Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Poetry Selection

Geoffrey Chaucer, an English poet

He was born in 1342. Historians are uncertain about his exact date of birth. Geoffrey's well-to-do parents, John Chaucer and Agnes Copton, possessed several buildings in the vintage quarter in London. Not much is known about Geoffrey's school career. He must have had some education in Latin and Greek. Out of school he went on as a page in the household of the Countess of Ulster. Chaucer rose in royal employment and became a knight of the shire for Kent. As a member of the king's household, Chaucer was sent on diplomatic errands throughout Europe. From all these activities, he gained the knowledge of society that made it possible to write The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer died in October 1400 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in London. He was the first of those that are gathered in what we now know as the Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Here is a selection from "The Monk's Tale":

295       His son, called Belshazzar, or Balthasar,
Who held the realm after his father's day,
He for his father's fate would not beware,
For proud, he was of heart and of array;
He was a worshipper of idols aye.

300 His high estate assured him in his pride.
But Fortune cast him down and there he lay,
And suddenly his kingdom did divide.
A feast he made unto a thousand lords,
Upon a time, and bade them merry be.

305 Then to his officers he said these words:
"Go fetch me forth the vessels all," said he,
"Of which my father, in prosperity,
The temple in Jerusalem bereft,
And unto our high gods give thanks that we

310 Retain the honour that our elders left."
His wife, his lords, and all his concubines,
They drank then, while that mighty feast did last,
Out of those noble vessels sundry wines.
But on a wall this king his eyes did cast

315 And saw an armless hand that wrote full fast,
For fear whereof he shook with trouble sore.
This hand that held Belshazzar so aghast
Wrote Mene, mene, tekel, and no more.
In all that land magician was there none

320 Who could explain what thing this writing meant;
But when they sent for Daniel it was done,
Who said: "O king, God to your father lent
Glory and honour, treasure, government,
And he was proud, nor feared God, being mad,

325 Wherefore Lord God great misery on him sent,
And him bereft of all the realm he had.
"He was cast out of human company;
With asses was his habitation known;
He ate hay like a beast, through wet and dry,

330 Until he learned, by grace and reason shown,
That Heaven's God has dominion, up and down,
Over all realms and everything therein;
And then did God to him compassion own
And gave him back his kingdom and his kin.

335"Now you, who are his son, are proud also,
Though you knew all these things, aye verily;
You are a rebel and you are God's foe.
You drank from out His vessels boastfully;
Your wife and all your wenches sinfully

340 Drank from those sacred vessels sundry wines,
And praised false gods, and hailed them, wickedly;
Whereof toward you the wrath of God inclines.
"That hand was sent from God which on the wall
Wrote Mene, mene, tekel. Oh, trust me,

345 Your reign is done, you have no worth at all,
Divided is your realm, and it shall be
To Medes and Persians given now," said he.
And that night went the king to fill death's maw,
And so Darius took his high degree,

350 Though he thereto had naught of right in law.
Masters, therefrom a moral may you take,
That in dominion is no certainness;
For when Fortune will any man forsake,
She takes his realm and all he may possess,

355 And all his friends, too, both the great and less;
For when a man has friends that Fortune gave,
Mishap but turns them enemies, as I guess:
This word is true for king as well as slave.


Parrish Lantern said...

Not a poet, you often see quoted nowadays, but all the better when he does appear. Thanks

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I turned to Chaucer and this passage in particular because my OED "word of the day" was "mene mene tekel upharsin".