The Legend of Good Women
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2008 All Rights Reserved
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- The Legend of Cleopatra
- The Legend of Thisbe
- The Legend of Dido
- The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea
- The Legend of Lucretia
- The Legend of Ariadne
- The Legend of Philomela
- The Legend of Phyllis
- The Legend of Hypermnestra
A thousand times have I heard men tell
That there is joy in Heaven and pain in Hell,
And I do agree that it is so;
But nonetheless I well know also
That there is none dwelling in this country
That to Heaven or Hell has made journey,
Nor in any other way has knowledge of them,
Except as he’s heard told or found it written,
For by experience none may doubts relieve.
But God forbid that men should believe
No more than man can see with his eye!
Men should not deem everything a lie
They cannot see themselves, or else do;
For, God knows, a thing is no less true,
Though everyone may not that thing see.
Bernard the monk saw not all, indeed!
Then must we to the books that we find,
By which ancient things are kept in mind,
And to the doctrines of the old and wise
Give credence, in every subtle guise,
Which tell us the old well-proven stories
Of holiness, of kingdoms, victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry things,
Which I must spend no time rehearsing.
And if the old books were flown away,
Of remembrance would be lost the way.
We should then truly honour and believe
Those books, when all else may deceive.
And as for me, though my learning’s slight,
In books for to read is my delight,
And to them I give faith and full credence,
And in my heart hold them in reverence
So heartily that pleasure is there none
That from my books would see me gone,
Unless quite seldom, on a holiday,
Save, certainly, when the month of May
Is come, and I hear the birds all sing,
And the flowers all begin to spring,
Farewell my book and my devotion!
And then am I in such condition
That, of all the flowers in the mead,
Love I most the white and red I see,
Such as men call daisies in our town.
For them I have so great an affection,
As I have said, at the start of May,
That in my bed there dawns no day
When I’m not up and walking in the mead
To see this flower to the sun freed,
When it rises early on the morrow;
That blissful sight softens all my sorrow,
So glad am I when I am in its presence
To show it all and every reverence,
As she that is the flower of all flowers,
Whom every virtue and honour dowers,
And ever alike fair and fresh of hue,
And I love it, and ever the love renew,
And ever shall until my heart shall die;
Though I swear not, and this I tell’s no lie,
No creature loved hotter in his life.
And when it is eve, I swiftly hie,
As soon as ever sun sinks in the west
To see this flower, how she does sink to rest
For fear of night, she so hates the darkness.
Her face is wholly open to the brightness
Of the sun, for there it does unclose.
Alas, that I lack English rhyme or prose,
Sufficiently to praise this flower aright!
But help me, you of knowledge and of might,
You lovers, who can write of sentiment;
In this cause ought you to be diligent
To further me somewhat in my labour,
Whether your party is the leaf or flower.
For I well know, you oft before have borne
Poetry’s crop away, and stored the corn,
And I come after, gleaning here and here,
And am full glad if I can find an ear
Of any goodly word that you have left.
And though it may be I rehearse, bereft,
What you in your fresh songs did plead,
Be patient with me, and be not displeased,
Since you see I do it all in honour
Of love, and in the service of the flower
Whom I serve with all my wit and might.
She is the brightest and the one true light
That through this dark world my way has lead:
‘The heart within my sad breast owns to dread,
Of you, and loves so sore, that you, I sigh,
Are truly mistress of my wit not I.
My word, my work, so knit you understand
That, as a harp’s obedient to the hand
That makes it sound after its fingering,
Right so do you out of my heart bring
Such voice as you wish, to laugh or plain.
Be you my guide and lady sovereign;
As to my earthly god, to you I call
Both in this work and in my sorrows all.’
But why I spoke was, to give credence
To old stories, and show them reverence,
And say that men must more things believe
Than they may prove, or with their eyes see –
That shall I speak of when I see my time;
I can’t say everything at once in rhyme.
My restless spirit that ever thirsts anew
To see this flower so young, so fresh of hue,
Constrained me with so fiery a desire,
That in my heart I yet do feel the fire,
Which made me rise before it was day –
And this was now the first morn of May –
With fearful heart and glad devotion,
So as to be at the resurrection
Of that flower when it should unclose
Against the sun, that rose as red as rose,
That in the breast was of the Bull that day
Whom Agenor’s daughter led away.
And down on my knees I fell to meet,
And as I might, this fresh flower greet;
Kneeling always till unclosed it was
Upon the small, soft, sweet grass
That with sweet flowers was embroidered all,
Of such sweetness and fragrance overall
That in respect of gum, or herb, or tree,
Comparison shall not be made by me,
For it surpasses plainly all odours,
And in its rich beauty all flowers.
The Earth had forgot its poor condition
Of winter, that left it naked, beaten,
And with its sword of cold so sore grieved;
Now the temperate sun had all relieved
That naked was, and clad it new again.
The small birds, free of wintry pain,
Who did the hunter and the net evade,
Of the fowler, who attack had made
In winter and had destroyed their brood,
Thought, to spite him, it did them good
To sing, and in their song of him despise
The foul churl who had in greedy wise
Betrayed them all with his sophistry.
This was their song – ‘The fowler defy we,
And all his craft!’ And some sang loud and clear
Lays of love, that joy it was to hear,
In worship and praise of their mates there,
And in new blissful summer’s honour,
Upon the branches full of blossom soft,
In their delight, they turned about full oft,
And sang: ‘Blessed be Saint Valentine,
For on his day I choose you to be mine,
Without regret, oh my heart sweet!’
And therewithal their beaks did meet,
Bestowing honour, humble obedience
To love, and all other due observance
That belongs to love and to nature;
Construe that as you wish, I do not care.
And those that had committed unkindness –
As some birds do, from faithlessness –
Besought mercy for their trespass,
And humbly sang repentance at the last,
And swore on the blossom to be true,
So their mates would pity them too,
And in the end make peace and accord.
Though they found Pride for a time their lord,
Yet Pity, through his strong noble might,
Forgave, and made Mercy temper Right,
Through innocence, and so reigned Courtesy.
But I don’t equate innocence to folly,
Nor false pity, for virtue is the mean,
As Ethics says, such the manner I mean.
And thus these birds, free of all malice,
Agreed to love, rejecting the vice
Of hatred, and sang of one accord,
‘Welcome, summer, our governor and lord!’
And Zephyrus and Flora gently
Gave to the flowers, soft and tenderly,
Sweet breath, opening their leaves indeed,
As god and goddess of the flowery mead;
In which I thought I might, day by day,
Ever dwell, in the jolly month of May,
Without sleep, without meat or drink.
Down full softly I began to sink;
And leaning on my elbow and my side,
There the long day planned I to abide,
For no reason else, no lie you see,
Than there to look upon the daisy,
That for good reason men do name
The ‘day’s-eye’ or else the ‘eye of day,’
The Empress, and flower of flowers all.
I pray to God good may her befall,
And all that love flowers, for her sake!
Yet nonetheless think not that I make,
In praising the flower above the leaf,
More than is the corn above the sheaf,
For one’s no worse or better than the other;
I am no partisan now of either.
Nor know I who serves the leaf or flower;
May they enjoy their service and labour,
For this is all drink from another tun,
From an old story, ere such was begun.
When the sun sank towards the west,
And this flower closed and drooped to rest
Through the darkness of night, which is dread,
Home to my house full swiftly I sped,
To take my rest, and early then to rise,
To see this flower open, as I devise.
And in a small garden I have made,
That benched was with turf freshly laid,
I bade men swiftly my couch to make;
For honour and the new summer’s sake,
I bade them strew flowers on my bed.
When I’d closed my eyes, laid down my head,
I fell asleep within an hour or so;
I dreamed how I lay in the meadow,
This flower, I love and dread to see.
And from afar came walking in the mead
The god of Love and on his arm a queen,
And she was clad in royal habit green.
A net of gold she wore upon her hair,
And on that a white crown did she bear
With small flowers, no lies hear from me,
For all the world, just as a daisy
Is crowned with white petals light,
So were the flowers of her crown white;
For of one fine pearl oriental,
Her white crown was fashioned all,
So that the white crown above the green
Made her like a daisy in that scene,
Considering also her gold net above.
And clothed was the mighty god of Love
In silk, embroidered full of green sheaves,
Twined with a design of red rose-leaves,
The freshest since the world was first begun.
His golden hair was crowned with a sun,
Instead of gold, to make the burden light;
And his face therewith shone so bright
That scarcely could I the god behold,
And in his hands I thought he did hold
Two fiery darts glowing like embers red,
And angel-like his wings I saw spread.
And although men say that blind is he,
Nonetheless I thought that he could see,
For sternly his gaze on me he did hold
So that his look made my heart turn cold.
And by the hand he took this noble queen,
Crowned with white and clothed all in green,
So womanly, so gracious, and so meek,
That through this world, though men might seek
Half her beauty, it should no man find
In any creature formed after our kind.
And therefore I write, as it comes to me,
This song in praise of the noble lady.
Hide, Absolom, your gold tresses clear,
Esther, lay you your meekness all a-down;
Hide, Jonathan, all your friendly manner;
Penelope, Cato’s Marcia, be one,
Make of your wifehood no comparison;
Hide you Iseult, Helen, your beauty’s bane,
My lady comes, that all these may disdain.
Your fair body; let it not appear,
Lavinia; nor Lucretia the Roman,
Polyxena, who paid for love so dear,
Nor Cleopatra, with all your passion,
Hide you your truth in love, your reputation;
And you Thisbe, who had of love such pain;
My lady comes, that all these may disdain.
Hero, Dido, Laodamia here,
And Phyllis, hanging for your Demophon,
And Canace, whose face alone brings cheer,
Hypsipyle betrayed so by Jason,
Make of your truth no boast nor oration;
Nor Hypermnestra, nor Ariadne, twain;
My lady comes, that all these may disdain.
This ballade may well be sung, you see,
As I have said before, to my lady free,
For certainly all those would not suffice
To equal my lady in any wise.
For as the sun will the fire make thin,
So surpasses all my lady sovereign,
Who is so good, so fair, so debonair;
I pray God all that befalls her is fair!
Had I known not the comfort of her presence,
I’d have been dead, without defence,
Of Love’s words and look, from very fear;
As, in time, hereafter you shall hear.
Behind this god of Love, upon the green,
I saw advancing ladies nineteen
In royal habit, at full easy pace;
And after them of women such a race,
That since God made Adam out of earth,
A third of them, from mankind, or a fourth,
I thought it beyond possibility,
In this wide world could created be,
And true in love the women were each one.
Now was this a wonder or was it none,
That right anon as soon as they did espy
This flower that I call the day’s eye,
Suddenly they halted all as one,
And knelt, as it were upon occasion,
And sang with one voice, ‘Hail and honour
To truth of womanhood and this flower
That symbolizes all our honour thus!
Her white crown bears witness to us!’
And at that word, in a circle round,
They seated themselves full softly down.
First sat the god of Love, and then the queen
With the white crown, clad all in green;
And then all the rest, by their degree,
According to their rank, full courteously;
And not a word was spoken in the place
For the time it takes a furlong to pace.
I, kneeling by this flower, with good intent
Waited to know what all this meant,
As still as any stone, till at the last,
The god of Love on me his eye did cast
And said, ‘Who kneels here?’ and I answered
As he did request, when I him heard
And said: ‘Sire, it is I,’ and came near,
Saluting him. Quoth he, ‘Why are you here
So near my own flower, and so boldly?
It would be more fitting, truly,
For a worm to approach my flower than you.’
‘And why so, Sire,’ quoth I, ‘so please you?’
‘Because,’ quoth he, ‘you are unsuitable.
She’s precious to me, worthy and delightful,
And you’re my foe, and my folk make war on,
And slander my old servants every one