12. THE MERCHANT’S TALE
“Of weeping, wailing, care and other plight
I know enough each morning, noon, and night,”
The Merchant said, “and so do others, too, 1215
Who have been married. I believe it’s true,
For well I know that’s how it is with me.
I have a wife, the worst that there could be;
For if she and the devil were a pair,
She’d be more than his match, I dare to swear. 1220
What specially should I relate to you
About her malice? She’s a total shrew.
There is a mighty difference between
Griselda’s patience–great, as we have seen–
And my own wife’s surpassing cruelty. 1225
How I could thrive if only I were free!
I’d nevermore be captured in the snare.
We married men live sorrowfully, in care.
Let whoso will assay and he will find,
By India’s Saint Thomas, I’ve opined 1230
The truth (for most part, I won’t claim it all).
And God forbid that it should so befall!
“Ah, me! I have been married, good Sir Host,
So far, pardie, for two months at the most.
But I believe that he who’s yet to wive 1235
In all his life–even though men may rive
Him to the heart–could not in any way
Tell you as much of woe as I could say
Right here and now of my wife’s cursedness!”
“Now, Merchant,” said our Host, “as God may bless 1240
You, since you know so much about that art,
I heartily do pray you’ll tell us part.”
“Gladly,” said he, “but no more I’ll relate,
For aching heart, of my own sorry state.”
The Merchant’s Tale
Some time ago there dwelt in Lombardy 1245
A worthy knight; born in Pavia, he
Resided there with great success in life.
For sixty years he’d lived without a wife,
Pursuing every bodily delight
With women, being all his appetite, 1250
For which these worldly fools so well are known.
But when his sixtieth year had come and gone,
Whether it was for sake of holiness
Or caused by dotage (I won’t try to guess),
To take a wife he had such great desire 1255
That day and night he never seemed to tire
Of looking for a chance to tie the knot.
He prayed that God would grant it be his lot
To know at last the blissful way of life
That is between a husband and his wife, 1260
That he beneath that holy bond be found
As man and woman first by God were bound.
“No other life,” said he, “is worth a bean,
For wedlock is so pleasurable and clean
That in this world it is a paradise.” 1265
So said this old knight who was very wise.
And certainly, as true as God is King,
To take a wife is a glorious thing,
Especially for someone old and hoar,
For then a wife’s his treasure all the more. 1270
Then he should take a wife who’s young and fair
With whom he might engender him an heir
And lead a life of solace and of joy.
The cry “Alas!” these bachelors employ
Whenever they find some adversity 1275
In “love,” which is but childish vanity.
And truly it’s befitting that it’s so
These bachelors have often pain and woe;
On sandy ground they build, and they will find
No sure foundation like they had in mind. 1280
As bird or beast is how they live at best,
At liberty and under no arrest,
Whereas a wedded man enjoys a state
Of blissfulness, one not inordinate
But underneath the yoke of marriage bound. 1285
Well may his heart in joy and bliss abound.
For who’s more than a wife obedient?
Who is as true as she, or as intent
To keep him well, or well again to make him?
Through good and bad she never will forsake him; 1290
Of serving him with love she’ll never tire,
Though he bedridden be till he expire.
And yet some learneds say it isn’t so,
Like Theophrastus. Should we worry, though,
If Theophrastus likes to tell his lies? 1295
“Don’t take a wife,” said he, “economize,
For you can save your house from the expense.
A faithful servant shows more diligence
In guarding all your wealth than will a wife,
For she’ll lay claim to half of it for life. 1300
And if you’re sick, so help me God, those who
Are faithful friends, or any knave who’s true,
Will give you better care than she in wait
Day after day to get all your estate.
And once you have a wife, how easily 1305
And quickly then a cuckold you may be.”
That’s his opinion, like a hundred worse
The man has written. On his bones a curse!
Don’t listen to such foolishness, away
With Theophrastus, hear what I’ve to say. 1310
A wife is truly God’s gift; certainly
All other kinds of gifts that there may be–
Like lands or pasture, rights or revenue
Or personal goods–are gifts of Fortune, due
To pass as does a shadow on a wall. 1315
A wife will last, of that no doubt at all,
For, plainly speaking, with you she’ll abide
Longer perhaps than you may wish she tried.
Marriage is a great sacrament, and he
Is lost, I hold, who’s wifeless; helplessly 1320
He lives and all alone. (Here I refer,
Of course, to those among the secular.)
And listen why–I say this not for naught–
To be a help to man was woman wrought.
When God, once he made Adam, looked and saw 1325
The man all by himself and in the raw,
God in his goodness, for his mercy’s sake,
Said, “For this man a helper let us make,
One like himself.” Then God created Eve.
Here you may see, and hereby men believe, 1330
That woman is man’s helper, his respite,
His paradise on earth and his delight.
So obedient and virtuous is she,
By nature they must live in unity.
One flesh they are, and one flesh, as I guess, 1335
Has but one heart in health and in distress.
Saint Mary, benedicite! a wife!
How might a man have hardship in his life
Who has a spouse? I surely cannot say.
The bliss between the two is more than may 1340
The tongue express or heart invent. If poor
He be, she helps him work. She looks out for
His worldly goods, lets nothing go to waste.
In all he may desire she’ll share his taste.
She will not once say “Nay” when he says “Yea.” 1345
“Do this,” says he; “All ready, sire,” she’ll say.
O blissful state of wedlock without price!
You are so pleasant, worthy, free of vice,
You’re so commended as a thing to seek,
That every man who thinks he’s worth a leek 1350
On his bare knees should either all his life
Thank God that he has sent to him a wife,
Or ask the Lord in prayer that he will send
Him one, to last him till his life should end.
His life will then be settled and secure; 1355
He may not be deceived, I’m fairly sure,
If by his wife’s good counsel he is led.
Then boldly may the man hold up his head,
So true they are, and wisely they advise.
And so, if you would labor like the wise, 1360
What women counsel you should always heed.
Behold how Jacob, as these students read,
By his mother Rebecca’s good advice
Tied round his neck the sheepskin, which device
Won the blessing his father would bestow. 1365
See Judith, by her story too we know
How by wise counsel she God’s people kept,
How she slew Holofernes while he slept.
See Abigail, how by good counsel she
Her husband Nabal saved, the time when he 1370
Would have been slain. And Esther see also,
By sound advice delivering from woe
God’s people, and who then for Mordecai
Ahasuerus’ favor won thereby.
There’s nothing in high favor in this life, 1375
Says Seneca, above a humble wife.
So suffer your wife’s tongue, that’s Cato’s writ;
She shall command and you shall suffer it,
Then she’ll obey you out of courtesy.
A wife is keeper of your property; 1380
Well may the man who’s sick bewail and weep
If there is not a wife, the house to keep.
I warn you: wisely work, not in the lurch,
Love well your wife as Christ so loved his church.
For if you love yourself you love your wife; 1385
No man hates his own flesh but in his life
Will foster it. I tell you, then, care for
Your wife or you will never prosper more.
Husband and wife (let men jest as they may)
Among the secular hold to the way 1390
That’s safe, so knit that no harm may betide,
Especially none from the woman’s side.
So January, this knight of whom I’ve told,
Considered in the days when he was old
The life of joy, the virtuous repose 1395
In marriage honey sweet. And so arose
The day when for some friends of his he sent
To talk about effecting his intent.
With solemn face his tale to them he told.
He said, “My friends, I’m hoary now and old, 1400
Almost, God knows, on my grave’s very brink.
Upon my soul a little I must think,
My body I have wantonly expended.
But, God be blest, that shall be soon amended!
For I will surely be a wedded man, 1405
And that at once, as quickly as I can.
To some fair girl of tender age, I pray,
Make plans now for my marriage, right away,
For I can’t wait around. Now I will start
To look around for one–I’ll do my part– 1410
Whom I may quickly wed. But inasmuch
As you outnumber me, you sooner such
A creature should be able to espy
And where it would be best that I ally.
“One warning, though, dear friends, and that’s to say 1415
I will not have a wife who’s old, no way.
She won’t be over twenty certainly;
To have old fish and young flesh, that’s for me.
A pike beats any pickerel for a meal,
And better than old beef is tender veal. 1420
I’ll have no wife who’s over thirty, that’s no more
Than bean-straw, lots of fodder. Furthermore,
Old widows have the wile to rock a boat
Till even Wade’s, God knows, would hardly float.
They cause such trouble when they get the whim 1425
That I could never live in peace with them.
As many schools make students hard to collar,
A woman many-schooled is half a scholar.
But certainly a young thing men can guide,
Like warm wax to be molded, hands applied. 1430
So I’ll say plainly, briefly as I can,
I’ll have no wife who’s old, that’s not the plan.
If I had such misfortune to the measure
That in her I could not take any pleasure,
I’d live on so adulterous a level 1435
That when I die I’d go straight to the devil.
Upon her I’d beget no progeny;
I’d rather hounds would eat me, though, than see
My heritage to hands of strangers fall,
And this is what I tell you one and all. 1440
I do not dote, I know the reason why
Men should be wed. And furthermore, say I,
Some who in talk of married life engage
Know nothing more about it than my page.
It’s for these reasons men should take a wife: 1445
If he cannot live chastely all his life,
Let him with great devotion take a mate
With whom he legally can procreate,
Beget to the honor of God above,
Not just because of passion or of love; 1450
That each of them should lechery eschew
And yield their debt whenever it is due;
Or else that each of them should help the other
When troubled, as a sister helps her brother,
And live a holy life in chastity. 1455
But by your leave, kind sirs, that isn’t me.
For, God be thanked, I feel and dare to boast
My limbs are strong, as adequate as most
To do all that a man’s expected to.
Who better knows than I what I can do? 1460
Though hoary I’m just like a tree, the type
That blossoms though the fruit is still unripe.
A blossomed tree is neither dry nor dead.
I feel I’m hoary only on my head,
My heart and all my limbs are yet as green 1465
As through the year the laurel may be seen.
And now that you have heard all my intent,
I pray to my desire you will assent.”
Of marriage different men then to him told
Examples that were both diverse and old. 1470
Some blamed it, others praised it certainly,
Until at last (to speak with brevity),
As always there befalls some altercation
Among friends who engage in disputation,
Between his own two brothers had begun 1475
A rift. Placebo was the name of one,
Justinus what they truly called the other.
Placebo said, “O January, brother,
You had such little need, my lord so dear,
To ask advice of any who are here, 1480
Save that you’re so endowed with sapience
And of such prudence in the highest sense,
You didn’t wish to stray from Solomon.
This word he spoke to us, to everyone:
‘Do all things by good counsel,’ so he went, 1485
‘Then you will have no reason to repent.’
But though Solomon spoke such words, my own
Dear brother and my lord, as God alone
May in his wisdom bring my soul to rest,
I hold your own good counsel is the best. 1490
My brother, take from me this proposition:
I’ve always had a courtier’s position,
And, God knows, though I may unworthy be,
Yet I have stood with those of high degree,
With lords among the highest in estate; 1495
With none of them I’d ever have debate.
To contradict them I would never try,
For I know that my lord knows more than I.
With what he says I hold firm and concur,
I say the same or something similar. 1500
How great a fool is any man if he
Serves to advise a lord of high degree
And dares presume, or gives one thought to it,
His counsel rates above his master’s wit.
No, by my faith, lords are no fools! To us 1505
Today have you yourself so virtuous
And high a judgment shown that I consent,
Hereby concur with all of your intent,
Each word, all your opinion, utterly.
By God, in all this town or Italy 1510
Words better spoken no man could provide!
Such counsel pleases Christ, he’s satisfied.
And truly what high spirit at this stage
That any man who’s so advanced in age
Should take a young wife. By my father’s kin, 1515
Your heart is pricked by quite a jolly pin!
Do as you please in this, for it’s the way
That I hold best, and that’s my final say.”
Justinus stilly listened, sitting by,
Then promptly gave Placebo this reply: 1520
“And now, my brother, patience show, I pray;
Since you have spoken, hear what I’ve to say.
Among his other sayings that are wise,
Seneca says a man should scrutinize
On whom to give his land or what he’s got. 1525
And therefore, since I ought to think a lot
About who is to have my property,
How much more well advised I ought to be
About my body that I give away.
For let me warn you well, it’s no child’s play 1530
To take a wife without deliberation.
Men must inquire, it is my estimation,
Whether she’s wise, sober or fond of ale,
Or rich or poor, or mad for every male,
Or proud, or else a shrew who scolds or prattles, 1535
Or one who’d be a waster of your chattels.
In this whole world no one will ever find
A creature that is of a perfect kind,
For all one may imagine, man or beast;
It ought to be sufficient, though, at least 1540
Where there’s a wife concerned to see she had
Good qualities outnumbering the bad,
And one needs time if properly to tell.
For I’ve wept many a private tear (so well
God is aware) since I have had a wife. 1545
Let whosoever will praise married life,
I surely find in it but cost and care
And duties, of all bliss I find it bare.
And yet, God knows, my neighbors all about
(Especially the women, all the rout) 1550
Have said that I have the most steadfast wife,
The meekest one they’ve ever seen bear life.
But I know best where I’m pinched by my shoe.
You may, for your part, do as you would do.
Consider well–you’re elderly–before 1555
You marry, and consider all the more
If you would have a wife who’s young and fair.
By him who made the water, earth, and air,
The youngest man in all this company
Has quite enough to busy him that he 1560
Might have his wife alone. You mark my word,
One year or two you’ll please her, not a third;
That is, you’ll never give her fullest pleasure,
A wife demands so much to fullest measure.
May you not be displeased by this, I pray.” 1565
“Well,” January said, “you’ve had your say?
Straw for your Seneca and your proverbs,
School talk not worth a basketful of herbs!
As you have heard, men of a wiser bent
Than you now to my purpose give assent. 1570
Placebo, what have you to say to me?”
“I say it is a curséd man,” said he,
“Who hinders matrimony.” With that word,
They all arose at once, and there was heard
A full assent among them that he should 1575
Be married when he wished and where he would.
High fantasies began to crowd their way
Into his busy soul as day to day
This January on his marriage thought.
Many a shapely visage to be sought 1580
Paraded through his mind night after night,
As if one took a mirror polished bright
And set it in a common marketplace
That he might then see many a figure pace
By in his glass. In this way January 1585
Reviewed in thought the maidens, which to marry,
Who dwelt nearby, which one might be his bride.
He didn’t know on which one to decide;
For if one had great beauty in her face,
Another stood so in the people’s grace, 1590
For her steadfastness and benignity,
That she had greatest popularity;
And some were rich and had an evil name.
But nonetheless, twixt seriousness and game,
On one of them he finally set his heart, 1595
The others from his mind then set apart.
He chose her by his own authority,
For love is always blind and cannot see.
And when this January went to bed,
He pictured in his heart and in his head 1600
Her beauty fresh, her years of age so tender,
Her tiny waist, her arms so long and slender,
Her wise demeanor, her gentility,
Her womanly bearing, her constancy.
And he thought, when his mind was set on her, 1605
He’d made the finest choice that could occur;
For once he had concluded as he had,
He judged all others’ judgment as so bad
That none could match, no possibility,
The choice he made. Such was his fantasy. 1610
Then he sent word, as if an urgent measure,
To all his friends, that they do him the pleasure
Of coming right away into his hall;
He’d cut the labor short of one and all,
No longer need they run about or ride, 1615
He’d made the choice by which he would abide.
Placebo and his friends came very soon,
And first of all he asked them as a boon
Not to dispute, no arguments to make
Against his plan, the course he chose to take– 1620
A pleasing plan to God on high, said he,
A true foundation for prosperity.
He said there was a maiden in the town
Who had for all her beauty great renown
Although she was of humble station. He 1625
Found in her youth and looks sufficiency.
He said this maiden he’d have for his wife,
In ease and virtue then to lead his life.
And he thanked God that she’d be his alone,
No man to share the bliss he’d call his own. 1630
He prayed that they might labor in this cause
For his success, make plans without a pause,
So that his spirit might then be at leisure.
“Nothing,” he said, “could then bring me displeasure,
Except one thing that pricks my conscience. Here 1635
I’ll tell it, that to all of you it’s clear.
“I once was told,” said he, “and long ago,
Two perfect blisses man may never know;
That is to say, on earth and then in heaven.
Though sins he shun–each of the deadly seven 1640
And every branch that grows upon that tree–
There is so perfect a felicity,
Such great delight in marriage, I have fears,
Now that I’m living in my latter years,
That I shall lead now such a merry life, 1645
One so delightful without woe or strife,
I’ll have my heaven here on earth. My thought
Is that true heaven is so dearly bought
With tribulation and great penance, how
Should I, by living in such pleasure now 1650
As men do with their wives, go on to see
That bliss where Christ lives for eternity?
This is my fear. I pray, my brothers two,
Resolve for me this question put to you.”
Justinus, hating such absurdity, 1655
In mocking way replied immediately.
That he might keep it short, he didn’t quote
What this or that authority once wrote,
But said, “Sire, so there be no obstacles,
God in his power of working miracles 1660
And in his mercy may bring it to pass,
Before you die and have your final mass,
That you’ll repent of such a wedded life
In which you say there is no woe or strife.
For God forbid that he would not have sent 1665
To one who’s married more grace to repent
(And frequently) than to a single man.
I’ll give you, then, the best advice I can.
Remember this: do not despair of glory,
Perhaps she is to be your purgatory; 1670
She may be but God’s instrument, his whip,
So that your soul may up to heaven skip
More swiftly than an arrow leaves a bow.
As I may hope in God, you’ll come to know
There’s no such thing as great felicity 1675
In married life, nor will there ever be.
Don’t fear that such will hinder your salvation,
Provided you perform in moderation
Your wife’s desire. Let reason be the measure,
That not too amorously you give her pleasure, 1680
And keep yourself from other sin as well.
My wit is thin, that’s all I have to tell.”
Of such, dear brother, do not be afraid;
From out of this whole matter let us wade.
The Wife of Bath, if you could understand, 1685
On marriage, which is what is now at hand,
Spoke to us very well in little space.
I wish you luck, God keep you in his grace.
And with that word, Justinus and his brother
Departed, took their leave of one another; 1690
For when they saw there was no use in waiting,
They skillfully began negotiating
To have this maiden, who was known as May,
As hastily as she could see her way
Become the wife of this knight January. 1695
I think you’d find it here too long to tarry
If I each deed and bond were to relate
By which she was enfoeffed to his estate,
Or if I told you in how grand a way
She was attired. But finally came the day 1700
When to the church they went, there to be bound
By holy sacrament. With stole around
His neck, the priest came forth and bade her be
In wisdom and in wifely loyalty
Like Sarah and Rebecca. Then he prayed 1705
As customary, made the sign, and bade
The Lord to bless the two in matrimony,
Concluding with all proper ceremony.
So they are wed with ritual and grace,
And at the marriage feast sit on the dais 1710
Where they are joined by many a worthy guest.
The palace hall was filled with blissful zest,
With instruments, with victuals, judged to be
The most delicious found in Italy.
The music played was so melodious 1715
That there was never played by Orpheus
Nor Amphion of Thebes such melody.
With every course there came loud minstrelsy
Like nothing out of Joab’s trumpet known,
Sound clearer than Thiodamus had blown 1720
At Thebes when that town’s fate was still in doubt.
By Bacchus was the wine poured all about.
Fair Venus laughed, with all shared her delight
That January had become her knight,
That he’d assay his heart now with a wife 1725
The same as he had done in single life.
Before the bride and all the company
She danced, her torch in hand. And certainly
(For I daresay what no one can disparage)
Not even Hymen who’s the god of marriage 1730
Saw any bridegroom filled with more delight.
Peace, poet Martianus, you who write
Of nuptials that took place so merrily
Between Philology and Mercury,
Of songs that by the Muses there were sung! 1735
Too small would be your pen as well as tongue
This marriage to describe on any page.
When tender youth has wedded stooping age,
The joy is such no pen can tell or show.
Consider it yourself and you will know 1740
If I speak truth or lie concerning this.
And May, as she sat gracefully in bliss,
Was like some fair illusion to espy;
Queen Esther never once cast such an eye
On Ahasuerus, so meek was her look. 1745
I can’t tell all the forms her beauty took,
But this much on it I can safely say:
She was just like a morning bright in May,
Her beauty other pleasures to enhance.
How ravished January, in a trance 1750
Each time he looked upon her, giving start
To passion’s threat against her in his heart:
That night to give her tighter a caress
Than Paris did his Helen. Nonetheless,
This January greatly pitied her 1755
For such pain as that night he must confer.
He thought, “Alas! O creature tender, pure,
May God now grant that you might well endure
All my desire! It’s sharp, keen as a blade;
You may not well sustain it, I’m afraid. 1760
But God forbid that I use all my might!
Would God that it were now already night,
And that this night would last eternally.
I wish these folks were gone.” Then finally
He put forth subtle efforts, did his best, 1765
Within the bounds of honor, to suggest
That they all leave the board as soon as able.
When came the proper time to leave the table,
The folks began to dance, imbibing fast,
As spices all about the house were cast, 1770
And full of bliss was each and every man–
All but a squire whose name was Damian,
Who’d carved meat for the knight for many a day.
He had such longing for his lady May
That by the pain this squire was nearly crazed. 1775
He all but swooned and perished, standing dazed,
So sorely Venus, dancing with her brand,
Had burnt him as she bore it in her hand.
He hastily departed to his bed.
No more of him at this time will be said, 1780
I’ll leave him there to weep and to complain
Until fresh May shall rue him for his pain.
O perilous fire that in bedstraw breeds!
Unfaithful servant, traitor to the needs
Of those you falsely serve as foes would do! 1785
You adder in the bosom, sly, untrue,
God shield us all from your acquaintance! See,
O January, drunk with ecstasy
In marriage, how your Damian–your man
Who’s like a son, your very squire–shall plan 1790
Against you, has intent to do you wrong!
God grant you find this foe before too long,
For in this world there’s no worse pestilence
Than a foe daily in your residence.
The sun’s diurnal arc had been completed, 1795
No longer might the sun now linger, seated
On the horizon, in that latitude.
Night with his mantle that is dark and rude
Began to overspread the hemisphere.
The company took leave, all in good cheer, 1800
Of January, with thanks on every side.
Back to their homes with joy they were to ride,
Where they would do all that they might desire
Till time when it would please them to retire.
Soon after, this impatient January 1805
Was hot for bed, he didn’t wish to tarry.
He drank some wines like claret, which require
Hot spices and would heighten his desire,
And also ate some aphrodisiacs–
Don Constantine, curst monk, relates the facts 1810
About them in his book De Coitu;
To eat them all he nothing would eschew.
And to his closest friends he turned to say,
“For love of God, as soon as there’s a way,
One that’s discreet, get all this house cleared out.” 1815
To do as he desired they went about;
The toast was drunk, the curtains soon were drawn.
To bed was brought the bride, still as a stone;
And when the bed had by the priest been blest,
Out of the chamber hastened every guest. 1820
Then January held, no more to wait,
His freshest May, his paradise, his mate.
He soothed her, couldn’t kiss his May enough;
With bristles of his beard as thick and rough
As dog-fish skin, brier-sharp (for in this fashion 1825
He’d freshly shaved), he nuzzled in his passion
Her tender face. And then he said to May,
“Alas! I must trespass, go all the way,
My spouse, you I must mightily offend
Before the time I’m finished and descend.” 1830
And then he said, “Consider this, however:
There’s not a workman, be his trade whatever,
Who can perform both well and hastily.
This will be done with leisure, perfectly.
It doesn’t matter how long we may play, 1835
We two were paired in true wedlock today.
And blesséd be the yoke that we are in,
For by our actions we may do no sin.
A man cannot commit sin with his wife
Nor hurt himself by using his own knife, 1840
For by the law we now have leave to play.”
And so he labored till the break of day.
He took a sop of spiced wine after that,
And then upright upon the bed he sat
And kissed his wife. He sang out clear and loud 1845
And amorously behaved. He was as proud
And wanton as a colt about the matter
And like a spotted magpie in his chatter.
And as he sang and croaked, the sagging skin
Upon his neck would shake. Whatever in 1850
Her heart May thought God only is aware
As she saw January sit up there,
In shirt and nightcap, with his neck so lean.
His play she didn’t value worth a bean.
And then he said, “A rest now I will take; 1855
The day is come, I cannot stay awake.”
So down he lay his head and and slept till nine,
And afterwards, when he was feeling fine,
This January arose. But freshest May
Four days within her chamber was to stay 1860
As custom for new wives and for the best.
From every labor one must have some rest
Or he won’t manage long to stay alive;
No creature, that’s to say, could so survive,
Be it a fish, a bird, a beast, or man. 1865
Now I will speak of woeful Damian
Who as you’ll hear for her love pines away.
Here is the way I’d speak to him: I’d say,
“Poor Damian, alas! now answer me,
In such a case as this how can it be 1870
That you might tell your lady of your woe?
For all that she will ever say is ‘No’–
And if you speak, your woe she will betray.
God help you, that’s the best thing I can say.”
This lovesick Damian so burned in fire 1875
Of Venus he was dying of desire.
His very life was put in jeopardy,
For how long might he bear it? Secretly
A pen-box he decided then to borrow;
He wrote a letter telling of his sorrow, 1880
The letter’s form that of a plaintive lay
About his lady, fresh and fairest May.
He placed it in a silk purse that was strung
Upon his shirt. Above his heart it hung.
The moon, which had at noontime of the day 1885
When January married freshest May
Still been in Taurus, into Cancer glided
While May within her bedroom still abided.
As is the custom of these nobles all,
A bride shall not go eat inside the hall 1890
Until four days (or three days at the least)
Have passed, then she is free to go and feast.
So on the fourth day, when high mass was through,
From noon till three together sat the two
Inside the hall, this January and May, 1895
Who looked as fresh as bright the summer day.
That’s when it happened that this worthy man
At last again took thought of Damian.
“Saint Mary!” he exclaimed, “how may this be
That Damian is not attending me? 1900
Is he forever ill? What’s occupied him?”
His squires who were standing there beside him
Excused him for an ailment that perforce
Was keeping him from duty’s normal course,
For surely nothing else could make him tarry. 1905
“I’m sad to hear it,” said this January,
“He is a worthy squire and that’s the truth.
His death would be a blow and time for ruth.
He is as wise, as trusty and discreet
As any of his rank I’d hope to meet. 1910
He’s manly, of good service, never shifty,
And one who has a knack for being thrifty.
I’ll visit him as soon as I am able,
And so will May when we have left the table.
I’ll give him all the comfort that I can.” 1915
Then he was blest by each and every man
That in his goodness and gentility
He’d offer in his squire’s infirmity
Such comfort, for it was a noble deed.
“Now listen, dear,” he said, “here’s what we need: 1920
When after dinner you have left the hall
And spent some time in chamber, go with all
Your women, pay respects to Damian.
Go cheer him up, for he’s a worthy man.
And tell him, too, I’ll come and be his guest 1925
As soon as I’ve had just a little rest.
And see that you make haste, for I’ll abide
Until you’re sleeping snugly at my side.”
And with that word, he turned aside to call
The squire who served as marshal of the hall, 1930
To tell him this and that, things he required.
Fresh May went straightaway as he desired
To Damian with all her company.
She sat down by the fellow’s bed, where she
Tried then to comfort him as best she might. 1935
This Damian, just when the time was right,
In secret put his purse with billet-doux
(In which he’d written his desire) into
The lady’s hand. That’s all that happened, save
The deeply felt and wondrous sigh he gave, 1940
And these few words he softly spoke: “I pray
For mercy, don’t go giving me away,
For if this thing be known I’m dead or worse.”
Inside her bosom then she hid the purse
And went her way. No more I’ll add to that. 1945
To January she returned and sat
Down softly on his bed. He took her in
His arms and gave her several kisses, then
He lay back down to sleep and promptly so.
She made pretense that she then had to go 1950
To you-know-where, as everyone must do;
She took the letter, when she’d read it through,
And tore it up, known to no other soul,
And threw the pieces down the privy hole.
And now who studies more than fairest May? 1955
Beside old January again she lay.
He slept until awakened by his cough,
Then asked that she strip all her clothing off;
He said that he desired with her some play
And all her clothes were only in the way, 1960
And she obeyed, like it or not. Lest I
Get prudish folk upset with me thereby,
How he performed I do not dare to tell,
Nor if she thought it paradise or hell.
I’ll leave them there, they labored as they chose 1965
Till at the bell for evensong they rose.
Whether it was by destiny or chance,
By some influence, natural circumstance
Or constellation, that in such a way
The heavens stood that time brought into play 1970
Such Venus-work (these students hold the view
That “all things come in time”)–a billet-doux
To any woman, hoping for her love–
I cannot say. And may great God above,
Who knows there must be cause for every act, 1975
Be judge of all, I’ll hold my peace. The fact
About the matter is that freshest May
Began to feel such sympathy that day
For ailing Damian she couldn’t purge
This feeling from her heart–this thoughtful urge 1980
To do his pleasure, putting him at ease.
“I’ll reckon not whom all it may displease,”
She thought, “for he shall have my guarantee
To love him best of all on earth though he
Had no more than his shirt.” How soon will start 1985
The flow of pity in a gentle heart!
Here you may see the generosity
In woman when she’s thinking carefully.
Some lady tyrants–many a one is known
To have a heart as hard as any stone– 1990
Would simply let him die there in the place
Before they’d ever grant him such a grace.
They’d take delight in having such cruel pride
And none of them be deemed a homicide.
This gentle May so full of pity wrote 1995
By her own hand to Damian a note
In which she made true promise of her grace.
There but remained to set the day and place,
His will by her there to be satisfied,
Which he must then arrange. When she espied 2000
Her chance one day, this squire she went to see,
And underneath his pillow cunningly
She slipped this note she’d written, that the squire
Might later read it if he so desire.
She took his hand and squeezed it tightly (though 2005
In secret, so that no one else might know),
Bade him be well, then left. She didn’t tarry,
For she’d been called again by January.
On that next morning Damian arose;
No longer sick, delivered from his throes, 2010
He combed his hair and preened, he neatly dressed,
And did all that his lady would request.
He went to fetch as well for January
As ever any dog has fetched the quarry.
Such graciousness to all he seemed to show 2015
(Skill’s all it is, as those who practice know),
That all who spoke of him spoke only good,
And fully in his lady’s grace he stood.
And so I leave him to pursue his need
As forward with my tale I will proceed. 2020
Some clerks believe that pleasure is the way
To happiness. And one can truly say
This January, noble in his might,
Through proper means, befitting such a knight,
Pursued a sumptuous life while here on earth. 2025
His home, his clothes, all that his rank and worth
Had brought to him, were fashioned like a king’s.
He had, among some other noble things,
A garden built, walled all about with stone.
Now there’s to me no fairer garden known; 2030
I wouldn’t doubt, indeed I would suppose
That he who wrote The Romance of the Rose
Could not with words do justice to its beauty.
Nor could Priapus, given such a duty,
Himself the god of gardens, fully tell 2035
The beauty of that garden and its well
That stood beneath a laurel evergreen.
On many occasions Pluto and his queen,
Fair Proserpina, and their company
Of nymphs, would sport while making melody 2040
About that well, and danced, as men have told.
This noble knight, this January the Old,
So loved to walk and frolic there that he
Would let no other person bear the key
That locked the garden wicket. January 2045
That little silver key would always carry,
That when he so desired he might go through.
And when he wished to pay his wife her due
In summer season, that’s where he would be
With May his wife, none else in company; 2050
And things that he had not performed in bed
He’d promptly in the garden do instead.
And in this manner many a merry day
This January lived with freshest May.
But worldly joy has no lasting feature 2055
For this knight or for any other creature.
O sudden chance! O Fortune so unstable!
Deceptive like the scorpion, you’re able
To flatter with your head when you’re to sting;
Your tail is death through all your poisoning. 2060
O brittle joy! O venom cunning, sweet!
O monster, with such subtlety to treat
Your gifts in hues of faithfulness, just so
You may deceive us all from high to low!
Why have you January so deceived 2065
Whom as a friend in full you had received?
And now you have deprived him of his sight,
He grieves and wants to die, as well he might.
Alas! this noble knight, with hand so free,
In all his pleasure and prosperity, 2070
With suddenness has now been stricken blind.
His tears and wails were of a piteous kind.
And thereupon the fire of jealousy,
Lest May fall into infidelity,
So burnt his heart that if he had his way 2075
Someone would slay them both, him and his May.
For after he should die, as in his life,
He’d have her be no other’s love or wife
But live in widow’s black and never marry,
Like the turtledove that lives so solitary 2080
When it has lost its mate. But then at last,
Within two months, his grief had nearly passed,
When he had learnt, since it would have to be,
To take with patience his adversity–
Except, of course, he never was to cease 2085
His jealousy. Indeed it would increase,
Grow so outrageous till not in the hall,
Some other room, or any place at all
Would January let his lady May
Go walk or ride about in any way 2090
Unless his hand was ever at her side.
So freshest May had often sat and cried,
Her gentle love for Damian so great
That either sudden death must be her fate
Or she must have him, as she longed to do. 2095
She waited for her heart to break in two.
For his side of the matter, Damian
Became then the most sorrow-stricken man
Who’s ever drawn a breath. For night and day
He couldn’t speak one word to freshest May 2100
About his aim or any subject near it
Unless he’d have this January hear it
Whose hand was always on her. Even so,
By little notes that they wrote to and fro
And secret signs, he caught all that she meant 2105
And she was finely tuned to his intent.
O January, what might it avail
Though you could see as far as ships can sail?
Deceived when blind is no worse than to be
A man who’s been deceived when he can see. 2110
Consider Argus with his hundred eyes:
For all he pored and pried, it’s no surprise
That he was still deceived–like others, too,
So confident, God knows, such wasn’t true.
Who feels at ease has blinked, I say no more. 2115
Fresh May, this wife of whom I spoke before,
In warm wax made an imprint of the key
That January bore as often he
Unlocked the gate and in this garden went;
And Damian, well knowing her intent, 2120
In secret had this key then duplicated.
Of this key there’s no more to be related
But for a wonder that would soon ensue
That, if you will abide, I’ll tell to you.
How true, O noble Ovid, what you say! 2125
God knows, is there one trick that in some way
Love hasn’t found, as hard as it may be?
By Pyramus and Thisbe men may see:
Kept under strictest guard, in spite of all,
They made their plans by whispering through a wall. 2130
No one could figure out their tricky ways.
But now back to our aim. Some seven days
Into the month of June, this January
(With egging by his wife) for making merry
Inside the garden–none but he and May– 2135
Had such a great desire, one early day
He said to her, “Arise, my wife, my love,
My gracious lady! Gone, my sweetest dove,
Is winter, gone with all his soaking rain;
The voice of the turtle is heard again. 2140
Come forth now, with your eyes dovelike and fine!
How fairer are your breasts than any wine!
The garden has enclosed us all about.
Come forth, my snowy spouse! Without a doubt
You’ve wounded me right in the heart, O wife! 2145
I’ve known in you no blemish all my life.
Come forth, let’s have our sport, for it is you
I’ve chosen as my wife and comfort too.”
Such were the lewd old words he used. And she
Then made a sign to Damian, that he 2150
Precede them with his key. The little gate
This Damian unlocked, then he went straight
Inside, all this in such a way that he
Was neither seen nor heard. Immediately
Beneath a bush the fellow stilly sat. 2155
This stone-blind January, May right at
His hand and not another with him then,
Came to his lovely garden. Going in,
He shut the gate as quickly as could be.
“My wife,” said he, “there’s none but you and me. 2160
It’s you whom of all creatures best I love.
By heaven’s Lord who sits so high above,
How much I’d rather die upon a knife
Than give to you offense, dear faithful wife!
Think how I chose you, for God’s precious sake: 2165
Not out of covetousness, make no mistake,
But only for the love I had for you.
And though I’m old and may not see, be true
To me no less, and I will tell you why–
Three things that you will surely gain thereby: 2170
First, love of Christ, and honor, number two;
And all this heritage I give to you
From town to tower, deeds as you desire.
This shall be done, before the sun retire
Tomorrow, may God bring my soul to bliss. 2175
But first, I pray, a covenant by a kiss.
Don’t blame me though I be the jealous kind:
So deeply you’re imprinted in my mind,
When in thought of your beauty I engage
(And with it think of my unlikely age), 2180
I can’t bear for the very life of me
A moment’s time out of your company,
So great my love for you beyond a doubt.
Now kiss me, wife, and let us roam about.”
When she had heard these words, this freshest May 2185
Responded to him in a gracious way
But not till she at first began to weep.
“I have as well as you a soul to keep,”
She said, “and honor, too, the tender flower
Of my wifehood, entrusted to your power, 2190
Given into your hand, as you have found
Since first the priest to you my body bound.
So here’s the answer that I’d have you hear,
If I may have your leave, my lord so dear:
I pray to God that early dawns the day 2195
I die as foully as a woman may
If ever to my kind I bring such shame
Or ever do such damage to my name,
If ever I be false. If I’m so found,
Then strip me, sack me up, and have me drowned 2200
In the nearest river. Sire, I’m every inch
A worthy woman, I am not a wench.
Why do you speak that way? But men untrue
Always reprove us women. All of you,
I think, are constant in this one approach, 2205
To speak to us in distrust and reproach.”
And with that word, she saw where Damian
Sat in the bush. She coughed and then began
To make signs with her finger, by which she
Meant Damian should climb up in a tree 2210
That had a load of fruit. And up he went,
For he was truly wise to her intent,
Knew all the signs and signals she could vary,
Much more than did her own mate January;
For in a letter she had told him how 2215
To work this whole thing out. And sitting now
In the pear tree is where I leave him be,
As January and May roam merrily.
Bright was the day and blue the firmament;
His golden streams of light had Phoebus sent 2220
Down with his warmth, to gladden every flower.
In Gemini, I guess, upon that hour
Was Phoebus found, but near his declination
In Cancer, being Jupiter’s exaltation.
On that bright morning, as it would betide, 2225
Into that garden (on its farther side)
Came Pluto, who was king of Fairyland,
With many a lady in his jolly band
Behind Queen Proserpina, she whom he
Had ravished in Etna of Sicily 2230
As she was gathering flowers on the mead.
(In Claudian the stories you may read,
How in his terrible chariot she
Was fetched.) When came this king of fairies, he
Sat on a bench of turf all fresh and green, 2235
Whereon at once he said this to his queen:
“None can deny it, wife, each passing day
Experience shows the deceitful way
You women deal with men. I could relate
Ten hundred thousand tales to illustrate 2240
Your weakness, your unfaithfulness and stealth.
Wise Solomon, unrivaled in your wealth,
So filled with sapience, so world renowned,
How worthy are the words that you expound
To be remembered by all men who can. 2245
He said this of the virtuous kind of man:
‘Among a thousand men I found but one;
Among all women I discovered none.’
“So speaks the king, who knows your wickedness.
And Jesus son of Sirach, as I guess, 2250
Of women seldom speaks with reverence.
A raging fire and rotting pestilence
Come falling on your bodies yet tonight!
And now do you not see this noble knight
Who has become, alas, so blind and old 2255
That his own man would cuckold him? Behold,
See where he sits, the lecher, in the tree!
Now I will grant out of my majesty
To this so agéd, blind, and worthy knight
That all at once he shall regain his sight 2260
Just when his wife shall do her treachery.
Then he shall know of all her harlotry;
Thus she shall be reproved and others too.”
“Is that,” said Proserpina, “what you’ll do?
By the soul of my mother’s lord, I vow 2265
I’ll grant her what to answer, she’ll know how,
And for her sake all women after her;
When caught, from any guilt they might incur
With boldest face they shall themselves excuse
And argue down all those who might accuse. 2270
Not one shall die for lack of good replies.
Though a man may see a thing with both his eyes,
Yet shall we women face it hardily;
We’ll cry and swear and chide so cleverly
You men shall look as foolish as a goose. 2275
“For your authorities I have no use.
I’m well aware this Jew, this Solomon,
Found many women fools. But though not one
Good woman he himself could ever find,
There’s many another man who’s found the kind 2280
Of woman who is worthy, good, and true.
Consider whose who dwelt in Christ’s house, who
As martyrs were to prove their constancy.
Remember, too, in Roman history
Is many a true and faithful wife. But, sire, 2285
Though it be true, don’t let it cause you ire;
For as he says he found no woman good,
I pray that what he meant be understood.
He meant that good in absolute degree
Is God’s alone, there’s neither he nor she. 2290
“Ay! by that God, the true and only one,
Why do you make so much of Solomon?
What though he built God’s house, the temple? What
Though he had wealth and glory? Did he not
Have built as well a temple for false gods? 2295
What thing could he have done that’s more at odds
With good? Replaster him as you prefer,
He was a lecher and idolater
And in old age the one true God forsook.
But for the fact that God, as says the book, 2300
Would spare him for his father’s sake, he should
Have lost his kingdom sooner than he would.
I hold what you men write, to vilify
Us women, as not worth a butterfly!
I am a woman, I speak as I do 2305
Or else I’d swell till my heart broke in two.
For if we are such talkers (as he stresses),
As ever whole I hope to keep my tresses
I never shall–be it discourteous–
Quit speaking ill of those maligning us.” 2310
“Madam,” said Pluto, “please be mad no more,
For I give up! But since my oath I swore,
To grant to him his sight again this morning,
My word shall stand, you have my certain warning.
I am a king, it suits me not to lie.” 2315
“And queen,” she said, “of Fairyland am I!
Her answer she will have, I undertake.
Now let’s have no more words, no fuss to make,
And truly I’ll no longer be contrary.”
So let us now return to January, 2320
Who in the garden with his lovely May
More merrily sings than the popinjay,
“I love you best, and shall, and you alone.”
So long about the garden paths he’d gone,
That same pear tree he soon was passing by 2325
Where Damian sat merrily up high
Among the many tree leaves fresh and green.
This freshest May, this wife so bright and sheen,
Began to sigh, and said, “My aching side!
Now sir,” she said, “betide what may betide, 2330
I’ve got to have some of those pears I see
Or I will die, such longing I’ve in me
To have some pears to eat, those small and green.
Now help me, for the love of heaven’s queen.
Well I can say a woman in my plight 2335
May have for fruit so great an appetite
That if she cannot have it she may die.”
“Alas,” said he, “that here no knave have I
To make the climb! Alas, alas,” said he,
“For I am blind!” “Yes, sir,” responded she, 2340
“But that’s no matter. Would you, for God’s sake,
Within your own two arms the pear tree take?
For well I know you put no trust in me,
But I could then climb well enough,” said she,
“If I might set my foot upon your back.” 2345
“For sure,” said he, “there’s nothing, then, we lack
If my heart’s blood can help you, as it should.”
So he stooped down, and on his back she stood
And caught hold of a branch, and up she went–
I pray, miladies, wrath you will not vent, 2350
I can’t mince words, I am an ignorant man–
And in one sudden motion Damian
Then yanked up her chemise, and in he thrust.
When Pluto saw this sinful act of lust,
To January he gave again his sight 2355
To see as well as ever. Such delight
In anything no man has known before
As January’s joy to see once more,
Although his thoughts were still upon his love.
He cast his eyes up to the tree above, 2360
Beheld the way that Damian had addressed
Her–such a way it cannot be expressed
Unless I be too vulgar in my speech–
And gave a grievous cry, one like the screech
A mother makes to see her dying child. 2365
“Out! Harrow, help, alas!” he cried. “O wild
And brazen woman, what is this you do?”
And she then answered, “Sir, what’s ailing you?
Be reasonable, have patience! Bear in mind
How I have helped your eyes that both were blind. 2370
On peril of my soul, I speak no lies;
For I was taught, for healing of your eyes,
There was no better thing to make you see
Than struggling with a man up in a tree.
God knows, I did it with the best intent.” 2375
“Struggle?” he said. “And still right in it went!
A shameful death God grant you die, the two!
With my own eyes I saw him screwing you
Or hang me by the neck till I am dead!”
“My medicine’s a failure, then,” she said. 2380
“For certainly if you could really see,
Such words as those you wouldn’t say to me.
You only have some glimmer, not true sight.”
“I see as well,” he said, “as e’er I might,
Thank God! With my two eyes–I swear it’s true– 2385
That’s what I thought I saw him do to you.”
“A daze, you’re in a daze, good sir,” said she.
“What thanks I have for having made you see.
Alas that I should ever be so kind!”
“Madam,” said he, “let all pass out of mind. 2390
Come down, my dear; if wrongly I’ve declared,
God help me, I am sorry that I erred.
But by my father’s soul, I thought it plain
To see that Damian with you had lain,
That on his breast was lying your chemise.” 2395
“Sir, you may think,” she said, “what you may please.
But when a man first wakes when he has slept,
His eyes aren’t right away fit to be kept
On anything, to see with no mistake,
Until at last he truly is awake. 2400
Just so, when blind for any lengthy spell,
A man won’t of a sudden see as well,
When first to him his sight has come anew,
As one who’s had his sight a day or two.
Until your sight has settled for a while, 2405
There’s many a thing you’ll see that may beguile.
Take warning, then, I pray: by heaven’s King,
There’s many a man who thinks he sees a thing
That’s not at all as it appears. He who
Has misconceived will be misjudging too.” 2410
And with that word, she leapt down from the tree.
This January, who is glad but he?
He kisses her, he gives her hugs, and then
He gently strokes her on the abdomen
And leads her homeward to his palace. Now, 2415
Good men, I pray that you be glad. That’s how
I shall conclude my tale of January.
God bless us, and his holy mother Mary!
“Ay! by God’s mercy,” our Host then declared,
“From such a wife I pray to God I’m spared! 2420
See all the subtle tricks abounding in
These women! To deceive us simple men
They’re always busy as bees, and never fail
To get around the truth. This Merchant’s tale
Has proved it well enough. I have a wife 2425
Who’s true as any steel, although in life
She has no plenty–not referring to
That tongue of hers, for she’s a blabbing shrew,
And has a heap of faults, not only chatter.
But we should let that go, it doesn’t matter. 2430
And yet, do you know what? I shall confide,
I sorely rue that to her I am tied.
But if all of her vices I’d recite
I’d be a fool for sure, for then it might
Get back to her. Why, she could easily 2435
Be told by some here in this company.
Which ones would tell her there’s no need to say;
Such wares all women know how to display.
What wit I have would not suffice, moreover,
To tell it all, and so my tale is over.” 2440