Dangerous form

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.

The Wound Man from Wellcome Library’s MS 49

[You can find out more about the Wound Man image here]

The poem is preserved in the Blage manuscript which has texts of many of Wyatt’s poems.  It has been attributed to Wyatt (with the tempting thought that this poem might somehow respond to the execution of the young men, Wyatt’s friends, who were supposedly Anne Boleyn’s lovers).  Wyatt’s editors, Muir and Thomson, don’t like it very much, calling it a ‘rather absurd dialogue between the ghost of a murdered man and a despairing lover’.

Perhaps it is, but to my eyes it is not merely absurd.  Dream vision takes some strange directions towards the end of its long evolution as a form.  Dunbar has some rather wonderful dream visions in which everything is in miniature (like Number 42 here).  Dream vision also gets darker at the end of the fifteenth century (think of John Skelton’s Bowge of Court).  In the poem at the foot of this blog, the ballade form (or at least a rather rough-and-ready version of it, three stanzas plus envoy) has swallowed the dream vision, with startling results.  Dreams are no longer freewheeling narratives with space to muse and explore, but are compressed into lyric, with terrifying effects.  The hyperbolic endless pain of the lover, that familiar topic of lyric complaint, produces, under the pressure of collapsed dream vision, a near-suicide.

Whoever wrote this gruesome poem had an experimental approach to form too.  The first three stanzas are in an approximation of alliterative verse (with some traces of vocabulary associated with alliterative poetry), while the last stanza, the envoy, is written with shorter lines, mostly octosyllabic, with little alliteration.  The rhyme scheme approximates rhyme royal, in keeping with its loose identity as a ballade.  What exactly the contrast between the two forms means is a question I am still contemplating.  While I ponder, here’s a poem which (I think) once read is never forgotten.

Horrybell of hew, hidyus to behold,
Carefull of countenaunce, his here all clustred,
With dead dropy blood that down his face rowled,
Pale, paynefull, and petyvsly persyd,
His hart in sunder sorofully Shyvered,
Me thought a man, thus marvelyusly murdred,
This night to me Came and carefully cryed.

[Horrible in appearance, hideous to behold, frightening in look, his hair all matted, with dead dripping blood that rolled down his face, pale, sorrowful, and piteously wounded, his heart grievously splintered asunder: it seemed as if a man, horribly murdered, came to me tonight and frighteningly cried out:]

‘O man mysfortunate, more then any Creytour,
That paynefully yet lyues more payne to perceyue,
What hardenyd hath thy hart this harme to suffer?
Thy Doughtfull hope, hit doo the but disceyue.
No good nor grace to glad the shalt receyve,
By payne frome thy pain then payne to procure,
Soo bitter it were then endles Deth to endure.

[O unlucky man, more unfortunate than any creature, who so painfully lives only in order to feel yet more pain, what has hardened your heart to suffer this grief? Your uncertain hope, it does nothing but deceive you. You will receive no good fortune nor favour to cheer you, but rather through pain from your pain then more pain to obtain, being more bitter even than endless death to endure.]

‘Folowe me,’ Seith he, ‘hold her my hand.
To longe ys Dethe in ters to Proue.
The se shall Soner quenche the brand
Of the Desyre that hath the thus ondon
Or sooner send the to a deadly sowne.
Hold in thy hand the hafte herof this knyfe,
And with the blade boldely bereyve thy lyffe.

[‘Follow me’, he says, ‘take my hand. Death by crying will prove far too long.  The sea will sooner quench the flame of the desire which has so undone you or sooner send you to a fatal stupor.  Hold the handle of this knife in your hand, and with the blade boldly take your life.]

‘Cum of,’ quod he, ‘I cum’, quod I.
Then therwith as me thought
My brest I persyd paynefully.
My hart right sowne I hit raught.
But, lord! Alas! hit was for naught:
For with that stroke I dyd awake.
My hart for sorow yet fele I quake.

[‘Hurry up!’ he said, ‘I’m there’, I replied.  Then right then it seemed to me that I pierced my breast.  Very quickly I reached my heart.  But, Lord! Alas! It was all for nothing: for with that blow I awoke.  I can still feel my heart beating for sorrow.]

One thought on “Dangerous form

  1. How wondrously horrible! I’ll keep it, think of the right book in which to tuck it. It is surely worthy of Poe.

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