He spent on learning or another book And prayed for them most earnestly, returning Thanks to them thus for paying for his learning. His only care was study, and indeed He never spoke a word more than was need, Formal at that, respectful in the extreme, Short, to the point, and lofty in his theme. A tone of moral virtue filled his speech And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.
A Serjeant at the Law who paid his calls, Wary and wise, for clients at St Paul’s* There also was, of noted excellence. Discreet he was, a man to reverence, Or so he seemed, his sayings were so wise. He often had been Justice of Assize By letters patent, and in full commission. His fame and learning and his high position Had won him many a robe and many a fee. There was no such conveyancer as he; All was fee-simple to his strong digestion, Not one conveyance could be called in question. Though there was nowhere one so busy as he, He was less busy than he seemed to be. He knew of every judgement, case and crime Ever recorded since King William’s time. He could dictate defences or draft deeds; No one could pinch a comma from his screeds And he knew every statute off by rote. He wore a homely parti-coloured coat, Girt with a silken belt of pin-stripe stuff; Of his appearance I have said enough.
There was a Franklin* with him, it appeared; White as a daisy-petal was his beard. A sanguine man, high-coloured and benign, He loved a morning sop of cake in wine.
He lived for pleasure and had always done, For he was Epicurus’ very son, In whose opinion sensual delight Was the one true felicity in sight. As noted as St Julian was for bounty He made his household free to all the County. His bread, his ale were finest of the fine And no one had a better stock of wine. His house was never short of bake-meat pies, Of fish and flesh, and these in such supplies It positively snowed with meat and drink And all the dainties that a man could think. According to the seasons of the year Changes of dish were ordered to appear. He kept fat partridges in coops, beyond, Many a bream and pike were in his pond. Woe to the cook unless the sauce was hot And sharp, or if he wasn’t on the spot! And in his hall a table stood arrayed And ready all day long, with places laid. As Justice at the Sessions none stood higher; He often had been Member for the Shire. A dagger and a little purse of silk Hung at his girdle, white as morning milk. As Sheriff he checked audit, every entry. He was a model among landed gentry.
A Haberdasher, a Dyer, a Carpenter, A Weaver and a Carpet-maker were Among our ranks, all in the livery Of one impressive guild-fraternity. They were so trim and fresh their gear would pass For new. Their knives were not tricked out with brass But wrought with purest silver, which avouches A like display on girdles and on pouches. Each seemed a worthy burgess, fit to grace
A guild-hall with a seat upon the dais. Their wisdom would have justified a plan To make each one of them an alderman; They had the capital and revenue, Besides their wives declared it was their due. And if they did not think so, then they ought; To be called ‘Madam’ is a glorious thought, And so is going to church and being seen Having your mantle carried, like a queen.
They had a Cook with them who stood alone For boiling chicken with a marrow-bone, Sharp flavouring-powder and a spice for savour. He could distinguish London ale by flavour, And he could roast and seethe and broil and fry, Make good thick soup and bake a tasty pie. But what a pity – so it seemed to me, That he should have an ulcer on his knee. As for blancmange, he made it with the best.
There was a Skipper hailing from far west; He came from Dartmouth, so I understood. He rode a farmer’s horse as best he could, In a woollen gown that reached his knee. A dagger on a lanyard falling free Hung from his neck under his arm and down. The summer heat had tanned his colour brown, And certainly he was an excellent fellow. Many a draught of vintage, red and yellow, He’d drawn at Bordeaux, while the trader snored. The nicer rules of conscience he ignored. If, when he fought, the enemy vessel sank, He sent his prisoners home; they walked the plank. As for his skill in reckoning his tides, Currents and many another risk besides, Moons, harbours, pilots, he had such dispatch That none from Hull to Carthage was his match.
Hardy he was, prudent in undertaking; His beard in many a tempest had its shaking, And he knew all the havens as they were From Gottland to the Cape of Finisterre, And every creek in Brittany and Spain; The barge he owned was called The Maudelayne.
A Doctor too emerged as we proceeded; No one alive could talk as well as he did On points of medicine and of surgery, For, being grounded in astronomy, He watched his patient closely for the hours When, by his horoscope, he knew the powers Of favourable planets, then ascendent, Worked on the images* for his dependant. The cause of every malady you’d got He knew, and whether dry, cold, moist or hot;* He knew their seat, their humour and condition. He was a perfect practising physician. These causes being known for what they were, He gave the man his medicine then and there. All his apothecaries in a tribe Were ready with the drugs he would prescribe And each made money from the other’s guile; They had been friendly for a goodish while. He was well-versed in Aesculapius* too And what Hippocrates and Rufus knew And Dioscorides, now dead and gone, Galen and Rhazes, Hali, Serapion, Averroes, Avicenna, Constantine, Scotch Bernard, John of Gaddesden, Gilbertine. In his own diet he observed some measure; There were no superfluities for pleasure, Only digestives, nutritives and such. He did not read the Bible very much. In blood-red garments, slashed with bluish grey
And lined with taffeta, he rode his way; Yet he was rather close as to expenses And kept the gold he won in pestilences. Gold stimulates the heart, or so we’re told. He therefore had a special love of gold.
A worthy woman from beside Bath city Was with us, somewhat deaf, which was a pity. In making cloth she showed so great a bent She bettered those of Ypres and of Ghent. In all the parish not a dame dared stir Towards the altar steps in front of her, And if indeed they did, so wrath was she As to be quite put out of charity. Her kerchiefs were of finely woven ground; I dared have sworn they weighed a good ten pound, The ones she wore on Sunday, on her head. Her hose were of the finest scarlet red And gartered tight; her shoes were soft and new. Bold was her face, handsome, and red in hue. A worthy woman all her life, what’s more She’d had five husbands, all at the church door, Apart from other company in youth; No need just now to speak of that, forsooth. And she had thrice been to Jerusalem, Seen many strange rivers and passed over them; She’d been to Rome and also to Boulogne, St James of Compostella and Cologne, And she was skilled in wandering by the way. She had gap-teeth, set widely, truth to say. Easily on an ambling horse she sat Well wimpled up, and on her head a hat As broad as is a buckler or a shield; She had a flowing mantle that concealed Large hips, her heels spurred sharply under that. In company she liked to laugh and chat
And knew the remedies for love’s mischances, An art in which she knew the oldest dances. A holy-minded man of good renown There was, and poor, the Parson to a town, Yet he was rich in holy thought and work. He also was a learned man, a clerk, Who truly knew Christ’s gospel and would preach it Devoutly to parishioners, and teach it. Benign and wonderfully diligent, And patient when adversity was sent (For so he proved in much adversity) He hated cursing to extort a fee, Nay rather he preferred beyond a doubt Giving to poor parishioners round about Both from church offerings and his property; He could in little find sufficiency. Wide was his parish, with houses far asunder, Yet he neglected not in rain or thunder, In sickness or in grief, to pay a call On the remotest, whether great or small, Upon his feet, and in his hand a stave. This noble example to his sheep he gave That first he wrought, and afterwards he taught; And it was from the Gospel he had caught Those words, and he would add this figure too, That if gold rust, what then will iron do? For if a priest be foul in whom we trust No wonder that a common man should rust; And shame it is to see – let priests take stock – A shitten shepherd and a snowy flock. The true example that a priest should give Is one of cleanness, how the sheep should live. He did not set his benefice to hire And leave his sheep encumbered in the mire Or run to London to earn easy bread
By singing masses for the wealthy dead, Or find some Brotherhood and get enrolled. He stayed at home and watched over his fold So that no wolf should make the sheep miscarry. He was a shepherd and no mercenary. Holy and virtuous he was, but then Never contemptuous of sinful men, Never disdainful, never too proud or fine, But was discreet in teaching and benign. His business was to show a fair behaviour And draw men thus to Heaven and their Saviour, Unless indeed a man were obstinate; And such, whether of high or low estate, He put to sharp rebuke, to say the least. I think there never was a better priest. He sought no pomp or glory in his dealings, No scrupulosity had spiced his feelings. Christ and His Twelve Apostles and their lore He taught, but followed it himself before.
There was a Plowman with him there, his brother; Many a load of dung one time or other He must have carted through the morning dew. He was an honest worker, good and true, Living in peace and perfect charity, And, as the gospel bade him, so did he, Loving God best with all his heart and mind And then his neighbour as himself, repined At no misfortune, slacked for no content, For steadily about his work he went To thrash his corn, to dig or to manure Or make a ditch; and he would help the poor For love of Christ and never take a penny If he could help it, and, as prompt as any, He paid his tithes in full when they were due On what he owned, and on his earnings too.
He wore a tabard smock and rode a mare. There was a Reeve, also a Miller, there,
A College Manciple from the Inns of Court, A papal Pardoner and, in close consort, A Church-Court Summoner, riding at a trot, And finally myself – that was the lot.
The Miller was a chap of sixteen stone, A great stout fellow big in brawn and bone. He did well out of them, for he could go And win the ram at any wrestling show. Broad, knotty and short-shouldered, he would boast He could heave any door off hinge and post, Or take a run and break it with his head. His beard, like any sow or fox, was red And broad as well, as though it were a spade; And, at its very tip, his nose displayed A wart on which there stood a tuft of hair Red as the bristles in an old sow’s ear. His nostrils were as black as they were wide. He had a sword and buckler at his side, His mighty mouth was like a furnace door. A wrangler and buffoon, he had a store Of tavern stories, filthy in the main. His was a master-hand at stealing grain. He felt it with his thumb and thus he knew Its quality and took three times his due – A thumb of gold, by God, to gauge an oat! He wore a hood of blue and a white coat. He liked to play his bagpipes up and down And that was how he brought us out of town.
The Manciple came from the Inner Temple; All caterers might follow his example In buying victuals; he was never rash Whether he bought on credit or paid cash. He used to watch the market most precisely
And got in first, and so he did quite nicely. Now isn’t it a marvel of God’s grace That an illiterate fellow can outpace The wisdom of a heap of learned men? His masters – he had more than thirty then – All versed in the abstrusest legal knowledge, Could have produced a dozen from their College Fit to be stewards in land and rents and game To any Peer in England you could name, And show him how to live on what he had Debt-free (unless of course the Peer were mad) Or be as frugal as he might desire, And make them fit to help about the Shire In any legal case there was to try; And yet this Manciple could wipe their eye.
The Reeve* was old and choleric and thin; His beard was shaven closely to the skin, His shorn hair came abruptly to a stop Above his ears, and he was docked on top Just like a priest in front; his legs were lean, Like sticks they were, no calf was to be seen. He kept his bins and garners very trim; No auditor could gain a point on him. And he could judge by watching drought and rain The yield he might expect from seed and grain. His master’s sheep, his animals and hens, Pigs, horses, dairies, stores and cattle-pens Were wholly trusted to his government. He had been under contract to present The accounts, right from his master’s earliest years. No one had ever caught him in arrears. No bailiff, serf or herdsman dared to kick, He knew their dodges, knew their every trick; Feared like the plague he was, by those beneath. He had a lovely dwelling on a heath,
Shadowed in green by trees above the sward. A better hand at bargains than his lord, He had grown rich and had a store of treasure Well tucked away, yet out it came to pleasure His lord with subtle loans or gifts of goods, To earn his thanks and even coats and hoods. When young he’d learnt a useful trade and still He was a carpenter of first-rate skill. The stallion-cob he rode at a slow trot Was dapple-grey and bore the name of Scot. He wore an overcoat of bluish shade And rather long; he had a rusty blade Slung at his side. He came, as I heard tell, From Norfolk, near a place called Baldeswell. His coat was tucked under his belt and splayed. He rode the hindmost of our cavalcade.
There was a Summoner* with us at that Inn, His face on fire, like a cherubin,* For he had carbuncles. His eyes were narrow, He was as hot and lecherous as a sparrow. Black scabby brows he had, and a thin beard. Children were afraid when he appeared. No quicksilver, lead ointment, tartar creams, No brimstone, no boracic, so it seems, Could make a salve that had the power to bite, Clean up or cure his whelks of knobby white Or purge the pimples sitting on his cheeks. Garlic he loved, and onions too, and leeks, And drinking strong red wine till all was hazy. Then he would shout and jabber as if crazy, And wouldn’t speak a word except in Latin When he was drunk, such tags as he was pat in; He only had a few, say two or three, That he had mugged up out of some decree; No wonder, for he heard them every day.
And, as you know, a man can teach a jay To call out ‘Walter’ better than the Pope. But had you tried to test his wits and grope For more, you’d have found nothing in the bag. Then ‘Questio quid juris’ was his tag.* He was a noble varlet and a kind one, You’d meet none better if you went to find one. Why, he’d allow – just for a quart of wine – Any good lad to keep a concubine A twelvemonth and dispense him altogether! And he had finches of his own to feather: And if he found some rascal with a maid He would instruct him not to be afraid In such a case of the Archdeacon’s curse (Unless the rascal’s soul were in his purse) For in his purse the punishment should be. ‘Purse is the good Archdeacon’s Hell,’ said he. But well I know he lied in what he said; A curse should put a guilty man in dread, For curses kill, as shriving brings, salvation. We should beware of excommunication. Thus, as he pleased, the man could bring duress On any young fellow in the diocese. He knew their secrets, they did what he said. He wore a garland set upon his head Large as the holly-bush upon a stake Outside an ale-house, and he had a cake, A round one, which it was his joke to wield As if it were intended for a shield.
He and a gentle Pardoner* rode together, A bird from Charing Cross of the same feather, Just back from visiting the Court of Rome. He loudly sang, ‘Come hither, love, come home!’ The Summoner sang deep seconds to this song, No trumpet ever sounded half so strong.
This Pardoner had hair as yellow as wax, Hanging down smoothly like a hank of flax. In driblets fell his locks behind his head Down to his shoulders which they overspread; Thinly they fell, like rat-tails, one by one. He wore no hood upon his head, for fun; The hood inside his wallet had been stowed, He aimed at riding in the latest mode; But for a little cap his head was bare And he had bulging eye-balls, like a hare. He’d sewed a holy relic on his cap; His wallet lay before him on his lap, Brimful of pardons come from Rome, all hot. He had the same small voice a goat has got. His chin no beard had harboured, nor would harbour, Smoother than ever chin was left by barber. I judge he was a gelding, or a mare. As to his trade, from Berwick down to Ware There was no pardoner of equal grace, For in his trunk he had a pillow-case Which he asserted was Our Lady’s veil. He said he had a gobbet of the sail Saint Peter had the time when he made bold To walk the waves, till Jesu Christ took hold. He had a cross of metal set with stones And, in a glass, a rubble of pigs’ bones. And with these relics, any time he found Some poor up-country parson to astound, In one short day, in money down, he drew More than the parson in a month or two, And by his flatteries and prevarication Made monkeys of the priest and congregation. But still to do him justice first and last In church he was a noble ecclesiast. How well he read a lesson or told a story!
But best of all he sang an Offertory, For well he knew that when that song was sung He’d have to preach and tune his honey-tongue And (well he could) win silver from the crowd. That’s why he sang so merrily and loud.
Now I have told you shortly, in a clause, The rank, the array, the number and the cause Of our assembly in this company In Southwark, at that high-class hostelry Known as The Tabard, close beside The Bell. And now the time has come for me to tell How we behaved that evening; I’ll begin After we had alighted at the Inn, Then I’ll report our journey, stage by stage, All the remainder of our pilgrimage. But first I beg of you, in courtesy, Not to condemn me as unmannerly If I speak plainly and with no concealings And give account of all their words and dealings, Using their very phrases as they fell. For certainly, as you all know so well, He who repeats a tale after a man Is bound to say, as nearly as he can, Each single word, if he remembers it, However rudely spoken or unfit, Or else the tale he tells will be untrue, The things pretended and the phrases new. He may not flinch although it were his brother, He may as well say one word as another. And Christ Himself spoke broad in Holy Writ, Yet there is no scurrility in it, And Plato says, for those with power to read, ‘The word should be as cousin to the deed.’ Further I beg you to forgive it me If I neglect the order and degree
And what is due to rank in what I’ve planned. I’m short of wit as you will understand.
Our Host gave us great welcome; everyone Was given a place and supper was begun. He served the finest victuals you could think, The wine was strong and we were glad to drink. A very striking man our Host withal, And fit to be a marshal in a hall. His eyes were bright, his girth a little wide; There is no finer burgess in Cheapside. Bold in his speech, yet wise and full of tact, There was no manly attribute he lacked, What’s more he was a merry-hearted man. After our meal he jokingly began To talk of sport, and, among other things After we’d settled up our reckonings, He said as follows: ‘Truly, gentlemen, You’re very welcome and I can’t think when – Upon my word I’m telling you no lie – I’ve seen a gathering here that looked so spry, No, not this year, as in this tavern now. I’d think you up some fun if I knew how. And, as it happens, a thought has just occurred To please you, costing nothing, on my word. You’re off to Canterbury – well, God speed! Blessed St Thomas answer to your need! And I don’t doubt, before the journey’s done You mean to while the time in tales and fun. Indeed, there’s little pleasure for your bones Riding along and all as dumb as stones. So let me then propose for your enjoyment, Just as I said, a suitable employment. And if my notion suits and you agree And promise to submit yourselves to me Playing your parts exactly as I say
Tomorrow as you ride along the way, Then by my father’s soul (and he is dead) If you don’t like it you can have my head! Hold up your hands, and not another word.’
Well, our opinion was not long deferred, It seemed not worth a serious debate; We all agreed to it at any rate And bade him issue what commands he would. ‘My lords,’ he said, ‘now listen for your good, And please don’t treat my notion with disdain. This is the point. I’ll make it short and plain. Each one of you shall help to make things slip By telling two stories on the outward trip To Canterbury, that’s what I intend, And, on the homeward way to journey’s end Another two, tales from the days of old; And then the man whose story is best told, That is to say who gives the fullest measure Of good morality and general pleasure, He shall be given a supper, paid by all, Here in this tavern, in this very hall, When we come back again from Canterbury. And in the hope to keep you bright and merry I’ll go along with you myself and ride All at my own expense and serve as guide. I’ll be the judge, and those who won’t obey Shall pay for what we spend upon the way. Now if you all agree to what you’ve heard Tell me at once without another word, And I will make arrangements early for it.’
Of course we all agreed, in fact we swore it Delightedly, and made entreaty too That he should act as he proposed to do, Become our Governor in short, and be Judge of our tales and general referee,
And set the supper at a certain price. We promised to be ruled by his advice Come high, come low; unanimously thus We set him up in judgement over us. More wine was fetched, the business being done; We drank it off and up went everyone To bed without a moment of delay.
Early next morning at the spring of day Up rose our Host and roused us like a cock, Gathering us together in a flock, And off we rode at slightly faster pace Than walking to St Thomas’ watering-place; And there our Host drew up, began to ease His horse, and said, ‘Now, listen if you please, My lords! Remember what you promised me. If evensong and mattins will agree Let’s see who shall be first to tell a tale. And as I hope to drink good wine and ale I’ll be your judge. The rebel who disobeys, However much the journey costs, he pays. Now draw for cut and then we can depart; The man who draws the shortest cut shall start. My Lord the Knight,’ he said, ‘step up to me And draw your cut, for that is my decree. And come you near, my Lady Prioress, And you, Sir Cleric, drop your shamefastness, No studying now! A hand from every man!’ Immediately the draw for lots began And to tell shortly how the matter went, Whether by chance or fate or accident, The truth is this, the cut fell to the Knight, Which everybody greeted with delight. And tell his tale he must, as reason was Because of our agreement and because He too had sworn. What more is there to say?
For when this good man saw how matters lay, Being by wisdom and obedience driven To keep a promise he had freely given, He said, ‘Since it’s for me to start the game, Why, welcome be the cut in God’s good name! Now let us ride, and listen to what I say.’ And at the word we started on our way And in a cheerful style he then began At once to tell his tale, and thus it ran.
THE KNIGHT’S TALE
Stories of old have made it known to us That there was once a Duke called Theseus, Ruler of Athens, Lord and Governor, And in his time so great a conqueror There was none mightier beneath the sun. And many a rich country he had won, What with his wisdom and his troops of horse. He had subdued the Amazons by force And all their realm, once known as Scythia, But then called Femeny. Hippolyta, Their queen, he took to wife, and, says the story, He brought her home in solemn pomp and glory, Also her younger sister, Emily. And thus victorious and with minstrelsy I leave this noble Duke for Athens bound With all his host of men-at-arms around.
And were it not too long to tell again I would have fully pictured the campaign In which his men-at-arms and he had won Those territories from the Amazon And the great battle that was given then Between those women and the Athenian men, Or told you how Hippolyta had been Besieged and taken, fair courageous queen, And what a feast there was when they were married, And after of the tempest that had harried Their home-coming. I pass these over now Having, God knows, a larger field to plough.
Weak are my oxen for such mighty stuff; What I have yet to tell is long enough. I won’t delay the others of our rout, Let every fellow tell his tale about And see who wins the supper at the Inn. Where I left off, let me again begin.
This Duke I mentioned, ere alighting down And on the very outskirts of the town In all felicity and height of pride Became aware, casting an eye aside, That kneeling on the highway, two by two, A company of ladies were in view All clothed in black, each pair in proper station Behind the other. And such lamentation And cries they uttered, it was past conceiving The world had ever heard such noise of grieving, Nor did they hold their misery in check Till they grasped bridle at his horse’s neck.
‘Who may you be that, at my coming, so Perturb my festival with cries of woe?’ Said Theseus. ‘Do you grudge the celebration Of these my honours with your lamentation? Who can have injured you or who offended? And tell me if the matter may be mended And why it is that you are clothed in black?’
The eldest of these ladies answered back, Fainting a little in such deadly fashion That but to see and hear her stirred compassion, And said, ‘O Sir, whom Fortune has made glorious In conquest and is sending home victorious, We do not grudge your glory in our grief But rather beg your mercy and relief. Have pity on our sorrowful distress! Some drop of pity, in your nobleness, On us unhappy women let there fall!
For sure there is not one among us all That was not once a duchess or a queen, Though wretches now, as may be truly seen, Thanks be to Fortune and her treacherous wheel That suffers no estate on earth to feel Secure, and, waiting on your presence, we, Here at the shrine of Goddess Clemency, Have watched a fortnight for this very hour. Help us, my Lord, it lies within your power. I, wretched Queen, that weep aloud my woe, Was wife to King Capaneus long ago That died at Thebes, accursed be the day! And we in our disconsolate array That make this sorrowful appeal to pity Lost each her husband in that fatal city During the siege, for so it came to pass. Now old King Creon – O alas, alas! – The Lord of Thebes, grown cruel in his age And filled with foul iniquity and rage, For tyranny and spite as I have said Does outrage on the bodies of our dead, On all our husbands, for when they were slain Their bodies were dragged out onto the plain Into a heap, and there, as we have learnt, They neither may have burial nor be burnt, But he makes dogs devour them, in scorn.’
At that they all at once began to mourn, And every woman fell upon her face And cried, ‘Have pity, Lord, on our disgrace And let our sorrow sink into your heart.’
The Duke, who felt a pang of pity start At what they spoke, dismounted from his steed; He felt his heart about to break indeed, Seeing how piteous and disconsolate They were, that once had been of high estate!
He raised them in his arms and sought to fill Their hearts with comfort and with kind good will, And swore on oath that as he was true knight, So far as it should lie within his might, He would take vengeance on this tyrant King, This Creon, till the land of Greece should ring With how he had encountered him and served The monster with the death he had deserved. Instantly then and with no more delay, He turned and with his banners in display Made off for Thebes with all his host beside, For not a step to Athens would he ride, Nor take his ease so much as half a day, But marched into the night upon his way. But yet he sent Hippolyta the Queen And Emily her sister, the serene, On into Athens, where they were to dwell, And off he rode; there is no more to tell.
The figure of red Mars with spear and targe So shone upon his banners white and large, That all the meadows glittered up and down, And close by them his pennon of renown Shone rich with gold, emblazoned with that feat, His slaying of the Minotaur in Crete. Thus rode this Duke, thus rode this conqueror And led his flower of chivalry to war, Until he came to Thebes, there to alight In splendour on a chosen field to fight. And, to speak briefly of so great a thing, He conquered Creon there, the Theban king, And slew him manfully, as became a knight, In open battle, put his troops to flight, And by assault captured the city after And rent it, roof and wall and spar and rafter; And to the ladies he restored again
The bones belonging to their husbands slain, To do, as custom was, their obsequies.
But it were all too long to speak of these, Or of the clamorous complaint and yearning These ladies uttered at the place of burning The bodies, or of all the courtesy That Theseus, noble in his victory, Showed to the ladies when they went their way; I would be brief in what I have to say.
Now when Duke Theseus worthily had done Justice on Creon and when Thebes was won, That night, camped in the field, he took his rest, Having disposed the land as he thought best.
Crawling for ransack among heaps of slain And stripping their accoutrements for gain, The pillagers went busily about After the battle on the field of rout. And so befell among the heaps they found, Thrust through with bloody wounds upon the ground, Two pale young knights there, lying side by side, Wearing the self-same arms in blazoned pride. Of these Arcita was the name of one, That of the other knight was Palamon; And they were neither fully quick nor dead. By coat of arms and crest upon the head The heralds knew, for all the filth and mud, That they were Princes of the Royal Blood; Two sisters of the House of Thebes had borne them. Out of the heap these pillagers have torn them And gently carried them to Theseus’ tent. And he decreed they should at once be sent To Athens, and gave order they be kept Perpetual prisoners – he would accept No ransom for them. This was done, and then The noble Duke turned homeward with his men
Crowned with the laurel of his victory, And there in honour and felicity He lived his life; what more is there to say? And in a tower, in grief and anguish lay Arcite and Palamon, beyond all doubt For ever, for no gold could buy them out.
Year after year went by, day after day, Until one morning in the month of May Young Emily, that fairer was of mien Than is the lily on its stalk of green, And fresher in her colouring that strove With early roses in a May-time grove – I know not which was fairer of the two – Ere it was day, as she was wont to do, Rose and arrayed her beauty as was right, For May will have no sluggardry at night, Season that pricks in every gentle heart, Awaking it from sleep, and bids it start, Saying, ‘Arise! Do thine observance due!’ And this made Emily recall anew The honour due to May and she arose, Her beauties freshly clad. To speak of those, Her yellow hair was braided in a tress Behind her back, a yard in length, I guess, And in the garden at the sun’s uprising, Hither and thither at her own devising, She wandered gathering flowers, white and red, To make a subtle garland for her head, And like an angel sang a heavenly song.
The great, grim tower-keep, so thick and strong, Principal dungeon at the castle’s core Where the two knights, of whom I spoke before And shall again, were shut, if you recall, Was close-adjoining to the garden wall Where Emily chose her pleasures and adornings.
Bright was the sun this loveliest of mornings And the sad prisoner Palamon had risen, With licence from the jailer of the prison, As was his wont, and roamed a chamber high Above the city, whence he could descry The noble buildings and the branching green Where Emily the radiant and serene Went pausing in her walk and roaming on.
This sorrowful prisoner, this Palamon, Was pacing round his chamber to and fro Lamenting to himself in all his woe. ‘Alas,’ he said, ‘that ever I was born!’ And so it happened on this May day morn, Through a deep window set with many bars Of mighty iron squared with massive spars, He chanced on Emily to cast his eye And, as he did, he blenched and gave a cry As though he had been stabbed, and to the heart. And, at the cry, Arcita gave a start And said, ‘My cousin Palamon, what ails you? How deadly pale you look! Your colour fails you! Why did you cry? Who can have given offence? For God’s love, take things patiently, have sense, Think! We are prisoners and shall always be. Fortune has given us this adversity, Some wicked planetary dispensation, Some Saturn’s trick or evil constellation Has given us this, and Heaven, though we had sworn The contrary, so stood when we were born. We must endure it, that’s the long and short.’
And Palamon in answer made retort, ‘Cousin, believe me, your opinion springs From ignorance and vain imaginings. Imprisonment was not what made me cry. I have been hurt this moment through the eye,