Merry Words of the Host to the Monk
When ended was my tale of Melibee,
Of Prudence and of her benignity, 1890
Our Host said, “As I am a faithful man,
And by that precious corpus Madrian,
Rather than have a barrelful of ale
I would my own good wife had heard this tale!
Of patience not the slightest bit has she 1895
Like that of Prudence, wife of Melibee.
By God’s bones, when I have to beat my knaves
She goes and fetches great club-headed staves
To me, and cries out, ‘Slay the dogs! Lay on
And break them up, their backs and every bone!’ 1900
“And if somebody from my neighborhood
Won’t bow to her in church, or if he should
Toward her be too bold or out of place,
When she comes home she gets right in my face:
‘False coward,’ she will cry, ‘avenge your wife! 1905
By corpus bones, now I will have your knife,
My distaff you can have to go and spin!’
From day to night that’s just how she’ll begin.
‘Alas,’ she’ll say, ‘that I was in such shape
I wed a milksop, such a coward ape 1910
Neath everybody’s domineering hand!
For your own wife you don’t dare take a stand!’
“Such is my life unless I will to fight;
Right out the door must be my rapid flight
Or else I am but lost–unless I be 1915
Like some wild lion, act foolhardily.
I know full well someday she’ll make me slay
A neighbor, then I’ll have to run away;
For I’m a dangerous man with knife in hand,
Though I admit that I don’t dare to stand 1920
Up to her, for she’s big in either arm,
As, by my faith, he’ll find who does her harm.
Let’s leave this matter now and forge ahead.
“Be of good cheer, my lord the Monk,” he said,
“For you shall tell a tale, I truly say. 1925
Look, there stands Rochester close by the way!
Ride forth, my lord, and don’t break up our game.
But by my oath, I do not know your name,
If it’s Don John that you should be addressed,
Don Thomas or Don Alban–which is best? 1930
You’re of which order, by your father’s kin?
I swear to God, you’re very fair of skin;
The pasture must be fertile you frequent,
You don’t look like some ghost or penitent.
You are, upon my faith, some officer, 1935
Some worthy sacristan or cellarer,
For, by my father’s soul, I would surmise
At home you are a master. In no wise
Are you a novice or poor cloisterer,
Instead a wise and wily governor, 1940
One big-boned, too, and brawny. I would say
You’re quite a handsome fellow all the way.
God give to him confusion, utter strife,
Who brought you first to the religious life!
A treading rooster you’d have been, all right; 1945
Had you the liberty as you have might
To satisfy desire in such a way,
Then many a creature you’d have sired today.
Alas, why do you wear so wide a cope?
God give me sorrow but, if I were pope, 1950
Not only you but every man of strength–
His head shorn to however short a length–
Would have a wife. The loss is to all earth,
Religion’s taken all the corn of worth
From treading, we’re but shrimps, we laity. 1955
A wretched root comes from a feeble tree;
Our heirs will be so feeble, weak, and tender
They may not have the strength well to engender.
And that is why our wives are known to try
Out you religious folk: you satisfy 1960
The debts of Venus better than we may.
By God, it’s not with counterfeit you pay!
Please don’t be angered by my playful word,
For often, sir, in game a truth is heard.”
This worthy Monk took all of this in patience, 1965
Then said, “I’ll try with all my diligence–
Keeping within the realm of probity–
To tell for you a tale, or two or three.
If you would like to listen, I’ve some words
I could impart about a life, Saint Edward’s; 1970
Or else, to start with, tragedies I’ll tell,
Of which I have a hundred in my cell–
Tragedy is to say a certain story,
As old books bring to mind, about the glory
Of one who stood in great prosperity, 1975
But who then tumbled from his high degree
To wretched end, woe that was never worse.
These commonly have been set down in verse,
In six feet that men call hexameter.
In prose as well, though, many others were, 1980
In meter too–all manner of device.
That ought to be enough words to suffice.
“Now pay attention if you’d like to hear.
But first I ask, to make this matter clear,
If out of order I should tell these things 1985
(Be they of popes or emperors or kings)
As ages go (as written you will find),
And tell a few before and some behind
As they may come back now to my remembrance,
That you’ll excuse me for my ignorance.” 1990
The Monk’s Tale
I shall bewail in form that’s tragical
The harm of them who stood in high degree
And fell, who had no remedy at all
To bring them out of their adversity.
For surely when Fortune may choose to flee, 1995
There is no man who may her course withhold.
Let no man trust in blind prosperity;
Beware by these examples true and old.
With Lucifer, though of the angelic band,
Not of the human race, I will begin. 2000
Though Fortune cannot harm or have a hand
With angels, from on high he for his sin
Fell into hell, and he is yet therein.
O Lucifer, angel brightest of all,
Now you are Satan, who may never win 2005
From misery, to which has been your fall.
Lo, Adam in the field of Damascene:
By God’s own finger created was he
And not conceived by sperm of man unclean.
He ruled all Paradise, except one tree. 2010
No man on earth has held such high degree
Since Adam, who, for his misgovernance,
Was driven from his high prosperity
To labor and to hell and to mischance.
Behold Samson, who was annunciated 2015
By the angel long ere his nativity,
And was to God Almighty consecrated,
And stood in honor while he still could see.
There never was another such as he,
To speak of strength and, with it, hardiness; 2020
But to his wives he broke his secrecy,
And slew himself thereby in wretchedness.
This noble, mighty champion without
A weapon save his bare hands still could slay
The lion, which he tore, ripped inside out, 2025
While to his wedding he was on his way.
His false wife could so please him, so could pray,
She learnt from him his secret; she, untrue,
Went to his foes, his secret to betray,
And then forsook him, taking someone new. 2030
Three hundred foxes Samson took in ire
And bound their tails together; once in hand,
All of the foxes’ tails he set afire
(On every fox’s tail he tied a brand);
They burnt up all the crops grown in the land, 2035
The olive trees and vines, as they would pass.
He also slew a thousand men by hand,
No weapon save the jawbone of an ass.
When they were slain, he thirsted so that he
Was all but lost; he prayed that God on high 2040
Might on his pain look with some clemency
And send him drink or else he’d have to die;
Then in that ass’s jawbone, which was dry,
Out of a molar sprang at once a well
From which, in short, he drank. None can deny 2045
God was his help, as Judicum can tell.
One night in Gaza by his proven might,
In spite of all the Philistines so nigh,
The city gates he plucked up, set them right
Upon his back, and carried them up high 2050
Onto a hill for everyone to spy.
O noble, mighty Samson, loved and dear,
Had you not let your secret be known by
Your women, you’d have been without a peer!
This Samson never touched strong drink or wine. 2055
No razor ever touched his head, no shear,
By precept of the messenger divine,
For all his strength was in his hair. And year
By year, for twenty winters, Samson’s sphere
Was that of judge in Israel’s governance. 2060
But soon he shall be weeping many a tear,
For women shall bring Samson to mischance!
Delilah was his lover whom he told
That in his hair was where his strength all lay,
And Samson to his enemies she sold; 2065
While he was sleeping in her lap one day,
She had his hair all clipped and shorn away,
And let his foes observe, come for their prize;
For when they had him in this weakened way,
They bound him tightly, then put out his eyes. 2070
Before his hair had thus been clipped away,
Men simply had no bond, this man to bind;
Now he’s imprisoned in a cave where they
Have bound him to the handmill, there to grind.
O noble Samson, strongest of mankind, 2075
Once judge with glory, wealth, and blessedness!
Well you may weep with eyes that now are blind,
To fall from where you were to wretchedness.
This captive’s end was as I now shall state.
His foemen held a certain feast one day 2080
In their great temple, splendid and ornate;
And there the fool for them they had him play.
But at the last he brought them disarray;
He shook two temple pillars till they fell–
Down came the temple, all, and there it lay, 2085
He slew himself and slew his foes as well;
For each and every prince who there had gone,
And some three thousand others, too, were slain
When that great temple fell with all its stone.
From speaking more of Samson I’ll refrain. 2090
Be warned by this example old and plain:
Men shouldn’t be confiding to their wives
Something that should in secrecy remain
If it might touch upon their limbs or lives.
Of Hercules, the sovereign conqueror, 2095
His deeds sing praise, the strong, renowned and bold,
The flower of his time, none mightier.
He slew and skinned the lion; it is told
How centaurs he brought low; in days of old
He slew the harpies, cruel birds and fell; 2100
He took from the dragon apples of gold;
He drew out Cerberus, the hound of hell;
He slew Busiris, tyrant cruel and vile,
And had his horse consume him, flesh and bone;
He slew the fiery serpent full of bile; 2105
He broke one horn that Achelous had grown,
And Cacus he slew in a cave of stone;
He slew the giant, Antaeus the strong;
The grisly boor he slew with ease, and on
His mighty shoulders bore the heavens long. 2110
No other being since the world began
Brought down so many monsters as did he.
This whole wide world his fame was quick to span,
His strength and worth of such immensity,
And every realm on earth he went to see. 2115
He was too strong for any man to hold.
At earth’s each end, instead of boundary
He set a pillar (so has Trophee told).
This noble champion had a lover
Whose name was Dejanira, fresh as May; 2120
As from these learned men you may discover,
She sent to him a shirt, bright fresh array.
Alas, that shirt, alas and wellaway!
So poison soaked it was, he put it on
And, when he’d worn it less than half a day, 2125
It caused his flesh to fall right off the bone.
But still some learned men will her excuse
And say that one called Nessus was to blame;
Be as it may, I will not her accuse,
On his bare back he wore it just the same. 2130
His flesh the venom blackened, overcame;
And when he saw no other remedy,
He raked hot coals about himself: by flame,
Not poison, he preferred his death to be.
So died this worthy, mighty Hercules. 2135
Who may in Fortune trust a single throw?
Who travels through this dangerous world with ease?
Ere one’s aware he’s laid so often low.
The wisest man is he who comes to know
Himself; be wary, for when Fortune goes 2140
To flatter, it’s so she may overthrow
In such a way as man may least suppose.
The great and mighty throne, the precious treasure,
The glorious scepter, royal majesty
Belonging to the king Nebuchadnezzar, 2145
The tongue can scarcely utter. Twice did he
Against Jerusalem win victory
And vessels of the temple bear away.
In Babylon, seat of his sovereignty,
In glory and delight he held his sway. 2150
The fairest children of the royalty
Of Israel he had gelded, quickly done,
And took each of them into slavery.
Now Daniel of these Israelites was one;
The wisest child of all, he had begun 2155
To serve as dream interpreter of the king.
(Among Chaldean sages there was none
Who from his dreams could prophecy a thing.)
This proud king had a statue made of gold,
Sixty by seven cubits; he decreed 2160
This golden image by both young and old
Be feared and worshipped. Those who wouldn’t heed
To red flames of a furnace he would feed,
He’d order burnt all those who disobeyed.
Daniel would not assent to such a deed, 2165
Nor would his two young comrades so be swayed.
This king of kings was arrogant and vain;
He thought that God who sits in majesty
Would never take from him his great domain.
But he lost that dominion suddenly, 2170
And after like a beast he came to be:
He ate hay like an ox and lay about
Right in the rain, wild beasts his company,
Until a certain time had run its route;
Like eagle feathers grew his hair; as well, 2175
His nails grew out, like bird claws to appear;
Then God relieved him for a few years’ spell
And gave him sense. With that and many a tear
He thanked God and was evermore in fear
Of doing wrong or being out of place, 2180
And till the time that he lay on his bier
He knew that God was full of might and grace.
His son and heir–Belshazzar was his name–
Held power after Nebuchadnezzar’s day
But took no warning from his father’s shame; 2185
He was so proud of heart and in array,
And lived in so idolatrous a way,
And on his high estate himself so prided,
That Fortune cast him down and there he lay
And suddenly his kingdom was divided. 2190
For all his lords he gave a feast one day
And bade them be as merry as could be;
And then he called his officers to say,
“Go now and bring the vessels all to me,
The ones my father in prosperity 2195
Took from the temple of Jerusalem;
For prizes left us by our elders, we
Give thanks to our high gods and honor them.”
His wife, his lords, and all his concubines
Then drank, as long as appetite would last, 2200
Out of these noble vessels sundry wines;
Then on a wall his eyes Belshazzar cast
And saw an armless hand inscribing fast,
Which made him quake in fear. Upon the wall
This hand, which had Belshazzar so aghast, 2205
Wrote Mane, techel, phares, that was all.
There wasn’t one magician in the land
Who could interpret what this writing meant,
But Daniel then at once explained the hand.
He said, “My king, God to your father lent 2210
Glory and honor, kingdom opulent;
But he was proud, of God he showed no dread,
And therefore God great woe upon him sent
And took from him the kingdom he had led.
“Then he was banished from man’s company, 2215
With asses dwelt, ate hay as his reward,
Just like a beast, though wet or dry it be,
Till grace and reason would to him afford
The knowledge that dominion’s of the Lord
Over every kingdom and creature; 2220
Then God had pity on him and restored
To him his kingdom and his human feature.
“And you, who are his son, are proud also,
And know all these things as a verity;
A rebel to the Lord, you are his foe 2225
And from his vessels drink so brazenly;
Your wife, your wenches too drink sinfully
Mixed wine from those same vessels, while you pray
To your false gods in curst idolatry.
For such, your retribution’s on the way. 2230
“This hand was sent from God that on the wall
Wrote Mane, techel, phares, trust in me;
Your reign is done, you count for naught at all;
Your kingdom is divided, it shall be
Given to Medes and Persians,” augured he. 2235
This king was slain upon that very night;
Darius then replaced him in degree
Although he had no lawful means or right.
My lords, examples hereby you may take:
Security is not a lord’s to know; 2240
Whenever Fortune chooses to forsake,
She takes away one’s reign, one’s wealth also,
And friends as well, though they be high or low.
If it’s to Fortune that friendships are due,
Mishap, I guess, will turn a friend to foe; 2245
This is a common proverb and it’s true.
Zenobia, once of Palmyra queen,
As Persians wrote of her nobility,
So worthy was in armaments, so keen,
For hardiness she had no rivalry, 2250
For lineage, for all gentility;
From royal Persian blood she was descended.
I won’t say none was lovelier than she,
Yet her looks had no need to be amended.
I find that from her childhood on she fled 2255
The role of women; to the woods she went,
Where blood of many wild harts she would shed
With arrows broad, which to the mark she sent
To quickly land her game. And by her bent
She later on in life would also kill 2260
Lions, leopards, bears, all torn and rent,
In her strong arms she had them at her will.
She dared to seek the wild beast in its den
And run along the mountains all the night
And sleep beneath a bush; and she would win 2265
In wrestling, by her very force and might,
From any youth though strong he be to fight;
Against her not a thing could hold its ground.
She kept her maidenhood with all her might,
For to no man would she deign to be bound. 2270
Some friends of hers at last, though, got her married
To Odenathus, prince of that same land,
Though she had long resisted them and tarried.
And he, my lords, as you should understand,
Felt much the same as she. But when her hand 2275
He’d taken, very close the couple grew;
They lived in joy, their life together grand,
They held each other dear, their love was true.
Except one thing: she never would assent
In any way that he should by her lie 2280
More than one time; it was her sole intent
To have a child, the world to multiply.
But just as soon as she might then espy
That by the deed she’d still failed to conceive,
At once she’d let him give it one more try– 2285
But only once, that much you can believe.
And if she bore a child from that event,
She wouldn’t let him have back at the game
Till after forty full weeks came and went,
Then once more she would tolerate the same. 2290
Though he go wild or manage to be tame,
He’d get no more from her; she said to him
That wives thought it but lechery and shame
If otherwise their husbands play with them.
Two sons by Odenathus she would bear 2295
And rear to virtue and good education.
But let’s get back now to our tale. I swear,
She was so worthy of one’s admiration,
So wise, so giving with due moderation,
In war untiring, and so courteous too, 2300
None had in war a greater dedication
To work, though men may search this whole world through.
Her wealth of goods was more than can be told,
In vessels as well as in what she wore
(For she would dress in precious stones and gold). 2305
And when not on the hunt, she’d not ignore
Her study of foreign tongues; she’d master more
When she had leisure time, for her intent
Was to be educated in all lore
So that her life in virtue might be spent. 2310
But that we might deal briefly with the story,
So doughty was her husband as was she
That they had conquered many a realm of glory
Within the East, fair towns that formerly
Had been possessions of the majesty 2315
Of Rome. In their strong grip they held them fast,
As there was not one foe could make them flee
As long as Odenathus was to last.
Whoso would read of battles that she fought
Against Shapur the king and others too, 2320
And how all of her works came to be wrought
And why she won, what titles then her due,
And after, all the woes she suffered through,
How she would be besieged and hauled away–
Let him go to my master Petrarch, who 2325
Wrote quite enough about it, I daresay.
When Odenathus died, she mightily
Held to the realms, for with her own strong hand
She fought against her foes so brutally
That not one king or prince in all the land 2330
Was less than glad when brought to understand
That she, through grace, his realm would not invade.
They made with her peace treaties long to stand,
And let her be where she rode forth and played.
Not Claudius, the Roman emperor, 2335
Nor Gallienus, Rome’s prior sovereign,
Was brave enough to make a single stir;
Not one Egyptian or Armenian,
No Syrian, not one Arabian,
Upon a field of battle dared to fight, 2340
Lest by her hand they wind up carrion
Or by her many warriors put to flight.
In kingly habit too her sons would go,
Heirs to their father’s kingdoms one and all;
Their names were Thymalao and Hermanno 2345
(The forms, at least, by which the Persians call
The two). But Fortune puts in honey gall,
Not long endures this mighty governess;
Out of her queendom Fortune made her fall
To misadventure and to wretchedness. 2350
Aurelianus, when administration
Of Rome fell to his hands, without delay
Made plans against her for retaliation;
With all his legions he marched on his way
Against Zenobia. Let’s briefly say 2355
He made her flee and finally captured her;
He fettered her, with her two sons, that day
And won the land, and went home conqueror.
Her chariot of priceless gems and gold,
Among the things taken in victory 2360
By this Aurelianus great and bold,
He had them haul in front for all to see;
But walking first in that parade was she,
With gilded chains hung from her neck, upon
Her head a crown, befitting her degree, 2365
Her clothing all decked out with precious stone.
Alas, Fortune! she who put fear into
Kings, emperors, and other worldly powers,
Is gaped at by the crowd, alas! She who
Once donned a helmet through war’s darkest hours, 2370
And won by force the strongest towns and towers,
Now bears upon her head a crown so cheap;
Now she who bore the scepter decked with flowers
Shall work with a distaff to earn her keep.
PETER, KING OF SPAIN
O Peter, noble, worthy pride of Spain, 2375
Whom Fortune held so high in majesty,
Well should men of your piteous death complain!
Out of your land your brother made you flee,
And after, at a siege, by treachery
You were betrayed; he led you to his tent 2380
And by his own hand slew you, so that he
Might then usurp your powers of government.
A shield of snow, eagle of black therein
(Crossed by a lime-rod emberlike, aglow)
This cursedness concocted, all this sin; 2385
A wicked nest brought violence and woe–
Not Charlemagne’s Oliver (one, we know,
Of truth and honor), but from Brittany
A “Ganelon,” by bribe corrupted so
He brought this worthy king to treachery. 2390
PETER, KING OF CYPRUS
O worthy Peter, Cypriot king who fought
At Alexandria masterfully
And captured it, who many a heathen brought
To woe! Your lieges in their jealousy,
For naught but envy of your chivalry, 2395
Have slain you in your sleep before the morrow.
So Fortune’s wheel can govern what shall be
And out of gladness bring mankind to sorrow.
BARNABO OF LOMBARDY
O Barnabo Visconti, Milan’s great
God of delight, scourge of Lombardy, why 2400
Should not all your misfortunes I relate
Once you had climbed to an estate so high?
Your brother’s son, in double sense ally
(Your nephew and your son-in-law as well),
Put you inside his prison, there to die, 2405
Though why or how I do not know to tell.
COUNT UGOLINO OF PISA
Now of Count Ugolino’s darkest hour
No tongue can tell without great sympathy.
Not far outside of Pisa stands a tower
In which he was imprisoned–not just he 2410
But with him there his little children three,
The eldest being just five years of age.
Alas, O Fortune, what great cruelty,
Such birds as these put into such a cage!
The reason that he’d been condemned to die 2415
Was the bishop of Pisa (in that day
Ruggieri), who had told of him a lie;
The people then rose up against his sway
And had him put in prison, in the way
That you have heard. The food and drink he had 2420
Was not at all sufficient, safe to say;
What little bit he had was poor and bad.
It happened that one day upon the hour
When food to him had usually been brought,
The jailer locked all doors about the tower. 2425
He heard it well although he uttered naught,
Till soon there fell upon his heart the thought
That by starvation they planned his demise.
“Alas that I was born!” he cried, distraught,
Then tears began to flow from both his eyes. 2430
His youngest son, whose age was only three,
Then asked him, “Father, why is it you weep?
When will the jailer bring our food? Have we
No single crumb of bread that you could keep?
I am so hungry I can’t even sleep. 2435
Would God that I might always sleep, instead
Of feeling in me hunger’s gnawing creep!
There’s nothing I would rather have than bread.”
So day by day this child began to cry,
Till in his father’s lap he finally lay 2440
And said, “Farewell, my father, I must die!”
He kissed his father, died that very day.
And when his father saw he’d passed away,
His grief was such he bit his own two arms
And cried, “Alas, O Fortune! Well I may 2445
On your false wheel lay blame for all my harms!”
It was for hunger, so his sons believed,
That he had gnawed his arms and not for woe.
“No, Father, don’t do that,” they said, aggrieved,
“But eat our flesh instead. Not long ago 2450
Our flesh you gave us; take it back just so,
And eat enough.” That’s what they had to say,
And in a day or two both were to go
Lay in their father’s lap and pass away.
And he, too, in despair died of starvation, 2455
This Count of Pisa. Such was his demise,
Cut down by Fortune from so high a station.
No more on this tragedy I’ll advise;
If you would hear it in more lengthy wise,
Then read in that great poet of Italy 2460
Called Dante, for so well he does devise
It word for word and tells it totally.
Though Nero was as vile and villainous
As any fiend that ever lay in hell,
This whole wide world (as writes Suetonius) 2465
Both east and west, from north to south as well,
Was subject to his rule, albeit fell.
With rubies, sapphires, pearls of purest white
Were all his clothes embroidered; one could tell
In precious stones he took a great delight. 2470
More pompous, proud, fastidious in array
No other Roman emperor was than he;
Whichever robe he’d choose to wear one day
No day thereafter he desired to see.
Gold-threaded nets were brought in quantity 2475
When he desired to fish a Tiber bend.
His every wish acquired legality,
For Fortune would obey him like a friend.
He had Rome burnt for his delight, a whim,
And senators he ordered slain one day 2480
That he might hear the cries that came from them.
He slew his brother, by his sister lay,
And mangled his own mother–that’s to say,
He slit his mother’s womb that he might see
Where he had been conceived. O wellaway 2485
That he held her no worthier to be!
Not one tear from his eye fell at the sight,
He simply said, “A woman fair was she.”
The wonder is how Nero could or might
Be any judge of her late beauty. He 2490
Then ordered wine be brought, which instantly
He drank–he gave no other sign of woe.
When power has been joined to cruelty,
Alas, how deeply will the venom flow!
This Nero had a master in his youth 2495
To teach to him the arts and courtesy,
This master being the flower of moral truth
In his own time, if books speak truthfully;
And while this master held authority,
So wise he made him in both word and thought 2500
That it would be much time ere tyranny
Or any vice against him would be brought.
This master Seneca of whom I’ve spoken
To Nero had become a cause of dread,
Chastising him for every good rule broken, 2505
By word, not deed. As he discreetly said,
“An emperor, sir, must always be well bred,
Of virtue, hating tyranny.” Defied,
He wound up in a bath where he was bled
From both his arms, and that’s the way he died. 2510
This Nero as a youth was also taught
Before his master always to arise,
Which afterwards was great insult, he thought,
For which he had him sent to such demise.
But nonetheless this Seneca the wise 2515
Chose in a bath to die in just that way
Rather than in some torture they’d devise.
So his dear master Nero chose to slay.
Now it befell that Fortune wished no longer
To suffer Nero’s pride, such haughtiness; 2520
For although he was strong, she was the stronger.
She thought, “By God! I am a fool, no less,
To set a man so full of wickedness
In high degree, an emperor to call.
By God, I’ll pluck him from his loftiness; 2525
When he may least expect, soon he shall fall.”
The people rose against him then one night
For his misdeeds; and when he so espied,
He sneaked outside as quickly as he might
And went to where he thought he’d be allied. 2530
But as he knocked, and all the more he cried,
The faster would the doors shut one and all;
Himself, he knew, he’d thus come to misguide.
He went his way, no longer dared he call.
The people shouted, rumbling to and fro, 2535
With his own ears he heard the cry they made:
“Where is this traitorous tyrant, this Nero?”
He went half crazy, he was so afraid,
As to his gods then pitifully he prayed
For help, though none would come. So terrified 2540
That he felt on his bier already laid,
He ran into a garden, there to hide.
And in this garden he two fellows found
Who sat beside a bonfire great and red;
These churls he begged, he asked that they be bound 2545
To slay him, that they then chop off his head,
That with his body, after he was dead,
Spite not be made because of his ill fame.
But Nero had to slay himself instead,
Upon which Fortune laughed as if in game. 2550
There was no other captain of a king
Who brought more kingdoms under subjugation,
None stronger in the field in everything
In his own time, of greater reputation,
Not one more arrogant in his high station, 2555
Than Holofernes. Fortune kissed him to it
With wantonness, led him through every nation,
Until he lost his head before he knew it.
Not only did this world stand thus in awe
For fear of losing goods and liberty, 2560
But he made every man renounce his law;
“Nebuchadnezzar is our god,” said he,
“No other god on earth shall worshipped be.”
Against him only one town made a case:
Bethulia, a strong community, 2565
Eliachim the high priest of the place.
Take notice of how Holofernes died:
Amid his soldiers he lay drunk one night
Within his barnlike tent so large and wide;
And yet for all his pomp and all his might, 2570
Judith, a woman (as he lay upright,
Asleep), cut off his head. Then from his tent
She stole, evading every soldier’s sight,
And with his head back to her town she went.
KING ANTIOCHUS THE ILLUSTRIOUS
What need to tell of King Antiochus, 2575
Of all his high and royal majesty,
His lofty pride, his works so venomous?
Another such a one was not to be.
Go read of who he was in Maccabee,
Read there the words he spoke so full of pride, 2580
And why he fell from high prosperity,
And on a hill how wretchedly he died.
Fortune had so ensconced him in his pride
That truly he believed he might attain
The very stars that shone on every side, 2585
Weigh in the scales each mountain of the chain,
And every flood-tide of the sea constrain.
God’s people he especially would hate,
Brought death to them in torment and in pain,
Believing God might not his pride abate. 2590
When Nicanor and Timotheus too
Had by the Jews been vanquished totally,
He had so great a hatred for the Jew
That he ordered his chariot to be
Prepared at once, and swore avengingly 2595
That right away upon Jerusalem
He’d wreak his ire with utmost cruelty;
But his objective soon eluded him.
God for his threat so sorely had him smitten
With an internal wound that had no cure, 2600
Inside his gut he felt so cut and bitten
That it was pain he hardly could endure.
This vengeance was a just one, to be sure,
For many a fellow’s gut had felt his blow;
But still, his evil purpose to secure, 2605
He wouldn’t be deterred despite his woe,
He ordered armed immediately his host.
But then, before he knew it, God once more
Had moved against his pride and haughty boast:
He fell out of his chariot as it bore. 2610
His skin and limbs the tumble scraped and tore
Till he could neither walk nor mount to ride;
Upon a chair men carried off the floor
He had to sit, bruised over back and side.
The wrath of God had smitten him so cruelly 2615
That evil worms all through his body crept,
By cause of which he stank so horribly
That none within the household where he kept,
Whether he be awake or when he slept,
Could long endure his smell. In this abhorred 2620
Condition, this mischance, he wailed and wept,
And knew of every creature God is Lord.
To all his host and to himself also
The way his carcass stank would sicken till
No one could even bear him to and fro. 2625
And in this stink, this horrid painful ill,
He died a wretched death upon a hill.
And so this evil thief and homicide
Who caused so many others tears to spill
Has the reward that goes to those of pride. 2630
The story of Alexander is so well known
That part if not the tale’s entirety
Has been heard once by everyone who’s grown.
This whole wide world, to speak with brevity,
He won by strength (or by celebrity, 2635
As for him towns in peace would gladly send).
The pride of man and beast wherever he
Would go he toppled, to this world’s far end.
There’s no comparison that one can make,
Above all other conquerors he’d tower; 2640
For all this world in dread of him would quake,
Of knighthood, of nobility the flower,
As Fortune made him heir to fame and power.
Save wine and women, nothing might arrest
His zeal, in arms and labor, to devour; 2645
The courage of a lion filled his breast.
Would it add to his glory if I told
Of Darius and a hundred thousand more–
The kings, the princes, dukes and earls bold
Whom he fought and brought under heel in war? 2650
As far as man had ever gone before
The world was his. What more need I recall?
Were I to write or tell you evermore
Of his knighthood, I couldn’t tell it all.
Twelve years, says Maccabees, he reigned, this son 2655
Of Phillip of the Macedonian race,
As king of Greece, its first and greatest one.
O worthy Alexander, of noble grace,
Alas, such sad events as in your case!
By your own men poisoned, the six you threw 2660
Has Fortune turned instead into an ace.
And yet she hasn’t shed one tear for you.
Who’ll give me tears sufficient to complain
Of nobleness’s death, of the demise
Of one who held the world as his domain 2665
Yet thought it still not large enough in size,
His heart always so full of enterprise?
Alas! who now shall help me as I name
False Fortune and that poison I despise
As two things that for all this woe I blame? 2670
Through wisdom, manhood, and great labor’s throes,
From humble bed to royal majesty
This Julius as a conqueror arose.
For he won all the West by land and sea,
By strength of hand and by diplomacy, 2675
And made each realm to Rome a tributary;
And then of Rome the emperor was he,
Till Fortune would become his adversary.
O mighty Caesar, who in Thessaly
Faced Pompey, your own father-in-law, who drew 2680
About him in the East all chivalry
As far as where each day dawn breaks anew,
Through your knighthood that host you took and slew
(Except the few who then with Pompey fled),
The East thereby put in such awe of you. 2685
Thank Fortune that so well you marched ahead!
Here I’ll bewail a little, if I might,
Pompey the Great, this noble governor
Of Rome who from the fray had taken flight.
One of his men, a false and traitorous cur, 2690
Beheaded him that he might win the favor
Of Julius, who received the severed head.
Alas, Pompey the Eastern conqueror,
That to such end by Fortune you were led!
To Rome again repaired this Julius, 2695
With laurel crowned, upon his victory.
Then came the time when Brutus Cassius,
Who envied Caesar’s high prosperity,
Began conspiring in full secrecy
Against his life. With subtlety he chose 2700
The place of death, and planned that it should be
By way of daggers as I shall disclose.
This Julius to the Capitol one day
Had made his way, as frequently he chose;
There fell upon him then without delay 2705
This traitor Brutus and his other foes,
Who with their daggers gave him several blows
And left him there to die when they were through.
He groaned at but one stroke for all his throes,
Or else at two, if all his tale is true. 2710
This Julius Caesar was so manly hearted
And had such love for stately probity
That, even as his wounds so sorely smarted,
He drew his mantle over hip and knee,
So that his private parts no one could see; 2715
As he lay in a daze, the deathly kind,
And knew that he was wounded mortally,
Thoughts of decorum still were in his mind.
Lucan, you’re one authority I’ll note,
Suetonius, Valerius also, 2720
The story’s fully there in what you wrote
Of these two conquerors; to them we know
That Fortune first was friend and later foe.
No man can put trust in her favor long,
We must keep both eyes on her as we go; 2725
These conquerors bear witness who were strong.
This wealthy Croesus, once the Lydian king
Whom even Persia’s Cyrus held in dread,
Was caught in pride until men said to bring
Him to the fire, and that’s where he was led. 2730
But such a rain the clouds above then shed,
The fire was quenched and he was to escape.
This was a lesson, though, he left unread,
Till Fortune on the gallows made him gape.
When he escaped, the urge he couldn’t stem 2735
To go and start a whole new war again.
And well he might, as Fortune sent to him
Such good luck that he’d made off through the rain
Before he by his foes could there be slain.
There also was a dream he dreamt one night 2740
That made him feel so eager, proud, and vain,
On vengeance he set all his heart and might.
He was upon a tree, in dream he thought,
Where Jupiter bathed him down every side,
And Phoebus a fair towel to him brought 2745
To dry himself. This added to his pride,
And of his daughter standing there beside
Him–she in whom, he knew, was to be found
Great insight–he asked what it signified,
And she at once his dream set to expound: 2750
“The tree,” she said, “the gallows signifies,
And Jupiter betokens snow and rain,
And Phoebus, with his towel so clean, implies
Beams of the sun, as best I can explain.
By hanging, Father, surely you’ll be slain; 2755
Washed by the rain, by sun you shall be dried.”
Such was the warning given, short and plain,
By Phania, his daughter at his side.
And hanged indeed was Croesus, that proud king,
His royal throne to him was no avail. 2760
No tragedies may signify a thing,
There’s naught in song to cry out and bewail,
Except that Fortune always will assail
With sudden stroke the kingdom of the proud;
For when men trust her, that’s when she will fail 2765
And cover her bright visage with a cloud.
Here the Knight stops the Monk in his tale