Sometimes I worry that I am too obsessed with getting things exactly right in my forthcoming Big Bumper Book of Middle English Poetics (TM). But making sure you understand something, which for this project often means painstakingly learning about forms in other languages and media, can ultimately pay off. For far too long I have been getting to grips with what defines a roundel, the English name for a French lyric called the rondeau (and the related form sometimes called the chanson). The form is rare in Middle English, except for the series of roundels which Charles of Orleans includes in Fortunes Stabilnes, many of which are translations of French originals.
The early sixteenth-century poem presented and translated at the foot of this blog probably needs a trigger warning, at least for those of us who’ve had such dark moments in life that we’ve thought of ending it all. This ballade (if you use that term pretty loosely) describes a night-time vision of a murdered man who encourages the narrator, perhaps a despairing lover, to kill himself. The final stanza revamps the familiar ending of a dream vision in which an authority figure urges some action and/or some startling event occurs, the violence of which awakens the dreamer. Here it is the speaker’s suicide which ends the dream. The last line, flinging us into the present tense, gives a vivid picture of the speaker’s heart thumping as he wakes.
A short bit of translation, to celebrate #WhanThatAprilleDay18. At the foot of the page is a much modernized version of an extract from the alliterative poem Death and Liffe, a depiction of the arrival of Lady Life. This poem presents a debate between Lady Life and Dame Death, two figures whom the narrator sees in a dream vision at the heads of two opposing armies. The poem survives in a corrupted late copy, and so the translation below both relies on editorial reconstruction and has a fair bit of freedom in trying to arrive at something readable.
[First, of course, the apology for the lack of new posts on this blog. The good news is that this because I am hard at work on The Book. But I will try to do a little better in 2018. By way of a New Year’s gift, here is a late fifteenth-century New Year’s gift poem from MS Lambeth 306 with text and Modern English translation. The lover sends his heart, and this poem, as a New Year’s present. It is a lovely heartfelt poem about giving and receiving.]
Juellis pricious cane y non fynde to selle
To sende you, my soverein, this New Yeres morowe,
Wherfor lucke and good hansselle
My hert I sende you, and Seynt John to borowe,
That an hundred yeres withouton adverssite and sorowe
Ye mowe live: I pray to God that ye so mote,
And of all your dessires to sende you hastely bot.
[I can find no precious jewels to sell to send something to you, my lady, on this New Year’s morning, so therefore for good fortune and as as a New Year’s lucky charm I send you my heart, with St John as my guarantor, so that you might live a hundred years without adversity and sorrow: I pray to God that you might do so, and that God might send you quickly everything you desire.] Continue reading
Why do we call a line of poetry a line in English when it is a vers in French (though we do use verse and verses to mean ‘poetry’)? What did Middle English poets call their lines of poetry? In their (at least) trilingual world, they had plenty of words for the basic units of poetry. A metrical line is a versus in Latin (and by extension versus means a set of verses, i.e. a poem). Continental and Insular French usage follows this: a vers is a metrical line. Vers signifies the core unit of poetry, marked out by repeating segments of metre and rhyme. Poetry was in verses whether it was copied as prose (with its units marked by metrical punctuation) or lineated as verse.
My last post explored stanza-linking or concatenation, the chaining of one stanza to another by the repetition of a word or phrase. This post is about linking within the stanza, which I would prefer to call iteration to keep the two things separate. Iteration means doing something over again, repeating or renewing something. The poet repeats a word or a phrase at the same point within each stanza (meaning that the iteration is part of the verse-form rather than incidental repetition), and this repetition of the same word or phrase produces a point of linkage within the stanza. Sometimes the link is not exact but rather a repetition of the same root word in a different tense or form, or a punning link where the same word appears in two different senses. Here you can find iteration in lines 73 and 74 of Three Dead Kings:
Researching rhyme and repetition has taken me far into early and mid-fourteenth-century poetry, the stuff that was in fashion before Langland, Gower and Chaucer remodelled poetics, what you might call ‘middle Middle English’. The Gawain-poet, often seen as the fourth member of the Ricardian gang, has many formal affiliations with the poetry of the 1330s, 1340s and 1350s. Here a hat tip is very much in order: I couldn’t have got to grips with this in the last few weeks without the scholarship of Thorlac Turville-Petre, Susanna Fein and Ad Putter.
With apologies for having gone so long without posting on the blog, here is something I’ve been working on over Christmas: a translation into Modern English prose of the alliterative poem Somer Soneday. Continue reading
This glossary entry tells the tale of a ghost, a pseudo technical term of Middle English poetics, conjured into being (well, so I would argue) by well-meaning lexicographers. The Middle English Dictionary defines raf as ‘crude, worthless verse; a pejorative term for alliterative poetry’. The Oxford English Dictionary goes a little further, glossing raff as ‘Alliteration; verse, esp. alliterative verse, of a crude kind, or in which sound is more prominent than sense; an instance of such verse.’