The Poetry Corner

The Wife Of Bath, Her Prologue. From Chaucer. - Translations And Imitations.

By Alexander Pope

Behold the woes of matrimonial life, And hear with reverence 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 caused 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, 'tis 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 defined. 'Increase and multiply' was Heaven'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 heaven 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 'twas 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: 'Tis 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. Heaven calls us different 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, Lived 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 heaven, And use the copious talent it has given: Let my good spouse pay tribute, do me right, And keep an equal reckoning 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 loved, 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 seized them when I frown'd. Ye sovereign wives! give ear, and understand: Thus shall ye speak, and exercise command; For never was it given to mortal man To lie so boldly as we women can: Forswear the fact, though seen with both his eyes, And call your maids to witness how he lies. Hark, old Sir Paul! ('twas thus I used to say) Whence is our neighbour's wife so rich and gay Treated, caress'd, where'er she's pleased to roam-- I sit in tatters, and immured at home. Why to her house dost thou so oft repair? Art thou so amorous? 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, nor till then, the veil's removed 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 flatteries feed my ear, And tag each sentence with 'My life! My dear!' If, by strange chance, a modest blush be raised, Be sure my fine complexion must be praised. My garments always must be new and gay, And feasts still kept upon my wedding day. Then must my nurse be pleased, and favourite 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 treasures 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? Though all the day I give and take delight, Doubt not, sufficient will be left at night. 'Tis 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 'em, Thus you say, and thus you do; And told 'em false, but Jenkin swore 'twas 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 given us from our birth. Heaven gave to woman the peculiar grace To spin, to weep, and cully human race. By this nice conduct and this prudent course, By murmuring, 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--'twas 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 mix'd, 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, E'en 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. 'Tis 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. Fye! 'tis 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, Procured young husbands in my riper days. Though 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 evening 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 'tis as sure as cold engenders hail, A liquorish mouth must have a lecherous 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 e'en to make my market of the bran. My fourth dear spouse was not exceeding true; He kept, 'twas 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 danced, and drank, and dined, 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 heaven could know, And he that felt, and I that caused 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 enshrined 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 loved lord, the last and best; (Kind heaven 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 woman reigns! Free gifts we scorn, and love what costs us pains: Let men avoid us, and on them we leap; A glutted market makes provisions cheap. In pure goodwill 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. 'Twas 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 mouth we pass'd; It pleased 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 vigorous still, a lively buxom dame, And had a wondrous gift to quench a flame. A conjuror once, that deeply could divine, Assured 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 proved a rebel to my sovereign will; Nay, once, by heaven! 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? 'Twas 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 chanced 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 cursed Eriphyle her lord betray'd, And the dire ambush Clytemnestra laid; But what most pleased him was the Cretan dame And husband-bull--Oh, monstrous! fye, 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 twined 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, Through hatred one, and one through too much love; That for her husband mix'd a poisonous draught, And this for lust an amorous philtre bought: The nimble juice soon seized 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 pleased 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; Received 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 reviled the dames, 'Twas torn to fragments, and condemn'd to flames. Now, Heaven, 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!