‘I was such a lovely girl’

Barbara Newman

  • Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours translated by Ezra Pound, W.D. Snodgrass and Robert Kehew, edited by Robert Kehew
    Chicago, 280 pp, £35.00, May 2005, ISBN 0 226 42933 4
  • Medieval Lyric: Middle English Lyrics, Ballads and Carols edited by John Hirsh
    Blackwell, 220 pp, £17.99, August 2004, ISBN 1 4051 1482 7
  • An Anthology of Ancient and Medieval Woman’s Song edited by Anne Klinck
    Palgrave, 208 pp, £19.99, May 2004, ISBN 0 14 039631 4

Though this measure quaint confine me,
And I chip out words and plane them,
They shall yet be true and clear,
When I finally have filed them.
Love glosses and gilds them . . .

Arnaut Daniel, translated by Ezra Pound

The history of culture affords few absolute beginnings, but the temptation to posit them can be irresistible. The notion that there might have been a first vernacular love song is counterintuitive, however: how could there ever have been a time ‘before’ romantic love? The Greeks and Romans knew all about tragic passion, sophisticated flirtation and sexual farce. But the mode of idealism that posits erotic bliss as the chief source of personal happiness appeared in European history at a particular moment. In most other histories it never appeared at all, except as a bizarre anomaly. For this reason, few cultural origins have been so intensely debated as that of troubadour lyric. This great outpouring from Occitania, or southern France, began in the late 11th century and continued up until the mid-13th, eventually succumbing to the brute force of the Albigensian Crusade. The new erotic culture promulgated by the troubadours was compounded of many elements, among them the emergence of a leisured aristocracy, the sexualising of feudal relations, the patronage of such privileged women as Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Arabic love songs of Spain, echoes of classical and medieval Latin poetry and, not least, the Christian concept of love as sacrifice, service and boundless longing. But the troubadours did not merely theorise love: they and their jongleurs performed their exquisitely crafted lyrics in the courts and towns of France, Italy, Spain and eventually all Europe.

Regrettably, no more than 10 per cent of the troubadours’ melodies survive, and next to nothing is known of their performance practice. It is as if we had only the lyrics, without recordings or melodies, of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Joan Baez – and those only in indifferent Portuguese translations. Most of their power and all of their subtlety would vanish. For similar reasons, the troubadours have more often been honoured as cultural pioneers than admired as poets. Moreover, since they worked with a limited number of motifs and achieved their effects more through refinements of style than originality of theme, even accurate free verse translations can reduce their songs to a mishmash of interchangeable conventions. Only formal verse, respecting the troubadours’ metrical innovations and their prodigious achievements in sonority and rhyme, can hope to convey both their individual voices and their collective charm.

It is here that Robert Kehew’s anthology, Lark in the Morning, succeeds so brilliantly. Kehew’s bilingual edition includes 28 poets and 55 songs, extending from the ‘First Troubadour’, Guillem de Peiteus (1071-1127, but see the cautions above), to the last, Guiraut Riquier – whose 1292 lament over his dying culture is entitled ‘It Would Be Best If I Refrained from Singing’. All the major genres of troubadour lyric are included: the canso or high courtly love song; the narrative romance; the alba or dawn song (‘parting is such sweet sorrow’); the pastorela, in which a knight tries to seduce a shepherdess; the sirventes or protest song; and the tenso or debate poem, a genre favoured by the small but distinguished band of trobairitz or women poets. Of the translators, all poets, Ezra Pound is represented by 15 songs, W.D. Snodgrass by 19, and Kehew by 21, conveniently arranged on facing pages opposite their originals.

For his indelibly quirky, archaising versions, Pound favoured the verse of the bellicose Bertran de Born (whom Dante condemned to hell as a fomentor of strife) and the virtuosic Arnaut Daniel (Dante’s miglior fabbro or ‘better craftsman’ – a compliment T.S. Eliot borrowed in dedicating The Waste Land to Pound). Despite moments of irritating preciosity, Pound often strikes a pure and authentic note, as in this archetypal stanza from the poet who called himself Cercamon (‘Circle-the-world’):

Of love I have naught
Save trouble and sad thought,
And nothing is grievous
as I desirous,
Wanting only what
No man can get or has got.

Kehew and Snodgrass avoid the archaic mode, but, like Pound, both have a keen ear for tonality and a deft way with rhyme. Modulating between the high poetic diction of fin’amor (‘refined love’) and more colloquial registers, the translators convey a range of sensibilities that will startle those who have encountered these poets only in textbooks.

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