Listen to the Opinion of the Wise

O hateful grief to suffer indigence!
By hunger, thirst and cold to be confounded,
To feel heart’s shame at asking a few pence,
Or, asking none, to know yourself surrounded
By such necessity your need is sounded
In every ear and you are left to creep
About and borrow, beg or steal your keep!You lay the blame on Christ and bitterly
Reproach Him for misdealing wealth; the haul
Your neighbour has sets you at enmit;
You say, ‘I have so little. He has all!’
‘By God,’ you say, ‘a judgement’s sure to fall
Upon him. He will feel the burning coals
Under his tail for scanting us poor souls!’

Then listen to the opinion of the wise:
‘Better to die than live in indigence
Such as your next-door neighbours will despise.’
If you be poor, farewell to eminence!
Yet from the wise take this for common sense
That to the poor all times are out of joint
Therefore beware of reaching such a point.

If you are poor your very brother hates you
And all your friends avoid you, sad to say.
O, you rich merchant-men, how Fortune fêtes you!
Noble and prudent folk! You’ve won the day;
You throw no double-aces when you play,*
But fives and sixes! Yours is the main chance
And Christmas-time for you’s a time to dance!

You scour land and sea to fill your purses
And, like sagacious men, you bargain for
The fall and rise of kingdoms, you are sources
Of information, news of peace and war!
But for a merchant I should have no store
Of tales to tell you now, yet one I know,
Told to me by a merchant long ago.

-from “The Man of Law’s Prologue” (The Canterbury Tales)

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