“Ballade” by Geoffrey Chaucer

This poem by Geoffrey Chaucer was translated with the help of a Middle English Glossary of Chaucer. The original poem is on the left, and my modern English translation is on the right. An analysis of the poem follows.

1 Hyd, Absolon, thy gilte tresses clere; Hide, Absalom, your bright golden hair;
2 Ester, ley thou thy meknesse al adoun; Esther, lay your meekness down;
3 Hyd, Jonathas, al thy frendly manere; Hide, Jonathan, all your friendly manner;
4 Penalopee, and Marcia Catoun, Penelope, and Marcia Catoun,
5 Mak of your wyfhod no comparisoun; Make of your wifehood no comparison;
6 Hyde ye your beautes, Isoude and Eleyne; Hide your beauty, Isolde and Helen;
7 My lady cometh, that al this may disteyne. My lady’s coming, and she outshines you all.
8 Thy faire body, lat hit nat appere, Your beautiful body, let it not appear,
9 Lavyne; and thou, Lucresse of Rome toun, Lavinia; and you, Lucretia of Roman town,
10 And Polixene, that boghten love so dere, And Polyxena, who purchased love so dear,
11 And Cleopatre, with al thy passioun, And Cleopatra, with all your passion,
12 Hyde ye your trouthe of love and your renoun; Hide your pledge of love and your fame;
13 And thou, Tisbe, that hast of love swich peyne; And you, Thisbe, who suffered so much for love;
14 My lady cometh, that al this may disteyne. My lady’s coming, and she outshines you all.
15 Herro, Dido, Laudomia, alle yfere, Hero, Dido, Laodamia, all together,
16 And Phyllis, hanging for thy Demophoun, And Phyllis, hanging for your Demophon,
17 And Canace, espyed by thy chere, And Canace, discovered by your appearance,
18 Ysiphile, betraysed with Jasoun, Hypsipyle, betrayed by Jason,
19 Maketh of your trouthe neyther boost ne soun; Make of your faithfulness neither boast nor sound;
20 Nor Ypermistre or Adriane, ye tweyne; Nor Hypermnestra or Ariadne, you two;
21 My lady cometh, that al this may disteyne. My lady’s coming, and she outshines you all.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340s – 1400) was the well-known author of The Canterbury Tales. He has been called the “Father of English literature,” and he is seen as the most important English poet of the Middle Ages.

In the present lyrical poem, Chaucer uses seven-line stanzas that rhyme ababbcc, as we can see from the last words from the first stanza: clere (a), adoun (b), manere (a), Catoun (b), comparisoun (b), Eleyne (c), and disteyne (c). Each stanza ends with the same line, called a refrain. Each line in the poem has about ten syllables.

In this poem, Chaucer lists a number of luminaries from the Bible and mythology, and he concludes that these famous people cannot compare with his lady. The refrain (L7, L14, and L21) says, “My lady cometh, that al this may disteyne.” Literally, this could be translated as “My lady’s coming, that all this may become dim.” In other words, all of the mentioned luminaries cannot hold a candle to his lady. Or, as I translated it, “My lady’s coming, and she outshines you all.”

The luminaries in this poem consist of the following: Absalom (L1), Esther (L2), and Jonathan (L3) were three Biblical figures; Penelope and Marcia Catoun (L4) were faithful wives; Isolde and Helen of Troy (L6) were beautiful women; Lavinia and Lucretia (L9) were two Roman women; Polyxena (L10) was sacrificed by the Greeks after the fall of Troy; Cleopatra (L11) was a ruler of Egypt and the lover of Mark Antony; Thisbe (L13) was the lover of Pyramus; Dido, Laodamia (L15) and Phyllis (L16) died by suicide, and Demophon (L16) was Phyllis’s husband; Canace (L17) was the lover of Poseidon; Jason impregnated Hypsipyle (L18) and swore his faithfulness, but forgot his vows; and Hypermnestra and Ariadne (L20) were also figures in mythology.

In summary, this poem reveals that Chaucer was well versed in both the Bible and Greek mythology. The essence of his poem is that his living lady excelled all of the famous people from the past.

Historical Outline of English Poetry