Chaucer's Works (ed. Skeat) Vol. I/Notes XIII
[ Text of the Poem ]
The Titles are: Gg. Balade de bone conseyl; Lansd. 699, La bon Counseil de le Auttour; Caxton, The good counceyl of Chawcer; Harl. Moral balade of Chaucyre. Shirley calls it—Balade that Chaucier made on his deeth-bedde; a note that has been frequently repeated, and is probably no better than a bad guess.
1. Koch considers that the source of the poem is a passage in Boethius, lib. iii. met. II, at the beginning, but the resemblance is very slight. It contains no more than a mere hint for it. However, part of st. 3 is certainly from the same, bk. i. pr. 5, as will appear; see note to 1. 17.
The former passage in Boethius is thus translated by Chaucer: 'Who-so that seketh sooth by a deep thoght, and coveiteth nat to ben deceived by no mis-weyes, lat him rollen and trenden [revolve] withinne himself the light of his inward sighte; and lat him gadere ayein, enclyninge in-to a compas, the longe moevinges of his thoughtes; and lat him techen his corage that he hath enclosed and hid in his tresors, al that he compaseth or seketh fro with-oute.' See also bk. ii. pr. 5 of the same, which seems to me more like the present poem than is the above passage.
2. Koch reads thing for good, as in some MSS. He explains the line:—'Devote thyself entirely to one thing, even if it is not very important in itself (instead of hunting after a phantom).' This I cannot accept; it certainly means nothing of the kind. Dr. Sweet has the reading: Suffise thin owene thing, &c., which is the reading of one MS. only, but it gives the right idea. The line would then mean: 'let your own property, though small, suffice for your wants.' I think we are bound to follow the MSS. generally; of these, two haveSuffice unto thi thing; seven have Suffice unto thy good; one has Suffice unto thi lyuynge (where lyuynge is a gloss upon good); and F. has the capital reading Suffice the (= thee) thy good. It seems best to follow the majority, especially as they allow suffice to be followed by a vowel, thus eliding the final e. The sense is simply: 'Be content with thy property, though it be small'; and the next line gives the reason why—'for hoarding only causes hatred, and ambition creates insecurity; the crowd is full of envy, and wealth blinds one in every respect.' Suffice unto thy good is much the same as the proverb—'cut your coat according to your cloth.' Chaucer elsewhere has worldly suffisaunce for 'wealth'; Cler. Tale, E 759. Of course this use of suffice unto (be content with) is peculiar; but I do not see why it is not legitimate. The use of Savour in l. 5 below is at least as extraordinary.
Cf. Chaucer's tr. of Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 5, l. 54:—'And if thou wolt fulfille thy nede after that it suffiseth to nature, than is it no nede that thou seke after the superfluitee of fortune.'
3. Cf. 'for avarice maketh alwey mokereres [hoarders] to ben hated'; Boeth. ii. pr. 5, l. 11.
5. Savour, taste with relish, have an appetite for. 'Have a relish for no more than it may behove you (to taste).'
6. Most MSS. read Werk or Do; only two have Reule, which Dr. Sweet adopts. Any one of these three readings makes sense. 'Thou who canst advise others, work well thyself,' or 'act well thyself,' or 'rule thyself.' To quote from Hamlet, i. 3. 47:—
'Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.'
It is like the Jewish proverb—'Physician, heal thyself.'
7. Trouthe shal delivere, truth shall give deliverance. 'The truth shall make you free,' Lat. 'ueritas liberabit uos'; John viii. 32. This is a general truth, and there is no need for the insertion of thee after shal, as in the inferior MSS., in consequence of the gradual loss of the final e in trouthe, which in Chaucer is properly dissyllabic. The scribes who turned trouthe into trouthe thee forgot that this makes up trou-thè thee.
8. Tempest thee noght, do not violently trouble or harass thyself, do not be in a state of agitation. Agitation will not redress everything that is crooked. So also:—'Tempest thee nat thus with al thy fortune'; Boeth. bk. ii. pr. 4, l. 50. Chaucer (as Koch says) obtained this curious verb from the third line of section F (l. 63 of the whole poem) of the French poem from which he translated his A B C. This section begins (see p. 263 above):—
'Fuiant m'en viens a ta tente
Moy mucier pour la tormente
Qui ou monde me tempeste';
i. e. I come fleeing to thy tent, to hide myself from the storm which harasses me in the world. Goldsmith speaks of a mind being 'tempested up'; Cit. of the World, let. 47.
9. 'Trusting to the vicissitudes of fortune.' There are several references to the wheel of Fortune in Boethius. Thus in bk. ii. pr. 2 of Chaucer's translation:—'I torne the whirlinge wheel with the torning cercle,' quoted above, in the note to X. 46.
10. 'Much repose consists in abstinence from fussiness.'
11. 'To spurn against an awl,' i. e. against a prick, is the English equivalent of the Gk. phrase which our bibles render by 'to kick against the pricks,' Acts ix. 5. Wyclif has 'to kike ayens the pricke.'
In MS. Cotton, Otho A. xviii, we find the reading a nall, the n being transferred from an to the sb. Tusser has nall for 'awl' in his Husbandry, § 17, st. 4, l. 3. This MS., by the way, has been burnt, but a copy of it (too much corrected) is given in Todd's Illustrations of Chaucer, p. 131.
12. An allusion to the fable in Æsop about the earthern and brazen pots being dashed together. An earthen pot would have still less chance of escape if dashed against a wall. In MS. T., the word crocke is glossed by 'water-potte.'
13. 'Thou that subduest the deeds of another, subdue thyself.'
15. Cf. 'it behoveth thee to suffren with evene wille in pacience al that is don ... in this world'; Boeth. bk. ii. pr. I, l. 66.
16. Axeth, requires; i. e. will surely cause.
17. When Boethius complains of being exiled, Philosophy directs him to a heavenly home. 'Yif thou remembre of what contree thou art born, it nis nat governed by emperours ... but oo lord and oo king, and that is god'; bk. i. pr. 5, l. II. This is copied (as being taken from 'Boece') in Le Roman de la Rose, l. 5049 (Eng. version, l. 5659).
18. The word beste probably refers to the passage in Boethius where wicked men are likened to various animals, as when the extortioner is a wolf, a noisy abusive man is a hound, a treacherous man is a fox, &c.; bk. iv. pr. 3. The story of Ulysses and Circe follows; bk. iv. met. 3.
19. 'Recognise heaven as thy true country.' Lok up, gaze upwards to heaven. Cf. the expression 'thy contree' at the end of bk. iv. pr. I of his translation of Boethius. There is also a special reference here to Boeth. bk. v. met. 5, where it is said that quadrupeds look down, but man is upright; 'this figure amonesteth thee, that axest the hevene with thy righte visage'; l. 14. See Ovid, Met. i. 85.
But, man, as thou wittlees were,
Thou lokist euere dounwarde as a beest.'
Polit, and Love Poems, ed. Furnivall, p. 185, l. 273.
Thank god of al, thank God for all things. In like manner, in the Lamentation of Mary Magdalen, st. 53, we find: 'I thanke God of al, if I nowe dye.' Mätzner (Gram. ii. 2. 307) quotes from the TowneleyMysteries, p. 128:—'Mekyll thanke of youre good wille'; and again (Gram. ii. 1. 238) from King Alisaunder, l. 7576:—'And thankid him of his socour.' Henrysoun, in his Abbay Walk, l. 8, has:—'Obey, and thank thy God of al'; but he is probably copying this very passage. Cf. also—'of help I him praye'; Lydgate, London Lyckpeny, st. 6; 'beseech you of your pardon'; Oth. iii. 3. 212. In Lydgate's Minor Poems, ed. Halliwell, p. 225, is a poem in which every stanza ends with 'thonk God of alle.' Cf. Cant. Tales, B 1113.
'Lyft wp thyne Ene [not orne], and thank thi god of al.'
Ratis Raving, ed. Lumby, p. 10.
20. Hold the hye wey, keep to the high road. Instead of Hold the hye wey, some MSS. have Weyve thy lust, i. e. put aside thy desire, give up thine own will.
22. This last stanza forms an Envoy. It exists in one copy only (MS. Addit. 10340); but there is no reason at all for considering it spurious. Vache, cow; with reference to the 'beast in the stall' in l. 18. This animal was probably chosen as being less offensive than those mentioned by Boethius, viz. the wolf, hound, fox, lion, hart, ass, and sow. Possibly, also, there is a reference to the story of Nebuchadnezzar, as related by Chaucer in the Monkes Tale; Group B, 3361.