Love and Systrophe

Here’s a love poem for Valentine’s Day: scroll down to find a text and Modern English translation.  The poem (DIMEV 3279) is from MS Digby 86 (see fol. 200r), a late thirteenth-century West Midlands trilingual miscellany written by an anonymous scribe for his own use.  It is, in essence, a list or catalogue of many of love’s different and contrasting qualities.  I think many students might, if pushed, venture that the repetition of love is throughout the poem would be an example of anaphora.  Anaphora is the repetition of the same word or phrase in several successive clauses (in prose) or the repetition of the same word or phrase at the start of several successive lines (in poetry).  Yet calling this anaphora loses sight of the fact that in this poem the lexical repetition is not a rhetorical scheme operating at the level of two or three clauses, sentences or lines in a longer piece of text but rather it defines the whole poem.

A larger rhetorical scheme which could encompass a whole lyric is that of systrophe, the listing of many qualities or descriptions of someone or something without providing an explicit definition.  Systrophe is a rhetorical term not really in use in the Middle Ages but, as Salomon Hegnauer* has shown, medieval Latin hymns such as Veni Creator Spiritus and Ave Maris Stella praise their subjects by brief sequences of amplifying analogies.  The Digby love poem is most likely a response to the descriptions of love via lists of multiple oxymorons (e.g. ‘a joyful sorrow’) found in Alain of Lille’s De planctu naturae, Metrum 5 and later in the Roman de la Rose, lines 4263–328.  The poet separates oxymorons out into single qualities, producing something rather more like systrophe.  As ever, a poet can do something verbally without a fancy Greek name for it, but finding a later term has helped me to analyse what it is that this poem does.

Systrophe allows the poet to capture love’s kaleidoscopic qualities.  As the first-person speaker says, love is a ‘sellich’ thing, a marvellous, wonderful, noteworthy phenomenon.  Love can make us incredibly happy or heartbrokenly wretched.  It can be natural, ennobling and virtuous, or it can make us devious, abusive and sinful.  Being in love in the Middle Ages was often characterized as madness, sickness, folly or irrationality.  By definition, therefore, a lover can have no capacity to analyse love by reason or define it explicitly.  Systrophe allows the poet to capture love’s illogical, irrational, paradoxical nature.  The poem is essentially structured around contrast (some between lines and some between individual clauses), creating a sense of love as paradox, defined by statements which seem contradictory (a more expanded version of the listing of oxymorons mentioned above).

The poem is organised at the start into groups of four monorhyming lines, but towards the end the groups become more irregular, suggesting that the poet is not really thinking of these groups as formal stanzas.  As is quite common in early Middle English verse, rhyme is combined with alliteration.  The alliteration initially solidifies what is similar about love within each line, but, towards the end, the poet uses alliteration and other types of sound echo to link together antitheses, perhaps emphasising their paradoxicality.

Love is soft, love is swet, love is good sware;
Love is muche tene, love is muchel care.
Love is blissene mest, love is bot yare;
Love is wandred and wo, with for to fare.
Love is hap who it haveth, love is god hele;
Love is lecher and les, and lef for to tele;
Love is doughty in the world, with for to dele;
Love maketh in the land many unhele.
Love is stalworthe and strong to striden on stede;
Love is loveliche a thing to wommmane nede;
Love is hardi and hot as glowinde glede;
Love maketh mani may with teres to wede.
Love hath his styward by sti and by strete;
Love maketh mani may hire wonges to wete;
Love is hap, who it haveth, on for to hete;
Love is wis, love is war, and wilful ansete.
Love is the softeste thing in herte may slepe;
Love is craft, love is good with cares to kepe;
Love is les, love is lef, love is longinge;
Love is fol, love is fast, love is frovringe;
Love is sellich an thing, whoso soth shal singe.
Love is wel, love is wo, love is gladhede,
Love is lif, love is deth, love mai us fede.
Were love also longdrei as he is first kene,
Hit were the wordlokste thing in world were, Ich wene.
Hit is y-said in an song, soth is y-sene,
Love comseth with care and endeth with tene,
Mid lady, mid wive, mid maide, mid quene.

[Love is soft, love is sweet, love is a gentle answer; love is great torment, love is great sorrow; love is the greatest of joys, love is a quick remedy; love is misery and woe to live with.  Love is good luck for whoever has it, love is good fortune; love is adultery and lies, and eager to betray; love is excellent to have dealings with in the world; love makes in the land many unfaithful people.  Love is powerful and strong to mount a horse; love is an excellent thing necessary for women; love is as fierce and hot as a glowing coal; love makes many a maid lose her senses with crying.  Love has his servant everywhere; love makes many a maid wet her cheeks [with tears]; love is good luck, for he who has it, one for to inflame; love is wise, love is wary, and a cunning enemy.  Love is the gentlest thing which may sleep in one’s heart; love is a virtue, love is good for keeping sorrows in check; love is false, love is precious, love is yearning; love is foolish, love is constant, love is solace; love is a marvellous thing, whoever will tell the truth about it.  Love is joy, love is sorrow, love is happiness, love is life, love is death, love is able to nourish us.  If love were as long-lasting as it is eager at first, it would be the most valuable thing in the world, I suppose.  It is said in a song — its truth is self-evident — love arrives with sorrow and departs with suffering, [whether you are in love] with a lady, with a wife, with a maiden [or] with a queen.]

Text from Medieval English Lyrics, 1200-1400, ed. Thomas G Duncan (Penguin, 1995), spelling and punctuation modernised; Modern English translation my own.

* Salomon Hegnauer, ‘The Rhetorical Figure of Systrophe’, in Rhetoric Revalued: Papers from the International Society for the History of Rhetoric (Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies, 1982), pp. 179–86.

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