The Canterbury Tales
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2007 All Rights Reserved
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The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue
The Prologue of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale
When ended was the life of Saint Cecilia,
Ere we had ridden fully five miles further,
At Boughton-under-Blean rode up a hack
With a man clothed in black upon its back,
Who underneath had on a white surplice.
His hack, a dappled grey, all sweating is,
Sweating so hard it is a sight to see;
It looks as if he has galloped miles three.
Also the horse his yeoman rode upon
Sweated so, it could barely trot on.
About the saddle straps the foam stood high;
With foam it was all flecked like a magpie.
A doubled wallet on its crupper lay;
It seemed that he carried slight array,
All light, for summer, rode this worthy man.
And in my mind to wonder I began
What he might be, until I understood,
Since his cloak was sewn onto his hood,
After I’d reflected a while, that he
A regular canon of the church must be.
His hat hung at his back down by a lace,
For he had ridden at a lively pace:
He had been galloping as he were mad.
And a dock-leaf under his hood he had,
For sweat, and to keep his head from heat.
It was a joy to see him sweat so neat!
His forehead shed drops like a distillery,
A still for plantain-juice and pellitory.
And when he arrived, he cried full loudly:
‘God save,’ quoth he, ‘this jolly company!
Fast I have ridden,’ quoth he, for your sake,
Because I wished you folk to overtake,
And ride with all this merry company.’
His yeoman too was full of courtesy,
And said: ‘Sires, but now at morning-tide,
Out of your hostelry I saw you ride,
And made aware my lord and sovereign,
Who was eager your company to gain
For his amusement; he loves dalliance.’
‘Friend, for your trouble God give you good chance!’
Then said our Host: ‘– for, certain, it would seem
Your lord is wise, wisdom I would it deem.
He is full jocund also, I dare say!
Can he tell a merry tale or two, in play,
To gladden all this company, say I?’
‘Who, sir: my lord? Yes, yes, without a lie!
He knows of mirth, and also jollity,
More than enough; also, sire, trust me,
If you but knew him half so well as I,
You’d be amazed how well he can vie
With all, in work, and that in sundry wise.
He has dealt with many an enterprise,
That would be hard for any that is here
To bring about, unless he were to steer.
As homely as he may look among you,
It would benefit you, that him you knew.
You would not forego his acquaintance
For all your goods, I’d set in the balance
All that I have in my possession!
He is a man of great discretion;
I advise you, he’s an excellent man.’
‘Well,’ quoth our Host, ‘I pray you, tell on,
Is he a cleric, or no? Say what he is.’
‘Nay, to be greater than a clerk is this,’
Said the Yeoman, ‘in a few words or so,
Host, of his craft something I would show.
I say, my lord such subtle skills has he –
Yet all his craft you cannot learn from me
Although I help him somewhat in its working –
That all this ground over which we’re riding,
Until we come to Canterbury town,
He could turn it all clean upside-down,
And pave it all with silver and with gold.’
And when the Yeoman had this story told
To our Host, he cried, ‘Benedicitee!
It then seems wondrous marvellous to me –
Since your lord is of such high sapience,
And all men should hold him in reverence –
That his own dignity he treats so light.
His cassock now is scarcely worth a mite,
In truth, I’d say, to him, God bless my soul!
It’s dirty through and through, and torn also.
Why is your lord so slovenly, I pray?
– Yet has the means to buy better any day,
If his deeds accord with all your speech.
Tell me that, for so I do you beseech!’
Quoth the Yeoman, ‘Why go asking me?
God help me so, but he’ll not prosper thee!
– I can’t acknowledge anything I say,
And therefore keep the secret now, I pray –
But he’s too wise, so I believe, in truth.
Whatever is in excess, will never prove
Useful, as the clerics say; it’s a vice.
So that in this I hold him foolish twice;
For when a man has far too great a wit,
Often it happens he misuses it.
So does my lord: and it grieves me sore.
God amend it! I can explain no more.’
‘No matter, my good Yeoman’ quoth our Host;
But since of the cunning of your lord you boast,
Say what he does, I pray you heartily,
Since he works so well and skilfully.
Where do you dwell, if told such may be?’
‘In the suburbs of a town,’ quoth he,
‘Lurking in holes and corners, alleys blind,
Where robbers, and thieves of every kind,
Fearful, keep their private residence,
As those do who daren’t show their presence.
So do we fare, if I must tell the truth.’
‘Now,’ quoth our Host, ‘let me ask of you.
Why are you so discoloured round the face?’
‘Peter!’ quoth he, ‘God shows it little grace,
I am forced so oft the flames to blow
That is has altered my whole colour so.
In the mirror I’m hardly wont to pry,
But labour hard: and alchemy I try.
We blunder ever, poring o’er the fire,
Yet for all that, we fail of our desire,
For we never reach the right conclusion.
On many folk we practice pure illusion,
And borrow gold – be it a pound or two,
Or ten, or twelve, more if we’re able to –
And make them think, in whatever way,
That from a pound we can make two: I say
It is all falsehood; but we live in hope
Of success: and after it we grope,
But the science runs so far before
We cannot, despite the oath we swore,
Overtake it; it glides away so fast.
It will leave us beggars at the last.’
While the Yeoman thus went on talking,
The Canon, drawing near, heard everything
That the Yeoman said; for great suspicion
Of men’s speech ever had this Canon.
For Cato says, that he who guilty is
Thinks all men speak of him, as in this.
That was the reason he so near did draw
To his Yeoman, to eavesdrop all the more.
And then he spoke unto his Yeoman, so:
‘Hold your peace and speak not, I say no!
For if you do, you’ll pay for it full dearly.
You’re slandering me to all this company,
Revealing also things that you should hide.’
‘Yet,’ quoth our Host, ‘tell on whate’er betide!
And all his threats reckon them not a fly.’
‘By my faith,’ quoth he, ‘no more shall I.’
And when the Canon saw that it must be,
And the Yeoman dispense with privacy,
He fled away, for very sorrow and shame.
‘Ah,’ quoth the Yeoman, ‘now begins a game!
All that I know, anon now I will tell,
Since he’s gone – fiends whisk him off to Hell!
For never hereafter with him will I visit,
For a penny or a pound, so I swear it.
He that brought me first to that foul game,
Before he dies, sorrow on him, and shame!
For all is serious to me, in faith.
That I feel whatever any man sayeth.
And despite the pain, and all my grief,
Despite my sorrow, labour, and mischief,
I could never forsake it in any wise.
Now would God my wits might suffice
To tell you all belonging to that art!
Yet, nonetheless, I will tell you part;
Since my lord is gone, no details spare.
Whatever of it I know, I shall declare.’
Here ends the Prologue of the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale
The Canon Yeoman’s Tale
Here begins the Canon’s Yeoman his Tale
With this Canon I’ve dwelt for seven years,
Yet his science no clearer to me appears.
And all that I have had, I’ve lost thereby,
As, God knows, have many more than I!
Where I was wont to be right fresh each day
In clothing, and in other fine array,
Now I must wear my hose upon my head;
And where my colour was both fresh and red,
Now is it wan and of a leaden hue.
Whoso employs it, bitterly shall he rue!
And bleared yet from labour is my eye.
Lo, what a game it is to ‘multiply’!
The slippery science renders me so bare
I gain no profit, wherever I may fare.
And yet I am so much in debt thereby,
With the gold that I have borrowed, I,
While I live, may yet repay it never.
Let every man be warned by me forever!
Whichever man applies himself thereto,
His luck is over, if he dare continue.
So help me God, nothing thereby he’ll win,
But empty his purse, and make his wits thin.
And when he, through his madness and folly,
Has placed his own wealth in jeopardy,
Then he’ll excite other folks thereto
To lose their own wealth, as he must do.
For to villains a joy it is, and does please,
To see others suffer pain and disease.
– Thus I was once informed by a clerk.
Of that no matter; I’ll speak of our work.
When we had found a place to exercise
Our elvish craft, we appeared wondrous wise;
Our language was so technical and quaint.
I blew the fire till I was fit to faint.
Why should I tell you every proportion
Of all the substances we worked upon?
– Such as, five or six ounces, it may be,
Of silver, or some other quantity –
Or busy myself to tell you all the names,
Arsenic sulphides, burnt bone, iron grains,
All into powder ground, and rendered small;
And how in an earthen pot we put it all,
And put in salt, a sprinkling of pepper,
Before the powders that I speak of, covered
The whole thing with a vessel made of glass;
And many another thing which there was;
And with clay the pots and glasses sealing,
That, of the air, might pass out nothing;
And of the slow fire, and hot also,
Which we made, and all the care and woe
We took with our materials’ sublimation,
And in calcination and amalgamation
Of quicksilver, called mercury indeed?
For all our tricks we could not succeed.
Our arsenic sulphides, sublimated mercury,
Our lead oxides ground down fine on porphyry;
Of each of these some ounces went for certain –
Nothing helped; we laboured all in vain!
Neither the vapours in their ascension,
Nor the solids left settling all adown
Did in our workings anything avail,
For lost was all our labour and travail.
And all the cost, all gone the devil’s way,
Was lost also, whatever we had to pay.
There is also many another thing
To mention, to our craft appertaining,
Though I can’t by rote rehearse the plan,
For truly I was never a learned man.
Yet I will speak them as they come to mind,
Though I can’t enumerate them by kind:
– Such as Armenian clay, verdigris, borax,
And sundry vessels made of earth and glass,
Our urinals, our pots for distillation,
Phials, crucibles, pots for sublimation,
Of gourd-retorts, and alembics I speak,
And other such, all hardly worth a leek –
I’ve no need to rehearse them all –
Waters for reddening metals, bull’s gall,
Arsenic, sal ammoniac, and brimstone;
And herbs I might mention, many a one
– As moonwort, valerian, agrimony,
And other such, if I should choose to tarry.
Our vessels glowing bright, both night and day,
To bring about our purpose, if we may;
Our furnaces too for calcination,
And waters for the albification;
Un-slaked lime, chalk and egg-white, say,
Powders diverse, ashes, dung, piss and clay,
Waxed bags, saltpetre, vitriol,
And diverse fires made of wood and coal;
Tartar, alkali, salt preparation,
And combust matters in coagulation;
Clay made with horse or human hair, and oil
Of tartar, potash of alum, yeast, argoile,
Realgar, unfermented beer, moistening
Matter, matter for our compounding,
And for our silver’s citrination,
Our testing by heat, our fermentation,
Our ingots, vessels for assay, and so.
I’ll tell you, as was taught to me, also,
Of the four spirits and the bodies seven,
In order, as I heard my master give them:
The first spirit’s quicksilver, in the list;
The second arsenic sulphide; the third is
Sal ammoniac, and the fourth brimstone.
The bodies seven too, lo here anon:
Sol gold is, and Luna’s silver, all;
Mars iron, Mercury quicksilver we call;
Saturn is lead, and Jupiter is tin,
And Venus copper, by my father’s kin.
Who this wretched craft shall exercise,
Shall have no wealth from it that may suffice,
For all the wealth he spends thereabout
Shall he lose; of that I have no doubt.
Who would reveal his folly, so say I,
Let him come forth and learn to ‘multiply’.
And every man with aught in his coffer,
Let him appear and play philosopher,
If to the craft it’s easy to aspire!
Nay, nay, God knows, be it monk or friar,
Priest or canon on whom the wish should light,
Though he sit at his books both day and night
Studying this foolish elvish lore,
All is in vain – and, in faith, it’s more
Vain teaching a layman all this subtlety!
Fie! Speak not of it, no way shall it be.
Whether he knows his letters, or knows none,
The effect’s the same, he’ll find it all one;
For either of the two, by my salvation,
Achieve the same at alchemy’s mutation,
Whatever ‘multiplying’ they may do,
That is to say, they fail: both the two.
Still have I forgotten my rehearsal
Of corrosive liquids, and of metal,
And of bodies’ mollification,
And also of their induration,
Oils, ablutions, and metal fusible –
To tell it all’s beyond any bible
Anywhere; and so, and for the best,
From all these names I’ll take a rest.
It seems to me, enough I’ve told you now
To raise a fiend, one fierce enough I vow.
Ah, nay, let be! The philosopher’s stone,
Called the elixir, we seek it every one,
For had we it, we’d be secure, and how.
Yet to the God of Heaven I will avow,
For all our skill, when the work is through,
Despite our wit, still is there all to do.
It tempted us to spend our worldly good,
For sorrow of which go mad we should,
Except that hope still creeps about our heart,
Dreaming ever, despite our bitter smart,
Of being eased by profit, afterward.
Such dreaming, and such hope dies hard;
I warn you, you’ll seek for it forever.
That future hope makes madmen sever,
By trusting it, from all they ever had;
Yet the art can never make them sad,
For to them it is still bitter-sweet.
So it seems – for have they but a sheet,
In which to wrap themselves of a night,
And a coarse cloak to walk in, by daylight,
They will sell them, and spend it on the craft.
They cannot cease till nothing’s left, alas.
And evermore, wherever they choose to go,
By that brimstone smell, men may them know.
For all the world, they stink like goats, the lot!
The smell they give off is so rank and hot
That though a man a mile from them may be,
The smell will still infect him yet, trust me.
Thus by the smell, and their threadbare array,
If men wish recognise these folk they may.
And if a man will ask them privately
Why they clothe themselves so shabbily,
They right anon will whisper in his ear,
And say that if they discovered were
Men would slay them, because of their science.
Lo, thus these folk trade on innocence!
Pass over this; I go my tale unto.
Ere that the pot be on the fire anew,
Metals in specific quantity,
My lord tempers, and no man but he –
Now he is gone, I dare say it boldly –
For, as men say, he works skilfully
(At any rate, I know he’s earned a name),
And yet he often blunders just the same.
Know you how? Full oft it happens so,
The pot breaks, and then there’s naught to show!
These metals are of such great violence,
Our walls provide but limited resistance,
Unless they are wrought of lime and stone.
They pierce so, and through the wall are gone,
And some of them sink straight into the ground –
Thus have we lost sometimes many a pound –
And some are scattered all the floor about,
Some leap up to the roof. Without a doubt,
Though to our sight the fiend won’t show,
I think he’s with us, that foul so and so!
In Hell, where he is the lord and sire,
There’s no more woe, or rancour, or ire,
Than when our pot breaks, as I have said;
Everyone chides, pours insults on our head.
Some say it was faulty fire-making;
Some say nay, it was faulty blowing;
Then I’m a-feared, since that’s my office.
‘Straw!’ says a third, ‘You’re foolish twice!
It wasn’t tempered as it ought to be!
‘Nay,’ says a fourth, ‘hearken unto me.
Because the fire wasn’t made of beech,
That’s the cause, and none other, I teach!’
I’ve no idea where the thing went wrong,
But well I know great strife is us among.
‘Well!’ says my lord, ‘No more can be done.
I’ll be more careful in time to come.
I’m certain now that the pot was crazed.
Be it as it may, be not dismayed;
As we do, sweep the floor, swift and lithe.
Pluck up your courage, be glad and blithe!’
The rubbish in a heap is swept, alas,
And over the floor a piece of canvas cast,
And all the rubbish in a sieve is thrown,
And sifted, and picked over like a bone.
‘By my faith,’ says one, ‘some of our metal
Is here yet, although we have not it all.
And though the thing has failed us for now,
Another time it may go well, I vow.
We have to risk our wealth, at a venture!
A merchant, by my faith, can’t endure
For long, trust me, in his prosperity.
Sometimes his wealth is drowned in the sea,
And sometimes it comes home safe to land.’
‘Peace!’ quoth my lord,’ Next time, you understand,
I’ll try to bring our craft to perfection,
And if I do not, sires, condemn my actions!
There was a fault, though what fault I know not.’
Another claimed the fire was over hot –
But, be it hot or cold, I dare say this,
Our attempt would still have gone amiss.
We fail to profit from all that we gave,
And in our madness evermore we rave.
And when we are together, everyone
Seems as wise as was King Solomon;
But everything that glitters is not gold
Nor everything that shines, I am told,
Nor is every apple that meets the eye
Good to eat, whatever the hue and cry.
Right so, behold, it fares amongst us:
He that seems the wisest man, by Jesus,
Is the biggest fool, when put to proof,
And who seems honest is a thief, in truth.
This you shall know, ere from you I wend,
By the time my tale has reached an end.
There is a canon now of religion
Amongst us, who could infect a town,
Though it were as great as Nineveh,
With Rome, Troy, and Alexandria.
His tricks and infinite deceitfulness
Are more than a man could write, I guess,
Though he might live for a thousand years.
In all this world of falsehood, it appears,
He has no equal, with jargon he’ll blind
All men, and speak, too, in so sly a kind,
When he communes with any day or night,
That he will make the man a fool outright,
Unless he is a fiend, as he himself is.
For many a man has he beguiled ere this,
And will, if he may live a little while.
And yet men ride, and go many a mile
To seek him out, and make his acquaintance,
Not knowing of his false governance.
And if you will grant me audience,
I will tell of it here, in your presence.
But worshipful canons, all religious,
Don’t think that I am slandering your house,
Although my tale may of a canon be.
In every order, some are rogues, we see!
And God forbid that a whole company
Should all do penance for one man’s folly.
To slander you is hardly my intent,
But to correct what is wrong, is meant.
This tale is not told for you alone, now,
But more for others. You well know how
That among Christ’s Apostles twelve
There was no traitor but Judas himself;
Then why would all the rest share the blame
Who were guiltless? Of you I say the same –
Save only this, if you will hark to me:
If any Judas in your convent be
Remove him swiftly, be it on your head
If shame or loss should ever cause you dread.
And be not displeased with me, I pray,
But in this instance hark to what I say.
In London lived a chantry priest I hear,
Who therein had dwelt for many a year,
Who was so agreeable and so able,
The housewife where he sat at table,
Would allow him not a coin to pay
For board or clothing, whatever his display;
And he had spending-silver too, and how.
No matter; I will proceed for now,
And tell forth all my tale of the canon
Who brought this priest to great confusion.
The false canon went along one day
To the priest’s chamber where he lay,
Beseeching him to lend him a certain
Sum of gold, which he’d repay again.
‘Lend me a mark,’ quoth he, ‘but days three,
And on the day appointed I’ll pay thee.
And if so be that you find me false,
The next day hang me from the walls!’
The priest took out a mark, at once,
And the canon thanked him anon,
And took his leave, and went forth on his way,
And on the third day came to repay,
And gave his gold to the priest again,
Of which the priest was glad, it’s plain.
‘Certainly,’ quoth he, ‘it’s fine by me
To lend a man a noble, or two, or three,
Or anything that is in my possession,
When he’s of such honest disposition
That he’ll in no wise fail of his day.
To such a man I never can say nay.’
‘What,’ quoth the canon, ‘I be untrue?
Nay, that would indeed be something new!
My honour is a thing I’ll ever keep
Until the final day on which I creep
Into my grave, all else God forbid!
Believe in this as surely as the Creed!
God be thanked, in good time be it said,
There was never a man not repaid
By me with the gold or silver he had lent,
Nor never a falsehood in my intent.
And sire,’ quoth he, ‘now all privately,
Since you have show such courtesy to me,
And dealt with me with such nobleness,
To repay you somewhat for your goodness
I’ll tell you something: if you wish to hear,
I’ll teach you plainly all the manner
In which I can work true alchemy.
Take good heed; with your own eye you’ll see
That I will work a miracle ere I go.’
‘Yea?’ quoth the priest, ‘Sire, and will you so?
Marry! I pray you do so, heartily.’
‘At your command, sire, I shall do, truly,’
Quoth the canon, ‘all else God forbid!’
Lo, how this thief could his service bid!
True indeed it is that proffered service
Stinks: call the old and wise as witness;
And that full soon you will surely see
In this canon, root of all treachery,
Who evermore delights and finds gladness –
Such fiendish tricks his thoughts express –
When on Christ’s people mischief he does bring.
God keep us from his false dissembling!
The priest knew nothing of with whom he dealt,
And of the coming harm he nothing felt.
O foolish priest, O foolish innocent,
By covetousness, anon, to be rent!
O devoid of grace: blind your conceit!
Utterly unaware of the deceit
This cunning fox has crafted for thee.
From his wily tricks you may not flee;
And therefore to reach my conclusion
Which concerns your utter confusion,
Unhappy man, I will move on swiftly
To tell of your stupidity and folly,
And the falseness of that other wretch,
As far as my ability may stretch.
This canon was my lord, you think I mean?
Sir Host, in faith, and by the Heavens’ Queen,
It was another canon, and not he,
A hundred-fold deeper in subtlety.
He has betrayed folks many a time;
Of his falseness it troubles me to rhyme.
Whenever I speak about his falsehood,
For shame of him my cheeks fill with blood
– At any rate, they begin to glow,
For redness I have none, as I do know,
In my visage, for the fumes all diverse
Of metals, which you heard me rehearse,
Consumed and wasted have my redness.
Take heed of this canon’s wickedness!
‘Sire,’ quoth he to the priest, ‘Send your man
For quicksilver, so we have some on hand;
And let him bring us two ounces or three;
And when he returns, then you shall see
A wondrous thing you never saw ere this.’
‘Sire,’ quoth the priest, ‘as you command, it is.’
He bade his servant fetch him this thing,
And he was all ready at his bidding,
And so went forth, and came anon again
With this quicksilver, briefly to explain,
And handed three ounces to the canon;
And he laid them fair and well adown,
And bade the servant coals for to bring,
That he might at once begin its working.
The servant swiftly brought the coal,
And the canon then took a crucible
From his bosom, and showed it to the priest.
‘This instrument,’ quoth he, ‘which you see,
Take it in hand yourself, and place therein
Of this quicksilver an ounce, and so begin,
In Christ’s name, to be a philosopher.
There are few indeed to whom I’d offer
To show them this much of all my science,
For you shall see here, by experience,
This quicksilver I’ll harden, by and by,
Right in your sight anon, without a lie,
And make it as good silver, and as fine,
As there is any in your purse, or mine,
Or elsewhere, and make it malleable –
Else hold me as false, and unable
Ever amongst true folks to appear!
I have a powder here, that cost me dear,
Which makes all good, it’s the root of all
My power, of which I’ll show you more.
Send your man away, he can stand without,
And shut the door while we are about
Our private tasks, that no man may us see,
While we work at all this alchemy.’
All that he asked was fulfilled in deed:
The servant was sent away with speed,
And his master shut the door anon,
And to their labour swiftly are they gone.
The priest, at this wretched canon’s bidding,
Upon the fire anon set this thing,
And blew the fire, and busied him full fast.
And the canon into the crucible cast
A powder – I know not what it was
Chalk perhaps, perhaps it was of glass,
Or something else not worth a fly,
To blind this priest with – and bade him ply
The tongs, and lay the coal all above
The crucible: ‘As a token I thee love,’
Quoth this canon, ‘with your own hands two
Shall you work the thing which here we do.’
‘Graunt merci,’ quoth the priest, and was full glad,
And laid the coals out as the canon bade.
And while he was busy, the fiendish wretch,
This false canon – the foul fiend him fetch! –
Out of his bosom took a beech-wood coal,
In which all subtly he had bored a hole,
And put therein silver filings from the scale,
An ounce, and sealed it was, without fail,
That hole with wax, to keep the silver in.
And understand that this false piece of sin
Was not made there, but it was made before;
And other things that I shall tell of more
Hereafter, that he with him had brought.
Ere he came, to beguile the priest he thought;
And so he did, ere that they had parted.
He couldn’t wait to fleece him, once he’d started.
It angers me when of him I speak;
On his falsehood vengeance would I wreak,
If I knew how, but he is here and there;
He’s so changeable, he abides nowhere.
But take heed now, sires, for God’s love:
He took the coal, of which I spoke above,
And in his hand he held it covertly,
And while the priest was working busily
With the other coals, as I said ere this,
The canon spoke: ‘Friend, you’ve gone amiss.
This is not laid out as it ought to be.
But I’ll soon amend it now,’ quoth he.
Let me fiddle with all this for a while,
For I take pity on you, by Saint Giles!
You are full hot – I see how you do sweat.
Here, take a cloth, and wipe away the wet.’
And while the priest stood and wiped his face,
The canon took his coal – may he lack grace! –
And laid it above, on the middle ward
Of the crucible, and blew well afterward,
Till the coals burnt vigorously, and then:
‘Give us a drink,’ quoth the canon ‘when,
In a trice all will be well, I undertake.
Sit us down, and let us merry make.’
And when the canon’s beechen coal
Was burnt, all the metal from the hole
Into the crucible flowed down anon
– For so it had to do, as stands to reason,
Since laid so levelly above it was.
But the priest knew naught of it, alas!
He thought all the coals equally good,
For of the trick he nothing understood.
And when the alchemist saw it was time,
‘Rise up,’ quoth he, ‘sir priest and stand by me,
And since an ingot mould I know you’ve none,
Go walk forth, and bring me some chalk-stone,
For I will mould it into the same shape
That a silver ingot has, its form I’ll ape.
And bring with you, too, a bowl or pan
Full of water and you will see, good man,
How our affair shall prosper and conceive.
But wait: so that you may not misbelieve
Nor have suspicions of me in your absence,
I will not stay here out of your presence,
But go with you, and come with you again.’
The chamber door, shortly, to explain,
They opened and shut, and went their way,
And carried the key with them, I may say,
And came back again without delay.
Why tarry, in telling this, the livelong day?
He took the chalk, and carved it in the wise
Of a silver ingot mould, that’s no surprise.
I say, he took from out of his own sleeve
A silver rod – curse those who do deceive! –
Which was exactly a full ounce in weight.
And take heed now of the trick he played:
He carved his ingot mould in length and breadth
To fit this rod, cunningly, as I said,
So slyly that the priest naught espied,
And in his sleeve again he did it hide,
And from the fire he took up his matter,
And poured it in the mould, with merry cheer,
Then in the water he the mould did cast
As he wished; and the priest called at the last,
‘Look what is there – put in your hand and grope!
You will find silver there, I dare to hope.’
What else, by the Devil and Hell, could it be?
Silver shavings formed it, utterly!
The priest put in his hand, and plain as plain
Found the silver rod: joy through every vein
Of the priest coursed, on seeing it was so.
‘God’s blessing, and his mother’s also,
And all his saints, on you, sir canon!’
Said the priest, ‘and on me derision,
If – should you agree that you’ll teach me
This noble craft and all its subtlety –
I am not yours, in all that ever I may.’
Quoth the canon: ‘Yet will I make assay
A second time, so that you may take heed
And become expert, and when you need
To do so, another day, in my absence,
Work this discipline and skilful science.
Let us take up another ounce,’ quoth he,
‘Of quicksilver, at once, and rapidly
Do with it as you have done ere this
With the other, which turned to silver is.’
The priest busies himself quick as he can
To do just as the canon, that wicked man,
Has commanded him, and fast blows the fire
To come at all the fruits of his desire.
And the canon too, in the meanwhile,
Is all ready the priest to twice beguile;
And in pretence in his hand does bear
A hollow stick – take note and be aware! –
In the end of which an ounce, and no more
Of silver metal was placed, as before
In the coal, and sealed with wax as well,
To keep the bits of metal where they must dwell.
And while the priest arranged the business,
The canon with his stick began to address
The crucible and all his powder he cast in,
As he did before – the devil out of his skin
Flay him, I pray to God, for his deceit!
For he was ever false in thought and deed –
And with his stick, above the crucible,
That was all charged with that false metal,
He stirred the coals till to melt began
The wax within the fire, as every man,
Knows well it should, unless he is a fool,
And all that was in the stick poured out too
And into the crucible it swiftly fell.
Now, good sires, what do you think befell?
When the priest was thus beguiled again,
Supposing it naught but true, truth to say,
He was so glad I can scarce express
The nature of his mirth and his gladness;
As for the canon he offered him the moon,
His body and soul. Quoth the canon soon,
‘Though poor I be, skilful you shall me find,
I warn you; and there is yet more behind.
Is there any copper about?’ said he.
‘Yes, sire,’ quoth the priest, ‘I think there be.’
– ‘If not, go buy some now for us, quickly!
Good sire, be on your way, and haste thee.’
The priest went off, and with the copper came,
And the canon took in his hands the same,
And of the copper weighed out just an ounce.
All too powerless is my tongue to pronounce,
As minister to my thought, the wickedness
Of this canon, root of all sinfulness!
He seemed a friend to those who knew him not,
But he was a fiend, in his deeds and thought.
It wearies me to tell of all his falseness,
Yet nevertheless, I will it all express,
So that men may be made aware, thereby,
And for no other reason, the truth say I.
The ounce of copper in the crucible
He placed, and on the fire set the metal,
Cast in the powder, made the priest to blow,
And in his working made him stoop down low,
As he did before – the whole thing was a jape;
As he had wished, he made the priest his ape!
And afterwards, in the mould the metal cast,
And in the pan placed it at the last
Of water, and into it put his hand,
And in his sleeve (just as beforehand
You heard me tell) he had a silver rod.
He slyly took it out, this cursed of God,
The priest ignorant still of his false craft,
And in the bottom of the pan (you laughed!)
Placed it, tumbling the water to and fro,
And wondrous secretly took up also
The copper rod, invisibly to the priest,
And hid it, and by the arm him seized,
And spoke to him, and carried on the game:
‘Stoop down now – by God, or you’re to blame! –
Help me now, as I did you before. Where
Is your hand? Dip in, and see what’s there.’
The priest took up the silver rod anon;
And then said the canon: ‘Let us now be gone,
With these three rods, that we have wrought,
To a goldsmith, and see if they be aught.
For, by my faith I’d swear, by my hood,
That they are pure silver, fine and good,
And that swiftly proven shall it be.’
Off to the goldsmith with these rods three
They went, and put the rods to the assay
With fire and hammer; and none could say
They were not what they ought to be.
The foolish priest, who was gladder than he?
There was never bird gladder to see the day,
No nightingale in the merry month of May
Was ever more eager than him to sing,
No lady more vigorous in carolling,
Or speaking of love and womanhood,
No knight in arms to show as brave and good,
To gain the favour of his lady dear,
Than was this priest an expert to appear!
And to the canon thus he loudly cried:
‘For love of God, who for us all has died,
And as I may deserve your favour, how
Much does this secret cost? Tell me now!’
‘By our lady,’ quoth the canon, ‘it comes dear,
I warn you; for save I, and one, my peer,
In England no other man can silver make.’
‘No matter,’ quoth he, ‘now, sire, for God’s sake,
What must I pay? Tell me that, I pray.’
‘Well,’ quoth he, ‘it is full dear, I say.
Sire, in a word, if such is what you crave,
You must pay forty pounds, so God me save!
And were it not for the friendship, as it is,
You’ve showed to me, it would be more than this.’
The priest the sum of forty pounds anon,
In nobles, fetched, and took them every one
To the canon for his formula, complete.
All his working was but fraud and deceit.
‘Sir priest,’ he said, ‘I cannot make the most
Of my craft, its secrets must be kept close;
So, as you love me, keep them secretly,
For, if men knew of all my subtlety,
By God, they’d be so possessed by envy
Of me, because of all my alchemy,
I’d be stone dead; that would be their way.’
‘God forbid!’ quoth the priest, ‘What’s this you say?
I’d rather spend all the wealth I had,
Or hope to have, else may I be mad,
Than to see you suffer such misdeed.’
‘Of your goodwill, you show proof indeed!’
Quoth the canon, ‘Now farewell, grant merci!’
He went his way, and never the priest did see
Him from that day to this; and when the priest
Made assay, the next time that he wished,
Of the formula, farewell! – It was deceit!
Lo thus befuddled, and beguiled was he!
So does the canon make preparation
To bring folk to their own destruction.
Consider, sires, how in all walks of life,
Between men and gold there is ever strife,
So much so that there is scarcely any.
This alchemy now has so blinded many
That, in good faith, I swear that it must be
The greatest cause of all this scarcity.
Philosophers speak so mistily
Of this craft, that men can barely see,
Not with the wit that men have nowadays.
They may go on chattering like jays,
And on its jargon wager joy and pain,
But to its end they never will attain.
A man easily learn, if he owns aught,
To ‘multiply’, and bring his wealth to naught.
Lo, such a profit there is in this sweet game:
A man’s mirth it will turn to woe and shame,
Empty out their large and heavy purses,
And end in folk purchasing fresh curses
From those that to it their wealth have turned.
O fie, for shame! – They that have been burned,
Can they not learn, alas, to shun the heat?
You that try it, I’d advise you flee it,
Or lose all; better than never is late.
For wealth, ‘never’ is far too long to wait;
Though you search always, you’ll never find.
You are as bold as Bayard is, the blind
And blundering horse, perils all unknown.
He is as like to run against a stone
As to wander along the broad highway.
So fare you all who ‘multiply’ I say.
If your eyes cannot see aright,
Be careful your mind lacks not its sight;
For though you gaze ever so wide, or stare,
You’ll win nothing at all by dabbling there,
But merely waste all you may seize in turn.
Dampen the fire lest it swiftly burn;
Meddle no more with all that art, I mean,
For if you do, your coffers will be clean.
And listen to me again, here’s the chatter:
What true alchemists made of this matter.
Give Arnold of Villanova your attention –
In his Rosary the process he does mention –
He speaks thus, without shadow of a lie:
‘No man may harden mercury, say I,
Without his brother sulphur inflowing.’
Yet the man who first said this thing
Was the father of the alchemists, Hermes;
He says that the dragon, if you please,
Does not die unless he in turn is slain
With his brother, and, I should explain,
By the dragon, mercury, and no other
He understood, and brimstone by his brother,
That out of Sol and Luna men do draw.
‘And therefore,’ said he – listen to my lore –
‘Let no man busy himself those heights to reach,
Unless the intention and the speech
Of the alchemists he does understand.
And if he does not, he’s a foolish man;
For this science and this skill,’ quoth he,
‘Is the most secret of secrets, trust in me.’
Also there was a disciple of Plato
Who once spoke to his master – I know,
For the book Senior Zadith bears witness –
Making demand that the truth he express:
‘Tell me the name of the secret stone.’
And Plato answered him right anon:
‘Take the stone that men Titanos name – ’
‘What is that?’ quoth he; ‘Magnesia is the same,’
Said Plato. ‘Yea, sire, and is it thus?
You explain ignotum per ignocius!
What is Magnesia then, good sire, I pray?’
‘It is a liquid that is made, I say,
Out of four elements,’ then quoth Plato.
‘Tell me the root, good sire,’ quoth he also,
‘Of that liquid, if so be your will.’
‘Nay,’ quoth Plato, ‘It is a secret, still!
The philosophers are sworn every one
To reveal the essence of this to none,
Nor write it in a book in any manner,
For to God it is so precious and dear
That he wishes not its discovery,
Save where it is pleasing to his deity
To enlighten men, and thus to defend
The truth from others; lo, this is the end!’
So I conclude thus, since the God of Heaven
Won’t allow philosophers, with reason,
To say how men might come at this stone,
I advise you for the best, let it alone!
For whoever makes God his adversary,
And tries to work a thing that’s contrary
To His will, for sure, shall never thrive,
Though he ‘multiply’ as long as he’s alive.
And that’s the point; for ended is my tale.
God send every true man grace without fail!
Here is ended the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale