Sir Orfeo

Translated into Modern English.





























































We read full oft, and find it writ, 
As ancient clerks give us to wit, 
The lays that harpers sung of old 
Of many a diverse matter told. 
Some sang of bliss; some heaviness; 
And some of joy and gladsomeness. 
Of treason some, and some of guile; 
Of happenings strange that chanced awhile! 
Of knightly deeds; of ribaldry; 
And some they tell of Faerie. 
But of all themes that men approve 
Methinks the most they be of Love. 
In Britain first these lays were wrought 
There were they made, and thence were brought. 
They told of venturous deeds and days, 
Whereof the Britons made their lays, 
For, an they heard a story told 
Of wondrous hap that chanced of old, 
They took their harp withouten fail, 
Made them a lay, and named the tale. 
And of the deeds that thus befell 
A part, not all, is mine to tell; 
So hearken, lordings, true and leal, 
The tale of Orfeo's woe and weal. 

This Orfeo, he was king with crown, 
A mighty lord of high renown, 
A stalwart man, and hardy too, 
Courteous and free of hand also. 
His parents might their lineage trace 
To Pluto, and to Juno's race, 
Who, for their marvels manifold, 
Were held as gods in days of old. 
Now chief of all the arts that be 
Sir Orfeo loved good minstrelsy, 
He honoured much the harpers' skill, 
And harboured them of right good will. 
Himself upon the harp would play, 
And set thereto his mind alway, 
Till such his skill that, far or near, 
No better harper might ye hear. 
For never man of woman born, 
Altho' for sorrow all forlorn, 
But an he heard Sir Orfeo play 
Forgot his heaviness straightway, 
And deemed himself in Paradise 
For joy of such sweet melodies. 

In Traciens Orfeo held his court, 
A city strong, a goodly fort, 
And with him reigned his queen so fair, 
Dame Heurodis, beyond compare 
The fairest lady, so I read, 
That ever ware this mortal weed; 
So full of love and gentleness 
That none might tell her goodliness. 

It was the coming in of May, 
When gay and gladsome is the day, 
Banished the chilly winter showers, 
And every field is full of flowers, 
When blossoms deck the bough so green, 
And every heart is glad, I ween, 
That Heurodis, the queen, was fain 
To take unto her maidens twain, 
And go forth on a morning tide 
For pastime to an orchard side, 
To hear the birds sing loud and low, 
And watch the blossoms bud and blow. 
And there they sat them down all three 
Beneath a spreading elder tree; 
And as they sat in shadows green 
A slumber deep o'ertook the queen. 
That sleep her maidens dare not break, 
But let her lie, nor bade her wake; 
And so she slept the morning through 
Until the day to even drew. 

But when she woke, ah me, the change! 
Strange were her words, her actions strange; 
She wrung her hands, and tore her face 
Till that the blood ran down apace; 
Her goodly robes she soon had torn, 
As if of sense she were forlorn. 
Affrighted were those maidens twain, 
Back to the hall they ran amain, 
And of their lady's woeful plight 
They told each gallant squire and knight, 
And aid to hold the queen they sought, 
For sure they deemed her all distraught! 

Forth run the knights, the ladies run, 
Full sixty maids, if ever a one, 
Swift to the orchard shade they hie, 
And take the queen up speedily; 
They bear her to her couch at last, 
And there by force they hold her fast, 
But she crieth what no man understands, 
And will up and away from their holding hands. 
Straight to the king they brought the word, 
('T was the sorriest tidings he ever heard,) 
Ten of his knights he called that hour, 
And gat him to his lady's bower; 
He looked on the queen right woefully, 
And spake: "Sweet heart what aileth thee? 
Wast ever wont to be so still, 
And now thou criest wondrous shrill! 
Thy flesh, but now so soft and white, 
Hast torn with thy nails, a doleful sight! 
Thy face, this morn so rosy red, 
is pale and wan, as thou wert dead; 
Alack! and Alas! for thy fingers small, 
Bloody they are, and white withal, 
And thine eyes, so lovesome and shining clear, 
Are e'en as a man's whose foe draws near. 
Sweet heart, I prithee, hear my plaint, 
Cease for a while thy sore complaint, 
And say who hath wronged thee, when and how? 
And if never a man may help thee now?" 

Still was the queen for a little space, 
While the bitter tears they flowed apace, 
And she spake to the king with voice so drear: 
"Alas, Sir Orfeo, lord most dear, 
Since first the day we to wed were fain, 
No word of wrath chanced between us twain 
But I, thy wife, have loved thee 
E'en as my life, as thou hast me; 
But now must we part, Ah woe the day! 
Do what thou wilt, for I must away!" 

"Alack," quoth the king: "forlorn am I, 
Where goest thou, Sweeting, to whom, and why? 
Whither thou goest I go with thee, 
And where I may be shalt thou bide with me!" 

"Nay, sir, nay, 't is an empty word, 
For hearken and hear what hath chanced my lord: 
As I lay but now by our orchard side, 
And slumbered away the morning tide, 
There came two gentle knights to me, 
Armed at all points as knights should be, 
And bade me come, nor make delay, 
To speak with their lord the king straightway. 
But I answered back, in queenly mood, 
I might not, and would not if I could. 
They turned them about, and fled amain, 
And swift came the king with all his train, 
A hundred knights, I wis, had he, 
And a hundred maidens, fair to see; 
And each one rode on a snow-white steed, 
And each was clad in a snow-white weed, 
Of all the folk that mine eyes have seen 
They were the fairest folk, I ween. 

The king ware a crown upon his head, 
But it was not wrought of gold so red, 
Nor of silver, but eke of a precious stone, 
Bright as the noonday sun it shone. 
And e'en as he came, without yea or nay, 
Needs I must ride with him straightway, 
An I would or no, I must with him ride; 
He gave me a palfrey by his side, 
And he brought me unto his palace fair, 
Builded and garnished beyond compare. 
He showed me castles, and goodly towers, 
Rivers and forests, meads with flowers, 
And many a goodly steed and tall -- 
Then he turned again from his castle hall, 
And brought me back to my orchard tree, 
And spake in such wise as I tell to thee: 
`Lady, to-morrow I bid thee be 
Here, on this spot, 'neath this elder tree, 
Hence shalt thou ride with me away, 
To dwell at my court for ever and aye. 
And if thou delayest to do my will 
Or here, or there, it shall be thine ill; 
For no man may help thee, or hold thee now, 
Did they tear thee limb from limb, I trow, 
For living or dying, or whole or torn, 
Must thou ride with us to-morrow's morn!'" 

"Alas!" cried the king: "now woe is me, 
In sorry case methinks we be, 
For liever were I to lose my life 
Than thus to be robbed of my queen, my wife." 
Counsel he craveth in this his need, 
But no man knoweth a fitting rede. 

'T is the morrow's dawn, and with courage high, 
Sir Orfeo arms him fittingly, 
And full a thousand knights with him 
Are girded for combat stout and grim. 
Forth with the queen they now will ride 
To the elder tree by the orchard side, 
And there in its shadow they take their stand, 
And a shield-wall build on either hand, 
And each man sweareth he here will stay, 
And die, ere his queen be reft away. 
Yet e'en as their lips might form the vow 
The queen was gone, and no man knew how, 
For the fairy folk, they have cast their spell, 
And whither they bear her no man may tell! 

Oh! then there was wailing, I ween, and woe, 
To his chamber straight the king doth goo 
And he casteth him down on the floor of stone, 
And he maketh such dole, and such bitter moan, 
That well nigh he wept his life away, 
But counsel or aid was there none that day. 
Then he bade his men come, one and all, 
Earls, barons, and knights, to his council hall, 
And they came -- and he spake: "My lords so dear, 
I take ye to witness before me here 
That I give my high steward, and seneschal, 
The rule of my lands and kingdoms all; 
I will have him stay in this my stead, 
And rule the land, e'en as I were dead; 
For since I have lost my wife, the queen, 
The fairest lady this earth hath seen, 
To dwell in the wilderness am I fain, 
And look on no woman's face again, 
But to spend my days, for evermore, 
With the beasts of the field, in the woodland hoar. 
And when ye know that my days be done 
Then come ye together, every one, 
And choose you a king. -- Now I go my way, 
Deal with my goods as best ye may!" 

Then a voice of weeping rose in the hall, 
And a bitter cry from one and all, 
Scarce might they speak, or old or young, 
For fast-flowing tears that chained their tongue; 
But they fell on their knees with one accord, 
And they prayed, an so it might please their lord, 
That he should not thus from his kingdom go -- 
"Go to," he quoth: "it must needs be so! 

Thus Sir Orfeo forth would fare, 
Only a staff in his hand he bare, 
Neither kirtle he took, nor hood, 
Shirt, nor other vesture good, 
But alway he took his harp in hand, 
And gat him, barefoot, out of the land. 
Never a man might with him go -- 
Alack I there was weeping, I ween, and woe, 
When he who aforetime was king with crown 
Passed, as a beggar, out of the town. 

By woodland and moorland the king hath passed, 
To the wilderness is he come at last, 
There findeth he naught that his soul may please, 
But ever he liveth in great misease. 
He that was wrapt in fur withal 
And slumbered soft 'neath purple and pall, 
On the heather he now must rest his head, 
With leaves and grass for a covering spread. 
He that had castles, halls with towers, 
Rivers, forests, fields with flowers, 
Must make his bed 'neath the open sky 
Though it snow and freeze right piercingly. 
Once knights and ladies, a goodly train, 
To do him service were ever fain; 
Now none are in waiting to please the king, 
But the worms of the woodland coil and spring. 
He that erstwhile might take his fill 
Of food, or drink, as should be his will, 
Now must he dig and delve all day 
For the roots that may scarce his hunger stay. 
In summer-time hath he fruit to eat, 
The hedgerow berries, sour and sweet, 
But in winter he liveth in sore misease, 
On roots, and grasses, and bark of trees, 
Till all his body was parched and dry, 
And his limbs were twisted all awry; 
Dear Lord, who may tell what sorrow sore 
Sir Orfeo suffered, ten year, and more! 
His beard, once black, is grey, I trow, 
To his girdle clasp it hangeth low. 

His harp, which was wont to be his glee, 
He keepeth safe in a hollow tree, 
And when the sun shone bright again 
To take that harp he aye was fain, 
And to temper the cords as should seem him good, 
Till the music rang through the silent wood, 
And all the beasts that in woodland dwell 
For very joy at his feet they fell; 
And all the birds in the forest free 
Were fain to seek to the nearest tree, 
And there on the branch they sat a-row 
To hearken the melody sweet and low; 
But when his harp he had laid aside 
Nor beast nor bird would with him abide. 

Oft-times, I ween, in the morning bright, 
Sir Orfeo saw a fairer sight, 
For he saw the king of the Fairies ride 
A-hunting, down by the forest side; 
With merry shout, and the horn's gay blast, 
And the bay of the hounds the hunt swept past, 
But never the quarry they ran to bay, 
And he knew not whither they went alway. 
In other fashion he'ld come again, 
With a warlike host in his royal train, 
Full thousand riders richly dight, 
Each armed as becometh a valiant knight, 
Of steadfast countenance, tried and true; 
Full many a banner above them flew, 
As they rode with drawn sword, on warfare bent, 
But never he wist the way they went. 

And then they would come in other guise: 
Knights and ladies in joyous wise, 
In quaint attire, as of days gone by, 
Pacing a measure soberly, 
To sound of tabor and pipe they pass, 
Making sweet music, across the grass. 
Again it chanced that he saw one day 
Sixty ladies, who rode their way 
Gracious and gay as the bird on the tree, 
And never a knight in that company. 
Falcon on hand those ladies ride, 
On hawking bent, by the river side; 
Full well they know it as right good haunt 
Of mallard, of heron, and cormorant. 
But now hath the waterfowl taken flight, 
And each falcon chooseth his prey aright, 
And never a one but hath slain its bird -- 
Then Sir Orfeo, laughing, spake this word: 
"By faith, but those folk have goodly game, 
I will get me thither, in Heaven's name, 
Of old was I wont such sport to see -- " 

Thus he came to that goodly company, 
And stayed his steps by a lady fair, 
He looked on her face, and was well aware, 
By all the tokens of truth, I ween, 
That 't was Heurodis, his own sweet queen! 
Each on the other to gaze was fain, 
Yet never a word passed betwixt the twain, 
But at sight of her lord in his sorry plight, 
Who aforetime had been so fair a knight, 
The tears welled forth, and flowed amain -- 
Then the ladies round they seized her rein, 
By force must she ride with them away, 
For with her lord might she longer stay. 

"Alack!" quoth the king: "woe worth the day, 
Thou sluggard, Death, why make delay? 
Oh! wretched me that I live, I ween, 
After the sight that mine eyes have seen! 
Alas, that I needs must live my life 
When I may not speak with my love, my wife! 
And she dare not speak to her lord so true -- 
Now break my heart for ruth and rue! 
I'faith," he quoth: "whate'er betide, 
Whithersoe'er those ladies ride 
That self-same way shall my footsteps fare, 
For life, or death, I have little care!" 

Then with staff in hand, and harp on back, 
He gat him forth on the toilsome track, 
Nor for stock nor for stone will he hold him still, 
But goeth his way of right good will. 
Thro' a cleft in the rock lies the Fairy way 
And the king he follows as best he may; 
Thro' the heart of the rock he needs must go, 
Three miles and more, I would have ye know, 
Till a country fair before him lay, 
Bright with the sun of a summer's day; 
Nor hill nor valley might there be seen 
But level lands, and pastures green, 
And the towers of a castle met his eye, 
Rich and royal, and wondrous high. 
The outer wall of that burg, I ween, 
Was clear and shining, as crystal sheen, 
And a hundred towers stood round about, 
Of cunning fashion, and building stout. 
Up from the moat sprang the buttress bold, 
Arched and fashioned of good red gold. 
The castle front was of carven stone, 
All manner of beast might ye see thereon, 
And the dwelling rooms within that hall 
Of precious stones were fashioned all, 
The meanest pillar ye might behold 
Was covered all over with burnished gold. 
Throughout that country 't was ever light, 
For e'en when the hour was mirk midnight 
Those goodly jewels they shone, each one, 
Bright as at midday the summer sun. 
'T was past all speech, and beyond all thought, 
The wondrous work that there was wrought, 
Sir Orfeo deemed that at last his eyes 
Beheld the proud palace of Paradise. 

In at the gate rode the Fairy train, 
And the king to follow them was full fain, 
He knocketh loud at the portal high, 
And the warder cometh speedily, 
He asketh him where he fain would go? 
"A harper am I" quoth Sir Orfeo; 
"And methinks an thy lord would hearken me 
I would solace his hours with minstrely." 

With that the porter made no ado, 
But gladly he let Sir Orfeo through. 
The king looked round him, to left, to right, 
And in sooth he beheld a fearsome sight; 
For here lay folk whom men mourned as dead, 
Who were hither brought when their lives were sped; 
E'en as they passed so he saw them stand, 
Headless, and limbless, on either hand. 
There were bodies pierced by a javelin cast, 
There were raving madmen fettered fast, 
One sat erect on his warhorse good, 
Another lay choked, as he ate his food. 
Some floated, drowned, in the water's flow, 
Shrivelled were some in the flame's fierce glow; 
There were those who in childbed had lost their life, 
Some as leman, and some as wife; 
Men and women on every side 
Lay as they sleep at slumbertide, 
Each in such fashion as he might see 
Had been carried from earth to Faerie. 

And her, whom he loved beyond his life, 
Dame Heurodis, his own sweet wife, 
He saw, asleep 'neath an elder tree, 
And knew by her raiment that it was she. 

He looked his fill on these marvels all 
And went his way to a kingly hall, 
And he saw therein a goodly sight; 
Beneath a canopy, rich and bright, 
The king of the Fairies had his seat 
With his queen beside him, fair and sweet, 
Their crowns, their vesture, agleam with gold, 
His eyes might scarcely the sight behold I 
Sir Orfeo gazed for a little space, 
Then he kneeled on his knees before the dais: 
"O king," he said: "an it were thy will, 
As minstrel I gladly would shew my skill," 

And the king he quoth: "Who mayest thou be 
Who thus, unbidden, hast come to me? 
I called thee not unto this my court, 
No man of mine hath thee hither brought, 
For never, I ween, since my reign began 
Have I found so foolish and fey a man 
Who found his way unto this my home, 
Save that I bade him hither come!" 

"Lord," quoth Sir Orfeo: " know for sure 
That I am naught but a minstrel poor, 
And e'en as the minstrel's manner is 
I seek out castles and palaces; 
Though never a welcome our portion be, 
Yet needs must we proffer our minstrelsy!" 

Then he took his harp, so sweet of tone, 
And he sat him down before the throne, 
And he tuned the strings, as well he knew, 
And so sweet were the sounds that he from them drew, 
That no man within the palace bound 
But sped swift-foot as he heard the sound, 
And down they lie around his feet, 
The melody seemeth to them so sweet. 
The king he hearkens, and holds him still, 
Hearing the music of right good will, 
And the gentle queen she was glad and gay, 
Such comfort was their's from the minstrel's lay. 
When he had finished his minstrelsy 
Out spake the monarch of Faerie; 
"Harper, right well hast thou played, I trow, 
Whatever thou wilt thou may'st ask me now, 
I am minded in royal wise to pay, 
So what is thy will? Now harper sayI" 

Quoth Sir Orfeo: "Sire, I would pray of thee 
One thing alone, that thou give to me 
That lady fair, who is sleeping now 
Beneath the shade of the elder bough!" 

"Nay," quoth the king, "'t were an ill matched pair 
Did I send thee forth with that dame so fair, 
For never a charm doth the lady lack, 
And thou art withered, and lean, and black, 
'T were a loathly thing, it seemeth me, 
To send her forth in such company." 

"Sire," quoth Sir Orfeo: "gentle king, 
To my mind it seemeth a fouler thing 
To belie a word, and forswear an oath 
Sire, thou didst promise, nothing loth, 
That that which I asked I should have of thee, 
And that promise thou need'st must keep to me!" 

Then spake the king: "Since the thing be so 
Take that lady fair by her hand, and go, 
And may bliss and blessing with ye dwell!" 

Then he kneeled adown, and thanked him well. 
Sir Orfeo took his wife by the hand, 
And he gat him swift from the Fairy land, 
Out of the palace he took his way 
By the selfsame road he had come that day; 
And never he stayed tfll again he stood 
Before the walls of that city good 
Where aforetime as king he ware, the crown -- 
But no man knew him in all that town. 

But a little way from the gate they go 
Ere they come to a dwelling poor and low, 
And Sir Orfeo deemed they would harbour there, 
For more would he know ere he'ld further fare. 
So he prayed, as a minstrel wan and worn, 
They would shelter him and his wife till morn. 
Then he asked his host who was ruler there? 
And who was king of that country fair 
And the beggar answered him word for word, 
And told him the tale as ye e'en have heard; 
How ten years agone, in the month of May, 
Their queen was by Fairies stolen away, 
And, an exile, their king had wandered forth, 
But none knew whither, or south, or north, 
And the steward since then the land did hold 
And many another tale he told. 

When the morrow came, and 't was high noontide, 
The king bade his wife in the hut abide, 
And he clad himself in the beggar's gown, 
And, harp in hand, he sought the town, 
And he gat him into that city good 
That all men might see him an they would. 
Earl, and baron, and lady bright, 
Stared agape at the wondrous sight, 
"Was ever," they cried, "such marvel known? 
The man is by hair, as by moss, o'ergrown. 
Look how his beard hangeth to his knee! 
'T is e'en as he were a walking tree!" 

Then as to the palace his way was set 
In the city street the steward he met, 
And he cried aloud: "Sir Steward, I pray 
That thou have mercy on me this day; 
I am a harper of heathennesse, 
Help me in this my sore distress!" 

And the steward he quoth: "Now come with me, 
All that I have will I share with thee, 
Every good harper is welcome here 
For Sir Orfeo's sake, my lord most dear." 

The steward he sat him down at the board, 
With many a noble knight and lord, 
All kinds of music had they, I trow, 
Of trumpet and tabour, and harp enow, 
In the hall was no lack of melody -- 
Sir Orfeo hearkened silently 
And till all had done he held him still 
Then he took and tempered his harp with skill 
And I think me no tongue of man may say 
How sweet was the music he made that day. 
To hearken and hear was each one fain, 
But the steward he gazed on the harp again, 
And it seemed to him that he knew it well -- 
"Minstrel," he quoth: "I beseech thee tell 
Whence had'st thou that harp, and who gave it thee? 
I pray that thou truly answer me!" 

"Lord," be quoth: "afar from here, 
As I took my way through a desert drear. 
I found, in a valley dark and grim, 
A man by lions torn limb from limb, 
Wolves gnawed his bones with teeth so sharp, 
And beside the body I found this harp. 
Full ten years ago it needs must be." 

"Alas!" cried the steward: " now woe is me!" 
'T was the corse of my lord Sir Orfeo! 
Ah! wretched me, what shall I do? 
Of so good a lord am I left forlorn, 
Methinks 't were best I had ne'er been born! 
Ah woe, that for him such lot was cast, 
And so foul a death he must die at last!" 

With that, the steward, he swooning fell, 
But the lords they comforted him right well, 
For no man so sad who draweth breath 
But findeth healing at last in death. 
By all these tokens Sir Orfeo knew 
A loyal man was his steward and true, 
One who loved his lord, nor his pledge would break -- 
Then up he stood, and on this wise spake: 
"Hearken, I pray thee, steward, my word, 
Put case I were Orfeo now, thy lord, 
Say I had suffered torments sore 
In the wilderness full ten years and more, 
That at last I had won my queen away 
From the land where the Fairy king holds sway, 
And that we had safely come, we twain, 
Back to this city and burg again, 
And my wife abode with a beggar poor 
While I came again to my palace door, 
In lowly guise, thus to test thee still, 
And see if thou bore me right good will; 
I wot, an I found thee so leal and true, 
My coming again thou should'st never rue, 
Verily, and indeed, without yea or nay, 
The throne should be thine when I passed away! 
But if news of my death had been joy to thee 
Thou hadst passed from this house right speedily." 

Then never a man at the castle board 
But knew that this was indeed their lord, 
The steward right well his master knew, 
Over and over the board he threw, 
And low at Sir Orfeo's feet would fall -- 
And so do the lordings, one and all, 
And they cry with one voice till the rafters ring: 
"Thou art our lord, Sire, and our king!" 

Blithe of his coming they were and gay, 
To his chamber they led the king straightway, 
And they bathed him well, and trimmed his hair, 
And clad him in royal raiment fair. 
And then with solemn and stately train 
They brought the queen to her burg again, 
With all manner of music and minstrelsy; 
I' faith there was joyous melody, 
And the tears of joy they fell like rain 
When the folk saw their king and queen again. 

Now is Orfeo crowned once more, I wis, 
With his lady and queen, Dame Heurodis, 
And many a year they lived those two, 
And after them ruled the steward so true. 
Harpers in Britain, as I was told, 
Heard how this marvel had chanced of old, 
And thereof they made a lay so sweet, 
And gave it the king's name, as was meet. 
'Sir Orfeo," thus the title stood, 
Good are the words, the music good -- 
Thus came Sir Orfeo out of his care, 
God grant to us all as well to fare! 

Translated by Jessie L. Weston, in The Chief Middle English Poets, Cambridge, Mass., 1914, pp. 133-141.