An Analysis of the Poem 'Truth', by Geoffrey Chaucer

'Truth'

Flee fro the prees and dwelle with soothfastnesse;
Suffise unto thy thing, though it be smal;
For hoord hath hate, and climbing tikelnesse;
Prees hath envye, and wele blent overal.
Savoure no more than thee bihoove shal;
Rule wel thyself that other folk canst rede:
And Trouthe shal delivere, it is no drede.

Tempest thee nought al crooke to redresse
In trust of hire that turneth as a bal;
Muche wele stant in litel bisinesse;
Be war therfore to spurne ayains an al.
Strive nat as dooth the crokke with the wal.
Daunte thyself that dauntest otheres deede:
And Trouthe shal delivere, it is no drede.

That thee is sent, receive in buxomnesse;
The wrastling for the world axeth a fal;
Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse:
Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beest, out of they stal!
Know thy countree, looke up, thank God of al.
Hold the heigh way and lat the gost thee lede:
And Trouthe shal delivere, it is no drede.

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer
Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer | Source

Analysis

The homiletic ballade, of which Geoffrey Chaucer's poem 'Truth' is an example, is a verse form consisting of three or more stanzas with an identical rhyming scheme and a repeated final line. Back when this style of poem was in fashion, it was also common for there to be a final stanza, called the envoy, in which the poem is addressed either directly to someone known to the poet, or to the readers in general. 'Truth', it should also be pointed out, is a title typically given to the poem by modern editors - it has also been found in older manuscripts under the title 'ballade de bon conseil' (the 'ballade of good advice).

As any student who has ever struggled through the works of Shakespeare while studying would already know, the main difficulty to reading, and appreciating, anything this old comes from needing to decipher all of those words and phrases which are simply no longer in use. Well, as intimidating as the works of William Shakespeare may have been, the works of Geoffrey Chaucer are even more likely to test the patience of the modern reader. The language used in this particular poem, for example, adds a layer of complexity that would have to seem intimidating, at first. But, this complexity is also, essentially, superficial - taking the time to translate and interpret these unfamiliar words and phrases reveals a poem that is actually fairly straight-forward.

In its entirety, the poem can be taken as an appeal to the reader - as well as an attempt to educate and enlighten. The poem's first stanza consists of a general warning to the reader to be content with what they have in life.

"Flee fro the prees and dwelle with soothfastnesse;"

From the very first line, the reader is urged to separate themselves from the concerns of the 'prees' (crowd), and to learn to stand on their own, living in 'soothfastnesse' (peace).

"Suffice unto thy thing, though it be small;"

In the second line, the reader is urged not to compare what they have with the wealth of others - since that leads only, perhaps inevitably, to envy and resentment.

"For hoord hath hate, and climbing tikelnesse;"

And, hoarding wealth, too, leads only to resentment and 'climbing tikelnesse' (rising insecurity). Those who hoard their wealth only isolate themselves, and are doomed to spend their lives distrusting the motives of those around them.

"Prees hath envye, and wele blent overall."

And the wealthy have good reason for this, it seems, since it is suggested here that the 'prees' (crowd) will only feel envy and spite toward those better off than they are. Further, it is also suggested that 'wele' (wealth/prosperity) will only blind you to the suffering of others.

"Savoure no more than thee bihoove shal;"

Here, the central theme of the poem's first stanze is reiterated - that a person should content themselves only with what they need, and that it is a mistake to strive for more.

"Rule wel thyself that other folk canst rede:"

And, here, the reader is urged to act with good conduct (to '[r]ule wel thyself') - to strive to make themselves into an authority on 'living well', rather than someone in need of 'rede' (advise and guidance) from others.

"And Trouthe shal delivere, it is no drede."

Here, we have the first instance of the refrain - the reader should have no 'drede' (doubt) that the truth, as outlined within the poem, shall essentially 'set them free'. The first stanza presents this truth as basic common-sense - the reader is urged that the sole concern of their lives should not be in acquiring material wealth, and that their own comfort should not blind them to the suffering of others.

In the poem's second stanza, this conception of 'truth' is broadened.

"Tempest thee nought al crooked to redresse
In trust of hire that turneth as a bal;"

The stanza begins with the acknowledgment that, while the reader should be aware of the suffering of others, they also cannot concern themselves with trying to solve all of the world's problems. They should 'tempest' (restrain) themselves from trying to 'redresse' (fix/repair) everything that is crooked, trusting in 'hire' (her, referring to Lady Fortune) to support their efforts. After all, Lady Fortune, who 'turneth as a bal' (turns as a ball, in that she always presents a different face to everyone who observes her) could just as easily turn against the reader.

"Much wele stant in litel bisinesse"

Similarly to how the reader should not depend on Lady Fortune to work in their favour, they also should not live in fear that she may turn against them. There is little sense in finding cause for 'bisinesse' (anxiety) when in possession of much 'wele' (prosperity).

"Be war therfore to spurne ayains an al."

Here, it is pointed out that lashing out out of frustration is only likely to injure the reader, whether literally or figuratively - they should be wary, therefore, not to injure themselves by kicking a sharp object, such as an 'al' (an awl).

"Strive nat as dooth the crokke with the wal."

Similarly, it is suggested here that there is little sense in struggling, again either literally or figuratively, as the 'crokke' (pot) does against the wall - because, a pot thrown against the wall would simply shatter.

"Daunte thyself that dauntest otheres deede:"

Here, it is indicated that the reader should first 'daunte' (master) themselves, before they can hope to act as an authority for anyone else.

"And Trouthe shal delivere, it is no drede.'

And, finally, the second stanza ends with a repetition of the refrain - once more reiterating that following the poems definition of 'truth' will help the reader to live a good life. Essentially, the 'truth' to be found in this stanza is based in the need for the reader to learn self-control - learning to master themselves, through self-reflection, and learning to avoid unnecessary conflict.

In the third stanza, the poem's conception of 'truth' is once more broadened.

"That thee is sent, receive in buxomnesse;"

The opening line suggests that what the reader is given, in life, should be received by the reader with 'buxumnesse' (either obedience or humility - or, a combination of the two).

"The wrastling for the world axeth a fal;"

This is because, as the second line suggests, wrestling for the world, instead of focusing on the smaller and more important things, will simply set the reader up for failure.

"Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse;"

This world, the poem seeks to remind us, is not truly the reader's home - and, nothing the reader does here truly matters. Here, Chaucer moves more overtly into the realm of religious 'truth'. The true home of the reader, and of everyone else, is Heaven, and this world is nothing but a wilderness.

"Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beest, out of thy stall!"

But, while this world may be little more than a wilderness, and a temporary home for the reader, it is still a place for the reader to learn and grow - the reader is a pilgrim on a journey of enlightenment, and must be prepared to go forth.

"Know thy countree, looke up, thank God of al."

While on this pilgrimage, though, the reader must make certain to thank God for His creation, and for allowing the reader a place in it.

"Hold the heigh way and lat thy gost thee lede:"

The reader is also asked to ensure that, throughout this pilgrimage, they make sure to 'hold the high way', meaning to live a good and virtuous life, lead by their 'gost' (spirit, possibly conscience)

"And Trouthe shal delivere, it is no drede."

And, once more, the stanza ends with a repetition of the refrain. With the final stanza, the poem moves into the realm of religious 'truth', outlining what Chaucer believed should be the relationship between the reader and God, and the reader's place in His creation. This religious 'truth' is the final conception revealed to the reader, and is clearly the most important to Chaucer. There are many ways that a person could be led astray but, by following the various conceptions of 'truth' outlined within the poem, Chaucer believed that it would be possible for the reader to weave their way through the trails and tribulations of life.

'The Canterbury Tales', available from Amazon

© 2015 Dallas Matier

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Comments 3 comments

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 23 months ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

Thank you. Chaucer does need to be read carefully and your analysis guides the reader through each line, with historical context given where necessary.What a delight it is to learn that this great pioneer wrote other poems in addition to his Canterbury Tales.

Votes and a share.


missirupp 23 months ago

Lots to think about in this poem and it is going to be helpful in my future writings. I like to receive a little insight into human nature.


Dallas Matier profile image

Dallas Matier 23 months ago from Australia Author

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad you both got something out of my analysis.

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