Some Things Never Change

The life of the artist has always been a precarious one, financially speaking.  Geoffrey Chaucer was not exempt from its ups and downs.  The Canterbury Tales poet depended for cash on annuities that had been granted to him by Richard II, and when Henry IV took the throne in a regime change that ended with Richard II dying in prison, Chaucer was understandably concerned about the continuation of his stipend.

Reminding a king that he owes you money is tricky under any circumstances; doing so when the money was promised to you by the recently-deposed previous monarch is something beyond tricky.  Fortunately for Chaucer, he had an in:  His wife Philippa was the sister of Henry IV’s father’s last wife (and long-time mistress) Katharine Swynford, which made him sort-of family.  Close enough, at any rate, that Chaucer felt he could get away with giving the new king a gentle nudge.

So here’s Chaucer, addressing not the king, but the artist’s true love, his currently-flat wallet:

To yow, my purs, and to non othir wyght
Complayne I, for ye ben my lady dere!
I am so sory, now that ye been lyght;
For certes, but yf ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere;
For which unto your mercy thus I crye,
Beth hevy ayeyn, or elles mot I dye!

Now voucheth sauf this day, or hyt be nyght,
That I of yow the blisful soun may here,
Or se your colour lyk the sonne bryght,
That of yelownesse had never pere.
Ye be my lyf, ye be myne hertes stere,
Quene of comfort and of gode companye;
Beth hevy ayeyn, or elles mot I dye!

Now purs, that ben to me my lyves lyght
And saveour, as doun in this worlde here,
Out of this towne helpe me thurgh your myght,
Syn that ye wylle nat ben my tresorere;
For I am shave as nye as any frere.
But yet I prey unto youre curtesye,
Beth heavy ayeyn, or elles mot I dye!

Lenvoy de Chaucer

O conqueror of Brutes Albyoun,
Which that by lyne and fre eleccion
Ben verray kyng, this song to you I sende;
And ye, that mowen alle oure harmes amende,
Have mynde upon my supplicacioun.

The poem worked; Chaucer got his money.

(For a modern English translation, go here; it’s the fourth poem down.)

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