Open main menu

X. Fortune.

This poem consists of three Ballads and an Envoy. Each Ballad contains three stanzas of eight lines, with the rimes a b a b b c b c, and the rimes of the second and third stanzas are precisely the same as those of the first. Thus the rime a recurs six times, the rime b twelve times, and the rime c likewise six times. Moreover, each stanza ends with the same line, recurring as a refrain. Hence the metrical difficulties are very great, and afford a convincing proof of Chaucer's skill. The Envoy is of seven lines, rimed a b a b b a b.

The three ballads are called, collectively, Balades de visage sanz peinture, a title which is correctly given in MS. I., with the unlucky exception that visage has been turned into vilage. This curious blunder occurs in all the MSS. and old editions, and evidently arose from mistaking a long s (ſ) for an l. Vilage, of course, makes no sense; and we are enabled to correct it by help of Chaucer's translation of Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 1; l. 39. 'Right swich was she [Fortune] whan she flatered thee, and deceived thee with unleveful lykinges of fals welefulnesse. Thou hast now knowen and ataynt the doutous or double visage of thilke blinde goddesse Fortune. She, that yit covereth hir and [ 543 ] wimpleth hir to other folk, hath shewed hir everydel to thee.' Or the Ballads may refer to the unmasking of false friends: 'Fortune hath departed and uncovered to thee bothe the certein visages and eek the doutous visages of thy felawes'; id. bk. ii. pr. 8; l. 25. The whole poem is more or less founded on the descriptions of Fortune in Boethius; and we thus see that the visage meant is the face of Fortune, or else the face of a supposed friend, which is clearly revealed to the man of experience, in the day of adversity, without any covering or wimpling, and even without any painting or false colouring.

In MS. T. we are told that 'here filoweþe [followeth] a balade made by Chaucier of þe louer and of Dame Fortune.' In MS. A. we are told that 'here foloweþe nowe a compleynte of þe Pleintyff agenst fortune translated oute of Frenshe into Englisshe by þat famous Rethorissyen Geffrey Chaucier.' This hint, that it is translated out of French, can scarcely be right, unless Shirley (whose note this is) means that it partially resembles passages in Le Roman de la Rose; for Chaucer's work seems to contain some reminiscences of that poem as well as of the treatise of Boethius, though of course Le Roman is indebted to Boethius also.

Le Pleintif is the complainant, the man who brings a charge against Fortune, or rather, who exclaims against her as false, and defies her power. The first Ballad, then, consists of this complaint and defiance.

The close connection between this poem and Boethius is shewn by the fact that (like the preceding poem called The Former Age) it occurs in an excellent MS. of Chaucer's translation of Boethius, viz. MS. I. (Ii. 3. 21, in the Cambridge University Library). I may also remark here, that there is a somewhat similar dialogue between Nobilitas and Fortuna in the Anticlaudianus of Alanus de Insulis, lib. viii. c. 2; see Anglo-Latin Satirists, ed. T. Wright, ii. 401.

In Morley's English Writers, ii. 283, is the following description. 'The argument of the first part [or Ballad] is: I have learnt by adversity to know who are my true friends; and he can defy Fortune who is master of himself. The argument of the next part [second Ballad], that Fortune speaks, is: Man makes his own wretchedness. What may come you know not; you were born under my rule of change; your anchor holds. Of the third part of the poem [third Ballad], in which the Poet and Fortune each speak, the sum of the argument is, that what blind men call fortune is the righteous will of God. Heaven is firm, this world is mutable. The piece closes with Fortune's call upon the Princes to relieve this man of his pain, or pray his best friend "of his noblesse" that he may attain to some better estate.'

The real foundation of these three Ballads is (1) Boethius, bk. ii. proses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, and met. 1; and (2) a long passage in Le Roman de la Rose, ll. 4853-4994 (Eng. version, 5403-5584). More particular references are given below.

1. The beginning somewhat resembles Boethius, bk. ii. met. 1, l, 5;—'She, cruel Fortune, casteth adoun kinges that whylom weren [ 544 ] y-drad; and she, deceivable, enhaunseth up the humble chere of him that is discomfited.' Cf. Rom. Rose (E. version), ll. 5479-83.

2. The latter part of this line is badly given in the MSS. The readings are: F. now pouerte and now riche honour (much too long); I. now poeere and now honour; A. T. nowe poure and nowe honour; H. now poore and now honour. But the reading poure, poer, pore, i. e. poor, hardly serves, as a sb. is required. Pouerte seems to be the right word, but this requires us to omit the former now. Pouerte can be pronounced povért'; accented on the second syllable, and with the final e elided. For this pronunciation, see Prol. to Man of Lawes Tale, Group B, l. 99. Precisely because this pronunciation was not understood, the scribes did not know what to do. They inserted now before pouerte (which they thought was póverte); and then, as the line was too long, cut it down to poure, poore, to the detriment of the sense. I would therefore rather read—'As wele or wo, poverte and now honour,' with the pronunciation noted above.

7. In the Introduction to the Persones Tale (Group I, 248), we find: 'wel may that man, that no good werke ne dooth, singe thilke newe Frenshe song, Iay tout perdu mon temps et mon labour.' In like manner, in the present case, this line of 'a new French song' is governed by the verb singen in l. 6; cf. Sect. XXII. l. 24. The sense is—'the lack of Fortune's favour shall never (though I die) make me sing—"I have wholly lost my time and my labour."' In other words, 'I will not own myself defeated.'

9. With this stanza cf. Rom. de la Rose (E. version), 5551-2, 5671-78, 5579-81:—

'For Infortune makith anoon
To knowe thy freendis fro thy foon...
A wys man seide, as we may seen,
Is no man wrecched, but he it wene,...
For he suffrith in pacience...
Richesse riche ne makith nought
Him that on tresour set his thought;
For richesse stont in suffisaunce;' &c.

13. No force of, it does not matter for; i. e. 'thy rigour is of no consequence to him who has the mastery over himself.' From Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 4, l. 98, which Chaucer translates: 'Thanne, yif it so be that thou art mighty over thy-self, that is to seyn, by tranquillitee of thy sowle, than hast thou thing in thy power that thou noldest never lesen, ne Fortune ne may nat beneme it thee.'

17. Socrates is mentioned in Boeth. bk. i. pr. 3, l. 39, but ll. 17-20 are from Le Rom. de la Rose, ll. 5871-4:—

'A Socrates seras semblables,
Qui tant fu fers et tant estables,
Qu'il n'ert liés en prospérités,
Ne tristes en aversités.'

[ 545 ]

20. Chere, look. Savour, pleasantness, attraction; cf. Squi. Tale, F 404. All the MSS. have this reading; Caxton alters it to favour.

25. This Second Ballad gives us Fortune's response to the defiance of the complainant. In Arch. Seld. B. 10, it is headed—'Fortuna ad paupertatem.' See Boethius, bk. ii. prose 2, where Philosophy says—'Certes, I wolde pleten with thee a fewe thinges, usinge the wordes of Fortune.' Cf. 'nothing is wrecched but whan thou wenest it'; Boeth. ii. pr. 4, l. 79; and see Rom. Rose (E. version, 5467-5564).

28. 'Who possessest thy (true) self (as being quite) beyond my control.' A fine sentiment. Out of, beyond, independent of.

29. Cf. 'thou hast had grace as he that hath used of foreine goodes; thou hast no right to pleyne thee'; Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 2, l. 17.

31. Cf. 'what eek yif my mutabilitee yiveth thee rightful cause of hope to han yit beter thinges?' id. l. 58.

32. Thy beste frend; possibly John of Gaunt, who died in 1399; but see note to l. 73 below. There is a curious resemblance here to Le Rom. de la Rose, 8056-60:—

'Et sachies, compains, que sitost
Comme Fortune m'ot ça mis,
Je perdi trestous mes amis,
Fors ung, ce croi ge vraiement,
Qui m'est remès tant solement.'

34. Cf. 'For-why this like Fortune hath departed and uncovered to thee bothe the certein visages and eek the doutous visages of thy felawes... thow hast founden the moste precious kinde of richesses, that is to seyn, thy verray freendes'; Boeth. bk. ii. pr. 8, l. 25.

Cf. Rom. Rose (E. version), l. 5486, and ll. 5547-50. The French version has (ll. 4967, &c.):—

'Si lor fait par son mescheoir
Tretout si clerement veoir,
Que lor fait lor amis trover,
Et par experiment prover
Qu'il valent miex que nul avoir
Qu'il poïssent où monde avoir.'

35. Vincent de Beauvais, Speculum Naturale, bk. 19, c. 62, headed De medicinis ex hyæna, cites the following from Hieronymus, Contra Iouinianum [lib. ii. Epist. Basileæ, 1524, ii. 74]:—'Hyænæ fel oculorum claritatem restituit,' the gall of a hyena restores the clearness of one's eyes. So also Pliny, Nat. Hist. bk. xxviii. c. 8. This exactly explains the allusion. Compare the extract from Boethius already quoted above, at the top of p. 543.

38. 'Still thine anchor holds.' From Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 4, l. 40:—whan that thyn ancres cleven faste, that neither wolen suffren [ 546 ] the counfort of this tyme present, ne the hope of tyme cominge, to passen ne to faylen.'

39. 'Where Liberality carries the key of my riches.'

43. On, referring to, or, that is binding on.

46. Fortune says:—'I torne the whirlinge wheel with the torning cercle'; Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 2, l. 37.

47. 'My teaching is better, in a higher degree, than your affliction is, in its degree, evil'; i. e. my teaching betters you more than your affliction makes you suffer.

49. In this third Ballad, the stanzas are distributed between the Complainant and Fortune, one being assigned to the former, and two to the latter. The former says:—'I condemn thy teaching; it is (mere) adversity.' M. S. Arch. Seld. B. 10 has the heading 'Paupertas ad Fortunam.'

50. My frend, i. e. my true friend. In l. 51, thy frendes means 'the friends I owed to thee,' my false friends. From Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 8, l. 23:—'this aspre and horrible Fortune hath discovered to thee the thoughtes of thy trewe freendes;... Whan she departed awey fro thee, she took awey hir freendes and lafte thee thyne freendes.'

51. I thanke hit thee, I owe thanks to thee for it. But very likely hit has been inserted to fill up, and the right reading is, probably, I thank-e thee; as Koch suggests.

52. On presse, in a throng, in company, all together.

53. 'Their niggardliness, in keeping their riches to themselves, foreshews that thou wilt attack their stronghold; just as an unnatural appetite precedes illness.'

56. Cf. Rom. de la Rose, 19179:—

'Ceste ruile est si généraus,
Qu'el ne puet defaillir vers aus.'

57. Here Fortune replies. This stanza is nearly made up of extracts from Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 2, transposed and rearranged. For the sake of comparison, I give the nearest equivalents, transposing them to suit the order here adopted.

'That maketh thee now inpacient ayeins me.... I norisshede thee with my richesses.... Now it lyketh me to with-drawen my hand ... shal I than only ben defended to usen my right?... The see hath eek his right to ben somtyme calme ... and somtyme to ben horrible with wawes.... Certes, it is leveful to the hevene to make clere dayes.... The yeer hath eek leve ... to confounden hem [the flowers] somtyme with reynes ... shal it [men's covetousness] binde me to ben stedefast?'

Compare also the defence of Fortune by Pandarus, in Troilus, bk. i. 841-854.

65. Above this stanza (ll. 65-72) all the MSS. insert a new heading, such as 'Le pleintif,' or 'Le pleintif encountre Fortune,' or 'The [ 547 ] pleyntyff ageinst Fortune,' or 'Paupertas ad Fortunam.' But they are all wrong, for it is quite certain that this stanza belongs to Fortune. Otherwise, it makes no sense. Secondly, we know this by the original (in Boethius). And thirdly, Fortune cannot well have the 'envoy' unless she has the stanza preceding it. Dr. Morris, in his edition, rightly omits the heading; and so in Bell's edition.

66. Compare:—'For purviaunce is thilke divyne reson that is establisshed in the soverein prince of thinges; the whiche purviaunce disponeth alle thinges'; Boeth. bk. iv. pr. 6, l. 42.

68. Ye blinde bestes, addressed to men; evidently by Fortune, not by the Pleintif. Compare the words forth, beste, in the Balade on Truth, Sect. XIII. l. 18.

71. Here we have formal proof that the speaker is Fortune; for this is copied from Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 3, l. 60—'natheles the laste day of a mannes lyf is a manere deeth to Fortune.' Hence thy refers to man, and myn refers to Fortune; and the sense is—'Thy last day (O man) is the end of my interest (in thee)'; or 'dealings (with thee).' The word interesse, though scarce, is right. It occurs in Lydgate's Minor Poems, ed. Halliwell, p. 210; and in Spenser, F. Q. vii. 6. 33:—

'That not the worth of any living wight
May challenge ought in Heaven's interesse.'

And in Todd's Johnson:—'I thought, says his Majesty [K. Charles I.] I might happily have satisfied all interesses'; Lord Halifax's Miscell. p. 144. The sb. also occurs as Ital. interesse; thus Florio's Ital. Dict. (1598) has:—'Interesse, Interesso, the interest or profite of money for lone. Also, what toucheth or concerneth a mans state or reputation.' And Minsheu's Spanish Dict. (1623) has:—'Interes, or Interesse, interest, profite, auaile.' The E. vb. to interess was once common, and occurs in K. Lear, i. 1. 87 (unless Dr. Schmidt is right in condemning the reading of that line).

73. Princes. Who these princes were, it is hard to say; according to l. 76 (found in MS. I. only), there were three of them. If the reference is to the Dukes of Lancaster, York, and Gloucester, then the 'beste frend' must be the king himself. Cf. l. 33.

75, 76. 'And I (Fortune) will requite you for your trouble (undertaken) at my request, whether there be three of you, or two of you (that heed my words).' Line 76 occurs in MS. I. only, yet it is difficult to reject it, as it is not a likely sort of line to be thrust in, unless this were done, in revision, by the author himself. Moreover, we should expect the Envoy to form a stanza with the usual seven lines, so common in Chaucer, though the rime-arrangement differs.

77. 'And, unless it pleases you to relieve him of his pain (yourselves), pray his best friend, for the honour of his nobility, that he may attain to some better estate.'

The assigning of this petition to Fortune is a happy expedient. The poet thus escapes making a direct appeal in his own person. [ 548 ]