Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, lines 792–1043

Jenni Nuttall’s translation series continues with an excerpt from Hoccleve’s most widely-copied poem, The Regiment of Princes.

The Regiment of Princes, a guide to how a prince should rule himself and his kingdom, was written for Prince Henry (the future Henry V) by the Privy Seal clerk Thomas Hoccleve in 1410-11. In the long prologue to the work, we learn much about Hoccleve’s own life and preoccupations. After a sleepless night worrying about the sudden reversals of fortune he sees in the world around him, Hoccleve goes walking on the fields near Chester’s Inn, his lodgings on the Strand. He meets an old man who thinks he can alleviate Hoccleve’s distress if Hoccleve tells him what is the matter. In this extract, Hoccleve describes for the old man the causes of his anxiety. He sets out the harsh treatment of army veterans, his worries about the payment of his pension, and the physical damage done to his body by many years copying government documents in the Office of the Privy Seal.

The original Middle English can be consulted in Charles Blyth’s edition, freely available on the TEAMS Middle English Texts website.

“…if I’m going to tell you the truth,
It’s the failure to cherish old men
Which is the cause and ground of all my worry
And the reason for my wretched anxiety.
I’ll explain to you, if you’d like to know,
The source of my difficulty.”
“Yes, carry on, for Christ’s sake,” he [the Old Man] said,

“Except firstly, before you go any further,
I’d like to know one thing about you, my boy:
Where do you live?” “Father, indeed
I live in the Office of the Privy Seal
And write — my duties and way of life
Are dedicated to the Seal, and have been
For twenty-four years come Easter, which is soon.”

“Now certainly, son, that’s a good amount of years;
That’s a good omen for your ongoing support.
Come here, good chap, and sit down next to me,
For I must rest a while; it’s torture
For me to walk so far — it does a mischief
To my crooked, feeble old limbs,
Which are so stiff that I can hardly bend them.”

When I had sat down as he had asked me,
“Carry on,” he said, “what’s going on with you exactly?”
And I began my story and spoke like this:
“My liege lord, who is the king now,
I find him gracious enough to me;
He has — God bless his soul — for my long service
Rewarded me in suitable fashion.

“In the Exchequer, he, through a special favour,
Has granted to me an annuity
Of twenty marks for as long as I live.
If I were always paid what’s owed to me
Things would stand well enough with me,
But payment is hard to get these days,
And that frightens me in all sorts of ways.

“Things get very meagre and austere before I’m paid.
If I were sure it would be fully paid
From year to year, then, God preserve me,
My deep-rooted hardship would be put right
Completely. But how shall I be protected
Afterwards, when I no longer work?
This burdens me so much that I very nearly die.

“For since I’m in my younger years now,
And, being a member of court, am hardly paid
Even with great effort, I think when I’m old and out of court
My purse will be a scabbard for a mere farthing;
See, my father, this wearies me to death.
Now may God help us all, for unless he saves me
My future years are likely to be bitter.”

“Service, I know well, is no guarantee.
When I am out of court in days to come,
As I must be when age hastens upon me
And when I can work no longer,
To my humble cottage — there’s no escape —
I must retreat and await my lot
And suffer the storm after the happy time.

“There I will prove true the changeability
Of this miserable world’s affections,
Which, when youth has passed, begin to flee.
Goodbye friendship! Farewell, love!
Old age gets ejected from your protection;
His unattractive looks and his feebleness
Quench your love and your kindness.

“That blow-to-come is in my mind so deeply
Fixed and has taken such root
That all my joy and fun is put to sleep;
My ship is almost fully loaded with despair.
Those who cannot learn from or be taught
By such painful examples that they’ve seen themselves,
Are, I think, definitely utterly blind.

“Alas! I see sympathy and pity exiled
Out of this land. Alas, compassion!
When shall you three be reunited with us?
Your absence brings about my grievous suffering;
Return, I beg you, to this part of the world;
O come again! The lack of your presence
Threatens to end me in destitution.

“O fickle world, alas for your changeability!
How many worthy men one can see nowadays
Who once in the old wars against France
Were honoured and held in great affection
For their bravery in fighting, and had plenty
Of friends in their youth, and now, for shame,
Alas, their friendship is crooked and lame!

“Now decrepit age banishes the favour
Which blooming youth conquered in his time;
Now all forgotten is the manly labour
Through which they often terrified their foes.
Now those worthy men are beaten with the rod
Of poverty, alas, and no one has pity on them;
Pity I think is buried, that’s the truth.

“If she [Pity] is dead, I pray that God have her soul,
And so will many more pray afterwards, I think.
He that aspires to the highest nobility,
If he lacks her, he shall truly learn and know
That her foe Cruelty will permit him
To live in any prosperity for only a little while.
A compassionate heart is healthy for body and soul.

“You old men of war, who have known
By sight and by reputation their praiseworthiness,
Let hardship not overwhelm those men like this;
Demonstrate your manly courtesy through them.
You young men, who also engage in feats
Of arms, honour your venerable forerunners;
Help them yourself or get them some help.

“Chivalry, wake up! You’ve slept for too long;
Your brother, look, nearly dies of hardship;
Wake up and have pity on his harsh anguish.
If in the future you arrive at such a circumstance,
You will very painfully thirst for relief;
You can’t be sure what will happen to you.
Prosperity is very treacherous; be careful lest you fall.

“You who have risen high in estimation
And have this world’s good fortune at your fingertips,
And luxuriate now in the prime of flourishing youth;
Beware, I warn, you stand on ice.
It’s been seen before, those as happy and wise
As you have slid; and you who have no pity
For other people, who will have pity for you?

“Believe me, there is no one on earth
Who has such guaranteed good fortune but
That it may fail, whatever he might do.
God visits people and smites however he likes;
Therefore I think and consider it virtue and wisdom
For those of high rank to know both God and themselves,
And support those that hardship has thrown down.

“God wants the needy to be provided for;
It is one of the works of mercy.
And since those men who have been proved in war
Have fallen into poverty, in truth
You men of arms ought particularly
To help them. Alas! Don’t you have any feeling of pity
Which might move you to do them good?

“O now in earnest, my dear father,
Those worthy men show me a warning
Of fickle friendship, and to what end
I’ll arrive at within a few years.
I hack and chop at this depressing worry
And fret so much that I very nearly go mad,
And would rather die than had lived.

“Indeed, father, my income, beyond
The annuity that I told you about before,
Will not exceed six marks each year
At any time. That presses on my heart so cruelly,
When I look around and consider
How little that is, if that other income is lacking,
That I cannot rejoice but mourn and wail.

“And as far as I can predict or guess,
When I live at home in my humble cottage
I will find unreliability as friendly
As those men do now whose friendship has rotted.
I would not care as much as a dust mote
If I never had more annual income,
If I might always be paid without uncertainty.

“Two parts of my life and much more
I am sure I have lived – I don’t doubt it;
And if in my grey years I should
Lose the money owed that I have paid for
With my flesh and blood, that depressing thought
(Which I constantly worry will happen as I imagine it)
Hastens me quickly to the brink of my grave.

“Lacking, dear father, my annuity,
Distress and sorrow creep into me hot-footed,
For, if money is wanting, those who have known me
Beforehand will disappoint me also.
He who has no money is far from his friends.
All of this world’s friendship relies on grubby money.
My spirit is enveloped in a gloomy fear.

“If I had had always before this moment
Lived in poverty’s wretchedness,
It would affect me less henceforth;
But in my old age to wrestle with hardship,
Me who never struggled with him in the greenness
Of youth – that transformation and change
Should seem very strange to me in the future.

“He who never knew the delight of prosperity,
Though he always might lack it, it will grieve him the less
Than he who has been wealthy for many years
And in truth has felt no grief at all.
O poverty, may God protect me from your misfortune!
O death! Your stroke is still more welcome
To me than to live a life so miserable.

“Six marks yearly and no more than that,
Father, it seems to me that is very little for me,
Considering how I’m not
Experienced in farming more than a smidgen;
I could hardly chase away the kite [a bird of prey]
Which would want to deprive me of my chickens,
And agricultural management requires much more:

“I cannot work with a plough nor with a harrow,
Nor know which land is good for which corn,
And as regards loading a cart or filling a barrow,
Which I was never used to doing before,
My unwilling back has forsworn such things,
At the urging of writing, his persecutor:
Stopping for that has ruined him with its labour.

“Many men, father, believe that writing
Isn’t work; they consider it nothing but a game;
Such an art has no enemy except for those ignorant people.
But whoever wishes to amuse himself doing just that,
Let him continue and he’ll find it a drag;
It is much harder work than it seems;
The blind man evaluates colours all wrongly.

“A writer must yoke three things to himself,
And among those there can be no separation;
Mind, eye and hand – no one of those can escape from the other,
But persistence must be united in them;
The mind must entirely, without wandering,
Always serve the eye and hand,
And those two also serve him, there’s no denying it.

“Whoever will write cannot share a conversation
With him and him, nor sing this or that;
But all his whole wits, great and small,
Must show up there and keep themselves on task;
And since he cannot speak nor sing
But must need forgo both of those,
His labour is the more tedious.

“I see these workmen day after day,
In the most energetic bits of their labour,
Talking and singing and making fun and games,
And their work passes by with cheerfulness;
Yet we work in laborious stillness:
We stoop and stare upon the sheep’s skin
And must keep our song and our words in.

“Writing also causes three great harms,
Which very few people pay attention to
Except we ourselves, and listen, these are them:
Stomach is one, which stooping doubtless
Greatly harms; and to our backs it is
Inevitably damaging; and the third our eyes
Endure much pain staring upon the white.

“The man who has three and twenty years and more
Has remained as a copyist, as I have,
I dare well say, it pains him very greatly
In every vein and part of his body;
And it hurts eyes the most, to tell the truth,
Of any occupation that you can think of.
Father, I promise you, it has nearly ruined mine.

“Thus, father, I have told you the cause
Of all my distress, as far as I can explain.
But I’m sure that it has been great penance
For you to stay with me for so long;
I am very certain it has been a hell
For you to listen to me chatter and chunter,
So ignorantly I tangle myself up in my rhetoric.

“But nevertheless I trust your forbearance
Will accept all my words favourably,
And what I have misspoken through negligence,
You will let it slip aside and fall.
My dear father, I appeal to your grace:
You understand my worry, now advise me for the best,
Without whom my spirit can have no rest.”