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16. Women (ii)

Geoffrey Chaucer

< Against Women Unconstant >

composed c1370 (30)


1.. Madame, for youre newefangelnesse, 
2. Many a servant have ye put out of grace.
 3. I take my leve of your unstedefastnesse, 

4. For wel I woot, whil ye hav lives space,
5. Ye can not love ful half yeer in a place, 
6. To newe thing youre lust is ay so keene;
7. In stede of blew, thus may ye were al greene.

servant ie lover  woot = know

8. Right as a mirour nothing may enpresse,
9. But, lightly as it cometh, so mote it pace,
10. So fareth youre love, youre werkes bereth witnesse,
11. Ther is no faith that may your herte enbrace;

12. But, as a wedercok, that turneth his face
13. With every wind, ye fare, and this is seene;
14. In stede of blew, thus may ye were al greene.

right as = just as  enpresse = record  mote it pace = must it go

15. Ye might be shrinèd for youre brothelnesse,
16.
Bet that Dalida, Criseide, or Candace; 
17. For ever in chaunging stant youre sikernesse;
18. That tache may no wight fro your herte arace.
19. If ye lese oon, ye can wel twain purchace;
20. Al light for somer, ye woot wel what I mene, 
21. In stede of blew, thus may ye were al greene

shrrinèd for your brothelnesse = famous for you fickleness
 Bet that etc = more than these famous femmes fatales of history
chaunging stant your sikernesse = the only certainty is that you will keep changing
  That tache may no wight etc = nobody can erase that stain from your heart
lese oon = lose one    Al light for somer ie she won't be wearing very much   woot = know

The poem is a fairly typical lament of the period concerning the fickleness of women. The leimotiv of wearing green instead of blue not only serves to indicate this fickleness in changing from one colour to the other, but also suggests something of the wantonness associated in medieval thought with the colour green, particularly in the last stanza where the change of dress is also associated with lightness of dress, emphasised by the phrase 'ye woot well what I mene', a clear medieval parallel to the modern 'know what I mean, nudge, nudge, wink, wink'.

The most interesting metaphor is that of the mirror, which retains nothing on its ever-changing surface, in the same way that the woman addressed retains nothing for long. Elsewhere, the image of the weathercock is banal, and the semi-paradox that the woman is only consistent in the fact that she changes is neither original nor striking. Chaucer has, however, been credited with inventing the word 'newfangelnesse' which has stayed with us as 'newfangled', though it is more probable that he was the first to write the word down, rather than that he invented it ex nihilo.

The poem is in the form of a ballade, taken from the French, three stanzas in Rhyme Royal with a one line refrain at the end of each stanza, with no rhyming word repeated, except in the line of the refrain.

The sentiments expressed have, of course, been labelled misogynistic, but this evaluation seems to miss the point that the poem actually represents but one moment in a stately love-game. Changeability is not simply a negative attribute, though the male character, with his 'Madame' introductory epithet, complains about it. He, on the other hand, is stiff, and appears unbending to the very end with his implied disapproval of her light summer clothing. But neither is stiffness an entirely negative attribute. Putting his stiffness together with her changeability would probably produce something interesting. But how to do it?

 

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