#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 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 and interestingly from country to country. Alas, I know of no satisfactory anthology of the troubadour poets of France—there have been several, all suffering from club-footed renditions. The closest you get to the troubadours in English is still in the versions of Ezra Pound, available in his TRANSLATIONS (New Directions). Likewise there is no good English anthology of the northern medieval French verse—a separate tradition. Fortunately there are excellent versions by Galway Kinnell of the greatest late medieval French poet, Francois Villon, still in print from the University Press of New England. AN ANTHOLOGY OF MEDIEVAL LYRICS, edited by Angel Flores (Modern Library, 1962) has a selection of Northern French verse as well as a good selection of Italian and Iberian lyrics; the translations vary in age and quality.
---One of my very favorite books is A GOLDEN TREASURY OF IRISH POETRY A.D. 600-1200, by David Greene and Frank O’Connor (Macmillan, 1967), texts with lovely and graceful prose translations. MEDIEVAL IRISH LYRICS, by James Carney (Dolmen) and Gerard Murphy’s EARLY IRISH LYRICS (Oxford, unfortunately not easy to find) are verse and prose versions, respectively. The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has done a splendid translation of SWEENEY ASTRAY, a fantastic Irish medieval work, and there’s a beautiful essay on the Irish medieval lyric in his collection PREOCCUPATIONS. Frank O’Connor, the short story writer and historian of Irish lit, includes medieval poetry among his versions in THE LITTLE MONASTERIES, KINGS, LORDS AND COMMONS and other collections. (For the Irish works see the website of Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway, an excellent source helpfully staffed and an education in itself.) MIDDLE ENGLISH LYRICS, edited by Maxwell Luria and Richard Hoffman (Norton, 1974) is an excellent anthology for general readers.
---The great books on the topic are by Helen Waddell, whose collections MEDIEVAL LATIN LYRICS and MORE LATIN LYRICS follow the verses from the Appendix Vergiliana and Petronius all the way out of period to an elegy for his brother by John Milton; and her study, THE WANDERING SCHOLARS, is one of the most charming literary studies ever written. 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. She has taken the work of one time and language and created three minor English classics of her own.
---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 the 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 on the page.