Envoy To Bukton

"ENVOY TO BUKTON" ("LENVOY DE CHAUCER A BUKTON") Geoffrey Chaucer (1396) Chaucer's envoy (envoi), or verse letter, to Bukton is a short poem surviving in a single manuscript (where it is called "Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton"). There is some question as to who "Bukton" was: One candidate is Sir Robert Bukton, squire to Queen Anne and later to Richard II; the other, more likely, candidate is Sir Peter Bukton of Holdernesse, steward to the earl of Derby, future King Henry IV. The poem is in the conventional French lyric form of a ballade and consists of three eight-line stanzas with a final eight-line envoy, or address to Bukton. Like Chaucer's "Envoy to Scogan," this poem probably owes much to the tradition of verse epistles dating back to the Latin satirist Horace. Certainly the tone of Chaucer's poem is gently satiric, like that of Horace.

"Envoy to Bukton" is a mock-serious condemnation of marriage, warning Bukton against his impending wedding with a good deal of lighthearted raillery. Marriage, the poem's speaker says, is folly or "dotage" (l. 8). It is for the "Unwys" (l. 27) or else for a "doted fool" (l. 13). It is a kind of hellish bondage, the "chayne / Of Sathanas, on which he gnaweth evere" (ll. 9-10), and a man should take his cue from Satan, who would never willingly be bound again if he were ever able to break out of his bonds. only a fool would rather be chained up than free. A man who marries is his "wyves thrall" (l. 20), and would be better off to be taken prisoner in Frisia than caught in the trap of marriage. The speaker ends by advising Bukton to read "The Wife of Bath's Tale" if he wants an authority on marriage, and then he prays that Bukton may live his life in freedom, for it is "ful hard" to be bound.

At least this is what the speaker seems to be saying. But part of Chaucer's wit and jesting tone in this poem stems from his deliberately slippery language. He begins the poem with an anecdote about Pilate's question to Christ, "What is truth?" Chaucer interprets Christ's failure to answer to mean "No man is al trew, I gesse" (l. 4). Of course, the poet's "gesse" about Christ's meaning is completely wrong, but he goes on to apply that conclusion to his own situation: He has promised to speak of the sorrow and woe in marriage, he says, but now claims that he must go back on his word. He doesn't dare say anything bad about marriage, he says, for fear he'll fall into the trap again himself. He follows this up by declaring that he will not say that marriage is the chain of Satan. He then alludes to St. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 7.9, that it is better to marry than to burn, and then goes on to twist Paul's words in 1 Cor. 7.27-28 to emphasize the "bondage" and "tribulation" that Paul mentions as a part of marriage. The poet follows up the authority of St. Paul by an allusion to the fictional authority of the Wife of Bath. Thus Chaucer technically never says anything bad about marriage nor directly condemns it. He tells us what he will not say and alludes to authorities, one of which he misinterprets and the other of which is his own fictional creation. The "Envoy to Bukton" thus becomes an exercise in how to say something without actually saying it.

The poem seems clearly to have been written after the death of Chaucer's wife in 1387, since he implies that he is unmarried. The allusion to the Wife of Bath suggests that "Envoy to Bukton" must have been written after the composition of "The Wife of Bath's Prologue," and at a time when that prologue was well known. But an allusion to the Frisians may be the most direct clue to the date of "Bukton," since it is known that an expedition was undertaken against the Frisians in 1396. The chronicler Jean Froissart mentions that the Frisians had a reputation for brutality toward prisoners, whom they would kill rather than ransom, which explains the allusion in the poem.

Most early scholarship on "Envoy to Bukton" was concerned with establishing the identity of Bukton. More recently, this kind of scholarship has considered who made up Chaucer's audience and what his short poems show us about his role in society. other recent criticism has focused on the poem's speaker: Some see the narrator as displaying a dissolute nature, while others believe the whole poem is simply a game. Other recent discussions have cited the poem as an example of writing about the unreliability of language in the search for truth, a theme related to the late medieval philosophical concept of nominalism.

The "Envoy to Bukton" may well cause us to wonder just what Chaucer's own views on marriage were, but the poem really does not give us a clue. It is clearly not a serious text, and Chaucer playfully says nothing that

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can be taken unequivocally. The poem is a topical piece that is best looked upon as an exercise in comic irony.

See also satire.

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