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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of hearing good Counsel




An archer, catching a little bird called a nightingale, was about to put her to death. But being gifted with language, she said to him, "What will it advantage you to kill me? I cannot satisfy your appetite. Let me go and I will give you three rules, from which you will derive great benefit, if you follow them accurately." Astonished at hearing the bird speak, he promised her liberty on the conditions she had stated. "Hear, then," said she, "never attempt impossibilities: secondly, do not lament an irrecoverable loss: thirdly, do not credit things that are incredible. If you keep these three maxims with wisdom, they will infinitely profit you." The man, faithful to his promise, let the bird escape. Winging her flight through the air, she commenced a most exquisite song; and having finished, said to the archer, "Thou art a silly fellow, and hast to-day lost a great treasure. There is in my bowels a pearl bigger than the egg of an ostrich." Full of vexation at her escape, he immediately spread his nets and endeavoured to take her a second time; but she eluded his arts. "Come into my house, sweet bird!" said he, "and I will shew thee every kindness. I will feed thee with my own hands, and permit thee to fly abroad at pleasure." The nightingale answered, "Now I am certain thou art a fool, and payest no regard to the counsel I gave thee; 'Regret not what is irrecoverable.' Thou canst not take me again, yet thou hast spread thy snares for that purpose. Moreover, thou believest that my bowels contain a pearl larger than the egg of an ostrich, when I myself am nothing near the size! Thou art a fool; and a fool thou wilt always remain." With this consolatory assurance she flew away. The man returned sorrowfully to his own house, but never again obtained a sight of the nightingale. (96)


My beloved, the archer is any Christian: the nightingale is Christ; and man attempts to kill him as often as he sins.



Note 96.Page 341.

"This fable is told in the Greek legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, written by Johannes Damascenus; and in Caxton's Golden Legende, fol. 129. It is also found in Clericalis Disciplina of Alphonsus."—Warton.

Mr. Way has told this tale so beautifully, that no apology is necessary for its introduction here.


"In days of yore, at least a century since,
There liv'd a carle as wealthy as a prince:
His name I wot not; but his wide domain
Was rich with stream and forest, mead and plain;
To crown the whole, one manor he possess'd
In choice delight so passing all the rest,
No castle, burgh, or city might compare
With the quaint beauties of that mansion rare.
The sooth to say, I fear my words may seem
Like some strange fabling, or fantastick dream,
If, unadvis'd, the portraiture I trace,
And each brave pleasure of that peerless place;
Foreknow ye then, by necromantick might
Was rais'd this paradise of all delight;

A good knight own'd it first; he, bow'd with age,
Died, and his son possess'd the heritage:
But the lewd stripling, all to riot bent,
(His chattels quickly wasted and forespent,)
Was driven to see this patrimony sold
To the base carle of whom I lately told.
Ye wot right well there only needs be sought
One spendthrift heir, to bring great wealth to nought.
A lofty tower and strong, the building stood
Midst a vast plain surrounded by a flood;
And hence one pebble-paved channel stray'd,
That compass'd in a clustering orchard's shade.
'Twas a choice charming plat; abundant round
Flowers, roses, odorous spices cloth'd the ground;
Unnumber'd kinds, and all profusely shower'd
Such aromatick balsam as they flower'd,
Their fragrance might have stay'd man's parting breath,
And chas'd the hovering agony of death.
The sward one level held, and close above
Tall shapely trees their leafy mantles wove,
All equal growth, and low their branches came,
Thick set with goodliest fruits of every name.

In midst, to cheer the ravish'd gazer's view,
A gushing fount its waters upward threw,
Thence slowly on with crystal current pass'd,
And crept into the distant flood at last:
But nigh its source a pine's umbrageous head
Stretch'd far and wide in deathless verdure spread,
Met with broad shade the summers's sultry gleam,
And through the livelong year shut out the beam.
"Such was the scene:—yet still the place was bless'd
With one rare pleasure passing all the rest:
A wondrous bird of energies divine
Had fix'd his dwelling in the tufted pine;
There still he sat, and there with amorous lay,
Wak'd the dim morn, and clos'd the parting day:
Match'd with the strains of linked sweetness wrought
The violin and full-ton'd harp were nought;
Of power they were with new-born joy to move
The cheerless heart of long-desponding love;
Of power so strange, that should they cease to sound,
And the blithe songster flee the mystick ground,
That goodly orchard's scene, the pine-tree's shade,
Trees, flowers, and fount, would all like vapour fade.

'Listen, listen to my lay!'
Thus the merry notes did chime,
'All who mighty love obey,
Sadly wasting in your prime,
Clerk and laick, grave and gay!
Yet do ye, before the rest,
Gentle maidens, mark me tell
Store my lesson in your breast,
Trust me it shall profit well:
Hear, and heed me, and be bless'd!'
So sang the bird of old: but when he spied
The carle draw near, with alter'd tone he cried—
'Back, river, to thy source; and thee, tall tower,
Thee, castle strong, may gaping earth devour!
Bend down your heads, ye gaudy flowers, and fade!
And wither'd be each fruit-tree's mantling shade!
Beneath these beauteous branches once were seen
Brave gentle knights disporting on the green,
And lovely dames; and oft these flowers among,
Stay'd the blithe bands, and joy'd to hear my song;
Nor would they hence retire, nor quit the grove,
Till many a vow were past of mutual love;
These more would cherish, those would more deserve;
Cost, courtesy, and arms, and nothing swerve.

'O bitter change! for master now we see
A faitour villain carle of low degree;
Pool gluttony employs his livelong day,
Nor heeds nor hears he my melodious lay.'
So spake the bird; and, as he ceas'd to sing,
Indignantly he clapp'd his downy wing,
And straight was gone; but no abasement stirr'd
In the clown's breast at his reproachful word
Bent was his wit alone by quaint device
To snare and sell him for a passing price.
So well he wrought, so craftily he spread
In the thick foliage green his slender thread,
That when at eve the little songster sought
His wonted spray, his heedless foot was caught.
'How have I harm'd you? straight he 'gan to cry,
And wherefore would you do me thus to die?'—
'Nay, fear not,' quoth the clown, 'for death or wrong;
I only seek to profit by thy song;
I'll get thee a fine cage, nor shalt thou lack
Good store of kernels and of seeds to crack;
But sing thou shalt; for if thou play'st the mute,
I'll spit thee, bird, and pick thy bones to boot.'
'Ah, wo is me!' the little thrall replied,
'Who thinks of song, in prison doom'd to bide?

And, were I cook'd, my bulk might scarce afford
One scanty mouthful to my hungry lord.'
"What may I more relate?—the captive wight
Assay'd to melt the villain all he might;
And fairly promis'd, were he once set free,
In gratitude to teach him secrets three;
Three secrets, all so marvellous and rare,
His race knew nought that might with these compare.
"The carle prick'd up his ears amain; he loos'd
The songster thrall, by love of gain seduc'd:
Up to the summit of the pine-tree's shade
Sped the blithe bird, and there at ease he stay'd,
And trick'd his plumes full leisurely, I trow,
Till the carle claim'd his promise from below:
'Right gladly;' quoth the bird; 'now grow thee wise:
All human prudence few brief lines comprize:
First then, lest haply in the event it fail,
Yield not a ready faith to every tale:'—
'Is this thy secret? quoth the moody elf,
'Keep then thy silly lesson for thyself;
I need it not:'—'Howbe 'tis not amiss
To prick thy memory with advice like this
But late, meseems, thou hadst forgot the lore;
Now may'st thou hold it fast for evermore.

Mark next my second rule, and sadly know,
What's lost, 'tis wise with patience to forego.'
"The carle though rude of wit, now chaf'd amain;
He felt the mockery of the songster's strain.
'Peace,' quoth the bird; 'my third is far the best;
Store thou the precious treasure in thy breast:
What good thou hast, ne'er lightly from thee cast:'
—He spoke, and twittering fled away full fast.
Straight, sunk in earth, the gushing fountain dries,
Down fall the fruits, the withered pine-tree dies,
Fades all the beauteous plat, so cool, so green,
Into thin air, and never more is seen.
"Such was the meed of avarice: bitter cost!
The carle who all would gather, all has lost."

The same story is to be found in Lydgate, entitled "The Chorle and the Bird."