The Poetry of Ellin Anderson

"The Lover's Confession"
By John Gower (1330–1408)
The Poet Who Inspired Shakespeare
Modern English Version by Richard Brodie and Ellin Anderson

There was one time, in days of old,
A worthy knight who, as men told,
Was nephew to the emperor,
And at his court, a courtier.
Wifeless he was, Florent his name, 
He had great might that won him fame;
Of arms he was desirous,
Yet chivalrous and amorous.
And so his fame the world might speak,
Some strange adventures for to seek,
He rode the Marches all about.
And then, one time when he was out,
Dame Fortune, who man’s every thread
May spin or break, knew where he sped
Through mountain passes on his horse,
And saw that he was seized by force.
Then, to a castle he was brought,
Wherein his friends were few or nought,
For as it happened, in that fight,
Florent had dealt, with fearsome might,
A deadly wound that had undone
One Branchus, who was heir and son
Unto the captain: wrath and rue
For father and for mother, too.
Branchus was, by strength of hand,
The greatest knight in all the land,
And they would fain do vengeance on
Florent, but mindful thereupon
Of his undoubted worthiness,
His gentle knighthood, and no less
Than royal kinship, once they gauged
All this, they found their wrath assuaged,
And durst not slay him, out of fear:
In great dispute, they sought to hear
Amongst themselves, which course was best.
There was a dame, the wiliest
And slyest known, who shared their talk,
So old that she could scarcely walk:
Grand-dam to Branchus, who was slain.
By way of counsel, she’d make plain
A way that she could reel him in
And set things up so Death might win
A prize Florent alone would grant
Through strength of rightful covenant,
Without the blame of any wight.
Anon, she bade them fetch the knight,
And charged him that her boy lay dead
Because of him, and this she said:
“Florent, though you’re the cause, to wit,
Of Branchus dying, a respite
We’ll take for now, and vengeance hold,
If you’ll stand judgment, as you’re told,
Upon a certain sole condition
Of a question’s imposition,
Asked by me: you shall prepare
An answer, and you’ll also swear
That if you fail to guess the truth,
Naught shall avail you then, forsooth,
But rather death shall be your lot. 
And so that men deceive you not
In that whereof you are advised,
The day and time shall be assized,
And you may safely leave, and wend
Your way home, if by that day’s end
You come again to give your guess.”
The knight, from wisdom’s worthiness,
Replied, “My lady, pray reveal
And have it written under seal,
Whatever question it should be,
For which I shall, in some degree,
Put my own life in jeopardy.”
With that she feigned cordiality,
And said, “Florent, it hangs on love,
This thing I long to ask you of:
What do all women most desire?
This will I ask; in that Empire
You know the best, I set your task:
Take counsel as to what I ask.”
Florent did undertake this thing,
The day and time of reckoning;
Under his seal, he wrote his oath
As bidden, for he was not loath
To seek his uncle’s court again;
He told him his adventure then
Quite plainly, as it did befall.
And after that, the wise men all
Were sent for, but could not consent
On what to do, and no assent
Was made, nor yet accord thereat,
For one said this, another that.
After the very disposition
Of our natural condition,
What will give one woman pleasure 
Gives another grief in measure;
But one thing, especially, 
That as a generality
Might be most pleasing and desired,
Overall, the most required,
Nowhere could these sages find,
By gauging stars or humankind;
And thus Florent, without a cure,
Would take his chances, that was sure,
And it was likely he would lose:
For it’s default that he must choose.
This knight, who would much rather die
Than break his sacred oath, and lie
To those for whom an oath he swore,
Made ready to go back once more.
When it was time, he took his leave:
To linger would bring no reprieve;
And said: “Pray, uncle, be not wroth,
For I swore, when I pledged my troth,
That no man his revenge would wreak
Though afterwards they hear men speak
Of me, perhaps to say I died.”
And thus he went his way, to ride
Alone, a knight adventurous,
And in his thoughts, most curious
To know what would be best to do.
And as he rode alone, and drew
Near to the place he wished to be,
Within a wood, beneath a tree,
He looked, and there he saw a creature,
Loathly and womanish of feature,
And, to speak of flesh and bone,
So foul a one he’d never known.
The knight did cast a wary eye
Upon her, thinking to pass by,
But she called out, “Pray stop and bide!”
He pulled his horse’s head aside,
Then turned him, and to her he rode,
And there he halted and abode,
To learn just what was her intent. 
At this, she started to lament,
And said, “Florent, for that’s your name,
You have your hand in such a game
That if you are not well advised,
Your death is planned, and so devised
That all the world your life won’t save,
Unless my counsel you shall crave.”
And so Florent, once he had heard
This story, told the gray old bird,
“Give me this good advice, I pray.”
And she in turn to him did say:
“Florent, if you will let me shape
Events so that you shall escape
Your death, and for this are adored, 
What shall I have for my reward?”
“The thing,” he said, “that you would ask.”
“I ask no better fee or task,”
She said, “but first, before you’re spared,
Your solemn vow shall be declared
That I will have your troth in hand,
And you shall be my own husband.”
“Nay,” said Florent, “that may not be.”
“Ride forth, then, on your way,” said she.
“If ill-advised you ride ahead,
You surely are as good as dead.”
Florent his promise did allow
Of land, of rent, of park, of plow,
But all this she accounted naught.
The knight fell deeply into thought,
Now riding forth, now back her way;
He knew not what was best to say,
And thought, as he rode to and fro,
His choice was either woe or woe:
To take this creature for his wife,
Or else to surely lose his life.
But one advantage he could gauge:
That she was of so great an age,
She might live but a little while,
And he could put her on an isle
Where she could linger, all unknown,
Until Death saw her overthrown.
And thus, the young and lusty knight
Unto this old and loathly wight
Then said: “If there’s no other chance
May give me my deliverance,
But only learning that same speech
Which, as you say, to me you’ll teach,
Have here my hand, you shall I wed.”
His troth he plighted, as he said.
At this she wrinkled up her brow:
“This covenant I will allow,”
She said, “but if some other thing
Save what you’ll have of my teaching
Unto your body gives respite
From death, I promise to acquit
You of your troth, no other way.
Now, hearken to what I shall say:
When you have come into the place
Where they make menace, thus to face
The foe whose coming they await,
At once, on the appointed date,
Your answer they’ll reject, alack!
I know that you’ll hold nothing back
Of what you deem to be your best,
And if you find eternal rest,
Well then, there’s nothing we can do.
But otherwise, I counsel you
That you shall say: Upon this earth
The thing all women give most worth
Is to be sovereign of man’s love:
No woman stands so high above
The rest, as she who has her will,
And otherwise, she won’t fulfill
Her longing for what women crave.
And with this answer, you shall save
Yourself, and otherwise shall not.
And when this ending you have wrought,
Come here again, and me you’ll find:
Let nothing slip out from your mind.”
He went forth with a gloomy face,
As one who knows not, in his case,
How this world’s joy he may attain:
For if he dies, he will have pain,
And if he lives, then he must bind
Himself to one of womankind
Who is the most unseemliest,
And thus he knew not which was best;
But will he, nil he, loath or no,
Unto to the castle he must go,
His final answer for to give,
And thus to die, or else to live.
Forth with his council came the lord;
Things stood as they did first record;
He sent for the old dame, and soon
She tottered forth, a sharp-faced moon. 
In presence of the parliament,
The key points of the covenant
Were then recited openly,
And to Florent then, this lady
Bade he should tell them his advice,
Reminding him of failure’s price.
Florent said all he ever could,
But to his mouth, no such words would
Come forth, for gift or for bequest,
That might somehow his death arrest.
And thus he stalled them, long and late,
Until that lady said his fate
As to his final doom, would be
An answer made specifically
Unto the question she first posed.
And then, in truth, Florent supposed
That there was nothing he could yelp,
Unless it were, if words could help,
Those words the ugly woman taught.
From this, a gleam of hope he caught
That thus he’d be excused, not dead,
And told out plainly what she’d said.
And when this matron thus had heard
The way in which the knight answered,
She said, “Ha! Treason! Woe to thee
For having told what’s secretly
The thing all women most desire!
I wish you would catch on fire.”
Nonetheless, from this his plight
Florent’s response acquits him, quite;
And then his sorrow starts anew,
For he must go, or be untrue
To her on whom he’d staked his name.
But he, as one who dreaded shame,
Went forth in place of punishment,
To take the chance that fortune sent,
As one who by his troth is bound.
The ancient wight was waiting, found
Where he had left her, and his gaze
As he his woeful head did raise,
Fell on the harpy where she sat;
She was the loathliest old bat
At whom man ever cast an eye:
Her nose hung low, her brows arched high,
Her eyes were small and deeply set;
With tears her cheeks were always wet,
And wrinkled as an empty skin,
Hanging in folds down to her chin.
Her lips were shrunk with age; her face
Had not a single saving grace;
Her locks were white, her forehead poor,
She glowered like a Blackamoor.
Her neck was short, her shoulders round:
All manly lust she could confound;
Her form was gross and not petite,
And, this sad picture to complete,
She had no part without a lack;
But, like a tattered woolen sack,
Herself she proffered to this knight,
And bade him, since he’d vowed outright
That his life’s warrant she would grant,
He must hold to her covenant,
And by the bridle he was seized.
But God could only know how pleased
He was by words like those she’d spoken:
His poor heart was well-nigh broken,
Sorrowful he may not flee,
Unless untruthful he would be.
Look how a man whose health is gone
Takes gentian root with cinnamon,
And with white sugar swallows myrrh:
A cost Florent pays to confer
Good taste on food that he must eat;
He drinks the bitter with the sweet,
And mixes ease with sorrow’s sighing, 
Living when he knows he’s dying.
Youth shall now be cast away 
On one who, by the light of day,
Is old and loathly, head to toe.
But need does as need must, and so
He’ll keep his promise, and be true,
As every knight is sworn to do,
Whatever happens to befall.
Though she’s the foulest of them all,
To honor all of womanhood
He must take heed, as understood.
And so, from purest gentleness
As best he could, Florent did dress
The hag in those foul rags she wore;
Upon his horse, with her before,
He quietly set forth to ride;
No wonder that he often sighed.
But as an owl flies by night
Away from other birds’ keen sight,
Likewise this knight, by daylight broad
Stayed hidden, and his road he trod 
At night-time, till one eventide
He came to where he would abide;
And secretly, without a sound,
He brought this great foul slattern round
Into his castle, in such wise
Her shape was seen by no man’s eyes,
Till she unto her chamber came.
His privy council he did name
Of such men that he could most trust,
And told them that from need, he must
Take this beast for his wedded wife,
For elsewise, he’d have lost his life.
Then for the chambermaids he sent;
By his command, they quickly went
To doff the rags that she had on,
And as the custom was, anon
She had a bath, she had some rest,
And was arrayed to look her best.
But with no craft of combing might
They part her locks of hoary white,
And then, since she would not be shorn
Or hear of it, they did adorn
Her hair with headgear that was used
So typically, all was excused,
And hid it carefully about,
So none could see it sticking out.
But when she was in full array,
And her attire they did weigh,
Then she was fouler yet to see.
Since otherwise it could not be,
They wedded in the dark of night.
No other knight was ever quite
As woebegone as he in marriage.
And her playful, wanton carriage
Seemed to say, “I’m happy now,”
But he could hardly laugh at how
She cupped his face within her hand,
And said he was her own husband,
And then: “My lord, let’s go to bed,
For that’s the reason I was wed,
That you should be my worldly bliss.”
And then, she offered him a kiss,
Just like a lovely lady would.
His body sat there, as it should,
But as for thought and memory’s part,
In purgatory was his heart.
Yet such is matrimony’s strength,
Florent had no excuse, at length,
For his refusal to submit,
And bed her, and be intimate.
When they were naked in the bed,
He could not sleep, and turned his head
Away, and rolled upon his side
So that his eyes could safely hide
And never look on that foul wight.
The chamber was all filled with light,
The curtains were of cendal thin;
This new bride, who lay there within,
Though it was not of his accord,
In both arms did embrace her lord,
And prayed, since he was turned away,
He’d turn around to where she lay,
“For now,” she said, “we’re one alone.”
And he lay still as any stone,
But she spoke ever on, and prayed
He’d think about the vows he made
That time he took her by the hand.
He heard and had to understand
The bond and penance, his by chance.
Then, like a man within a trance,
He turned around quite suddenly,
And by his side, what did he see?
A lady eighteen winters old,
The fairest face the world might hold,
Or that to his eyes might appear;
And while he would have held her near,
She raised her hand with: “By your leave,  
I must beseech a short reprieve.
To play this game, and win or lose,
Between these two things you must choose:
Whether to have me thus at night,
Or else within the daytime’s light.
For you shall not have both the two.”
And he began to grieve anew
In many a wise, and worked his thought,
But for all that, he still could not
Decide upon which one was best.
And she, to put his heart at rest,
Did pray he’d choose, in any case,
Until at last, with knightly grace,
He said: “Oh you, who saved my life,
Say what you like about my strife,
Which of these answers I shall give
I know not, but while I may live,
I wish that you were my mistress,
For by myself, I cannot guess
Which one is best, as to my choice.
Thus will I grant you my whole voice:
Choose for us both, I humbly pray, 
And whatsoever you shall say,
Just as you wish it, so will I.” 
“My lord,” she said, “give thanks thereby,
For with those words you said, wherein
You made me your own sovereign,
My destiny is overcome,
And nothing will be taken from
My beauty, all of which I’ll save
Till I be taken to my grave.
Both day and night, as I am now
I’ll always be to you, I vow.
For of the king of Sicily
I am the daughter. Verily,
When I was with my father last,
For hatred, my stepmother cast
A curse on me that, once begun,
Misshaped me, until I had won
The love and with it, sovereignty
Of any knight, of such degree
Surpassing others of good name.
And since men say you are the same,
This deed has proven it; therefore
I shall be yours forevermore.”
Joy and pleasure followed after:
Each with the other played, with laughter;
They lived long and well, in bliss,
And when the clergy heard of this,
They wrote it down as evidence
To teach us how obedience
May bring a well-starred man to love,
And this will set him far above
All lust, as it befell this knight.

© 2010 by Ellin Anderson. All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be copied or used in any way
without written permission from the author.

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Maple-Key Song
The Black Arts
November in Camelot
Wassail Song

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
The Rooster at Midsummer
Liberty Enlightens the People

The Leap
The Goldfinch
Three Bears
Song of the Lily
White Tree at Twilight

The Spinner
Song for the Harp
The Little Heath-Rose
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Grand Bois du Nord
The Owl
Moth Summer
The Little God of Joy
Photographing the Moon
A Rabbit
Rose, Do You Know
The Two Pining Bachelors

The Harvest Chorus
The Maple Mask
Ghost Cardinal

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