This week’s selection at least manages to be topical: some descriptions of May and Spring (for more lovely descriptions, see the Clerk of Oxford’s post). This is a little test-post for an idea I had about looking at various verse translations of the same source text in order to focus on poetic praxis. Guido of Colonna’s thirteenth-century Latin prose account of the history of the destruction of Troy was translated several times into Middle English poetry: into alliterative verse by John Clerk of Whalley (now called the Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy), into four-stress couplets (now called the Laud Troy Book), and into decasyllabic couplets by John Lydgate in his Troy Book.
Being mother to a five year old, I am only too aware of the delights of toilet humour. Small children, like poets, can’t resist the urge to see if they can shock you with new words they have learned at school. The beginning lines of The Owl and the Nightingale have a rather scatological fixation too. This opening, the initial argument which unfolds before the birds agree to ask Nicholas of Guildford to arbitrate, works as a prologue for what follows. Nicolette Zeeman, in an essay on ‘Imaginative Theory’ in Middle English: Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature, argues that we can only recognize the full extent of medieval writers’ ‘literary self-theorization’, that is their self-reflexive analysis of their own literary practice and perhaps also of literature itself, when we realise that some of this theorization appears in texts in figurative or metaphorical form.
Next week sees Oxford University’s tribute to Seamus Heaney. Amongst all the immense losses brought about by the death of this great poet is the loss of a skilled translator of Middle English, a translator who brought medieval poetry to a wider audience. In 2009, Heaney published a translation of Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid and seven of his Moral Fables. Earlier in his career, Heaney translated a short Middle English text called ‘The Names of the Hare’. This early Middle English poem is preserved in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 86, a late thirteenth-century West Midlands trilingual miscellany written by an anonymous scribe for his own use.
One of the delights of starting work on this book has been the search for particularly distinctive examples of Middle English poetics in practice. In particular, I have been skim-reading lots of editions in a rough chronological survey looking for conscious poetic experiments. London, British Library MS Harley 913 has provided a rich source of pre-Chaucerian stylistic innovation. MS Harley 913 is a trilingual anthology of poetry and prose, copied by a Franciscan friar living in Waterford in the south of Ireland. Parts of the manuscript can be dated 1338 to 1342 (See Alan J. Fletcher, ‘The Date Of London, British Library, Harley MS 913 (The “Kildare Poems”)’, Medium Ævum, 79:2 (2010), 306–10), though the volume as a whole may have been copied over a longer period. Many of the pieces in the manuscript seem to have been chosen by a compiler interested in parody and wordplay. (See Neil Cartlidge, ‘Festivity, Order, and Community in Fourteenth-Century Ireland: The Composition and Contexts of BL MS Harley 913’, Yearbook of English Studies, 33 (2003), 33–52).