Larks and Quails

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.

Detail from Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (1650), musical notation of the quail’s song

The first part of Fortunes Stabilnes describes, in a sequence of seventy-four ballades, the young Charles falling in love with a beautiful lady.  Ballade 57 recounts the lady’s death, and the remaining ballades are very poignant lyrics of grief and mourning.  Now an older man, Charles is then released from the God of Love’s service and he retires to the Castle of No Care.  To celebrate this retirement he provides a poetic banquet.

At this banquet, Charles says that ‘y fede yow shall with song’ (I will feed you with songs).  And because the sweetest flesh comes from the smallest birds (‘quaylis rounde and eek the larkis lyte’, i.e. the plump quail and also the little larks), he says that he will feed us with small poems called roundels in Middle English and chansons in Medieval French.  There are 103 of these small but juicy lyrics, each of which begin with a refrain which returns in part in the second stanza and in full as the final stanza.

The best of them show Charles’s characteristic plain-speaking and his somewhat quirky approach to syntax, as well as his clever re-workings of courtly love motifs.  Here the speaker is betrayed not by a lady but by his own heart, which has left him and joined the service of the God of Love.  When the speaker tries to get his heart to come back, the heart (like a former best friend who’s gone off with a new cool crowd) will not listen to him.  To be in love is literally to lose one’s heart, without any way of getting it back.

Roundel 24 (Fortunes Stabilnes, ll. 3477ff)

Hit is doon.  Ther is no more to say,
Myn hert departid is fro me
To holde with Loue and his parte,
That in bandone y lyue must to y day.

[It’s over, there’s nothing else to say: my heart has left me in order to side with Love and his crowd, so that I must live forsaken until I die.]

To wrethe my silf hit were me but fole,
Nor yet forto discomfort me, ma fay,
Hit is doon.  There is no more to say,
Myn hert departid is fro me.

[It would be nothing but folly to become angry with myself or to become discouraged, because it’s over, there’s nothing else to say: my heart has left me.]

He doth not ellis but mokke with me and play
When y him say, in myn aduersite,
I may not lyue withouten him, parde,
But saith me, “Tewche!” and turneth me away.

[My heart does nothing else except mock me and joke when I say to him, in my misfortune, that I cannot live without him, certainly; but he only says “Shush!” to me and turns away from me.]

Hit is doon.  Ther is no more to say,
Myn hert departid is fro me
To holde with Loue and his parte,
That in bandone y lyue must to y day.

[It’s over, there’s nothing else to say: my heart has left me in order to side with Love and his crowd, so that I must live forsaken until I die.]

2 thoughts on “Larks and Quails

    1. Thank you so much for the comment. Your edition is really superb, and has helped me a great deal in thinking about French lyric in English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


× 2 = two

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>