Chaucer's Works (ed. Skeat) Vol. I/Notes XX
[ Text of the Poem ]
The titles in the MSS. are: Ad. Prouerbe; F. Proverbe of Chaucer; Ha. Prouerbe of Chaucers.
Each proverb takes the form of a question or objection, in two lines, followed by an answer in two lines more.
There is a fair copy of them (but not well spelt) in the black-letter edition of 1561, fol. cccxl. They there appear without the addition of fourteen unconnected lines (not by Chaucer) which have been recklessly appended to them in modern editions. The title in ed. 1561 is—'A Prouerbe agaynst couitise and negligence.'
For the metre, compare the Envoy to a Ballad by Deschamps, ed. Tarbé, pp. 23, 24.
7. At the head of a Ballad by Deschamps, ed. Tarbé, i. 132, is the French proverb—'Qui trop embrasse, mal étreint.' Cotgrave, s.v. embrasser, has: Trop embrasser, et peu estraigner, to meddle with more business then he can wield; to have too many irons in the fire; to lose all by coveting all.'
But the most interesting point is the use of this proverb by Chaucer elsewhere, viz. in the Tale of Melibeus, Group B, 2405—'For theproverbe seith, he that to muche embraceth, distreyneth litel.' It is also quoted by Lydgate, in his description of the Merchant in the Dance of Machabre.
7. Embrace must be read as embrac', for the rime. Similarly, Chaucer puts gras for grac-e in Sir Thopas (Group B, l. 2021).