Poetry has licence to manipulate ‘reality’ (for example in metaphor or allegory) and also to distort language into artificial and deliberate patterns which you would be much less likely to find in everyday speech. This is the origin of the idea of ‘poetic licence’. One of poetry’s licences is its licence to vary the expected or conventional order of words in a sentence, without these unusual orders being considered ‘wrong’ or ‘ungrammatical’.
This is part two of my experiment looking at two different Middle English poets translating a brief seasonal description from Guido of Colonna’s thirteenth-century Latin prose account of the history of the destruction of Troy: ‘the month of May was adorning the fields of the country with various flowers, and the trees, growing green with new leaves, were giving promise of fruits to come by the profusion of their blossoms…’ (trans. Meek). Part one explored John Clerk’s version in the Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy. Scroll down to find John Lydgate’s version (with a Modern English translation) of the same description of May in his Troy Book.
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.
How can a poem mean one thing and simultaneously its opposite? As you can see from the text and two translations (scroll down for these), this week’s poem manages it by punctuation (and, I would argue, by poetics too). Christopher Cannon, in his recent introduction to Middle English Literature (2013) shows how this poem cleverly insinuates that ‘trouble underlies any possible optimism’ (p. 46), that this complacent description of social justice is in fact a coded description of social disorder. The same technique of writing texts which can be punctuated to produce two different meanings is used for comic effect in Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (Merygreek’s love letter) and in Peter Quince’s Prologue in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act V.i).
Researching a history of Middle English poetic style necessarily involves also finding out about style in some of the other languages of medieval Britain. When translating from Latin or French, Middle English poets can choose either to simplify or omit stylistic elements of their source, or to reproduce these poetic effects in the vernacular, or to find an equivalent or analogous vernacular stylistic embellishment. One of the sources for the Middle English poet Laȝamon’s Brut, a history of Britain written circa 1200, is Wace’s Anglo-Norman poem Roman de Brut (circa 1155). Wace’s poem was, I think, a major influence on the style and techniques of narration of early Middle English poetry. Reading the two side by side (in Judith Weiss’s edition of Wace’s Roman de Brut and the Barron and Weinberg edition of Laȝamon) is a useful exercise in understanding Laȝamon’s poetic choices in action. Laȝamon combines reproduction of some parts of Wace’s style with analogous wordplay of his own. Here’s two passages (starting at RB 13,253 and B14,244 respectively) to compare: Continue reading