#11. THE MEDIEVAL LYRIC. For all the extraordinary pleasures of medieval art and architecture, medieval literature—the chansons de geste, scholastic philosophy, the early historical prose, the early Arthurian and chivalric romances, the allegorical tales—has often struck me as a long, mucky row to hoe. (Some of the translations certainly haven’t helped—I remember James Agee’s crack about reading “Aucassin and Nicolette” “translated into Middle High Marshmallow.”) But the lyric poetry of the period can have a summery sweetness unique to the time, which varies remarkably from country to country.
In England, the lyric stays in spirit very close to our usual idea of the period: it often has a religious subject to it, and a charming, almost naive spirit of devotion, a wonderful sensitivity to the seasons and weather—followed by the concomitant bawdry and drinking songs and such. It’s a world that seems entirely to have been written out-of-doors, in bracing air. There are many anthologies: my two favorites are Middle English Lyrics, edited by Richard Hoffman and Maxwell Luria (Norton, 1974) and Middle English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology, by R.T. Davies (Northwestern, 1991).
The weather in the Irish lyric is just a few degrees more biting chill: you can feel people pulling their cloaks close around them in the cold. And there is a sense of exposure in it—the bare land, the wind off the coast, rather than the warmth of the hearth. This, curiously, works to its advantage: it gives the Irish lyric its stark, commanding strength. A lyric such as “Scel em duib” is not a work of warmer climate: its huddled exalting is distinctly non-Mediterranean. Here too there are several good anthologies to choose from, James Carney’s Medieval Irish Lyrics (Dolmen, 1985) being my favorite. David Grene and Frank O’Connor’s Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry (Macmillan, 1967) and Gerard Murphy’s Early Irish Lyrics (Oxford, 1962, unfortunately not easy to find) have texts and graceful prose versions. Frank O’Connor, the short story writer and historian of Irish lit, includes some medieval lyrics in his collections, Kings, Lords and Commons and The Little Monasteries. The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has done a superb translation of Sweeney Astray, and includes a lovely piece on the Irish lyric in his collection of essays, Preoccupations (both from Faber). Most recently, Maurice Riordan has edited The Finest Music: An Anthology of Early Irish Lyrics (Faber, 2014), in which he nicely balances some of the best older versions (Flann O’Brien’s rendering of “Scel lem duib,” Eleanor Hull’s version of Grainne’s lullaby) with newer and lovely translations (no texts, alas) by a raft of the best contemporary Irish poets.
In considering the poetry of the troubadours—the model and inspiration for so much of the love poetry that followed—you have to deal with the difficulties and distances Occitan poetry has to face in making it into English. The entire shape and movement of a troubadour lyric is based not just in the concision and rigor of Occitan and its distinctive verbal qualities, but the poem’s rhyming and stanzaic logic, making it extraordinarily difficult to render into English. Of the translators, Ezra Pound has famously come closest to bringing across the aural qualities of the verse; his versions are included, with much else, in the New Directions collection, Translations, and he has written about the period in his book The Spirit of Romance (New Directions, 2005). W.D. Snodgrass has made some lovely translations as well, and his and Pound’s versions are included in Lark in the Morning, edited by Robert Kehew (Chicago, 2005) which, with its Occitan texts included, makes it probably the best anthology I’ve run across. Paul Blackburn’s Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry (New York Review Books, 1978) has no texts but interesting and adventurous translations. Songs of the Women Troubadours, translated by Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, Laurie Shepherd and Sarah White (Garland, 1995) and The Women Troubadours, by Meg Bogin (Norton, 1980) have texts but rather prosaic versions; the renderings in Frederick Goldin’s Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouveres (Anchor Books, 1973), likewise, are a bit flat-footed but Goldin is one of the only sources in English for the trouveres, the troubadours’ northern French counterparts. The literature of the troubadours is vast—it’s a whole world you can spend years in, and it’s not a bad place to be.
C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge, 1964) is about what Lewis calls the Medieval Model: the particular shape of the medieval mind, its intellectual background and assumptions, the world view of a period in some ways more foreign to us than the classical world. It’s sympathetic, absorbing, informative, and handsomely written—a fine preparation for a plunge into reading the period’s literature. “I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors,” Lewis writes, and his delight is right there on the page.
My favorites of all these books are the masterworks of Helen Waddell, her study The Wandering Scholars (Constable, 1927), which was spun out of an essay she began in studying the works of the Goliard poets, and Medieval Latin Lyrics (Constable, 1929) a follow-up anthology with texts and verse translations. These are the lives and poems of the clerici vagantes, the goliards, wandering clerics and students, who lived, in Charles Haskins’s sniffy description, “moving from town to town in search of learning and still more of adventure, nominally clerks but leading often very unclerical lives.” Waddell, in contrast, loves these folks, mischief and all. “The original goliard, starved cat though he is,” she writes, “and the songs that he jigged out in taverns and alehouses, in monastic refectories after supper, at the tables of easy-going prelates, caught the ear of Europe.” She is certainly right in that: the echoes of these songs scatter out across European and English poetic history, to be heard in the French Renaissance masters, in Herrick, in the café chantant poets of twentieth-century Paris, in the musical settings of Carl Orff. These poems, gathered up from manuscripts in Benedictbeuern and Arundel and Verona and Canterbury and Limoges, are dew-fresh with reverence and dawn’s joy, fragrant and caustic with laughter, fleshed with friendship and love and meat and drink. With a later volume, the posthumous More Latin Lyrics (Gollancz, 1967) Waddell strays backward and forward out of period, back to Vergil and Petronius, forward to verses by Milton, his beautiful lines on the death of his beloved friend Charles Deodati. Poetry at its greatest can alter our sight of the world: when she was sailing into her first view of New York City, Waddell was reminded of the campanile on the islet of Torcello, in the salt lagoon of Venice. She, of all the scholars and translators, captures the inspiriting mix of cloister and tavern, faith and riot, hope and heartbreak, that is the special mark of the Latin lyric, and gives its vision an English voice. She has taken the work of one time and language and created three minor English classics of her own.