How can a poem mean one thing and simultaneously its opposite? As you can see from the text and two translations (scroll down for these), this week’s poem manages it by punctuation (and, I would argue, by poetics too). Christopher Cannon, in his recent introduction to Middle English Literature (2013) shows how this poem cleverly insinuates that ‘trouble underlies any possible optimism’ (p. 46), that this complacent description of social justice is in fact a coded description of social disorder. The same technique of writing texts which can be punctuated to produce two different meanings is used for comic effect in Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (Merygreek’s love letter) and in Peter Quince’s Prologue in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act V.i).
Rossell Hope Robbins called this type of lyric a ‘punctuation poem’ and edits several different medieval examples in his Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries. You can read each line stopping at the line-ending punctus, or you can take the mid-line punctus as an indication that you should read past the line-ending to the end of the sentence. Calling this a punctuation poem, however, overlooks the part that poetics plays in its double meaning. As it is laid out, the poem is written in a single eight-line ballade stanza rhyming ababbcbc. The ‘secret’ meaning is indicated not only by the mid-line punctuation, but also by rhyme (picked out in blue below). If you were to re-lineated the poem with the hidden rhymes at the end of each lines you would have a rhyme royal stanza rhyming ababbcc (though admittedly with lines longer than the usual decasyllabic line).
To switch the meaning is to switch stanza form, or vice versa. The two meanings are also produced by (or produce) two ways of reading verse, the one pausing or endstopping at the end of each line and the other running on over the line-ending until the unit of meaning ends (what we call enjambment). This shows an awareness of different types of verse reading, the different sorts of reading produced by those readers who feel that the rhyme at the end of the line is sacred and should be marked with a solemn pause, or those who read predominantly for the syntactical unit, or those of us who try to indicate both line-unit and syntactical unit simultaneously. The un-codified nature of medieval punctuation must have meant that most medieval readers of verse had to test out enjambed and endstopped readings of lines to find the ‘right’ reading.
So this is not only a punctuation poem but a poetics poem. This is confirmed by a comment added to a similar poem in the Maitland folio manuscript (an anthology of Scottish poetry compiled in the first half of the sixteenth century): ‘Reid this wers acording to the meitter & it is guid of wemen bot reid it to the nott ewin the contrair’ (‘read this verse according to the verse-form and it is positive about women but read it precisely according to the punctuation [it is] the contrary’). After Chaucer’s poetry had popularised enjambment in English verse, fifteenth-century authors were able to rely on readers understanding these two ways of reading verse.
Nowe the lawe is ledde by clere conscience .
Full seld . Covetise hath dominacioun .
In every place . Right hath residence .
Neyther in towne ne feld . Similacion .
There is truly in every cas . Consolacioun .
The pore peple no tyme hase . but right .
Men may fynd day ne nyght . Adulacioun .
Nowe reigneth treuth in every mannys sight.
Translation of Version 1
Now the law is guided by clear conscience.
Very seldomly does covetousness rule over everything.
Justice has its residence in every place.
Deception is found neither in town nor countryside.
There is solace and support truly in every situation.
The poor people at no point experience anything except justice.
Men can come across flattery neither day nor night.
Now truth rules according to everyone.
Translation of Version 2
Now the law is very seldomly guided by clear conscience.
Covetousness rules over everything everywhere.
Justice lives neither in town nor countryside.
There is deception in literally every situation.
The poor people never receive support and solace.
Men can come across justice neither day nor night.
Flattery now rules over truth according to everyone.