Chaucer's Works (ed. Skeat) Vol. I/Notes XIX
[ Text of the Poem ]
XIX. The Compleint to his empty Purse.
The date of the Envoy to this Poem can be determined almost to a day. Henry IV. was received as king by the parliament, Sept. 30, 1399. Chaucer received his answer, in the shape of an additional grant of forty marks yearly, on Oct. 3 of the same year. Consequently, the date of the Envoy is Sept. 30 or Oct. 1 or 2 in that year. It is obvious that the poem itself had been written (perhaps some time) beforehand; see note to l. 17. As far as we know, the Envoy is Chaucer's last work.
A somewhat similar complaint was addressed to the French king John II. by G. de Machault in 1351-6; but it is in short rimed lines; see his works, ed. Tarbé, p. 78. But the real model which Chaucerhad in view was, in my opinion, the Ballade by Eustache Deschamps, written in 1381, and printed in Tarbé's edition, at p. 55.
This Ballade is of a similar character, having three stanzas of eight lines each, with a somewhat similar refrain, viz. 'Mais de paier n'y sçay voie ne tour,' i. e. but how to pay I know therein no way nor method. It was written on a similar occasion, viz. after the death of Charles V. of France, and the accession of Charles VI., who had promised Deschamps a pension, but had not paid it. Hence the opening lines:—
'Dieux absoille le bon Roy trespassé!
Et Dieux consault cellui qui est en vie!
Il me donna rente le temps passé
A mon vivant; laquelle je n'ay mie.'
The Envoy has but six lines, though the stanzas have eight; similarly, Chaucer's Envoy has but five lines (rimed a a b b a), though the stanzas have seven. Chaucer's Envoy is in a very unusual metre, which was copied by the author of the Cuckoo and the Nightingale.
The Title, in MS. F. is—'The Complaynt of Chaucer to his Purse.' In Caxton's print, it is—'The compleint of Chaucer vnto his empty purse.' In MS. P.—'La Compleint de Chaucer a sa Bourse voide.' MS. Harl. has—'A supplicacion to Kyng Richard by chaucier.' The last of these, written by Shirley, is curious. If not a mere mistake, it seems to imply that the Complaint was first prepared before king Richard was deposed, though, by means of the Envoy, it was addressed to his successor. However, this copy of Shirley's gives the Envoy; so it may have been a mere mistake. Line 23 is decisive; see note below.
I remark here, for completeness' sake, that this poem has sometimes been ascribed to Hoccleve; but, apparently, without any reason.
4. Koch remarks, that the Additional MS. 22139, which alone has That, is here superior to the rest; and he may be right. Still, the reading For is quite intelligible.
8. This day. This hints at impatience; the poet did not contemplate having long to wait. But we must take it in connexion with l. 17; see note to that line.
10. Colour; with reference to golden coins. So also in the Phisiciens Tale (C. T. 11971, or C 37), the golden colour of Virginia's hair is expressed by—
'And Phebus dyed hath hir tresses grete
Lyk to the stremes of his burned hete.'
11. Four MSS., as well as the printed copies, read That of yelownesse, &c.; and this may very well be right. If so, the scansion is:—That of yél | ownés | se hád | de név | er pere. MS. Harl. 2251 has That of yowre Ielownesse, but the yowre is merely copied in from l. 10.
12. Stere, rudder; see Man of Lawes Tale, B 448, 833.
17. Out of this toune. This seems to mean—'help me to retire from London to some cheaper place.' At any rate, toune seems to refer to some large town, where prices were high. From the tone of this line, and that of l. 8, I should conclude that the poem was written on some occasion of special temporary difficulty, irrespectively of general poverty; and that the Envoy was hastily added afterwards, without revision of the poem itself. (I find that Ten Brink says the same.) Compare Thackeray's Carmen Lilliense.
19. 'That is, I am as bare of money as the tonsure of a friar is of hair'; Bell.
22. Brutes Albioun, the Albion of Brutus. Albion is the old name for England or Britain in the histories which follow Geoffrey of Monmouth and profess to give the ancient history of Britain before the coming of the Romans. See Layamon's Brut, l. 1243; Higden's Polychronicon, bk. i. c. 39; Fabyan's Chronicle, ed. Ellis, pp. 1, 2, 7. According to the same accounts, Albion was first reigned over by Brutus, in English spelling Brute, a descendant of Æneas of Troy, who arrived in Albion (says Fabyan) in the eighteenth year of Eli, judge of Israel. Layamon's poem is a translation from a poem by Wace, entitled Brut; and Wace borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth. See Brute (2) in the New E. Dict.
23. This line makes it certain that the king meant is Henry IV.; and indeed, the title conquerour in l. 21 proves the same thing sufficiently. 'In Henry IV's proclamation to the people of England he founds his title on conquest, hereditary right, and election; and from this inconsistent and absurd document Chaucer no doubt took his cue'; Bell.