Chaucer's Works (ed. Skeat) Vol. I/Notes XIV
[ Text of the Poem ]
For remarks upon Scogan's quotation of this Ballad in full, see the Introduction.
The titles are: Harl. Moral balade of Chaucier; T. Balade by Chaucier.
Caxton's text is unusually good, and is often superior to that in the existing MSS.
The general idea of the poem is that Christ was the true pattern of 'gentleness' or gentility, i. e. of noble behaviour. Cf. Dekker's noble line, in which he speaks of Christ as 'The first true gentleman that ever breathed.'
But the finest poetical essay upon this subject is that by Chaucer himself, in the Wife of Bath's Tale; C. T. 6691-6758 (D 1109); which see. And cf. Tale of Melibeus, B 2831-2.
Another passage on this subject occurs in the Eng. version of the Romance of the Rose, ll. 2188-2202, which, curiously enough, is in neither Michel's nor Méon's edition of the French Poem (in which l. 2184 of the E. version is immediately succeeded by l. 2203 of the same). Again, in Le Roman de la Rose, ll. 6603-6616, there is a definition of Gentillesce; but this passage is not in the Eng. version.
The original passage, to which both Chaucer and Jean de Meun were indebted, is one in Boethius, bk. iii. pr. 6; which Chaucer thus translates:—'For yif the name of gentilesse be referred to renoun and cleernesse of linage, than is gentil name but a foreine thing, that is toseyn, to hem that glorifyen hem of hir linage. For it semeth that gentilesse be a maner preysinge that comth of deserte of ancestres ... yif thou ne have no gentilesse of thy-self—that is to seyn, preyse that comth of thy deserte—foreine gentilesse ne maketh thee nat gentil.' And again, just below, in metre 6:—'On allone is fader of thinges.... Thanne comen alle mortal folk of noble sede; why noisen ye or bosten of youre eldres?' But we must not overlook a long passage near the end of Le Roman de la Rose, ll. 18807-19096, which Chaucer certainly also consulted. I quote some of these lines below.
1. With this first stanza compare R. Rose, 18881:—
'Quiconques tent à gentillece
D'orguel se gart et de parece;
Aille as armes, ou à l'estuide,
Et de vilenie se vuide;
Humble cuer ait, cortois et gent
En tretous leus, vers toute gent.'
Two MSS., both written out by Shirley, and MS. Harl. 7333, all read:—'The first fader, and foundour (or fynder) of gentylesse.' This is wrong, and probably due to the dropping of the final e in the definite adjective firste. We must keep the phrase firste stok, because it is expressly repeated in l. 8.
The first line means—'With regard to, or As to the first stock (or source), who was the father of gentilesse.' The substantives stok and fader have no verb to them, but are mentioned as being the subject of the sentence.
3. The former his refers to fader, but the latter to man.
4. Sewe, follow. In a Ballad by King James the First of Scotland, printed at p. 54 of my edition of the Kingis Quair, the first five lines are a fairly close imitation of the opening lines of the present poem, and prove that King James followed a MS. which had the reading sewe.
'Sen throu vertew encressis dignite,
And vertew flour and rut [root] is of noblay,
Of ony weill or quhat estat thou be,
His steppis sew, and dreid thee non effray:
Exil al vice, and folow trewth alway.'
Observe how his first, third, and fourth lines answer to Chaucer's fifth, second, and fourth lines respectively.
5. 'Dignitees apertienen ... to vertu'; Boeth. iii. pr. 4, l. 25.
7. Al were he, albeit he may wear; i. e. although he may be a bishop, king, or emperor.
8. This firste stok, i. e. Christ. In l. 12, his heir means mankind in general.
Compare Le Rom. de la Rose, 18819:—
'Noblece vient de bon corage,
Car gentillece de lignage
N'est pas gentillece qui vaille,
Por quoi bonté de cuer i faille,
Por quoi doit estre en li parans [apparent]
La proece de ses parens
Qui la gentillece conquistrent
Par les travaux que grans i mistrent.
Et quant du siecle trespasserent,
Toutes lor vertus emporterent,
Et lessierent as hoirs l'avoir;
Que plus ne porent d'aus avoir.
L'avoir ont, plus riens n'i a lor,
Ne gentillece, ne valor,
Se tant ne font que gentil soient
Par sens ou par vertu qu'il aient.'
And cf. Dante, Purg. vii. 121-3, to which Ch. refers in his Wife of Bath's Tale (D 1128).
15. Vyc-e is dissyllabic; hence two MSS. turn it into Vices, and one even has Vicesse!
With this stanza compare part of the French quotation above, and compare Rom. Rose, 19064, &c.:—
'Mes il sunt mauvais, vilain nastre,
Et d'autrui noblece se vantent;
Il ne dient pas voir, ains mentent,
Et le non [name] de gentillece emblent,
Quant lor bons parens ne resemblent;' &c.
16. In MS. A. is this side-note, in a later hand:—
'Nam genus et proauos et quæ non fecimus ipsi
Vix ea nostra voco.'
20. This is a difficult line to obtain from the MSS. It is necessary to keep heir in the singular, because of he in l. 21. In MS. A., maþe clearly stands for makeþe, i. e. maketh, as in nearly all the MSS. This gives us—That maketh his heir him that wol [or can] him queme. The change from his heir him to the more natural order him his heir is such a gain to the metre that it is worth while to make it.