The Sounds of Old Age

One of the delights of starting work on this book has been the search for particularly distinctive examples of Middle English poetics in practice.  In particular, I have been skim-reading lots of editions in a rough chronological survey looking for conscious poetic experiments.  London, British Library MS Harley 913 has provided a rich source of pre-Chaucerian stylistic innovation.  MS Harley 913 is a trilingual anthology of poetry and prose, copied by a Franciscan friar living in Waterford in the south of Ireland.  Parts of the manuscript can be dated  1338 to 1342 (See Alan J. Fletcher, ‘The Date Of London, British Library, Harley MS 913 (The “Kildare Poems”)’, Medium Ævum, 79:2 (2010), 306–10), though the volume as a whole may have been copied over a longer period.  Many of the pieces in the manuscript seem to have been chosen by a compiler interested in parody and wordplay.  (See Neil Cartlidge, ‘Festivity, Order, and Community in Fourteenth-Century Ireland: The Composition and Contexts of BL MS Harley 913’, Yearbook of English Studies, 33 (2003), 33–52).

One poem in Harley 913 (DIMEV 1183) describes the humiliations and decrepitude of old age.  Scroll down for a text and translation of lines 47 to 64.  Here is a series of first-person singular present tense verbs listing the physical changes brought about by ageing.  This section bursts out of the larger account of the attacks which personified Old Age makes upon the speaker.  Many of these verbs are hapax legomena, meaning there is only this single example recorded in Middle English (according to the Middle English Dictionary): pirtle, pofte, comble, lench, poke, pomple, nuche, bleri, bert.  Such rare words are perhaps more spoken than written (and hence not well attested) or are perhaps coinages by the poet.  In most cases their etymology is uncertain, though there are often comparable words in other languages.  This suggests the poet selected them not so much for what they mean exactly but for their sound and connotation.

Though the poem begins in couplets, this section is in tail-rhyme (two longer rhyming lines with a shorter third line or ‘tail’, in this case rhyming with other tails).  Each of the longer lines alliterates either on a single consonant or a consonant cluster.  Within lines and between lines there are also other sound echoes, most especially assonance and pararhyme (the repetition of the same consonant or consonant cluster at the beginning and the end of a syllable or word).

If sound is on a par with sense here, some of these verbs may have been chosen because they were perceived to be onomatopoeic or imitative.  Such words are ideophones, ‘a word whose sound is felt by a native speaker to reflect and reinforce its meaning’ (in John Frankis’s definition).  Hans Marchand has a wonderful chapter on ‘Phonetic Symbolism’ in The Categories and Types of Modern English Word-Formation (1960).

As some of my students would tell you, I am often unconvinced by sound symbolism, the idea (to quote my favourite undergraduate exam paper example) that the alliterating fricative fs in a line of verse can remind a reader or listener of the flickering flames of a fire (!).  As Frankis points out, phonetic symbolism is a matter of convention.  It is not that phonemes evoke real-world sounds, but rather than certain sounds are perceived to be imitative in certain contexts.  The potentially ideophonic verbs in these wonderfully echoing lines emphasize the inevitability of physical decay (and imitate its noisiness).

Now I pirtle, I pofte, I poute,
I snurpe, I snobbe, I sneipe on snoute,
Throgh kund I comble and kelde.
I lench, I len, on lyme I lasse,
I poke, I pomple, I palle, I pass
As gallith gome i-geld.
I rivele, I roxle, I rake, I rouwe,
I clyng, I cluche, I croke, I couwe,
Thus he wol me aweld.
I grunt, I grone, I grenne, I gruche,
I nese, I nappe, I nifle, I nuche,
And al this wilneth eld.
I stunt, I stomere, I stumble as sledde,
I blind, I bleri, I bert in bedde,
Such sond is me sent.
I spitte, I spatle in spech, I sporne,
I werne, I lutle, ther-for I murne,
Thus is mi wel i-went

Now I babble, I puff, I pout,
I sneeze, I sob, I sniff in my snout,
Through nature I grow numb and cold.
I stoop, I bend, in limb I shrink,
I poke, I hobble, I grow feeble, I walk
Like a castrated man who has saddle-sores.
I shrivel, I weaken, I wander, I cough,
I dry up, I bend over, I twist, I cower,
In this way he wishes to conquer me.
I grunt, I groan, I grimace, I grumble,
I sneeze, I nod off, I snivel, I tremble,
And all of this Old Age wishes.
I stop, I stammer, I stumble as a dray*,
I go blind, I am bleary, I snore in bed,
Such a gift* is sent to me.
I spit, I stumble in speech, I trip,
I wither, I diminish, therefore I lament
That in this way my well-being is gone.

Text from Die Kildare-Gedichte, die ältesten mittelenglischen Denkmäler in anglo-irischer Überlieferung, ed. W. Heuser (Bonn: Hanstein, 1904).  I have modernised spelling and punctuation.  Modern English translation is my own.  * a dray is a sled without wheels (which would bump and lurch over rough ground); sond might be translated ‘command’, ‘message’, ‘providence’, ‘grace’, ‘gift’ (these last three ironically).

2 thoughts on “The Sounds of Old Age

  1. ‘As a castrated man’ – what a strange simile, I wonder how many men of the time were castrated and why? For medical reasons, punishment, or a precursor to the castrati style of male high pitched singing? Any other references you know of, Jenni? A lovely translation, thank you.

    1. I suppose it might be more hyperbolic than realistic? Looking at the Middle English Dictionary entry (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/lookup.html and search for ‘gelden’), there are references to castrated men and eunuchs in historical and encyclopedic texts, as well as references to castration in mythological and medical texts. There is also a reference to the early Christian theologian Origen who, according to medieval legend, “did gelde hym selfe in his tendre age, a signe of grete feithe and of chastite”!

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