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Truth by Geoffrey Chaucer: An Analysis of The Poem
Flee fro the prees and dwell with sothfastnesse (Flee from the crowd, and dwell with truthfulness)…”— Geoffrey Chaucer, from Truth
Written nearly 700 years ago --and dedicated to one person, Sir Phillip de La Vache -- Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “Truth” has become an inspirational poem for those who have dealt with failures and setbacks.
“Truth” or “Ballade de bon conseyl" (translated into modern English as Ballade of Good Counsel) reads like an advice column. The author was essentially giving his long-time friend some support and inspiration to help him get through a tough time.
Still, the poem goes beyond an audience of one, and propels its advice to future generations to come. Nearly anyone reading this poem can relate to la Vache's travails, and be inspired by the kind words Chaucer gives.
A Rarity For Chaucer
The poem is unique when compared to other works by Chaucer. He is best known for the first great English language classic The Canterbury Tales, a collection of oral folktales and stories retold and recorded in written verses. Although he had written several collections of long and short poems, few of them are as philosophical, personal and inspirational (in terms of building a particular person’s self-esteem) as “Truth” is.
The intended audience was one person. It is believed to be Sir Phillip de la Vache (some scholars suggest it was his father, Sir Richard), a well-to-do aristocrat, knight, landowner, and onetime member of 14th century British Parliament who was described as being a “country gentleman with a reputation for lavish hospitality (la Vache, 2012).”
Although la Vache may have been the influence in other works by Chaucer - including the Franklin in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales- the poem “Truth” is the only one to name him and speak to him directly.
The Chaucer -la Vache Connection
According to several sources, Chaucer’s family members were life-long friends with the la Vache family. Chaucer came from a successful family of merchants while la Vache had close personal and political ties to royalty. The two came from the same socio-economic circle and were often in each other's company.
A Little Helpful Advice from a Friend
The poem touches on this relationship. It also reflects a personal crisis existing in Sir Phillip’s life at the time of the writing. In the line directly naming the aristocrat knight, Chaucer wrote:
“Therefore, thou Vache, leve thine old wrechednesse; Unto the world leve now to be thral (Therefore, La Vache, cease your old wretchedness; To the world cease now to be in thrall...)”
It is believed this line refers to a time (1386-1388) in which Sir Philip fell out of favor with the royal court and lost his position.
Throughout the poem, Chaucer seemingly tells Sir Philip not to worry about this tribulation, and that it would eventually go away. He uses the term “truth” as if to say that the truth of his nobility, stature, and character would eventually bring him through the trying times.
This is evident in a line repeated at the end of each stanza:
“And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no dede (And truth shall deliver you, have no fear).”
Here, Chaucer gives his support to his friend and tells him not worry and be brave, for he’ll win back the reputation he lost.
This “pep-talk” seemingly worked. Sir Philip’s reputation was restored, and he would be appointed captain of the castle of Calais on May 15, 1388. He would play a key role in negotiating a truce with the King of France; the Count of Flanders; and the cities of Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres in 1390. Also, he’d return to Parliament in 1397 as one of the pledges for the prosecution of the Duke of Gloucester.
Finally, he would assume the noble title of Knight of the Garter in 1399 during the reign of Richard II.
The Appeal to Modern Readers
While the poem is dedicated – and directed – at a particular person, it still appeals to a wide audience. The repetitive lines, as well as the word “truth”, instills a belief that failures in life are temporary; that is, if one is true (or strong) in their actions and deeds. Most importantly, once these failures happen, it is better to withstand it rather than to give up.
Despite his brief fallout and loss, la Vache eventually became a productive and influential member of his time. Chaucer, being the good friend that he was, may have helped him find his way. Maybe there’s something right about Chaucer’s “Truth.”
Audio Reading of Truth
A Note: Middle English
When you listens or read portions of "Truth" in the article, you will noticed that this very English poem sounds like French or German. And, of the words you do recognize, they are spelled differently than their modern translation.
A big reason for this is that Chaucer was writing at a time when the English language was making a come back, of sorts. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Germanic English language of the time (best known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon language, in modern times) fell out of favor in the country. Instead, many people adopted the type of French spoken by the Norman invaders.
Several hundred years later, the English language slowly resurfaced. However, the English that was increasingly being spoken was infused with French. Also, the spelling came to reflect the dialect and accent of the speaker.
Today, we barely understand Middle English. In part, the language has evolved as it has always done of the years. Still, if you listen closely to the YouTube video, and read the poem, you will be able to identify familiar words and phrases.
The Canterbury Tales, paperback edition
© 2015 Dean Traylor