Carmina Europae

J.A. Burrow

  • Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance by Peter Godman
    Duckworth, 364 pp, £29.50, February 1985, ISBN 0 7156 1768 0

It is hard to imagine how a future United Europe (supposing there is ever such a thing) could grow a literature of its own – distinct, that is, from the literatures of the nations which compose it. Yet there exists a precedent for such a development in the Latin writings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Once Latin had ceased to be recognisable as a language of the Italian peninsula, it was free to be employed as a transnational medium, available to educated writers regardless of their native speech. It did not matter whether one had been trained in the schools of York, or Paris, or Bologna – Latin was your language, quite as much as if it had been learned in Rome, and you would write chronicles or treatises or poems in that language, not in the local vernacular. Peter Godman’s anthology of poems of the Carolingian period provides some remarkable instances of this international character of Medieval Latin. Here in the eighth and ninth centuries, if ever, is a true European literature. Among the poets associated with Charlemagne himself are to be found Englishmen, Irishmen, Spaniards and Italians, as well as Franks, all speaking the same language in praise of the great emperor, magnificently styled pharus Europae – the beacon of Europe. Charlemagne’s court at Aachen attracted writers from all parts of the empire and beyond, just as Rome had done in its palmy days. It was hailed as the new Rome, nova Roma: ‘Our times are transformed into the civilisation of Antiquity. Golden Rome is reborn and restored anew to the world.’

The Englishman Alcuin of York (subject of an earlier study by Godman) played a prominent part in this so-called ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, just as in other Medieval centuries, notably the 12th, English writers were to make large contributions to Latin prose and verse; yet modern English-speaking scholars and critics have done relatively little for the study of this vast literature, so central to the European inheritance, and especially little by comparison with the achievements of German philologists such as Ernst Robert Curtius. English Classicists are inclined to regard anything later than Silver Age Latin as beneath their notice, thus perpetuating the prejudices of Renaissance scholars (who could at least claim to have read some of the works they rejected). British public-school humanism never struck root in America: but the consequent freedom from prejudice there has commonly gone along with a lack of the necessary philological training. Where the reading of Medieval Latin literature is concerned, one might say, most Americans who want to can’t, and most Englishmen who can don’t want to. There are notable exceptions, of course. Popularisers such as Helen Waddell, and scholars such as Raby or, more recently, Dronke in England or Wetherbee in America have laboured to make the English-speaking public, or at least their fellow scholars, more aware of this vast submerged continent of writing. But most people actually encounter Medieval Latin poetry, if at all, only on record sleeves. For them Carmina Burana means the awful Orff.

In his Preface Peter Godman speaks of his ‘solitary task’ writing a book on Carolingian poetry ‘in this damp island off the coast of Europe’; and the preponderance of German names in his notes and bibliography bears out the complaint. He therefore deserves particular credit for producing such an expert and professionally well-informed piece of work from the banks of the Isis. At the same time, for all its expertise, his book is well adapted to the needs of damp and insular readers such as the present reviewer, to whom most of its contents will be completely unfamiliar. Each of its 62 pieces of poetry is accompanied on the facing page by an exact translation and at the foot of the page by explanatory notes; and the long introduction places each piece in its context in the history and development of Carolingian poetry, from the time of Charlemagne himself to the end of the ninth century. Godman’s selection well displays the diversity of this poetry, which embraces epigrams and hymns, pastoral dialogues and saints’ lives, satires and panegyrics, devotional pieces and epic narratives. A few titles will give an idea of the range: ‘The Debate of Spring and Winter’, ‘Lament on the Death of Charlemagne’, ‘The Bone of a Little Doe’, ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’, ‘Eclogue of Two Nuns’, ‘The Battle of Fontenoy’, ‘Mock Epyllion on a Gelded Ram’, ‘Song of the Watchmen of Modena’. Godman is a skilful guide through this strange country, conveying the necessary information about its inhabitants and commenting on their work in a shrewd and styptic fashion. Only on the matter of metre can he be said to fail his readers, for he assumes more knowledge than they are likely to possess both about Classical metres and about the newer rhythmical forms which then co-existed with them.

He takes a sympathetic, though by no means uncritical, view of his poets – quite properly, since some persuasion may be needed to encourage readers to tackle writers with names such as Walahfrid the Squinter and Notker the Stutterer, not to speak of the outlandish ‘Nepos Cracavist’. At its worst, and not infrequently, the poetry in his book suffers from a pervasive sense of falseness and unreality, rather like the present-day European Parliament. The use of Classical and Biblical pseudonyms by writers associated with Charlemagne shows this falseness at its most ridiculous. The Frankish poet Angelbert declares his devotion to the emperor by saying: Vatis Homerus amat David – ‘Homer the poet [i.e. Angelbert!] loves David.’ The admiration of these poets for their Classical predecessors, especially Virgil, can lead to something little better than pastiche (though that may itself be effective, as in the mock-heroic ‘Battle of the Birds’ by the talented Spanish poet Theodulf); and one can admire the polish and ingenuity of Walahfrid’s verses on the cultivation of the gourd, in his monastic Georgic De Cultu Herborum, without wishing ever to read them again.

The best poems in the book are mostly to be looked for, I think, among those composed not in Classical metres but in ‘rhythmical’ forms. It is as though poets who were too much on their best behaviour in hexameter or elegaic couplet could let themselves go in verses which went to different tunes. Once they started counting syllables and looking for rhymes and refrains, they no longer had the music of Virgil in their ears and so seem better able to sing in their own voice. Two poems among those that Godman rightly singles out for praise illustrate this. One is a stanzaic poem ‘Ut quid iubes?’, composed by the monk Gottschalk in about 825. The opening stanza will illustrate its haunting music. Addressing some unidentified little boy, Gottschalk laments the exile which makes it impossible for him to sing:

Ut quid iubes, pusiole,
quare mandas, filiole,
        carmen dulce me cantare,
        cum sim longe exul valde
                intra mare?
        O cur iubes canere?

Which Godman translates:

Why ever are you commanding, little boy,
Why, little son, are you telling me
        To sing a sweet song,
        Although I am in exile, far away
        On this sea?
        O why are you telling me to sing?

This is no pastiche, and it is far from frigid. The poet’s relationship with the boy remains quite obscure: but the strange pleading insistence of his questioning, with its characteristic Biblical resonance (‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’), creates a rich and powerful singing effect, quite unlike anything attainable in the Classical metres.

Another memorable poem is the ‘Song of the Watchmen of Modena’. The editor tells us that at the time in question, towards the end of the ninth century, the walls of Modena were strengthened in anticipation of assault by Hungarians, and he suggests that the song was composed to be ‘sung by priests celebrating mass in a chapel at the city walls, perhaps accompanied by the sentinels before their duties’. The poet’s call for vigilance raises echoes both from the Bible (‘watch and pray’) and from pagan antiquity (the examples of Troy and Rome are cited), and these serve only to amplify its piercing intensity. The poem opens with the cry vigila!, ‘keep watch!’, and ends with its eerie double echo:

Fortis iuventus, virtus audax bellica,
Vestra per muros audiantur carmina.
Et sit in armis alterna vigilia,
Ne fraus hostilis haec invadat moenia.
Resultet echo: ‘comes, eia vigila!’
Per muros ‘eia!’, dicat echo: ‘vigila!’

Which Godman translates:

Young men who are strong, daring and brave in battle,
Let your songs be heard throughout the walls!
And may the watches change with arms at the ready
Lest the treacherous enemy storm these defences.
May the echo resound: ‘Comrades, hail, keep watch!’
Throughout the walls: ‘Hail,’ may it echo: ‘Keep watch!’

In his discussion of this poem, as elsewhere, Godman shows a familiar knowledge of the Carolingian world – its history, its language, and its literature. His anthology offers the English-speaking reader an opportunity to sample a body of European writing which can fairly be called lost to the modern world. Some of the poems are simply dull, many are intriguingly strange, and a few are unforgettable. Godman’s presentation of them is elegant and authoritative. It is hard to imagine the job better done, at least in our ‘damp island off the coast of Europe’.