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26. THE CANON’S YEOMAN’S TALE

Prologue
When Saint Cecilia’s life was finished, we
Had ridden less than five miles–we would be 555
At Boughton under Blean–when from the back
A fellow overtook us clothed in black,
Though white his surplice underneath. He rode
A hackney, dappled gray, with such a load
Of sweat it was astonishing to see; 560
He must have ridden hard, two miles or three.
His Yeoman’s horse as well was sweating so
It looked like it could scarcely even go.
The harness round its breast was soaking wet;
A magpie it appeared, such spots of sweat. 565
One doubled bag upon its crupper lay,
So he’d brought little clothing, safe to say.
This worthy man, dressed light for summer’s start,
Made me begin to wonder in my heart
What he might be, until I understood 570
The way in which his cloak was sewn to hood,
And thinking on it finally came to see
That some sort of a Canon he must be.
His hat hung at his back, kept by a knot,
For he had ridden more than at a trot– 575
He’d spurred, in fact, as if a fellow mad.
A burdock leaf beneath his hood he had
To fight the sweat and cool his head. And yet
It was a joy to see the fellow sweat!
His forehead dripped just like a still will do, 580
One filled with plantain, pellitory too.
When he’d caught up with us, then bellowed he,
“May God preserve this jolly company!
I’ve ridden hard and for no other sake
Than that you people I might overtake, 585
To ride with such a merry company.”
His Yeoman, too, was full of courtesy,
And said, “I saw you, sirs, at early day
As from your hostelry you rode away.
I warned my lord and master here, as he 590
Would eagerly enjoy your company
While riding, for he likes to joke and play.”
“God bless you, friend, for warning him that way!”
Then said our Host. “For surely I surmise,
As far as I can judge, your lord is wise. 595
He’s jolly, too, I’d wager that it’s true!
Can he relate a merry tale or two
To gladden all this company as well?”
“Who, sirs? My lord? Indeed, no lie I tell,
Of merriment and all such jollity 600
He knows more than enough. And, trust in me,
If you knew him as well as I do now,
You’d marvel at his cunning, wonder how
His work in many ways can be so clever.
He’s undertaken many a great endeavor 605
That any here would find too hard for them
To bring about, unless they learnt from him.
As humbly as he rides here, if you got
To know him it would profit you a lot;
Then his acquaintance you’d not trade away 610
For quite a tidy sum–on that I’d lay
My money down, all that’s in my possession.
I warn you, he’s a man of high discretion,
One as surpassing as has ever been.”
“Well,” said our Host, “I pray you’ll tell us, then, 615
Is he a cleric? Say what he may be.”
“Nay, greater than a cleric, certainly,”
This Yeoman said. “In words, Host, that are few
I’ll tell you something of what he can do.
“I say, he knows such arts of subtlety– 620
But you won’t learn of all his craft from me,
Though in his work I sometimes help him still–
That all this ground on which we ride, until
We’ve gone from here to Canterbury town,
My lord could turn completely upside down 625
And pave it all with silver and with gold.”
And when this Yeoman had this story told,
Our Host responded, “Benedicite!
This thing’s a marvel–what more can I say?–
To see the way your lord, so wise and clever 630
That all men should respect him, should, however,
Pay little mind to his own dignity.
The coat he’s wearing isn’t worth a flea
And shouldn’t be by such a fellow worn.
As I may walk, it’s filthy and it’s torn! 635
Pray tell me why so sloppily he goes.
Can’t he afford to buy some better clothes
If his deeds match your words? Now tell me more,
Explain this matter to me, I implore.”
“Why?” said the Yeoman. “Why ask that of me? 640
God help me, he’ll find no prosperity!
(I wouldn’t want to swear to what I say,
So keep it as a secret, sir, I pray.)
I think that he’s too wise for his own good;
What’s overdone won’t turn out as it should, 645
For it is then a vice, clerks rightly say.
I think he’s dumb and foolish in that way.
For when a fellow has too great a wit,
It often happens he misuses it;
So does my lord, for which my grief is sore. 650
May God amend it! I can’t tell you more.”
“No matter, my good Yeoman,” said our Host.
“But since about his art you know the most,
Tell how he does it, I sincerely pray,
Since he’s as sly and crafty as you say. 655
Where do you dwell, if that you may confide?”
“In the outskirts of a city,” he replied.
“In corners and blind alleyways we lurk
Where all your thieves by nature do their work,
Reside in secrecy and fear, from where 660
They dare not show their faces. So we fare,
If I should speak the truth, my lord and I.”
“Now,” said our Host, “permit me asking why
You’ve such discoloration in your face.”
“Saint Peter,” he replied, “it’s a disgrace! 665
I’m so accustomed on the fire to blow
I think my whole complexion’s changed, although
I don’t go looking into mirrors–I
Stay hard at work, to learn to multiply.
We blunder right along, stare in the fire, 670
And for all that we fail in our desire,
We never have results when we conclude.
A lot of folks, however, we delude
And borrow gold–be it a pound or so,
Or ten or twelve, as high as we can go– 675
And make them think, at least, that we can take
A pound of gold and two pounds from it make.
It’s false, but still we always have good hope
It can be done, and after it we grope.
But it’s a science that’s so far ahead 680
That though we vow, no matter what is said,
It can’t be caught, it slips away so fast,
And it will make us beggars at the last.”
Now while this Yeoman said this, there drew near
His lord the Canon, close enough to hear 685
All that was said. For always when he’d see
Men talking, he’d react suspiciously;
As Cato says, “The guilty without doubt
Will alway think he’s being talked about.”
That’s why he drew so near him, that he may 690
Hear everything the Yeoman had to say.
Here’s what he told his Yeoman when he’d heard:
“Now hold your tongue, don’t speak another word,
For if you do you’ll dearly pay! For me
You slander here before this company, 695
And tell things, too, that you should keep concealed.”
“Tell,” said our Host, “no matter what’s revealed!
His threats aren’t worth a mite, don’t give ’em store.”
“In faith,” said he, “I don’t much anymore.”
And when this Canon saw no other way– 700
His Yeoman would his secrets give away–
He turned and fled in sorrow and in shame.
“Ah,” said the Yeoman, “now for fun and game!
All that I know I’ll tell you on the level.
He’s gone, and may he run into the devil! 705
For henceforth I will never meet him now,
For penny or for pound, and that’s a vow.
Before he dies may he be brought to shame
And grief for dragging me into his game!
For by my faith, it’s been hard work and tough; 710
Say what you will, I feel it well enough,
And yet for all my pain and all my grief,
My woe and labor, trial without relief,
To leave it I could never find a way.
I wish to God I’d wits enough today 715
To tell you all that figures in that art!
But nonetheless at least I’ll tell you part.
And since my lord is gone, I’ll nothing spare;
Such things as those I know I will declare.”

The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale
PART I

Though with this Canon I’ve dwelt seven years, 720
For all his science I’m still in arrears;
For everything I had I’ve lost thereby,
And, God knows, so have many more than I.
Though fresh and bright I once was wont to be
In clothing and in other finery, 725
Now I must wear a stocking on my head.
And though my color once was healthy red,
It now is wan and has a leaden hue–
Whoever tries this art will sorely rue!–
My eyes so bleared they still can hardly see. 730
Lo, what advantage lies in alchemy!
That slippery science has so stripped me bare
That I have nothing, here or anywhere;
And I’m still so indebted by the gold
That I have borrowed–let the truth be told– 735
That while I live I can’t repay it ever.
Let every man be warned by me forever!
Whoso takes up this science, for my part,
If he persists, is done in from the start.
So help me God, there’s nothing he can gain 740
Except an empty purse and addled brain.
And when he by his crazy foolishness
Has lost his goods through all this risky mess,
He then entices others with their pelf
To lose it all as he has done himself. 745
For rascals find their comfort and delight
In seeing fellow men in pain and blight–
Or so a scholar taught me once. But out
With that, for it’s our work I’ll tell about.
When in the place where we’re to exercise 750
Our elvish craft, we seem to be so wise,
The terms we use so technical and quaint.
I blow the fire until my heart is faint.
Why should I tell you the exact proportions
Of things we work with, measured out in portions– 755
Five ounces, maybe six (all which would be
Of silver), or some other quantity?
And why should all the names be duly stated
Of arsenic, burnt bones, iron fragmentated
And ground to finest powder? Why recall 760
How in an earthen pot we put it all,
How we put salt into it, paper too,
Before the powders as I’ve said to you,
How with a plate of glass the pot is covered,
With other things such as may be discovered? 765
Why tell how we will seal both pot and glass
So that no bit of air might ever pass,
And of the fires–some warm and others hot–
And of the care and woe that is our lot
In trying as we do to sublimate, 770
Which is to calcine or amalgamate
Quicksilver (also called crude mercury)?
Results from all these tricks we never see.
Our arsenic, our mercury sublimate,
Lead oxide ground on porphyry (the weight 775
Of each of these to certain ounces brought)–
None of it helps, our labor is for naught.
Nor rising gases that evaporate
Nor all the matter left in solid state
Can in our work be of the least avail; 780
We’ve wasted all our labor and travail,
And all that we’ve spent on it, for our cost,
By twenty devils, is all money lost.
Now there are many other things as well
Pertaining to our craft that I can tell. 785
I can’t say in what order they should fall,
For I am not a learned man at all,
But I’ll relate them as they come to mind,
Though not arranged according to their kind:
Armenian clay, borax and verdigris, 790
And vessels made of glass and earth; with these,
Our urinals, retorts for distillation,
Assaying vessels, flasks for sublimation,
Our vials and our alembics–all such stuff
As that, all of it costing quite enough. 795
There is no need for me to list them all–
Like waters used for reddening, bull’s gall,
Arsenic, brimstone, sal ammoniac;
Of herbs, too, I could tell without a slack,
Herbs like valerian or like moonwort 800
Or agrimony. I could long report
On how our lamps keep burning day and night,
Our purpose to accomplish, if we might;
Or of our furnaces for calcining,
Of water that we use for whitening; 805
Chalk, unslaked lime, egg white, a whole array
Of powders, ashes, droppings, piss, and clay,
Wax-coated bags, saltpeter, vitriol,
And various kinds of fires from wood and coal;
Some salt of tartar, table salt, potash, 810
Stuff burnt, congealed; of clay made with a dash
Of horse’s hair (or else the human sort);
Rock alum, yeast, some tartar oil and wort,
Ratsbane and argol; other things we use
That will absorb, and things that interfuse; 815
Our work with silver, too, its citronation,
And our cementing and our fermentation;
Our ingots, crucibles, and so much more.
I’ll teach you now, as I’ve been taught before,
The seven bodies and four spirits, all 820
In order as I’ve often heard him call.
For the first spirit, quicksilver’s the word;
The second, arsenic; of course, the third
Is sal ammoniac; the fourth, brimstone.
The seven bodies? Listen how they’re known: 825
Gold’s Sol and silver’s Luna, so say we,
And iron is Mars, quicksilver Mercury,
While lead is Saturn, Jupiter is tin,
And Venus copper, by my father’s kin!
But by this cursed craft no man alive 830
Can gain enough out of it to survive;
For all he spends to bring such things about
Is money lost, of that I’ve not a doubt.
Come forth, if it’s a fool you’d like to be,
And learn about the art of alchemy; 835
If you have money, then step forward, sir,
And you too can become philosopher.
You think it’s knowledge easy to acquire?
Nay, nay, God knows! Be he a monk or friar,
A canon, priest, or any we might say, 840
Though he sit at his books both night and day
To learn this elvish and this foolish lore,
It’s all in vain–God knows, it’s even more!
To teach an ignorant man this subtlety–
O fie! don’t speak of such, it cannot be! 845
For whether he’s a learned man or not,
Both kinds will find they share a common lot;
For both will in the end, by my salvation,
Find in this art of multiplication
The very same result for their travail; 850
That is, in what they try they both will fail.
Yet I forgot to mention these to you:
Corrosive waters, metal filings too,
The softening of substances, as well
As how to make them hard; I didn’t tell 855
Of oils, ablutions, metals we can fuse–
It’s more than any book you can peruse,
No matter where. And so it’s for the best
That I don’t bother naming all the rest.
I think already I’ve told you enough 860
To raise a devil looking mighty rough.
Aye, let it be! The philosophers’ stone,
Elixir called, we search for on and on,
For if we had it we’d be safe and sound.
I swear to God who’s up in heaven found, 865
For all our craft and all our tricky gear,
When we are finished, it still won’t appear.
It’s made us spend much money, which is sad–
Indeed for sorrow we’ve gone nearly mad.
But that good hope still creeps into our heart; 870
We keep supposing, though we ache and smart,
That in the end we’ll find it, have relief.
But that’s a nagging hope, a hard belief;
I warn you well, the search is never-ending.
That hoped-for time has led men into spending, 875
Who trusted in it, all they ever had.
And yet it’s never made them really sad,
For it’s an art that’s to them bittersweet,
Or so it seems–if they had but a sheet
With which they could enwrap themselves at night, 880
One ragged coat to walk in by daylight,
They’d sell them, that in this they might persist;
Till everything is gone they can’t desist.
And they are marked wherever they have gone,
For by the smell of brimstone they are known. 885
They stink, for all the world, just like a goat;
It’s such a strong and rammish smell to note
That though a fellow be a mile away
He’ll be infected by it, safe to say.
So if you wish, by smell and threadbare clothes 890
An alchemist you’ll know each place he goes.
And if someone should ask him privately
The reason why he’s clothed so raggedly,
At once he’ll whisper in the fellow’s ear,
“If they knew who I am, these people here, 895
To slay me for my science they’d assent.”
See how these folks take in the innocent!
But let’s pass on now to the tale I’ve got.
Before upon the fire we put the pot,
My lord will add thereto a certain weight 900
Of metals–he and no one else (I’ll state
This openly, now that the fellow’s gone)–
For as a crafty man he’s surely known.
I know at least that he’s had such a name,
Yet he can seldom live up to his fame. 905
Do you know why? In frequent episodes
It bids us all goodbye, the pot explodes!
These metals have such volatility
That our walls are not strong enough to be
Resistant unless made of lime or stone; 910
These metals pierce, right through the walls they hone
Or some go plunging right into the ground
(That way we’ve often lost more than a pound),
Across the floor some others scatter out,
Some shoot right through the roof. Without a doubt, 915
Although the devil never shows his face,
He must be right there with us in the place!
In hell itself where he is lord and sire
There couldn’t be more turbulence and ire.
For when our pot explodes, as I have told, 920
Each man in his chagrin will start to scold.
One blames it on the way the fire was built,
A second claims the blower bears the guilt–
Since I’m the blower, I get scared at once.
“Straw!” says the third, “you’re everyone a dunce. 925
The whole thing wasn’t mixed right anyhow.”
“Nay,” says the fourth, “shut up and listen now.
We didn’t burn beech wood and that’s the story,
No other cause, if I may go to glory!”
For me, I can’t say why it went so wrong, 930
But well I know we argue hard and long.
“Well,” says my lord, “it can’t be helped for now;
Next time I’ll be more wary. Anyhow
I’m sure the pot was cracked. Be as it may,
Don’t take it all in so confused a way. 935
Get busy and as usual sweep the floor;
Take heart, be glad and cheerful as before.”
The rubbish then is swept into a mound,
Then canvas on the floor is spread around,
And as this trash is thrown into a sieve 940
We sift and poke with all we have to give.
“By God,” says one, “there’s still some metal here,
Though we don’t have it all. It would appear
That even though this went awry somehow,
The next time may go better. We must now 945
Invest our goods in this. Upon my creed,
There’s never been a merchant guaranteed
Success in every venture, trust in me.
Sometimes his goods are lost upon the sea,
And sometimes they’re transported safe to land.” 950
“Peace!” says my lord. “Next time I’ll have in hand
The way to bring our craft more to its aim,
And if I don’t, sirs, give me all the blame.
There was a fault somewhere, that much is known.”
Another says the fire too hot had grown; 955
But be it hot or cold, I dare to say
That in our quest we never find the way.
We always fail to reach our aspiration
And madly rage in our exasperation.
And when we’re there together, everyone 960
Among us seems to be a Solomon.
But everything that glitters is not gold,
As often I have heard the saying told;
Not every apple pleasing to the eye
Is good, though men may praise it to the sky. 965
That’s how it is with me, right by the rule:
Who seems the wisest is the biggest fool,
By Jesus! When it comes time for belief,
Who seems the truest is the biggest thief.
That much you’ll know before I part from you; 970
You’ll know it by the time my tale is through.

PART II

Among us a religious canon goes
Who could infect a whole town if he chose
Though great as Rome and Troy and Nineveh,
Another three plus Alexandria. 975
His tricks and his deceit so limitless
No man could put in writing, I would guess,
Though he should live to see a thousand years.
In all this world for lies he has no peers;
For he gets so wound up in what he’ll say 980
And speaks his words all in so sly a way
Whenever he converses with someone,
He’ll make the man a fool before he’s done–
Unless, like him, the man’s a devil too.
He’s hoodwinked many a man and isn’t through, 985
Long as he lives he’ll do it all the while.
And yet men ride and walk mile after mile
To seek him, make acquaintance, none of them
Aware of the deceit that governs him.
And if it’s your desire to hear me out, 990
Right here and now that’s what I’ll tell about.
But you religious canons, honors due,
Please do not think that I would slander you
Though I tell of a canon. There’s no doubt
That every order has some rogue about, 995
And God forbid a whole group be maligned
Because of one man’s folly. I’ve no mind
To slander you at all; it’s to amend
A certain wrong, that’s all that I intend.
It’s not for only you this tale is told 1000
But others too. You well know how of old
Among Christ’s twelve apostles there were none
But Judas who betrayed, the only one.
So why should all the rest be given blame
When guiltless? As for you I say the same, 1005
Except for this–pay heed to what I say:
If there’s one Judas in your house today,
Then throw him out at once, that’s my advice,
If you fear any taint of shame or vice.
And do not be displeased by this, I pray, 1010
But in this matter hear what I’ve to say.
In London was a priest who sang the mass
For those deceased; and years had come to pass
In which such pleasant service he’d afforded
To his landlady where he roomed and boarded 1015
That she’d not suffer him to pay a thing
For board or clothes though he dress like a king,
And he had lots of silver in his purse.
But that’s for neither better nor for worse,
I’ll go on with my tale to its conclusion 1020
On how a canon brought him to confusion.
This canon so deceitful came one day
To see this priest where in his room he lay
And asked him for a loan, a quantity
Of gold, for which he’d pay him back. “Lend me 1025
A mark,” he said, “till just three days are through
And at that time I’ll bring it back to you.
And if you find I’m telling you a lie,
Have me hung by the neck next time I’m by.”
This priest gave him a mark right on the spot, 1030
For which this canon thanked the priest a lot
And took his leave, went right off on his way.
He brought the money back right to the day
And gave it to the priest, all he had lent,
Which made the priest delighted and content. 1035
“For sure,” he said, “it doesn’t bother me
To lend a man a noble, two or three,
Or anything I have in my possession,
Whenever he is of such true discretion
He keeps the time appointed to repay; 1040
And such a man I cannot turn away.”
“What!” said the canon, “I would be untrue?
For me that would be really something new.
My word’s a thing that always I will keep
Until that very day when I shall creep 1045
Into my grave, so help me God. Indeed
Of that you can be sure as of your creed.
Thank God, and in good time may it be said,
There’s never been a man who’s been misled
For having gold or silver to me lent; 1050
No falsehood in my heart I’ve ever meant.
And, sir, since you have been so good to me
In showing me such generosity,
For being kind I’ll tell you in return
About my secret. If you wish to learn, 1055
I’ll teach you plainly how,” as he went on,
“My works I have performed, as yet unknown,
What I’ve accomplished in philosophy.
Watch closely and with your own eyes you’ll see
A master stroke by me before I’ve ceased.” 1060
“Yes, will you, sire? Saint Mary!” said the priest.
“Then so perform, I humbly beg of you.”
“As you command, sir, faithfully I’ll do,”
The canon said, “or God bring me to grief.”
See how he offered services, this thief! 1065
Such proffered service stinks, old wise men say,
And certainly it’s true, as right away
I’ll by this canon verify. For he,
Being the very root of treachery,
Takes great delight in seeing for his part– 1070
Such fiendish thoughts are gathered in his heart–
How many Christians he can bring to grief.
From his dissembling ways God grant relief!
This priest had no idea with whom he dealt,
Of his impending harm he nothing felt. 1075
O simple priest! O foolish innocent,
Soon hoodwinked by your greed! Unlucky gent,
In judgment you’re so blind you cannot see,
You’ve no awareness of the treachery
This fox has shaped for you! From all his tricks 1080
You cannot flee, you’ll soon be in a fix.
And so that I might draw to the conclusion
That deals, unhappy man, with your confusion,
I’ll hasten now to tell immediately
About your folly, your stupidity, 1085
And the deceit, too, of that other wretch,
As far as I can get my wits to stretch.
You think, Sir Host, this canon was my lord?
By faith and heaven’s queen whom I’ve adored,
It was another canon and not he, 1090
One with a hundred times more subtlety.
He’s brought folks to betrayal every time;
Of his deceit it numbs my wit to rhyme.
Whenever of his falsehood I may speak,
The shame makes me turn red from cheek to cheek. 1095
At any rate my cheeks begin to glow,
For my face has no color, well I know;
From various kinds of metals many a fume,
As you have heard, has acted to consume
And waste away my face’s ruddiness. 1100
Now hear about this canon’s cursedness!
“Sir,” said he to the priest, “let your man go
For quicksilver and bring it, promptly so–
More than an ounce, have him bring two or three;
And when he comes, without delay you’ll see 1105
A wondrous thing like none you’ve ever spied.”
“It surely shall be done,” the priest replied.
He bade his servant fetch it right away;
The servant, always ready to obey,
Went out at once and soon came back again 1110
With this quicksilver (briefly to explain),
Three ounces, which he gave the canon there.
The canon laid them down with gentle care,
And then he bade the servant coals to bring,
That he might get to work, no tarrying. 1115
The coals were fetched at once on his request,
And then this canon took out of his vest
A crucible, and to the priest said he,
“Take in your hand this instrument you see,
And then as soon as you have put therein 1120
An ounce of this quicksilver, you’ll begin,
In Christ’s name, to become philosopher.
There are but few to whom I’d offer, sir,
To show my science to such a degree;
Here by your own experience you’ll see 1125
How this quicksilver I’ll transmogrify
Right here before your eyes, without a lie,
And turn it into silver, just as fine
And good as any in your purse or mine
Or any other place. And I will make 1130
It malleable–if not, call me a fake,
One who’s unfit in public to appear.
I have a powder–one that cost me dear–
To make it work, the source of all my skill,
Which I’m about to show you. If you will, 1135
Now send away your man; let him stay out,
And shut the door, while we two are about
Our secret science, no one then to see
While we’re at work in this philosophy.”
With all that he was told the priest complied; 1140
The servant as commanded went outside,
His master shut the door without delay,
And they began their labor right away.
Bade by this canon reprehensible,
The priest set on the fire this crucible, 1145
Then busily into the fire he blew.
Into the crucible this canon threw
A powder–I don’t know what it contained,
If made of chalk or glass, but though obtained
Whatever way it wasn’t worth a fly 1150
Except as means to fool the priest. Then high
He bade him pile the coals till spread above
The crucible. “As token of my love,”
The canon said, “the hands shall be your own
That bring this work to pass here, yours alone.” 1155
“O thank you!” said the priest with happy smile,
And as the canon asked he made the pile.
And while he toiled, this fiendish, lying wretch,
This canon–may the devil come and fetch
Him!–from his coat an imitation coal 1160
Took, made of beech, in which was drilled a hole;
Some silver filings in this hole were packed,
An ounce of them, and to conceal the fact
Were tightly sealed with wax. Now be aware
That this device was not made then and there, 1165
The canon had prepared it long before
Just like some other things–I’ll tell you more
About them later–that this canon brought.
He’d come to cheat the priest, that was his thought,
And by the time they’d part indeed he would; 1170
He couldn’t quit till he had skinned him good.
Just speaking of him so depresses me!
I’d have my vengeance on his falsity
If I knew how, but he flits here and there,
Too shifty to abide long anywhere. 1175
But, sires, now pay attention, for God’s love!
He took this coal that I was speaking of
And in his hand he held it secretly.
And while the priest was working busily
To bed the coals as you have heard me say, 1180
This canon said, “No, friend, that’s not the way,
The coals are not arranged as they should be.
But I shall soon take care of that,” said he.
“Now let me meddle for a while, for by
Saint Giles, I have compassion for you. Why, 1185
I see that you’re so hot you’re soaking wet.
Now here’s a kerchief, wipe away the sweat.”
And while the priest stepped back to wipe his face,
This canon took his coal–such a disgrace!–
And centered it on top so that it sat 1190
Above the crucible; he blew, with that,
Until the coals burned at a rapid rate.
“Now let us have a drink,” he said, “and wait,
For all will soon be well, as I contend.
Let’s sit a while and make us merry, friend.” 1195
And when this canon’s imitation coal
Had burnt, all of the filings from the hole
Fell right into the crucible below–
They naturally could not help doing so
Since they were placed so evenly above it. 1200
But still, alas! this priest knew nothing of it,
For all the coals he deemed to be the same
And had no inkling of this canon’s game.
And when his time this alchemist espied,
“Rise up, Sir Priest,” said he, “step to my side. 1205
Now since I know that you’ve no mold around,
Go out, bring any chalkstone to be found–
If I have any luck, I’ll shape the thing
Exactly like a mold. And also bring
A bowl or pan as filled as it can be 1210
With water. After that you’ll surely see
Our labor thrive and brought to full fruition.
And yet that you may harbor no suspicion
While you’re away, may not distrust or doubt,
I will not leave your presence, I’ll go out 1215
With you and come right back with you again.”
The chamber door–to keep it short and plain–
They opened and then shut, then took the key
And went forth on their way in company,
Then both came back again without delay. 1220
Why should I tarry all the livelong day?
He took the chalkstone and then like a mold
He gave it shape the way you’ll now be told.
I say, this canon took out of his sleeve
A bar of silver–evil make him grieve!– 1225
That weighed an ounce. And listen now to me
While I recount his cursed trickery!
In length and width he used this bar to form
His mold, and yet so slyly did peform
That you can bet the priest did not perceive; 1230
And then again he hid it up his sleeve.
From the fire the material he took
And poured it in the mold with merry look;
And then when he was set, he threw it in
The water pan, and told the priest right then, 1235
“Now see what’s there, reach in and grope around.
I’m hoping there’s some silver to be found.
Why, what the devil else could be in there?
A silver shaving’s silver, God’s aware!”
He found a bar, when he went reaching in, 1240
Of finest silver. Filled with joy then
This priest became on seeing it was true.
“God’s blessings on you and his Mother’s too
And all the saints’, Sir Canon!” said the priest.
“And may I have their curses at the least 1245
If I–when you’ve agreed to teach to me
This noble craft of yours, this subtlety–
Do not then serve you every way I may.”
The canon said, “Yet first I will assay
A second time while you pay closest heed, 1250
An expert to become, that in your need
You may perform yourself some other day
This crafty science when I’m gone away.
Another ounce of quicksilver now bring,”
The canon said, “don’t say another thing 1255
But do with it just as you’ve done so far,
As with the first that’s now a silver bar.”
The priest went right to work, he forged ahead
To do all that this cursed canon said,
And blew hard on the fire, that hopefully 1260
The effect that he desired would come to be.
The canon was preparing all the while
Again this foolish cleric to beguile;
For show, the canon now was holding there
A hollow stick–now listen and beware!– 1265
The end of which contained an ounce, no more,
Of silver filings (as he’d put before
Inside his coal); and it was tightly sealed
With wax, that not one filing be revealed.
And while this priest was busy, with his stick 1270
This canon stepped beside him and was quick
To throw once more some of his powder in.
May the devil beat him out of his skin
For all of his deceit, to God I plead!
For he was false in every thought and deed. 1275
And with this stick, contrived as you have heard,
The coals above the crucible he stirred
Until the fire with all its heat began
To melt the seal of wax–as every man
Who’s not a fool well knows would come about. 1280
The filings in the stick went pouring out,
And right into the crucible they fell.
What more, good sirs, would you want me to tell?
When he had been beguiled again, this priest,
Supposing all was true, to say the least 1285
Was so delighted I cannot express
In any way his mirth and happiness.
He offered to the canon as before
His goods and services. “Yes, though I’m poor,”
The canon said, “you’ll find that I have skill. 1290
And let me warn you, there’s more to it still.
Is any copper hereabout?” said he.
“Yes, sire,” replied the priest, “there’s bound to be.”
“If not, go buy us some, the quickest found.
Good sir, be on your way, don’t stand around.” 1295
He went his way, and with the copper came,
And in his hand this canon took the same,
And measured just an ounce, no more, in weight.
My tongue is much too simple to relate–
I’ve not the wits–this canon’s treachery; 1300
He was the root of all iniquity.
To those who didn’t know he seemed a friend,
Though all his works were fiendish to the end.
To tell of all his lying wears me out,
But nonetheless that’s what I’ll tell about, 1305
That other men be made aware thereby
And for no other cause, that’s not a lie.
The crucible he put the copper in
And set it on the fire, and powder then
He threw in, too, and bade the priest to blow, 1310
For which the priest must then stoop down as low
As he had done before. All was a jape–
As he desired, the priest he made his ape!
After he cast this copper in the mold,
He put it in the water pan I told 1315
About before, then stuck in his own hand.
Now up his sleeve (as you well understand)
He had that silver bar that he could fetch.
He slyly took it out, this cursed wretch–
The priest did not suspect this crafty man– 1320
And left it at the bottom of the pan,
Then felt down in the water to and fro,
Removing while he did, and deftly so,
The copper bar–the priest would never note–
And hid it, grabbed the priest then by the coat, 1325
And said to him, in furtherance of his game,
“Stoop down, by God, or else you are to blame!
As I helped you before, help me in kind,
Reach in your hand and see what you can find.”
The priest brought up the silver bar, and then 1330
Said to the canon, “Let’s go take them in
To a goldsmith, these bars we’ve made, and see
What they are worth. For by the Trinity,
I wouldn’t use them–I will pledge my hood–
Unless they’re really silver, fine and good. 1335
Let’s put them to the proof without delay.”
And so with these three bars they took their way
To a goldsmith, who put them to the test
With fire and hammer. No man could contest,
Not one could say they weren’t what they should be. 1340
This foolish priest, who’s gladder now than he?
There hasn’t been one bird at sight of day,
No nightingale in all the month of May,
Who’s ever sung to such delighted measure;
No lady’s ever been as full of pleasure 1345
While singing songs of love and womanhood,
No hardy knight as joyous as he stood
In his dear lady’s grace, as for his part
This cleric was, to learn this sorry art.
He spoke then to the canon, saying thus: 1350
“For love of God who died for all of us,
If I deserve to know, what price, pray tell,
Would you require, this formula to sell?”
“By Our Lady,” he said, “the price is high,
For in all England just one friar and I 1355
And no one else alive such bars can make.”
“No matter, sire,” the priest said, “for God’s sake,
What shall I pay you? Tell me now, I pray.”
“It’s really quite expensive, as I say,”
The canon said. “So help me God, if you 1360
Desire it, sir, then in a word or two
It’s forty pounds. It surely would be more
But for the friendship you showed me before.”
The priest at once this sum in nobles found
And took it to the canon, every pound, 1365
This formula to have as a receipt.
The canon’s work was fraudulent deceit.
“Sir Priest,” he said, “I do not look for fame
In what I do, instead I hide the same;
And if you love me, keep my secrecy. 1370
For if men knew of all my subtlety,
By God, they’d be so envious in view
Of what in this philosophy I do,
They’d kill me, it would end no other way.”
The priest said, “God forbid! what’s that you say? 1375
I’d rather spend all that belongs to me–
Or else may I go crazy–than to see
You come to such an end, have such ill fortune.”
“For your good will may good luck be your portion,”
The canon said. “I thank you, sir. Good day!” 1380
And never once, when he had gone his way,
This priest saw him again. And when he had
A chance to try this formula, too bad!
He couldn’t make it work. Well you can see
How hoodwinked and beguiled he’d come to be. 1385
So that is how he makes his infiltration,
That he might bring such folk to ruination.
Consider, sirs, how in each rank is found
A strife twixt men and gold that’s so profound
What gold there’s left to win is all but none. 1390
This alchemy has blinded many a one
Till in good faith I think that it must be
The greatest reason for such scarcity.
Philosophers so vaguely speak about
Their craft, it’s something folks can’t figure out 1395
For all the wit that folks have nowadays.
But let them chatter on just like the jays
And set their hearts on terminology;
What they attempt will never come to be.
With ease a man can learn to multiply 1400
And turn what wealth he has to naught thereby!
See, there’s such profit in this lusty game
That it will turn one’s mirth to grief and shame,
Will empty out the heaviest of purses,
And afterwards lead folks to purchase curses 1405
On those to whom they lent what they had earned.
O fie, for shame! Those who have once been burned,
Can they not flee the fiery heat? I say
To those who use this craft, refrain today
Before you’re ruined. Better late than never, 1410
To live unprosperously would seem forever.
Prowl all you will, your goal you’ll never find;
You’re just as bold as Bayard who, though blind,
Still blunders forth as if no danger’s known;
He’s just as apt to run into a stone 1415
As go around it while he’s on his way.
That’s how you multipliers fare, I say.
And if your own two eyes can’t see aright,
See that your mind at least still has its sight.
Look far and wide, what alchemy will bring 1420
Is nothing, it won’t gain for you a thing;
You’ll waste all you have managed to acquire.
Before it burns too fast, put out the fire;
Don’t meddle further in that art, I say,
Or else your thrift will all be swept away. 1425
Right here and now to you I will impart
What philosophers have said about this art.
Now listen, here’s what Arnold of New Town
In his Rosarium has written down–
Here’s what he says, and this is not a lie: 1430
“No man can mercury transmogrify
Without its brother knowing.” He refers
To Hermes, father of philosophers,
As who first said it. He informs us, too,
The dragon doesn’t die–no doubt it’s true– 1435
Unless it’s by his brother he is slain.
And what’s meant by the dragon (to explain
What he has said) is mercury, none other,
And brimstone’s what is meant by saying brother,
For out of Sol and Luna come these two. 1440
“Therefore,” he said–hear what I’m telling you–
“Let no man stir himself, this art to learn,
Unless he understands and can discern
The meanings of what say philosophers.
He’s still a foolish man if he so stirs; 1445
This cunning science,” so his writing goes,
“Is secret of all secrets, heaven knows.”
A disciple of Plato had occasion
To speak with him about this situation
(His book called Senior tells us that it’s so), 1450
And here is what this fellow asked to know:
“What is the name of that most secret stone?”
And Plato said, “As Titan it is known.”
He said, “What’s that? Has it another name?”
And Plato said, “Magnesia is the same.” 1455
The fellow said, “Sir, is it to be thus?
This is ignotum per ignocius.
Good sir, what does Magnesia mean, I pray?”
“It is a water that is made, I say,
Of the four elements.” He asked him then, 1460
“Tell me the most essential part that’s in
That water, sir, if you are willing to.”
“Nay,” Plato said, “that surely I’ll not do.
Philosophers have sworn from first to last
That to no one the secret would be passed, 1465
And not in any book does it appear.
To Christ our Lord it is so very dear
He won’t allow that it revealed should be
Except where it may please his deity
So to inspire mankind, and to withhold 1470
From whom he will. There’s no more to be told.”
And so I will conclude: since God up there
Wills not that the philosophers declare
How one may find the philosophers’ stone,
It’s my advice that best it’s left alone. 1475
For whoso would make God his adversary
By doing work that’s to his will contrary
Is one who certainly will never thrive,
Though multiplying long as he’s alive.
Here’s where I stop, for ended is my tale. 1480
May God help every true man in travail!

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26. THE CANON’S YEOMAN’S TALE - GEOFFREY CHAUCER