Geoffrey Chaucer – shorter lyrics

I read yesterday’s portion, but didn’t have time to write a post. “To His Scribe Adam” is a short and slight poem, in which Chaucer wishes his scribe dandruff if once again through his haste and negligence his copy is full of errors, which then poor Chaucer has to correct. Since the texts are written on parchment, it means he has to rub and scrape them out. There is not much to write about it (perhaps better minds than mine could spin a whole critical essay on the modalities of pre-modern text production, or something of that sort), but it provides an interesting insight into the reality of writer’s work in the 14th century.

Two other texts are ballads. The medieval ballad was a poem where stanzas were connected by having the same rhyme scheme and the same final line, i.e. the refrain. The last stanza was often “the envoy”, that is a dedication, usually to some noble patron. Several ballads of Chaucer exist with various versions with different envoys, so it seems Chaucer did a bit of recycling. “Truth” has as its refrain a Middle English rendering of Christ’s words “Truth shall set you free”. The poem is a moral exhortation, encouraging its readers to remove themselves from the worldly life and be satisfied with what they have. One should not also disturb oneself with mending the world and setting the crooked things straight. Instead one should set their eyes on the ultimate reward which is heaven. The note of quietism may be characteristic for the turbulent period in which Chaucer was writing – the world seems hopelessly out of order, so let’s give up on it and wait for the Second Coming to set the things straight. The envoy may be directed to Philippe de la Vache, a nobleman who has fallen upon hard times. There is a note of humour as Chaucer encourages him to look to “heavenly meadow”, since “vache” means “a cow”.

“Complaint to His Purse” is a poem which employs the conventions of love poetry to write about economic hardship. Chaucer writes about his purse in the language used by disappointed lovers: shall I see you again? Shall I hear your beautiful sound or your golden colour which beats the sun? Why are you so light? (he means this literally, but in a love poem it would mean “unfaithful”). Be heavy again, or I must die. The poem ends with an envoy to Henry IV. In the turmoil connected with the deposition (and later murder) of Richard II some annuities due to Chaucer were conveniently forgotten, so this is Chaucer’s witty way of reminding the new king about the outstanding payment while sucking up to him a  little bit, calling him “O conqueror of Brutus Albioun” and all that. Well, you have to earn your living somehow.

And thus we end our selection of Chaucer. It was certainly fun, although I must admit that the medieval fondness for ‘exempla”, or illustrating every point with a gazillion examples from ancient history and the Bible is sometimes a bit wearying. In the next post I’m going to write about John Gower, Chaucer’s friend. Today I read mostly the introduction in the NAEL, so nothing much to write about.


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