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.

“Penwith”–A Poem from My First Collection

This is one of the more recent pieces collected in my first book of poems, Sunk in Your Shipwreck. The dominant trope of the collection is the archetypal movement of “pilgrimage,” and this poem falls directly in that ambit.

In 2006, my older brother and I went on a fairly random two-week trek around Ireland and Great Britain, focusing on southwestern Ireland, London, and Cornwall. We have ancestors from Cornwall (around Camborne), and we spent a good bit of our UK time in the western-most part of Cornwall, Penwith.

The poem’s text follows the audio file of my reading, and I hope you enjoy (and visit Penwith someday!).

 

Penwith 

for ancestors 

  

We railed it from Holyhead to Birmingham, 

sleeping splayed across three seats like vagrants, 

a Welsh child crawling down luggage racks 

to case us out, hills rolling by outside. 

Eyelids like metal traps resisting peregrinations 

but the world springs back to form and clarity 

over trestles in mine-ruin Redruth, 

downtown Camborne—and little did we suspect 

ancestral hamlet Gwillanwarthas a stone’s throw away. 

Our uphill tramp along Penzance soaked cement 

to the wrong hostel almost too much to take. 

Back down petunia-lined lanes of thatched roofs— 

who knew they still took the time?  

Bags thrown on bunks that make you sad 

how wet they are—we’re told that’s just Cornwall, mate— 

and our clothes, our shoes did not dry for four days’ time, 

despite the hostel dryer’s heroic and repeated attempts. 

The rock, the seabirds too many to number and shades of difference, 

another car cramped and rented, sitting in inverted seats, 

but the same stick: we had that. 

And you drove up the curb off Alverton Street 

to the horror of several Cornish folk passing by 

to their morning papers and pasties. 

We kept the sea to our left on our circumambulation 

always moving, the next fountain, the next cairn 

and dolmen and churchyard, the next pond with 

white streaks of swan and springs swallowed up 

by time, padding up the A-30 to Bodmin Moor, 

making wrong turns down claustrophobic lanes 

to Lamorna Cove with housewives’ sidelong glances 

as they potted plants with strangers driving slowly past 

and tossing off the world, the forest strange in these parts and sopping. 

Why did we careen down backways, narrow and hard as rock 

to find standing stone rings in farmers’ fields, 

searching miry paths hung with moss for baptistries 

left standing since the Reformation? Why the restless 

surge to moor and field and shore in damp and rain, 

in hard grey midmornings and no food ’til teatime? 

The cracked and bristling grass that welcomed our feet, 

the draughts from Iron Age wells and flowering club moss? 

How can we know? The last bleak 

stretch of path down unknown woods, opening out into clearings 

lined with mud and lichen, into centuries, then turning ’round, 

was more than enough—circling Penwith into the dawn  

of a metallic wind-swept eternity.

 

 

New Middle English Translation in Spirit & Life

Quick follow-up post: my translation of a classic Middle English lyric, “Adam Lay Ybounden,” has just appeared in the Benedictine magazine Spirit & Life. It’s a delightful short poem from c. 1400 that describes the paradoxical benefits of the Fall in Genesis 3. Plot twist!

Special thanks to Sr. Sarah Schwartzberg of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration for publishing this. Check out the sisters’ daily podcast of their chanting of the Liturgy of the Hours at their monastery in Clyde, MO here.

Pax

Swami Abhishiktananda and Shri Ramana Maharshi (Audio)

After an unpremeditated hiatus, I’m back to posting. I’ll be posting some audio files of my own poems from my first poetry collection, Sunk in Your Shipwreck, that came out in October very soon. But for the moment here’s another from Swami Abhishiktananda, the Benedictine-monk-turned-wandering-sannyasi whose poems I translated last year.

In “Shri Ramana Was Great,” Swami Abhishiktananda wrestles with Christ, wondering how this sage of modern India could have such grace though clearly he was not in any formal sense part of Christ’s community that is the Church. (The ashram community responsible for Shri Ramana’s legacy is here; for more on Swamiji’s relationship to Shri Ramana and the holy mountain Arunachala, see my previous post.)

This realization of Shri Ramana’s greatness in the S/spirit was Swamiji’s first real leap into exploring the great Awakening that goes beyond religious affiliation and doctrine. In Shri Ramana, Swamiji found embodied the deep self-realization that he found recounted in the Upanishads, and this challenged his French Catholic upbringing and monastic and priestly formation. The poem here follows his searching, guiding the reader (and, one assumes, himself) to a precarious peace with a situation that doesn’t seem to have an obvious resolution along traditional religious lines. Here it is:

 

Reading this Thursday, 11/8/2018 at 12.30 pm

In case anyone is in the Milwaukee area this Thursday, and wanting some literature over the lunch hour,  Dr. Sherri Hoffman and me will be reading our work at the Haggerty Museum on Marquette’s campus at 12.30 pm. Light refreshments and all that; promises to be a delightful break in the day.

I’ll be reading from my new poetry collection, Sunk in Your Shipwreck–including a short Old English poem in its original in addition to my translation.

New Book of Poems!

I am very excited to announce the publication of my first poetry collection, Sunk in Your Shipwreck: A Palmer Stammering. It’s now available thru Resource Publications and Amazon.

The book includes poems from the last ten years or so, a number published in journals and magazines but plenty of unpublished material too. I’ll be posting some readings in the coming weeks, but here is the description from the back cover for now:

Sunk in Your Shipwreck is a collection of poems that employs the trope of the pilgrimage to structure its meanderings, especially (in murky and unfaithful ways) echoing the great medieval English poem, Piers Plowman. Moving through a poem from beginning to end is itself a kind of pilgrimage in the mind and on the tongue. The poems here reflect a late modern palmering, a movement from place to place and time to time and back again, movement through language and silence, inner and outer states, contemplative and active, starting and stopping, a longing for a constant or a destination in a life of uncertain circumstances and goals. In this verse peregrination, the palmer seeks out an illuminating and sustaining vision to form and transform common surroundings and moments of human life, a pursuit that is hopeful and darkly radiant by turns.