Monday, March 19, 2018

January and May

Ill-matched lovers by the Flemish painter Quentin Massys c. 1520-1525

[Image source: The painting is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (]

Today (following BritPo forum conversation with Peter Riley), I've been reacquainting myself with the youthful Alexander Pope's sparkling rendering of  that sour late Chaucer masterpiece The Merchant's Tale. Here are the opening lines:

THERE liv’d in Lombardy, as authors write,
In days of old, a wise and worthy Knight;
Of gentle manners, as of gen’rous race,
Blest with much sense, more riches, and some grace:
Yet, led astray by Venus’ soft delights,        5
He scarce could rule some idle appetites:
For long ago, let priests say what they could,
Weak sinful laymen were but flesh and blood.
  But in due time, when sixty years were o’er,
He vow’d to lead this vicious life no more;        10
Whether pure holiness inspired his mind,
Or dotage turn’d his brain, is hard to find;
But his high courage prick’d him forth to wed,
And try the pleasures of a lawful bed.
This was his nightly dream, his daily care,        15
And to the heav’nly Powers his constant prayer,
Once, ere he died, to taste the blissful life
Of a kind husband and a loving wife.
  These thoughts he fortified with reasons still
(For none want reasons to confirm their will).        20
Grave authors say, and witty poets sing,
That honest wedlock is a glorious thing:
But depth of judgment most in him appears
Who wisely weds in his maturer years.
Then let him choose a damsel young and fair,        25
To bless his age, and bring a worthy heir;
To soothe his cares, and, free from noise and strife,
Conduct him gently to the verge of life.
Let sinful bachelors their woes deplore,
Full well they merit all they feel, and more:        30
Unaw’d by precepts, human or divine,
Like birds and beasts, promiscuously they join;
Nor know to make the present blessing last,
To hope the future, or esteem the past;
But vainly boast the joys they never tried,        35
And find divulged the secrets they would hide.
The married man may bear his yoke with ease,
Secure at once himself and Heav’n to please;
And pass his inoffensive hours away,
In bliss all night, and innocence all day:        40
Tho’ fortune change, his constant spouse remains,
Augments his joys, or mitigates his pains.
  But what so pure which envious tongues will spare?
Some wicked Wits have libell’d all the Fair.
With matchless impudence they style a wife        45
The dear-bought curse and lawful plague of life,
A bosom serpent, a domestic evil,
A night-invasion, and a midday-devil.
Let not the wise these sland’rous words regard,
But curse the bones of ev’ry lying bard.        50
All other goods by Fortune’s hand are giv’n,
A wife is the peculiar gift of Heav’n.
Vain Fortune’s favours, never at a stay,
Like empty shadows pass and glide away;
One solid comfort, our eternal wife,        55
Abundantly supplies us all our life:
This blessing lasts (if those who try say true)
As long as heart can wish—and longer too.

(From January and May, or, The Merchant's Tale. Complete text:

Chaucer's great theme of the battle of the sexes would be taken up by Pope in The Rape of the Lock and in the Moral Epistle to Blount, among other works.

Reading the poem today, most of us will feel that it pulls its punches on the most repellent aspect of the story, namely the aged sensualist's marriage to a virginal adolescent.  But it's not easy to decide, because there are so many layers of irony. There's no doubt of the implication that the aged January is being a stupid fool who deserves everything that's coming to him, but the sense of May being violated by the arrangement is absent. Chaucer and Pope are only very early steps along the way towards a modern view of marriage and sexual relationships. No matter, that background consciousness of modern views just makes the story even more electric and excruciating.

January and May (and Damian), a print from 1785 in the British Museum  The text claims that it was Pope's favourite poem.

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