By Alex Bayer
During the burgeoning age of literature in the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, poems and other works were used not only as entertainment, but also, in some cases, as general written communication. While this was not necessarily common, it did happen, and some of these missives became popular in their own right as exceptional poems and stories. The piece “The Complaint of Chaucer to His Empty Purse” serves the dual purpose of an actual request from Chaucer for his annuity, and as an example of Chaucer’s poetic abilities. There is a fair amount of speculation surrounding the poem, especially since it was written in a specifically turbulent part of England’s history. It was a time where someone who had been a known friend of Richard II may wish to keep his head down for fear of the wroth of Henry IV. But as we all know, life must go on, and a little walking around money is an important thing to have.
The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse was eventually released as a letter to the new king Henry, though when and to whom the complaint was actually written, and to whom, is an enduring question in the study of Chaucer. This question also leads to another interesting question; was Chaucer playing the game of politics or was he simply adapting to the changing times? The Piece itself exhibits many similar features as some of Chaucer’s other requests; at no point in the main bodies of the texts does Chaucer ever refer to his intended audience. Instead they are mini dialogues between two characters, such as Chaucer’s portrayal of himself and the personification of his purse as a lover who has become cold and “lyght”. The light hearted nature of this poem is something that would have been right at home in Richard II court. Chaucer, being a regular guest there and having written a number of pieces for the court, would have known this. Therefor it accomplishes multiple goals in just the few short lines. It serves as a true petition the king, entertainment for the court, and a reminder of his abilities as a poet, something that could have fallen from the king’s mind with the many other things occurring in the kingdom now. As it turns out, Richard II never got Chaucer’s complaint to his purse. About this time, the Lancasters lead by Henry IV, decide the time was ripe for an invasion of England. During this takeover, Richard was pursuing a campaign in Ireland, and thus had the vast majority of his strength in the field with him. This left very little in the defense of London when Henry’s revolt came crashing to the shores of England. So by the time the complaint was delivered, there was a new king on the throne; one who Chaucer knew, but maybe not on such close terms as he did the deposed king Richard. Now, with the lack of surviving historical data from the time, and concerning the nature of writing and poetry itself, no one quite knows which monarch the complaint was meant for.
As it is, there are a couple facets of the poem that point to one king or the other. The first being the style in which the poem was written. Much like the other two famous petitions of Chaucer, Fortune and Lenvoy de Chaucer a Scogan, The Compliant of Chaucer to His Empty Purse is written as a narrative, not a direct request to his potential benefactor. Indeed, throughout the poem Chaucer is literally complaining about and to his purse.
To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complayne I, for ye be my lady dere.
I am so sory, now that ye been lyght;
For certes but yf ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be layd upon my bere;
For which unto your mercy thus I crye,
Beth hevy ageyn, or elles mot I dye.
This serves two different schools of thought in two different ways. Either this mechanic was to give it a lighter, more jovial tune as suggested by Lindeboom, a modern Chaucer scholar, or it was written this way as a kind of protection from a new, less forgiving king. Because Chaucer was petitioning the king for money with this poem , though this is another question that has been debated here and there, he most likely would have wanted to do it in a style that made his stand out from the countless other supplicants to the throne. He also most likely wanted to remind the reader of all the ability for entertainment and joy he could provide, essentially a “this is why you are paying me” argument. And lastly, should he incur the wrath or dislike of the king for such an inquiry, it’s set up in a way so that Chaucer could potentially construe the poem as simply a tale between himself and a lovely lady, albeit one with remarkable similarities to his wallet. As it turns out however, the piece was received exactly how Chaucer hoped it would by, and it was received by Henry IV, who quickly doubled his annuity. (Lindeboom 748) There is however, what appears to be an addition to the original body of the poem, a five line “envoy” that breaks the characters and mood of the poem to say:
O conquerour of Brutes Albyon,
Which that by lyne and free eleccion
Been verray kyng, this song to yow I sende;
And ye, that mowen alle oure harmes amende,
Have mynde upon my supplicacion!
This addition hails the new king Henry as the new and rightful king by conquest, popular vote, and lineage, though rather conspicuously not by the grace of God. As it turns out, if you are going to ask a king or another leader for money, it never hurts to acknowledge their position and importance, especially when it is a new and potentially fragile thing. He even equates Henry to Brutus Albion, a conquering hero of legend known throughout Britain. This short addition also gives the appearance of very quickly breaking ties with Richard’s court, though in some ways in seems very nearly satirical. Chaucer refers to Henry as being “verray” king by conquest and free election, though the propaganda machine of Henry tried to play down the conquest part of Henry’s take over, and there was definitely no election. While this was a good addition in support of Chaucer’s new king, it was also a little over done on the praise.
There is a major point concerning this envoy that hasn’t come up yet though, it does appear to be an addition to the original poem. It is also the only place in Chaucer’s three petitions where he breaks the narrative and directly addresses his audience. (Burrow 351) Why was a poem not written to include these praises if it was initially intended for Henry? This leads to the opposing thought that it was in fact never written for Henry at all, but for a no longer relevant Richard II. Regardless of the poem being written in mood and style for the old king’s court, the narrative would probably have still been an enjoyable sojourn from the other court documents and requests. This probably contributed to the decision not to write an entirely new poem, something we can assume Chaucer was quite capable of. Instead it was deemed sufficient to tack on a piece that may very well have been more pleasing to Henry than a new piece. There was one thing that Henry was in need of that Chaucer could provide, literary support to his rule, something that could be replicated and dispersed as propaganda for the new king. This five line envoy gives the supporters of Henry just that, an easily duplicated praise of their new king.
The style of Henry IV court was also a major change from Richard’s, as Lindeboon writes about the mood of both the poem and Richard’s taste, “It is pleasantly and cleverly courtly, addressing his purse as if it were a beloved lady whose golden appearance and pleasing sound he is eagerly looking forward to, a way of dealing with the subject that is well in tune with the spirit of Richard’s court.” (Lindeboom 746) This is quite feasible, as Richard’s court was known for its literary freedom and almost feminine mood focused on peace and prosperity, not characterized by the typical warring and conquering atmosphere.
It seems that while Chaucer was a writer at heart, he was also a regular in the court of the king. If this is the case, than there is little doubt that he would have had to deal with the politics of England many times throughout his career. Based on the apparent popularity of Chaucer in Richard II court, it is likely that Chaucer himself actively worked to help this relationship prosper. While this does not necessarily point to a politically savvy version of Chaucer, his actions during the transition of kings does give him certain cleverness. I could be argued that Chaucer’s Complaint to His Empty Purse would have been more effective as a petition if an entirely new poem was written for Henry IV, however, this complaint did not necessarily have only one objective. As Richard Horvath puts it, “these poems also work against the widespread supposition that they are primarily occasional.” (173) Essentially, Chaucer’s Complaint to His Empty Purse and a number of his other seemingly private writings we actually meant as public works. Because these were intended for public use, it is reasonable to assume that Chaucer’s final five lines in the complaint to his purse may have been written for the purpose of distribution.
So it does seem probable that the poem was originally conceived for Chaucer’s deposed king, though he quickly made himself an apparent supporter of the new power over both his money and his life. As it turns out however, even though Chaucer’s bid for more money was successful, he would unfortunately not live to enjoy it as he would die in the months following this poem, whether by some natural cause or a knife in the night we may never know. It does appear however that the evidence points not to a death by the will of Henry, unless in some clever scheme of his, as Chaucer was actually a benefit to his fledgling reign, and connected to the Lancaster house through marriage. Unfortunately we will most likely never know how Chaucer died, or many other things about his life and works. The time of Chaucer is referred to as the dark ages because there is so little recorded history to illuminate them and the rise of the literature in the English vernacular. If nothing else though, it is clear that Chaucer was a savvy contributor to England’s life and politics, something that may or may not have led to his death in the end.
- Lindeboom, B. W. “Chaucer’s Complaint to His Purse: Sounding a Subversive Note?” EBSCOhost. Database. Web. 6 Sept. 2012.
- Burrow, John. “Chaucer as Petitioner: Three Poems.” Pennsylvania State University Press 45.3 (2011): 349–356. Print.
- Chaucer, Goeffrey. “The Complaint of Chaucer to His Empty Purse” Trans. Gerard NeCastro.
- Horvath, Richard P. “Chaucer’s Epistolary Poetic: The Envoys to Bukton and Scogan.” The Chaucer Review 37.2 (2002): 173–189. Web. 7 Sept. 2012.
- Anonymous. Portrait Richard II of England. 1330. Westminster Abby. Web. http://www.archist.com.au/assets/images/Richard_II.jpg. 28 Sept. 2012.
- Anonymous. Portrait Henry IV of England. 1500. UK National Portrait Gallery. Web. http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait.php?search=ap&npgno=4980%289%29&eDate=&lDate=. 28 Sept. 2012.