Chaucer’s “Truth: A Ballade of Good Counsel”

While my first literary love is Old English poetry, I am a fan of Middle English too. In my new collection, I have a few translations of poems from Geoffrey Chaucer. I like to remind folks in general, my students, and myself from time to time that Chaucer did things aside from The Canterbury Tales (as great as they are).

So here’s one of his shorter lyric poems, “Truth,” done in the forme fixe of the ballade, a French verse form that was popular in the 14th and 15th centuries. Contemporary English poets (Chaucer himself and John Lydgate preeminent among them) liked to use it too, and later English-language poets have continued the tradition. I’ve retained the verse form over literal meaning, to preserve the musicality of Chaucer’s original. (In my translation I also omit the “envoy,” the final stanza that is addressed to a particular person, to “universalize” the poem–for better or worse.)

I like especially his image of the futility of “kicking the point of an awl.”

The texts follow the audio file of my reading of the Middle English and translation.

 

Truth: Balade de Bon Conseyl

by Geoffrey Chaucer

 

Flee fro the prees and dwelle with sothfastnesse;

Suffyce unto thy thing, though it be smal,

For hord hath hate, and climbing tikelnesse,

Prees hath envye, and wele blent overal.

Savour no more than thee bihove shal,

Reule wel thyself that other folk canst rede,

And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

 

Tempest thee noght al croked to redresse

In trust of hir that turneth as a bal;

Gret reste stant in litel besinesse.

Be war therfore to sporne ayeyns an al,

Stryve not, as doth the crokke with the wal.

Daunte thyself, that dauntest otheres dede,

And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

 

That thee is sent, receyve in buxomnesse;

The wrastling for this world axeth a fal.

Here is non hoom, her nis but wildernesse:

Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!

Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al;

Hold the heye wey and lat thy gost thee lede,

And trouthe thee shall delivere, it is no drede.

 

 
Truth: A Middle English Ballade of Good Counsel by Geoffrey Chaucer 

 

Flee the crowd and dwell securely in trueness.

Let your own suffice, though it not be much,

for greed leads to hate and grasping to coldness;

the crowd leads to envy, and wealth deceives such

as hold too tightly everything they touch.

Rule yourself well, that others clearly see,

and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.

 
Don’t try to amend all that is amiss,

trusting that Lady who spins like a ball;

true rest lies in spurning busyness.

There’s no sense in kicking the point of an awl

nor in the crock’s struggle against a wall.

Rule yourself, you who rule others’ deeds,

and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.

 

Take what is sent to you in obedience;

struggle, for this world surely begs a fall.

We have no home here, only wilderness.

Go forth, pilgrim! Go forth, beast, from your stall!

Know our true home and thank the God of all.

Hold your course and follow your spirit’s lead,

and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.

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