Hoccleve’s Ballades to Henry Somer

The following poems, translated for the first time by Emily Price, constitute a series of ballades written to Sir Henry Somer, an Exchequer clerk and later deputy treasurer who eventually became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This translation is based on Frederick J. Furnivall’s edition of Hoccleve’s Works, Volume 1, published in 1892 by the Early English Text Society. Price’s translation aims to provide an accurate, idiomatic representation of Hoccleve’s Middle English. Brief notes are indicated with an asterisk; click the asterisk to view the note at the bottom of the page.

The original Middle English can be read in the Hoccleve Archive, hosted by the University of Texas. You can learn more about these ballades in David Watt’s “Thomas Hoccleve’s Particular Appeal,” Pedagogy 13 (2013).

This Ballade and following song were made for my Master H. Somer, when he was Deputy to the Treasurer

The Sun, with his beams of brightness
Is so kind to man, so nourishing,
That, lacking it, the day would be nothing but darkness.
He gives his illumination to the day,
And causes the crops to sprout and grow.
Now, since that Sun may do so much good,
And since he dwells most alongside Summer,
We will here address that generous season.

Fair-faced Somer1, to your governance
And grace we submit all our wishes!
He who you’re friendly to can’t possibly fail,
But will have his proper demand.
As it pleases you, by the ripening of our fruits,
This last Michaelmas, it was the time
Of year our crops are gathered in,
The lack of which is our great burden.

We trust in your friendly generosity,
That you will help us and be our champion.
Now make us glad again this Christmas,
O lord. Tell us whether our arrangement
Shall soon make us sail with our ships2
To a safe haven. If you desire, we can sing—
Or else, we must moan and wail
Until by your favor we are provided for.

We, your servants, Hoccleve and Baillay,
Hethe and Offorde3, beseech you and pray,
“Hasten our harvest, as soon as you may!”
Our minds are filled with the thought of storms;
If our crops were safely gathered, then we could play gladly,
And we could cheer up, and sing, and amuse ourselves,
And yet we shall sing you this roundel, and say these words
In trust of you, and in honor of your name.

Roundel, or Chanson to Somer

[1: Burden]4
Summer, that ripens man’s sustenance
With the wholesome heat of the sun’s warmness
All kinds of men are bound to bless you!

Thanks be always to your friendly governance
And your bright look of mirth and gladness!
Somer &c.

To those full of sorrow, the remembrance of you
Is salve and ointment to their sickness.
This is why we will sing thus at Christmas,
Somer &c.

The Court of Good Company5

The following ballade, made by the Court of Good Company, was sent to the honorable Sir Henry Somer, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a member of the said Court

Worshipful sir, and our special friend,
And our fellow, in this case, we call you.
We’ve read the letter you sent to us,
All thoroughly, and we understand how
It makes no sense, to your mind,
To continue living the way we have been;
But instead, we should begin another way.

You told us how, in that place of honor,
The Temple6, because of our mirth and rejoicing,
There was error where there ought not have been,
From our great improvidence and excess.
We were first founded to use generosity
In our spending, but as we’ve seen,
Exceeding reason isn’t something you’ll allow.

You told us also that before this, we’d kept to a rule
which was practical, as you’d heard it said;
But now, it has lately ceased and lapsed.
And you think we should take it up again,
And that, unless we do so, our Court certainly
Won’t endure any longer,
As many people have been saying.

You prefer that, in order to preserve
Our honor, and also our profit,
The intent of our old foundation
Be observed, and our Court be brought back
To what it was at first, and pass entirely
Out of the danger of outrageous waste,
Lest scorn and reproof give us a taste of our own medicine.

To that end, you have promised
To grant us six great ships,7
To buy us our dinner again, flour or wheat;
And along with this, as is right and reasonable,
To pay your share, as any other man would do
Who rules and guides himself by moderation,
Not like those who are mastered by extravagance.

Your letter also suggested
That if we don’t change our new guise
or depart from it in any way,
You will appear on the first of May
(That day you set to dine with us)
And you will be ready to restore our old rule:
That, truly, is the effect of your letter.

And to this, we answer in this way:
You are not bound to extravagance,
Nor are any of us, but we do what we can bear:
Our groundwork doesn’t rest on this old rule.
You are prudent: although your wealth is abundant,
Do what you think is best!
You, and all of us, are our own masters.

At our last dinner, you well know
By our Steward’s order,
(As is the custom of our Court),
And as is always observed
At our assembly, without exception,
You were told to provide dinner
Again next Thursday, and not to delay.

Don’t hold yourself advised in such a way
As to make us destitute, that day,
Of our dinner; take that enterprise on yourself,
If you wish, drive excess away.
Many people may learn from the wise:
Discretion measures every thing—
Spend according to your pleasure and liking!

Be an example to us; let us see and mirror you.
At the discretion of your wisdom,
Do what you will, for the thanks will be yours.
Have as much wine drawn as you see fit;
We trust in your wise experience.
But keep your turn well, whatever comes to pass
Next Thursday, which we all await.
This is all.

[1] Hoccleve is here setting up the pun he will rely on for the remainder of the poem: the association of Summer and Somer with abundance, comfort, and financial generosity. 
[2] The ships here represent the six coins or “nobles”, which at the time were engraved with the image of Edward III sitting in a ship.
[3] Hoccleve’s fellow clerks at the Privy Seal, and fellow members of the Court. 
[4] This is the only verse in the roundel with a title.
[5] The Court of Good Company was a group that facilitated the meeting of friends and fellow government employees, likely centered around the Middle Temple near Chester’s Inn, where Hoccleve lived. Hoccleve and the rest of the Court have been promised money for a dinner by Somer, and this poem is, among other things, an attempt to collect it.
[6] Probably the Middle Temple (see previous note).
[7] See note about ships as coins above.