Hoccleve’s “Dialogue”: A Modern English Verse Translation

As a resource for all readers of Hoccleve, Jenni Nuttall continues her translation of the Series with a verse translation of its second constituent poem, “The Dialogue.”

This translation draws on the glosses and explanatory notes of J. A. Burrow’s edition of Thomas Hoccleve’s ‘Complaint’ and ‘Dialogue’ (EETS o.s. 313, 1999) and of ‘My Compleinte’ and Other Poems, ed. Roger Ellis (2001). It aims to give an accurate, idiomatic representation of the meaning of Hoccleve’s Middle English verse. Brief notes are indicated with an asterisk; click the asterisk to view the note at the bottom of the page.

[1–7] And, my Complaint having just ended like this,
Someone knocked very hard at my chamber door
And shouted loudly, ‘Hey, Hoccleve! Are you here?
Open your door! I think it’s been a really long time
Since I saw you last. Listen, my friend, for God’s sake,
Come out, for I haven’t seen you this last three months
As far as I know,’ and so I came out to see him.

[8–14] This man whom I’m talking about was my good friend
Of many years, and thus he said to me:
‘Thomas, if you love me, tell me right now
What you were doing, when I knocked and struck
So energetically on your door?’ And I obeyed
His instruction: ‘Come in’, I said, ‘and see.’
And so he did: he came straight in to me.

[15–21] I didn’t want to make an issue of it with my good friend,
Nor to hide or conceal my work from him,
So straightaway I read him my Complaint,
And, that being done, he said: ‘Since only us two
Are here, and no one else, by Christ’s Passion,
Thomas, let me speak and don’t be angry,
For I have no desire to offend you.

[22–28] ‘What I’m going to say is meant well.
Have you created this Complaint so as to circulate it
Among the public?’ ‘Yes, my friend, that’s what I intended.
What else would I do?’ ‘No, Thomas, be careful, don’t do it!
It would be wise of you to shut up about that business,
Don’t talk about it nor stir it up.
Keep all that private, for the sake of your reputation.

[29–35] ‘How things fared for you is all put to bed;
Everyone has forgotten it. It’s out of mind.
I wish you wouldn’t allude to that.
Let it be, I’m telling you, for I can’t find
One person who wants to talk about it. You stand right now
In as good a position with everyone as you’ve ever stood
Before today.’ ‘Oh no,’ said I, ‘not so, not so!

[36–42] ‘Though I’m pretty foolish, I’m not that far gone.
I know what everyone’s said and says about me.
I’ve not forgotten their words just yet.
But I’m very surprised at you, that you
Don’t think better of my Complaint,
Since I didn’t read it to you very long ago,
Indeed it was just this very minute.

[43–49] ‘If you were paying attention, it points out
That various people spoke about me in my hearing
Very harshly. I thank you for your
Good intentions, for I know very well
That your advice comes from kindness.
But truly, my dear friend, I can return to
And vouch for those things which I overheard.

[50–56] ‘And where you advise and counsel me
That I shouldn’t remember anything at all
For the sake of my reputation, or touch on my wildness,
I answer that advice like this and say:
However much a blow sent by God might hang heavy or be a burden,
No one ought to think it a shame or a reproof.
Chastising by Him hurts no one’s reputation.

[57–63] ‘Another part of it also disturbs me:
Since my sickness was known about so widely
That people understood exactly how things stood for me then,
I would now wish, in contrary fashion, that it were
Equally well known how our Lord Jesus, who is the guide
Towards all relief and who can cure all hearts,
Has healed me, a sinful creature.

[64–70] ‘If I’d been known as a murderer,
Or as an extortioner or a robber,
Or was notorious for being a coin-clipper
Or as a warrior against the Christian faith,
Or as a malicious interferer in lawsuits, as I was for my sickness,
It would have been folly to have drawn attention to them
Even if I had mended my ways.

[71–77] ‘And why is that? For those sins stem from the frailty
Of a person themself. Those are brought about by the individual.
For since God has given free will to humanity
So that they can choose whether to do well or badly,
If they mis-choose, they’re their own enemy,
And Reputation says not to divulge their guilt (which would indict them),
Whereas he [i.e. Reputation] condones silence.*

[78–84] ‘But this is an entirely different situation:
This was a blow from God; He gave me this.
And since He has graciously taken it away again,
Aren’t I bound to declare it? Oh indeed.
Things would be amiss unless God had this thanks.
Certainly, my friend, I intend to make a public confession,
And not to hide what I have had through His generosity.

[85– 91] ‘If a doctor had cured me in this way —
Even if they were completely lacking in knowledge and ability —
They should have become a famous name for ever more,
On the basis of the cure they had achieved for so sick a person.
And yet he’d have made my wallet feel very light.
But courteous Jesus, through His patient grace,
Asks for nothing but penance for guilt.

[92–98] ‘The kindness of God shouldn’t be hidden.
Since He gave me medicine for my good health,
I’m bound to acknowledge it and thank Him,
For He has showed His miracle in me.
His visitation is an eye-glass
With which I can behold and see
Better than I once did, how great a lord He is.

[99–105] ‘But, my friend, among those vices that I listed
Just now, one of them, I dare say,
Has hurt me badly, and I know well enough
It’s done the same to many others: I mean debased coinage.
Many people these days won’t take it or receive it
From anyone unless they weigh each gold coin,
And if its weight is short, they’ll reject it.

[106–112] ‘When it’s washed* so that it lacks a bit
In thickness, how can it hold its weight?
Those dishonest people aren’t at all ashamed
To trim its edges as well, in such a way that it becomes
Less than it should be in diameter and roundness.
More than anyone else the poor person is
Very sorely troubled and grieved by this.

[113–119] ‘If that which people offer them for their labour
Or for goods they’ve loaned is gold and undamaged,
They’ll take it if they like and put it in their coffer,
Because, regardless of any washing or clipping,
They must be content, they’ll get no other payment.
There seems little likelihood that anything else will happen.
Truth is absent, but falsehood is not far away.

[120–126] ‘What should the poor person do if in their home
They have no more money at all,
Except, perhaps, one noble* or a halfpenny of gold,
And that coin is so thin and so narrow and underweight,
That everywhere everyone refuses to exchange it?
It won’t be taken for currency without them losing a lot on it.
They have to do this, they can’t choose anything else.

[127–133] ‘I myself have been in this predicament in the past,
Therefore I know about it a great deal better.
The person who’s guilty of counterfeiting coins
Suffers great wrong in not being hanged.
It’s a pity that they are kept from it [i.e. capital punishment],
Since they have such a great entitlement and right to it:
Take control, Justice, and demonstrate your power via them!

[134–40] ‘(When I wrote this, many people did wrong.
They weighed gold without having obtained permission.
There hadn’t then been a statute issued as there is now.
But since we’re now obliged to weigh gold,
Reason demands that it [i.e. the statute] should be obeyed.
Now it’s time for us to resort to the using of weights,
Since parliament has made it a law.)

[141–47] ‘Yet other rogues do an even worse trick,
And those are they who counterfeit the coinage,
And those that mix copper, cloth and tin with gold,
To make everything seem gold — they toil and sweat
To buy themselves a seat in hell.
If their dishonest greediness leads them there,
That purchase was a stupid thing to do!

[148–54] ‘What causes, do you think, all this wrongdoing?
What support is given to this untruth?
In truth, everyone says it is the aiding and abetting
Of those in power, which is a great harm and a pity.
From now on may God grant that there’s no sluggishness
In enacting punishment for this treason,
Just exactly as is appropriate to that.

[155–61] ‘They that connive with that wrongdoing,
Ought to be punished in my opinion
With equal severity, just the same as those who do it.
Now, you helpers, beware of a sudden change in fortune.
I’m not talking about anyone in particular.
In various parts of the country there are many
Of you, and there has been for a long time.

[162–68] ‘Alas, that this foul and cursed vice
Of counterfeiting of coinage (not a recent invention!)
Should continue, to our king’s detriment
And harm to all his true and loyal subjects,
Which, if it becomes widespread, many of us will regret.
May God and our king remedy all this sorrow,
For it’s a foul mischief to the general public.

[169–75] ‘Damage to the whole community is not be underestimated.
That poison spreads too widely and broadly.
There would be great merit in hindering and stopping such a thing
Which leads the public into mischief.
The voice of the people cries out for vengeance on you,
You cursed people, you dishonest counterfeiters,
And on your promoters and your cronies!

[176–82] ‘Oh I’m always afraid of this, this depresses me
Many times, that no punishment
Will befall this cursed gang.
However just the accusation against them might be,
Our liege lord shall be so ignorant of it
That knowledge of it shall be hidden from him.
Unwashed gold will wash away that vice.

[183–89] ‘His High Excellence will be informed
By third parties, with whom Lady Money
Has whispered, and be showed evidence
In cash, that everything that people say
About that dishonest folk is wrong. I wager my soul
That those intermediaries won’t have any defective coins:
Their income will always be good and pure.

[190–96] ‘Now truly I fear there will be
Such a multitude of that false sect
Within the next two years, or perhaps three,
Unless this stinking error is corrected,
That so much of this land will be infected
With it that truth itself will be overthrown,
And that cursed dishonesty will overwhelm it [i.e. truth].

[197– 203] ‘Look, my friend, now I’ve revealed my intentions.
Don’t be displeased by my long account.’
‘No, Thomas, no, but let me talk to you.
When your Complaint was finished,
Did anything emerge in your plans and come to your thought
Which you might have written in addition to that?’
‘Yes, certainly, my friend.’ ‘Oh now, good Thomas, tell me what?’

[204–10] ‘My friend, I’ll tell you that as quickly as I can, indeed:
I’ve seen a small treatise written in Latin
Which is called Learn How to Die:
I don’t know of any better restraint from vice,
Because (unless they’ve learned that lesson beforehand)
Beware of the moment when Death intends to snatch someone
Away from here (and no one knows when Death arrives).

[211–17] ‘And I’ve planned to translated that text
If God chooses to loan me His favour for that goal,
Since He has opened the door to good health for me.
Because my soul is all bare of virtue
And is foul and unclean because of my body’s guilt,
My occupation will be to purify it somewhat
By translation of it [the Learn How to Die].

[218–24] For not only me, but, it seems to me,
Many another person will also, thanks to that,
Very tenderly examine their conscience
And tot themselves up, and take stock of everything
Which they’ve done in their life, great and small,
While they have time and lively brains and vigour,
And they won’t delay until the hour of their death.

[225–31] ‘In the future anyone can, if they are minded to look at
And read within this treatise,
Consider and truly realise that it’s very troublesome
To delay making your reckoning until life [i.e. the body] begins to grow cold.
There’s little time then to make a fair and accurate
Reckoning of your former offences.
The sharpness of the pain proves a great hindrance to that.

[232–38] ‘It wasn’t my own devotion which stirred
Me to do this work, you must understand,
But at the urging and suggestion
Of a devout man I now take this work
In hand, and, as far as I can, I’ll attempt
To put into practice his advice by means of God’s grace,
Though I’m devoid of intellect and literary know-how.

[239–45] ‘And when that work is finished, I intend
Never again to be engaged in writing English.
I can’t work and toil as I once did.
I don’t take such pleasure in it
As I did before; it has nearly died a death.
Wherefore I intend to stop, once this is finished.
The night approaches – it’s far past noon.

[246–52] ‘I’m fifty and three winters in age.
Readiness for death hastens quickly towards me.
My limbs are now somewhat enfeebled;
And my sight quickly worsens and gets weaker,
And my mind doesn’t relish things nowadays
As it used to do in previous years.
Now my emotions are entirely different.

[253–59] ‘I’m more gloomy now in a single day
Than I used to be in five days.
Those things which before this seemed to me game and play
Feel in earnest now. The honey leaves
So very quickly from the hive of my spirit.
When everything’s said and done, all this world’s sweetness
Turns in the end into bitterness.

[260–66] ‘The fool, because of their love for this present life,
Is deceived, but the wise one knows all too well
How full of sorrow and torment this world is,
And therefore they trust in it not at all.
Though a person sits high on the wheel* today,
Tomorrow they may be sprung from their seat,
This has been often witnessed among the powerful.

[267–73] ‘However fair or however precious
Anything in the world might be, it’s like a flower,
To which nature has given the beauty
Of fresh vividness and of very attractive colour,
With sweet fragrance and smell too,
Yet, as soon as it becomes dry,
Goodbye to its colour and the smell begins to die.

[274–80] ‘Royal power and earthly majesty,
Worldly wealth and long and lovely days,
Pass away just like the shadow of a tree.
When death arrives there can be no delaying.
The world’s stability proves fragile when tested.
Wise people know very well that this is true.
They know how it can deceive humanity.

[281–87] ‘Land, property, goods, gold, fame, wealth,
Which have been lent for a while for to be ours,
We will lose sooner that we might expect.
Palaces, manors, great castles and towers
Will be taken from us by a death who’s very spiteful.
She is the rough broom which shall sweep
All of us out of this world, when God brings it about.

[288–94] ‘And since she will make an end of us,
It’s salutary to often remember her,
Before she sends her messenger Sickness to us.
Now, my dear old friend (may things always go in your favour!),
Isn’t it a good idea to make preparations
In anticipation of the coming of that messenger,
So we can remain secure in our clear conscience?’

[295–301] ‘Yes, Thomas, yes, your intention’s good,
But your work will be hard to complete, I fear.
Your brain, perhaps, will not cooperate as it needs to,
And you know well you need it to cooperate
Before you can accomplish such a feat.
Now, truly, I’m advising you for the best:
Chuck that plan out of your mind’s chest.

[302–08] ‘Your energetic studying of this subject-matter
Has caused you to leap back into that plight
Which you were in before, as far as I can tell,
And though you judge that you are freed from it,
Wait, and delay your purpose for a bit
Until your brain is fully restored,
And then I will gladly assent to that.

[309–15] ‘Though a fierce fire which was recently in a hearth
Can be removed and completely swept away,
Yet afterwards, both the hearth and the iron backplate
Are warm from the fire, though there’s no fire to be seen
Where it once was, and what I mean is just like that.
Although the majority of your sickness is over
Yet some of its warmness might still lurk within you.’

[316–22] ‘Oh may God bless you, my friend, what’s up with you?
Just now, when I read my Complaint to you,
Didn’t it remind you how well things are going for me?
My courage begins to fail because of your words.
Do we now need to reacquaint ourselves all over again,
We who have been so well acquainted for many years?
What, have you now learned a new lesson?

[323–29] ‘Have you learned to mistrust your friend
And to give no credence to his words?
If your friendship so easily corrupts and rusts,
It will sorely trouble my naivety,
Me who has always considered you in truth
A faithful friend. Indeed, I’m sorely grieved
That you don’t believe how much God has healed me.

[330–36] ‘Whoever doesn’t believe what someone says,
It’s a sign that they trust them very little.
A true friend gives credence to and has trust
In their friend, whatever they speak and write.
Friendship’s law would not be worth a mite
If mistrust were an essential part of it.
Disbelief has very sorely vexed many a person.

[337–43] ‘I made a contract with myself
When I knitted myself to you with the knot
Of friendship, that I never afterwards
Would break that solemn promise which I’ll keep forever,
Or turn away from that. Oh, your words sit
Near to my heart, and, though you don’t love me,
No one will shove my love away from you.

[344–50] ‘Cicero says that true friendship
Lasts forever, however people attack it.
It’s not true friendship to love truly for today,
Or for some years either, and then to forsake it afterwards.
A friend always takes pains for their friend
And works hard, in order to care for and preserve friendship
Until death’s stroke cuts that bond into pieces.

[351–57] ‘Solomon agrees with this position —
You know it better than me many times over —
Once a friend, you must hold true to that forever.
Your friendship would be built on slippery ground
If that which until now has been both warm and hot
Were to weaken and grow cold.
It would be a reproach to you and a harm to me.

[358–64] ‘If I preferred to dwell on this matter,
And to draw and stretch it out,
I could cite you a heap of experts
Who offer opinions on friendship, but I must anyhow
Cease, or else it will take a long time and get late
Before I’ve ended my planned work,
For my mind is feeble, and dull, and dark.

[366–71] ‘But as I said before (and it’s still true)
I feel my slender wit to be as serious and settled
As it ever was at any time before this,
Thanks be to Jesus, our merciful Lord!’
‘Yet, Thomas, listen a bit and be patient,
And don’t take my speech amiss.
You’ll find no disloyalty in me.

[371–78] ‘I’m your friend now just as I have always been,
And always will be, don’t doubt it,
But believe me, it’s only seldom seen
That someone who’s had such a misfortune
As your sickness was will afterwards
Be of the same temperament and ability
As he was beforehand, and so says everyone.

[379–85] ‘Your sickness was born of too much
Difficult studying. Do you really want
To enter into that laborious business again,
Since it has destroyed your mind and also your wits?
Your plans aren’t worth a bit of nice white bread.
Let be, let be, don’t busy yourself like this anymore,
Unless you end up repenting and grieving for it too much.

[386–92] ‘My advice isn’t driven by ill will:
Rather it’s said from true friendliness,
For if such a sickness happened to befall me
As it did you, I would do myself just exactly
As I’m advising you, without any doubt.
And Solomon commands us to follow good advice
And it’s a good thing to model yourself on that.

[393–99] ‘Unless they control themselves, someone who’s once
Fallen in such a plight may easily slip back again.
Here’s my advice, for anything that might happen,
Since God has taken from you that sickness,
Avoid the cause, for it’s better left alone,
In particular, something acquired by anxiously studying
Is life-threatening, as I’ve been taught.

[400–06] Just as a thief who has escaped
The noose once doesn’t afterwards fear to ply his trade,
Until the gallows bear him up, flesh and bones,
Being so very reluctant to give up his unhappy trade,
So you fare the same. You have great delight in musing
Upon your book, and you stare and pore over it,
Until it consumes and devours your brain.

[407–13] ‘I can’t say any more: the final mistake
Is worse, I believe, than those which came before.
The pain of studying should be a mirror
To you. Hereafter let your studying be put aside.
Don’t have disdain or scorn for my words,
For what I say, all of it I say from
Affectionate tenderness, as surely may God bless me.

[414–20] ‘If you don’t choose to take pity on yourself,
Thomas, who’ll have pity on you, I ask?
Now carry on, let’s see, and bring your trouble back again,
And it will burden and weigh you down more
Than it did before, on that I pledge my life,
Which will harm and grieve you far too much.’
‘My friend, with your permission I’ll respond to that.’

[421–27] ‘Rather than what you think and believe about me,
Namely that I was afflicted by my disease because of studying —
The same opinion which has also spread wide among all and sundry —
Believe me: studying with my books
Was never the cause why my mind forsook me;
Rather it was caused by my long sickness,
And not in any other way, to tell you the truth.

[428–34] ‘And therefore never after this, I beg you,
Judge me no more like this, nor bring it to mind.
It’s enough that everyone knew I was sick,
Though they make no investigation into its cause;
Little benefit comes from such a judgement.
I have faithfully told you the cause of it.
Now let’s stop here and take a break.

[435–41] ‘To this I’m not going to try to reply.
It’s not worth it, it would be a waste of time;
No persuasion or influence will
Hinder me from this work, for sure.
Believe me, this plan of mine isn’t impulsive.
It’s been beaten on my brain’s anvil
For many a day. Let’s not talk about it anymore.

[442–48] ‘I’ve waited a reasonable amount of time
Before I thought to busy myself with this,
And I did all this to prove myself.
Someone can seek and search in their mind
For five years to find what they can do, by God,
And after that take it upon themself and do it
Or give it up. Reason agrees with all this.’

[449–55] ‘Oh Thomas, do you think it’s good judgement
To reject advice and work according to your own thinking?
Didn’t I say beforehand that Solomon’s advice
Bids everyone to follow advice and counsel.
And yet you refuse to follow it.
What, have you now become so presumptuous,
And prefer not to be reproved for your wrong?’

[456–62] ‘No friend, not so, you know very well that elsewhere
Solomon bids “Let one person in a thousand
Be your counsellor”, and if you were
As constant as you have been before this moment,
I would indeed be advised by you, but I now perceive
Such a mistake in your thinking, without a doubt,
So that in this case you can’t give advice properly.

[463–69] ‘For, God knows, he’s a blind counsellor
Who would give advice on a matter
When he won’t be instructed in the truth,
And such a one I now find in front of me.
I have told you all the details of how
It’s been for me, and still is,
But you’re somewhat lacking in your trust of me.

[470–77] ‘Have you heard anything of me in our conversation
By which you should have such a wrong opinion of me?
Haven’t I spoken with reason, to your way of thinking?’
‘In truth, Thomas, to my mind, yes you have,
But I’m always afraid, and fear this in particular:
Your brain is not so powerful as you yourself think
To meet the demands of that labour.’

[478–83] ‘My friend, as regards that, there isn’t anyone living
Who can know exactly how things stand with another person
As well as they themselves. Although many a person
Undertakes more than that which lies in their power
To understand, that person is not well governed
Who is so presumptuous in his judgement.
It would be good to think carefully before making a decision.’

[484–90] ‘Now, Thomas, by the faith which I owe to God,
If I hadn’t tested/tasted* you, as I now
Have done, it would have been hard to make me believe
The good situation which I truly perceive that you
Are in. I know for definite that you are well enough,
Whatever anyone gossips or imagines about you.
Now it seems to me that I’ve got to grips with God Himself!

[491–97] ‘But as faithfully as I know how to or am able to,
Since you intend to set yourself to that labour,
I pray you in every way possible
To conserve your wits in their freshness.
When you work on it, don’t make too much use of them.
The human mind pays a high price for
Musing for a long time on a hard subject.

[498–504] ‘My friend, I don’t meddle in complicated matters.
My intellect can’t stretch that far.
I was never yet burned up by the heat of studying;
Let no one suspect me of that!
If I can’t easily grasp the gist
Of the thing in which I decide to labour,
Then goodbye to my studies — soon I close my book.

[505–11] ‘By fits and starts, when a fresh desire takes me,
I’ll busy myself now and then a little,
But when my desire dulls and subsides,
I’ll stop and write no longer,
And, by God, my friend, that can’t do the slightest harm,
At least that’s how it seems to my simple way of thinking.
Judge this plan yourself, for you’re prudent and wise.’

[512–18] ‘For sure, Thomas, if you act in the way
That you’re describing, I’m very content
For you to take upon yourself that enterprise
Which  you have proposed and planned.
To that aim I give you my agreement.
Now begin that work, in the name of Jesus Christ,
And just as you’ve described it to me, do it the same way.

[519–25] ‘I’m sure that your constitution
Is such that you’re able to take more in hand
Than at first I thought in my own judgement,
Many times more, thanks be to God’s providence!
Begin in God’s name and don’t hesitate
To create and write down whatever pleases you.
What I didn’t understood beforehand is now clear to me.

[526–32] ‘And now I remember one particular thing,
About why you proposed to labour on this book,
I remember that in the month of September
Last year, or not far from it, without doubt —
The exact timings don’t really matter
To my version of events, nor hinder nor disrupt it —
You said you owed a book

[533–39] ‘To my lord who is now regent,
My lord of Gloucester, isn’t that right?’
‘Yes, that’s true, my friend, and according to our agreement
He should have had it many days ago,
But sickness and weariness and other reasons too
Have been the sources of my delay.’
‘Thomas, then you’ve intended this book to be for him?’

[540–46] ‘Yes, for sure, my friend, your guess is exactly right.
It’s for him that I shall make this book.
As soon as I heard about his return
From France, I took pen and ink
And I made my spirit awaken
Which had long laid waiting in idleness
As far as any such work or activity is concerned.

[547–53] ‘But I’d happily write about any other subject
In order to gladden my noble lord’s heart,
As I’m deeply bound and obliged to do so.
I’d prefer, by God who made me,
To bestow many a rhymed stanza on that sort of subject matter,
If I knew what to write. Good friend, tell me what would be
Best for me to create, and I’m ready to follow your plan.

[554– 60] ‘Next to our victorious king, our liege lord,
There’s no lord in the whole wide world
Who’s so good and gracious to me,
And has been like this for very many years,
May God reward him for it. His heart is set
As solid as any rock, and can’t be turned
Away from me, his humble servant and his man.

[561–67] ‘I had thought to have translated Vegetius* for him,
Who covers the whole art of chivalry,
But I see that his knighthood so increases
That no effort of mine could contribute anything,
For he understands that art totally and utterly.
He has proved his worthiness overseas,
And, among other places, Cherbourg can testify to that.

[568–74] ‘This worthy prince was camped before that stronghold,
Which was very impregnable, besieging it for many days,
And he didn’t want to depart from there,
But lay in wait there bravely in pursuit of his prey
Until he won it by force, there’s no denying it.
In deed as well as in his blood, this prince follows on
From Duke Henry* who was so worthy and so noble.

[575–81] ‘Before he came on military campaign to Cherbourg
He won the peninsular stronghold of Cotentin,
For which glory and honour and high praise
Rewarded him and repaid him for his trouble.
Though before that he had a worthy reputation,
Yet that exploit is an increase in his noble fame.
Without doubt he is a famous prince!

[582–88] ‘To repeat to tell in great detail every act
Which his sword wrought in steel there,
And in many other places — I don’t know all the details —
And even if every action had reached my ear,
My spirit would have fear to express them,
Lest, if I should cite them in evidence, I should chance
To fall short of the thanks due to him through my own ignorance.

[589–95] ‘But I can say this: he is called Humphrey
Very appropriately, so it seems to me,
For this thought is always in my heart:
Warlike Mars entitled him to that name
As a sign of special favour at the moment
Of his birth, making him thereby a promise
That he would rise up into noble worthiness.

[596–602] ‘For Humphrey, as it seems to my way of thinking,
Means in English ‘a man I shall make’*,
And that promise has been made good on,
As popular opinion of him reveals:
Whoever might weigh his worthy knighthood
Rightly in the scales of his thought
Has more than enough with which to promote his reputation.

[603–609] ‘To chronicle his deeds would be a good deed in itself,
For they might offer an example and inspire
Very many men to pay attention to
How to conduct themselves in the practice
Of arms. It’s a great advantage
For someone to have a mirror before them
In which to see the path to honour.

[610–16] ‘O Lord, when he came to the siege of Rouen
From Cherbourg, could it have been either fear or cowardice
Which made him approach as near to the walls
Of the town as he did? I’m not up to the job
Of telling you in how chivalrous a fashion
He was encamped there, and how worthily
He conducted himself. Indeed, he’s truly every inch a knight.

[617–23] ‘Now, my good friend, lend a helping hand, I beg you.
What thing can I make which will please him?
Without hearing your advice I don’t know what to say.’
‘No way, indeed, Thomas, no way, really?’
‘No, it’s true, my friend, I haven’t got a plan
Of action. Your advice will help me along.
For all the faith I have in you, supply me with some.

[624–30] ‘Well, Thomas, do you believe that His Royal Highness
Won’t really mind what subject matter
You would make verse about?’ ‘No, my friend, I suppose,
As long as it’s about subjects which are honourable.’
‘So then I will think about it a bit, Thomas.
For whoever intends to advise and give counsel,
Shouldn’t run too far ahead of themselves.

[631–37] ‘And, in particular, the question of what so noble a prince,
So excellent, worthy and honourable,
Should be given needs good advice,
So that it can be pleasing and suitable
For his nobility. It’s not acceptable
To write to so famous a prince
Unless the subject matter is good and virtuous.

[638–44] ‘You know very well that he who intends to build a house
Doesn’t go straight to it without any advance planning,
If he’s wise, for it [the house] is first previewed,
Proposed, forecast and planned with his inner eye,
How it might be constructed, or else everything is ruined.
Certainly, for lack of good foresight
Things go wrong which might have gone just right.

[645–51] ‘This example can be a good model to follow
In your own poetry. You won’t rush, I’m sure,
Straight to your pen and work with it hastily,
Before you’ve considered everything and have a good idea
Of what you’re going to write. Oh Thomas, the fool
Often suffers because of lack of a good plan,
But no one who is wise has suffered like this,

[652–58] ‘Because they are very aware, before they write or speak,
What should be done and what left. Whoever will govern
Themselves wisely, nothing will burst out from them
With undue haste or with rash carelessness.’
‘My friend, that’s true. Oh now let’s have your help
And assistance. What shall I write, I ask you.
May you search and seek within your wise understanding.’

[659–65] He stood for a long time in deep thought,
And afterwards he set out his opinion like this:
‘Thomas, in the absence of any better insight, I think it’s right,
Since we’re now in the holy season of Lent,
During which it befits everyone to repent
Of their sins and for their wickedness,
For you to be sorry for your guilt and make confession,

[666–72] ‘And make atonement for it.
You know very well that often you have imputed
Great blame and reproach to women. Beware in case they pay you back!
Your words finding fault with them, with which you’ve painted black over
White, would fill an eight-bushel sack*,
You’ve written so many things
Which they haven’t forgiven or forgotten.

[673–79] ‘Now write something in honour and praising
Of them. In this way you can make amends
For some part of your offence and misconduct.
They don’t think fondly of you at all.
Now therefore the choice is yours
As to whether you prefer to win their love back
Or remain just where you are, out of their love and favour,

[680–86] ‘Be careful, I advise: choose the better option.
Believe me, these women are fierce and wise.
It requires great skill and art to please them.
Where there’s no fire made, no smoke can arise.
But you have often, if you think it over carefully,
Made smoky embers and yet, despite all that guilt,
You can re-find their favour, if you wish.

[687–93] ‘By having an obedient heart and through submission
To their graces, confessing yourself blameworthy,
You can have pardon, and remission of your sins,
And create something suitably delightful for them.
You aren’t able to do battle with them.
So make your spirit humble, don’t be inwardly rebellious.
They’ve made better men than you suffer.

[694–700] ‘I take the Wife of Bath as my authoritative source*
That women aren’t best pleased
When men make any allegation of wickedness against them.
I know it’s true, what she says, or something a bit like that.
Surrender yourself, Thomas, by the words you’ll write.
Even as you have offended them with your writing,
Just so let it be put right by writing.’

[701–07] ‘My friend, even if I do that, what delight or pleasure
Will my lord [i.e. Duke Humphrey] find in that? None, I think.’
‘Yes, Thomas, yes, his desire and his delight
Is, as is very fitting for someone of his high status,
To have respectable and friendly conversation with ladies
For his pleasure and gaiety,
And he will perhaps show them this book of yours.

[708–14] ‘And since he is your good lord, he may perhaps
Be such an intercessor for you that they’ll
All the more easily forgive you. Put my advice
To the test. Let’s see, it can’t harm you.
That’s what I would do if I were in the same plight as you.
Swear to it, hand on heart, if that’s what you’re going to do,
Or give it up. I haven’t got anything else to say on this.

[715–21] ‘But though you bow your heart to women,
Begging their pardon with great repentance
For your sins, I won’t allow you
To submit to such a rule and such conduct
As they would advise you, for there might
Follow from that such great harm, perhaps,
That you might repent it for ever, dear Thomas.

[722–28] ‘Adam was deceived by Eve’s advice,
And certainly just so was she by the serpent,
To whom God said, “This woman will
Break your head, for by means of your enticing
She has broken my commandment.”
Now, since woman has such power from/over* the devil,
It seems quite easy for them to break a man’s head.

[729–35] ‘Therefore let no husband think it a shame
Or a reproof to him, or a discourtesy,
Even if his wife does that self-same thing to him.
Their way of thinking demands they have mastery over men.
Even though holy scripture witnesses and testifies
That men should have control over them,
When put to the test the reverse is true.

[736–42] ‘He [the husband] should down tools and settle back,
For women won’t agree in any way
With that point or with that conclusion.’
‘Thomas, how are things between you and your wife?’
‘Well, well,’ I said, ‘why do you want to know?
My wife might well have contempt and feel scorn
If I should play the part of the loner in this situation.’

[743–49] ‘Now, Thomas, if you want to have an easy life,
Hunt down women’s benevolence.
Though it’s hard to get, it’s good to please them,
For it’ll prove painful to encounter their displeasure.
Whatever they say, take it all patiently.
You aren’t any better off now, Thomas, than
Your forefathers were before. Therefore take good care.’

[750–56] ‘My friend, I agree it proves troublesome to anger women,
But, in the name of Him who died [i.e. Christ], what have I done wrong?
I haven’t done anything, I dare to boast,
Which should cause me to slip or slide out of women’s graces.’
‘Yes, Thomas, yes, in the Letter of Cupid
You have spoken about them so intemperately
That they are livid with anger and not best pleased.’

[757–63] ‘My friend, without a doubt there is somewhat therein
Which speaks very little to their honour,
But as for that, now, for the sake of your father’s family,
Remember that I wasn’t the author
In that particular case but merely a reporter
Of people’s stories. Whatever they said, I wrote.
God knows I didn’t myself make claims against them [i.e. women].

[764–70] ‘Whoever intends to report someone’s words,
Whatever one person says, the other must say and not change,
For, if he does, he acts against the law
Of truth. He can’t contradict those words.
Whoever says that I am their [i.e. women’s] adversary
And that I dispraise their character and behaviour,
Because I made such statements about them,

[771–77] ‘He’s wrongly advised and also to blame.
When I said it I spoke in the manner of a complaint.
I intended neither reproof nor shame to them.
What kind of world is this? How I am misunderstood?
Look in that same book. What hostile blow came anywhere near them?
Whoever looks properly therein can see
That they [i.e. women] ought to hold me in great affection,

[778–84] ‘And otherwise I’ll never know what’s what.
The book virtuously reaches a conclusion in their favour,
It’s true, doesn’t it, my dear friend?’
‘Thomas, I’ve no idea, for I’ve never seen it to this day.’
‘No, my friend?’ ‘No, Thomas.’ ‘Well, I think in truth
If you’d read it all the way to the end,
You’d say that it isn’t as you had anticipated.’

[785–91] ‘Thomas, whatever it says, do as I said:
Since it displeases them [i.e. women], make amends.
If some of them reproach you as a result of that,
You’ll be busy enough, I do declare,
With having to look out for yourself. Now I entrust you
To God, for I have to leave you now.
May God send you the love and thanks of women!

[792–98] ‘I intend to visit you from time to time
Before your book is fully finished,
For I’d hate that you should write anything
As a result of which you might receive any ill will,
And for that reason I will supervise it [the book].
And, Thomas, now goodbye and farewell.
You will find me as true as steel.’

[799–805] When he had gone, I feared in my heart
To stand outside of women’s benevolence,
And so, to fulfil that which he had advised me to do,
I prepared myself to do my best and make an effort
To regain their love through my obedience.
Though I can’t embellish my words very well,
Lo, here’s the form of how I obey them.

[806–12] My dear ladies all, as I hope for God’s blessing,
I can’t understand why you have been moved to anger.
My guilt is nowhere near fully grown,
Although you judge and believe me to be your enemy.
Let the crow bite me* if I’m anything other than your friend.
I’m entirely different to you than what you think of me.
The truth has and will be demonstrated by my writing.

[813–19] But nevertheless, I meekly submit myself
To your good virtues, as far as they find room
Within you. It may be fitting to me, a wretch,
To ask for pardon, though I haven’t trespassed.
I prefer to do so with piteous face and gesture
And a meek spirit, than that you make open war
Against me and get the better of me.

[820–26] A story which I also recently saw in the Gesta
Romanorum
*, in honour and pleasure
Of you, my ladies (as I must needs do
Or fearfully run away to France, though
I’m not exactly designed for riding around and spurring on my horse)
I will translate and that will, I hope, wash away
My guilt as cleanly as soap cleans handkerchiefs.

Notes

* Line 77: The second half of this line, ‘there he scilence excusith’, is difficult to translate. Ellis’s glosses suggests an alternative: ‘where by silence he excuses himself’.

* Line 106: To wash coins is to bathe them in some kind of acid.

* Line 122: A noble is an English gold coin usually equivalent to six shilling and eight pence.

* Line 264: I.e. Fortune’s wheel.

* Line 485: The  original Middle English ‘taastid’ puns on both of these meanings.

* Line 561: I.e. Vegetius’s De re militari, a treatise concerning military matters.

* Line 574: I.e. Henry of Grosmont, first Duke of Lancaster (c. 1310–1361). His younger daughter Blanche was Duke Humphrey’s grandmother.

* Line 597: Humphrey’s name is said to echo the French words homme ferai, i.e. ‘I shall make man’.

* Line 670: I.e. a large sack capable of holding a quarter (equivalent to eight bushels).

* Line 694: Hoccleve invents the feminine noun auctrice as a name for a woman being treated as an authoritative written source, equivalent to the masculine noun auctor.

* Line 727: The Middle English original, ‘had of the feend swich might’, has both of these meanings.

* Line 810: I.e. ‘may the carrion crow feed on my corpse’.

* Line 821: The title of the Gesta Romanorum (meaning ‘The Deeds of the Romans’) is misleading as this story collection features not only narratives from Latin and Greek myth and history but also stories from across Europe and Asia. The collection was used as source material for sermons, the stories usually being accompanied in the Gesta by an allegorical Christian interpretation.