It’s #WhanThatAprilleDay16 today, a celebration of ‘oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges’ and languages which are Old, or Middle, or Ancient, or Dead. To learn any of those languages takes baby steps, something I’ve seen a lot of in recent years watching our daughter, and all her little cousins, learning to walk. Once they are up on their feet, they want to run, even when their legs are still wobbly. So the imagery in the second and third stanzas of the poem below, written in the dying days of Middle English, leapt out at me, and I hope it will leap across 500 years to you too. Scroll down for text and translation.
By the end of the fifteenth century, readers of English poems would have expected a lenvoy at the end of whatever they were reading, a concluding section of the text in which the author addresses his book or his audience, often offering an apology for the work’s lack of skill or eloquence. After one hundred years of lenvoy writing, how could a poet find something original to say? Alexander Barclay, bringing to an end his 1503 translation of Pierre Gringoire’s Le Chasteau de Labour, The Castell of Laboure, finds something new to say by going back to the origin of the lenvoy.
Pretty much the first lenvoy in English is a stanza towards the end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in which the narrator tells the poem not to try to rival makings (i.e. the work of other English poets) but to ‘kis the steppes’, that is kiss the footsteps of Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan and Statius. Chaucer, seemingly modest but also audacious, places his own poem in the traces of the great classical writers. How can Barclay follow in Chaucer’s footsteps? He turns those footsteps into baby steps. Barclay constructs a clever conceit in his second and third stanzas – he is like a small child who is learning to walk and then run. Just as a toddler is delighted to run but falls over his feet a lot, Barclay is a poet enjoying his writing but occasionally tripping over his metrical feet. That is a humility topos, of course: his verse (his running feet) is very fluent, with skillful enjambment and neat handling of the octave stanza.
Go forth smale treatyse and humbly the present
Vnto the reders as indigne of audience,
Exortyng them with meke and lowe entent
To this rude langage to gyve none advertence,
For many one hath parfyte diligence
Whiche by no meane his mynde can expresse:
The cause therof is lacke of eloquence
Whiche nowe is caduke by meane of sleuthfulnesse.
[Go forth, small treatise, and humbly present yourself to readers as unworthy of any audience, exhorting them with meek and lowe spirit to pay no attention to this unsophisticated language, because many a person has perfect eagerness which his mind can’t express in any way: the reason being a lack of eloquence, eloquence which is now ready to fall apart because of lack of practice.]
The yonge chylde is nat all parfyte
To renne whan he can neyther crepe nor go,
But whan he begynneth he hath great delyte
In his newe science, wherfore he hath great wo,
Endurynge falles with many paynes mo.
Thus suche peyne so longe dothe he endure
And to hym-selfe he entendethe so
That of his fete he is parfyte and sure.
[The toddler is not ready to run when he can neither crawl nor walk, but when he starts to run he has great delight in his new skill, in which he has much sorrow, enduring falls with many more bumps, and thus he puts up with such trouble for so long, and he learns from his mistakes until he is steady and sure on his feet.]
So certaynly in suche case am I,
Some-what asaynge if I can ensue
The steppes of them the whiche craftely
All vyce of wrytynge vtterly eschue,
But ignoraunce right oft doth me subdue
And often I falle for lacke of exercyse
This rude langage so on me doth renewe
That I agayne vnethes may aryse.
[Indeed I’m in a very similar case, trying somehow to see if I can follow in the footsteps of those who skilfully shun all vices of writing, yet ignorance very often subdues me and often I trip for lack of practice: this unsophisticated language begins to torment me again so that I can hardly pick myself up.]
The cause why I folowe nat these oratours
Is for lacke of intellygence
And that I haue nat smelled of the flours
Spryngynge in the garden of parfyte eloquence:
Wherfore with humble and meke obedyence
I submyt me to the correccion
Of them whom Minerva with hyr science
Hathe indued – this is my conclusyon.
[The reason why I can’t keep up with these orators is because of my lack of intelligence, and because I haven’t smelled the flowers growing in the garden of perfect eloquence, wherefore with humble and meek obedience, I submit myself to the correction of those whom Minerva has imbued with her knowledge: this is my conclusion.]