On Valentine’s Day, of course, a fifteenth-century Valentine’s ballade. By coincidence, I found this one in the manuscript which preserves the proverbial text translated for Margaret of Anjou which I’ve been working on for the last few weeks. It was printed once in Skeat’s multi-volume Works of Chaucer, but not much looked at since, I think. I like the tone of voice in this lyric: the histrionic lover, completely and utterly devoted, but also full of a sense of his own absurdity and the unfairness of love.
Today is ‘Whan That Aprille Day’, a celebration of ‘oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges’ and languages which are Old, or Middle, or Ancient, or Dead. I’d like to celebrate Charles of Valois, duke of Orleans, who wrote first in one language, French, and then another, English (and later still had his French poems translated into Latin). Charles was taken prisoner at Agincourt in 1415 and was then held captive in England for twenty-five years. During this time he translated some of his French poetry into English, and then wrote more English poetry, creating a long work (edited by Mary-Jo Arn as Fortunes Stabilnes) which combines lyric sequences and narrative sections.
As I’ve had to press the pause-button on my research in the last couple of weeks (blame gift shopping, school holidays, and the in-laws for Christmas), I’ve been reading Lavinia Greenlaw’s A Double Sorrow in fits and starts. I’m writing a short article on this poem and its inspiration, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, for The English Review, a magazine for sixth-formers published by Philip Allan. This is a commission, and I am delighted to have been asked – it’s an excuse to write on something I would never have been brave enough to choose myself. Reading Greenlaw’s poem has been very moving in its own right (sending me right back, in unexpected ways, to strong memories of my earlier love-struck and lovelorn self) and returning me to Chaucer yet once more.
A little while ago (before my blogging got derailed by the marking of a great number of Finals scripts), I read this talk by Laura Saetveit Miles, and before that this article by Diane Watt. Reading them, I was ruefully aware that my current research on poetic experimentation in Middle English would fail an academic ‘Bechdel test’. It’s not that women didn’t write in Britain in the Middle Ages: see Alexandra Barratt’s anthology of Women’s Writing in Middle English and the collection of essays edited by Carol Meale as just a starting point. But it does seem to be the case that only a very few women are named as composers of Middle English verse.
I think that the book I am working on will become more and more focused on lesser-known poetic experiments in Middle English. Because these curious creatures don’t often fit into standard accounts, they have often been unduly overlooked. Scroll down for an extract (with a translation) of a real hidden gem, describing a lover’s thoughts on a cold winter’s night. This is from a poem often attributed to Lydgate (though it seems very unlike anything else he wrote) and is often called A Lover’s New Year’s Gift.
Pity our poor Finalists! Our third-year English Literature and Language students, sitting their Finals in a few weeks, have a two-hour Middle English commentary exam. They write one commentary on a short extract from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and another commentary on their choice of the remaining five set texts (extracts from Ancrene Wisse, Piers Plowman and Malory’s Morte Darthur, the whole of Pearl, or the whole of Henryson’s Moral Fables). It’s a lot of material to prepare, alongside four period papers and a Shakespeare paper. (Next year’s new syllabus is somewhat less daunting, with a single paper combining two essays on English Literature from 1350 to 1550 with a commentary on a Troilus and Criseyde extract).
Last week’s poem was able to mean two opposite things by encoding two different readings within one stanza. This week’s choice (scroll down for text and translation) has the trick of meaning the same thing in two different ways. At a quick glance, it looks just like any number of fifteenth-century love poems, full of praise of a lover’s lady’s virtues and beauties. But each of the lines of the ballade proper (as opposed to the envoy) are constructed so that you can read them from left to right as usual, but also from right to left. Cleverly the rhyme also works in reverse, with rhyme words at the beginning and end of lines. Pick a line and try it first forwards and then backwards.
Here’s another love poem, this time a short lover’s lament (DIMEV 3269) from London, British Library MS Harley 913. Scroll down for a text and translation. MS Harley 913 is a trilingual mid-fourteenth-century anthology of poetry and prose, copied by a Franciscan friar living in Waterford in the south of Ireland. The poem narrates how love has brought the speaker into sinful thought, then to the absence of reason and reflection (which nonetheless proves futile as a means of escaping love), then into grief and anxiety, and then to despair. It ends with his resolution to continue even without hope of his lady’s favour until death and the grave.
Here’s a love poem for Valentine’s Day: scroll down to find a text and Modern English translation. The poem (DIMEV 3279) is from MS Digby 86 (see fol. 200r), a late thirteenth-century West Midlands trilingual miscellany written by an anonymous scribe for his own use. It is, in essence, a list or catalogue of many of love’s different and contrasting qualities. I think many students might, if pushed, venture that the repetition of love is throughout the poem would be an example of anaphora. Anaphora is the repetition of the same word or phrase in several successive clauses (in prose) or the repetition of the same word or phrase at the start of several successive lines (in poetry). Yet calling this anaphora loses sight of the fact that in this poem the lexical repetition is not a rhetorical scheme operating at the level of two or three clauses, sentences or lines in a longer piece of text but rather it defines the whole poem.