Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE WIFE OF BATH HER TALE, by GEOFFREY CHAUCER

Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

Rhyming Dictionary Search
THE WIFE OF BATH HER TALE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: In days of old, when arthur filled the throne
Last Line: Who will not well be govern'd by their wives.
Variant Title(s): Fables Ancient And Modern: The Wife Of Bath Her Tale
Subject(s): Arthurian Legend; Chaucer, Geoffrey (1342-1400); Fables; Knights & Knighthood; Rape; Women; Arthur, King; Allegories

IN Days of Old, when Arthur fill'd the Throne,
Whose Acts and Fame to Foreign Lands were blown,
The King of Elfs and little fairy Queen
Gamboll'd on Heaths, and danc'd on ev'ry Green;
And where the jolly Troop had led the Round,
The Grass unbidden rose, and mark'd the Ground.
Nor darkling did they dance, the Silver Light
Of Phoebe serv'd to guide their Steps aright,
And, with their Tripping pleas'd, prolong'd the Night.
Her Beams they follow'd, where at full she plaid,
Nor longer than she shed her Horns they staid,
From thence with airy Flight to Foreign Lands convey'd.
Above the rest our Britain held they dear,
More solemnly they kept their Sabbaths here,
And made more spacious Rings, andrevell'd half the Year.
I speak of ancient Times; for now the Swain
Returning late may pass the Woods in vain,
And never hope to see the nightly Train:
In vain the Dairy now with Mints is dress'd,
The Dairy-Maid expects no Fairy Guest,
To skim the Bowls and after pay the Feast.
She sighs, and shakes her empty Shoes in vain,
No Silver Penny to reward her Pain:
For Priests with Pray'rs, and other godly Geer,
Have made the merry Goblins disappear;
And where they plaid their merry Pranks before,
Have sprinkled Holy Water on the Floor:
And Fry'rs that through the wealthy Regions run
Thick as the Motes, that twinkle in the Sun,
Resort to Farmers rich, and bless their Halls
And exorcise the Beds, and cross the Walls:
This makes the Fairy Quires forsake the Place,
When once 'tis hallow'd with the Rites of Grace:
But in the Walks, where wicked Elves have been,
The Learning of the Parish now is seen,
The Midnight Parson posting o'er the Green
With Gown tuck'd up to Wakes; for Sunday next
With humming Ale encouraging his Text;
Nor wants the holy Leer to Country-Girl betwixt.
From Fiends and Imps he sets the Village free,
There haunts not any Incubus, but He.
The Maids and Women need no Danger fear
To walk by Night, and Sanctity so near:
For by some Haycock or some shady Thorn
He bids his Beads both Even-song and Morn. It so befel in this King Arthur's
A lusty Knight was pricking o'er the Plain;
A Bachelor he was, and of the courtly Train.
It happen'd as he rode, a Damsel gay
In Russet-Robes to Market took her way;
Soon on the Girl he cast an amorous Eye,
So strait she walk'd, and on her Pasterns high:
If seeing her behind he lik'd her Pace,
Now turning short he better lik'd her Face.
He lights in hast, and, full of Youthful Fire,
By Force accomplish'd his obscene Desire
This done away he rode, not unespy'd,
For swarming at his Back the Country cry'd;
And once in view they never lost the Sight,
But seiz'd, and pinion'd brought to Court the Knight.
Then Courts of Kings were held in high Renown,
E'er made the common Brothels of the Town;
There, Virgins honourable Vows receiv'd,
But chast as Maids in Monasteries liv'd:
The King himself to Nuptial Ties a Slave,
No bad Example to his Poets gave;
And they not bad, but in a vicious Age
Had not to please the Prince debauch'd the Stage.
Now what shou'd Arthur do? He lov'd the Knight,
But Soveraign Monarchs are the Source of Right:
Mov'd by the Damsels Tears and common Cry,
He doom'd the brutal Ravisher to die.
But fair Geneura rose in his Defence,
And pray'd so hard for Mercy from the Prince;
That to his Queen the King th' Offender gave,
And left it in her Pow'r to Kill or Save:
This gracious Act the Ladies all approve,
Who thought it much a Man shou'd die for Love;
And with their Mistress join'd in close Debate,
(Covering their Kindness with dissembled Hate;)
If not to free him, to prolong his Fate.
At last agreed, they call'd him by consent
Before the Queen and Female Parliament.
And the fair Speaker, rising from her Chair
Did thus the Judgment of the House declare.
Sir Knight, tho' I have ask'd thy Life, yet still
Thy Destiny depends upon my Will:
Nor hast thou other Surety than the Grace
Not due to thee from our offended Race.
But as our Kind is of a softer Mold,
And cannot Blood without a Sigh behold,
I grant thee Life; reserving still the Pow'r
To take the Forfeit when I see my Hour;
Unless thy Answer to my next Demand
Shall set Thee free from our avenging Hand;
The Question, whose Solution I require,
Is what the Sex of Women most desire?
In this Dispute thy Judges are at Strife;
Beware, for on thy Wit depends thy Life
Yet (lest surpriz'd, unknowing what to say,
Thou damn thy self) we give thee farther Day:
A Year is thine to wander at thy Will:
And learn from others, if thou want'st the Skill.
But, not to hold our Proffer [as] in Scorn,
Good Sureties will we have for thy return;
That at the time prefix'd thou shalt obey,
And at thy Pledges Peril keep thy Day.
Woe was the Knight at this severe Command!
But well he knew 'twas bootless to withstand:
The Terms accepted as the Fair ordain,
He put in Bail for his return again;
And promis'd Answer at the Day assign'd,
The best, with Heav'n's Assistance, he could find.
His Leave thus taken, on his Way he went
With heavy Heart, and full of Discontent,
Misdoubting much, and fearful of th'Event.
'Twas hard the Truth of such a Point to find,
As was not yet agreed among the Kind.
Thus on he went; still anxious more and more,
Ask'd all he met; and knock'd at ev'ry Door;
Enquir'd of Men; but made his chief Request
To learn from Women what they lov'd the best.
They answer'd each according to her Mind,
To please her self, not all the Female Kind.
One was for Wealth, another was for Place:
Crones old and ugly, wish'd a better Face;
The Widow's Wish was oftentimes to Wed;
The wanton Maids were all for Sport a Bed.
Some said the Sex were pleas'd with handsom Lies,
And some gross Flatt'ry lov'd without disguise:
Truth is, says one, he seldom fails to win
Who Flatters well; for that's our darling Sin.
But long Attendance, and a duteous Mind,
Will work ev'n with the wisest of the Kind.
One thought the Sexes prime Felicity
Was from the Bonds of Wedlock to be free;
Their Pleasures, Hours, and Actions all their own,
And uncontroll'd to give Account to none.
Some wish a Husband-Fool; but such are curst,
For Fools perverse, of Husbands are the worst:
All Women wou'd be counted Chast and Wise,
Nor should our Spouses see, but with our Eyes;
For Fools will prate; and tho' they want the Wit
To find close Faults, yet open Blots will hit:
Tho' better for their Ease to hold their Tongue,
For Womankind was never in the Wrong.
So Noise ensues, and Quarrels last for Life;
The Wife abhors the Fool, the Fool the Wife.
And some Men say, that great Delight have we,
To be for Truth extoll'd, and Secrecy: 150
And constant in one Purpose still to dwell;
And not our Husband's Counsels to reveal.
But that's a Fable: for our Sex is frail,
Inventing rather than not tell a Tale.
Like leaky Sives no Secrets we can hold:
Witness the famous Tale that Ovid told.
Midas the King, as in his Book appears,
By Phoebus was endow'd with Asses Ears,
Which under his long Locks, he well conceal'd
(As Monarch's Vices must not be reveal'd),
For fear the People have 'em in the Wind,
Who long ago were neither Dumb nor Blind;
Nor apt to think from Heav'n their Title springs,
Since Jove and Mars left off begetting Kings.
This Midas knew; and durst communicate
To none but to his Wife, his Ears of State;
One must be trusted, and he thought her fit,
As passing prudent; and a parlous Wit.
To this sagacious Confessor he went,
And told her what a Gift the Gods had sent;
But told it under Matrimonial Seal,
With strict Injunction never to reveal.
The Secret heard she plighted him her Troth,
(And sacred sure is every Woman's Oath)
The royal Malady should rest unknown
Both for her Husband's Honour and her own:
Put ne'ertheless she pin'd with Discontent;
The Counsel rumbled till it found a vent.
The Thing she knew she was oblig'd to hide;
By Int' rest and by Oath the Wife was ty'd;
But if she told it not, the Woman dy'd.
Loath to betray a Husband and a Prince,
But she must burst, or blab; and no pretence
Of Honour ty'd her Tongue from Self-defence.
A marshy Ground commodiously was near,
Thither she ran, and held her Breath for fear,
Lest if a Word she spoke of any Thing,
That Word might be the Secret of the King.
Thus full of Counsel to the Fen she went,
Grip'd all the way, and longing for a vent:
Arriv'd, by pure Necessity compell'd, 191
On her majestick mary-bones she kneel'd:
Then to the Waters-brink she laid her Head,
And, as a Bittour bumps within a Reed,
To thee alone, O Lake, she said, I tell
(And as thy Queen command thee to conceal)
Beneath his Locks the King my Husband wears
A goodly Royal pair of Asses Ears:
Now I have eas'd my Bosom of the Pain
Till the next longing Fit return again!
Thus through a Woman was the Secret known;
Tell us, and in effect you tell the Town:
But to my Tale: The knight with heavy Cheer,
Wandring in vain, had now consum'd the Year:
One Day was only left to solve the Doubt,
Yet knew no more than when he first set out.
But home he must: And as th' Award had been,
Yield up his Body Captive to the Queen.
In this despairing State he hap'd to ride,
As Fortune led him, by a Forest-side:
Lonely the Vale, and full of Horror stood,
Brown with the shade of a religious Wood:
When full before him at the Noon of night,
(The Moon was up, and shot a gleamy Light)
He saw a Quire of Ladies in a round,
That featly footing seem'd to skim the Ground:
Thus dancing Hand in Hand, so light they were,
He knew not where they trod, on Earth or Air.
At speed he drove, and came a suddain Guest,
In hope where many Women were, at least,
Some one by chance might answer his Request.
But faster than his Horse the Ladies flew,
And in a trice were vanish'd out of view
One only Hag remain'd: But fowler far
Than Grandame Apes in Indian Forests are:
Against a wither'd Oak she lean'd her weight,
Prop'd on her trusty Staff, not half upright,
And drop'd an awkard Court'sy to the Knight.
Then said, What make you, Sir, so late abroad
Without a Guide, and this no beaten Road?
Or want you aught that here you hope to find,
Or travel for some Trouble in your Mind?
The last I guess; and, if I read aright,
Those of our Sex are bound to serve a Knight:
Perhaps good Counsel may your Grief asswage,
Then tell your pain: For Wisdom is in Age.
To this the Knight: Good Mother, wou'd you know
The secret Cause and Spring of all my Woe?
My Life must with to Morrow's Light expire,
Unless I tell, what Women most desire: 240
Now cou'd you help me at this hard Essay,
Or for your inborn Goodness, or for Pay:
Yours is my Life, redeem'd by your Advice,
Ask what you please, and I will pay the Price:
The proudest Kerchief of the Court shall rest
Well satisfy'd of what they love the best.
Plight me thy Faith, quoth she: The what I ask
Thy Danger over, and perform'd the Task;
That shalt thou give for Hire of thy Demand;
Here take thy Oath, and seal it on my Hand;
I warrant thee, on Peril of my Life,
Thy Words shall please both Widow, Maid, and Wife.
More Words there needed not to move the Knight,
To take her Offer, and his Truth to plight.
With that she spread her Mantle on the Ground,
And first enquiring whether he was bound,
Bade him not fear, tho' long and rough the Way,
At Court he should arrive e'er break of Day
His Horse should find the way without a Guide.
She said: With Fury they began to ride, 260
He on the midst, the Beldam at his Side.
The Horse, what Devil drove I cannot tell,
But only this, they sped their Journey well:
And all the way the Crone inform'd the Knight,
How he should answer the Demand aright.
To Court they came: The News was quickly spread
Of his returning to redeem his Head.
The Female Senate was assembled soon,
With all the Mob of Women in the Town:
The Queen sate Lord Chief Justice of the Hall,
And bad the Cryer cite the Criminal.
The Knight appear'd; and Silence they proclaim,
Then first the Culprit answer'd to his Name;
And after Forms of Laws, was last requir'd
To name the Thing that Women most desir'd.
Th' Offender, taught his Lesson by the way,
And by his Counsel order'd what to say,
Thus bold began; My Lady Liege, said he,
What all your Sex desire is Soveraignty.
The Wife affects her Husband to command;
All must be hers, both Mony, House, and Land.
The Maids are Mistresses ev'n in their Name;
And of their Servants full Dominion claim.
This, at the Peril of my Head, I say
A blunt plain Truth, the Sex aspires to sway,
You to rule all; while we, like Slaves, obey.
There was not one, or Widow, Maid, or Wife,
But said the Knight had well deserv'd his Life.
Ev'n fair Geneura, with a Blush confess'd,
The Man had found what Women love the best.
Upstarts the Beldam, who was there unseen,
And Reverence made, accosted thus the Queen.
My Liege, said she, before the Court arise,
May I poor Wretch find Favour in your Eyes,
To grant my just Request: 'Twas I who taught
The Knight this Answer, and inspir'd his Thought.
None but a Woman could a Man direct
To tell us Women, what we most affect.
But first I swore him on his Knightly Troth,
(And here demand performance of his Oath)
To grant the Boon that next I should desire;
He gave his Faith, and I expect my Hire:
My Promise is fulfill'd: I sav'd his Life,
And claim his Debt, to take me for his Wife.
The Knight was ask'd, nor cou'd his Oath deny,
But hop'd they would not force him to comply.
The Women, who would rather wrest the Laws,
Than let a Sister-Plaintiff lose the Cause,
(As Judges on the Bench more gracious are,
And more attent to Brothers of the Bar)
Cry'd, one and all, the Suppliant should have Right,
And to the Grandame-Hag adjudg'd the Knight.
In vain he sigh'd, and oft with Tears desir'd
Some reasonable Sute might be requir'd.
But still the Crone was constant to her Note;
The more he spoke, the more she stretch'd her Throat.
In vain he proffer'd all his Goods, to save
His Body, destin'd to that living Grave.
The liquorish Hag rejects the Pelf with scorn:
And nothing but the Man would serve her turn.
Not all the Wealth of Eastern Kings, said she,
Have Pow'r to part my plighted Love, and me;
And, Old, and Ugly as I am, and Poor;
Yet never will I break the Faith I swore;
For mine thou art by Promise, during Life,
And I thy loving and obedient Wife.
My Love! Nay, rather my Damnation Thou,
Said he: Nor am I bound to keep my Vow:
The Fiend thy Sire has sent thee from below,
Else how cou'dst thou my secret Sorrows know?
Avaunt, old Witch, for I renounce thy Bed:
The Queen may take the Forfeit of my Head,
E'er any of my Race so foul a Crone shall wed.
Both heard, the Judge pronounc'd against the Knight;
So was he Marry'd in his own despight;
And all Day after hid him as an Owl,
Not able to sustain a Sight so foul.
Perhaps the Reader thinks I do him wrong
To pass the Marriage-Feast and Nuptial Song:
Mirth there was none, the Man was a-lamorl,
And little Courage had to make his Court.
To Bed they went, the Bridegroom and the Bride:
Was never such an ill-pair'd Couple ty'd.
Restless he toss'd, and tumbled to and fro,
And rowl'd, and wriggled further off; for Woe.
The good old Wife lay smiling by his Side,
And caught him in her quiv'ring Arms, and cry'd,
When you my ravish'd Predecessor saw,
You were not then become this Man of Straw;
Had you been such, you might have scap'd the Law.
Is this the Custom of King Arthur's Court?
Are all Round-Table Knights of such a sort?
Remember I am she who sav'd your Life,
Your loving, lawful, and complying Wife:
Not thus you swore in your unhappy Hour,
Nor I for this return employ'd my Pow'r.
In time of Need I was your faithful Friend;
Nor did I since, nor ever will offend.
Believe me, my lov'd Lord, 'tis much unkind;
What Fury has possessed your alter'd Mind?
Thus on my Wedding-night -- Without Pretence --
Come, turn this way, or tell me my Offence.
If not your Wife, let Reasons Rule persuade,
Name but my Fault, amends shall soon be made.
Amends! Nay, that's impossible, said he,
What change of Age, or Ugliness can be!
Or could Medea's Magick mend thy Face,
Thou art descended from so mean a Race,
That never Knight was match'd with such Disgrace.
What wonder, Madam, if I move my Side,
When, if I turn, I turn to such a Bride?
And is this all that troubles you so sore!
And what the Devil cou'dst thou wish me more?
Ah Benedicite, reply'd the Crone:
Then cause of just Complaining have you none.
The Remedy to this were soon apply'd,
Wou'd you be like the Bridegroom to the Bride.
But, for you say a long descended Race,
And Wealth, and Dignity, and Pow'r, and Place,
Make Gentlemen, and that your high Degree
Is much disparag'd to be match'd with me;
Know this, my Lord, Nobility of Blood
Is but a glitt'ring, and fallacious Good:
The Nobleman is he whose noble Mind
Is fill'd with inborn Worth, unborrow'd from his Kind.
The King of Heav'n was in a Manger laid;
And took his Earth but from an humble Maid:
Then what can Birth, or mortal Men bestow,
Since Floods no higher than their Fountains flow?
We who for Name, and empty Honour strive,
Our true Nobility from him derive.
Your Ancestors, who puff your Mind with Pride,
And vast Estates to mighty Titles ty'd,
Did not your Honour, but their own advance,
For Virtue comes not by Inheritance.
If you tralineate from your Father's Mind,
What are you else but of a Bastard-kind?
Do, as your great Progenitors have done,
And by their virtues prove your self their Son.
No Father can infuse, or Wit or Grace;
A Mother comes across, and marrs the Race.
A Grandsire or a Grandame taints the Blood;
And seldom three Descents continue Good.
Were Virtue by Descent, a noble Name
Could never villanize his Father's Fame:
But, as the first the last of all the Line,
Wou'd like the Sun ev'n in Descending shine.
Take Fire, and bear it to the darkest House
Betwixt King Arthur's Court and Caucasus,
If you depart, the Flame shall still remain,
And the bright Blaze enlighten all the Plain;
Nor, till the Fewel perish, can decay,
By Nature form'd on Things combustible to prey.
Such is not Man, who mixing better Seed
With worse, begets a base, degenerate Breed:
The Bad corrupts the Good, and leaves behind
No trace of all the great Begetter's Mind.
The Father sinks within his Son, we see,
And often rises in the third Degree;
If better Luck, a better Mother give:
Chance gave us being, and by Chance we live.
Such as our Atoms were, ev'n such are we,
Or call it Chance, or strong Necessity.
Thus, loaded with dead weight, the Will is free.
And thus it needs must be: For Seed conjoin'd
Lets into Nature's Work th' imperfect Kind:
But Fire, th' enliv'ner of the general Frame,
Is one, its Operation still the same.
Its Principle is in it self: While ours
Works, as Confederate's War, with mingled Pow'rs:
Or Man, or Woman, which soever fails;
And, oft, the Vigour of the Worse prevails.
AEther with Sulphur blended alters hue,
And casts a dusky gleam of Sodom blue.
Thus in a Brute, their ancient Honour ends,
And the fair Mermaid in a Fish descends:
The Line is gone; no longer Duke or Earl;
But by himself degraded turns a Churl.
Nobility of Blood is but Renown
Of thy great Fathers by their Virtue known,
And a long trail of Light, to thee descending down.
If in thy Smoke it ends, their Glories shine;
But Infamy and Villanage are thine.
Then what I said before, is plainly show'd,
That true Nobility proceeds from God:
Nor left us by Inheritance, but giv'n
By Bounty of our Stars, and Grace of Heaven.
Thus from a Captive Servius Tullus rose,
Whom for his Virtues, the first Romans chose:
Fabritius from their Walls repell'd the Foe,
Whose noble Hands had exercis'd the Plough.
From hence, my Lord, and Love, I thus conclude,
That tho' my homely Ancestors were rude,
Mean as I am, yet I may have the Grace
To make you Father of a generous Race:
And Noble then am I, when I begin,
In Virtue cloath'd, to cast the Rags of Sin:
If Poverty be my upbraided Crime,
And you believe in Heav'n; there was a time,
When He, the great Controller of our Fate
Deign'd to be Man, and lived in low Estate:
Which he who had the World at his dispose,
If Poverty were Vice, wou'd never choose.
Philosophers have said, and Poets sing,
That a glad Poverty's an honest Thing.
Content is Wealth, the Riches of the Mind;
And happy He who can that Treasure find,
But the base Miser starves amidst his Store,
Broods on his Gold, and griping still at more
Sits sadly pining, and believes he's Poor.
The ragged Beggar, tho' he wants Relief,
Has not to lose, and sings before the Thief.
Want is a bitter, and a hateful Good,
Because its Virtues are not understood.
Yet many Things, impossible to Thought,
Have been by Need to full Perfection brought:
The daring of the Soul proceeds from thence,
Sharpness of Wit, and active Diligence:
Prudence at once, and Fortitude it gives,
And if in patience taken mends our Lives;
For ev'n that Indigence that brings me low
Makes me my self and Him above to know.
A Good which none would challenge, few would choose,
A fair Possession, which Mankind refuse.
If we from Wealth to Poverty descend,
Want gives to know the Flatt'rer from the Friend.
If I am Old, and Ugly, well for you,
No leud Adult'rer will my Love pursue;
Nor Jealousy, the Bane of marry'd Life,
Shall haunt you, for a wither'd homely Wife:
For Age, and Ugliness, as all agree,
Are the best Guards of Female Chastity.
Yet since I see your Mind is Worldly bent,
I'll do my best to further your Content.
And therefore of two Gifts in my dispose,
Think e'er you speak, I grant you leave to choose:
Wou'd you I should be still Deform'd, and Old,
Nauseous to Touch, and Loathsome to Behold;
On this Condition, to remain for life
A careful, tender and obedient Wife,
In all I can contribute to your Ease,
And not in Deed, or Word, or Thought displease?
Or would you rather have me Young and Fair,
And take the Chance that happens to your share?
Temptations are in Beauty, and in Youth,
And how can you depend upon my Truth?
Now weigh the Danger with the doubtful Bliss,
And thank your self, if ought should fall amiss.
Sore sigh'd the Knight, who this long Sermon heard;
At length considering all, his Heart he chear'd,
And thus reply'd, My Lady, and my Wife,
To your wise Conduct I resign my Life:
Choose you for me, for well you understand
The future Good and Ill, on either Hand:
But if an humble Husband may request,
Provide, and order all Things for the best;
Your's be the Care to profit, and to please:
And let your Subject-Servant take his Ease.
Then thus in Peace, quoth she, concludes the Strife,
Since I am turn'd the Husband, you the Wife:
The Matrimonial Victory is mine,
Which having fairly gain'd, I will resign;
Forgive if I have said, or done amiss,
And seal the Bargain with a Friendly Kiss:
I promis'd you but one Content to share.
But now I will become both Good, and Fair.
No Nuptial Quarrel shall disturb your Ease,
The Business of my Life shall be to please:
And for my Beauty that, as Time shall try;
But draw the Curtain first, and cast your Eye.
He look'd, and saw a Creature heav'nly Fair,
In bloom of Youth, and of a charming Air.
With Joy he turn'd, and seiz'd her Iv'ry Arm;
And like Pygmalion found the Statue warm.
Small Arguments there needed to prevail,
A Storm of Kisses pour'd as thick as Hail.
Thus long in mutual Bliss they lay embraced,
And their first Love continu'd to the last:
One Sun-shine was their Life; no Cloud between;
Nor ever was a kinder Couple seen.
And so may all our Lives like their's be led;
Heav'n send the Maids young Husbands, fresh in Bed:
May Widows Wed as often as they can,
And ever for the better change their Man.
And some devouring Plague pursue their Lives,
Who will not well be govern'd by their Wives.

Other Poems of Interest...

Home: PoetryExplorer.net