January 16, 2012

"Why grucchen we?"

Well asked, Chaucer!

I just finished The Knight's Tale, and it was quite a revelation. Having only read bits and pieces in college, I remembered The Canterbury Tales primarily as short stories with funny or bawdy themes. The Knight's Tale is long but also movingly philosophical, with passages reminiscent of Roman philosophy, Dante, even Chidiock Tichborne. Here is a passage where the god Saturn describes himself to a supplicant (followed by my rough translation):

'My cours, that hath so wyde for to turne,
Hath more power than wot any man.   
Myn is the drenching in the see so wan;
Myn is the prison in the derke cote;
Myn is the strangling and hanging by the throte;
The murmure, and the cherles rebelling,
The groyning, and the pryvee empoysoning:   
[. . .]
Myn is the ruine of the hye halles,
The falling of the toures and of the walles
Up-on the mynour or the carpenter.   
I slow Sampsoun in shaking the piler;
And myne be the maladyes colde,
The derke tresons, and the castes olde;  
My loking is the fader of pestilence.

My course, that has so wide to turn
Has more power than knows any man.
Mine is the drenching in the sea so wan;
Mine is the prison in the dark cell;
Mine is the strangling and hanging by the throat;
The murmur, and the churls' rebelling,
The groaning, and the private poisoning:
[. . .]
Mine is the ruin of the high halls,
The falling of the tours and of the walles
Upon the miner or the carpenter.
I slew Sampson in shaking the pile;
And mine be the maladies cold,
The dark treasons, and the plots old;
My face is the father of pestilence.

Yowza. That encantatory repetition, "Mine is the prison . . .  Mine is the strangling," is so powerful. And here is Theseus's father providing comfort to his son after the death of Arcite:

'Right as ther deyed never man,' quod he,
'That he ne livede in erthe in som degree,
Right so ther livede never man,' he seyde,   
'In al this world, that som tyme he ne deyde.
This world nis but a thurghfare ful of wo,
And we ben pilgrimes, passinge to and fro [. . .]'  

There is no man that died, quoth he,
That he didn't live on earth in some degree,
And there is no man that lived, he said,
In all this world, that at some point is not dead.
This world is but a thoroughfare full of woe,
And we are pilgrims, passing to and fro [. . .].

Later Theseus gives advice to Palamon and Emelye, the cousin and fiancee of Arcite, to enjoy life and, in fact, to marry rather than stew in grief:

This maistow understonde and seen at eye.
'Lo the ook, that hath so long a norisshinge  
From tyme that it first biginneth springe,  
And hath so long a lyf, as we may see,
Yet at the laste wasted is the tree.   
'Considereth eek, how that the harde stoon
Under our feet, on which we trede and goon,
Yit wasteth it, as it lyth by the weye.
The brode river somtyme wexeth dreye.
The grete tounes see we wane and wende.   
Than may ye see that al this thing hath ende.  
'Of man and womman seen we wel also,

This mayest thou understand and see at eye.
Lo the oak, that has so long a nourishing
From time that it first began to grow,
And hath so long a life, as we may see,
Yet at the last wasted is the tree.
Considereth also, how that the hard stone
Under our feet, on which we trod and go,
Yet wasteth it, as it lieth by the way.
The broad river sometimes grows dry.
The great towns see we wane and go.
Then may ye see that all things have end,
Of man and woman see we well also.

There is something so evocative about the phrasing of "wasted is the tree." Theseus concludes that we should not lament fate:

'Thanne is it wisdom, as it thinketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee,
And take it wel, that we may nat eschue,
And namely that to us alle is due.
[. . .]
The contrarie of al this is wilfulnesse.
Why grucchen we? why have we hevinesse,
That good Arcite, of chivalrye flour
Departed is, with duetee and honour,   
Out of this foule prison of this lyf?

Then it is wisdom, as thinketh me,
To make virtue of necessity,
And take it well, that we may not eschew,
All that to us is due.
[. . .]
The contrary of all this is willfulness.
Why complain we? Why have we heaviness,
That good Arcite, of chivalry the flower,
Departed is, with duty and honor,
Out of the foul prison of this life.

I just love "Why grucchen we?" And I wonder if Chaucer is the author of the now well-known phrase "to make a virtue of necessity," or if this was already a saying that he simply employs here like an adage.

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