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Geoffrey Chaucer
Modern English poetry translations by Michael R. Burch

Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1340-1400) is generally considered to be the first major English poet and the greatest English poet of the Medieval Period. He is best known for The Canterbury Tales but was also a master of lyric forms such as the rondel and balade. Chaucer has been called the "Father of English literature" and has been credited with helping to legitimize the English vernacular for literary purposes at a time when French and Latin were preferred by the "upper crust" in England. Chaucer was also the first writer to have been buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. 

Translator's note: There has been considerable confusion between the terms rondeau, rondel and roundel. Rather than dwelling on technicalities, I prefer the "a rose by any other name" approach. I believe "rondel" was the term being used for the English variety in Chaucer's day, although spellings were haphazard back then.

Three Rondels by Geoffrey Chaucer

I. Merciles Beaute ("Merciless Beauty")
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Unless your words heal me hastily,
my heart's wound will remain green;
for your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain.

By all truth, I tell you faithfully
that you are of life and death my queen;
for at my death this truth shall be seen:
your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Original text:

Your yŽn two wol sle me sodenly,
I may the beaute of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit through-out my herte kene.

And but your word wol helen hastily
My hertes wounde, whyl that hit is grene,
Your yŽn two wol sle me sodenly;
may the beaute of hem not sustene.

Upon my trouthe I sey yow feithfully,
That ye ben of my lyf and deth the quene;
For with my deth the trouthe shal be sene.
Your yŽn two wol sle me sodenly,
I may the beaute of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit through-out my herte kene.

II. Rejection
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain;
For Pride now holds your mercy by a chain.

I'm guiltless, yet my sentence has been cast.
I tell you truly, needless now to feign,—
Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain.

Alas, that Nature in your face compassed
Such beauty, that no man may hope attain
To mercy, though he perish from the pain;
Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain;
For Pride now holds your mercy by a chain.

Original text:

So hath your beaute fro your herte chaced
Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne;
For Daunger halt your mercy in his cheyne.

Giltles my deth thus han ye me purchaced;
I sey yow soth, me nedeth not to feyne;
So hath your beaute fro your herle chaced
Pilee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne

Allas! that nature hath in yow compassed
So gret beaute, that no man may atteyne
To mercy, though he sterve for the peyne.
So hath your beaute fro your herte chaced
Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne;
For daunger halt your mercy in his cheyne.

III. Escape
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean;
Since I am free, I count it not a bean.

He may question me and counter this and that;
I care not: I will answer just as I mean.
Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean.

Love strikes me from his roster, short and flat,
And he is struck from my books, just as clean,
Forevermore; there is no other mean.
Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean;
Since I am free, I count it not a bean.

Original text:

Sin I fro love escaped am so fat,
I never thenk to ben in his prison lene;
Sin I am fre, I counte him not a bene.

He may answere, and seye this or that;
I do no fors, I speke right as I mene.
Sin I fro love escaped am so fat,
I never thenk to ben in his prison lene.

Love hath my name y-strike out of his sclat,
And he is strike out of my bokes clene
For ever-mo; [ther] is non other mene.
Sin I fro love escaped am so fat,
I never thenk to ben in his prison lene;
Sin I am fre, I counte him not a bene.
Explicit.


The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue
by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

When April with her sweet showers
has pierced the drought of March to the root,
bathing the vines’ veins in such nectar
that even sweeter flowers are engendered;
when the West Wind with his fragrant breath
has inspired life in every grove’s and glade’s
greenling leaves; and the young sun
has run half his course in Aries the Ram;
while small birds make melodies
after sleeping all night with open eyes
because Nature pierces them so, to their hearts―
then people long to go on pilgrimages ...



THE CONTINUING INFLUENCE OF GEOFFREY CHAUCER
by Michael R. Burch

This is my answer to a question posed on Quora ...

How did the literature of the Middle Ages affect the poetry of the ages to come?

It was like a chain reaction!

Take just one writer, Geoffrey Chaucer. He influenced English poets, poetry and literature in profound and important ways.

Chaucer was the first major poet to write primarily in English. Before Chaucer the majority of poetry produced in England had been written in other languages: Anglo-Saxon (heavily Germanic), French, Greek and Latin. At the time Chaucer wrote, English kings were still speaking French, the language of the crown, and the courts of law were still being conducted in Latin. Obviously, the choice of a major poet to write his masterpieces in “vulgar” English had a profound influence on writers to come. And not only on poetry, but on all English literature and even the language itself.

But for all his English-ness, Chaucer was a cosmopolitan poet. His influences included French poets, Ovid, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Through his continental influences, Chaucer helped broaden and deepen English poetry and literature. For example, Chaucer wrote English rondels patterned after the French.

Chaucer’s characters such as the Wife of Bath seem alive and fully-fleshed, and no doubt influenced how Shakespeare drew characters of his like Falstaff. Thus Chaucer had tremendous influence on English playwrights, through his own and Shakespeare’s continuing influence.

Chaucer has also been credited with introducing iambic pentameter and rhyme royal to the English language. With his early version of iambic pentameter, Chaucer was able to write longer poems that seemed natural and conversational while maintaining an enjoyable rhythm. The more musical English poets would follow his lead. For instance, the mellifluous Edmund Spenser claimed to be the reincarnation of Chaucer. That is some influence!

We can see the influences of Chaucer — iambic pentameter, fully-fleshed characters, etc. — in the highly popular plays of playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. So Chaucer helped make English poetry popular. He was like Elvis inspiring the Beatles. John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” Modern English language poets might opine, “Before Chaucer there was nothing, or very little.”



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If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.

For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the translator, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.

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