Women and Middle English Verse

A little while ago (before my blogging got derailed by the marking of a great number of Finals scripts), I read this talk by Laura Saetveit Miles, and before that this article by Diane Watt.  Reading them, I was ruefully aware that my current research on poetic experimentation in Middle English would fail an academic ‘Bechdel test’.  It’s not that women didn’t write in Britain in the Middle Ages: see Alexandra Barratt’s anthology of Women’s Writing in Middle English and the collection of essays edited by Carol Meale as just a starting point.  But it does seem to be the case that only a very few women are named as composers of Middle English verse.

It might be, of course, that women wrote some of that great mass of poetry which is now by Anon.  And there are also a number of love poems in which the speaker is presented as female.  Sarah McNamer collected together a group of such lyrics from the Findern anthology (a manuscript read, owned and perhaps in part copied by women in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in one or more households in Derbyshire).  This is not of course a guarantee of female authorship (Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, for example, wrote poems ventriloquising the voice of a wife whose husband is absent), but McNamer argues persuasively that the combination of context and voice make female authorship a likely possibility for these anonymous poems.

Spurred on by Miles and Watt, I took another look at Barratt’s anthology, which I haven’t picked up for a while.  I was happy to find two poems attributed to women which seem to be conscious poetic experiments.  One is a poem with a very complex structure, attributed to Queen Elizabeth (either Woodville or York).  It’s often compared to a sestina – this isn’t right, I think, and I’m going to do some more work on that poem to understand more about its form.  The other is one of the female-voiced lyrics from the Findern manuscript identified by McNamer as potentially composed by a woman (see also recent work on this manuscript by Ashby Kinch and Kara Doyle).  Scroll down for a text and translation.

The poem’s editors (McNamer and later Pearsall) acknowledge its technical virtuosity – seven stanzas each of three lines using only two rhymes in the entire poem.  It is skilfully written, particularly the way in which it inverts  word order to get the rhyme-word in the right place, at the same time front-shifting key nouns for emphasis.  As with all poems which choose restricted rhymes, as we hear one rhyme-sound over and over again we are gradually tricked into believing that what is arbitrary (i.e. similar sounds in words) is in fact significant.  Here words rhyming with pain give way to words which sound the same but which promise truth and loyalty (plain, certain).  There may also be a strand of self-reflexive vocabulary in the poem, that is words like refrain, constrain and continue which perhaps refer not only to the subject of the poem but to the poem’s own formal strategies of self-constraint, repetition and continuity.

Ralph Hanna notes that the lyric was a later addition, written into a blank space below the conclusion of Chaucer’s Complaint of Venus at what was probably originally the end of a quire.  One line is altered in the process of copying, which suggests that this poem was added into the manuscript by its author.  So it was placed on the page just below Chaucer’s lines on how difficult it is to translate the French of the Savoyard poet Oton de Graunson since  ‘rym in Englissh hath such skarsete’ (since there are so few rhymes in English).  Yet just as Chaucer’s three three-stanza ballades (each using only three rhymes) show that comment to be disingenuous, so this woman poet, by implicit juxtaposition, shows that she too can conquer English’s supposed lack of rhymes.

It may be, of course, that the poem was copied on fol. 69v simply because there was space.  But I would like to see a purposeful set of actions here.  Chaucer reverses the gender of the first Graunson ballade he translates, so that the speaker becomes Venus.  And this quire also contains another Chaucer poem, Anelida’s Complaint (here without its narrative frame), which again combines a female speaker (Anelida, Queen of Armenia) with technical experimentation (in this case twelve stanzas in imitation of the varied versification of a French lay).  Perhaps inspired by Chaucer’s ventriloquising of technically adept female poetic voices, the author of this Findern lyric produces her own complaint which is not only emotionally expressive but poetically audacious.

My woofull hert, this clad in payn,
Wote natt welle what do nor seyn:
Longe absens grevyth me so.

For lakke of syght nere am I sleyn,
All joy myne herte hath in dissedeyn:
Comfort is fro me go.

Then thogh I wold me owght complayn
Of my sorwe and grete payn
Who shold comforte me do?

Ther is no thynge can make me to be fayn
Butt the syght of hym agayn
That cawsis my wo.

None butt he may me susteyn,
He is my comfort in all payn:
Y love hym and no moo.

To hym I woll be trywe and playn,
And evyr his owne in serteyn
Tyll deth departe us to.

My hert shall I never fro hym refrayn;
I gave hitt hym withowte constrayn,
Evyr to contenwe so.

My woeful heart, clad thus in pain, does not well know what to do or say because long absence so grieves me.  /  I am nearly slain because of lack of sight, my heart is scornful of all joy because delight is gone from me.  /  Then even if I were to complain in whatever way about my sorrow and great pain, who should comfort me?  /  There is no thing which can made me happy except for the sight once again of he who is the cause of my sorrow.  /  No-one but he can sustain me, he is my comfort in every misfortune: I love him and no other.  /  I will be true and faithful to him, and always be his own indeed, until death parts us two.  /  I will never keep my heart from him; I gave it to him without compulsion, always to continue thus.

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