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.
[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
This post is written in honour of the Third Annual Hoccleve Recovery Day. As the International Hoccleve Society’s website explains, this day celebrates all sorts of academic and personal recoveries and returns (just as Thomas Hoccleve’s wits returned to him on November 1st). The book I am writing aims to recover ‘lost’ technical terms and reconstruct ideas about poetics that were current in Britain in the later Middle Ages. Potential loss and possible recovery play an important part in the way fifteenth- and sixteenth-century poets think about metre. As a sixteenth-century printer put it, if you print a poem in the author’s original spelling you recover ‘the native grace and first mynd of the wryter’. This is because the author’s spelling encodes the rhythms and metrical patterns as first intended, which later transmission can unwittingly remove.
Three terms for the price of one in this blog post. An abece (or an abc) is a poem where each line or each stanza (or even each word in a stanza, in one particularly jazzy Latin example) begins with each letter of the alphabet in turn. Chaucer’s translation of Deguileville’s prayer to the Virgin Mary is usually called his ABC because each stanza of the poem begins with each letter in turn. Another Middle English poem, often called ‘The ABC of Devotion’, models itself on a child’s alphabet, beginning with a cross and ending with puns on the ‘tittle’ and ‘point’, the punctuation marks that sometimes followed the alphabet in a primer text.
This technical term provides a good example of the mis-named, the loosely-defined, the nameless and the only-belatedly-named in Middle English poetics. It’s a word sometimes flung about by my students when close-reading: any syntactical break (i.e. anywhere a line of poetry has a division between grammatical phrases or clauses, and especially if it’s near the middle of the line) gets called a caesura without too much thought. It’s one of those technical terms that gives you faux expertise: you can spot something easy (i.e. a syntactic break) and label it with a word which makes it seem as if you are analysing the metre. Joseph A Dane is usefully strict about how relevant the word is for Chaucer’s metre in this article (the answer is not very!).
Just a quick post to say that my article on a group of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century lyrics which in the past were misidentified as Middle English virelais has been published in Medium Ævum 85.1 (2016). The poems in question are in fact English versions of various French complainte forms. The article explains how they came to be misidentified, and discusses the imitation of French forms in English. It argues that this form was recognisable and had distinctive connotations, meaning that it could be used parodically or ironically in some instances. You can download a copy of the article here:
Here’s the text of the short talk I’m giving as part of a Roundtable discussion (Session 5D) on ‘After Chaucer’ at the New Chaucer Society Congress on Tuesday afternoon.
As I explained in a previous post, over New Year’s I stumbled upon a little-noticed prologue, uniquely preserved in London, British Library MS Harley 7578. It prefaces the Liber Proverbiorum, a mid-fifteenth-century verse translation of an early fourteenth-century collection of proverbs and wise sayings by the friar and preacher Nicole Bozon. The text as a whole had been edited in two American PhD dissertations, but neither had been published, and so the poem had faded into obscurity.