read in Middle English by a Chaucer scholar, please go to the following link:


About Elise Partridge:
Elise Partridge's first book, Fielder’s Choice, was published in 2002. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, the New Republic, and elsewhere. A dual citizen of the United States and Canada, she has taught literature and writing at several universities and currently works as an editor and tutor.

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