This week’s poem (scroll down for text and translation) is a medieval version of constraint writing, in which a writer constrains themselves to comply with an arbitrary rule or pattern. In this tiny poem, almost every word begins with the letter f. It seems likely that the poet was inspired by similar experiments in medieval Latin poetry. For example, eighteen lines on Saint Peter the Martyr (d. 1252) with each word beginning, fittingly, with p, or Hucbald of St Amand’s tenth-century Ecloga de clavis, a poem in praise of bald men, dedicated to the emperor Charles the Bald, 146 lines in which all words begin with c, a letter choice which, perhaps, represents the ring of hair remaining around a bald pate.
The poem is one of a number of alliterative experiments found in the margins of several folios of Lambeth Palace Library MS 499, a collection of Latin sermons, patristic texts and other materials, copied at the Cistercian monastery at Stanlow in Cheshire in the late thirteenth century. The poems were meticulously edited by one of my heroes, Dr Oliver Pickering. He is one of my scholarly inspirations, even though I have never met him in person. In his editing and his criticism, Dr Pickering has often drawn attention to Middle English verse which is unusual or striking in its poetics. Dr Pickering’s 1992 Review of English Studies article provides a detailed study of these lyrics and their form and literary relations. My translation is very much an adaptation of his, informed by his notes, with some small alterations.
This Cistercian experimenter not only constrains himself by alliteration, but also by a strict rhythm (trochaic tetrameter, with the final unstressed syllable dropped, as Dr Pickering notes). This constraint pushes the poet towards lexical rather than grammatical words, and so we find lots of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. This produces pure description rather than narrative, deixis or subjectivity. This is not the conventional spring descriptions of many Middle English lyrics, but rather a depiction of a frozen landscape of winter in which any movement of wildlife seems greatly amplified.
It is worth trying to read this poem out loud (or out-loud-in-your-head) to appreciate its many sonic patterns, the regularity of its rhythm, repeated syntactical structures, the balance between syntactical units which are half a line long and units which take up the whole line. Alliteration is, of course, a kind of front-rhyme, in which the first phoneme in each word ‘rhymes’, so the poem is densely ‘rhymed’. As well as the heavy alliteration, there are many sound echoes between words. Small changes in vowel sound are so much more noticeably in this densely repetitive verse.
In miniature, this is a great example of the ‘parallel processing’ of verse composition, the simultaneous juggling of constraint on word choice, constraint of rhythm and patterns of sound into coherent meaning. From the reader’s perspective, as well as the simple pleasures of sound echoes, it is deeply satisfying that sense and beauty can be produced from something which is so rigorously artificial. The cherry on the cake is that the poem also manages a self-reflexivity in which its meaning comments on its form (at least in the mind of the reader if not the poet), beginning with the harsh constraints of ice and decay, before finding escape on land and water and in air and poetry.
Faste fresen fennes fule,
Frostes frer is foules foo,
Falewen filles, flures fallen,
Feble foxes false flen,
Fomes fullen, flodes fallen,
Feire fisches fleten fro,
Flites fine, finches fawe,
Fremde feres finde I fre.
Muddy fens freeze solid,
The frost’s companion* is the birds’ foe,
Leaves wither, flowers fall,
Wretched foxes flee astray,
Waves swell, rivers flow,
Fine fish swim away,
Beautiful flocks, dappled finches,
Strange companions I find unfettered.
* The frost’s companion must be the ice which stops birds feeding and swimming.