In another entry in her ongoing translation series, Jenni Nuttall translates Hoccleve’s La Male Regle. The poem relates the story of the poet-narrator’s “unruly life,” offering a half-mocking confession of his office life by day and dissolute ways by night. As an autobiographical poem, it presages his later work in the prologue of the Regiment of Princes and the Series.
O precious treasure incomparable,
O ground and root of prosperity,
O excellent and praiseworthy splendour,
Beyond anything found on earth!
Who can hold out against your hostility?
Who can boast about their worldly success
Unless they enjoy your favour,
Earthly god, supporter of life, you Health?
While your energy and excellent strength
(As far as was pleasing to your honour)
Reigned in me and was my sovereign,
Then I was well, then I felt no distress,
Then I was stuffed with gladness of spirit,
And now my body is empty and bare
Of joy and full of troubling misery,
All poor in health and rich in tough times
If your kind favour is withdrawn from someone,
Their good health is meagre and their discomfort great.
Your love is life itself, your hate kills outright.
Who can complain about your departure
Better than I, who, through my own stupidity,
Am bound to Sickness, your mortal enemy.
Now I can tell celebration from penance,
Yet while I was yours I couldn’t do so at all.
My hardship and intense pain every day
So greatly troubles and torments me
That I can now undoubtedly remember what you are,
And what benefit there is in following your teachings.
If I had understood your power a long time ago,
As now your foe forces me to understand,
His lime would not have stuck to my coat
For all his cunning, nor would have floored me like this.
But I have heard people say long ago
That prosperity is blind and cannot see,
And I can verify without a doubt that that is true,
For I myself have put it to the test.
When I was well, did I take heed of that? No:
What I longed for was novelty,
Like those in years young yearn for day by day —
And now my suffering makes clear my folly.
My stupid youth didn’t know what it did,
I’m sure of that, when she parted from you;
But through her ignorance she considered only herself
And didn’t realise that she was dwelling with you;
For it would be very foolish for someone
To knowingly offend their lord or friend,
In case the force of his hostility
Overpowers the fool and makes an end of him.
From now on I’ll pay my respects
To your name and hold my land direct from you,
And make war and fierce resistance
Against your enemy and mine, that cruel thief,
Who pins me down under foot in misfortune,
So that you’ll reunite me with your grace.
O now your help, your comfort and aid,
And I’ll exile my misrule for ever!
Unless your mercy surpasses my misdeeds,
The fierce attacks of your hostility
Will overwhelm me with their violence.
It’s no wonder though that you’re hostile to me:
My misguided desires have caused you to war
With me because of my folly and shamelessness;
Therefore, I, a wretch, may curse and damn
The offspring and progeny of immature wisdom,
For Youth generally rebels
Against Reason and hates her teaching,
The which instruction doesn’t sit well
With Youth, in every way one might imagine.
O Youth, alas, why won’t you submit
And bow down to the rule of Reason?
Since Reason is the true straight line
Which leads people to happiness.
It’s very rarely apparent that Youth takes heed
Of dangers which are likely to occur,
Because, once he has decided something, it must
Happen, he won’t listen to any advice —
He judges his own thinking the best of all —
And straightaway he runs off aimlessly,
Like he who can’t tell the difference between sweet
And bitter, nor the war from the peace.
He despises everyone else’s thinking:
They don’t match his frame of mind at all.
Only his rash brain is good enough for him:
His proud arrogance doesn’t wish to agree
To behave just as Solomon wrote and intended,
Who advised people to act according to counsel.
Now, Youth, now you’ll really repent,
Your benighted brains are dull, dark of reason!
My friends said to me very often
That my misrule would cause me misfortune,
And advised me, in kind and gentle ways,
To give it up little by little;
But that might not sink into my mind,
So was the desire deep-rooted in my soul.
And I am now so ready for my grave
That I can hardly escape from it.
For whoever has clear vision and cannot see
The functioning of the eye is of very little use.
Just so, since Reason is given to me
In order to distinguish a virtue from a vice,
If I cannot get along with Reason
But intentionally leave Reason’s service,
It’s no surprise that I have no kindness
From her nor no favour under her law.
Reason told me and advised me for the best
To eat and drink in moderation in those days;
But wilful Youth doesn’t like to conform
To that advice nor value it at all.
I have enjoyed them both extravagantly
And inappropriately. Not for two or three years
But for twenty winters past without a break,
Excess has laid his place at the table with me.
The habits of my stopping-only-when-full,
My greedy mouth, the receiver of such excess,
And my two hands, as my negligence well knows,
Have led me here and brought me into the service
Of her who attacks every age group,
Sickness, I mean, the scourge of rioters,
Who has paid me my wages very generously,
So that neither dancing nor leaping please me.
The street sign and the lure of Bacchus
(Which hangs outside his door every day)
Entices people to take a sip of his liquid
So often that they can hardly say no.
As for me, I say that I was always inclined
To rush there without a second thought
Unless such a burden lay upon my back
That I must decline it for a while,
Or unless I were poverty stricken
By virtue of the penniless disease,
For then I could not be happy in my spirit
Nor had any desire to rush to Bacchus’s house.
Damn! Lack of money drives away company,
Yet a heavy purse with a generous spirit
Quenches the thirsty heat of dry hearts,
Whereas a stingy heart doesn’t do much of that.
I dare not admit how the lively company
Of Venus’s pleasing dear young girls,
Who were so nice and shapely and pretty
And so charming in behaviour and manner,
And who could feed all a world with a smile,
And were very nicely decked out in their clothes,
Made me often show up at the Paul’s Head
To talk nonsense and to flirt and play.
There was plenty of sweet wine throughout the place,
And fat wafers, for this group
Of whom I speak are somewhat gluttonous:
Wherever they might see a drink of wine —
Sweet and in its effects really very warming,
With which to heat one’s stomach — they drank it.
It didn’t seem polite to let them pay for it:
I met that cost to gain love and thanks.
I had no direct contact with the business of love;
I didn’t know how, and also there was no need:
If I had a kiss, I was very happy with that,
Better than I would have been with the deed.
I only know a little bit about that, without a doubt:
When people spoke about it when I was around,
I grew as red as an ember for embarrassment.
But now let’s turn our attention to my moral meaning:
For he who haunts the tavern habitually,
To speak briefly, the ‘profit’ is this:
It will use up his money-bag twice over
And make his tongue speak wrongly about people;
For it’s seldomly found at the bottom of a glass
That anyone compliments his neighbour.
Look and see what he gains, he who
Offends God, his friend and also himself.
But I have one advantage in such matters:
I was so afraid to fight with anyone
That I kept myself quiet: I dared not find fault with anyone
Except when I spoke in a whisper, but nothing out loud.
And yet I was ready and willing, if I could
(Except for the impediment of my manly cowardice
Which always fixed me to the spot for fear of blows,
So that I dared not fight in any way.)
Where was there ever also a greater ‘Sir’ than me,
Or better known at Westminster Gate,
Especially among the taverns
And the cooks, whenever I turned up, early or late?
I found no fault with them regarding my purchases,
But paid them whatever they wanted to ask,
And therefore I was always the more welcome
And considered a real gentleman.
And if it happened one summer’s day
When I had been there at the tavern,
When I ought to leave and go on my way
Home to the Privy Seal, the heat
And reluctance and extravagance seduced me
So much to walk to the bridge and take a water-taxi
That I dared not go against all three of those,
But did as they provoked me, God knows.
And in the winter, because the road was waterlogged,
I also went straight to the bridge,
And there the boatmen paid attention to me,
For they had known my extravagance for many years:
I was pulled this way and that between them,
So happy would be he with whom I travelled,
For extravagance pays generously every time —
He doesn’t stop until his wallet is empty.
I was never called anything else but ‘Sir’
Among this crowd, at least in my earshot.
It seemed to me I was made a Somebody forever:
That enticing courtesy so tickled me
That it made me spend even more money
Than that which I had intended. O flattery,
The custom of your treacherous attentiveness
Is to hurry and hasten people into misfortune!
Although I’m only young in years,
Yet I have seen in high-ranking people
How the poison of flattery’s tongue
Has destroyed their prosperity
And brought them to such severe misfortune
That it has also ended their life,
And yet there is no one in this country
Who can hardly escape this confusion.
Many a servant says to his lord
That the whole world speaks respectfully about him,
When the opposite of that is true in fact.
Yet this flatterer is easily believed:
His honeyed words, wrapped about in lies,
Are stupidly believed, the more harmful they are.
O, flattery, author of lies,
You cause your lord to go wrong every day!
Those trouble-makers have been called enchanters
In books, as I have read in the past,
That is to say, cunning deceivers,
By whom the people are misdirected and misled
And so nurtured and fed with pleasure
That they forget themselves and cannot perceive
The reality of the way of life that’s developed for them,
No more than if their brains were in their heel.
Whoever likes to read in the book Of the Nature
Of Animals, he can see therein
(If he pays attention to the writing)
Where it talks about the mermaids in the sea,
How deeply pleasingly she sings
So that the shipman falls asleep at that
And afterwards he is devoured by her:
It’s good for people to guard against such songs.
Just so the deceiving words of flattery
Are harmful later, though they please for a time,
To those who rule themselves unwisely.
Lords, beware, don’t let flattery ensnare you!
If you have been enveloped in sin,
You cannot judge correctly how people talk about you.
Whether flattery embellishes her tale in prose or rhyme,
It is very wholesome to trust her not at all.
Holcot also says about the Book of
Wisdom (as it is makes very clear),
When Ulysses sailed back and forth
Past mermaids, this was his strategy:
The ears of all the men in his company
He had blocked with wax, so that they
Should not hear their song, in case their harmony
Might have bring them to such deadly sleep,
And bound himself to the ship’s mast:
Look, thus his wisdom saved them all.
The wise man is very afraid of danger.
O flattery, o lurking pestilence!
If anyone took care and diligence
To close his ears against your poetry,
And would not listen to a word of your meaning,
It would be a cure for his troubles.
Yet, no quite: even if your tongue was lost
You could still deceive in expression and behaviour:
You support your lord’s words with looks
On each subject at every moment,
Even when they are not worth much at all;
And thus your manner, in public and private,
With word and look among our nobleman here
Is preferred, though that’s not much deserved.
But when the sober, truthful and prudent servant,
Informs his lord plainly with a serious expression
How his government is despised
By the people and tells him what they say,
As a loyal subject ought to his sovereign,
Counselling him to improve his government,
The lord’s heart swells with anger
And commands him to leave quickly with good riddance.
People don’t value truth nowadays,
They don’t love it, they won’t nurture it,
And yet truth is the best in every situation.
Yet when false flattery, sustainer of vice,
Doesn’t know how to fend for herself,
Truth will very boldly raise up her head.
Lords, in case flattery snatches wellbeing from you,
Don’t let her nestle in your ear any longer!
That’s as maybe, no more of this for now,
But I will now turn to my misrule,
Wherein I was comfortably enough off
Before extravagance was beloved and dear to me,
And when, before I understood his true purpose,
My wallet had reasonable hopes for coins;
But now nothing much hardly appears in there:
Extravagance has exiled nearly every one of them.
The devil and extravagance are interchangeable,
As my imagination dictates to me.
This is my logic, if it’s satisfactory:
Excess of food and drink is gluttony;
Gluttony awakens melancholy;
Melancholy engenders war and strife;
Strife causes mortal harm through her folly —
Thus extravagance can deprive a soul of life.
But no matter about all of this: let’s head to
Staying out all night beyond anything reasonable;
For in that I could find no equal
In all the Privy Seal to last as long as me;
And I always paid close attention to my glass,
So that the drink should not grow stale.
But when the jug was empty of liquid,
I didn’t think about waking up afterwards,
But when the glass had thus satisfied my desire,
And somewhat more than what was needed really,
I went to my bed with urges fulfilled,
And wallowed there in overindulgence.
But in the morning there was no one of any sort
So loathe as I to depart from my bed
For anything I know. Yet wait: let me think!
I’m sure I could touch on two just as reluctant.
I dare not say that Prentice and Arundel
Copy me perfectly and can match me in such late nights,
But often they love their beds so well
That the day has nearly reached prime
Before they get up — I can’t tell the time
When they go to bed, as it’s so late.
O Health, lord, you see them in that misbehaviour
And yet you are reluctant to take it up with them,
And why, I don’t know: it’s not fitting for me,
Who is an example of debauchery and extravagance,
To know all about a god’s secrets,
But thus I imagine and thus I guess:
You are moved, through tender graciousness,
To spare them, and don’t want to chastise them
Because they, in happiness and virtuous gladness,
Console noblemen in various ways.
But now to my purpose: since that my sickness
Of body as well as wallet, has restrained
Me from the tavern and other extravagances,
Among that crowd my name is now sullied,
My painful losses are lamented very little,
But rather they complain about the lack of my spending.
Alas, that I was ever bound and chained
To extravagance, or did him obedience!
Generous spending enhances a man’s reputation
While it lasts and when it is over and done with
His name is dead: people keep their mouths closed,
As if he had not spent even a penny beforehand.
My thanks are ended, my purse has lost his contents,
And my carcass filled with misery.
Be careful, Hoccleve, I warn you therefore,
And set yourself to a moderate way of life.
Whoever desires excessively
(As ancient wise scholars testify)
Often burdens and troubles himself many times;
And therefore let moderation be sufficient for you.
If such a thought rises in your heart
As might damage your wellbeing or your reputation,
If it were put into practice in any way,
You must thrust it down with manly reason!
Your annual income, as well you know,
Is too scarce to sustain large expenditure;
And in your larder, in truth, is nothing but cold leftovers,
And from your manual labour, I’m certain,
Your reward is such that it is hardly to be seen
Or felt, and of gifts I say also the same;
And to steal, for the punishment is so fierce,
You wouldn’t dare, nor neither beg for shame.
Then it would seem that you have borrowed
Much of that which you have already spent
In indulgence and extravagance and complete excess.
Remind yourself that that which is lent
Must rightfully be sent home again;
You have no perpetual ownership of that.
Pay your debts in case that you are punished,
And before you are compelled to do so.
Some people in this situation more fear offending
Other people, because of tricky legal wrangles,
Than he fears either God or his own conscience,
For he doesn’t give a fig for both of those two.
If you have a thought like this, you should dispel it,
I advise, and expel it completely from your heart;
And be in awe first of God and then of humankind,
In case they both cause you to pay the penalty.
Now let this hardship be a warning to you,
And if you might afterwards be invigorated
In body and wallet, so you should conduct yourself
Wisely so that you are no more harmed like this.
You have tested and proved what extravagance is.
He who has been burned dreads the fire, as everyone says.
And if you do just this, you are rightly inclined:
Be a fool no longer now, I advise you.
Eh, what am I like, who have chattered
To myself for so long? I think I’m raving mad.
But not quite: my empty wallet and terrible hardships
Have driven me to speak as I have spoken.
Whoever intends to beg for mercy for himself
Must repeat his lesson in various ways;
And while my breath might stir in my body,
I am hardly up to the job of declaring it.
O god! O Health! To your government,
Blessed lord, I meekly submit myself.
I am contrite and fully repentant
That I ever immersed myself in such foolishness
As was displeasing to your divine power.
Now show your mercy and your grace through me!
It is fitting for a god to be generous with his favour:
Forgive me, and I will never sin again.
My body and wallet have been sick both together,
And for them both, I to your high majesty,
As humbly as I am able, plead
With a sincere heart: have pity on our hardship,
Have pity on my bitter misery,
Relieve the penitent in distress,
Spend a drop of your generosity on me
Just in this way, if it please and amuse you.
Indeed, let my Lord Furnivall, I pray,
My noble lord who is now Treasurer,
Have a token or two from Your Highness
To pay me what is due for this year
Of my yearly ten pounds in the Exchequer,
Only for Michaelmas term most recently:
I dare not say a word about years gone by,
My soul is so downcast and truly afraid.
I don’t want to be seen as importunate
In my petition — I am very reluctant about it —
And yet that practice is rife and widespread
Among the people now, unquestionably.
Just as the shameless beggar wants, it happens,
For royalty cannot refuse all the time,
Yet the humble and shy person is often dismayed,
Therefore I must learn how to beg.
The proverb says ‘the silent man gets no land’.
Whoever is assailed by need and will not speak
And, through timidity, forgets his own self,
It’s no wonder that someone else forgets him.
Poverty has no rules, as the scholars discuss,
And thus my need compels me to beg;
And justice also demands that I intervene
Because I ask for what is due, so help me God!
And that which is due, your magnificence
Would be ashamed to refuse, I’m sure.
Like I said, have pity on my poverty,
On me who is likely to die before the day is out
Unless you help me in this way.
With money I can get such medicine
As can utterly banish all of the hardships
That grieve me, and empty me of pain.