The Knight’s Tale
Bright was the sun and clear that morning,
And Palamon, this woeful prisoner,
As was his custom, by permission of his jailer,
Had risen and roamed in a chamber on high,
In which he saw all the noble city,
And also the garden, full of green branches,
Where this fresh Emily the shining
Was walking, and roamed up and down.
This sorrowful prisoner, this Palamon,
Goes in his chamber roaming to and fro
And to himself complaining of his curse
That he had been born, saying often, “alas!”
And so it happened, by chance or accident,
That through a window, thick with many a bar
Of iron, great and square as any beam,
He cast his eye upon Emily,
And with that he blanched and cried, “A!”
As though he were stung unto the heart.
And with that cry Arcita immediately started
And said, “Cousin mine, what ails you,
Who are so pale and deadly to look at?
Why did you cry out? Who has done you offence?
For God’s love, take patiently
Our imprisonment, for it may no otherwise be.
Fortune has given us this adversity.
Some wicked aspect or disposition
Of Saturn, by some constellation,
Has given us this, although we had sworn it would not be;
So stood the heavens when we were born.
We must endure it; this is the short and plain.
This Palamon answered and said again:
“Cousin, truly, in this opinion
You have a vain imagination.
This prison did not cause me to cry out,
But I was hurt right now through my eye
Into my heart, that will be my bane.
The fairness of that lady whom I see
Yonder in the garden roaming to and fro
Is the cause of all my crying and my woe.
I know not whether she is woman or goddess,
But truly it is Venus, as I guess.”
And with that he fell down on his knees,
And said, “Venus, if it be thy will
Thus to transfigure yourself in this garden
Before me, sorrowful, wretched creature,
Help that we may escape out of this prison.
And if it be so that my destiny is shaped
By eternal decree to die in prison,
Have some compassion on our lineage
Which is brought so low by tyranny.”
And with that word Arcite goes to see
Where this lady roamed to and fro,
And with that sight her beauty hurt him so,
That, if that Palamon was wounded sore,
Arcite is hurt as much as he, or more.
And with a sigh he said piteously,
“The fresh beauty slays me suddenly
Of her who roams in the yonder place;
And unless I have her mercy and her grace,
So that I can at least see her,
I am as good as dead; there is no more to say.”
This Palamon, when he those words heard,
Dispitiously looked and answered,
“Do you say this in earnest or in play?”
“Nay,” said Arcita, “in earnest, by my faith!
So help me God, to play pleases me evilly.”
This Palamon began to knit his brows.
“It would not be,” said he, “any great honour to you
To be false, nor to be traitor
To me, that is your cousin and your brother
Sworn deeply, and each of us to the other,
That never, on pain of death,
Until death shall dispatch us two,
Neither of us shall hinder the other in love,
Nor in anything else, my dear brother,
But rather you should further me
In every case, as I shall further you —
This was your oath, and mine also, certainly;
I know very well, you dare not deny it.
Thus are you my closest counsel, without doubt,
And now you would falsely prepare
To love my lady, whom I love and serve,
And ever shall until my heart dies.
Nay, certainly, false Arcita, you shall not so.
I loved her first, and told you my woe
As my confidant and my sworn brother
To help me, as I have told before.
For which you are bound as a knight
To help me, if it lies in your power,
Or else you are false, I dare well say.”
This Arcita proudly spoke back:
“You shall,” said he, “be rather false than I;
And you are false, I tell you plainly.
As a lover, I loved her first before you.
What can you say? You do not know
Whether she is a woman or goddess!
Yours is a feeling of holiness,
And mine is love as to a creature;
For which I told you my circumstance
As my cousin and my sworn brother.
I posit: that you loved her first;
Do you not know the old saying?
That ‘who shall give a lover any law?’
Love is a greater law, by my skull,
Than may be given to any earthly man;
And therefore manmade law and such decree
Is broken every day for love in every degree.
A man must necessarily love, in spite of his head;
He can not flee it, even if it kills him,
Whether she is a maid, or widow, or wife.
And also it is not likely in all your life
To stand in her grace; no more shall I;
For well you know yourself, truly,
That you and I are condemned to prison
Perpetually; no ransom can help us.
In Chaucer’s story there are two heroes, who are practically indistinguishable from each other, and a heroine, who is merely a name.
J R Hulbert
Arc? Dead. And if you’re sniffing for his body
you won’t find nothing: ransack the Big Smoke
from Bow to Bank. Arc fell for Emily
ten feet deep . . . I’m Pal, Emily’s alter.
Think ego. Arc and me, we shared a cell
for months, it was a shrine to her, a temple.
I miss him, like a gun to the temple.
Too close. Two men locked in a woman’s body,
her messed-up head. When I say shared a cell
I’m talking brain. She became us. Arc smoked
the Romeos, and me, I smoked all tars,
we breathed out on her name ah! Emily.
Blonde, with blacked out highlights, Emily.
Our host, the goddess. Looks are temporal.
Who reads her diagnosis? It don’t alter
the facts. She made me up to guard her body
from predators, the silhouettes in smoke.
It’s when she wears the hour glass and plays damsel,
she lets me out. It messes with their brain cells,
my voice, her face. All men want Emily,
they think they have a right. It don’t mean smoke.
She acts like growing up was Shirley Temple
and don’t remember nothing, but her body
knows what happened happened on that altar.
Think bed . . . Arc’s dead. Broke his parole, an alter
crazy on id, he starved us all to cancel
me out for good. It’s written off, our body.
He fought to win: I fought for Emily.
I’m dead beat, but I won up here, the temple,
the messed-up head. Sent her a ring of smoke.
Having a big fat Romeo to smoke
don’t make you Winston Churchill. Arc was altered.
He won the war but lost the plot. The temple
became his tomb. And me, I got the damsel.
She don’t know yet. We’re stitched up, Emily,
one and the same, one rough cut mind, one body . . .
Must’ve blacked out . . . This body ain’t no temple
but what’s the alternative, a padded cell?
Got anything to smoke? . . . I’m Emily . . .
© 2011, Patience Agbabi
From: Poetry Wales, Winter 48.3, 2012/13