Imbecile Ingenuity?

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.

It’s hard to know in what context this poem might have been created and by whom.  The poem survives in a sixteenth-century manuscript (London, BL MS Arundel 26), a collection of materials put together by Sir William Dethick (or Detheck) (1543–1612), herald and antiquary.  (Dethick, in passing, was an interesting character – even the Dictionary of National Biography acknowledges his ‘atrocious behaviour’).  The manuscript contains a selection of historical documents, alongside this poem and one other.  Some of the historical material is mid to late fifteenth century, so it seems likely to be a fifteenth-century poem.  The poem is headed ‘Balade colourd and reversid’, i.e. a ballade written skillfully and capable of being read backwards.

Derek Pearsall, in his Old and Middle English Poetry, calls this poem ‘a rare example of English aspiring to the imbecile ingenuity of the Burgundian rhétoriqueurs’.  This is rather harsh, both on this poem and the Burgundians.  My guess is that it was inspired by a ballade by Christine de Pizan, which she calls a ‘balade retrograde qui se dit a droit et a rebours’ (a retrograde ballade which can be said rightways and turning back).  Christine’s poem uses the French equivalent of two of the same rhyme sounds and also makes reference to Lucretia.  If this is the case (and I’d like to do a bit more research on this), it’s another interesting example of Christine’s influence on fifteenth-century English writing.

You could dismiss this poem as entirely artificial, both in its formal construction and its emotions – just a trivial exercise in poetics.  I’m interested in it, though, because it shows how the poetic licence to distort normal prose/speech word order and syntax had become entirely embedded post-Chaucer in the fifteenth century  that readers could decipher forward and reversed syntax relatively easily.  I like the reference to two eyes (two ways of reading?) in the envoy.  I also like how the ‘secret’, reversed meaning packs rather more punch, with the refrain reading ‘Certayne nothyng want ye savyng pyte’ (Indeed nothing lack you but pity), saving the damning statement of what the lady lacks (and what the speaker needs) for the very last word.

Honour and beaute, vertue and gentilesse,
Noblesse and bounte of grete valure,
Fygure playsant with coulour and fresshenesse,
Witnesse prudent, with connyng and norture,
Plente of this have ye, lo, souverayn,
Expresse so youe fourmyd hath nature,
Pyte savyng, ye want no thyng certayne.

[Honour and beauty, virtue and nobility, excellence and goodness of great value, pleasant appearance with colouring and radiance, an example of prudence via knowledge and upbringing, indeed, you have plenty of this, mistress, Nature has formed you so, unmistakeably: except for pity, you lack for nothing indeed.]

Creature noon hath more goodlynesse,
Goodenesse grete, so wred yow hath ure
Feture and shap of faire Lucresse,
Mekenesse of Tesbe, as voide of al rigure,
Fredlynesse of Mede, port of Geynure,
Pennelope of hestis, true and playne,
Alcesse of bounte, lo, thus are ye sure,
Pite savyng, ye want no thyng certayne.

[A living thing might have no more virtue [than you], your excellency, so has destiny adorned you [with] the figure and looks of fair Lucretia, the humility of Thisbe, without any cruelty, the friendliness of Medea, the bearing of Guinevere, a Penelope of promises, true and sincere, an Alceste of kindness, indeed, you are surely: except for pity, you lack for nothing indeed.]

Endure doth me, lo, payne and hevynesse,
Distresse and thought with trouble and langour,
Vnsure stondyng of socour and relesse,
Maistres and lady, trustyng you of cure,
Witnesse of God, I gre myn adventure,
Parde is falle me what joy or payne,
Gladnesse or woo, thus I you ensure,
Pytte savyng, ye want no thyng certayne.

[I suffer, truly, pain and sorrow, distress and melancholy with turmoil and misery, being uncertain of relief and respite, mistress and lady, hoping for a remedy from you, as God is my witness, I consent to my fate; by God, whatever joy or pain is allotted to me, [whatever] gladness or woe, I assure you thus: except for pity, you lack for nothing indeed.]

Pryncesse I you beseche this rude meture,
Ye not disdayne, beholde with eyen tweyn,
Witnesse though I doo in this scripture,
Pite savyng ye want no thyng certeyne.

[Princess, I entreat you [that] you do not scorn this humble verse, look at it with both your eyes, though I testify in this writing [that], except for pity, you lack for nothing indeed.]

(Text from transcription by MacCracken, PMLA, 26 (1911), 179-80, with some modernisation of spelling and punctuation)

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