‘Love’s Arrow’ – a translation of Chaucer

© Morgan Library, New York

 
 
 

The below is a translation by Mark McGuinness of a section of Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic poem re-telling, in Middle English, the tragic story of the lovers Troilus and Criseyde amid the Trojan War and the siege of Troy.

 
The original Middle English follows Mark’s translation.
 


 
 

    Love’s Arrow

 

Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, Book I, 155-238

 

And so it happened, just as April’s time
Had come, when the meadows are all dressed
In newest green, in Spring’s delighted prime,
With sweetly-scented flowers white and red,
In many different ways, so I have read,
The Trojan people kept their ancient custom
To mark the feast of their Palladium.

And to the temple in their best array
To take part in Athena’s sacred rites
The best part of the townsfolk made their way,
Which is to say, so many dashing knights,
So many ladies fair and maidens bright,
Each, ranked from great to middling to the least,
Dressed up for both the season and the feast.

Criseyde took her place among the burghers
In widow’s black attire; but nonetheless,
Just as the A is first among our letters,
So she was first in beauty, measureless.
Her goodly looks delighted all the press.
There never was a thing esteemed so dear,
Nor under pitch-black clouds so bright a star

As Criseyde, in the eyes of everyone
Who saw her, head to toe in deepest black.
And yet she kept herself apart, alone
Behind the others, in a little gap
Just by the door; modesty held her back,
Simple of dress and courteous of manner,
Composed in her expression and demeanour.

Troilus, the way he always liked to guide
His young companions, led them up and down
Within the temple’s courts on every side,
Beholding all the ladies of the town,
Now here, now there; he had no fixed devotion
To any that might rob him of his ease,
But praised and tore to pieces whom he pleased.

And as he walked he kept a watchful eye
In case a member of his company
Began to sigh or let his eyes alight
On any woman whom he chanced to see;
Then he would smile and think it lunacy
And say to him: ‘God knows she’s sleeping soft
For love of you, although you turn and toss!

‘By God, I’ve heard about the way you live
You lovers, and your silly posturing,
And how much labour’s lost in winning love;
And in the keeping, how much worrying;
And when your prey is lost, what suffering.
You utter fools! Your joy will end in tears,
But warnings always fall upon deaf ears.’

And as he spoke these words he raised a brow,
As if to ask: ‘Is this not wisely spoken?’
At which the God of Love began to frown
Out of sheer spite, and aimed a vengeful stroke:
He showed at once His bow had not been broken
When suddenly His deadly arrow struck;
Even today, He’ll pluck so proud a peacock.

O foolish world, O groping, blind intention!
We often cause events we’re least prepared
To face, through arrogance and foul presumption;
The proud are caught, the meek are also snared.
So Troilus has ascended on the stair
And little guesses that he must descend,
For things are fickle on which fools depend.

Just as wilful Bayard starts to skip
Out of control, spurred on by too much corn,
Until he feels a lash from the snaking whip,
And thinks, ‘Although I like to prance before,
First in the harness, fat and freshly shorn,
I’m nothing but a horse, and must obey
The law of horses, bow and pull my weight,’

So fared it with this fierce and headstrong knight:
Although he was a great king’s son and heir,
And rashly thought that nothing had such might
To take hold of his heart against his power,
Yet with a single look his heart caught fire,
And he who had been most in pride above
Fell suddenly most subject unto Love.

And therefore take a warning from this man,
You wise and proud and worthy company,
Before you scorn great Love, who swiftly can
Enslave your hearts, which now you count so free;
For ever it was, and ever it shall be,
That Love is He who shackles every creature,
Since no one may repeal the law of Nature.

 
 


 
 


    Original text

 

Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, Book 1, 155-238

 

And so bifel, whan comen was the tyme
Of Aperil, whan clothed is the mede
With newe grene, of lusty Ver the pryme,
And swote smellen floures whyte and rede,
In sondry wyses shewed, as I rede,
The folk of Troye hir observaunces olde,
Palladiones feste for to holde.

And to the temple, in al hir beste wyse,
In general, ther wente many a wight,
To herknen of Palladion servyse;
And namely, so many a lusty knight,
So many a lady fresh and mayden bright,
Ful wel arayed, bothe moste and leste,
Ye, bothe for the seson and the feste.

Among thise othere folk was Criseyda,
In widewes habite blak; but nathelees,
Right as our firste lettre is now an A,
In beautee first so stood she, makelees;
Hir godly looking gladede al the prees.
Nas never seyn thing to ben preysed derre,
Nor under cloude blak so bright a sterre

As was Criseyde, as folk seyde everichoon
That hir behelden in hir blake wede;
And yet she stood ful lowe and stille alloon,
Bihinden othere folk, in litel brede,
And neigh the dore, ay under shames drede,
Simple of a-tyr, and debonaire of chere,
With ful assured loking and manere.

This Troilus, as he was wont to gyde
His yonge knightes, ladde hem up and doun
In thilke large temple on every syde,
Biholding ay the ladyes of the toun,
Now here, now there, for no devocioun
Hadde he to noon, to reven him his reste,
But gan to preyse and lakken whom him leste.

And in his walk ful fast he gan to wayten
If knight or squyer of his companye
Gan for to syke, or lete his eyen bayten
On any woman that he coude aspye;
He wolde smyle, and holden it folye,
And seye him thus, ‘god wot, she slepeth softe
For love of thee, whan thou tornest ful ofte!

‘I have herd told, pardieux, of your livinge,
Ye lovers, and your lewede observaunces,
And which a labour folk han in winninge
Of love, and, in the keping, which doutaunces;
And whan your preye is lost, wo and penaunces;
O verrey foles! nyce and blinde be ye;
Ther nis not oon can war by other be.’

And with that word he gan cast up the browe,
Ascaunces, ‘Lo! is this nought wysly spoken?’
At which the god of love gan loken rowe
Right for despyt, and shoop for to ben wroken;
He kidde anoon his bowe nas not broken;
For sodeynly he hit him at the fulle;
And yet as proud a pekok can he pulle.

O blinde world, O blinde entencioun!
How ofte falleth al theffect contraire
Of surquidrye and foul presumpcioun;
For caught is proud, and caught is debonaire.
This Troilus is clomben on the staire,
And litel weneth that he moot descenden.
But al-day falleth thing that foles ne wenden.

As proude Bayard ginneth for to skippe
Out of the wey, so priketh him his corn,
Til he a lash have of the longe whippe,
Than thenketh he, ‘Though I praunce al biforn
First in the trays, ful fat and newe shorn,
Yet am I but an hors, and horses lawe
I moot endure, and with my feres drawe.’

So ferde it by this fers and proude knight;
Though he a worthy kinges sone were,
And wende nothing hadde had swiche might
Ayens his wil that sholde his herte stere,
Yet with a look his herte wex a-fere,
That he, that now was most in pryde above,
Wex sodeynly most subget unto love.

For-thy ensample taketh of this man,
Ye wyse, proude, and worthy folkes alle,
To scornen Love, which that so sone can
The freedom of your hertes to him thralle;
For ever it was, and ever it shal bifalle,
That Love is he that alle thing may binde;
For may no man for-do the lawe of kinde.

 
 

Mark McGuinness

About Mark McGuinness

Mark McGuinness was awarded Third Prize in The Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry Translation (2016). His own poems have appeared in places including Ambit, Anthropocene, Brittle Star, Magma, Oxford Poetry, The Rialto and Stand. He hosts the poetry podcast A Mouthful of Air.