from The Nun's Priest's Tale

translated by Ronald L. Ecker

From Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Hodge & Braddock, Publishers, Copyright 1993 by Ronald L. Ecker and Eugene J. Crook






(We join the cock Chanticleer and his hens)


Sunbathing in the sand, fair Pertelote Lay blithely by her sisters, while the throat Of Chanticleer made song as merrily As that of any mermaid in the sea. 3270 (The Physiologus, with truth to tell, Says mermaids sing both merrily and well.) It so befell that as he cast his eye On the cabbage bed, to catch a butterfly, He caught sight of the fox there lying low. 3275 He didn't have the least desire to crow-- He cried at once "Cock, cock!" with quite a start, As any man fear-stricken in his heart. By instinct every beast desires to flee When he has seen his natural enemy, 3280 Though never laying eyes on him before. This Chanticleer would not have tarried more Once he espied the fox, had not the latter Said, "Gentle sir, alas! what is the matter? I am your friend--are you afraid of me? 3285 I'd be worse than a fiend, most certainly, To do you harm. And please don't think that I Come here upon your privacy to spy; The reason that I've come is not a thing Except that I might listen to you sing. 3290 For truly you've a voice as merry, sire, As any angel's up in heaven's choir. Because of this, in music you've more feeling Than had Boethius, or all who sing. My lord, your father (his soul blessed be) 3295 And mother (she of such gentility) Have both been in my house, to my great pleasure. To have you, sir, I'd love in equal measure. For when men speak of singing, I must say-- As may my eyes see well the light of day-- 3300 Till you, I never heard a mortal sing As did your father when the day would spring. And all he sang was surely from the heart; That more strength to his voice he might impart, He used to strain himself until his eyes 3305 He'd have to blink, so loud were all his cries; And he would have to stand up straight on tiptoe And stretch his neck as far as it would go. And he was one of such discretion, sire, No man was to be found in any shire 3310 Who could in song and wisdom him surpass. I've read the story Sir Burnel the Ass, Wherein it's said that there was once a cock Who from a priest's son suffered quite a knock Upon his leg (a foolish lad's caprice), 3315 For which he made him lose his benefice. But there is no comparing to be based Upon your father's wisdom, his good taste, And a wounded cock's avenging subtlety. Now, sir, please sing, for holy charity; 3320 Let's see how well your father you repeat." Then Chanticleer his wings began to beat, As one who'd been betrayed but couldn't see, So ravished was he by such flattery. Alas! my lords, there are within your courts 3325 False flatterers and other lying sorts Who please you, by my faith, more than the man Who speaks to you the truth as best he can. In Ecclesiastes read of flattery; Beware, my lords, of all their treachery. 3330 This Chanticleer stood high upon his toes; Stretching his neck, he let his two eyes close And loudly he began to crow. Apace The fox Sir Russell sprang out from his place And by the throat grabbed Chanticleer. He bore 3335 Him on his back toward the woodland, for The fox as yet by no one was pursued. O Destiny, you cannot be eschewed! . . . This simple widow and her daughters heard 3375 The woeful crying of the hens. They stirred Themselves at once, leapt up and ran outside; The fox toward the grove they then espied, Bearing away the cock upon his back. They cried out "Help!" and "Mercy!" and "Alack! 3380 Hey, hey, the fox!" And after him they ran, And joining in with staves came many a man, And our dog Collie, Talbot too, and Garland, And Malkin with a distaff in her hand. Ran cow and calf and even all the hogs, 3385 So frightened by the barking of the dogs And shouting of each woman, every man. They thought their hearts would burst, so hard they ran. They yelled like fiends in hell, such was the cry; The ducks all quacked as if about to die; 3390 The geese in fear flew up above the trees; Out of the hive there came a swarm of bees. God knows, the noise was hideous and loud! I'm certain that Jack Straw and all his crowd Did not produce a shouting half as shrill 3395 (When they had found a Fleming they could kill) As all the noise directed at the fox. They brought out trumpets made of brass and box, Of horns and bone, on which they blew and tooted; They also shrieked, they whooped as well as hooted, 3400 Until it seemed that heaven itself would fall. Good men, I pray, please listen one and all, For see how Fortune upsets suddenly The hope and pride now of her enemy! This cock, who on the fox's back still lay, 3405 Despite his fear said to the fox, "I say, What I would do, my lord, if I were you, So help me God, is tell those who pursue, 'Turn back, you fools, you haughty churls all, And may a pestilence upon you fall! 3410 For now that I have reached the woodland's side, In spite of you this cock shall here abide-- I'll eat him up right now in front of you!'" The fox replied, "In faith, that's what I'll do." But as he spoke those words, without a pause 3415 The cock broke nimbly from the fox's jaws And immediately flew high up in a tree. And when the fox had seen his captive flee, "Alas," he said, "O Chanticleer, alas! Against you I am guilty of trespass. 3420 I made you fear what it was all about, To grab you in the yard and bring you out. But, sir, I did it with no ill intent. Come down, and I will tell you what I meant-- The truth, so help me God! You have my oath." 3425 "Nay," said the cock, "a curse upon us both. And first I curse myself, by blood and bone, If more than once I let you lead me on. You shall no more, with words so flattering, Inveigle me to close my eyes and sing. 3430 For him who wills to blink when he should see, God never let there be prosperity!" "No," said the fox, "but God bring to defeat One whose demeanor is so indiscreet That when he ought to hold his peace he chatters." 3435 Lo, such it is to trust in one who flatters, Be negligent, and act so carelessly. But you who judge this tale frivolity (As it's about a fox, or cock and hen), Take seriously the moral, gentlemen. 3440 For all that has been written, says Saint Paul, Is written so that we might learn it all. So take the fruit and let the chaff be still. Now, gracious God, if it should be thy will, As says my lord, make all of us good men 3445 And bring us to high heaven's bliss! Amen.


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