Today is National Poetry Day in the United Kingdom, and the theme for this year is ‘Remember’ (particularly appropriate for the centenary of the start of the First World War). The theme captures the joy of memorising and remembering poems, as well as poetry’s capacity to act as a repository of recollections and memorialisation. As the Forward Arts Foundation (who run National Poetry Day) says on its website, “poetry is sticky, and stays with you.”
I like the idea of sticky poetry. Middle English poetry can be wonderfully clingy, holding onto memories of lost children and lost loves, as well as preserving countless stories of famous and infamous men and women like flies in amber, once sticky and now fossilized. A poem that has stuck, stickily, in my mind for a long time is John Page’s historical poem on Henry V’s siege of the French city of Rouen from July 1418 to January 1419. (The historian Anne Curry has written an excellent account of the siege if you want to know more about this part of Henry V’s French campaign).
(This is the character of Hunger from MS Douce 104, a Piers Plowman manuscript)
John Page was an English eye-witness who wrote a narrative poem describing the events of the siege from start to finish. This poem was sticky enough to be stuck into the narrative of the Brut chronicle, becoming part of history. Yet, as Tamar Drukker’s essay shows, the details in the poem have often to be taken as literature rather than history, aesthetic rather than realistic. Henry V is the hero of the poem, and the French are the villains, though Page doesn’t turn away from depicting the immense human suffering caused by the siege.
In the extract below (with a translation underneath), Page describes the starving citizens of the formerly splendid and well-defended city. This is necessarily an act of imagination as Page was outside the city walls with the English besiegers. Poetic composition is a sticky process which pulls out emotions and realisations that Page might not have been able to articulate in any other form or discourse. And then it clings and cleaves to its readers – I cannot but remember the tenacious image of the mother’s awful pragmatism or the child hiding its scraps of food from its mother. Poetry, even six-hundred-year-old amateur verse like Page’s, is superglue.
Thenne to dye they dyd be-gynne,
Alle that ryche citte with-yn.
They dyde faster every day
Thenn men myght them in erthe lay.
There as was pryde in ray be-fore,
Thenn was hyt put in sorowe fulle soore.
There as was mete, drynke and songe,
Thenn was sorowe and hunger stronge.
Yf the chylde schulde be dede,
The modyr wolde not gyf hyt bredde,
Ne nought wolde parte hyt a scheve
Thoughe sche wyste to save hys lyve;
Ne the chylde the modyr gyffe;
Every-on caste hym for to leve
As longe as they myght laste.
Love and kyndenys bothe were paste.
Alle kyndenys love was be-syde
That the chylde schulde fro the modyr hyde,
To ete mete that [she] shulde hyt not see,
And ete hyt alle in prevyte.
But hunger passyd kynde and love,
By that pepylle welle ye may prove.
[Then they began to die, all who were within that rich city. They died faster every day
than men could lay them in the earth. Where there was formerly pride in their magnificence, now they were brought to very painful sorrow. Where there was formerly food, drink and song, now there was sorrow and strong hunger. If the child was going to die, its mother would not give it bread, nor would she share a slice with it, even though she longed to save his life; nor would the child give [bread] to his mother; everyone considered how he might survive for as long as they could last. Love and kindness were both left behind. All lovingkindness was set aside in that the child would hide from its mother in order to eat food without her seeing it, and eat it all in secret. But hunger drives out human nature and love, as one can easily prove by reference to those people. ]