Geoffrey Chaucer, "Truth" [also known to scholars as "Balade de Bon Conseyl"]   (before 1400)

Genre:   A "balade," a French lyric genre usually composed about a poet's beloved, either praising her beauty or complaining about her aloofness or cruelty.  Chaucer's balades are notable for the frequency with which they address philosophical and social issues, like "Gentilesse," Lenvoy a Bukton," "Lak of Steadfastnesse," and "A Complaint to His Purse."  

Form: Stanzas of seven four-stress lines rhyming ababbcc, often ending with an "Envoy," or extra stanza which sends the poem as a more specialized message to some friend, lover, or court aquaintance.  The general message of the poem's other stanzas are thereby interpreted for the envoy's subject, and the envoy stands in a position of creative tension or even deconstructive opposition to the stanzas of the poem's main body. 

Online Reading Aloud: Click here to go to a web page linked to a performance of "Truth" by Susan Yager, Iowa State University.  Remember that most Middle English works are written for the ear, not the eye, and they will make the best sense if you read them out loud to yourself rather than reading them silently.  Once you have heard Susan Yager's earnest, impassioned reading of "Truth," reread the poem and consider how it would sound if read ironically by a speaker who did not believe "delivery by truth" was likely under the circumstances described in the poem (see #1 below).  How about an angry reading?  A weary reading?  All are possible.

Characters:   The persona of Chaucer's courtly lyric (not to be confused with Chaucer, himself, though the difference may be slight), and the courtly audience who, if not for this poem's advice (the poem assumes), would be pursuing the "press" of courtiers around the powerful nobles, coveting posessions, striving for preference and high rank, trying to right all wrongs, ignoring the goddess Fortuna, seeming busy while injuring themselves in their striving, and generally "wrastling for the world" (l. 16).  The envoy addresses one "Vache," possibly a courtier known to Chaucer who was out of favor for several years in the late fourteenth-century (Philip de la Vache), and it makes the kind of pun on his name ("cow" in French) that only an old friend or a real boor would dare to circulate in a public poem.  (And you thought your name sounded funny in elementary school!)

Plot Summary: The persona dispenses a series of wise sayings, almost evey one of which has circulated in manuscript form elsewhere, and which accumulate into a rather formidable demand upon one's self-control, amid the stanzas' refrain which assures us that if we can do all these things, "Truth shal delivere [save us], it is no drede" (ll. 7, 14, 21, 28).

Issues and general research sources:

1)  Medieval readers apparently loved wise sayings and collected them often in manuscripts.  This poem appears to imitate, in miniature, the larger and more solemn manuscript compilations of wisdom that sometimes are called "gnomic verse."  The general scholarly opinion agrees that Chaucer intended the poem to be read as a literal recommendation of all it says.  I disagree.   Add up those instructions and consider seriously applying them all to the conduct of your life, especially if you project yourself into the persona of a courtier and member of a powerful noble family like Philip de la Vache.  Can you do all those things and still remain at the royal court, a place that combines the functions of the White House, the criminal and Supreme Courts, the Pentagon, the CIA/NSA/etc., the gossip columns and editorial pages of the Washington Post, the top administrative agencies (Commerce, Agriculture, Defense, Health and Human Services, etc.), the haute-coture fashion design houses and their seasonal shows, and various combinations of very high-class saloons, restaurants, nightclubs and brothels?   Yeah, I thought not.  And only if you do those things, "Truth shal delivere [save us], it is no drede."  So if you can't manage to do all those things, who's going to deliver you now?

2)  Apropos of the last question, the envoy appears to take up an answer to what might be a reader's rising level of anxiety as s/he reads the lofty requirements for being delivered by mere truth and finds her-/himself having to admit it's never going to happen.  The envoy's first two lines recommend Christian renunciation of the world, in effect, monastic seclusion, but the third and fourth lines appeal to the mercy of "him...that of his heigh goodnesse / Made thee of nought..." (24-5).  That's an interpretive crux for me, too.  The Christian God and the barons and king of England both can "make men and women" in the sense of conferring upon them lands and powers, and the king, especially, can "make" new noble titles or transfer old ones to new men and women, making new earls,  counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses out of the social "nothing" of the commoners.  See the Norton's helpful guide to "The British Baronage" for help interpreting this in-group jargon (2937-8).  Until the envoy reaches line 27, one cannot be sure whether Chaucer's persona is slyly suggesting making an abject appeal to one's noble or even royal master, or praying to God for divine rescue from the dangers of court life.  Once the poem hits ll. 27-8 and resolves that tension, we're still left to think about all those bad but perfectly normal behaviors detailed in the first three stanzas that we now have to abandon in order to seek God's aid.  Is this a simple poem of comfort, or is it sharply divided against itself, even deconstructing itself, because of the pressures of the courtly life which it seeks to escape?

3)  Readers of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" since E.T. Donaldson have noticed the regularity with which Chaucer adopts the persona of a naive, dumpy, shy, even ignorant man who's getting nowhere with the ladies and resorts to books because they're all the consolation he can find in the world.   Donaldson pointed out that Chaucer's life records tell us he has been a customs inspector and a construction site superintendent for the king, jobs for which naivete and shyness, at least, would be absurd qualifications.  He also married Phillipa Paon, sister to Catherine Paon Swynford, first the governess of the duke of Lancaster's children and then his third wife, mother to the line which would be the House of Lancaster in the fifteenth-century's Wars of the Roses.  She had married the late Mr. Swynford before marrying John of Gaunt, the duke, but marrying Lancaster made her the wife of the wealthiest man in England and, next to Richard II, the most powerful.  So Chaucer was related by marriage to the duke and through him to future kings Henry IV, V, and VI (consult your Shakespeare history plays for their cultural significance in the next era).   Chaucer also was both a public envoy of the king and a secret agent in Europe on business we still do not know.  Does that sound like the resume of a doofus?   What's Geof up to?  How might "Truth" play a part in that strategy of representing a courtly persona or "character" he played in his role as poet?   Especially, how might the poem call into question the very idea of "truth" in language? 

    For a recent exploration of this problem, especially the transformation of the ME word "trouthe" into "troth" [promise] and "truth" [historical fact], see Richard Firth Green's A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England  (Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania P, 1999) [820.9 G7971c].  As critics like to say when they spot an opening in an otherwise tightly argued book, "curiously," Professor Green does not inspect this particular poem for signs of irony or disunity in its repeated use of the word, "trouthe" (see pp. 4 and 22, his only references to the poem).  He's a sharper, more experienced, and better-read scholar than I am--I freely admit it.  If my argument has to some degree persuaded you, what does that suggest about courtly readers (who had to be as good or better at this stuff) and the slippery instability of Chaucer's style.

4)  The lyric poems often are used in evidence to attempt to date Chaucer's works, usually under the assumption that short lyrics were typical "schoolboy" products of a young courtier's training and that the "more mature" works like the long narrative poems (Troilus, "Knight's Tale") date from his middle years or from his old age.  How does our expectation of a poem, and of an author's intentions, change depending upon how old we believe the author may be when the poem was written?  What kinds of internal and external evidence are there for dating works of literature, and where might you find more about how to use that evidence?

5)  Manuscripts of Chaucer's poems typically are not heavily punctuated, usually just line breaks for verse, a "/" or virgule for partial stops (between a comma and a semi-colon), and a full stop at sentence ends.   The Norton editors made a very interesting decision to place a semi-colon between "world" and "leve" in line 23.  The Riverside Chaucer (1985), the current standard scholarly reference edition, places a semi-colon after "wrechednesse" (l. 22) and no punctuation in line 23 until the full stop after "thral" (slave).  Try writing out the two versions in your own hand, even translating them into Modern English.  Which makes more sense?  How would you argue for one version rather than the other? 

    Those are obscure but powerful questions addressed by the art of "textual editing," the ways a scholar turns a series of manuscript versions and printed editions of a work into a single, most accurate version for scholars.  An extremely thorough variety of textual editing produces what are called "variorum" editions, which preserve in parallel texts every variant spelling, missing or added piece of text, or variation in order of texts' parts, in all the surviving manuscripts or printed editions.  These are the tools of graduate students and professional scholars, but non-specialist readers can use them too if they know what they're looking for.  Contact me if you are interested in learning more about editing practices and the variorum editions of any of our authors.  To see Professor Sheila Cavanagh's very well-explained set of instructions for how a scholarly edition is prepared, and a well-equipped set of scholarly tools (paper and online), click here.

Some useful scholarly studies of Chaucer's short lyrics:

Boffey, Julia. "The Reputation and Circulation of Chaucer's Lyrics in the Fifteenth Century." Chaucer Review 28 (1993): 23-40.  Finds evidence for Chaucer's lyrics having influenced other writers and suggestions that the short poems were available in MSS which have not survived.

Hanna, Ralph, III. "Authorial Versions, Rolling Revision, Scribal Error? Or, the Truth about Truth." Studies in the Age of Chaucer. 1988 (10): 23-40.  Examines manuscripts of "Truth" for variation in words and lines, and considers the possibility Chaucer may have revised the poem in manuscript circulation.

Scattergood, John. "Social and Political Issues in Chaucer: An Approach to Lak of Steadfastnes." Chaucer Review, 1987 (21:4) 469-75.   Discusses relations between Ricardian lyric poems and political events, political allusions, and their reflection of social consciousness in this era.

Stephens, John. "The Uses of Personae and the Art of Obliqueness in Some Chaucer Lyrics, I, II, III." Chaucer Review. 1987 (21:3) 360-73; 1987 (21:4) 459-68; and 1987 (22:1) 41-52.   A three-part essay examining the ambiguity of the narrator's persona in lyrics.

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.

Back to English 222, Syllabus View.