These are my translations of three rondels attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer. I have also translated rondels by Charles d'Orleans, who rivaled Chaucer in the genre despite only learning English after becoming a POW!


My Translations of Three Rondels by Geoffrey Chaucer

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 yën 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 yën 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 yën 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 passed.
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.



Other medieval English poetry translations (i.e., Middle English translations) ...

A bio of Charles d’Orleans follows my translations of his poems. One of the poems translated is the first known Valentine poem.

Spring
by Charles d’Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Young lovers,
greeting the spring
fling themselves downhill,
making cobblestones ring
with their wild leaps and arcs,
like ecstatic sparks
drawn from coal.

What is their brazen goal?

They grab at whatever passes,
so we can only hazard guesses.
But they rear like prancing steeds
raked by brilliant spurs of need,
Young lovers.

***

Confession of a Stolen Kiss
by Charles d’Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My ghostly father, I confess,
First to God and then to you,
That at a window (you know how)
I stole a kiss of great sweetness,
Which was done out of avidness—
But it is done, not undone, now.

My ghostly father, I confess,
First to God and then to you.

But I shall restore it, doubtless,
Again, if it may be that I know how;
And thus to God I make a vow,
And always I ask forgiveness.

My ghostly father, I confess,
First to God and then to you.

Translator note: By "ghostly father" I take Charles d’Orleans to be confessing to a priest. If so, it's ironic that the kiss was "stolen" at a window and the confession is being made at the window of a confession booth. But it also seems possible that Charles could be confessing to his human father, murdered in his youth and now a ghost. There is wicked humor in the poem, as Charles is apparently vowing to keep asking for forgiveness because he intends to keep stealing kisses at every opportunity!

***

Oft in My Thought
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

So often in my busy mind I sought,
Around the advent of the fledgling year,
For something pretty that I really ought
To give my lady dear;
But that sweet thought's been wrested from me, clear,
Since death, alas, has sealed her under clay
And robbed the world of all that's precious here—
God keep her soul, I can no better say.

For me to keep my manner and my thought
Acceptable, as suits my age's hour?
While proving that I never once forgot
Her worth? It tests my power!
I serve her now with masses and with prayer;
For it would be a shame for me to stray
Far from my faith, when my time's drawing near—
God keep her soul, I can no better say.

Now earthly profits fail, since all is lost
and the cost of everything became so dear;
Therefore, O Lord, who rules the higher host,
Take my good deeds, as many as there are,
And crown her, Lord, above in your bright sphere,
As heaven's truest maid! And may I say:
Most good, most fair, most likely to bring cheer—
God keep her soul, I can no better say.

When I praise her, or hear her praises raised,
I recall how recently she brought me pleasure;
Then my heart floods like an overflowing bay
And makes me wish to dress for my own bier—
God keep her soul, I can no better say.

***

Rondel: Your Smiling Mouth
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains,
Your hands so smooth, each finger straight and plain,
Your little feet—please, what more can I say?

It is my fetish when you’re far away
To muse on these and thus to soothe my pain—
Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains.

So would I beg you, if I only may,
To see such sights as I before have seen,
Because my fetish pleases me. Obscene?
I’ll be obsessed until my dying day
By your sweet smiling mouth and eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains!

***

The season has cast its coat aside
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

The season has cast its coat aside
of wind and cold and rain,
to dress in embroidered light again:
bright sunlight, fit for a bride!

There isn't a bird or beast astride
that fails to sing this sweet refrain:
"The season has cast its coat aside!"

Now rivers, fountains, springs and tides
dressed in their summer best
with silver beads impressed
in a fine display now glide:
the season has cast its coat aside!

***

The year lays down his mantle cold
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

The year lays down his mantle cold
of wind, chill rain and bitter air,
and now goes clad in clothes of gold
of smiling suns and seasons fair,
while birds and beasts of wood and fold
now with each cry and song declare:
“The year lays down his mantle cold!”
All brooks, springs, rivers, seaward rolled,
now pleasant summer livery wear
with silver beads embroidered where
the world puts off its raiment old.
The year lays down his mantle cold.

***

Winter has cast his cloak away
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Winter has cast his cloak away
of wind and cold and chilling rain
to dress in embroidered light again:
the light of day—bright, festive, gay!
Each bird and beast, without delay,
in its own tongue, sings this refrain:
“Winter has cast his cloak away!”
Brooks, fountains, rivers, streams at play,
wear, with their summer livery,
bright beads of silver jewelry.
All the Earth has a new and fresh display:
Winter has cast his cloak away!

Note: This rondeau was set to music by Debussy in his “Trois chansons de France.”

***

Charles d’Orleans has been credited with writing the first Valentine card, in the form of a poem for his wife. He wrote the poem in 1415 at age 21, in the first year of his captivity while being held prisoner in the Tower of London after having been captured by the British at the Battle of Agincourt. The Battle of Agincourt was the centerpiece of William Shakespeare’s historical play Henry V, in which Charles appears as a character. At age 16, Charles had married the 11-year-old Bonne of Armagnac in a political alliance, which explains the age difference he mentions in his poem. (Coincidentally, I share his wife’s birthday, the 19th of February.) Unfortunately, Charles would be held prisoner for a quarter century and would never see his wife again, as she died before he was released.

Why did Charles call his wife “Valentine”? Well, his mother’s name was Valentina Visconti ...

My Very Gentle Valentine
by Charles d’Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My very gentle Valentine,
Alas, for me you were born too soon,
As I was born too late for you!
May God forgive my jailer
Who has kept me from you this entire year.
I am sick without your love, my dear,
My very gentle Valentine.

Charles d’Orleans (1394-1465) was a French royal born into an aristocratic family: his grandfather was Charles V of France and his uncle was Charles VI. His father, Louis I, Duke of Orleans, was a patron of poets and artists. The poet Christine de Pizan dedicated poems to his mother, Valentina Visconti. He became the Duke of Orleans at age 13 after his father was murdered by John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. He was captured at age 21 in the battle of Agincourt and taken to England, where he remained a prisoner for the next quarter century. While imprisoned there he learned English and wrote poetry of a high order in his second language. A master of poetic forms, he wrote primarily ballades, chansons, complaints and rondeaux/roundels/rondels. He has been called the “father of French lyric poetry” and has also been credited with writing the first Valentine’s Day poem.

***

Adam Lay Ybounden
(anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa early 15th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Adam lay bound, bound in a bond;
Four thousand winters, he thought, were not too long.
And all was for an apple, an apple that he took,
As clerics now find written in their book.
But had the apple not been taken, or had it never been,
We'd never have had our Lady, heaven's queen and matron.
So blesséd be the time the apple was taken thus;
Therefore we sing, "God is gracious!"

The poem has also been rendered as "Adam lay i-bounden" and "Adam lay i-bowndyn."

***

Excerpt from “Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Fuerunt?”
anonymous Middle English poem, circa 1275
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Where are the men who came before us,
who led hounds and hawks to the hunt,
who commanded fields and woods?
Where are the elegant ladies in their boudoirs
who braided gold through their hair
and had such fair complexions?

Once eating and drinking gladdened their hearts;
they enjoyed their games;
men bowed before them;
they bore themselves loftily ...
But then, in an eye’s twinkling,
they were gone.

Where, now, are their laughter and their songs,
the trains of their dresses,
the arrogance of their entrances and exits,
their hawks and their hounds?
All their joy has vanished;
their “well” has come to “oh, well”
and to many dark days ...

***

Is this the oldest carpe diem poem in the English language?

Whan the turuf is thy tour
anonymous Middle English poem, circa the 13th century AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

1.
When the turf is your tower
and the pit is your bower,
your pale white skin and throat
shall be sullen worms’ to note.
What help unto you, then,
was all your worldly hope?

2.
When the turf is your tower
and the grave is your bower,
your pale white throat and skin
worm-eaten from within ...
what hope of my help then?

Original text:

Whan the turuf is thy tour,
And thy pit is thy bour,
Thy fel and thy whitë throtë
Shullen wormës to notë.
What helpëth thee thennë
Al the worildë wennë?

“Whan the turuf is thy tour” may be one of the oldest carpe diem (“seize the day”) poems in the English language, and an ancestor of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” with its virginity-destroying worms. The second translation leans more toward the "lover's complaint" and carpe diem genres.




Poetry by Michael R. Burch The PoetBay support member heart!
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Written on 2021-06-04 at 02:53

Tags Chaucer  Rondel 

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Coo & Co The PoetBay support member heart!
These are delightful, Mike. At Coo & Co, we weren't aware that Chaucer had composed rondels; and we hadn't heard of the form until very recently. We very much enjoy your translations, particularly 'I count it not a bean'.

We grante yow three benes (or something) :>)
2021-06-04