This week’s poem (scroll down for text and translation) is a medieval version of constraint writing, in which a writer constrains themselves to comply with an arbitrary rule or pattern. In this tiny poem, almost every word begins with the letter f. It seems likely that the poet was inspired by similar experiments in medieval Latin poetry. For example, eighteen lines on Saint Peter the Martyr (d. 1252) with each word beginning, fittingly, with p, or Hucbald of St Amand’s tenth-century Ecloga de clavis, a poem in praise of bald men, dedicated to the emperor Charles the Bald, 146 lines in which all words begin with c, a letter choice which, perhaps, represents the ring of hair remaining around a bald pate.
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.
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.
Setting about a guide to poetics throws up some simple, central and yet terrifyingly big questions. When, for example, does enjambment (re-)start in English verse? Enjambed lines of verse are frequent in Old English, but much less common in pre-1350 poetry. Donka Minkova’s excellent introduction to ‘The Forms of Verse’ in Peter Brown’s A Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c. 1350-c.1500 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007) asserts that before Chaucer ‘Middle English verse was end-stopped, meaning that each line-ending coincided with a major syntactic break – the end of a clause or phrase’ (p. 187). Chaucer is claimed as the re-originator of a ‘new and unexpected’ (p. 188) verse innovation, namely enjambed or run-on lines ‘in which a syntactic […] unit straddles two lines’. She gives as examples House of Fame 349–50 and 582–83.
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.
After the sounds of old age come the sounds and signs of death. These derive from medical lists of symptoms given in Hippocrates and Galen (see Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (1968), pp. 79–82). Some medieval poets, whether for mnemonic, rhetorical or other purposes, transformed them into verse. In the early fourteenth-century Fascisculus Morum (a handbook for preachers written by a Franciscan friar), three Latin couplets listing the signs of death attributed (apocryphally) to St Jerome are cited, as well as a Middle English poem beginning ‘When the hede quakyth / And the lyppis blakyth’ which gives eight different signs of death before a brief conclusion. Other versions, medical and moral, are recorded by R H Robbins, ‘Signs of Death in Middle English’, Mediaeval Studies, 32 (1970), 282–98.