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.
Among the most distinctive voices is that of Marcabru, a lower-class poet who may have invented the pastorela genre. His shepherdess sees right through the suasions of her courtly wooer:
‘Sir, a man whose brain’s gone balmy
Swears great oaths, but he’s still crazy;
Why make vows and try to praise me?
Master,’ said this peasant lassie,
‘At your price I feel no urging
To sell my state as a virgin
For the whore that folks would call me.’
Jaufre Rudel, more idealistic, sang the praise of amor de lonh or ‘love from afar’, an eroticism tinged with religious yearning, while the earthier Count Guillem de Peiteus preferred love at close hand:
I can’t stand their vern
Who’d keep my love from me afar.
By way of words, I guess I’ve found
A little saying that runs rife:
Let others mouth their loves around;
We’ve got the bread, we’ve got the knife.
The unlikely Monk of Montaudon, who was ostensibly commanded by his king ‘to eat meat, court women, sing and write poetry’, composed this delightfully unmonastic verse:
I love it when, in t
he summer season,
I rest down where the water burbles –
The meadow’s green, the flowers pleasing,
The sweet birds practising their warbles –
And my amigua, in stealthy fashion,
Comes to make love, once, with passion.
One of the most versatile troubadours was Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, who composed a bravura piece with successive stanzas in Occitan, Italian, French, Gascon and Galician-Portuguese. This tour de force is not in Kehew’s selection, but he does include a rare estampida or dance song by Vaqueiras, superbly translated by Snodgrass:
This May Day bringing
new lilies springing
with songs of birds through beechwoods
can scarce delight me
unless you’d write me
some tender words that hurry lightly
from your dear form forbidden to me
to tell me warm new joys are due me –
whereby our hearts impel us;
then let him
just fret him
then die – that fool who’s jealous.
In the rhyme-rich Occitan or Provençal language, all 14 lines chime with the initial maya, not counting internal rhymes.
The troubadours and their counterparts – northern French trouvères, Italian stilnovisti, German Minnesinger – cultivated an intense artistic self-consciousness. They were the first vernacular poets to forgo anonymity: their songs were painstakingly collected in chansonniers, manuscripts variously furnished with illuminations, music, even fanciful biographies of the poets. In English, by contrast, signed lyrics appear only in the 14th century, more than a hundred years after the troubadours flourished, and even then, lyrics by named poets constitute only a fraction of the great bulk of Middle English verse. If England had had a body of courtly love songs corresponding to the troubadour canon, they would have been composed in Anglo-Norman – the official court language from the Conquest to the mid-14th century. But by the time English had rediscovered its poetic aspirations, the era of the grand chant courtois had long passed, and the Middle English lyric savours less of the court than of the common people and the great religious houses. Most of its nameless poets were probably friars, monks or students, though some were courtiers or women. All had their own forms of artfulness, but literary convention played a far less decisive role than on the Continent.
For this reason, John Hirsh’s anthology, Medieval Lyric, looks very different from Lark in the Morning. Chronologically, it begins where the troubadour canon leaves off. Along with a handful of lyrics by Chaucer, Richard Rolle, and some less familiar names, it includes fifty anonymous poems of immense variety. Genres are defined loosely, if at all, and even such basic categories as ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ prove to be thoroughly intertwined. In place of the troubadours’ art of elegant variation, these English poets more often display what Hirsh calls ‘a kind of tough liveliness’. Certain topics recur time and again – grief for Christ’s Passion, amorous frolicking, adoration of Mary, anxiety over the Last Judgment – but in contrast to the Occitan lyric, there is no necessary link between subject and genre. Hirsh groups his texts in heterogeneous and sometimes whimsical clusters based partly on theme, partly on mood. For instance, most of his ‘Poems of Mourning, Fear and Apprehension’ anticipate the hour of death, but the attitudes they express range from devout penitence to graveyard piety to an almost Buddhist sense of cosmic emptiness. The contrasting ‘Poems of Joy and Celebration’ include the famous canon ‘Svmer is i-cumen in’, along with a tongue-in-cheek confession of a stolen kiss and a few Christmas songs. Among these is the well known ‘Adam lay i-bowndyn’ (‘bound’), a poem arguing that Adam plucked the apple in a blessed hour because, had he refrained, Our Lady would never have been heaven’s queen. Many of the best lyrics are no longer than epigrams, including some that Hirsh classifies as ‘Poems whose meanings are hidden (but not necessarily unknown)’. These include ‘Ich am of Irlaunde’, that mysterious summons to the dance memorably transmogrified by Yeats. Even more enigmatic, ‘Maiden in the mor lay’ has been interpreted as everything from a dance tune to a children’s rhyme to a lyric on the conversion of Mary Magdalene.
Some of Hirsh’s ‘Poems Inviting or Disparaging Love’ reflect the troubadour canso at a great remove, while others border on liturgy or folksong. For example, the enchanting 15th-century riddle, ‘I haue a yong suster’, lives on as the Kentucky mountain ballad, ‘I gave my love a cherry that had no stone’. ‘Poems about Sex’ encompasses both the bawdy ‘I haue a gentil cok’, which consists entirely of double entendres anatomising the bird in question, and ‘Ladd Y the daunce’ (‘I led the dance’), a rueful lament by a seduced and abandoned girl bewailing her pregnancy. The melody of the haunting ‘Westron wynde’ survives:
Westron wynde, when wyll thow blow,
The smalle rayne downe can rayne?
Cryst, yf my love wer in my armys,
And I yn my bed agayne!
One of the charms of such lyrics is their lack of any obvious context. It is easy to picture the troubadour with his vielle or harp – even if we will never know quite how he strummed it – performing for an audience of knights and ladies. But who would have sung a song like ‘Westron wynde’, and in what company? A romance heroine like Chaucer’s Dorigen, strolling in a garden with her girlfriends? A newlywed whose husband had gone on campaign in Syria or France, perhaps never to return?
Several of the longer poems display one of the more fascinating and bewildering features of medieval lyric: the adaptation of decidedly secular motifs to a sacred context or vice versa. In a long devotional poem, ‘In the vaile of restles mynd’, Christ takes on the persona of a knight bent on wooing a resistant lady, who turns out to be the human soul. Like many troubadours, the divine suitor protests his long suffering and his lady’s recalcitrance, ending each stanza with a refrain from the Song of Songs, Quia amore langueo (‘for I am sick with love’).
I will abide till she be redy.
I will hir sue if she say nay.
If she be rechelesse I will be redy.
If she be dawngerouse [disdainful], I will hyr preye.
If she do wepe, than byd I nay.
Myn armes ben spred to clypp hyr to [embrace her],
Crye onys [once] ‘I com,’ now, Sowle, assaye,
Quia amore langueo.
Sometimes half-remembered pagan lore can be glimpsed behind the Christian symbols, which are themselves masked in chivalric dress. The familiar Corpus Christi carol is presumably about the eucharist, but takes the form of an eerie lullaby about a falcon, a bleeding knight, a weeping maid and (in some versions) their faithful dog. This carol, like some of the secular ballads Hirsh includes (‘Barbara Allan’, ‘The Three Ravens’, ‘The Unquiet Grave’), exists in numerous variants that are still in the repertoire of folk-singers.
Hirsh does not translate his Middle English texts, nor does he normalise spellings ‘as if to imply that all of these poems were composed by the same poet and transcribed by the same scribe’, but he does provide copious marginal glosses. Both Kehew and Hirsh supply introductions, headnotes and bibliographies, but these works should be heard as well as read, and there are several fine recordings. Sequentia’s English Songs of the Middle Ages and the Hilliard Ensemble’s Sumer is Icumen in, both on the Harmonia Mundi label, are highly recommended. Performances of troubadour songs are harder to find, given the paucity of music, but the ensemble Sinfonye has recorded several discs (Bella Domna, The Courts of Love, ‘The Sweet Look and the Loving Manner’, all on Hyperion), and the Boston Camerata’s excellent Tristan et Iseult (Erato) includes some troubadour lyrics, among them the only extant melody by a woman. The Chaucer Studio’s Voicing Medieval Women (two CDs with a companion book, edited by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne) includes spoken-word recordings in Occitan, Old French, Anglo-Norman and Middle English.
Although the overwhelming majority of medieval poets were male, the problem of women’s voices is central to a canon so obsessed with romantic love. The twenty or so known trobairitz may seem negligible in comparison to some 460 troubadours and their 2500 songs, yet it is impressive that there were any at all, since we can’t name a single woman who composed secular lyrics in medieval England or Germany – notwithstanding the brilliant Anglo-Norman narrative poet, Marie de France, and the wealth of religious writers. In France, the earliest signed lyrics by a woman appear to be those of Marguerite Porete, a mystic and heretic burned at the stake in 1310. After her we find no more until Christine de Pizan (d. c.1430), a contemporary of Chaucer. Yet how often was Anonymous a woman – or, more precisely, how many of the innumerable songs voiced by female speakers might actually have been composed by women?
Anne Klinck’s Anthology of Ancient and Medieval Woman’s Song collects songs in the female voice; the repertoires extend from classical Greece and Rome through early medieval Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, Scandinavia, and multicultural Spain to the more familiar Latin, Romance, German and English texts. But only a handful of these lyrics are by known female authors. Nine are songs or fragments of Sappho, while others include the enigmatic Sulpicia, who might have been either an actual Roman poet or a female persona created by Tibullus; two trobairitz (Castelloza and the Comtessa de Dia); and ‘la Compiuta Donzella’, a Florentine whose pen name means ‘the accomplished young lady’. The latest is Christine de Pizan’s moving lament on her widowhood, ‘Alone I am and alone wish to be’. All the rest are anonymous, or by named male poets.
Though Klinck is less poetically ambitious than Pound, Snodgrass and Kehew, her very readable translations make possible some fascinating comparisons across linguistic and generic boundaries. From the seafaring lands of England, Ireland and Iceland come laments for drowned lovers and bitter songs of exile. In the haunting Galician-Portuguese cantigas de amigo, sophisticated male poets assumed the voices of lovesick girls, singing their desire to the waves with a studied artlessness. Northern French and Italian poets imitated the troubadour genres, with the curious twist that the speakers of female-voiced Romance lyrics were allowed to express frank passion, while the haughty domna of male-voiced songs is confined to the role of Distant Beloved, forever rebuffing her suitors. Interestingly, the trobairitz managed to combine both roles, for their lyrics blend the passion of the openly desiring woman with the pride of the aristocratic lady. Germany is represented by the celebrated Carmina burana as well as the great Minnesingers. Two sharply divergent seduction songs represent the range of tonalities in this canon. In Walther von der Vogelweide’s classic ‘Unter den linden’, a woman joyously celebrates her secret love, which no one will ever know ‘but him and me and a little bird’. More disturbing is a macaronic (half-Latin, half-vernacular) song from the Carmina burana, ‘I was such a lovely girl’. This is the lament of a rape victim, which can be sung either bawdily or poignantly depending on the gender of the performer. The ensemble La Reverdie presents an unforgettable version on their CD Bestiarium (Nuova Era).
In Medieval Woman’s Song (2001), a collection of essays edited by Anne Klinck and Ann Marie Rasmussen, feminist scholars tried to disentangle the feminine voices of medieval lyric from received assumptions about what women could or could not have written. Judith Bennett’s sprightly article, ‘Ventriloquisms: When Maidens Speak in English Songs’, vividly re-creates the performance setting of ‘Ladd Y the daunce’, noting that ‘young women and men tripped, winked and flirted as they danced a carol that told of the similar flirtation of a fictional maiden and her holy-water clerk.’ Not for nothing did Chaucer’s much-married Wife of Bath claim expertise in ‘the olde daunce’. As Bennett reconstructs the texture of women’s lives from deceptively simple lyrics – songs that ‘give voice to strong and lustful women who caution real women to be meek and pure’ – she reminds us that wives and clerics, mothers and daughters, lusty girls and devout ones, doubtless construed the same songs as diversely as readers do nowadays.