Sumwhat musyng

For the last few weeks I’ve been exploring whether a particular French lyric form, the virelai, is used by English poets in the fifteenth century.  Several Middle English poems are labelled as virelais in DIMEV and in various anthologies, but in fact they are all versions in English of another French lyric genre, the complainte.  This week’s poem (scroll down for text and translation) is one of the most poignant of this small group of English complaints.  According to the fifteenth-century historian John Rous (writing in a work completed in 1486, so probably a reliable witness), Anthony Woodville, 2nd Lord Rivers composed this poem on the eve of his execution at Pontefract in 1483.

Woodville chooses eight-line stanzas of four (or sometimes five) syllable lines, rhyming in the pattern aaabaaab.  The stanzas are linked together by rhyme, with the b rhyme of one stanza becoming the dominant rhyme in the next and so on.  This verse form develops from a particular type of French complainte strophe (used by Machaut, Froissart and others) in which eight- or sixteen-line stanzas are built up out of groups of four lines rhyming in the aaab pattern (often with interlinking rhyme between stanzas).

There is a related semi-stanzaic narrative version rhyming aaabbbbccccd and so on, used by Machaut in his Judgement of the King of Bohemia and by Christine de Pisan in three of her dits.  In French rhetorical treatises, this is called the ‘taille trois et un’ and is recorded as a form used for ‘amoureuses complaintes et autres doleances’.  Often the fourth singleton line is a ‘tail’, being shorter than the preceding three lines.  Woodville, who inherited the Queen’s Book anthology of Christine de Pisan’s poetry from his mother, was well placed to know, imitate and experiment with French verse forms.

Daniel Poirion, in his classic study of French courtly lyric poetry, notes that poets use the description en complainte to designate a poem exhibiting ‘le mouvement strophique régulier et monotone’, creating ‘une certaine langueur’.  The repeated rhymes and short lines of Woodville’s poem do exactly this.  Woodville takes a French form, usually chosen to embody a lover’s distress, and redeploys it .  It is simple but devastating: ‘Yet I ne went / Thus to be shent’ (‘but I never lived so as to be killed in this way’).  It is not the sorrow of love and the disdain of a lady which pains him, but the utter indifference of Lady Fortune.

The lines are so short that it’s not really possible to read it metrically, but instead it can be read very mournfully with each syllable taking almost equal weight.  The repeated rhymes on the final syllable of each little line slows the verse down into unbearably poignant fragments.  Its musicality was quickly recognised: a musical setting by Robert Fayrfax survives in several manuscripts.  Read it and shed a tear for Lord Rivers.

Sumwhat musyng
And more morenyng
In remembryng
The unstedfastness
This worlde beyng,
Of such welyng,
Me contraryyng,
What may I gess?

I fere doutless
Is now to cess
My wofull chaunce;
For unkyndness
Withouten less
And no redress
Me doth avaunce

With displesaunce
To my grevaunce
And no suraunce
Of remedy;
Lo, in this traunce,
Now in substaunce
Such is my daunce
Willyng to dye.

Methynketh truly
Bounden am I
And that gretly
To be content,
Sayng playnly,
Fortune doth wry
All contrary
For myn entent.

My lyff was lent
To an entent;
It is ny spent;
Wellcum, Fortune.
Yet I ne went
Thus to be shent;
But she it ment,
Such is her wone.

Somewhat musing, and more lamenting, in remembering the unsteadfastness which exists in this world, of such wheeling, contradicting me, what can I think? I am afraid, without doubt, remediless, my wretched fate is now to be ended; because treachery (it is no lie) and no means of appeal leads me with resentment to my misery and [gives] no guarantee of remedy; lo, in this perilous state, now such is my predicament, to all intents and purposes, [that I am] willing to die. Methinks certainly that I am compelled very forcefully to be at peace, saying wholeheartedly [that] Fortune turns away all contrary to my desire. My life was given over to a certain purpose; it is nearly spent; Welcome, Fortune. But I never lived so as to be killed in this way, but she [Fortune] intended it, such is her custom.

2 thoughts on “Sumwhat musyng

  1. Yes, I would be very happy for you to use the translation. It is rather rough prose, but is (I hope) a fair representation of the text. If you could also link back to this blog, that would be great too.

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