The Legend of Cleopatra by Geoffrey Chaucer (1386)

And as for me, thogh that I can but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte
And in myn herte have hem in reverence;
And to hem yeve swich lust and swich credence,
That ther is wel unethe game noon
That from my bokes make me to goon.

(The narrator describing his love of books in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1380s)

The Legend of Good Women is a long-ish poem by the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 to 1400). Like so many poems from the period, it features a dream vision i.e. the narrator falls asleep and then has a supernatural fantasy (in this case of the god of Love) which is described in a naturalistic manner. Chaucer wrote three other dream vision poems (The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls) and it was a very popular genre for other poets of the period (for example, William’s Vision of Piers Plowman, written by William Langland about a decade earlier).

In the prologue to the poem, after he has fallen asleep, the god of Love appears to the narrator (pretty obviously Chaucer) and reprimands him for giving a negative image of women in a) his translation of the long French poem, The Romance of the Rose ‘that is an heresye ayeins my lawe’, and b) his portrayal of the fickle and inconstant Criseyde, in his very long poem, Troilus and Criseyde. The god of Love demands that Chaucer correct this breach of manners by depicting women from myth or legend who have lived well according to the medieval religion of courtly love i.e. lived and died for Love. Who have been ‘Cupid’s saints’.

This is meant to be a poetic version of the real-life story behind the commissioning of the poem, for it is said that Anne of Bohemia, the wife of King Richard II, expressed the same sentiments of gentle disapproval and so laid on Chaucer the commission of writing a poem in praise of women and hence The Legend. Nice, if it’s true.

Courtly love

In the Middle Ages the cult of Courtly Love arose, stemming supposedly from the south of France and spreading to all the courts of Europe. Courtly love wittily and sophisticatedly reworked the format and rhetoric surrounding Christian saints and, indeed, the Christian religion itself, into a mock-serious ‘religion’ centred around the adoration of a courtier knight or poet for his semi-divine mistress or Lady.

Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. To quote my review of Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995):

The twelfth century saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service of a noble knight to an aristocratic lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

As it spread, the cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address recommended to courtiers who wanted to play this sophisticated game. As the Dutch historian of the late Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga, put it, back in 1919:

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life.
(The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, Penguin paperback edition, page 105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

And so Chaucer is reprimanded by the stern god of Love for having been discourteous to women as a whole in his portrayal of Criseyde, and must – by the rules of Courtly Love – atone to all noble women for this transgression.

A ‘legendary’

The structure of the poem is based on the ‘legendary’, a well-established medieval format of a collection of lives of saints. Thus each section of the poem is the courtly love equivalent of a saint’s life, except that these saints died not out of devotion to the Christian God, but as martyrs to the god of Love.

Thus, for example, the very title of the legend of Cleopatra invokes Christian rhetoric in a light, sophisticated play on ideas: Incipit Legenda Cleopatrie, Martiris, Egipti Regine, meaning ‘Here starts the legend of Cleopatra, martyr, queen of Egypt.’ She was, quite obviously, not a martyr to the Christian religion, which didn’t exist when she committed suicide (in 30 BC); but viewed through the prism of Courtly Love, she and any number of other fine ladies from pre-Christian myth and legend were martyrs to the religion of Love.

The Legend of Good Women devotes a chapter or legend to each of nine virtuous women from myth and legend, being:

  1. The legend of Cleopatra
  2. The Legend of Thisbe
  3. The Legend of Dido
  4. The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea
  5. The Legend of Lucretia
  6. The Legend of Ariadne
  7. The Legend of Philomela
  8. The Legend of Phyllis
  9. The Legend of Hypermnestra

Unfinished

Like Chaucer’s most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, the Legend appears to be unfinished. The Retraction or Apology for the Canterbury Tales mentions 25 legends and we only have nine, so maybe some are lost or maybe he never completed it. The balade embedded in the prologue mentions several women — Esther, Penelope, Marcia Catonis (wife of Cato the younger), Lavinia, Polyxena and Laodamia — who don’t appear in the legends we have; were they meant to be included?

At the end of the Prologue the god of Love indicates that the nineteen women who are attending Queen Alceste must all be included in the poem (though he doesn’t name any of them):

Thise other ladies sittinge here arowe
Ben in thy balade, if thou canst hem knowe,
And in thy bokes alle thou shalt hem finde;
Have hem now in thy Legend alle in minde.

It’s discrepancies like this which lead scholars to conclude the poem was abandoned. Whether the poem’s state is due to Chaucer becoming bored with it is uncertain, but it is now regarded as very much a lesser work, despite being popular when first written. The legends are a bit repetitive, with the same high-minded behaviour tending to recur again and again, so that it lacks the drama of Troilus and and the wonderful variety and vivid characterisation which is key to The Canterbury Tales.

Iambic pentameter

The poem is among the first works in English to use the iambic pentameter, which Chaucer later used throughout The Canterbury Tales. A pentameter is a line with five beats:

When I consider how my light is spent

Lines of poetry can be divided up into units surrounding a beat. A long time ago, the Greeks categorised all this and called these units ‘feet’. When you write a line of verse it naturally has strong or emphasised or accented syllables, and weak or soft or unaccented syllables, and a moment’s reflection makes you realise there’s a certain amount of variety to these.

For a start, a ‘foot’ can have one, two, three or possibly more syllables. And the accented syllable can come first, second, third in the order of these syllables. All the possible permutations were defined and named by the ancient Greeks two and a half thousand years ago, which explains why we still use unusual (Greek) words to describe them.

A Wikipedia article lists all the possible permutations of beat within a foot, with their Greek names. By far the most common ‘foot’ in English is the ‘iamb’, where the unit has two syllables and the emphasis falls on the second syllable. If you emphasise the syllables in bold you’ll get it straightaway:

When I consider how my light is spent

Or just:

di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum

It is a pentameter because it has five beats. It is a iambic pentameter because each of the beats comes in a pairing with a softer, unaccented syllable, which comes before it. The accent falls on the second syllable of each unit or ‘foot’. di dum.

Anyway, the point is that, even if he didn’t introduce it to English poetry, Chaucer was the first poet to write extensively in this metre. With the vast examples of Troilus and the Canterbury Tales, he helped to establish it as the basic, default metre for English poetry, which it has remained ever since.

Reading Chaucer’s verse

The single most important thing to do when reading Chaucer’s medieval verse is to pronounce the final ‘e’ in every word – then the lines will scan as five-beat pentameters. Here I’ve bolded the e’s which need to be pronounced, not the beats.

The moste party of thy tyme spende

Don’t pronounce these e’s as eee, but as schwa, or ‘er’.

The most-er party of thy tym-er spend-er

Now the line has five regular beats and is a iambic pentameter (nobody minds that it has a final unstressed syllable dangling at the end, this dangling syllable is very common in Chaucer’s verse and gives it a nice bouncy feel).

If you do this with all the lines (unless the e comes before a vowel, in which case don’t pronounce it), they all become regular, and the thing comes into focus as a jolly rhythmic canter (s is pronounced as z in this excerpt) (and now I am bolding the syllables to emphasise):

Of good-er wommen, maiden-ez and wyv-ez,
That weren trewe [don’t pronounce the e because it is followed by a vowel: so true-win] in lovinge [omit the e] al hir lyv-ez.

Obviously there are other differences in pronunciation between Chaucer’s English and ours but I’m not writing a book. If you just pronounce the e’s, emphasise the beat and pause at the end of every line, it will start swimming into focus. Above all don’t worry if you don’t understand half of it. Don’t stop to look up individual words. Get into the swing and the rhythm first and the general gist will emerge. Years ago I was taught how to pronounce it and remember most of the principles but, listening to myself say it out loud, I suddenly realised I sound a bit like the Swedish chef from the Muppets, especially if you really pronounce those final e’s.

The prologues

Actually there are two prologues, one scholars think was the original (Prologue A), and a second one which survives in just one copy and critics think was a later version, maybe composed when Chaucer revised the poem some time in the 1390s (Prologue B).

There’s a lot of overlap but also passages unique to each prologue. The solution (well, a solution) is to have an edition like the old OUP Complete Chaucer which is big enough to print both versions side by side. To compare and contrast, if you’re feeling scholarly: or just to jump from one to the other to make sure you catch everything he wrote.

They both begin with a characteristically invocation of the importance of ‘olde bokes’ from which we study and learn. Book learning.

Than mote we to bokes that we finde,
Through which that olde thinges been in minde,
And to the doctrine of these olde wyse,
Yeven credence, in every skilful wyse,
And trowen on these olde aproved stories,
Of holinesse, or regnes, of victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry thinges,
Of whiche I may not maken rehersinges.
And if that olde bokes were a-weye,
Y-loren were of remembraunce the keye.
Wel oghte us than on olde bokes leve,
Ther-as ther is non other assay by preve.

Lightly translated:

Then must we to the books that we find
Through which the old things are kept in mind,
And to the doctrine of these old ways
Give credence in every skillful ways
And believe in these old approved stories,
Of holiness, or reigns, or victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry things,
Of which I need not make rehearsings.
And if that old books were put away,
Lost would be of memory the key.
Well ought we, then, in old books to believe,
Because there is no other way to prove.

In praise of the daisy

As soon as the poem has got settled in it turns into an extended passage in praise of the humble daisy.

Now have I than swich a condicioun,
That, of alle the floures in the mede,
Than love I most these floures whyte and rede,
Swiche as men callen daysies in our toun.
To hem have I so great affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whan comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam up, and walking in the mede
To seen this flour agein the sonne sprede,
Whan hit upryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sighte softneth al my sorwe,
So glad am I whan that I have presence
Of hit, to doon al maner reverence,
As she, that is of alle floures flour,
Fulfilled of al vertu and honour,
And ever y-lyke fair, and fresh of hewe;
And I love hit, and ever y-lyke newe,
And ever shal, til that myn herte dye…

It barely needs translating, but:

Now have I then such a condition
That, of all the flowers in the meed,
Then love I most these flowers white and red,
Such as men call daisies in our town.
To them have I so great affection,
As I said before, when comes in the May,
That in my bed there dawns for me no day
But I am up and walking in the meed
To see this flower against the sun spread,
When it uprises early in the morrow.
That blissful sight softens all my sorrow,
So glad I am when I am in its presence,
To do it all manner of reverence,
As she that is of all flowers the flower,
Fulfilled of every virtue and honour,
And always alike, fair and fresh of hue,
And I love it and ever like new,
And always will until my heart dies…

Why is it so effective? Because it has a sweet and touching innocence without being naive or sentimental. Plus the language of Middle English has an intrinsic simplicity about it, a simplicity of vocabulary, for example, a pure English which was to become increasingly cluttered with new-fangled foreign imports and made-up words as we move into the Renaissance but, back in Chaucer’s time, feels simple and fresh.

But it’s also important to note that this passage is the product of tremendous poetic sophistication. Many Italian and French poets had already written poems in praise of various flowers – there is a vast epic poem named The Romance of the Rose – and Chaucer has read them and knowingly references lines and ideas from them. He tells us as much:

For wel I wot, that ye han her-biforn
Of making ropen, and lad awey the corn;
And I come after, glening here and there,
And am ful glad if I may finde an ere
Of any goodly word that ye han left.

For well I know that you have here-before,
Of making rope and led away the corn,
And I come after gleaning here and there,
And am full glad if I may find an ear
Of any goodly word that you have left.

If you think about it, praise of flowers is very compatible with the ideas of Courtly Love. It is a soft and beautiful subject very appropriate for a feminised court (as, for example, grittier stories of knights and wars, anything from the bloodthirsty ancient world, emphatically were not).

So popular did the cult of flowers as a kind of sub-category of Courtly Love become that we have records of courts dividing into factions who, in a witty, sophisticated spirit, staged debates about the relative merits of different flowers.

There are records of debates between defenders of the flour and defenders of the leaf. In the hands of this culture everything becomes allegorical, symbolic of something else, and so the flower came to be associated with beauty and sensual pleasure which is intense but, alas, fleeting; whereas the leaf symbolises fidelity and endurance – and so these debates and poems displayed the participants’ skill and graciousness, but always circled round to alight on a firm Christian moral.

An entire medieval poem survives on the subject – The Floure and the Leafe – and Chaucer references this cult, too:

Ye lovers, that can make of sentement;
In this cas oghte ye be diligent
To forthren me somwhat in my labour,
Whether ye ben with the leef or with the flour.

You lovers, that can write of sentiment,
In this cause ought you to be diligent
To further me somewhat in my labour,
Whether you are with the leaf or with the flower.

That poem is invoked half a dozen times, with Chaucer humorously clarifying that he is not coming down on one side or other of the Great Debate, but wishes to speak of ancient stories from well before the Great Strife began:

But natheles, ne wene nat that I make
In preysing of the flour agayn the leef,
No more than of the corn agayn the sheef:
For, as to me, nis lever noon ne lother;
I nam with-holden yit with never nother.
Ne I not who serveth leef, ne who the flour;
Wel brouken they hir service or labour;
For this thing is al of another tonne,
Of olde story, er swich thing was begonne.

And so the Prologue wends its lazy way, weaving a complex tapestry of references to ancient authors, to the cult of the leaf and the flower, praising the daisy but also praising a Grand Lady or muse figure to whom the narrator speaks.

The narrator describes rising early one May morning and going out into the fields to kneel down ‘Upon the smale softe swote gras’ and admire the sweet daisy (‘The Empress, and flower of flowers all’) and its lovely scent.

He hears the birds singing their songs and imagines they are taunting the hunters who hunted them in winter and lay traps for them. Some of the birds are singing lays of love in honour of their mates, some sing in praise of St Valentine, on whose day they met, and they nuzzle their beaks against each other. Any who have erred promise repentance. And the gods Zephyr and Flora give to the flowers their sweet breath.

This is all a magnificent preparation, sweet and sensitive and beautiful. For after this hard day admiring flowers and listening to the birds, the narrator makes his way home, has his servants rig up a couch in a little arbour, and there he falls asleep, and at this point the Dream Vision commences:

The Dream Vision

The narrator dreams he is in a meadow and sees come walking the god of Love, with two small wings and holding two fiery darts. He is holding hands with a queen, dressed in green with a fret of gold about her hair and a white crown, looking, in other words, very like his beloved daisy. The narrator says people say the god of Love is blind but this god of Love is looking at him very sternly and makes his blood run cold!

The queen is named ‘Alceste the debonayre’. Behind them come ‘ladyes nyntene’ in attendance, followed by a vast concourse of other women, making up maybe a quarter, maybe a third of the world’s population! (At the very end of the Prologue, the god of Love suggests that the figure is 20,000. Small world.)

It is at this point that the ladies spy the daisy the narrator is worshipping and stop to sing a ballad with a repeated refrain. Each verse lists a number of famously beautiful women from antiquity and tells them to hide or retire, because none of them can compare with the lady they are accompanying i.e. Alceste. In one version of the prologue the refrain runs:

Alceste is here, that al that may desteyne.

The other version has:

My lady cometh, that al this may desteyne.

Where I think ‘desteyne’ means ‘disdain’ in the sense of triumphs over or puts all that – all those other women – in the shade. The second version feels fractionally better, more powerful.

Now this entourage notice the narrator and call him over to them and the god of Love proceeds to reprimand him for translating the Romance of the Rose and writing Troilus and Criseyde and generally portraying women, and love, in a bad light. Why has he shown women in such a negative light?

‘Why noldest thow as wel han seyd goodnesse
Of wemen, as thow hast seyd wikedness?’

Couldn’t Chaucer find in all his fancy books stories of women who were ‘good and trewe’? After all, he has no fewer than sixty books in his library, telling of ancient Greeks and Romans, featuring many stories of women who preferred to die than betray their love, who preserved their virginity, or were faithful to their husbands, or were dutiful in their widowhood. This is a fierce indictment.

But then queen Alceste intervenes on the narrator’s behalf, reminding the angry god of Love (at great length) of the mercy of great kings and even of beasts, such as the noble lion. Such should be the mercy the god should show this errant servant who was only translating matter out of old books. (You can see how the intercession of a compassionate queen softening the wrath of a stern ruler echoes the role assigned to Mary in Catholic theology, interceding on the part of us poor sinners; a posture which could also be mapped onto countless medieval courts, where hard-headed kings and princes could (possibly) be softened by appeals for mercy from their queens.)

Alceste proceeds to plead the poet’s cause and it becomes clear (if it wasn’t before) that the sleeper and narrator of the vision is Chaucer himself, because she cites his many works which do speak favourably of love, to wit, The House of FameThe Book of the DuchessThe Parliament of Fowls, the story of Palamon and Arcite (i.e. the Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales). And ‘to speke of other holynesse’ he has translated the popular medieval philosopher, Boethius.

Alceste concludes her defence of Chaucer by promising that, if the god of Love forgives him:

“Now as ye been a god, and eek a king,
I, your Alceste, whylom quene of Trace,
I aske yow this man, right of your grace,
That ye him never hurte in al his lyve;
And he shal sweren yow, and that as blyve,
He shal no more agilten in this wyse;
But he shal maken, as ye wil devyse,
Of wommen trewe in lovinge al hir lyve,
Wher-so ye wil, of maiden or of wyve,
And forthren yow, as muche as he misseyde
Or in the Rose or elles in Creseyde.”

Out of reverence for the queen (and obeying the Courtly Love injunction to cede to your Mistress’s requests), the god of Love quickly and graciously forgives the narrator, who promptly kneels and delivers his own justification. Chaucer grovellingly points out that he never meant to do any harm. He only repeated what his source authors wrote. His purpose was only ever to promote ‘trouthe in love’ and to warn his readers away from falseness and from vice. ‘This was my menynge’.

By which point I’m realising that this has turned into a court case, or a trial, comparable in structure to the debates about the floure and leefe. It has the same formal structure of accusation and two figures arguing for the prosecution and the defence.

Anyway, Chaucer is still wittering on when Alceste, rather winningly, tells him to shut up. No pleading can influence the forgiveness of a god, which proceeds by his own grace alone. And she then proceeds to itemise the penance Chaucer must undertake:

“Now wol I seyn what penance thou shald do
For thy trespas, and understond hit here:
Thou shalt, whyl that thou livest, yeer by yere,
The moste party of thy tyme spende
In making of a glorious Legende
Of Gode Wommen, maidenes and wyves,
That weren trewe in lovinge al hir lyves;
And telle of false men that hem bitrayen,
That al hir lyf ne doon nat but assayen
How many wommen they may doon a shame;

“For in your world that is now holde [considered] a game.
And thogh thee lyke nat a lover be,
Spek wel of love; this penance yive I thee.

“And to the god of love I shal so preye,
That he shal charge his servants, by any weye,
To forthren thee, and wel thy labour quyte.”

And she concludes his penance with a sudden surprising reference to the real world.

“Go now thy wey, this penance is but lyte.
And whan this book is maad, yive hit the quene
On my behalfe, at Eltham, or at Shene.”

Chaucer is grovellingly grateful. The god of Love is amused and tells him of the high ancestry of this forgiving queen, for the first time explaining why it is Alceste of all ancient women who accompanies him. It is because, according to legend, Alcestis was the wife of Admetus, king of Pherae in Thessaly. To prolong his life, she offered to die in his stead. Later she was rescued from hell by Hercules.

Thus she is an eminently fitting figure to herald a book about feminine loyalty and ‘trouthe’ unto death. What is not in any ancient version of the story is the association the poet goes on to make between Alceste, queen of women, and the daisy, queen of flowers whose colours, as we observed above, she is dressed in (green and white and gold).

The god of Love concludes the vision with two points: first, he indicates (as mentioned above) that all nineteen of the unnamed escorts of Queen Alceste should appear in this poem he has to write. Lastly, he tells Chaucer to start with Cleopatra. He gives no strong reason, just the general thought:

“For lat see now what man that lover be,
Wol doon so strong a peyne for love as she.”

‘Let’s see what man would ever suffer for love as much as she did!’ In other words, Cleopatra is arguably the most eminent example from the ancient world of a woman who died for love.

The Legend of Cleopatra, approach

And she hir deeth receyveth, with good chere,
For love of Antony, that was hir so dere.

Well, after all the buildup (the Prologue is about 800 lines long), the actual legend of Cleopatra is disarmingly short, a mere 126 lines long.

I’ve read the several Plutarch biographies which underpin modern knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra (Julius Caesar, Antony) and Suetonius’s life of Augustus, as well as half a dozen histories of the period but there’s not much point applying them here. This is an entertainingly cartoon version of the story, short and simple with sweet medieval details and phrasing thrown in.

In fact this lack of historical rigour is something the author was conscious of and expresses through the god of Love, who is made to explicitly order Chaucer to keep his legends short and sweet:

“I wot wel that thou mayest nat al hit ryme,
That swiche lovers diden in hir tyme;
It were so long to reden and to here;
Suffyceth me, thou make in this manere,
That thou reherce of al hir lyf the grete,
After thise olde auctours listen to trete.
For who-so shal so many a storie telle,
Sey shortly, or he shal to longe dwelle.”

“I know well that you may not it all rhyme,
What such lovers did in their time,
It were too long to read and to hear.
Suffices me, you write in this manner,
That you rehearse of all their life the great,
Following what those old authors liked to treat.
For whoso shall so many a story tell,
Should say shortly or he shall too long dwell.”

The Legend of Cleopatra, plot summary

After the deeth of Tholomee the king, regned his daughter, quene Cleopataras. Out of Rome was sent a senatour to rule Egypt and he was named Antonius. He abandoned his legal wife, the sister of Octavian, because he wanted another wife: ‘For whiche he took with Rome and Cesar stryf’.

Antonius was brought to such a rage and tied himself in a noose (the noose of fate), ‘Al for the love of Cleopataras, That al the world he sette at no value.’

Cleopataras loved this knight for his ‘persone and of gentilesse, And of discrecioun and hardinesse’. So they got married.

The narrator complains that, as he has so many stories to write, he doesn’t have time ‘The wedding and the feste to devyse’ so he’ll get right to the point:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

Octavian was infuriated by this marriage and so led a host of brave Romans against Antonius.

Interestingly, the longest passage in this short poem is a vivid if cartoony description of a battle at sea, the decisive Battle of Actium. The description keeps talking about ‘he’ as if referring to one person, but translations indicate it is a generic pronoun, like ‘one’, and best translated as ‘they’, thus describing the behaviour of countless sailors in incidents from the battle.

And in the see hit happed hem to mete —
Up goth the trompe — and for to shoute and shete,
And peynen hem to sette on with the sonne.
With grisly soun out goth the grete gonne,
And heterly they hurtlen al at ones,
And fro the top doun cometh the grete stones.

In goth the grapnel so ful of crokes
Among the ropes, and the shering-hokes.
In with the polax presseth he and he;
Behind the mast beginneth he to flee,
And out agayn, and dryveth him over-borde;
He stingeth him upon his speres orde;
He rent the sail with hokes lyke a sythe;
He bringeth the cuppe, and biddeth hem be blythe;
He poureth pesen upon the hacches slider;
With pottes ful of lym they goon to-gider;

And thus the longe day in fight they spende
Til, at the laste, as every thing hath ende,
Anthony is shent, and put him to the flighte,
And al his folk to-go, that best go mighte.

As:

And in the sea it happened that they meet —
Up sounds the trumpet — and to shout and beat,
And urged them to set on with the sun.
With grisly sound out booms the great gun,
And fiercely they hurtled all at once,
And from the top down came the great stones.

In goes the grapnel, so full of crooks,
Among the ropes, and the shearing-hooks.
In with the poleaxe presses one and another;
Behind the mast one begins to flee,
And out again, and drives him overboard.

One stabs himself upon his own spear;
One tears the sail with hooks like a scythe;
One brings a cup, and bids them to be blithe;
One pours out peas, so on the deck they slither;
With pot full of lime they fall together;

And thus the long day in fight they spend
Til, at the last, as every thing has end,
Anthony is beat and put to flight,
And all his folk run off as best they might.

Chaucer follows the sources so much as to say that it was the flight of Cleopatra’s fleet which plunged Anthony into despair but jumps over all the events which followed in order to get straight to his suicide. He laments the day that he was born and runs himself through the heart with his sword. Unlike Plutarch and Shakespeare’s Antony, Chaucer’s one conveniently dies on the spot.

Knowing she will get no forgiveness from Caesar, Cleopatra flees back to Egypt, ‘for drede and for distresse.’ And now we come to her suicide, but first Chaucer repeats the moral mentioned in the Prologue, that all men who make great boasts about the sacrifices they’ve made for love, should observe how it’s really done.

Ye men, that falsely sweren many an ooth
That ye wol die, if that your love be wrooth,
Here may ye seen of women such a trouthe!

Cleopatra is so bitterly pained with lost love and despair that she gets her workmen to build a shrine with all the rubies and fine stones of Egypt. She has Antony’s body laid in it, along with plenty of with ‘spycerye’. Then has a pit built next to it and gets all the serpents that she owns put into it.

And then Cleopatra delivers the point, the message, in an extended speech – for she says that on the day they were married she swore an oath to be with Antony night and day, and as he suffered wele or wo, to accompany him, to bear all with him, ‘lyf or deeth’.

“And this same covenant, while me lasteth breath,
I will fulfill, and that shall well be seen.”

She made an oath, a covenant, a promise and now – far excelling most women and all men – she will fulfil it unto death. And so she jumps naked into the pit full of snakes (!). Immediately the snakes began to bite her and she received her death ‘with good chere.’

“Was never unto hir love a trewer quene.”

Thoughts

It’s not worth wasting time pointing out the many facts Chaucer has simply dropped, he’s in a hurry to get to the only bit that matters for the purposes of his royal commission, the moment of Cleopataras’s outstanding fidelity to love:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

True to his commission, Chaucer has exonerated Cleopatra. She is not at all the wicked, oriental seductress, the Egyptian whore who seduced a noble Roman away from his family and duty, as depicted in Augustan propaganda and later male, Roman accounts.

On the contrary, in this brisk telling of her story Cleopatra emerges as an epitome, a role model of fidelity unto death, a type of fidelity no man could ever aspire to. And not just included in a collection of loyal women, but carefully and deliberately placed as the first in the list, the loyalest and truest of all the loyal and true women of antiquity. A role model for love.


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For practical purposes I date the Middle Ages from the Norman Conquest of 1066 until about 1500, and so exclude all texts from and histories about the Dark Ages, thus excluding my reviews of Anglo-Saxon poetry or the Icelandic sagas which, although written in the 13th century, refer to events before the Conquest.

Medieval art

Medieval texts

Medieval poetry

Modern histories of the Middle Ages

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995)

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics along with an extensive introduction explaining their historical and cultural context and explaining the rhyme scheme, scansion and pronunciation of the poems. Each work benefits from a ‘crib’ or translation of obscure phrases which is on the same page as the text, and extensive notes on each poem at the back of the book.

The pronunciation

First the pronunciation. In the following short poem ‘i’ is pronounced like a long ‘e’ as in leave so ‘miri’ is pronounced like mini except with an r in the middle and ‘while’ is pronounced weelë. ‘Sumer’ is soomer, the ‘i’ in ‘i-last’ is ee. The extra ‘e’ on the end of many words is generally voiced which is why Duncan prints it as ‘ë’ to remind the reader to pronounce it. ‘Ou’ is pronounced oo, so ‘foulës’ is pronounced foolës. Gh is like loch in Scottish. So ‘night’ is pronounced with an ‘i’ as in lit or sin and the ‘gh’ sounding as in loch, to make it sound like the German word nicht. ‘Ich’ is pronounced itch, ‘michel’ sounds like mitchell. A’s are short as in cat.

Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.

So a phonetic version would go something like this:

Mirry it is weel soomer eelast
with foolës song
oc noo neiyeth windës blast
and weder strong.
Ei, ei, wat this nicht is long,
and ich with wel mitchell wrong
sorwe and mourne and fast.

You can make out the pronunciation in this medieval setting of the poem.

‘Mirie it is’ on the Luminarium website

Read out loud

As to the meaning, well, when I studied Middle English (and Anglo-Saxon) at university I found it was best to read the poetry aloud, over and over again, to get the pronunciation and rhythms and sounds into your mouth and mind for some time before worrying about the ‘meaning’.

The kind of crib Duncan provides – i.e. not a full translation into modern English, but just picking the hardest words or phrases and suggesting a meaning – helps because it is fragmentary and doesn’t swamp the poem with a full modern version but just guides you in interpreting some of the original medieval words.

This is one of the appeals of medieval poetry, that it speaks to us before we completely understand what it means and, even after we’ve read modern translations and ‘cribs’, it still says something more than a literal translation into modern English can do.

Thus Duncan helps by pointing out in his glosses that ‘i-last’ means lasts, ‘foulës song’ means birds’ song, ‘oc’ means ‘but’, ‘neigheth’ means ‘draws near’, ‘wat’ means ‘how’ (so the line means ‘how this night is long’), and – most suggestively – that ‘with wel michel wrong’ means ‘for very great wrong doing’…

Given these clues, the reader is forced to reread the poem and assimilate these new meanings to the lines. In effect, to begin to learn Middle English. Compare and contrast the effort required and the reward of trying to understand a different language, with simply swamping your mind with a brisk modern translation:

Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds;
but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.
Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,
sorrow and mourn and fast.

In my opinion all the power and mystery is lost in this or any modern translation. How much more powerful, mysterious and interesting (and difficult to scan) it is to say:

and ich with wel mickle wrong

than it is to say:

And I, most unjustly

If one of the purposes of poetry is to refresh the language, or our understanding and use of language, this can be done far more quickly and deeply by learning just one medieval lyric which transports you to a different universe, than by listening to a hundred rap songs which merely entrench you deeper and deeper into the baleful, violent present.

Scansion

Another cause of uncertainty, mystery and pleasure is the odd scansion of most of the lines. Some of them fall right into our modern-day feel for iambic pentameters and regular rhythms. But others just don’t. Duncan has a long essay explaining the scansion i.e. how the rhythm of the poems is made up of the emphases which should – in theory – be given to different vowels, consonants, or words which start lines or words which end them.

For example, it’s important to realise that Middle English had far more words ending in ‘e’ than we do and that sometimes the ‘e’ was voiced but sometimes it wasn’t. It is generally voiced before a consonant but if a vowel begins the next word, elided into that vowel and so not distinctly sounded.

This is why Duncan sometimes prints ‘e’ with a diaeresis over it – ë – when it is to be pronounced – as in ‘foolës song’ – but otherwise leaves the e plain, when it is to be elided into the following vowel to create just one syllable instead of two – ‘Sorwe and murne and fast’ where the e’s on the end of sorwe and murne blend into the a of the following and.

But – in practice – as Duncan admits, many of the poems seem to ignore these rules or to only obey them erratically. No manual or criticism or explanation survives by contemporaries to explain the thinking behind rhythm and syllables and beats, so scholars have had to reconstruct ‘the rules’ six or seven hundred years after the poems were written and there is still a lot of debate because whichever rules you devise, you can immediately find examples which seem to break them.

All this adds to the sense of mild challenge about the poems and forces you to read and reread each one until you think you’ve got the correct rhythm.

Music

And finally, all the poems were in fact lyrics, designed to be set to music and this music – genuinely medieval music – worked according to rules and values most of us find strange, lacking the basic ideas of a dominant key and a structured progression through related chords with the voice picking out melodies from the chord progressions. Instead, in medieval music, the voice was its own master, far less constrained by ideas of harmony and chord progression.

This is particularly true of a solo vocal rendition, as of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ which I quote below. In this instrumental version of ‘Miri it is’, there is a strong sense of rhythm which rides over the doubts and uncertainties you get from just reading the words.

For example, they sing just one ‘ei’ whereas the presence of two ‘eis’ in the original is one of the complicating factors in trying to scan that line. As so often in musical settings of a poem, the composer / performer just ignores the problems of scansion in order to produce a smooth product.

Amended spelling

I am intrigued that the singers in this performance pronounce the word Duncan has given as ‘sorwe’ as ‘sorrich’. This is because they have spelt it ‘soregh’ and not ‘sorwe’ which brings us to a big point.

In this edition Duncan has made the big editorial decision to change the spelling of all the poems in his collection to ‘bring them into conformity’ with the dialect of south-east England. During this period – 1200 to 1400 – there were many distinct regional variations of English, complete with different grammar, spelling and vocabulary. Duncan says he has brought all the spellings into line with the dialect of south-east England – or London – because that is the Middle English of Chaucer and so the version which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with.

I think this is a controversial decision. On the whole I think I would like to be in possession of what the medieval scribes actually wrote than a cleaned-up version which Duncan thinks will be easier for me to read and understand. I don’t want it to be easy. I want it to be accurate and faithful.

There’s a fascinating article devoted to this very song:

which contains a photo of the one and only surviving manuscript of the song (complete with stave lines indicating the note to be sung over each word).

Manuscript of Miri it is

Immediately you can see that the first word is a) missing the initial M b) is written [M]irie, not ‘miri as Duncan gives us. This is a vast difference. The article suggests it should be pronounced with three syllables: mi-ree-e (the last e pronounced as in web). That’s a hell of a difference from the two syllables of Duncan’s ‘miri’.

Similarly, on the second line you can quite clearly see that what Duncan has given as ‘foulës song’ is in fact written ‘fugheles song’. They both mean birds’ song, but Duncan has changed the northern dialect word fughel to the word Chaucer would use, ‘fowl or foul’.

I don’t want to be churlish, but I object to this. 1. I prefer to know what the scribe actually wrote and 2. fugheles quite obviously has three syllables unlike ‘foulës’. Or at least there is a flicker of hesitation over the ‘ughe’ which has been removed by turning it onto ‘ou’.

(Also, as explained, none of the originals have the diaeresis over the e – ë – because that is an entirely Duncan invention, put in hte poems to help the reader with the correct pronunciation.)

In other words, any effort made trying to scan Duncan’s version is effort wasted, or led astray, by the fact that he doesn’t print the words of the actual poem! The online article I’ve referred to gives this as the poem’s correct, unexpurgated text:

[M]Irie it is while sumer ilast
with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast
and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and [fast].

(Note that the final word, ‘fast’, is not included in the text as we have it, but is a guess by all succeeding editors.)

Conclusion

Study of this one short poem suggests an approach to Duncan’s entire book which is:- to use it to ramble and surf and browse through the wonderful world of medieval lyrics, to let yourself be caught and captivated by individual poems and work with Duncan’s cribs and read up his notes on each one…

But then to use the wonders of the internet to search for the actual original text of each poem, and to get to know that and not the bowdlerised version Duncan has confected for us.

I sing of a mayden

One hundred and thirty-two is a lot of poems and they range from short seven-liners like the above, to the five short stanzas of a classic like ‘I sing of a mayden’, to much longer, wordier, and more complex poems, poems with elaborate refrains such as ‘Alysoun’, or even dialogue poems where alternate verses are spoken by characters.

‘I sing of a mayden’ is a favourite among fans of this period and has been set to music by many modern composers. Duncan’s version is:

I syng of a mayden
that is makëles:
King of alle kingës
to her sone she chees.

He cam also styllë
ther his moder was
As dewe in Aprylle
that fallëth on the gras.

He cam also styllë
to his moderës bowr
As dew in Aprille
that falleth on the flour.

He cam also stillë
ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
that fallëth on the spray.

Moder and mayden
was never non but she:
Wel may swych a lady
Godës moder be!

It appeals:

  • because of the short simplicity of the lines
  • because of the repetition of the three central verses which vary only the rhyme words was/gras, bowr/flowr, lay/spray
  • because of the sweet innocent purity of the floral imagery
  • and because of the way the simplicity, repetition and natural imagery convey an immensely gentle, sweet and loving relationship between Mary and her beloved son

Does it need translating? As mentioned, Duncan has already bowdlerised it a little, converting the original ‘þ’ into modern ‘th’, and adding his diaeresis e’s to clarify pronunciation and emphasis. The original version of the first two verses reads:

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

You can feel the rhythm and the meaning, cant you, but your mind just needs guiding and supporting at a few of the more obscure moments, and this is the merit of Duncan’s ‘cribs’ i.e. printing the meaning of some of the more obscure terms on the same page as the poem. Thus you need to know that ‘makeles’ means ‘matchless’, ‘ches’ means ‘chose’ and that ‘þ’ is pronounced as ‘th’ as in this or that. Once you know that you’re away!

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

As to pronunciation, key points would be that ‘makeles’ is not pronounced like modern ‘make’, but mack-e-less, and that maiden is pronounced my-den. Again, once you’ve grasped its meaning and a feel for the pronunciation, how much cooler and slicker it is to say:

Moder and maiden
Was neverë noon but she

Than:

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;

Just as it is cooler and slicker to refer to someone’s savoir faire than to their ‘knowledge of how to do things properly’. Learning Middle English is like learning another language which 1. is not, at the end of the day, that difficult because so much of it is similar, sometimes identical, to modern English, and 2. you don’t have to learn well enough to have conversations in it, just well enough to begin to have a feel for the words and phrases, enough of a feel to bring these magical poems to life.

Rhythm and repetition

These two poems epitomise one aspect of Middle English, its ability to make brief, punchy phrases pregnant with meaning:

[M]irie it is while sumer ilast

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,

But ‘mayden’ also highlights the ability of what are, for the most part, songs made to be sung, to use repetition with variation to create beautiful rhythms. (In this example remember ‘bounden’ is pronounced ‘boonden’.)

Adam lay ybounden
bounden in a bond,
fowre thousand winter
thoughte he not too long;

And al was for an appil
an appil that he took,
As clerkes finden writen
writen in hire book.

Ne hadde the apple taken ben
the apple taken ben,
Ne hadde nevere Oure Lady
ybeen hevene Quen.

Blessed be the time
that appil taken was:
Therfore we mown singen
Deo Gratias.

Even if you’re not sure what ‘Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond’ exactly means, it’s not hard to 1. get a feel for the nice rhythm of the thing and 2. get the gist of the meaning – that Adam paid dearly for his original sin of eating the forbidden appil, and defying God’s ordinance, and triggering the Fall of Man.

But all’s well that ends well, because if that appil had never been taken, there would have been no need for Christ to have been conceived and born and crucified to redeem us all, in which case there would have been no Virgin Mary, and imagine the world without the Virgin Mary! No, it can’t be done!

And therefore Adam lying bounden in a bond is a small price to pay for having the Mother of God reigning in heaven to guard over us poor sinners and hear our prayers.

(Duncan’s note explains that in medieval theology, Adam was supposed to have remained in bonds with the other patriarchs in the limbus patrum from the time of his death until the crucifixion of Christ, and that this was estimated to have lasted four thousand winters.)

There’s something immensely powerful in the way the entire theology of the Christian religion, with its vast holy books and thousands of theologians, can all be compressed down into this simple carol, whose well-chosen repetitions can all be sung in less than a minute, and bring great spiritual and psychological reassurance.

The literary critic John Spiers makes the acute point that part of the poem’s appeal is the way the idea flows so naturally. ‘The doctrine of the song is perfectly orthodox… but here is expressed very individually and humanly. The movement of the song reproduces very surely the movements of a human mind.’

I think of Shakespeare with his colourful conceits, of John Donne with his far-fetched similes or John Milton with his heavy Latinate tread. Compared to all those later poets, this poem flows as simply but as profoundly as a fairy tale.

Four categories

Duncan divides his book up into four categories:

  • Love Lyrics
  • Penitential and Moral Lyrics
  • Devotional Lyrics
  • Miscellaneous Lyrics

In the modern, post-romantic world almost all the poetry and certainly all the songs we are subjected to are about worldly love. Another appeal of medieval poetry is the way it transports you beyond the limits and clichés of modern poetry to an entirely different world, which had different priorities and perspectives.

Some of the love poetry has a familiar feel, and Duncan makes the point that it was during this period that the notion of courtly love, of romantic love for a powerful and demanding mistress which originated among the troubadours of the South of France, first entered English culture. He goes on to make fine distinctions between the highly sophisticated and deliberately intellectual poetry of the troubadours and the more relaxed, more sensuous love poems to be found in medieval England.

The frailty of man’s estate

But personally, I never get tired of the central medieval theme of the decline and fall, the turn of Fortune’s wheel, the inevitable decay of all earthly success, wealth and love, the frailty of man’s estate, and so liked the section of Penitential and Moral Lyrics most. Take ‘Wynter wakeneth’. Here’s Duncan’s made-easy version.

Wynter wakenëth al my care,
Nou this levës waxeth bare.
Ofte I sike and mournë sare
When hit comth in my thought
Of this worldës joie hou hit goth al to nought.

Here’s the original text:

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Remembering medieval pronunciation, here’s my phonetic interpretation:

Winter whackeneth Al me ca [a as in car]-rë
Noo this lay-vës waxeth ba[a as in bar]rë
Ofte ee sick ant mournë sa[a as in saab]re
When hit comëth in mee thocht
Of this worldës joy, hoo hit goth Al to noght.

Once you’ve got the pronunciation right and rolled it round your mouth a few times, it shouldn’t take much translating; you just need to know that that ‘leves’ means leaves, ‘waxeth’ means grow, ‘y’ means I, ‘sike’ (pronounced sick, the final e elided into the a of ant) means sigh, ‘sare’ means sore or sorely or bitterly, ‘goth’ means goeth i.e. goes. Thus a modernisation would read:

Winter wakens all my grief,
Now these leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and sorely mourn,
When it enters my thoughts,
Regarding this world’s joy,
how it all comes to nothing.

But once you’ve really processed and absorbed the meaning, how much smoother and more musical it is to say:

Wynter wakëneth al me care

which is strange and far more invigorating, than:

Winter wakens all my grief

Which is boring.

Wele and wo

The poems describing spring and maidens and love and flowers and bowers contain sweet simple imagery, dance along with gladsome rhythms, and have been turned into songs of striking happiness and joy.

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen & with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth;
Dayes eyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales;
Uch foul song singeth.

Translated:

Spring has come with love to town,
With blossoms and with birds’ song
Which all that this bliss bringeth;
Daisies in these dales,
Notes sweet of nightingales;
Each bird his song singeth.

‘Lenten is come with love to toune’ (pronounced toon’), isn’t that a great opening line? In fact it’s a noticeable characteristic that many of the poems, short or long, announce their presence with a striking first line.

But by the same token, the poems lamenting man’s brikkelness and the unpredictable turns of destiny also have just such a primitive, almost primeval force, reeking of a society with no safety nets, where most people were close to famine and disease all their lives, where average life expectancy was around the mid-30s.

This rendition of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ captures perfectly the sound of a lone survivor of the Black Death or one of the period’s endless wars, sitting in the pew of a burnt-out church, sole survivor of his family and his community, lamenting his fate as the cold snow falls endlessly all around, smothering the land.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.


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