Translator’s Note: John Gower (c.1330–1408) wrote his Traitié de Matrimoine in French (with Latin notes throughout) to reach the widest possible audience. Seventeen ballades supply instructive examples from history and literature; the poems are packed with sound doctrine on marriage and warnings against every error on the subject, even errors we might consider particularly modern. “On Marital Fidelity” is Ballade XVIII, the French signature lyric and envoi. It is followed by three Latin poems, last of which is “The Order of Matrimony,” signing this “treaty” again in Latin to register Gower’s marriage to Agnes Gondolf in 1398. I rendered the Treatise in English and gave English titles to the individual poems, in honor of the 60th wedding anniversary of Phyllis and Donald Schabow, who themselves could write a valuable treatise.

—Margaret Coats

 

On Marital Fidelity

How wicked to steal copper coins from friends
When one’s own treasure chest with gold is lined!
The man who on his wife’s good fruit depends
Sins gravely, when lewd loot he aims to find.
“She is my sovereign joy,” these are inclined
To sing, but they plan sorrow for their brides;
He is no lover who his love misguides.

Of the three blessèd states God’s law commends,
Marriage is second, in which spouses bind
Themselves to love, till death their union ends,
When he who soils it will be worse confined,
Unless he has his foolish filth resigned.
Right love with Heaven’s raptures coincides;
He is no lover who his love misguides.

In conscience, the false lover comprehends
The riches that in marriage are combined:
Children, comfort, the sacrament that lends
God’s grace to faithful sentiments entwined.
How well is the good husband’s joy designed
To teach the fool whose wantonness subsides,
“He is no lover who his love misguides.”

John Gower, Englishman, this ballade sends
To the university of mankind,
And if it be that my poor French offends,
Please pardon me for parlance unrefined,
But heed the counsel offered to your mind
And heart. True love for God the thought provides,
Who over just and perfect love presides.

 

The Order of Matrimony

The law—wise teacher—says that carnal goods’ dower
Is far safer with those allied through God’s power;
A garden rose grows sweeter than the wildflower.
Wedlock’s order is goal and crown to the vower;
Its Rule proper to couples in hut or tower,
Who joyfully offer, as do I, old Gower,
Lives to God, eager to earn His grace-filled shower
On this Order of spouses safe in love’s bower.

 

 

Original French

En propreté cil qui del or habonde
Molt fait grant tort s’il emble autri monoie:
Cil q’ad s’espouse propre deinz sa bonde
Grant pecché fait s’il quiert ailours sa proie.
Tiels chante, “C’est ma sovereine joie,”
Qui puis en ad dolour sanz departie:
N’est pas amant qui son amour mesguie.

Des trois estatz benoitz c’est le seconde,
Q’au marriage en droit amour se ploie;
Et qui cell ordre en foldelit confonde
Trop poet doubter, s’il ne se reconvoie.
Pource bon est qe chascun se pourvoie
D’amer ensi, q’il n’ait sa foi blemie:
N’est pas amant qui son amour mesguie.

Deinz son recoi la conscience exponde
A fol amant l’amour dont il foloie;
Si lui covient au fin qu’il en responde
Devant celui qui les consals desploie.
O come li bons maritz son bien emploie,
Qant l’autre fol lerra sa fole amie!
N’est pas amant qui son amour mesguie.

Al université de tout le monde
Johan Gower ceste Balade envoie;
Et si jeo n’ai de Francois la faconde,
Pardonetz moi qu jeo de ceo forsvoie:
Jeo sui Englois, si quier par tiele voie
Estre excusé; mais quoique nulls en die,
L’amour parfit en dieu se justifie.

Lex docet auctorum quod iter carnale bonorum
Tucius est, quorum sunt federa coniugiorum:
Fragrat vt ortorum rosa plus quam germen agrorum,
Ordo maritorum caput est et finis amorum:
Hec est nuptorum carnis quasi regula morum,
Que saluandorum sacratur in orbe virorum.
Hinc vetus annorum Gower sub spe meritorum
Ordine sponsorum tutus adhibo thorum.

 

 

Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.  


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9 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    Translating from one language to English while maintaining the original rhyme scheme (as Coats does here with both the French and the Latin) is difficult and painstaking work. Theses are really excellent productions.

    Getting monorhymes for all those genitive plurals in the Latin must have been quite a task.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks–but I was only able to render the monorhymes at the end of each line! For the internal rhymes in each line on the same genitive plural, I had to merely recognize them with words such as “teacher,” “safer,” “sweeter.” However, it’s worthwhile to do as much as possible to translate the art as well as the meaning of the poem.

      Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    For the love of Jesus! Every line made perfect sense in English. There was tension in the lines, but never a bit of strained diction. You might write this off by saying, “That’s just how I do these things,” but few have ever done such a thing so well. Your modesty in your response to Dr. Salemi only underlines the level of your accomplishment. I only wish I were half as accomplished and half so modest.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      As Gower did, I give credit to God, and to the intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Since you provide an opportunity, let me point out a special instance of Gower’s modesty here. His “sovereign joy” tag in this ballade’s first stanza quotes the key line in the jewel of his own collection of fifty French love ballades. He is his own foolish love poet.

      Reply
  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I was taught French as a second language at school, and, on casting my eye over the original, I can only imagine how much work has gone into this admirable translation. Thank you for your skill and close attention to fine detail. The words are full of wisdom, that perhaps we should take heed of today, and a liberal sprinkling of wit that gives the message the errant-human touch. Margaret, I’m wholly grateful for my interesting journey through poetry I hadn’t heard of until your shining translation.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for showing that I’ve been able to let Gower’s errant-human wit shine through! He was known as “moral Gower,” and considered the equal of Chaucer long after his own time. Two hundred years later, Shakespeare called on him to introduce and conclude the play “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” Thanks to the Society of Classical Poets, here he is again, giving counsel still needed by “tout le monde.”

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Margaret, I studied English Literature, including all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, and never touched upon John Gower. It’s wonderful to belong to a site that affords me an education above and beyond the one I paid for – thanks to people like you. You have my full gratitude. Talking of morality and outlooks, Edward Dyer’s “My Mind To Me a Kingdom Is” has influenced my thought – I love the words and the sentiment.

  4. Margaret Coats

    “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is” is a good poem and a great proverb. Even if a person is discontented about the way some things are, he is ruler of his kingdom. He can build a new palace, design new gardens, add books to the library, grant medals and knighthoods to people who deserve them, erect statues and memorials, celebrate holidays as he sees fit, even change the laws, improve the customs, and conquer new territory! What power!

    Reply
    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Absolutely! What a beautiful God-given gift the mind is.

      Reply

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