THE MONK’S TALE
De Casibus Virorum Illustrium
I will bewail in manner of tragedy
The ills of those that stood in high degree
And fell so far there was no remedy
To bring them out of their adversity;
For certain ’tis, when Fortune wills to flee,
There may no man the course of her withhold;
Let no man trust in blind prosperity;
Be warned by these examples true and old.
With Lucifer, though he was angel fair
And not a man, with him will I begin;
For though Fortune may not an angel dare,
From high degree yet fell he for his sin
Down into Hell, and he lies yet therein.
O Lucifer, brightest of angels all,
Now art thou Satan, and thou may’st not win
From misery wherein thou far did’st fall!
Lo, Adam, in the garden Damascene,
By God Almighty’s finger wrought was he,
And not begotten of man’s sperm unclean;
He ruled all Paradise, except one tree.
Had never earthly man so high degree
As Adam, till he, for misgovernance,
Was driven from his high prosperity
To labour, and to Hell, and to mischance.
Lo, Samson, whose birth was annunciated
By angel, long ere his nativity,
And was to God Almighty consecrated,
And had nobility while he could see.
Was never such another as was he
For body’s strength, and therewith hardiness;
But to his wives he told his privity,
Whereby he slew himself for wretchedness.
Samson, this noble mighty champion,
Without a weapon in his hands, I say,
He slew and rent in two a young lion,
While to his wedding walking in the way.
His false wife could so please him, she did pray
Till she his secret held, when she, untrue,
Unto his foes that secret did betray
And him forsook for other loves and new.
Three hundred foxes Samson took, for ire,
And bound their brushes well together, and
Then set those foxes’ tails alight with fire,
For he to every one had fixed a brand;
And they burned all the corn of all that land
And all the olive trees and vines, each one.
A thousand men he slew with his own hand,
With no weapon save an ass’s jaw-bone.
When they were slain, he thirsted so that he
Was well nigh lost, for which he prayed, say I,
That God would on his pain have some pity
And send him drink, or must he surely die;
And from that ass’s jaw-bone, then but dry,
Out of a tooth there sprang anon a well,
Whereof he drank his fill and laid it by.
Thus helped him God, as Judges, fifteen, tell.
By very force at Gaza, on a night,
Maugre Philistines of that said city,
The great gates of the town he took with might,
And on his shoulders carried them, did he,
High on a hill where every man might see.
O noble mighty Samson, lief and dear,
Had’st thou not woman told thy privity,
In all this world had never been thy pear.
This Samson never liquor drank, nor wine.
Nor on his head came razor, nor a shear,
Obeying thus the angel’s word divine,
For all his forces in his long locks were;
And fully twenty winters, year by year,
He held of Israel the governance.
But all too soon should he weep many a tear,
For women should betray him to mischance!
Delilah being his darling, her he told
That in his unshorn locks all his strength lay,
And him to foemen then she falsely sold.
For, sleeping in her bosom, on a day,
She clipped and sheared all his long hair away,
Then showed his state unto his enemies,
And when they found him lying in this array
They bound him fast and put out both his eyes.
Before his hair was sheared and shaven close,
There were no bonds wherewith men might him bind;
But now he lies in prison cell, morose,
And labours, when at mill they make him grind.
O noble Samson, strongest of mankind,
O judge, but late, in glory measureless,
Now may’st thou shed hot tears from thine eyes blind,
For thou from wealth art fallen to wretchedness.
This captive’s end was as I now shall say;
His foes they made a feast upon a day,
And made him as their fool before them play,
All in a temple great, of rich array.
But at the last he made a stern affray;
For he two pillars took and caused them fall,
And down came roof and all, and there it lay,
Killing himself and enemies, each and all.
That is to say, those princes, every one,
And full three thousand others who were slain
By falling of that temple built of stone.
To Samson now I’ll not revert again.
Be warned by this example old and plain.
Men should not tell their business to their wives
In such things as of secrecy they’re fain,
And if it touch their limbs or touch their lives.
Of Hercules, the sovereign conquering power,
Sing his deeds’ praise and sing his high renown;
For in his time of strength he was the flower.
He slew, and made a lion’s skin his own;
Of centaurs laid he all the boastings down;
He killed the cruel Harpies, those birds fell;
Brought golden apples from the dragon thrown;
And he stole Cerberus, the hound of Hell.
He slew the cruel tyrant Busiris
And made his horses eat him, flesh and bone;
To a fiery, venomous worm he wrote finis;
Achelous had two horns, but he broke one;
Cacus he slew within his cave of stone;
He slew the giant Anthaeus the strong;
He killed the Erymanthian boar anon;
And bore the heavens upon his shoulders long.
Was never man, since this old world began,
That slew so many monsters as did he.
Throughout all earth’s wide realms his honour ran,
What of his strength and his high chivalry,
And every kingdom went he out to see.
He was so strong no man could hinder him;
At both ends of the world, as says Trophy,
In lieu of limits he set pillars grim.
A darling had this noble champion,
Deianira, sweet as is the May;
And as these ancient writers say, each one,
She sent to him a new shirt, fresh and gay.
Alas that shirt, alas and welaway!
Envenomed was so cunningly withal
That, ere he’d worn the thing but half a day,
It made the flesh from off his bones to fall.
Yet are there writers who do her excuse
Because of Nessus, who the shirt had made;
Howe’er it be, I will not her accuse;
But all his naked back this poison flayed
Until the flesh turned black, and torn, and frayed.
And when he saw no other remedy,
Upon a pyre of hot brands he was laid,
For of no poison would he deign to die.
Thus died this mighty worthy, Hercules.
Lo, who may trust to Fortune any throw?
And he who seeks on earth for fame and case
Ere he’s aware, he’s often brought down low.
Right wise is he that can his own heart know.
Beware, when Fortune may her smile disclose,
She lies in wait her man to overthrow,
And in such wise as he would least suppose.
The precious treasure and the mighty throne,
The glorious sceptre and royal majesty
That Nebuchadnezzar counted as his own
With tongue or pen not easily told may be.
Twice of Jerusalem the victor he;
The Temple’s vessels took he and was glad.
And Babylon was the ancient sovereign see
Wherein his glory and delight he had.
The fairest children of the blood royal
Of Israel, he gelded them anon,
And made each one of them to be his thrall.
Among the number Daniel thus was one,
Of all the youth the nation’s wisest son;
For he the dreams of the great king expounded
When in Chaldea wise clerk was there none
Who knew to what end those dreams were propounded.
This proud king made a statue of pure gold
Full sixty cubits long by seven wide,
Unto which image both the young and old
Commanded he to bow down, nor deride,
Else in a furnace full of flames go bide
And burn to ashes, who would not obey.
But no assent to that, whate’er betide,
Would Daniel and his pair of comrades say.
This king of kings right proud was and elate,
And thought that God, Who sits in majesty,
Could not bereave him of his high estate:
Yet suddenly he lost all dignity,
And like a brute beast then he seemed to be,
And ate hay like an ox, and lay without;
In rain and storm with all wild beasts walked he,
Until a certain time was come about.
And like an eagle’s fathers were his hairs,
His nails like any bird’s claws hooked were;
Till God released him after certain years
And gave him sense; and then, with many a tear,
He gave God thanks; thereafter all in fear
He lived of doing ever again trespass,
And till the time they laid him on his bier,
He knew that God was full of might and grace.
His son, called Belshazzar, or Balthasar,
Who held the realm after his father’s day,
He for his father’s fate would not beware,
For proud, he was of heart and of array;
He was a worshipper of idols aye.
His high estate assured him in his pride.
But Fortune cast him down and there he lay,
And suddenly his kingdom did divide.
A feast he made unto a thousand lords,
Upon a time, and bade them merry be.
Then to his officers he said these words:
“Go fetch me forth the vessels all,” said he,
“Of which my father, in prosperity,
The temple in Jerusalem bereft,
And unto our high gods give thanks that we
Retain the honour that our elders left.”
His wife, his lords, and all his concubines,
They drank then, while that mighty feast did last,
Out of those noble vessels sundry wines.
But on a wall this king his eyes did cast
And saw an armless hand that wrote full fast,
For fear whereof he shook with trouble sore.
This hand that held Belshazzar so aghast
Wrote Mene, mene, tekel, and no more.
In all that land magician was there none
Who could explain what thing this writing meant;
But when they sent for Daniel it was done,
Who said: “O king, God to your father lent
Glory and honour, treasure, government,
And he was proud, nor feared God, being mad,
Wherefore Lord God great misery on him sent,
And him bereft of all the realm he had.
“He was cast out of human company;
With asses was his habitation known;
He ate hay like a beast, through wet and dry,
Until he learned, by grace and reason shown,
That Heaven’s God has dominion, up and down,
Over all realms and everything therein;
And then did God to him compassion own
And gave him back his kingdom and his kin.
“Now you, who are his son, are proud also,
Though you knew all these things, aye verily;
You are a rebel and you are God’s foe.
You drank from out His vessels boastfully;
Your wife and all your wenches sinfully
Drank from those sacred vessels sundry wines,
And praised false gods, and hailed them, wickedly;
Whereof toward you the wrath of God inclines.
“That hand was sent from God which on the wall
Wrote Mene, mene, tekel. Oh, trust me,
Your reign is done, you have no worth at all,
Divided is your realm, and it shall be
To Medes and Persians given now,” said he.
And that night went the king to fill death’s maw,
And so Darius took his high degree,
Though he thereto had naught of right in law.
Masters, therefrom a moral may you take,
That in dominion is no certainness;
For when Fortune will any man forsake,
She takes his realm and all he may possess,
And all his friends, too, both the great and less;
For when a man has friends that Fortune gave,
Mishap but turns them enemies, as I guess:
This word is true for king as well as slave.
Zenobia, of all Palmyra queen
(As write old Persians of her nobleness),
So mighty was in warfare, and so keen,
That no man her surpassed in hardiness,
Nor yet in lineage, nor in gentleness.
Of blood of Persia’s kings she was descended;
I say not she had greatest beauteousness,
But of her figure naught could be amended.
From childhood on I find that she had fled
Duties of women, and to wildwood went;
And many a wild hart’s blood therein she shed
With arrows broad that she within them sent.
So swift she was, she ran them down all spent;
And when she was grown older she would kill
Lions and leopards, and bears too she rent,
And in her arms she broke them at her will.
She even dared the wild beasts’ dens to seek,
And ran upon the mountains all the night,
Sleeping beneath a bush; and, nothing weak,
Wrestled by very force and very might
With any man, however brave in fight;
For there was nothing in her arms could stand.
She kept her maidenhead from every wight,
And unto no man would she yield her hand.
But at the last her friends did make her marry
Odenathus, a prince of that country,
Albeit she long waited and did tarry;
And you must understand that also he
Held to the same queer fancies as had she.
Nevertheless, when wedded, ‘twould appear
They lived in joy and all felicity,
For each of them held other lief and dear.
But to one thing she never would consent,
For any prayers, that he should near her lie
Save one night only, when ’twas her intent
To have a child, since men should multiply;
Yet when she learned she’d got no pregnancy
From that night’s work together on her bed,
Then would she suffer him again to try,
But only once indeed, and then with dread.
And when she was with child, all at the last,
Then no more might he play at that same game
Till fully forty days were gone and past;
Then would she once more suffer him the same
And were Odenathus grown wild or tame,
He got no more of her; for thus she’d say:
“In wives it is but lechery and shame
When, oftener, men with their bodies play.
Two sons by this Odenathus had she,
The which she bred in virtue and learning;
But now again unto our tale turn we.
I say, so worshipful a young being,
Wise, and right generous in everything,
Careful in war and courteous as well,
And hardy in the field, and full daring,
Was not in all the world where men do dwell.
Her rich array may not be rightly told,
Either of vessels or of fine clothing;
She was clad all in jewels and in gold;
And she did never cease, despite hunting,
To gain of divers tongues a full knowing,
Whenever she had time; she did intend
To learn from books, which were to her liking,
How she in virtue might her whole life spend.
And briefly of this story now to treat,
So doughty was her husband, as was she,
That they two conquered many kingdoms great
Throughout the East, with many a fair city
That did pertain unto the majesty
Of Rome; and with strong hands they held them fast;
Nor might a foe escape by trying to flee
The while Odenathus’ good days did last.
Her battles all (as whoso wills may read)
Against Sapor the king and others too,
And all her story as it fell, indeed,
Why she was victor and had right thereto,
And, after, all her misfortune and woe,
How they besieged her and at last did take,
Let him unto my master Petrarch go,
Who wrote the whole of this, I undertake.
Now when Odenathus was dead, then she
The kingdom held within her own strong hand;
Against her foes she fought so bitterly
There was no king or prince in all that land
But was right glad, if mercy make her bland,
That she turned not against him her array;
With her they made alliance, bond and band,
To keep the peace and let her ride and play.
The emperor of Rome, on Claudius
(His predecessor, Galien too, that man),
Had never courage to oppose her thus;
Nor was Egyptian nor Armenian,
Nor Syrian, nor yet Arabian
That dared against her in the field to fight,
For fear that at her hands they might be slain,
Or by her army put to sudden flight.
In kingly habit went her sons also,
As being heirs to their sire’s kingdoms all,
Athenodorus and Thymalao
Their names were (or the Greeks did so them call).
But Fortune’s honey is aye mixed with gall;
This mighty queen could no great while endure.
And Fortune from her high throne made her fall
To wretchedness and into ways obscure.
Aurelian, when Roman governance
Came to his two strong hands, made no delay,
But swore that on this queen he’d wreak vengeance,
And so with mighty legions took his way
Against Zenobia; let me briefly say
He made her flee; and at the last he sent
And fettered her and her two sons one day,
And won the land, and home to Rome he went.
Among the other booty Asian
Her chariot was, of gold and jewellery,
And this great Roman, this Aurelian,
He carried it away for men to see.
Before his car in triumph then walked she
With golden chains upon her neck hanging;
Crowned was she, too, to show her high degree,
And full of priceless gems was her clothing.
Alas, Fortune! She that but lately was
The scourge of kings and emperors and powers,
Now may the rabble gape at her, alas!
And she that, armed, rode where grim battle lowers
And took by force great cities and strong towers,
Must wear a cap now while her two eyes weep;
And she that bore the sceptre of carved flowers
May bear a distaff and thus earn her keep.
PEDRO, KING OF SPAIN
O noble Pedro, glory once of Spain,
Whom Fortune held so high in majesty,
Well ought men read thy piteous death with pain!
Out of thy land thy brother made thee flee;
And later, at a siege, by scheme crafty,
Thou wert betrayed, and led into his tent,
Where he then, and with his own hand, slew thee,
Succeeding to thy realm and government.
The field of snow, with eagle black therein,
Caught by the lime-rod, coloured as the gleed,
He brewed this wickedness and all this sin.
The “Wicked Nest” was worker of this deed;
Not that Charles Oliver who aye took heed
Of truth and honour, but the Armorican
Ganelon Oliver, corrupt for mead,
Brought low this worthy king by such a plan.
PETER, KING OF CYPRUS
O noble Peter, Cyprus’ lord and king,
Which Alexander won by mastery,
To many a heathen ruin did’st thou bring;
For this thy lords had so much jealousy,
That, for no crime save thy high chivalry,
All in thy bed they slew thee on a morrow.
And thus does Fortune’s wheel turn treacherously
And out of happiness bring men to sorrow.
BERNABO OF LOMBARDY
Of Milan, great Bernabo Visconti,
God of delight and scourge of Lombardy,
Why should I tell not of thy misery,
Since in all power thou did’st climb so high?
Thy brother’s son, and doubly thine ally,
For he thy nephew was and son-in-law,
Within his prison shut thee up to die,
But I know not how death to thee did draw.
UGOLINO, COUNT OF PISA
Of Ugolino, Count of Pisa’s woe
No tongue can tell the half for hot pity.
Near Pisa stands a tower, and it was so
That to be there imprisoned doomed was he,
While with him were his little children three,
The eldest child was scarce five years of age.
Alas, Fortune! It was great cruelty
To lock such birds into such a cage!
Condemned was he to die in that prison,
Since Ruggieri, Pisa’s bishop, twice
Had lied, intrigued, and egged old passions on,
Whereby the people did against him rise,
And thrust him into prison in such wise
As you have heard; and meat and drink he had
So little that it could not long suffice,
And was, moreover, very poor and bad.
And on a day befell it, at the hour
When commonly to him his food was brought,
The gaoler shut the great doors of the tower.
He heard it well enough, but he said naught,
And to his heart anon there came the thought
That they by hunger would leave him to die.
“Alas,” said he, “that ever I was wrought!”
And thereupon the tears fell from his eye.
His youngest son, who three years was of age,
Unto him said: “Father, why do you weep?
When will the gaoler bring us out pottage?
Is there no crumb of bread that you did keep?
I am so hungry that I cannot sleep.
Now would God that I might sleep on for aye!
Then should not hunger through my belly creep;
For nothing more than bread I’d rather pray.”
Thus, day by day, this little child did cry,
Till on his father’s breast at length he lay
And said: “Farewell, my father, I must die.”
And kissed the man and died that very day.
And when the father saw it dead, I say,
For grief his arms gnawed he until blood came,
And said: “Alas, Fortune and welaway,
It is thy treacherous wheel that I must blame!”
His children thought that it for hunger was
He gnawed his arms, and not that ’twas for woe,
And cried: “O father, do not thus, alas!
But rather eat our young flesh, even so;
This flesh you gave us; take it back and go
And eat enough!” ‘Twas thus those children cried,
And after that, within a day or two,
They laid themselves upon his knees and died.
Himself, despairing, all by hunger starved,
Thus ended this great count of Pisa’s cries;
All his vast riches Fortune from him carved.
Of his fate tragic let thus much suffice.
Whoso would hear it told in longer wise,
Let him read the great bard of Italy
Whom men call Dante; seen through Dante’s eyes
No point is slurred, nor in one word fails he.
Though viciousness had Nero in overplus,
As ever fiend that’s low in torment thrown.
Yet he, as tells us old Suetonius,
This whole wide world held subject; aye, did own,
East, west, south, north, wherever Rome was known.
Of rubies, sapphires, and of great pearls white
Were all his garments broidered up and down,
For he in jewels greatly did delight.
More delicate, more pompous of array,
More proud was never emperor than he;
That toga which he wore on any day,
After that time he nevermore would see.
Nets of gold thread he had in great plenty
To fish in Tiber when he pleased to play.
His lusts were all the laws in his decree,
For Fortune was his friend and would obey.
He burned Rome for his delicate profligacy;
Some senators he slew upon a day
Only to learn how men might weep and cry;
He killed his brother and with his sister lay.
His mother put he into piteous way,
For he her belly ripped up just to see
Where he had been conceived; alack-a-day,
That but so little for her life cared he!
No tear out of his two eyes for that sight
Came, but he said: “A woman fair was she.”
Great wonder is it how he could or might
Pass judgment thus upon her dead beauty.
Wine to be brought him then commanded he
And drank anon; no other sign he made.
When might is wedded unto cruelty,
Alas, too deep its venom will pervade!
A master had, in youth, this emperor,
To teach him letters and all courtesy,
For of morality he was the flower
In his own time, unless the old books lie;
And while this master held his mastery,
So well he taught him wiles and subtle ways
That ere could tempt him vice or tyranny
Was, it is said, the length of many days.
This Seneca, of whom I do apprise,
By reason Nero held him in such dread,
Since he for vices spared not to chastise,
Discreetly, though, by word and not by deed-
“Sir,” would he say, “an emperor must need
Be virtuous and hate all tyranny”-
For which, in bath, did Nero make him bleed
From both his arms until he had to die.
This Nero had, though, out of arrogance,
Been wont, in youth, against the rod to rise,
Which afterward he thought a great grievance;
Wherefore he made him perish in this wise.
Nevertheless, this Seneca the wise
Chose in a bath to die, as you did hear,
Rather than suffer in some other guise;
And thus did Nero slay his master dear.
Now it befell that Fortune cared no longer
To Nero’s high pride to be accomplice;
For though he might be strong, yet she was stronger;
She thought thus: “By God, I am none too nice,
Setting a man who is but filled with vice
In high degree, emperor over all.
By God, up from his seat I will him trice;
When he least thinks of it, then shall he fall.”
The people rose against him, on a night,
For all his faults; and when he it espied,
Out of the doors he went and took to flight
Alone; and where he thought he was allied
He knocked; but always, and the more he cried
The faster did they bar the doors, aye all;
Then learned he well he’d been his own worst guide,
And went his way, nor longer dared to call.
The people cried and rumbled up and down,
And, having ears, he heard the thing they said:
“Where’s this false tyrant Nero, where’s he flown?”
For fear almost out of his wits he strayed,
And to his gods, then, piously he prayed
For succour, but no help might him betide.
For fear of this he wished himself unmade,
And ran into a garden, there to hide.
And in this garden were two fellows, yea,
Who sat before a great fire and a red,
And to those fellows he began to pray
That they would slay him and strike off his head,
But of his body, after he was dead,
They should do nothing to its further shame.
Himself he slew, no better counsel sped,
Whereat Dame Fortune laughed and made a game.
Was never captain, no, of any king’s
That had more kingdoms in subjection thrown,
Nor stronger was, in field; above all things,
Nor in his time a greater of renown,
Nor had more pomp with high presumption shown,
Than Holofernes, whom Dame Fortune kissed
Right lecherously, and led him up and down
Until his head was off before ’twas missed.
Not only did this world hold him in awe
For taking all its wealth and liberty,
But he made every man renounce old law.
“Nebuchadnezzar is your god,” said he,
“And now no other god shall worshipped be.”
Against his order no man dared to stand,
Save in Bethulia, a strong city,
Where Eliachim priest was of the land.
But from the death of Holofernes learn.
Amidst his host he lay drunk, on a night,
Within his tent, as large as ever barn,
And yet, for all his pomp and all his might,
Judith, a woman, as he lay upright,
Sleeping, smote off his head and from his tent
Stole secretly away from every wight,
And with the head to her own town she went.
What needs it, as for King Antiochus,
To tell his high and royal majesty,
His great pride and his deeds so venomous?
There never was another such as he.
Go read what’s said of him in Maccabee,
And all the haughty sayings that he said,
And how he fell from high prosperity,
And on a hill how wretchedly lay dead.
Fortune had so enhanced the man’s great pride
That verily he thought he might attain
Unto the utter stars on every side,
And in a balance weigh the high mountain,
And all the flood-tides of the sea restrain.
And God’s own people held he most in hate.
Them would he slay with torment and with pain,
Thinking that God his pride would not abate.
And because Nicanor and Timothy
Were vanquished by the Jews so mightily,
Unto all Jews so great a hate had he
That he bade bring his chariot hastily,
And swore an oath and said, impiteously,
That to Jerusalem he’d go ere noon
To wreak his ire on it full cruelly;
But from his purpose he was turned, and soon.
God, for this menace, smote him then full sore
With wound invisible, incurable,
For in his guts he was so carved, aye more,
The pain of it was insupportable.
And certainly the thing was reasonable,
For many a man’s guts he had caused to pain;
But from his purpose, cursed, damnable,
In spite of all he would not him restrain.
He gave command to marshal his great host,
And suddenly, or ere he was aware,
God daunted all his pride and all his boast.
For he so heavily fell from his car
That from his very bones the flesh did tear,
So that he might not either walk or ride,
But in a litter men were forced to bear
Him with them, bruised upon the back and side.
The wrath of God smote him so cruelly
That through his body loathsome maggots crept;
And therewithal he stank so horribly
That none of those that round his person kept,
Whether he lay awake or whether slept,
Could, for the very stench of him, endure.
In this foul state he wailed and howled and wept;
That God was Lord of all he then was sure.
To all his host and to himself also
Full loathsome was his carrion, one great blain;
There were no men could bear him to and fro.
And in this stink and in this horrid pain
He died full wretchedly on a mountain.
Thus had this robber and this homicide,
Who made so many men weep and complain,
Such guerdon as belongs to too great pride.
Alexander’s tale is so well known a tune
That everyone who is not simple grown
Has heard somewhat, or all, of his fortune
This whole wide world, to state conclusion known,
He won by strength, or else for his renown
Right gladly men to sue for peace did send.
The pride of man and beast he tumbled down
Where’er he went, and that was the world’s end.
Comparison might never yet be staked
Upon a single similar conquering power;
For all this world in dread of him has quaked.
He was of knighthood and of freedom flower;
Fortune made him her heir to honour’s bower;
Save wine and women, nothing might assuage
His high intent in arms; all men must cower,
So filled he was of leonine courage.
What praise were it to him, though ‘gain were told
Darius’ tale or of others brought low-
Of kings and dukes and earls and princes bold,
The which he conquered and brought down to woe?
I say, as far as man may ride or go
The world was his, to tell it in a trice.
For though I wrote or told you always, so,
Of his knighthood, the time would not suffice.
Twelve years he reigned, as tells us Maccabee;
And Philip’s son of Macedon he was,
Who first was king of Greece, the whole country.
O noble Alexander, O alas!
That ever you should come to such a pass!
For poisoned by your very own you were;
Your six did Fortune turn into an ace,
And yet for you she never wept a tear!
Who shall give me the tears now to complain
For death of gentle blood and high franchise?
He all the world did wield as one domain,
And yet he thought it could not long suffice,
So full his heart was of high enterprise.
Alas! And who shall help me to indict
False Fortune, and all poison to despise?
For these I blame for all the woe I write.
By wisdom, manhood, and by great labour,
From humble bed to royal majesty
Up rose he, Julius the conqueror,
Who won the Occident by land and sea,
By force of arms, or else by clear treaty,
And unto Rome made all this tributary;
And then of Rome the emperor was he,
Till Fortune came to be his adversary.
O mighty Caesar, who in Thessaly
Against great Pompey, father of yours in law,
That of the East had all the chivalry
From farthest places that the sun e’er saw,
You, by your knighthood broke them for death’s maw,
Save those few men who thence with Pompey fled,
Whereby you put the Orient in awe.
Thank Fortune now that you so well have sped.
But now a little while I will bewail
This Pompey, this so noble governor
Of Rome, who fled when battle’s chance did fail;
I say, one of his men, a false traitor,
Smote off his head to win himself favour
With Julius, and there the head he brought.
Alas, Pompey! Of Orient conqueror,
That Fortune such an end for thee hath wrought!
To Rome again repaired great Julius,
To have his triumph, laureate full high;
But on a time Brutus and Cassius,
Who ever had of great estate envy,
Full secretly did lay conspiracy
Against this Julius, in subtle wise,
And fixed the place at which he soon should die
By dagger thrusts, as I shall you apprise.
This Julius, to the Capitol he went
Upon a day, as he’d been wont to go,
And there they seized on him, as well they meant,
This treacherous Brutus and each other foe,
And struck him with their daggers, high and low,
And gave him many a wound and let him die;
But never groaned he, save at one stroke, no
(Or two perchance), unless his legend lie.
So manly was this Julius in his heart,
And so well loved he stately decency,
That, though his deadly wounds did burn and smart,
His mantle yet about his hips cast he,
That no man there should see his privity.
And as he lay there, dying, in a trance,
And knew that he was dying, verily,
Of decency yet had he remembrance.
Lucan to tell this story I commend,
Suetonius too, Valerius also,
Who of the tale have written to the end
And told how, of these mighty conquerors two,
Fortune was first the friend and then the foe.
No man may trust in Fortune’s favour long,
But as one fearing ambush must he go.
Witness the end of all these conquerors strong.
The wealthy Croesus, Lydia’s sometime king,
Of which Croesus King Cyrus had such dread,
Yet was he taken, in his pride swelling,
And to be burned upon a pyre was led.
But such a rain down from the clouds was shed
As quenched the fire and let him there escape;
But to be warned, no grace was in him spread
Till Fortune on the gallows made him gape.
When he’d escaped, not changed was his intent
To march at once into new wars again.
He thought right well ’twas Fortune that had sent
Such chance that he’d escape because of rain,
And that by foes he never should be slain;
And then a vision in the night he met,
At which he waxed so proud and grew so fain
That upon vengeance all his heart was set.
Upon a tree he was, or so he thought,
Where Jupiter did wash him, back and side,
And Phoebus, then, a fair white towel brought
To dry him with and thereby swell his pride;
And to his daughter, who stood there beside,
And well, he knew, in knowledge did abound,
He bade interpret what it signified,
And she his dream in this wise did expound.
“The tree,” she said, “the gallows is to mean,
And Jupiter betokens snow and rain,
While Phoebus with his towel white and clean,
That is the sunbeams beating down amain;
You shall be hanged, O father, ’tis certain;
The rain shall wash you and the sun shall dry.”
And thus she gave him warning flat and plain,
His daughter, who was Phania, say I.
So hanged was Croesus, that proud Lydian king,
His royal throne could nothing then avail.
Tragedy is no other kind of thing;
Nor can the singer cry aught, or bewail,
But that Dame Fortune always will assail
With unwarned stroke those great ones who are proud;
For when men trust her most, then will she fail
And cover her bright face as with a cloud.
HERE THE KNIGHT HALTED THE MONK IN HIS TALE