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Alexander Pope (1688–1744). Complete Poetical Works. 1903.

Paraphrases from Chaucer

The Wife of Bath

  • Her Prologue
  • Not published until 1714, but naturally classified with January and May, and not improbably the product of the same period.

  • BEHOLD the woes of matrimonial life,

    And hear with rev’rence an experienced wife;

    To dear-bought wisdom give the credit due,

    And think for once a woman tells you true.

    In all these trials I have borne a part:

    I was myself the scourge that caus’d the smart;

    For since fifteen in triumph have I led

    Five captive husbands from the church to bed.

    Christ saw a wedding once, the Scripture says,

    And saw but one, ’t was thought, in all his days;

    Whence some infer, whose conscience is too nice,

    No pious Christian ought to marry twice.

    But let them read, and solve me if they can,

    The words address’d to the Samaritan:

    Five times in lawful wedlock she was join’d,

    And sure the certain stint was ne’er defin’d.

    ‘Increase and multiply’ was Heav’n’s command,

    And that ’s a text I clearly understand:

    This too, ‘Let men their sires and mothers leave,

    And to their dearer wives for ever cleave.’

    More wives than one by Solomon were tried,

    Or else the wisest of mankind’s belied.

    I ’ve had myself full many a merry fit,

    And trust in Heav’n I may have many yet;

    For when my transitory spouse, unkind,

    Shall die and leave his woful wife behind,

    I ’ll take the next good Christian I can find.

    Paul, knowing one could never serve our turn,

    Declared ’t was better far to wed than burn.

    There ’s danger in assembling fire and tow;

    I grant ’em that; and what it means you know.

    The same apostle, too, has elsewhere own’d

    No precept for virginity he found:

    ’T is but a counsel—and we women still

    Take which we like, the counsel or our will.

    I envy not their bliss, if he or she

    Think fit to live in perfect chastity:

    Pure let them be, and free from taint or vice;

    I for a few slight spots am not so nice.

    Heav’n calls us diff’rent ways; on these bestows

    One proper gift, another grants to those;

    Not every man’s obliged to sell his store,

    And give up all his substance to the poor:

    Such as are perfect may, I can’t deny;

    But by your leaves, Divines! so am not I.

    Full many a saint, since first the world began,

    Liv’d an unspotted maid in spite of man:

    Let such (a God’s name) with fine wheat be fed,

    And let us honest wives eat barley bread.

    For me, I ’ll keep the post assign’d by Heav’n,

    And use the copious talent it has giv’n:

    Let my good spouse pay tribute, do me right,

    And keep an equal reck’ning every night;

    His proper body is not his, but mine;

    For so said Paul, and Paul’s a sound divine.

    Know then, of those five husbands I have had,

    Three were just tolerable, two were bad.

    The three were old, but rich and fond beside,

    And toil’d most piteously to please their bride;

    But since their wealth (the best they had) was mine,

    The rest without much loss I could resign:

    Sure to be lov’d, I took no pains to please,

    Yet had more pleasure far than they had ease.

    Presents flow’d in apace: with showers of gold

    They made their court, like Jupiter of old:

    If I but smiled, a sudden youth they found,

    And a new palsy seiz’d them when I frown’d.

    Ye sov’reign Wives! give ear, and understand:

    Thus shall ye speak, and exercise command;

    For never was it giv’n to mortal man

    To lie so boldly as we women can:

    Forswear the fact, tho’ seen with both his eyes,

    And call your maids to witness how he lies.

    Hark, old Sir Paul! (’t was thus I used to say)

    Whence is our neighbour’s wife so rich and gay?

    Treated, caress’d, where’er she ’s pleas’d to roam—

    I sit in tatters, and immured at home.

    Why to her house dost thou so oft repair?

    Art thou so am’rous? and is she so fair?

    If I but see a cousin or a friend,

    Lord! how you swell and rage like any fiend!

    But you reel home, a drunken beastly bear,

    Then preach till midnight in your easy chair;

    Cry, wives are false, and every woman evil,

    And give up all that ’s female to the devil.

    If poor (you say), she drains her husband’s purse;

    If rich, she keeps her priest, or something worse;

    If highly born, intolerably vain,

    Vapours and pride by turns possess her brain;

    Now gaily mad, now sourly splenetic,

    Freakish when well, and fretful when she ’s sick.

    If fair, then chaste she-cannot long abide,

    By pressing youth attack’d on every side;

    If foul, her wealth the lusty lover lures,

    Or else her wit some fool-gallant procures,

    Or else she dances with becoming grace,

    Or shape excuses the defects of face.

    There swims no goose so gray, but soon or late

    She finds some honest gander for her mate.

    Horses (thou say’st) and asses men may try,

    And ring suspected vessels ere they buy;

    But wives, a random choice, untried they take,

    They dream in courtship, but in wedlock wake;

    Then, not till then, the veil’s remov’d away,

    And all the woman glares in open day.

    You tell me, to preserve your wife’s good grace,

    Your eyes must always languish on my face,

    Your tongue with constant flatt’ries feed my ear,

    And tag each sentence with ‘My life! my dear!’

    If by strange chance a modest blush be rais’d,

    Be sure my fine complexion must be prais’d.

    My garments always must be new and gay,

    And feasts still kept upon my wedding day.

    Then must my nurse be pleas’d, and fav’rite maid;

    And endless treats and endless visits paid

    To a long train of kindred, friends, allies:

    All this thou say’st, and all thou say’st are lies.

    On Jenkin, too, you cast a squinting eye:

    What! can your ’prentice raise your jealousy?

    Fresh are his ruddy cheeks, his forehead fair,

    And like the burnish’d gold his curling hair.

    But clear thy wrinkled brow, and quit thy sorrow;

    I ’d scorn your ’prentice should you die to-morrow.

    Why are thy chests all lock’d? on what design?

    Are not thy worldly goods and treasure mine?

    Sir, I ’m no fool; nor shall you, by St. John,

    Have goods and body to yourself alone.

    One you shall quit, in spite of both your eyes—

    I heed not, I, the bolts, the locks, the spies.

    If you had wit, you ’d say, ‘Go where you will,

    Dear spouse! I credit not the tales they tell:

    Take all the freedoms of a married life;

    I know thee for a virtuous, faithful wife.’

    Lord! when you have enough, what need you care

    How merrily soever others fare?

    Tho’ all the day I give and take delight,

    Doubt not sufficient will be left at night.

    ’T is but a just and rational desire

    To light a taper at a neighbour’s fire.

    There ’s danger too, you think, in rich array,

    And none can long be modest that are gay.

    The cat, if you but singe her tabby skin,

    The chimney keeps, and sits content within:

    But once grown sleek, will from her corner run,

    Sport with her tail, and wanton in the sun:

    She licks her fair round face, and frisks abroad

    To show her fur, and to be catterwaw’d.

    Lo thus, my friends, I wrought to my desires

    These three right ancient venerable sires.

    I told them, Thus you say, and thus you do;

    And told them false, but Jenkin swore ’t was true.

    I, like a dog, could bite as well as whine,

    And first complain’d whene’er the guilt was mine.

    I tax’d them oft with wenching and amours,

    When their weak legs scarce dragg’d them out of doors;

    And swore the rambles that I took by night

    Were all to spy what damsels they bedight:

    That colour brought me many hours of mirth;

    For all this wit is giv’n us from our birth.

    Heav’n gave to woman the peculiar grace

    To spin, to weep, and cully human race.

    By this nice conduct and this prudent course,

    By murm’ring, wheedling, stratagem, and force,

    I still prevail’d, and would be in the right;

    Or curtain lectures made a restless night.

    If once my husband’s arm was o’er my side,

    ‘What! so familiar with your spouse?’ I cried:

    I levied first a tax upon his need;

    Then let him—’t was a nicety indeed!

    Let all mankind this certain maxim hold;

    Marry who will, our sex is to be sold.

    With empty hands no tassels you can lure,

    But fulsome love for gain we can endure;

    For gold we love the impotent and old,

    And heave, and pant, and kiss, and cling, for gold.

    Yet with embraces curses oft I mixt,

    Then kiss’d again, and chid, and rail’d betwixt.

    Well, I may make my will in peace, and die,

    For not one word in man’s arrears am I.

    To drop a dear dispute I was unable,

    Ev’n though the Pope himself had sat at table;

    But when my point was gain’d, then thus I spoke:

    ‘Billy, my dear, how sheepishly you look!

    Approach, my spouse, and let me kiss thy cheek;

    Thou shouldst be always thus resign’d and meek!

    Of Job’s great patience since so oft you preach,

    Well should you practise who so well can teach.

    ’T is difficult to do, I must allow,

    But I, my dearest! will instruct you how.

    Great is the blessing of a prudent wife,

    Who puts a period to domestic strife.

    One of us two must rule, and one obey;

    And since in man right Reason bears the sway,

    Let that frail thing, weak woman, have her way.

    The wives of all my family have ruled

    Their tender husbands, and their passions cool’d.

    Fie! ’t is unmanly thus to sigh and groan:

    What! would you have me to yourself alone?

    Why, take me, love! take all and every part!

    Here ’s your revenge! you love it at your heart.

    Would I vouchsafe to sell what Nature gave,

    You little think what custom I could have.

    But see! I ’m all your own—nay hold—for shame!

    What means my dear?—indeed—you are to blame.’

    Thus with my first three lords I pass’d my life,

    A very woman and a very wife.

    What sums from these old spouses I could raise

    Procur’d young husbands in my riper days.

    Tho’ past my bloom, not yet decay’d was I,

    Wanton and wild, and chatter’d like a pie.

    In country dances still I bore the bell,

    And sung as sweet as ev’ning Philomel.

    To clear my quail-pipe, and refresh my soul,

    Full oft I drain’d the spicy nut-brown bowl;

    Rich luscious wines, that youthful blood improve,

    And warm the swelling veins to feats of love:

    For ’t is as sure as cold engenders hail,

    A liquorish mouth must have a lech’rous tail:

    Wine lets no lover unrewarded go,

    As all true gamesters by experience know.

    But oh, good Gods! whene’er a thought I cast

    On all the joys of youth and beauty past,

    To find in pleasures I have had my part

    Still warms me to the bottom of my heart.

    This wicked world was once my dear delight;

    Now all my conquests, all my charms, good night!

    The flour consumed, the best that now I can

    Is ev’n to make my market of the bran.

    My fourth dear spouse was not exceeding true;

    He kept, ’t was thought, a private miss or two;

    But all that score I paid—As how? you ’ll say:

    Not with my body, in a filthy way;

    But I so dress’d, and danc’d, and drank, and din’d

    And view’d a friend with eyes so very kind,

    As stung his heart, and made his marrow fry,

    With burning rage and frantic jealousy.

    His soul, I hope, enjoys eternal glory,

    For here on earth I was his purgatory.

    Oft, when his shoe the most severely wrung,

    He put on careless airs, and sat and sung.

    How sore I gall’d him only Heav’n could know,

    And he that felt, and I that caus’d the woe.

    He died when last from pilgrimage I came,

    With other gossips, from Jerusalem;

    And now lies buried underneath a rood,

    Fair to be seen, and rear’d of honest wood:

    A tomb, indeed, with fewer sculptures graced

    Than that Mausolus’ pious widow placed,

    Or where enshrin’d the great Darius lay;

    But cost on graves is merely thrown away.

    The pit fill’d up, with turf we cover’d o’er;

    So bless the good man’s soul! I say no more.

    Now for my fifth lov’d lord, the last and best;

    (Kind Heav’n afford him everlasting rest!)

    Full hearty was his love, and I can show

    The tokens on my ribs in black and blue;

    Yet with a knack my heart he could have won,

    While yet the smart was shooting in the bone.

    How quaint an appetite in women reigns!

    Free gifts we scorn, and love what costs us pains.

    Let men avoid us, and on them we leap;

    A glutted market makes provision cheap.

    In pure good will I took this jovial spark,

    Of Oxford he, a most egregious clerk.

    He boarded with a widow in the town,

    A trusty gossip, one dame Alison;

    Full well the secrets of my soul she knew,

    Better than e’er our parish priest could do.

    To her I told whatever could befall:

    Had but my husband piss’d against a wall,

    Or done a thing that might have cost his life,

    She—and my niece—and one more worthy wife,

    Had known it all: what most he would conceal,

    To these I made no scruple to reveal.

    Oft has he blush’d from ear to ear for shame

    That e’er he told a secret to his dame.

    It so befell, in holy time of Lent,

    That oft a day I to this gossip went;

    (My husband, thank my stars, was out of town)

    From house to house we rambled up and down,

    This clerk, myself, and my good neighbour Alse,

    To see, be seen, to tell, and gather tales.

    Visits to every church we daily paid,

    And march’d in every holy masquerade;

    The stations duly and the vigils kept;

    Not much we fasted, but scarce ever slept.

    At sermons, too, I shone in scarlet gay:

    The wasting moth ne’er spoil’d my best array;

    The cause was this, I wore it every day.

    ’T was when fresh May her early blossoms yields,

    This clerk and I were walking in the fields.

    We grew so intimate, I can’t tell how,

    I pawn’d my honour, and engaged my vow,

    If e’er I laid my husband in his urn,

    That he, and only he, should serve my turn.

    We straight struck hands, the bargain was agreed;

    I still have shifts against a time of need.

    The mouse that always trusts to one poor hole

    Can never be a mouse of any soul.

    I vow’d I scarce could sleep since first I knew him,

    And durst be sworn he had bewitch’d me to him;

    If e’er I slept I dream’d of him alone,

    And dreams foretell, as learned men have shown.

    All this I said; but dreams, Sirs, I had none:

    I follow’d but my crafty crony’s lore,

    Who bid me tell this lie—and twenty more.

    Thus day by day, and month by month we past;

    It pleas’d the Lord to take my spouse at last.

    I tore my gown, I soil’d my locks with dust,

    And beat my breasts, as wretched widows—must.

    Before my face my handkerchief I spread,

    To hide the flood of tears I—did not shed.

    The good man’s coffin to the church was borne;

    Around the neighbours and my clerk too mourn.

    But as he march’d, good Gods! he show’d a pair

    Of legs and feet so clean, so strong, so fair!

    Of twenty winters’ age he seem’d to be;

    I (to say truth) was twenty more than he;

    But vig’rous still, a lively buxom dame,

    And had a wondrous gift to quench a flame.

    A conjurer once, that deeply could divine,

    Assur’d me Mars in Taurus was my sign.

    As the stars order’d, such my life has been:

    Alas, alas! that ever love was sin!

    Fair Venus gave me fire and sprightly grace,

    And Mars assurance and a dauntless face.

    By virtue of this powerful constellation,

    I follow’d always my own inclination.

    But to my tale:—A month scarce pass’d away,

    With dance and song we kept the nuptial day.

    All I possess’d I gave to his command,

    My goods and chattels, money, house, and land;

    But oft repented, and repent it still;

    He prov’d a rebel to my sov’reign will;

    Nay, once, by Heav’n! he struck me on the face:

    Hear but the fact, and judge yourselves the case.

    Stubborn as any lioness was I,

    And knew full well to raise my voice on high;

    As true a rambler as I was before,

    And would be so in spite of all he swore.

    He against this right sagely would advise,

    And old examples set before my eyes;

    Tell how the Roman matrons led their life,

    Of Gracchus’ mother, and Duilius’ wife;

    And close the sermon, as beseem’d his wit,

    With some grave sentence out of Holy Writ.

    Oft would he say, ‘Who builds his house on sands,

    Pricks his blind horse across the fallow lands,

    Or lets his wife abroad with pilgrims roam,

    Deserves a fool’s-cap and long ears at home.’

    All this avail’d not, for whoe’er he be

    That tells my faults, I hate him mortally!

    And so do numbers more, I ’ll boldly say,

    Men, women, clergy, regular and lay.

    My spouse (who was, you know, to learning bred)

    A certain treatise oft at evening read,

    Where divers authors (whom the devil confound

    For all their lies) were in one volume bound:

    Valerius whole, and of St. Jerome part;

    Chrysippus and Tertullian, Ovid’s Art,

    Solomon’s Proverbs, Eloisa’s loves,

    And many more than sure the church approves.

    More legends were there here of wicked wives

    Than good in all the Bible and saints’ lives.

    Who drew the lion vanquish’d? ’T was a man:

    But could we women write as scholars can,

    Men should stand mark’d with far more wickedness

    Than all the sons of Adam could redress.

    Love seldom haunts the breast where learning lies,

    And Venus sets ere Mercury can rise.

    Those play the scholars who can’t play the men,

    And use that weapon which they have, their pen;

    When old, and past the relish of delight,

    Then down they sit, and in their dotage write

    That not one woman keeps her marriage-vow.

    (This by the way, but to my purpose now.)

    It chanc’d my husband, on a winter’s night,

    Read in this book aloud with strange delight,

    How the first female (as the Scriptures show)

    Brought her own spouse and all his race to woe;

    How Samson fell; and he whom Dejanire

    Wrapp’d in th’ envenom’d shirt, and set on fire;

    How curs’d Eriphyle her lord betray’d,

    And the dire ambush Clytemnestra laid;

    But what most pleas’d him was the Cretan dame

    And husband-bull—Oh, monstrous! fie, for shame!

    He had by heart the whole detail of woe

    Xantippe made her good man undergo;

    How oft she scolded in a day he knew,

    How many pisspots on the sage she threw—

    Who took it patiently, and wiped his head:

    ‘Rain follows thunder,’ that was all he said.

    He read how Arius to his friend complain’d

    A fatal tree was growing in his land,

    On which three wives successively had twin’d

    A sliding noose, and waver’d in the wind.

    ‘Where grows this plant,’ replied the friend, ‘oh where?

    For better fruit did never orchard bear:

    Give me some slip of this most blissful tree,

    And in my garden planted it shall be.’

    Then how two wives their lords’ destruction prove,

    Thro’ hatred one, and one thro’ too much love;

    That for her husband mix’d a pois’nous draught,

    And this for lust an am’rous philtre bought;

    The nimble juice soon seiz’d his giddy head,

    Frantic at night, and in the morning dead.

    How some with swords their sleeping lords have slain,

    And some have hammer’d nails into their brain,

    And some have drench’d them with a deadly potion:

    All this he read, and read with great devotion.

    Long time I heard, and swell’d, and blush’d, and frown’d;

    But when no end of these vile tales I found,

    When still he read, and laugh’d, and read again,

    And half the night was thus consumed in vain,

    Provoked to vengeance, three large leaves I tore,

    And with one buffet fell’d him on the floor.

    With that my husband in a fury rose,

    And down he settled me with hearty blows.

    I groan’d, and lay extended on my side;

    ‘Oh! thou hast slain me for my wealth,’ I cried!

    ‘Yet I forgive thee—take my last embrace’—

    He wept, kind soul! and stoop’d to kiss my face:

    I took him such a box as turn’d him blue,

    Then sigh’d and cried, ‘Adieu, my dear, adieu!’

    But after many a hearty struggle past,

    I condescended to be pleas’d at last.

    Soon as he said, ‘My mistress and my wife!

    Do what you list the term of all your life;’

    I took to heart the merits of the cause,

    And stood content to rule by wholesome laws;

    Receiv’d the reins of absolute command,

    With all the government of house and land,

    And empire o’er his tongue and o’er his hand.

    As for the volume that revil’d the dames,

    ’T was torn to fragments, and condemn’d to flames.

    Now Heav’n on all my husbands gone bestow

    Pleasures above for tortures felt below:

    That rest they wish’d for grant them in the grave,

    And bless those souls my conduct help’d to save!