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Mired in post-holiday financial ruin? A few lines of econ-happy verse, perhaps

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Finances pinch in January. The hangover from the holidays reminds us that we’ve probably spent a little more and saved a little less than we should, and the gathering of tax forms serves notice that we’ll be writing some very unpleasant cheques in the near future. It’s a grim month.

Fortunately, there is marvelous poetry to be read when one is feeling broke. Of these, Chaucer’s “The Complaint of Chaucer to His Empty Purse” is probably the most famous. Written as a mock love lyric, the poem makes much of a pun on the word “light” which could mean both “empty” and also “unchaste.”

To you, my purse, and to non other wight    (To you, my purse, and to no other person)
Compleyne I, for ye be my lady dere!         (I complain, for you are my dear lady)
I am so sory, now that ye be light;               (I am so sorry, now that you are empty/unchaste)
For certes, but ye make me hevy chere,       (Certainly you make me feel heavy/sad)

Chaucer pleads with his purse, “Beth hevy ageyn, or elles mot I dye!” (Be heavy again or else I must die!), longing, as we all do now and then, for a miraculous refilling of our emptied purses and pockets. If he can’t have that, he asks for just a little help getting out of town ahead of his debts because “I am shave as ney as any frere.” (I have as little money as a monk has hair.)

It’s a charming little piece, and one hopes that the poem’s envoi, addressed to the King, brought some relief to Chaucer and some coins to his beloved purse.

But I am perhaps even more charmed by an 18th century variation on Chaucer’s theme. Mary Jones’s “Soliloquy on an Empty Purse” is clearly inspired by Chaucer’s verse, and like Chaucer, Jones looks back to happier days when her purse was full and “mixed with keys, and coins among,/Chinked to the melody of song.” Back then, Jones reports, she spent freely and without care.

Like wax thy silver melted down,
Touch but the brass, and lo! ’twas gone:
And gold would never with thee stay,
For gold had wings, and flew away.

And now, like Chaucer, she has nothing left. Jones, however, does not plead for her purse to be refilled. Instead she attempts to make the best of her poverty, noting that her empty purse is now surrounded by virtues like temperance, prudence, patience and abstinence, and that her lack of funds makes her impervious to the temptations of “Wildey’s toys, or Pinchbeck’s shop” and to the merchants who ask her “Madam, what d’ye buy?” She is resolved to rise above her poverty, sing sweetly in her poor garret, and appreciate the lack of flattery she now receives.

Away, far hence each worldly care!
Nor dun nor pick-purse shalt thou fear,
Nor flatterer base annoy my ear.
Snug shalt thou travel through the mob,
For who a poet’s purse will rob?
And softly sweet in garret high
Will I thy virtues magnify;
Outsoaring flatterers’ stinking breath…

But just as we are prepared to thoroughly detest Jones for her smarmy good cheer in the face of financial ruin, her poem takes a turn that undercuts the treacle of all the praise of virtuous poverty that goes before it. The final line of the poem gives us Mary Jones, poet, up in that garret, enjoying her virtuous poverty, appreciating her freedom from filthy lucre and filthier flattery…

And gently rhyming rats to death.

Those six words make it instantly clear that all her happy talk has been just that, and that she’d rather have money for a nicer flat and an exterminator. It’s all very well, she argues, to talk about freedom from worldly care, but when the only thing standing between the poet and the rats is a few lines of verse, a little cold cash might be nice.

It’s January. I’m sure we all agree.


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