Geoffrey Chaucer.

The poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized online

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" Nor have we any hold, Sir Shaven-crown,
On your fine flock, the ladies of the town."

" Peace, with a vengeance," quoth our Host, " and let
The tale be told. Say on, thou marmoset,
Thou lady's friar, and let the Sumner sniff."]

"Well," quoth the Friar; "this Sumner, this false
Had scouts in plenty ready to his hand,
Like any hawks, the sharpest in the land,
Watching their birds to pluck, each in his mew,
Who told him all the secrets that they knew,
And lured him game, and gat him wondrous profit ;
Exceeding little knew his master of it.
Sirs, he would go, without a writ, and take
Poor wretches up, feigning it for Christ's sake,
And threatening the poor people with his curse,
And all the while would let them fill his purse,
And to the alehouse bring him by degrees,
And then he'd drink with them, and slap his knees

198 the friar's tale; or,

For very mirth, and say 'twas some mistake.
Judas carried the bag, Sirs, for Christ's sake,
And was a thief; and such a thief was he.
His master got but sorry share, pardie.
To give due laud unto this Satan's imp,
He was a thief, a Sumner, and a pimp.

Wenches themselves were in his retinue ;
So whether 'twas Sir Robert, or Sir Hugh,
Or Jack, or Ralph, that held the damsel dear,
Come would she then, and tell it in his ear :
Thus were the wench and he of one accord ;
And he would feign a mandate from his lord,
And summon them before the court, those two,
And pluck the man, and let the mawkin go.
Then would he say, " Friend, for thine honest look,
I save thy name, this once, from the black book ;
Thou hear'st no further of this case." — But, Lord !
I might not in two years his bribes record.
There's not a dog alive, so speed my soul,
Knoweth a hurt deer better from a whole
Than this false Sumner knew a tainted sheep,
Or where this wretch would skulk, or that would sleep,
Or to fleece both was more devoutly bent ;
And reason good ; his faith was in his rent.


And so befell, that once upon a day,
This Sumner, prowling ever for his prey,
Rode forth to cheat a poor old widow' d soul,
Feigning a cause for lack of protocole,
And as he went, he saw before him ride
A yeoman gay under the forest side.
A bow he bare, and arrows bright and keen ;
And he was clad in a short cloak of green,
And wore a hat that had a fringe of black.

" Sir," quoth this Sumner, shouting at his back,
" Hail, and well met." — " Well met," like shouteth he ;
" Where ridest thou under the greenwood tree ?
Goest thou far, thou jolly boy, to-day ?"

This bully Sumner answer'd, and said, " Nay,
Only hard-by, to strain a rent." — " Hoh! hoh !
Art thou a bailiff then ?" — " Yea, even so."
For he durst not, for very filth and shame,
Say that he was a Sumner, for the name.

" Well met, in God's name," quoth black fringe ;
" why, brother,
Thou art a bailiff then, and I'm another ;
But I'm a stranger in these parts ; so, prythee,
Lend me thine aid, and let me journey with thee.
I've gold and silver, plenty, where I dwell ;

200 the friar's tale ; OR,

And if thou hap'st to come into our dell,
Lord ! how we'll do our best to give thee greeting ! "
" Thanks," quoth the Sumner ; " merry be our meet-
So in each other's hand their troths they lay,
And swear accord : and forth they ride and play.

This Sumner then, which was as full of stir,
And prate, and prying, as a woodpecker,
And ever enquiring upon every thing,
Said, " Brother, where is thine inhabiting,
In case I come to find thee out some day ?"

This yeoman dropp'd his speech in a soft way,
And said, " Far in the north*. But ere we part,
I trow thou shalt have learnt it so by heart,
Thou may'st not miss it, be it dark as pitch."

" Good," quoth the Sumner. " Now, as thou art
Show me, dear brother, riding thus with me,
Since we are bailiffs both, some subtlety,
How I may play my game best, and may win :

• The supposed quarter of the devils.


And spare not, pray, for conscience or for sin,
But, as my brother, tell me how do ye."

" Why, 'faith, to tell thee a plain tale," quoth he,
" As to my wages, they be poor enough ;
My lord's a dangerous master, hard and chuff;
And since my labour bringeth but abortion,
I live, so please ye, brother, by extortion.
I take what I can get ; that is my course ;
By cunning, if I may ; if not, by force ;
So cometh, year by year, my salary."
" Now certes," quoth the Sumner, " so fare I.
I lay my hands on every thing, God wot,
Unless it be too heavy or too hot.
What I may get in counsel, privily,
I feel no sort of qualm thereon, not I.
Extortion or starvation ; — that's my creed.
Repent who list. The best of saints must feed.
That's all the stomach that my conscience knoweth.
Curse on the ass, that to confession goeth.
Well be we met, 'Od's-heart ! and by my dame !
But tell me, brother dear, what is thy name ?"

Now ye must know, that right in this meanwhile,
This veoman 'aran a little for to smile.

202 the friar's tale ; OR,

" Brother," quoth he, " my name, if I must tell —
I am a fiend : my dwelling is in hell :
And here I ride about my fortuning-,
To wot if folk will give me any thing.
To that sole end ride I, and ridest thou ;
And, without pulling rein, will I ride now
To the world's end, ere I will lose a prey."

" God bless me," quoth the Sumner, " what d'ye say ?
I thought ye were a yeoman verily.
Ye have a man's shape, Sir, as well as I.
Have ye a shape then, pray, determinate
In hell, good Sir, where ye have your estate?"

"Nay, certainly," quoth he, "there have we none;
But whoso liketh it, he taketh one ;
And so we make folk think us what we please.
Sometimes we go like apes, sometimes like bees,
Like man, or angel, black dog, or black crow : —
Nor is it wondrous that it should be so.
A sorry juggler can bewilder thee ;
And 'faith, I think I know more craft than he."

" But why," inquir'd the Sumner, " must ye don
So many shapes, when ye might stick to one?"
" We suit the bait unto the fish," quoth he.


" And why," quoth t'other, " all this slavery ?"

" For many a cause, Sir Sumner," quoth the fiend ;

" But time is brief — the day will have an end ;

And here jog I, with nothing for my ride;

Catch we our fox, and let this theme abide :

For, brother mine, thy wit it is too small

To understand me, though I told thee all ;

And yet, as toucheth that same slavery,

A dev'l must do God's work, 'twixt you and me ;

For without him, albeit to our loathing,

Strong as we go, we devils can do nothing ;

Though to our prayers, sometimes, he giveth leave

Only the body, not the soul, to grieve.

Witness good Job, whom nothing could make wroth ;

And sometimes have we pow'r to harass both ;

And, then again, soul only is possest,

And body free ; and all is for the best.

Full many a sinner would have no salvation,

Gat it he not by standing our temptation :

Though God he knows, 'twas far from our intent

To save the man : — his howl was what we meant.

Nay, sometimes we be servants to our foes :

Witness the saint that pull'd my master's nose ;

And to the apostle servant eke was I."

204 the friar's tale ; or,

" Yet tell me," quoth this Sumner, " faithfully,
Are the new shapes ye take for your intents
Fresh every time, and wrought of elements ?"

" Nay," quoth the fiend, " sometimes they be dis-
guises ;
And sometimes in a corpse a devil rises,
And speaks as sensibly, and fair, and well,
As did the Pythoness to Samuel :
And yet will some men say, it was not he !
Lord help, say I, this world's divinity.
Of one thing make thee sure ; that thou shalt know,
Before we part, the shapes we wear below.
Thou shalt — I jest thee not — the Lord forbid !
Thou shalt know more than ever Virgil did,
Or Dante's self. So let us on, sweet brother,
And stick, like right warm souls, to one another :
I'll never quit thee, till thou quittest me."

" Nay," quoth the Sumner, " that can never be ;
I am a man well known, respectable ;
And though thou wert the very lord of hell,
Hold thee I should as mine own plighted brother :
Doubt not we'll stick right fast, each to the other :
And, as we think alike, so will we thrive :


We twain will be the merriest devils alive.

Take thou what's giv'n ; for that's thy mode, God wot ;

And I will take, whether 'tis giv'n or not.

And if that either winneth more than t'other,

Let him be true, and share it with his brother."

" Done," quoth the fiend, whose eyes in secret

glow'd ;
And with that word they prick'd along the road :
And soon it fell, that ent'ring the town's end,
To which this Sumner shap'd him for to wend,
They saw a cart that loaded was with hay,
The which a carter drove forth on his way.
Deep was the mire, and sudden the cart stuck :
The carter, like a madman, smote and struck,
And cried, " Heit, Scot ; heit, Brock ! what ! is't the

stones ?
The dev'l clean fetch ye both, body and bones :
Must I do nought but bawl and swinge all dav ?
Dev'l take the whole — horse, harness, cart, and hay."

The Sumner whisper'd to the fiend, "F faith,
We have it here. Hear'st thou not what he saith ?
Take it anon, for he hath giv'n it thee,
Live stock and dead, hay, cart, and horses three !"

206 the friar's tale ; OR,

" Nay," quoth the fiend, " not so ; — the deuce a bit.
He sayeth ; but, alas ! not meaneth it :
Ask him thyself, if thou believ'st not me ;
Or else be still awhile, and thou shalt see."

Thwacketh the man his horses on the croup,
And they begin to draw now, and to stoop.
" Heit there," quoth he ; " heit, heit ; ah, matthy wo.
Lord love their hearts ! how prettily they go !
That was well twitch'd, methinks, mine own grey boy :
I pray God save thy body, and Saint Eloy.
Now is my cart out of the slough, pardie."

" There," quoth the fiend unto the Sumner ; " see,
I told thee how 'twould fall. Thou seest, dear brother,
The churl spoke one thing, but he thought another.
Let us prick on, for we take nothing here."

And when from out the town they had got clear,
The Sumner said, " Here dwelleth an old witch,
That had as lief be tumbled in a ditch
And break her neck, as part with an old penny.
Nathless her twelve pence is as good as any,
And I will have it, though she lose her wits ;
Or else I'll cite her with a score of writs :


And yet, God wot, I know of her no vice.

So learn of me, Sir Fiend : thou art too nice."

The Sumner clappeth at the widow's gate.
M Come out," he saith, " thou hag, thou quiver-pate ;
I trow thou hast some friar or priest with thee."

" Who clappeth ?" said this wife ; " ah, what say ye ?
God save ye, masters : what is your sweet will ?"

" I have," said he, " of summons here a bill :
Take care, on pain of cursing, that thou be
To-morrow morn, before the Archdeacon's knee,
To answer to the court of certain things."

" Now, Lord," quoth she, " sweet Jesu, King of
So help me, as I cannot, Sirs, nor may :
I have been sick, and that full many a day.
I may not walk such distance, nay, nor ride,
But I be dead, so pricketh it my side.
Lo ! how I cough and quiver when I stir ! —
May I not ask some worthy officer
To speak for me, to what the bill may say ?"

" Yea, certainly," this Sumner said, " ye may,
On paying — let me see — twelve pence anon.


208 the friar's tale ; OR,

Small profit cometh to myself thereon :

My master hath the profit, and not I.

Come — twelve pence, mother — count it speedily,

And let me ride : I may no longer tarry."

"Twelve pence!" quoth she; "now may the sweet
Saint Mary
So wisely help me out of care and sin,
As in this wide world, though I sold my skin,
I could not scrape up twelve pence, for my life.
Ye know too well I am a poor old wife :
Give alms, for the Lord's sake, to me, poor wretch."

" Nay, if I quit thee then," quoth he, " devil fetch
Mvself, although thou starve for it, and rot."
" Alas !" quoth she, "the pence I have 'em not."
" Pay me," quoth he, " or by the sweet Saint Anne,
I'll bear away thy staff and thy new pan
For the old debt thou ow'st me for that fee,
Which out of pocket I discharg'd for thee,
When thou didst make thy husband an old stag."
" Thou liest," quoth she ; "So leave me never a rag,
As I was never yet, widow nor wife,
Summonsed before your court in all my life,
Nor never of mv bodv was untrue.


Unto the devil, rough and black of hue,
Give I thy body, and the pan to boot."

And when this devil heard her give the brute
Thus in his charge, he stoop' d into her ear,
And said, "Now, Mabily, my mother dear,
Is this your will in earnest that ye say ?"

"The dev'l," quoth she, " so fetch him clean away,
Soul, pan, and all, unless that he repent."

" Repent !" the Sumner cried ; " pay up your rent,
Old fool ; and don't stand preaching here to me.
I would I had thy whole inventory,
The smock from off thy back, and every cloth."

" Now, brother," quoth the devil, " be not wroth ;
Thy body and this pan be mine by right,
And thou shalt straight to hell with me to night,
Where thou shalt know what sort of folk we be,
Better than Oxford university."

And with that word the fiend him swept below,
Body and soul. He went where Sumners go.






• Rejoice, ye lovers, in the morning gray !
Lo, Venus rises in the whispering reeds ;
And flowers renew your homage to the day,
Waking in beauty o'er the upland meads :
But ye, whose trembling passion vainly pleads,
Fly hence in fear, lest wicked tongues be nigh —
Yonder's the Sun — the torch of jealousy !


' With falling tears, and with a wounded heart,
Take your sad leave ; but hope from patience borrow,
And let the knowledge soothe your aching smart,
That a time cometh which shall end your sorrow ;
For the glad night is worth a heavy morrow.'
Thus sang a bird, Saint Valentine, what time,
Thy natal day was in its early prime.



' Yet,' sang this bird, ' I counsel every one

To chaste fidelity ; ye who repent

The ambitious choice ye've set your hearts upon,

Renew your service ere the day is spent ;

And ye who've chosen to your hearts' content,

Confirm your choice in perpetuity,

And wait upon the issue patiently.

' And, for the grace of this high festival,
Will I, bird-fashion, sing the sad Complaint
Of lusty Mars, and how one morn it fell
That sorrowing from Venus' side he went,
Like one with sudden grief and frenzy rent,
When Phoebus rose upon the lovers' sight,
Searching all places with his fiery light.


' Whilome the three celestial lords above

'Tis said, in course of heavenly progression,

As by desert, had won fair Venus' love ;

And she hath now brought Mara to such submission,

That, like a mistress teaching him his lesson,

Commandeth him, doth she, on no pretence,

With paramour of hers to take offence.



• For she forbade him jealousy at all,

And cruelty, and pride, and tyranny ;

And so at last reduced him in her thrall,

That, when she deigned on him to cast her eye,

He was all patience or to live or die ;

And thus she bridleth him with harsh rebukes,

And nothing but caprice and scornful looks.

1 Who reigneth now in bliss but Venus fair,
That hath this worthy knight in servitude ?
Who singeth now but Mars her beauty rare,
Whose joys voluptuous tingle through his blood ?
And thus to her eternal love he vowed,
While she, responding to his passionate oath,
Repaid him with a pledge of constant truth.


' United thus, and reigning like two stars
Jn heaven serene, it chanced upon a tide
That, by a secret loving compact, Mars
Was, at a certain time, to meet his bride
Within a neighbouring palace, there to abide
Until her following steps should his o'ertake,
He praying her to hasten for his sake.



' My heart is thine, said he, my lady sweet,

And well thou know'st the dangers of that place ;

For, waiting there alone until we meet,

M y life is held 'twixt accident and grace ;

But when I see the beauty of your face,

No thought of death can enter where thou art,

For thy sweet presence soothes and fills my heart.

' Now she hath such compassion for her knight,
Who waited for her in that solitude,
Where no kind friends consoled him in his plight,
Or with a welcome cheered his dreary mood,
That it o'ercame her tender womanhood ;
And she sped swiftly forth, and reached the place
In half the time consumed in his slow pace.


' The rapture of that meeting, and the joy

That filled their hearts and eyes, no tongue may tell

Nor on the fervid pleasures that employ

Their secret hours, let prying fancy dwell :

Enough that Mars, who doth all knights excel,

The Flower of Fairness wins in all her charms,

And Venus blesseth Mars, the god of arms.



' Secluded in a chamber privily,

Sojourned Mars in that serene retreat

A certain time ; when on a sudden he

Heard Phoebus bursting through the palace-gate,

In motion sturdy and precipitate,

With naming torch in hand, which, streaming bright,

On Venus' chamber cast a flood of light.

' This inner chamber, where the fair Queen lay,
Was painted round by art elaborate
With milk-white bulls, that caught the burning ray
Which swiftly must consume them in its heat.
This silly Venus wept disconsolate,
And cried, embracing Mars, ' I faint, expire!
The torch is come that sets the world on fire.'

' Up started Mars, who listed not to sleep,
When that he heard his lady so complain,
But, for his nature was too strong to weep,
Instead of tears, light flashed from his eyes twain, —
The fiery sparkles springing out for pain ;
And, catching up his hauberk at his side,
He would not fly, whatever might betide.



' He throweth on his helmet of huge weight,
And girt him with his sword, and in his hand
His mighty spear, as he was wont to fight,
Which shaketh in his seizure like a wand.
Full heavy was he to walk over land,
So must not bear sweet Venus company,
But, to escape from Phoebus, bade her fly.


' O woeful Mars, thou must thy fate arraign

That in the palace of thy happiness

Art left behind in peril to be slain :

And yet a greater grief thy thoughts oppress,

For she that hath thy valiant heart, alas !

Is lost to thee ; nor in thy utmost need

Canst thou discover whither she hath fled.

■ Now flieth Venus to Ciclinius' tower,
Trying with baffling turns to avoid the light ;
But succour there is none for that fair flower,
The lonely building is deserted quite ;
And she, exhausted both by fear and flight,
With fluttering pulse, herself to hide and save,
Within the urate seeks shelter in a cave.



' Dark was this cave, with stifling atmosphere

Of smoke, though close beside the gate it stood.

In darkness, for a day, I leave her there,

And turn to Mars, who, in his furious mood

Of sorrow, would have shed his own heart's blood

To be with her in her extremity ;

For which dear guerdon he would gladly die.

' Between the sweltering heat and raging pain,
He grew so feeble, that he scarce could bear
For two long days that rack of nerve and brain :
Then, though his mail was burthensome to wear,
He left the flaming place, to follow her
At whose departure he took greater ire,
Than he had felt for burning in the fire.


1 When he had softly walked a pace or two,
Complaining so that pity 'twas to hear,
He said, O lady bright, alas, I rue
That e'er so wide a compass was rny sphere !
Alas ! when shall I meet thee, Venus dear ?
This twelfth of April, I endure for thee,
Through jealous Phoebus, all this misery!



• Now God help silly Venus all alone !
But as God willed it, so it was to be,

That while that weeping 1 Venus made her moan.

Ciclinius, riding in his chivalry,

Did happily the forlorn lady see ;

And to her giveth welcome and sweet cheer,

Receiving Venus as his friend full dear.


• Mars dwelleth forth in his adversity.
For her departure ever sorrowing;

What his complaint was, as rememhereth me.
I. to this lusty morning murmuring,
With the best skill I can command, will sing,
And. when my song is done, my leave I'll take,
And God give joy to all for their love's sake.'



The order of complaint should skilful be,

That if a wight shall sorrow piteously,

There must be cause whereof he doth complain ;

Or men may blame him for simplicity

And foolishness. Alas! such am not I ;

Wherefore the ground and source of all my pain,

As clearly as I can with troubled brain,

I will rehearse ; not hoping for redress,

But to declare the cause of mv distress.



When first this image on my heart was wrought,
And I, for certain ends, was hither brought,
By Him who ruleth all intelligence,
I rendered my true service and my thought
For evermore — how dearly it was bought ! —
To her who is of such great excellence,
That he who rashly giveth her offence
When she is wroth, and yieldeth him no cure,
No longer may the joys of love endure.

This is no feigned matter that I tell ;
My lady is the very spring and well
Of beauty, gentleness, and liberty ;
Her rich array, a costly miracle ;
Her radiant spirits, playing like a spell,
All love and mirth and benign courtesy
Her voice, a swoon of sweetest melody
Of melting instruments ; and all refined
By universal grace to charm mankind.



What wonder is it then that I should vow
Eternal servitude through weal and woe
To one whose might controls my destiny ?
Therefore my heart to her in worship low
I dedicate, nor would I death forego
Her truest knight and servitor to be.
The world may know this is not flattery,
For this day I renounce my life, to prove,
In hopeless absence, my immortal love.


To whom shall I complain of my distress ?

Who may relieve me, who my heart redress ?

Shall I complain unto my lady free ?

Oh, no ! for she hath such great heaviness

Of very fear and woe, that, as I guess,

In little time it would her death-doom be ;

But, were she safe, no moan should come from me.

Alas ! that lovers always must partake

Such perilous adventures for love's sake !



For, notwithstanding lovers be as true
As any metal that is forged new,
Their tempers must submit to many trials :
Sometimes their ladies no compassion show,
Sometimes in jealousy they wrong them too,
Wounding their faith with crosses and denials ;
And sometimes Envy pours its poisoned phials
On their fair names. If such be true love's case,
He who is false may never hope for peace.


But what availeth such a long relation
Of the vext life and wilfulness of Passion ?
1 will return and linger with my pain ;
This is the story of my desolation —
My lady true, and my most dear salvation,
Is in a strait, where she laments in vain.
O lost sweet heart, O lady sovereign !
For thy distress I well might wail and die,
Though from all other sorrows I were free.


To what end made the God who sits on high
Beneath him other love than heavenly,
Constraining men to love, whate'er bestead ?
Since that their joy, for all I can espy,
Endureth not the twinkling of an eye ;
While some have never joy till they be dead.
What meaneth this ? what is this mystery dread.
Whereto compelleth He the world so fast,
Things to desire and love that cannot last ?


And though He made a lover love a thing
Which seemeth stedfast, no change harbouring,
Yet doth he charge it with a power malign
To kill repose — that gift bewildering !
Is it not wondrous that so just a King
To pangs like these his creatures should consign ?
Thus whether love to last or break incline,
'Tis certain he to whom its power is known,
Hath oftener woe than changed is the moon.




'Twould seem he lovers holds in enmity,

And like an angler, as we daily see,

Baiteth his hook with some delicious lure,

Which the poor fish pursueth eagerly,

Wild with impetuous longing, till he be

Of his desire too fatally secure,

And with it misery beyond all cure ;

For though the line break, yet the wound's so sore,

That he his wages hath for evermore.

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Online LibraryGeoffrey ChaucerThe poems of Geoffrey Chaucer modernized → online text (page 14 of 18)