Medieval English Poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tale from the Knight

14th century, Middle English. Numerous printed copies.

He snatched up a great mirror and saw that his face had changed – his colour was not as it had been and his features were all different.

When Arcite arrived back in Thebes, he died a thousand deaths every day and languished in agony for the love of Emily. And to tell the matter plainly, no creature can ever have suffered so much, since the world began.

Spring passes into summer and the lengthening nights increase the agony both of the lover and the prisoner. I don’t know who has the more intolerable time of it. Palamon is condemned to lie in prison, in manacles and chains until he dies. Arcete is exiled, upon pain of beheading, and can never again see the lady he loves.

I pose this question to you: who has the worst of it? Palamon can see his lady every day, but only through the bars of his prison cell. Arcite may walk and ride wherever he wishes, but can never see his lady ever again. Judge as you wish, all you who may, for I shall continue with the story.

Arcite could not sleep, he could not eat or drink, he grew thin and his skin became as pale and dry as a stick. His eyes became hollow, his complexion began to look like cold ashes and he shunned all company, preferring to be alone. At night he wailed in torment. At the sound of any singing, or the playing of any musical instrument, he burst into tears. He was so lifeless and depressed, and so unlike the way he used to be that when he spoke, nobody recognised his voice. He exhibited every lover’s malady it is possible to have. Soon his habits and his personality had changed completely. But I will not linger unduly over a description of his cruel torment.

After a year or two of pain and woe in Thebes, Arcite went to sleep one night and dreamed that the winged god Mercury stood before him, urging him to be merry. Mercury held a staff in his hand and, dressed in the same way he had appeared before Argus, he said: ‘Go to Athens, for be assured, there is a way out of your misery.’

Arcite woke up immediately. ‘Whatever may come of it, I shall go to Athens at once,’ he declared. ‘I shall not hesitate for any fear of death. I don’t care if I die.’

He snatched up a great mirror and saw that his face had changed – his colour was not as it had been and his features were all different. And the thought occurred to him that since his face was so altered through the pain that he had endured, it might be possible, if he did nothing to bring attention to himself, to live in Athens and see his lady well nigh every day. So he changed his clothes for those of a poor labourer and all alone, except for a young squire who knew everything and whom he dressed in the same poor clothes, he made his way to Athens by the shortest route.

Arcite made his way to the royal court and offered his services. He could lift and toil at any task they set him to and with a little inside knowledge which he very quickly gleaned, he fell into service with a chamberlain who lived in the same house as Emily. Arcite was young and strong and able to cut wood, draw water and indeed, do anything that people asked him to. He spent a year or two in this service, as a page in the chamber of the beautiful Emily, having assumed the name Philostrate.

Story fragment retold in Modern English from: Skeat, Walter W, edited from numerous manuscripts, 1912, reprinted 1973. Chaucer: Complete Works. Oxford University Press. Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale.

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