William Wordsworth.

The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth — Volume 2 online

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"Rydal Mount, January 13th, 1841," Wordsworth said:

"So great is my admiration of Chaucer's genius, and so profound my
reverence for him as an instrument in the hands of Providence, for
spreading the light of literature through his native land, that
notwithstanding the defects and faults in this publication"
(referring, I presume, to the volume, 'The Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer
Modernised'), "I am glad of it, as a means of making many acquainted
with the original, who would otherwise be ignorant of everything about
him but his name."


* * * * *


Translated 1801. [A] - Published 1820

"Call up him who left half told
The story of Cambuscan bold." [B]

In the following Piece I have allowed myself no farther deviations from
the original than were necessary for the fluent reading, and instant
understanding, of the Author: so much however is the language altered
since Chaucer's time, especially in pronunciation, that much was to be
removed, and its place supplied with as little incongruity as possible.
The ancient accent has been retained in a few conjunctions, such as
_also_ and _alway_, from a conviction that such sprinklings of antiquity
would be admitted, by persons of taste, to have a graceful accordance
with the subject. - W. W. (1820).

The fierce bigotry of the Prioress forms a fine back ground for her
tender-hearted sympathies with the Mother and Child; and the mode in
which the story is told amply atones for the extravagance of the
miracle. - W. W. (added in 1827).

In the editions of 1820 and 1827 'The Prioress' Tale' followed 'The
White Doe of Rylstone'. In 1832 it followed the "Inscriptions"; and in
1836 it was included among the "Poems founded on the Affections." In
1845 it found its appropriate place in the "Selections from Chaucer
modernised." - Ed.

I "O Lord, our Lord! how wondrously," (quoth she)
"Thy name in this large world is spread abroad!
For not alone by men of dignity
Thy worship is performed and precious laud;
But by the mouths of children, gracious God! 5
Thy goodness is set forth; they when they lie
Upon the breast thy name do glorify.

II "Wherefore in praise, the worthiest that I may,
Jesu! of thee, and the white Lily-flower
Which did thee bear, and is a Maid for aye, 10
To tell a story I will use my power;
Not that I may increase her honour's dower,
For she herself is honour, and the root
Of goodness, next her Son, our soul's best boot.

III "O Mother Maid! O Maid and Mother free! 15
O bush unburnt! burning in Moses' sight!
That down didst ravish from the Deity,
Through humbleness, the spirit that did alight
Upon thy heart, whence, through that glory's might,
Conceived was the Father's sapience, 20
Help me to tell it in thy reverence!

IV "Lady! thy goodness, thy magnificence,
Thy virtue, and thy great humility,
Surpass all science and all utterance;
For sometimes, Lady! ere men pray to thee 25
Thou goest before in thy benignity,
The light to us vouchsafing of thy prayer,
To be our guide unto thy Son so dear.

V "My knowledge is so weak, O blissful Queen!
To tell abroad thy mighty worthiness, 30
That I the weight of it may not sustain;
But as a child of twelvemonths old or less,
That laboureth his language to express,
Even so fare I; and therefore, I thee pray,
Guide thou my song which I of thee shall say. 35

VI "There was in Asia, in a mighty town,
'Mong Christian folk, a street where Jews might be,
Assigned to them and given them for their own
By a great Lord, for gain and usury,
Hateful to Christ and to his company; 40
And through this street who list might ride and wend;
Free was it, and unbarred at either end.

VII "A little school of Christian people stood
Down at the farther end, in which there were
A nest of children come of Christian blood, 45
That learnèd in that school from year to year
Such sort of doctrine as men used there,
That is to say, to sing and read also,
As little children in their childhood do.

VIII "Among these children was a Widow's son, 50
A little scholar, scarcely seven years old, [C]
Who day by day unto this school hath gone,
And eke, when he the image did behold
Of Jesu's Mother, as he had been told,
This Child was wont to kneel adown and say 55
_Ave Marie_, as he goeth by the way.

IX "This Widow thus her little Son hath taught
Our blissful Lady, Jesu's Mother dear,
To worship aye, and he forgat it not;
For simple infant hath a ready ear. 60
Sweet is the holiness of youth: and hence,
Calling to mind this matter when I may,
Saint Nicholas in my presence standeth aye,
For he so young to Christ did reverence. [D]

X "This little Child, while in the school he sate 65
His Primer conning with an earnest cheer, [E]
The whilst the rest their anthem-book repeat
The _Alma Redemptoris_ did he hear;
And as he durst he drew him near and near,
And hearkened to the words and to the note, 70
Till the first verse he learned it all by rote.

XI "This Latin knew he nothing what it said,
For he too tender was of age to know;
But to his comrade he repaired, and prayed
That he the meaning of this song would show, 75
And unto him declare why men sing so;
This oftentimes, that he might be at ease,
This child did him beseech on his bare knees.

XII "His Schoolfellow, who elder was than he,
Answered him thus: - 'This song, I have heard say, 80
Was fashioned for our blissful Lady free;
Her to salute, and also her to pray
To be our help upon our dying day:
If there is more in this, I know it not:
Song do I learn, - small grammar I have got.' 85

XIII "'And is this song fashioned in reverence
Of Jesu's Mother?' said this Innocent;
'Now, certès, I will use my diligence
To con it all ere Christmas-tide be spent;
Although I for my Primer shall be shent, 90
And shall be beaten three times in an hour,
Our Lady I will praise with all my power.'

XIV "His Schoolfellow, whom he had so besought,
As they went homeward taught him privily
And then he sang it well and fearlessly, 95
From word to word according to the note:
Twice in a day it passèd through his throat;
Homeward and schoolward whensoe'er he went,
On Jesu's Mother fixed was his intent.

XV "Through all the Jewry (this before said I) 100
This little Child, as he came to and fro,
Full merrily then would he sing and cry,
O _Alma Redemptoris!_ high and low:
The sweetness of Christ's Mother piercèd so
His heart, that her to praise, to her to pray, 105
He cannot stop his singing by the way.

XVI "The Serpent, Satan, our first foe, that hath
His wasp's nest in Jew's heart, upswelled - 'O woe,
O Hebrew people!' said he in his wrath,
'Is it an honest thing? Shall this be so? 110
That such a Boy where'er he lists [1] shall go
In your despite, and sing his hymns and saws,
Which is against the reverence of our laws!'

XVII "From that day forward have the Jews conspired
Out of the world this Innocent to chase; 115
And to this end a Homicide they hired,
That in an alley had a privy place,
And, as the Child 'gan to the school to pace,
This cruel Jew him seized, and held him fast
And cut his throat, and in a pit him cast. 120

XVIII "I say that him into a pit they threw,
A loathsome pit, whence noisome scents exhale;
O cursèd folk! away, ye Herods new!
What may your ill intentions you avail?
Murder will out; certès it will not fail; 125
Know, that the honour of high God may spread,
The blood cries out on your accursèd deed.

XIX "O Martyr 'stablished in virginity!
Now may'st thou sing for aye before the throne,
Following the Lamb celestial," quoth she, 130
"Of which the great Evangelist, Saint John,
In Patmos wrote, who saith of them that go
Before the Lamb singing continually,
That never fleshly woman they did know.

XX "Now this poor widow waiteth all that night 135
After her little Child, and he came not;
For which, by earliest glimpse of morning light,
With face all pale with dread and busy thought,
She at the School and elsewhere him hath sought,
Until thus far she learned, that he had been 140
In the Jews' street, and there he last was seen.

XXI "With Mother's pity in her breast enclosed
She goeth, as she were half out of her mind,
To every place wherein she hath supposed
By likelihood her little Son to find; 145
And ever on Christ's Mother meek and kind
She cried, till to the Jewry she was brought,
And him among the accursèd Jews she sought.

XXII "She asketh, and she piteously doth pray
To every Jew that dwelleth in that place 150
To tell her if her child had passed that way;
They all said - Nay; but Jesu of his grace
Gave to her thought, that in a little space
She for her Son in that same spot did cry
Where he was cast into a pit hard by. 155

XXIII "O thou great God that dost perform thy laud
By mouths of Innocents, lo! here thy might;
This gem of chastity, this emerald,
And eke of martyrdom this ruby bright,
There, where with mangled throat he lay upright, 160
The _Alma Redemptoris_ 'gan to sing
So loud, that with his voice the place did ring.

XXIV "The Christian folk that through the Jewry went
Come to the spot in wonder at the thing;
And hastily they for the Provost sent; 165
Immediately he came, not tarrying,
And praiseth Christ that is our heavenly King,
And eke his Mother, honour of Mankind:
Which done, he bade that they the Jews should bind.

XXV "This Child with piteous lamentation then 170
Was taken up, singing his song alwày;
And with procession great and pomp of men
To the next Abbey him they bare away;
His Mother swooning by the body [2] lay:
And scarcely could the people that were near 175
Remove this second Rachel from the bier.

XXVI "Torment and shameful death to every one
This Provost doth for those bad Jews prepare
That of this murder wist, and that anon:
Such wickedness his judgments cannot spare; 180
Who will do evil, evil shall he bear;
Them therefore with wild horses did he draw,
And after that he hung them by the law.

XXVII "Upon his bier this Innocent doth lie
Before the altar while the Mass doth last: 185
The Abbot with his convent's company
Then sped themselves to bury him full fast;
And, when they holy water on him cast,
Yet spake this Child when sprinkled was the water;
And sang, O _Alma Redemptoris Mater!_ 190

XXVIII "This Abbot, for he was a holy man,
As all Monks are, or surely ought to be, [3]
In supplication to the Child began
Thus saying, 'O dear Child! I summon thee
In virtue of the holy Trinity 195
Tell me the cause why thou dost sing this hymn,
Since that thy throat is cut, as it doth seem.'

XXIX "'My throat is cut unto the bone, I trow,'
Said this young Child, 'and by the law of kind
I should have died, yea many hours ago; 200
But Jesus Christ, as in the books ye find,
Will that his glory last, and be in mind;
And, for the worship of his Mother dear,
Yet may I sing, _O Alma!_ loud and clear.

XXX "'This well of mercy, Jesu's Mother sweet, 205
After my knowledge I have loved alwày;
And in the hour when I my death did meet
To me she came, and thus to me did say,
"Thou in thy dying sing this holy lay,"
As ye have heard; and soon as I had sung 210
Methought she laid a grain upon my tongue.

XXXI "'Wherefore I sing, nor can from song refrain,
In honour of that blissful Maiden free,
Till from my tongue off-taken is the grain;
And after that thus said she unto me; 215
"My little Child, then will I come for thee
Soon as the grain from off thy tongue they take:
Be not dismayed, I will not thee forsake!"'

XXXII "This holy Monk, this Abbot - him mean I,
Touched then his tongue, and took away the grain; 220
And he gave up the ghost full peacefully;
And, when the Abbot had this wonder seen,
His salt tears trickled down like showers of rain;
And on his face he dropped upon the ground,
And still he lay as if he had been bound. 225

XXXIII "Eke the whole Convent on the pavement lay,
Weeping and praising Jesu's Mother dear;
And after that they rose, and took their way,
And lifted up this Martyr from the bier,
And in a tomb of precious marble clear 230
Enclosed his uncorrupted body sweet. - [F]
Where'er he be, God grant us him to meet!

XXXIV "Young Hew of Lincoln! in like sort laid low
By cursèd Jews - thing well and widely known,
For it was done a little while ago - [4] 235
Pray also thou for us, while here we tarry
Weak sinful folk, that God, with pitying eye,
In mercy would his mercy multiply
On us, for reverence of his Mother Mary!"

* * * * *


[Variant 1:


... list ... 1820.]

[Variant 2:


... by the Bier ... 1820.]

[Variant 3:


This Abbot who had been a holy man
And was, as all Monks are, or ought to be, [a] 1820.]

[Variant 4:


For not long since was dealt the cruel blow, 1820.]

* * * * *


[Footnote A:

"Friday, 4th December 1801.... William translating 'The Prioress'

"Saturday, 5th. William finished 'The Prioress' Tale', and after tea,
Mary and he wrote it out"

(Dorothy Wordsworth's Journal). - Ed.]

[Footnote B: See 'Il Penseroso', l. 110. - Ed.]

[Footnote C: Chaucer's phrase is "a litel clergeon," Wordsworth's, "a
little scholar;" but "clergeon" is a chorister, not a scholar. - Ed.]

[Footnote D:

"Chaucer's text is:

'Thus hath this widow her litel child i-taught
Our blissful lady, Criste's moder deere,
To worschip ay, and he forgat it nought;
For sely child wil alway soone leere.'

'For sely child wil alway soone leere,' i.e. for a happy child will
always learn soon. Wordsworth renders:

'For simple infant hath a ready ear,'

and adds:

'Sweet is the holiness of youth,'

extending the stanza to receive this addition from seven to eight
lines, with an altered rhyme-system."

(Professor Edward Dowden, in the 'Transactions of the Wordsworth
Society', No. III.) - Ed.]

[Footnote E: Chaucer's text is:

'This litel child his litel book lernynge
As he sat in the schole in his primere.'


[Footnote F: Chaucer's text is:

'And in a tombe of marble stoones clere
Enclosed they this litel body swete.'


* * * * *


[Sub-Footnote a: This was erased in the 'Errata' of 1820, but it
may be reproduced here. - Ed.]

* * * * *


Translated 1801. [A] - Published 1841 [B]

I The God of Love - _ah, benedicite!_
How mighty and how great a Lord is he!
For he of low hearts can make high, of high
He can make low, and unto death bring nigh;
And hard hearts he can make them kind and free. [1] 5

II Within a little time, as hath been found,
He can make sick folk whole and fresh and sound:
Them who are whole in body and in mind,
He can make sick, - bind can he and unbind
All that he will have bound, or have unbound. 10

III To tell his might my wit may not suffice;
Foolish men he can make them out of wise; -
For he may do all that he will devise;
Loose livers he can make abate their vice,
And proud hearts can make tremble in a trice. 15

IV In brief, the whole of what he will, he may;
Against him dare not any wight say nay;
To humble or afflict whome'er he will,
To gladden or to grieve, he hath like skill;
But most his might he sheds on the eve of May. 20

V For every true heart, gentle heart and free,
That with him is, or thinketh so to be,
Now against May shall have some stirring - whether
To joy, or be it to some mourning; never
At other time, methinks, in like degree. 25

VI For now when they may hear the small birds' song,
And see the budding leaves the branches throng,
This unto their remembrance doth bring
All kinds of pleasure mix'd with sorrowing;
And longing of sweet thoughts that ever long. 30

VII And of that longing heaviness doth come,
Whence oft great sickness grows of heart and home;
Sick are they all for lack of their desire;
And thus in May their hearts are set on fire,
So that they burn forth in great martyrdom. 35

VIII In sooth, I speak from feeling, what though now
Old am I, and to genial pleasure slow;
Yet have I felt of sickness through the May,
Both hot and cold, and heart-aches every day, -
How hard, alas! to bear, I only know. 40

IX Such shaking doth the fever in me keep
Through all this May that I have little sleep;
And also 'tis not likely unto me,
That any living heart should sleepy be
In which Love's dart its fiery point doth steep. 45

X But tossing lately on a sleepless bed,
I of a token thought which Lovers heed;
How among them it was a common tale,
That it was good to hear the Nightingale,
Ere the vile Cuckoo's note be utterèd. 50

XI And then I thought anon as it was day,
I gladly would go somewhere to essay
If I perchance a Nightingale might hear,
For yet had I heard none, of all that year,
And it was then the third night of the May. 55

XII And soon as I a glimpse of day espied,
No longer would I in my bed abide,
But straightway to a wood that was hard by,
Forth did I go, alone and fearlessly,
And held the pathway down by a brook-side; 60

XIII Till to a lawn I came all white and green,
I in so fair a one had never been.
The ground was green, with daisy powdered over;
Tall were the flowers, the grove a lofty cover,
All green and white; and nothing else was seen. [C] 65

XIV There sate I down among the fair fresh flowers,
And saw the birds come tripping from their bowers,
Where they had rested them all night; and they,
Who were so joyful at the light of day,
Began to honour May with all their powers. 70

XV Well did they know that service all by rote,
And there was many and many a lovely note,
Some, singing loud, as if they had complained;
Some with their notes another manner feigned;
And some did sing all out with the full throat. 75

XVI They pruned themselves, and made themselves right gay,
Dancing and leaping light upon the spray;
And ever two and two together were,
The same as they had chosen for the year,
Upon Saint Valentine's returning day. 80

XVII Meanwhile the stream, whose bank I sate upon,
Was making such a noise as it ran on
Accordant to the sweet Birds' harmony;
Methought that it was the best melody
Which ever to man's ear a passage won. 85

XVIII And for delight, but how I never wot,
I in a slumber and a swoon was caught,
Not all asleep and yet not waking wholly;
And as I lay, the Cuckoo, bird unholy,
Broke silence, or I heard him in my thought. 90

XIX And that was right upon a tree fast by,
And who was then ill satisfied but I?
Now, God, quoth I, that died upon the rood,
From thee and thy base throat, keep all that's good,
Full little joy have I now of thy cry. 95

XX And, as I with the Cuckoo thus 'gan chide,
In the next bush that was me fast beside,
I heard the lusty Nightingale so sing,
That her clear voice made a loud rioting,
Echoing through all the green wood wide. [D] 100

XXI Ah! good sweet Nightingale! for my heart's cheer,
Hence hast thou stayed a little while too long;
For we have had [2] the sorry Cuckoo here,
And she hath been before thee with her song;
Evil light on her! she hath done me wrong. 105

XXII But hear you now a wondrous thing, I pray;
As long as in that swooning-fit I lay,
Methought I wist right well what these birds meant,
And had good knowing both of their intent,
And of their speech, and all that they would say. 110

XXIII The Nightingale thus in my hearing spake: -
Good Cuckoo, seek some other bush or brake,
And, prithee, let us that can sing dwell here;
For every wight eschews thy song to hear,
Such uncouth singing verily dost thou make. 115

XXIV What! quoth she then, what is't that ails thee now?
It seems to me I sing as well as thou;
For mine's a song that is both true and plain, -
Although I cannot quaver so in vain
As thou dost in thy throat, I wot not how. 120

XXV All men may understanding have of me,
But, Nightingale, so may they not of thee;
For thou hast many a foolish and quaint cry: -

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