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The Wife of Bath's Tale

Chaucer the poet a tale hath told,
Of a Knight who lived in the days of old;
And how sin was assoiled by a heart of gold.
When the earth was young and the folk were free.
The Elfen Queen and her Companie
Oft danced on the green, where all mote see.

But since that time, have the fairies small
From the realms of earth, been banished all
Through folly which pedants wisdom call.
Children alone, whose hearts are young
Can see, in fancy, the fairie throng,
Which is sung in the humble poet's song.

Politics, vain and philosophies
Are as cloud that o'er hang the sun-lit skies;
And as veils that darken dear mysteries.

In Arthour's court, where all knights did come,
Was a doughty Knight, who on quest must roam;
And far hath he fared from his house and home.
And as he roameth through forest wild;
Sees he a maiden, on whom him smiled;
A maiden guileless and undefiled.

Now with desire he looked on her,
This hearty and lusty bachelor;
And the wind of desire his heart doth stir.
The night is dark and the winds are still.
God guard thee, fair maiden, from deed of ill;
Alas for the maiden bereft of will.

The knight from his horse hath leaped to gain
His heart's desire, all her cries are vain.
Despite of her struggles he doth obtain
The reward which a demon to him extended,
For the maiden was frail and unbefriended —
Now honour is lost and contentment ended.

For which foul deed that did God defy,
Ladies and Lords with each other vie
In demanding his doom; for he must die.
For a Christian Court and a Christian King
Never could brook such an evil thing.
The wage of a sinner is sorrowing.

But Guinever and her ladies all
Have prayed for pardon, "Let not fall
The doom of death on this champion tall!"
Said Arthour, "Dear Queen, thou shalt have thy will.
Whether to save or his blood to spill."
Low bowed the Queen and all were still.

She thanked the King in courtesie,
This noble ladie, on bended knee
She willeth the Knight may pardoned be.
Then the Queen, in samite all white arrayed,
Her fair locks bound in a golden braid,
Looked on the prisoner, spake and said, —

"Thou standest in deadly jeopardie;
But thy curséd life will I give to thee,
An' an answer true thou can'st render me
To a question, hard in answering:
What is to women, of everything,
The desire of their hearts, which harbouring
They value most? An' thou can'st not tell
Thy body dieth, the fiends of hell
Shall snatch thy soul to perdition fell.

"What do all women the most desire:
To what do their secret souls aspire?
An' thou answereth not, the doom is dire.
I give thee a twelvemonth and eke a day.
Thou may'st go, an thou willest, far away."
Said the Knight, "O ladie, I must obey."

Sad was the Knight and with fear oppressed,
Which his careful forehead full well confessed.
Then he goeth out on his curious quest.

Where can he hope or heal or grace.
Far he searcheth, in every place
Where he of the answer a hint may trace.

A year had ended and passed away,
While afar he wandered by night and day
For an answer which God may to him purvey.
Castle and house and hamlet small
He seeketh and searcheth, one and all.

Some said women loved rich array;
Jewels and silks and garments gay.
Lordly castles and grand display.
Some said they most joy in flattery;
And some said they best love to wedded be.
Some said they best loved venerie.

But the answers so diverse each other marred,
In the troubled soul of this Knight ill-starred,
For he found no response to the riddle hard.
With sorrow oppressed and in evil case
This doom'd Knight, whom the answers daze,
Home returneth, with wearied pace,

Now, as it happened, he chanced to ride
Full carefully, through a forest wide;
Where weary and worn, he must abide.
Here he saw, dancing around a ring;
A circle of ladies, all frollicking,
The while to the tune their harps they sing.
He drew full near to this companie,
Thinking: "These ladies, fair and free,
May answer the question easily."

But, ere he came to the ladies near,
They all did vanish and disappear;
And, of them all, not one was here
Save an aged crone, who in foul array,
Was sitting adown by the leafy way.
"Tell me," quoth she, "O Wanderer, may
I help thee? Thou seemest in jeopardy."

"My liege mother, ah my fate is dire;
For my soul is sad and my heart afire
To know what all women do most desire!"
"The question is hard, of a truth," said she,
"Yet may it full rightly answered be;
For an answer right may I give to thee.

"But first I would have thee to understand
Thou freely must plight, with thine heart and hand
To me thy troth, ere thy wish I grant,
Ere day be der-curtained in darksome night,
I will tell it to thee, my troth to plight;
For the riddle most hard shall be answered right."

"My troth, unto thee, I full freely grant,"
"Then," quoth she, "to grim death, will I say avaunt!"
For I take from thy soul of sin the taint."
He looked on the crone, with age oppressed;
And saw the heave of her shapely breast.
Her eyes were blue as a maid's and bright,
They shone on him with a holy light.

She bade him be joyful and have no fear,
As she whispered a farewell in his ear.
Saying, "Though dark doth thy day appear,
By Christ's good love can I give to thee,
For love and in Christian charitie,
A message of hope for the days to be."

The Knight to King Arthour's court hath come,
Where assemble a crowd in the Judgment room,
To hear the Knight's answer and hear his doom.
To all were commanded complete "silence,"
Silent they sat, as the Knight confessed
What thing every woman loveth best.

Erect he stood, with no doubt nor fear,
In a manly voice that they all can hear,
To this question, the good Knight answers clear, —

"My liege lady," then answered he,
"What woman loves best of things that be
Is to have, o'er their lords, the soverainty,
This your desire is one and all,
Tell me if now I must rise or fall."

Up started then to the Knight's dismay,
The beldame he met upon the way;
Then to Queen Guinever doth she say, —
"I taught the Knight, for his grief I knew,
To thy cunning question, the answer true.
But ere thou further dost now pursue
To utter thy judgment, prithee know
That to me he plighted, in weal or woe,
His troth, which a Knight cannot forego."
"Ah, woe is me," the Knight now said,
"For sooner would I be lying dead
Then to this old wife be married."

But Arthour and Guinever, as they heard
The Old Wife's story, with one accord
Decreed that the Knight must keep his word.
So the ill-matched pair amid laughter loud
Of Lords and Ladies and all the crowd
Departed, with shame was the Knight's head bowed.

In bed with the beldame, the Knight hath woe,
He turneth and walloweth to and fro
While the beldame lay smiling evermo'.
"O dear husband and much loved spouse,
Is this the custom of Arthour's house,
Where never a Knight is dangerous?"
"Aye, but you loathly are," he said,
"Foul, ill-favoured and lowly bred
To lie at ease in this goodly bed."
"Fair is false and the false that seemeth
Is only false to the fool that dreameth,
For the whole wide world with wonder teameth.

"And if I be but poor, I know
That Christ, upon earth, was poor also,
That he his humility well might show.
And riches pass at the grim grave's gate
Where worms shall devour, both low and great.
For to all cometh death, or soon or late.

"But of all God's gifts is the best, I guess,
The virtue of Christlike gentleness.
And courtesie, rarest of all riches.
Gentleness cometh from God alone,
And not from a monarch upon a throne,
Both were the virtues of God's fair Son."

He turned and looked on her, as the light
Of the moon shone o'er her, in splendour bright.
Now seemed she transformed by celestial light.
For though of her age he still was 'ware,
Yet knew he that she had once been fair,
A turning he kissed her unaware.

"Now choose," quoth the dame, "of courses twain;
Whether I ever shall foul remain
Or pass to my maiden bloom again.
If I be old, no jealousy
Ever shalt thou, love, have of me,
If I be fair I may be free.

"Of lovers I shall have at least a score,
And thy heart may be wounded passing sore,
These are the evils for thee in store.
If I be old and ill favourëd,
None save my lord will seek my bed."
To her, the good Knight thus answerëd, —

Thus did he answer, with trembling voice,
"My ladie and love, be thine the choice."
And straightway she cried, "Dear love rejoice!"
"Now have I gotten the mastery,"
She cried, and a silvery laugh laughed she.
"And, by God's grace and by my troth,
Fair and good shall I now be both!"
Kiss me, and be no longer loth."

No longer aged, nor foul nor old,
He saw her, in beauty manifold,
Shining —her hair like burnished gold.
And the scent of her hair had an essence fine,
And her eyes of azure, with love ashine,
Looked in hs face: she was all divine.

The meaning hid in this fable old,
Is that love is the guerdon of hearts of gold.
For when their honeymoon passed away,
This Knight and his ladie fair as day
Returned to King Arthour's Court where ne'er
A lady than she was found as fair,
Not even the fair Queen Guinever.