“Merciles Beaute”: Historical and Literary Analysis – Final Revision

Merciles Beaute: A Triple Roundel

Geoffrey Chaucer from Thomas Hoccleve’s “Regiment of Princes” c.1415-1420

Middle English

Merciles Beaute: A Triple Roundel

I

Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;

I may the beautee of hem not sustene,

So woundeth hit throughout my herte kene.

 

And but your word wol helen hastily

My hertes wounde, while that hit is grene,

Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;

I may the beautee of hem not sustene.

 

Upon my trouthe I sey you feithfully

That ye ben of my lyf and deeth the quene;

For with my deeth the trouthe shal be sene.

Your yen two wol slee me sodenly;

I may the beautee of hem not sustene,

So woundeth it throughout my herte kene.

II

So hath your beautee fro your herte chaced

Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne;

For Daunger halt your mercy in his cheyne.

 

Giltles my deeth thus han ye me purchaced;

I sey you sooth, me nedeth not to feyne;

So hath your beautee fro your herte chaced

Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne.

 

Allas! that Nature hath in you compassed

So greet beautee, that no man may atteyne

To mercy, though he sterve for the peyne.

So hath your beautee fro your herte chaced

Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne;

For Daunger halt your mercy in his cheyne.

III

Sin I fro Love escaped am so fat,

I never thenk to ben in his prison lene;

Sin I am free, I counte him not a bene.

 

He may answere, and seye this and 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 ystrike out of his sclat,

And he is strike out of my bokes clene

For evermo; [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 free, I counte him not a bene.

A Middle English Reading of “Merciles Beaute”

A Modern Day Translation

by Sarah Burke

Merciless Beauty: A Triple Rondel

I

Your two bright eyes will slay me suddenly; The beauty of them I cannot sustain, So throughout my eager heart is wounded.   Unless your word will heal hastily My heart’s wound while the wound is green, Your two bright eyes will slay me suddenly; The beauty of them I cannot sustain.   Upon my truth I say to you faithfully, That you have been the queen of my life and death, For with my death the truth shall be seen, Your two bright eyes will slay me suddenly, The beauty of them I cannot sustain, So throughout my eager heart is wounded.

II

So has your Beauty from your heart chased Pity, that to complain would not benefit me, For Danger restrains your mercy in his chain.   My death, guiltless, so that I could obtain your hand; I say to you the truth, I have no need to pretend; So has your Beauty from your heart chased Pity, that to complain would not benefit me.   Alas, that Nature you have plotted inside Beauty so great that no man shall attain To Mercy, though he may starve for the pain. So has your Beauty from your heart chased Pity, that to complain would not benefit me, For Danger restrains your mercy in his chain.

III

Since from Love I have escaped so fat, I never think to be in his lean prison; Since I am free, I count him to not have been.   He may reply, and say this and that; I do not repudiate, I speak just as I mean. Since from Love I have escaped so fat, I never think to be in his lean prison;   Love has stricken my name from his slate, And he is stricken from my books completely Forevermore, there is no other one. Since from Love I have escaped so fat, I never think to be in his lean prison; Since I am free, I count him to not have been.

 Why It’s Important

In the short poem Merciles Beaute: A Triple Roundel, Geoffrey Chaucer considers the intentions and effects of women while questioning and highlighting the objectification that existed within a patriarchal society. Chaucer’s views on women share similarities to those of other men during his time while additionally sharing similarities with the views of a more modern individual. The poem, Merciles Beaute, also brings to light Chaucer’s use of specific styles that were not commonly used amongst English writers during the time period and allows us to compare the modern views of his style to the views that would have existed during the middle ages.

“The Merciles Beaute” A watercolor, c. 1877-1958, by Frank Cadogan Cowper. From Campbell-Wilson: Fine Art Dealers; 20th Century Watercolours and Drawings

Analyzing the Poem

Merciles Beaute is a short poem that discusses the beauty of a woman from the perspective of a man that greatly admires her for her physical appearance. There are three parts to this poem, each containing vivid descriptions of Chaucer’s feelings and how they change as the story of Chaucer’s “Merciless Beauty” unfolds. Each section also has a phrase that is introduced at the beginning of the section, again with slight a slight variation at the end of the second stanza, and then repeated again fully at the end of the third stanza. The repetition of these lines shows that the repeated phrase is an important one that must be considered more heavily and perhaps as a part of a “bigger picture” in order to fully comprehend the meaning of the poem.

The first section of the poem (lines 1-13) describes Chaucer’s beginning feelings of lust and/or love for this woman; he describes the pain that he feels for her by saying that only her words can heal his head’s confusion and his heart’s pain. Chaucer even goes so far as to say that this woman has power of his life or death, which is a bit extreme considering the fact that there is no way of knowing how well Chaucer knows this woman. Chaucer’s repetition of the lines, “Your yen two wol slee me soddenly; I may the beautee of hem not sustene, so woundeth hit thourghout my herte kene.”,  imply that his feelings were of great certainty and purpose.

Upon reading the second section (lines 13-26), it appears that Chaucer’s certainty has been refuted. It would appear that although Chaucer acted on his emotions, he was rejected. Here it is as though he believes that no man will be allowed to love her and will instead suffer as he has. The repeated lines in this section, “So hath your beautee fro your herte chaced Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne, for Daunger halt your mercy in his cheyne.” are quite different from those in the first in that they are the words of a defeated man rather than those of a man in love/lust.

In the last section of the poem (lines 27-39), Chaucer seems to have given up on chasing his love. Instead, Chaucer feels that he has escaped from a prison and is free once again. This idea is made clear by his choice of the repeated lines, “Sin I fro Love escaped am so fat, I never thenk to ben in his prison lene; Sin I am free, I counte him not a bene.” These lines suggest that Chaucer has realized that since he was able to escape from the hold of infatuation that he must not have really been in love with this woman as he, at first, thought.

When considering the conclusion that Chaucer comes to on his own with the conclusions that the medieval men from other tales have, it is interesting how Chaucer realizes that it may not have been love at all since most medieval men would take the woman that they want by force rather than accept rejection. Given the time period and the common nature of medieval men to fall fast and hard for a woman that they have only seen, it is easy to believe that Chaucer is experiencing a “love” that has been experienced by many other medieval men in similar positions.

Palamon and Thetis gaze at the object of their affection from behind bars. From Baccachio’s “Il Teseide” by The Master of the Hours of the Duke of Burgundy, year~1495.

Straying from Medieval Objectification

The expected reaction from a man of this time period would be one more like the one Chaucer depicts in The Knight’s Tale where Palamon and Thetis fight for years over a woman whom neither of them have ever met. Both men from that specific tale decided that they wanted what they wanted and threw away any loyalties that they had to each other in order to claim her. Nobody ever asked the object of their affection what she thought because that was exactly what she was, an object. Chaucer chooses not to objectify this beautiful woman in Merciles Beaute. He instead gives her to choice to be with him if that is what she wants and since that is not what she wanted, he decides to move on rather than fight idiotically as Palamon and Theis did. However, just comparing Chaucer’s depiction of a woman in one work to another does not create a clear image of Chaucer’s views since his depictions changed throughout so many poems and tales.

Troilus and Criseyde as illustrated in “The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer” by Edward Burne-Jones, published in 1896 by William Morris.

Another work of Chaucer’s that is useful for comparison in this matter is the poem entitled Troilus and Criseyde. Again, this story is based off of the woman, Criseyde, becoming the “object” of the man’s, Troilus, desire. Throughout this poem, as stated correctly by Andreea Boboc, “Some of Chaucer’s portrayals of Criseyde appear contradictory.”. Boboc makes the point that “not all beautiful medieval heroines are good.” and that, “Sometimes, outward beauty masks an ugly personality, as is the case of the disloyal wife in Marie de France’s Bisclavret, whereas bodily deformity may point toward spiritual beauty”.

Chaucer intentionally depicts Criseyde as embodying divine perfection until Book V when it is learned that she has joined eyebrows, making her physically imperfect even though she remained naturally beautiful and pure as a whole. He steers away from the medieval convention of the perceived symmetry between character and appearance in order to call that relationship into question.  When relating this idea to “Merciles Beaute”, it covers the ideas of how the outer beauty of a woman may hide her evil intentions while an unpleasant physical appearance may hide inner worth. Taking this attitude towards women and viewing it as Chaucer’s own creates a different outlook on this supposed love poem to make readers wonder if maybe Chaucer was pointing out the woman’s possible evil intentions rather than her beauty.

Since Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight’s Tale, and Merciles Beaute are all works of Chaucer, it forces the reader to question the view that Chaucer himself held of women. Chaucer’s varying depictions of women force his readers to ask questions and make decisions for themselves about the characters and their motivations or intentions. Although, it is easier to believe that Chaucer held the personal view that is depicted in Merciles Beaute since the poem is of unknown authorship and since it is an original work rather than a translation. Chaucer offering different views and attitudes towards women amongst his tales is likely just another way that he engages in the use of irony and rhetoric. However, to look at Chaucer’s depictions of women in a more modern light as George Shuffleton has, the view of Chaucer changes from being possibly respectful to being likely more obscene. Since “Merciles Beaute” is a love poem that expresses feelings of undeniable lust, it is viable to view this as a possible insight to the more vulgar and obscene side of Chaucer.

Chaucer’s Contemporary Role

Modern culture is much more openly obscene than the culture associated with Medieval England. Therefore, it is important to look at how Chaucer’s works were received during his time as well as compare that reception to how his works are received in modern culture. Shuffleton’s idea is that “the role Chaucer’s work has played in delimiting the boundaries of acceptability has not been fully acknowledged by Chaucer’s professional readers. Nor has this role remained static. And the evidence suggests that Chaucer’s reputation may be changing: long viewed as canonical despite his obscenity, Chaucer may now be canonical because of his obscenity.” This is an argument that has only recently been brought out and as Shuffleton also states, his essay on the subject “is also primarily concerned with Chaucer’s reputation in the United States, for the reason that his obscenity has dominated readers’ perceptions here in peculiar ways that it has not elsewhere.”

The cover of “The Ribald Tales of Canterbury”, a pornographic adaptation by Hyapatia Lee of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, released in 1985.

Shuffleton considers Chaucer’s roles in popular film, the courts, responses from artists or critics, and his role in the classroom. Geoffrey Chaucer has been pornographic in various instances and censored in others. A 1985 film entitled The Ribald Tales of Canterbury is one that Shuffleton mentions to make the point that the obscene takes on Chaucer’s work have mostly escaped the attention of scholars. Interestingly enough, just as some of Chaucer’s work has been made into pornography, his work has also occasionally been censored in schools for being too unacceptable just as many other modern books have been. The question of whether or not one of Chaucer’s books or poems is obscene or vulgar is really up to the reader, just as Chaucer probably wanted. Merciles Beautemay seem more like a love poem than an obscene one to some, but to others the extreme feelings of lust and physical attraction that are present may be too raunchy to handle.

Third Ear Band, 1970. From left to right: Paul Minns, Glen Sweeney, Richard Coff, Ursula Smith. Photo by Blackhill Enterprises.

A modern example of an artistic representation of a classic piece of literature that may be too inappropriate for some is Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of Macbeth. This movie has been called the most violent of all of the modern films based on Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Although the movie was not particularly controversial, The Tradgedy of Macbeth was still more vulgar than the play probably seemed to be to some. Historically, Shakespeare lived after Chaucer and drew some of his inspiration from some of Chaucer’s works, conventions, and language usage. This movie relates to Merciless Beaute in that somewhere during the production process, there were connections made between the obscenity of Chaucer and Shakespeare’s famous play; so much so that the soundtrack for the movie included a song whose lyrics were based entirely off of Chaucer’s Merciles Beaute. The song is called “Fleance”, which is the name of one of the characters in Macbeth. The choice to use this song is one that was likely rooted in the idea of Chaucer being known more for his obscenity since it is the song that the character Fleance sings around the time of his father’s brutal murder.

A Video of Third Ear Band’s Fleance

The Significance

Although Merciless Beaute is not covered or written about by many scholars, the poem is still an important work that is used to gain insight into Geoffrey Chaucer’s view of women, his historical role in creating the foundation for modern works and ideas, and his undeniable obscenity that allowed for him to become a revolutionary for English literature.  This poem further solidifies the notion that Chaucer wanted his readers to ask questions and come to their own conclusions. The way that Chaucer was accepted by the people of his time suggests that he was on the right path in forcing people out of their comfort zones. The fact that Geoffrey Chaucer’s work, ideas, language, and overall legacy have survived while inspiring many along the way is pivotal in considering him as the Father of the English Language.

 

-Sarah K. Burke, Fall 2012

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