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It so befel in this king Arthur's reign, A lusty knight was pricking o'er the plain; A bachelor he was, and of the courtly train. It happened as he rode, a damsel gay, In russet robes, to market took her way; Soon on the girl he cast an amorous eye; So straight she walked, and on her pasterns high: If seeing her behind he liked her pace, Now turning short, he better liked her face. He lights in haste, and, full of youthful fire, By force accomplished his obscene desire. This done, away he rode, not unespied, For, swarming at his back, the country cried; And, once in view, they never lost the sight, But seized, and, pinioned, brought to court the knight.
Then courts of kings were held in high renown, Ere made the common brothels of the town; There virgins honourable vows received, But chaste as maids in monasteries lived; The king himself, to nuptial ties a slave, No bad example to his poets gave. And they, not bad but in a vicious age, Had not, to please the prince, debauched the stage.
alas! they all are dead,
Or gone beyond the seas;
Or farther for religion fled,
Or else they take their ease.
See "The Fairies Farewell," a lively little song, by the witty Bishop Corbet.
* Our author, to whom, now so far advanced in life, the recollection of some of his plays could not be altogether pleasant, is willing to seek an excuse for their licence in the debauchery of Charles and of his court. The attack of Collier had been too just to admit of its being denied; and our author, like other people, was content to make excuses where defence was impossible,
Now, what should Arthur do? He loved the knight, But sovereign monarchs are the source of right: Moved by the damsel's tears and common cry, He doomed the brutal ravisher to die. But fair Geneura* rose in his defence, And prayed so hard for mercy from the prince, That to his queen the king the offender gave, And left it in her power to kill or save. This gracious act the ladies all approve, Who thought it much a man should die for love; And, with their mistress, joined in close debate, (Covering their kindness with dissembled hate,) If not to free him, to prolong his fatë. At last agreed, they called him by consent Before the queen and female parliament. And the fair speaker, rising from her chair, Did thus the judgment of the house declare :--Sir knight, though I have asked thy life, yet still
Thy destiny depends upon my will:
Nor hast thou other surety, than the grace,
Not due to thee, from our offended race.
But as our kind is of a softer mold,
And cannot blood, without a sigh, behold,
I grant thee life; reserving still the power
To take the forfeit when I see my hour;
Unless thy answer to my next demand
Shall set thee free from our avenging hand.
The question, whose solution I require,
Is, what the sex of women most desire?
In this dispute thy judges are at strife;
Beware, for on thy wit depends thy life.
* Or Ganore, or Vanore, or Guenever, the wife of Arthur in
Yet (lest surprised, unknowing what to say,
Thou damn thyself) we give thee farther day;
is thine to wander at thy will,
And learn from others, if thou want'st the skill;
But, not to hold our proffer'd turn in scorn,
Good sureties will we have for thy return,
That at the time prefixed thou shalt obey,
And at thy pledge's peril keep thy day.-
Woe was the knight at this severe command,
But well he knew 'twas bootless to withstand.
The terms accepted, as the fair ordain,
He put in bail for his return again;
And promised answer at the day assigned,
The best, with heaven's assistance, he could find.
His leave thus taken, on his way he went
With heavy heart, and full of discontent,
Misdoubting much, and fearful of the event.
'Twas hard the truth of such a point to find,
As was not yet agreed among the kind.
Thus on he went; still anxious more and more,
Asked all he met, and knocked at every door;
Enquired of men; but made his chief request
To learn from women what they loved the best.
They answered each, according to her mind,
To please herself, not all the female kind.
One was for wealth, another was for place;
Crones, old and ugly, wished a better face.
The widow's wish was oftentimes to wed;
The wanton maids were all for sport a-bed.
Some said the sex were pleased with handsome lies,
And some gross flattery loved without disguise.
Truth is, says one, he seldom fails to win
Who flatters well; for that's our darling sin.
But long attendance, and a duteous mind,
Will work even with the wisest of the kind.
One thought the sex's prime felicity
Was from the bonds of wedlock to be free;
Their pleasures, hours, and actions, all their own,
And, uncontrouled, to give account to none.
Some wish a husband-fool; but such are cursed,
For fools perverse of husbands are the worst.
All women would be counted chaste and wise,
Nor should our spouses see but with our eyes;
For fools will prate; and though they want the wit
To find close faults, yet open blots will hit;
Though better for their ease to hold their tongue,
For womankind was never in the wrong.
So noise ensues, and quarrels last for life;
The wife abhors the fool, the fool the wife.
And some men say, that great delight have we
To be for truth extolled, and secrecy;
And constant in one purpose still to dwell,
And not our husbands' counsels to reveal.
But that's a fable; for our sex is frail,
Inventing rather than not tell a tale.
Like leaky sieves no secrets we can hold;
Witness the famous tale that Ovid told.*
Midas the king, as in his book appears, By Phoebus was endowed with asses ears, Which under his long locks he well concealed, (As monarchs' vices must not be revealed,) For fear the people have them in the wind, Who, long ago, were neither dumb nor blind; Nor apt to think from heaven their title springs, Since Jove and Mars left off begetting kings. This Midas knew; and durst communicate To none but to his wife his ears of state; One must be trusted, and he thought her fit, As passing prudent, and a parlous wit.
* Ovid, indeed, tells the story in the Metamor. lib. xi. But how will the fair reader excuse Chaucer for converting the talkative male domestic of Midas into that king's wife?
To this sagacious confessor he went,
And told her what a gift the gods had sent;
But told it under matrimonial seal,
With strict injunction never to reveal.
The secret heard, she plighted him her troth,
(And sacred sure is every woman's oath,)
The royal malady should rest unknown,
Both for her husband's honour and her own:
But ne'ertheless she pined with discontent,
The counsel rumbled till it found a vent.
The thing she knew she was obliged to hide;
By interest and by oath the wife was tied,
But, if she told it not, the woman died.
Loth to betray a husband and a prince,
But she must burst or blab, and no pretence
Of honour tied her tongue from self-defence.
A marshy ground commodiously was near,
Thither she ran, and held her breath for fear,
Lest if a word she spoke of any thing,
That word might be the secret of the king.
Thus full of counsel to the fen she went,
Griped all the way, and longing for a vent;
Arrived, by pure necessity compelled,
On her majestic marrow-bones she kneeled:
Then to the water's brink she laid her head,
And as a bittour bumps * within a reed,-
To thee alone, O lake! she said, I tell,
(And, as thy queen, command thee to conceal :)
Beneath his locks, the king my husband wears
A goodly royal pair of asses ears:
Now I have eased my bosom of the pain,
Till the next longing fit return again.-
*The sound which the bittern produces by suction among the roots of water plants, is provincially called bumping.