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  • Title: The Monk's Tale (Selections)
  • Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Editor: Michael Best
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Editor: Michael Best
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    The Monk's Tale (Selections)

    Chaucer's Canterbury Tales relate a series of stories told by the pilgrims in turn, to pass the time as they make their way to the shrine of Thomas a'Becket in Canterbury Cathedrao. When it comes to be the Monk's turn, the Host jokes that the Monk is likely to tell a cheerful, bawdy tale, like some that have been heard earlier. The Monk takes exception to this suggestion, and announces that he will narrate a series of tragedies to emphasize the tenuousness of human happiness. He explains that
    Tragedy is to say a certain story,
    As old books maken us memory,
    Of him that stood in greet prosperity
    And is y-fallen out of high degree
    Into misery, and endeth wretchedly.
    To the Monk, following a long tradition of medieval thinkers, the principal requirement of tragedy is that someone of high stature is brought low by the abrupt turning of Fortune's wheel. The Monk chooses some conventional tales (he begins with the falls of Lucifer and Adam), some more sensational. He tends to take particular interest in the gorier moments of the deaths of his subjects, and in many cases stresses the betrayal of others rather than the shortcomings of his famous subjects. This approach contrasts with Aristotle's view of tragedy.
    This brief selection includes two short tragedies, those of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar (a character of great interest to Shakespeare). In each the Monk emphasizes the capriciousness of Fortune; the fall of the great men is not of necessity the result of their own errors or excesses. I have modernized spelling and some vocabulary where this does not interfere with the rhythm or rhyme; many words were pronounced differently, and I have indicated some places where this will influence the rhythm of the lines.
    0.5From The Monk's Tale
    Here beginneth the Monk's Tale, De Casibus Virorum Illustrium.
    1I will bewail in manner of tragedy
    The harm of them that stood in high degree,
    And fallen so that there was no remedy
    To bring them out of their adversity;
    5For certain, when that Fortune list to flee
    There may no man the course of her withhold.
    Let no man trust on blind prosperity;
    Beware by these examples true and old.
    Of Alexander
    The story of Alexander is so common,
    10That every wight that hath discretiòn
    Hath heard somewhat or all of his fortune.
    This wide world, as in conclusiòn,
    He won by strength, or for his high renown
    They weren glad for peace unto him send.
    15The pride of man and beast he laid a-down,
    Whereso he came, unto the worldès end.
    Comparison might never yet be maked
    Betwixt him and another conqueror,
    For all this world for dread of him hath quaked.
    20He was of knighthood and of freedom flower;
    Fortune him made the heir of her honor;
    Save wine and women, nothing might assuage
    His high intent in arms and labor,
    So was he full of leonine courage.
    25What praise were it to him, though I you told
    Of Darius, and an hundred thousand more,
    Of kings, princes, earls, dukes bold,
    Which he conquered, and brought them into woe?
    I say, as far as man may ride or go
    30The world was his, what should I more devise?
    For though I write or told you evermo
    Of his knighthood, it might not suffice.
    Twelve year he reigned, as saith Maccabee;
    Philip's son of Macedone he was,
    35That first was king in Greece the country.
    O worthy gentle Alexander, alas,
    That ever should fallen such a case!
    Empoisoned of thine own folk thou were;
    Thy six fortune hath turned into ace;
    40And for thee nor weep she never a tear!
    Who shall me yeven tears to complain
    The death of gentillesse and of franchise
    That all the world wielded in his domain,
    And yet him thought it might not suffice?
    45So full was his corage of high emprise.
    Alas, who shall me help to indite
    False Fortune, and poison to despise,
    The which two of all this woe I wite?
    Of Julius Caesar
    By wisdom, manhood, and by great labor
    50From humble bed to royal majesty,
    Up rose he, Julius the conqueror,
    That won all th'occident by land and sea,
    By strength of hand, or else by treaty,
    And unto Rome made them tributary;
    55And since of Rome the emperor was he,
    Till that Fortune wax his adversary.
    O mighty Caesar, that in Thessaly
    Against Pompeius, father thine in law,
    That of th'orient had all the chivalry
    60As far as that the day beginneth dawe,
    Thou through thy knighthood hast them take and slew,
    Save few folk that with Pompeius fled,
    Through which thou puttest all th'orient in awe.
    Thank Fortune, that so well thee sped!
    65But now a little while I will bewail
    This Pompeius, this noble governor
    Of Rome which that flee at this battle;
    I say one of his men, a false traitor,
    His head off smote, to winnen him favor
    70Of Julius, and him the head he brought.
    Alas, Pompey, of th'orient conqueror,
    That Fortune unto such a fin thee brought!
    To Rome again repaireth Julius
    With his triumph, laureate full high,
    75But on a time Brutus, Cassius,
    That ever had of his high estate envy,
    Full privily hath made conspiracy
    Against this Julius, in subtle wise,
    And cast the place, in which he should die
    80With bodkins, as I shall you devise.
    This Julius to the Capitolie went
    Upon a day, as he was wont to goon,
    And in the Capitolie anon him hent
    This false Brutus and his other foon,
    85And sticked him with bodkins anon
    With many a wound, and thus they let him lie;
    But never groaned he at no stroke but one,
    Or else at two, but if his story lie.
    So manly was this Julius at heart
    90And so well loved estately honesty,
    That, though his deadly wounds sore smart,
    His mantle over his hips casteth he,
    For no man should see his privity.
    And, as he lay on dying in a trance,
    95And wist verily that dead was he,
    Of honesty yet had he remembrance.
    Lucan, to thee this story I recommend,
    And to Sueton, and to Valery also,
    That of this story written word and end,
    100How that to these great conquerors two
    Fortune was first friend, and sithen foe.
    No man ne trust upon her favour long,
    But have her in await for evermore.
    Witness on all these conquerors strong.