May: Three Ways (Part 2)

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.

Lydgate’s couplets make it easy for him to extend and expand his source-text.  It’s immediately obvious that Lydgate seizes on the rhetorical possibilities of this chronographia, not at all surprising given his probable training here at Oxford at Gloucester College, the Benedictine hall.  The renewed interest in rhetoric amongst Oxford Benedictines at exactly the time during which Lydgate was studying here has been recently described by Martin Camargo.

Here spring is personified as the goddess Flora covering the landscape with flowers and giving it new uniform (just as retainers in a medieval noble household were given particular robes for different seasons).   Unlike John Clerk who turns away from metaphor in favour of botanical accuracy in his lexis, Lydgate explores and develops Guido’s figure of thought that the tree blossoms represent a formal pledge of fruit to come.  In his expansion, he comes to see more clearly the paradoxical quality of springtime.  Flowers and blossom delight our senses after a long winter, yet there is no immediate harvest – we have to wait until autumn.   It is anticipation rather than gratification which cheers us.

In syntactical terms Lydgate’s version enacts these processes of expansion and delay – we have to wait several lines before we find the verb describing Flora’s actions, and the sentence then carries on, complicated by the aside in lines 3346–8, forming a very lengthy temporal subordinate clause (Upon…whan that..and thus…and thus…whan…) reminiscent of Chaucer’s famous opening of the General Prologue (which is itself modelled on another of Guido’s chronographia).   The processes of rhetorical expansion and syntactical elaboration lead Lydgate towards a miniature meditation on temporality itself in this chronographia.

Upon the tyme of joly grene May,
Whan that Flora with hir hewes gay
Hath every playn, medwe, hil, and vale
With hir flouris, quik and no thing pale,
Over-sprad and clad in lyvere newe,
And braunchis blosme with many a lusty hewe,
And bit us fully to be glad and light —
For by assuraunce thei have her frute be-hight
Ageyn autumpne, who so list hem shake
Whan on vynes ripeth every grape —
And thus this sesoun, most lusty of disport,
Enbrasith hertis with new recounfort
Only of hope by kynde as it is dew
That holsom frute schal the blosmys swe
Whan time cometh by revolucioun,
And thus in May, the lusty fresche sesoun,
Whan briddes syngen in her armonye…
(Troy Book, Iines 3339–55, spelling and capitalisation
modernised, repunctuated)

[During the time of jolly green May, when the goddess Flora with her bright complexion has covered every field, meadow, hill and vale with her flowers, all of them bright and none pallid, and has clad them with new uniforms, and [makes] branches bloom with many a vivid colour, and commands us to be cheerful and merry — for they [the blooms on the branches] have solemnly promised their fruits in anticipation of autumn, for whosoever desires to shake them [i.e. the fruits] down when every grape ripens on its vine —and thus this season, most cheerful in its pleasures, strengthens hearts with new gladness, merely by the hope (just as it is proper and natural) that pleasant fruit shall follow after the blossoms, when the time comes to pass.  And thus in May, the vigorous fresh season, when birds sing their harmonious songs…]

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