Being Miserable, Fifteenth-Century Style

Feeling blue or winter-sad?  Then this fifteenth-century poem is for you (scroll down for text, slightly modernised, and a translation).  It’s a hidden gem, I think, not widely anthologised.  It was written by a man named Henry Baradon (about whom we know very little) at the very end of the fifteenth century.  Baradon seems to have been an amateur poet, adding this poem to Manchester, John Rylands Library MS Eng. 113, and some short verses to a manuscript of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (Princeton UL MS Taylor 5).  You can see the poem in its manuscript context here.

It is a striking description of misery and melancholy: the thought-patterns, the physical effects of depression on sleep and eating and social life, the sense of inescapable bad fortune.  Baradon had clearly read his Hoccleve, as well as Chaucer and Gower.  Like Hoccleve, he realised the potential of poetry to capture individual experience expressed in vivid metaphor: drowned in sorrowapprenticed to woe, heart’s ease and I are not in union.  The poem anticipates the claustrophobic depictions of court life in John Skelton’s Bowge of Court.  I like the wry acknowledgement in the last stanza that his own ambition and dissatisfaction has played a part in his fall from master to servant.

L’Esperance ou Consolation des Trois Vertus: Alain Chartier pursued by Melancholy (Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.438, fol. 1r.)

Musyng alone, voide of consolacion,
Drowned in sorowe, sighyng wondre sore,
I may complayn, with deedly lamentacion,
My tyme evill spent sith first I was bore;
My yonge yeres in courte I have forlore;
Yit not-withstondyng howe I have so do,
Unto more peyne then I was in to-fore,
I have me yoked as prentice unto woo.

[Musing alone, empty of consolation, drowned in sorrow, sighing very painfully, I am able to complain, with gloomy lamentation, about my time wickedly wasted since the day that I was born; I wasted my youthful years in court; yet, however I acted in the past, I have now bound myself to more suffering than I was in beforehand, as an apprentice to woe.]

For liberte is laide alone apart;
My will also hath no dominacion;
And as for ease, that most nedis depart;
A grevous payn in myn oppinion:
Labour and trouble hath predominacion
Of my spiritis, wher-ever I ride or go:
Hertis ease and I be not at union:
Thus am I yoked a prentise unto wo.

[Because my free will is set aside on its own, my will also has no power of control; and as for ease, that must depart too; a bitter pain in my heart: struggle and difficulty have control of my spirit, wherever I travel or go: heart’s ease and I are not in agreement: thus I am bound as an apprentice to woe.]

In the courte is many noble roome;
But God knowith, I can noon soche cacche:
From a maister I am be-come a grome,
And bonde mysilff to waytyng and to wacche;
With evere gadrin I stonde behynde the hacche,
Gapyng and staryng, wanderyng to and fro;
Yit for al this, no good can I cacche:
Thus am I prentice and servaunt unto woo.

[At court there are many noble places, but God knows I can’t obtain one of those: From a master I have become a servant, and subjected myself to waiting and keeping watch; at every gathering I stand behind the door, yawning and staring, wandering to and fro; yet for all this I cannot obtain any good fortune: thus I am apprentice and servant unto woe.]

When I wolde ete, nature for to sustayn,
Or I may have it myn appetite is past;
When I wolde slepe, to releve my payn,
I do but slumbre, for I most rise in hast;
When I wolde speke my lippes be closed fast;
When I wolde sporte with company also,
I dare not out, I am so sore agast:
Thus am I prentice to wrecchidnes and wo.

[When I want to eat, to keep myself alive, before I can have any food my appetite disappears; when I want to sleep, to relieve my sorrow, I can only doze, because I know I have to get up quickly; when I wish to speak my lips are closed shut; also when I wish to have fun with friends, I dare not show myself, I am so very afraid: thus am I apprentice to misery and woe.]

Whan I wolde pray and serve my hevynly kyng,
(As every creature is bounde of verrey right,)
Anon ther is some obstacle or thyng
That pullyth me thens, magre of my might;
Soche is my liff, by day and eke by nyght;
And be-side this, my frende well fro my ffo
I can not knowe: this I, most wrecched wight,
Have bounde me prentice to misery and wo.

[When I want to pray and worship my heavenly king (as every human is obliged to do by right), soon there is some obstacle or thing that removes me from thence, in spite of my efforts; such is my life, by day and also by night; and what is more, I cannot tell my friend easily from my enemy: all this has bound me, most wretched creature, to be apprentice to misery and woe.]

Well is he that can holde hym content
With a meane life, voide of gredynes,
Out of trouble levyng, with litle rent,
Beyng at home in perfite stedfastnes,
Wher pompe nor envy is counted for mastres.
Soche a life, not I, but othir moo
Myght have full wele; yit folissh wilfulness
Doth bynde folkys prentise to wrecchidnes and wo.

[Fortunate is he that can consider himself content with a humble life, empty of greediness, living without troubles, with a small rent, remaining at home in perfect perpetuity, where neither pomp nor envy is considered to be in charge.  Such a life many other could have very easily, but not me: but yet foolish wilfulness does bind many people to be apprentice to misery and woe.]

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