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Monday, July 21, 2014

Lak of Stedfastnesse - Geoffrey Chaucer

Somtyme this world was so stedfast and stable
That mannes word was obligacioun;
And now it is so fals and deceivable
That word and deed, as in conclusion,
Ben nothing lyk, for turned up-so-doun
Is al this world for mede and wilfulnesse,
That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse.

What maketh this this world to be so variable
But lust that folk have in dissensioun?
For among us now a man is holde unable,
But if he can, by som collusion,
Don his neighbour wrong or oppressioun.
What causeth this but wilful wrecchednesse,
That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse?

Trouth is put doun, resoun is holden fable;
Vertu hat now no dominacioun;
Pitee exyled, no man is merciable;
Through covetyse is blent discrecioun.
The world hath mad a permutacioun
Fro right to wrong, fro trouthe to fikelnesse,
That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse.

L'envoy to King Richard II

O prince, desyre to be honourable,
Cherish thy folk and hate extorcioun!
Suffre nothing that may be reprevable
To thyn estat don in thy regioun.
Shew forth ty swerd of castigacioun,
Dred God, do law, love trouthe and worthinesse,
And wed thy folk agein to stedfastnesse.


Before I begin my light analysis of this poem, I will first give a brief overview of it in an English more familiar to your eyes, reader.  Middle English is sometimes a difficult language with which to come to grips.  Essentially, the poem talks about how many of the ills of the world are caused by fickleness, willfulness, and a general lack of steadfastness (bet you couldn't guess that one!).

In the first stanza, Chaucer laments how in the past, man's word was obligation, but today, word and deed, in the end, are nothing alike, because the world is upside down!  It's willful, and all is lost for lack of steadfastness.

In the second stanza, he wonders how the world came to be so variable.  How is it that people lust for dissent?  Men cannot hold their promises, but if an opportunity arises to do harm to his neighbor for profit, he happily will.  He concludes that it is willful wretchedness that causes this, and repeats that all is lost due to a lack of steadfastness.

In the third stanza, Chaucer says that truth is put down, and that reason is a vable.  Truth has no domination, pity is exiled, no man has mercy, and covetousness blinds men from discretion.  The world has made a permutation from right to wrong, truth to fickleness, and again, all is lost for lack of steadfastness.

Then, Chaucer makes an envoy to King Richard II.  He begs the king to rule well, to cherish his people, and hate extortion.  Order nothing shameful and suffer nothing that can bring reproach to his office and kingdom.  Show his sword of castigation (his power to punish those who lack steadfastness) and fear God.  Enforce the law, love truth and worthiness, and wed the people of the land to steadfastness again.

It is my belief that Chaucer did not fully believe that the world was lacking in steadfastness.  He's too smart to cry doom and gloom over the current age, that eternal trap of criticizing the lack of moral conviction of the young.  His other writings show as much.  While he may feel that in the past, men held to their convictions more strongly, I think he is likely trying to appeal to King Richard II's ego here, to make it seem like he is the only one who can correct a disordered world.  To be sure, the things Chaucer mention (greed, lack of conviction, lack of steadfastness) exist in every time period, but I don't think Chaucer would make the mistake of thinking that these things exist only in the current age.  It is somewhat funny that even over 600 years ago, there was poetry effectively shaking its head at the current state of the world.  Some things never change.

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