Complaint of Chaucer to His Empty Purse


Complaint of Chaucer to His Empty Purse
(Complaint to His Purse)
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1399)
   One of Chaucer’s best-known lyrics, the Complaint to His Empty Purse may be the last poem Chaucer completed. The Complaint, addressed to King Henry IV (who had deposed his cousin RICHARD II in 1399), is essentially a begging poem, calling upon the new king to pay Chaucer the annuities or annual salary he had been granted during Richard’s time. Characteristically, however, Chaucer turns the request into an entertaining joke, a playful parody of poetic convention: He addresses his empty purse as if it were a lady in a COURTLY LOVE poem, to whom the lover addresses a COMPLAINT at being treated so badly by the lady. In Chaucer’s case it is the purse that, by being empty, has not kept faith with him. The Complaint is in the form of a BALLADE, with three RHYME ROYAL stanzas followed by an envoi addressed to King Henry. The stanzas all end with the refrain, addressed to the Purse, “Beth hevy ageyn, or elles mot I dye” (Benson 1987, 656, ll. 7, 14, 21)—a refrain that plays upon the traditional motif of the lover’s dying if he cannot win Lady’s love in return. The five-line envoi, however, addresses the king himself, indicating the poet’s loyalty by calling Henry king by royal descent, by free election, and by conquest (the three validations by which Parliament had recognized his sovereignty), then ends by asking that Henry “Have mynde upon my supplicacion” (l. 26).
   Chaucer had known Henry, the son of his former patron John of Gaunt, nearly all his life, and must have understood the kind of poem that would appeal to the new king’s tastes. At any rate, we know that Henry did in fact grant Chaucer a generous new annuity of 40 marks per year over and above the 20 marks that King Richard had granted him, probably (according to scholars’ best guesses) in February of 1400 (though the proclamation is backdated to October 13, 1399).
   Chaucer, who died later that year, was not able to benefit long from the King’s generosity.
   Bibliography
   ■ Benson, Larry D., et al. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
   ■ Ferris, Sumner.“The Date of Chaucer’s Final Annuity and of the ‘Complaint to His Empty Purse,’ ”Modern Philology 65 (1967): 45–52.
   ■ Ruud, Jay. “Many a Song and Many a Leccherous Lay”: Tradition and Individuality in Chaucer’s Lyric Poetry. New York: Garland, 1992.
   ■ Scattergood, V. J., ed. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Shorter Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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