The Short Poems by Geoffrey Chaucer.

'An ABC' by Geoffrey Chaucer from
The Kelmscott Chaucer created by
William Morris.
The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer by F. N. Robinson (1933; now revised and re-edited, and known as The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry Benson) had, as The Riverside Chaucer has, a section known as "The Short Poems". Robinson wrote that they are,
... miscellaneous in character and have little in common except that they are short. They obviously belong to different periods of Chaucer's life.
There are 21 short poems by Chaucer:
  • An ABC (184 lines)
  • The Complaint unto Pity (119 lines)
  • A Complaint to His Lady (127 lines)
  • The Complaint of Mars (298 lines)
  • The Complaint of Venus (82 lines)
  • To Rosemounde (24 lines)
  • Womanly Noblesse (32 lines)
  • Chaucers Wordes unto Adamn, His Owne Scriveyn (7 lines)
  • The Former Age (63 lines)
  • Fortune (79 lines)
  • Truth (28 lines)
  • Gentilesse (21 lines)
  • Lak of Stedfastnesse (28 lines)
  • Lenvoy de Chaucer a Scogan (49 lines)
  • Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton (32 lines)
  • The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse (26 lines)
  • Proverbs (8 lines)
  • Against Women Unconstant (21 lines)
  • Complaynt D'Amours (91 lines)
  • Merciles Beaute (39 lines)
  • A Balade of Complaint (21 lines)
The final four of these poems had not previously been ascribed to Chaucer in the manuscripts.

An ABC (which can be read online here), also known as "La Priere de Nostre Dame") is a translation of a prayer in Pèlerinage de la vie humaine (The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man) by Guillaume de Deguilleville (1331). It is a devotional poem is addressed to the Virgin Mary and each stanza begins with a letter of the alphabet from A - Z as the subtitle, Incipit carmen secundum ordinem literarum Alphabeti ("Here begins a song following the order of the letters of the alphabet") suggests-
First lime of stanza 1:  "Aʟᴍɪɢʜᴛʏ and al merciable quene"
First lime of stanza 2:  "Bᴏᴜɴᴛᴇᴇ so fix hath in thyn herte his tente"
First lime of stanza 3:  "Cᴏᴍғᴏʀᴛ is noon, but in yow, lady dere"
First lime of stanza 4:  "Dᴏᴜᴛᴇ is ther noon, thou queen of misericorde"
First lime of stanza 5:  "Eᴠᴇʀ hath myn hope of refut been in thee"
First lime of stanza 6:  "Fʟᴇᴇɪɴɢ, I flee for socour to thy tente"
First lime of stanza 7:  "Gʟᴏʀɪᴏᴜs mayde and moder, which that never"
First lime of stanza 8:  "Hᴇ vouched sauf, tel him, as was his wille"
First lime of stanza 9:  "I wot it wel, thou wolt ben our socour"
First lime of stanza 10: "Kᴀʟᴇɴᴅᴇʀᴇs enlumined ben they"
First lime of stanza 11: "Lᴀᴅʏ, thy sorwe can I not portreye"
First lime of stanza 12: "Mᴏɪsᴇs, that saugh the bush with flaumes rede"
First lime of stanza 13: "Nᴏʙʟᴇ princesse, that never haddest pere"
First lime of stanza 14: "O verrey light of eyen that ben blinde"
First lime of stanza 15: "Pᴜʀᴘᴏs I have sum tyme for tenquere"
First lime of stanza 16: "Qᴜᴇᴇɴ of comfort, yit whan I me bithinke"
First lime of stanza 17: "Rᴇᴅʀᴇssᴇ me, moder, and me chastyse"
First lime of stanza 18: "Sᴏᴛʜ is, that God ne graunteth no pitee"
First lime of stanza 19: "Tᴇᴍᴘʟᴇ devout, ther god hath his woninge"
First lime of stanza 20: "Vɪʀɢɪɴᴇ, that art so noble of apparaile"
First lime of stanza 21: "Xʀɪsᴛᴜs, thy sone, that in this world alighte"
First lime of stanza 22: "Ysᴀᴀᴄ was figure of his deeth, certeyn"
First lime of stanza 23: "Zᴀᴄʜᴀʀɪᴇ you clepeth the open welle"
The Complaint Unto Pity (also known as The Compleynte unto Pitè; this can be read online here) is one of Chaucer's most gloomiest of works. In it he seeks pity - 
Pite, that I have sought so yore ago, 
With herte sore, and ful of besy peyne, 
That in this world was never wight so wo
With-oute dethe; and, if I shal not feyne, 
My purpos was, to Pite to compleyne
Upon the crueltee and tirannye 
Of Love, that for my trouthe doth me dye.
He writes of the "the crueltee and tirannye / Of Love", but in seeking pity he finds it dead - "I fond hir deed, and buried in an herte". Without pity, all men are lost, now victims of cruelty - "Now Crueltee hath cast to sleen us alle". He then reads his "Bill of Complaint", a petition to pity, beginning -
Humblest of herte, hyest of reverence, 
Benigne flour, coroune of vertues alle, 
Sheweth unto your rial excellence 
Your servaunt, if I durste me so calle,
His mortal harm, in which he is y-falle, 
And noght al only for his evel fare, 
But for your renoun, as he shal declare.
He goes on to refer to Pity as the crown of Beauty, and argues Demeanour and Nobility are nothing without Pity:
Ye been also the coroune of Beautee;
And certes, if ye wanten in thise tweyne, 
The world is lore; ther nis no more to seyne.
Eek what availeth Maner and Gentilesse 
Withoute you, benigne creature?
He finishes by weeping for the death of Pity -
Sith ye be deed - allas! that hit is so! - 
Thus for your deth I may wel wepe and pleyne 
With herte sore and ful of besy peyne.
A Complaint to His Lady (known also as 'A Balade of Pity'; online here) is about unrequited love, though it's not certain if these fragments represent a whole, or if they were to be separate poems. As it is, the poem has been divided into four parts. The first part begins,
The longe night, whan every creature
Shulde have hir rest in somwhat, as by kinde,
Or elles ne may hir lyf nat long endure,
Hit falleth most in-to my woful minde
How I so fer have broght my-self behinde,
That, sauf the deeth, ther may no-thing me lisse,
So desespaired I am from alle blisse.
He tells of the woman he loves, and who doesn't love him. She is his reason for living - "This hevy lyf I lede for your sake", and he submits to her though she does not ask it. He finishes by then asking her for her pity:
And therfor, swete, rewe on my peynes smerte,
And of your grace granteth me som drope; 
For elles may me laste ne blis ne hope, 
Ne dwellen in my trouble careful herte.
The Complaint of Mars and Venus.
The Complaint of Mars (online here) is perhaps one of Chaucer's better known short poems, and it is the longest of the collection. In this he writes of the love of Mars and Venus, the two planets, thus combining astrology and mythology. Chaucer tells of a bird he heard singing on Valentine's Day morning  -"(Seynt Valentyne! a foul thus herde I singe / Upon thy day, er sonne gan up-springe)". The bird urges everyone to choose their mate, and to hear of the complaint Mars made to Venus on their parting -
Yet sang this foul—‘I rede yow al a-wake,
And ye, that han not chosen in humble wyse, 
Without repenting cheseth yow your make. 
And ye, that han ful chosen as I devyse, 
Yet at the leste renoveleth your servyse; 
Confermeth it perpetuely to dure,
And paciently taketh your aventure.
The story begins,
Whylom the thridde hevenes lord above, 
As wel by hevenish revolucioun
As by desert, hath wonne Venus his love, 
And she hath take him in subieccioun, 
And as a maistresse taught him his lessoun, 
Comaunding him that never, in hir servyse, 
He nere so bold no lover to despyse.
The bird tells of how Venus made Mars humble, never to be jealous:
For she forbad him Ielosye at alle, 
And cruelte, and bost, and tirannye; 
She made him at hir lust so humble and talle, 
That when hir deyned caste on him her ye, 
He took in pacience to live or dye;
And thus she brydeleth him in hir manere, 
With no-thing but with scourging of hir chere.
The two are separated, however, by Phebus who literally sheds light on their situation, revealing their affair. Venus is heartbroken and Mars seeks to do battle with Phebus, however his own heartbreak weighs him down and he is unable to do so, so instead he issues his complaint, which is in five parts and begins with a devotion:
The firste tyme, alas! that I was wroght, 
And for certeyn effectes hider broght
By him that lordeth ech intelligence, 
I yaf my trewe servise and my thoght, 
For evermore—how dere I have hit boght!— 
To hir, that is of so gret excellence, 
That what wight that first sheweth his presence,
When she is wroth and taketh of him no cure, 
He may not longe in Ioye of love endure.
He goes on to express his concern for her well-being, and notes that only false lovers can ever feel comfort - "But he be fals, no lover hath his ese". After this he thinks on the meaning of love and its fragility. Next he speaks of the brooch of Thebes, and, like love, it is precious and rare:
The broche of Thebes was of suche a kinde,
So ful of rubies and of stones Inde, 
That every wight, that sette on hit an yë, 
He wende anon to worthe out of his minde; 
So sore the beaute wolde his herte binde, 
Til he hit hadde, him thoghte he moste dye;
And whan that hit was his, than shulde he drye 
Such wo for drede, ay whyl that he hit hadde, 
That welnigh for the fere he shulde madde.
Finally Mars asks for pity and kindness, concluding -
Compleyneth eek, ye lovers, al in-fere,
For hir that, with unfeyned humble chere,
Was ever redy to do yow socour;
Compleyneth hir that ever hath had yow dere;
Compleyneth beaute, fredom, and manere;
Compleyneth hir that endeth your labour;
Compleyneth thilke ensample of al honour,
That never dide but al gentilesse;
Kytheth therfor on hir som kindenesse.
The Complaint of Venus (online here) is an adaptation of three ballads by Oton de Grandson. It's suggested that in this Mars is based on John Holland (King Richard II's half brother) and Venus on Isabel of York. This poem is divided into three parts -
  1. The Lover's worthiness
  2. Disquietude caused by Jealousy
  3. Satisfaction in Constancy
Manuscript of To Rosemounde.
To Rosemounde (online here) addresses the narrator's love for a woman called Rosemounde. He praises her beauty - "ye ben of al beautè shryne", though she does not love him. Unlike the other short poems, this one is great fun, gently mocking the courtly love rituals. Chaucer even compares himself to a pike wallowing in spicy sauces!
Nas never pyk walwed in galauntyne
As I in love am walwed and y-wounde...
Womanly Noblesse (online here) is a poem of dubious authorship, though scholars such as Robinson and Skeat have accepted it as part of the Chaucer canon. It's a poem addressed to the woman he loves praising her noble qualities. It is described by some as a feminist poem in that Chaucer reverses traditional gender identities - the woman he addresses holds the power and he is willing to serve (see A Literary Analysis on "Womanly Noblesse").

Chaucer's Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn is the shortest of all Chaucer's poems in which he criticises his scribe's abilities. It goes,
Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle
Boece or Troilus to wryten newe,
Under thy lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my making thou wryte trewe.
So ofte a daye I mot thy werk renewe,
Hit to correcte and eek to rubbe and scrape;
And al is through thy negligence and rape.
It's thought that there was a scribe called Adam in Chaucer's time - Adam Pinkherst, however The Riverside Chaucer say that though 'Adam' has been searched for in records, researchers "have now generally abandoned that task" (it's worth mentioning my edition was published in 1987, so perhaps new material has come to light).

The Former Age (online here) is a kind of re-telling of the 'Golden Age' myth Ovid wrote about in Metamorphoses. Chaucer wrote in a tumultuous society, and The Former Age harks back to simplicity, morality, and beauty.
A blisful lyf, a paisible and a swete
Ledden the peples in the former age;
They helde hem payed of fruites, that they ete,
Which that the feldes yave hem by usage;
They ne were nat forpampred with outrage;
Unknowen was the quern and eek the melle;
They eten mast, hawes, and swich pounage,
And dronken water of the colde welle. 
Manuscript of Chaucer's Boece.
Fortune (online here) draws largely upon the themes of Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy which Chaucer translated as Boece (1378 - 1381). In this he writes on 'wayward fortune'. In the first part he defies Fortune ("For fynally, Fortune, I thee defye!"), but in the second part Fortune responds, beginning "No man is wrecched, but him-self hit wene". In the third part the complainant condemns the explanation as bitterness, but Fortune responds that her ebb and flow is like the sea, and that rule governs nature:
The see may ebbe and flowen more or lesse;
The welkne hath might to shyne, reyne, or hayle;
Right so mot I kythen my brotelnesse.
In general, this reule may nat fayle.
The poem ends with a message from Fortune:
Princes, I prey you of your gentilesse,
Lat nat this man on me thus crye and pleyne,
And I shal quyte you your bisinesse
At my requeste, as three of you or tweyne;
And, but you list releve him of his peyne,
Preyeth his beste frend, of his noblesse,
That to som beter estat he may atteyne.
Truth (online here) is believed to be one of Chaucer's most popular poems in its time. It is also known as 'Balade de Bon Conseyl' and in it Chaucer gives good advice on living an honest life amongst dishonest folk, on not being greedy, and to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. Each verse ends with the quote 'the truth shall set you free' - "And trouthe shal delivere, hit is no drede" from John 8: 32.

Gentilesse (online here) is another moral ballad. He warns not to trust authority (much like The Wife of Bath),
For unto vertu longeth dignitee,
And noght the revers, saufly dar I deme,
Al were he mytre, croune, or diademe.
Lak of Stedfastnesse (online here) is about the corruption in Chaucer's time. Chaucer was not a political writer, however he does address a part of this poem to King Richard II asking him to 'cherish your people and hate extortion':
O prince, desyre to be honourable,
Cherish thy folk and hate extorcioun!
Suffre no thing, that may be reprevable
To thyn estat, don in thy regioun.
Shew forth thy swerd of castigacioun,
Dred God, do law, love trouthe and worthinesse,
And wed thy folk agein to stedfastnesse.
The next two poems, Lenvoy de Chaucer a Scogan (online here) and Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton (online here) are addresses or messages. The first is most likely to Henry Scogan, who Chaucer accuses of blasphemy against Venus and claims he is responsible for natural catastrophes. Quite why, I am not sure! In the second poem, Chaucer addresses Bukton - his identity is uncertain but it perhaps Peter Bukton of Holdernesse. In the poem he says, "The Wyf of Bathe I pray you that ye rede" and he warns Bukton against marriage:
But yit, lest thou do worse, tak a wyf;
Bet is to wedde, than brenne in worse wyse.
But thou shalt have sorwe on thy flesh, thy lyf,
And been thy wyves thral, as seyn these wyse,
And if that holy writ may nat suffyse,
Experience shal thee teche, so may happe,
That thee were lever to be take in Fryse
Than eft to falle of wedding in the trappe.
The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse (online here) is another famous Chaucer poem, and it is possibly the last poem he ever wrote and was written to King Henry IV to persuade him to renew his annuity (the poem, therefore, had to be written after Henry's coronation in October 1399). It begins,
To you, my purse, and to non other wight
Compleyne I, for ye be my lady dere!
I am so sory, now that ye be light;
For certes, but ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd up-on my bere;
For whiche un-to your mercy thus I crye:
Beth hevy ageyn, or elles mot I dye!
Proverbs is another very short poem which I can quote in full:
                         I.
What shul thise clothes many-fold,
Lo! this hote somers day?—
After greet heet cometh cold;
No man caste his pilche away.
                         II.
Of al this world the wyde compas
Hit wol not in myn armes tweyne.—
Who-so mochel wol embrace
Litel therof he shal distreyne.
The final poems, Against Women Unconstant, Complaynt D'Amours, Merciles Beaute, and A Balade of Complaint had not, as I've said, been included in the manuscripts.

Against Women Unconstant (online here), also known as 'New Fangelnesse' is again on steadfastness or lack of. The narrator berates his lover for her inconsistency, saying "Ye can not love ful half yeer in a place". He concludes his angry poem with,
Ye might be shryned, for your brotelnesse,
Bet than Dalyda, Creseide or Candace;
For ever in chaunging stant your sikernesse,
That tache may no wight fro your herte arace;
If ye lese oon, ye can wel tweyn purchace;
Al light for somer, ye woot wel what I mene,
In stede of blew, thus may ye were al grene.
Complaynt D'Amours (online here) is also known as 'An Amorous Complaint' and 'An Amorous Complaint Made At Windsor', and it has similarities with Chaucer's Parlement of Foules (1382). Chaucer writes again about unrequited love, mourning that he can't seem to do anything right - "Can I noght doon ne seye that may yow lyke". His love object delights in tormenting him, he writes, yet he continues to love her:
This compleynte on Seint Valentynes day,
Whan every foughel chesen shal his make,
To hir, whos I am hool and shal alwey,
This woeful song and this compleynte I make,
That never yit wolde me to mercy take;
And yit wol I evermore her serve
And love hir best, although she do me sterve.
'To Merciless Beauty' by Warwick Goble.
Merciles Beaute (online here) is, as the title suggested, about a sort of 'la belle dame sans merci'. The poem is divided into three parts - captivity, rejection, and escape. It begins,
Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;
I may the beautee of them not sustene,
So woundeth hit thourghout my herte kene.
He claims, "ye ben of my lyf and deeth the quene". He goes on to say she is without pity -
So hath your beautee fro your herte chaced
Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne...
He concludes,
Love hath my name ystrike out of his sclat,
And he is strike out of my bokes clene
For evermo; [ther] is non other mene.
The final poem of the collection is A Balade of Complaint (online here), which The Riverside Chaucer writes is "heavily indebted to Chaucer but far from attaining his standard" (others suggest it was perhaps more likely written by John Lydgate). Nevertheless it is included in the book. It is, as with most of these poems, another complaint of unrequited love. It begins,
Compleyne ne coude, ne might myn herte never
My peynes halve, ne what torment I have,
Though that I sholde in your presence ben ever,
My hertes lady, as wisly he me save
That bountee made, and beutee list to grave
In your persone, and bad hem bothe in-fere
Ever tawayte, and ay be wher ye were.
The poet writes that his life's happiness and joy is owed to his love, and that he loves his lady and always will.

And that is the last poem of The Short Poems, nearly all of them about or at least alluding to love, unrequited love, and love's disappointments. Of the four poems not ascribed to Chaucer - I agree 'A Balade of Complaint' is unlike Chaucer, and I didn't much care for Merciless Beaute either, though many accept that as Chaucer's work. They are otherwise excellent, but I do favour the longer ones! Of the short ones, I do especially favour The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse and The Former Age. 

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