The Eclogues by Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Historical background

Virgil was born in 70 BC, in the consulships of (the bitter rivals) Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaius Pompeius. When Virgil was 7, Cicero was consul and managing the Catiline conspiracy. When he was 10, the rivals Pompey and Crassus were reconciled by Julius Caesar who formed them into the behind-the-scenes alliance which later came to be called the First Triumvirate.

The 50s BC in Rome were characterised by the street violence of rival political gangs led by Publius Clodius Pulcher and Titus Annius Milo. For most of the decade (58 to 50) Julius Caesar was racking up famous victories in his campaign to conquer all of Gaul. In 53 Crassus’s army was destroyed by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae and he was killed, ending the triumvirate.

At the end of the 50s, the 18 year old Virgil arrived in Rome to find a career. Throughout 50 BC the political crisis grew deeper and, eventually, in January 49, Caesar illegally led a legion of his Army of Gaul across the river Rubicon, thus triggering civil war with Pompey and the senate. Virgil was 21.

This civil war dragged on for 5 long years, dividing families, laying waste tracts of land which armies marched across despoiling, with a series of battles in which Romans killed Romans at locations around the Mediterranean, until Caesar’s final victory in Spain at the Battle of Munda in March 45.

Caesar returned to Rome and began administering the empire, briskly and efficiently. Soon after he had had himself made dictator for life, he was assassinated in March 44. Virgil was 26. But removing the dictator did not bring the moribund forms of the old Republic back to life, as the conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, had hoped. Instead it inaugurated another 13 years of political instability, with the arrival in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, Gaius Octavius, complicating an already fraught situation.

After initially fighting against Caesar’s former lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, Octavius made peace with him in November 43, inviting a third military leader, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to form what became known as the Second Triumvirate. Virgil was now 27.

In 42 BC the combined forces of Antony and Octavian defeated those of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi (where the poet Horace led a legion on the losing side).

The second triumvirate lasted a long time, from 43 to 31 BC, although the partners often fell out, fiercely criticised each other and sometimes threatened open conflict. Antony assigned himself rule of the eastern Mediterranean in which capacity he a) embarked in 36 BC on an ill-fated attempt to invade the Parthian Empire, which ended in complete failure; and b) based himself in the capital of Egypt, Alexandria, where he famously had a long relationship with its queen, Cleopatra, fathering 2 children by her.

In 36 a war against Pompey’s surviving son, Sextus, who obstinately held the island of Sicily and was using his fleet to attack Roman ships, provided the pretext Octavius needed to accuse Lepidus of ineffectiveness and corruption and send him into internal exile in Italy. Virgil was 34.

The second triumvirate had become a duumvirate and very unstable, with Octavius using Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra to paint him as undignified, unroman, unpatriotic. Eventually Octavius declared open war on Antony, marching his forces to meet Antony’s legions in Greece, and defeating his fleet at the naval Battle of Actium, in September 31, after Cleopatra famously led her small contingent away from the battle, prompting the latter to follow her and abandon his own sailors to defeat.

The ill-fated couple returned to Alexandria and, when Octavius approached the city with his legions, both committed suicide.

Not only was Octavian now the only one of the triumvirate left but, after the long 18 years of almost continual civil war since Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he was the only figure with any authority left in Roman politics.

With astonishing assurance he proceeded to transform the constitution of the old Republic into the shape of what would become the Roman Empire, with him at its centre holding all the strings. Virgil was 39 when Octavius emerged as the strongest figure in Rome, and 43 when, 4 years later, the senate awarded him the title by which he is known to history, ‘Augustus’. His entire adult life had been lived against a backdrop of war, dispute and destruction.

The Oxford University Press edition

The 1930s poet Cecil Day Lewis made translations of The Georgics in 1940 and of The Eclogues in 1963. These (fairly dated) translations are still available in a nifty Oxford University Press paperback, with a 1983 introduction by academic R.O.A.M. Lyne (both, like most classicists, educated at private school and Oxbridge).

Virgil the poet

Let Athena dwell in the cities she has founded. For me the woodlands.
(Eclogue 1, line 62)

Between 42 and 39 Virgil wrote ten short poems known as the Eclogues. In the introduction to this OUP volume, R.O.A.M. Lyne explains that Virgil’s explicit model was the Greek poet Theocritus (300 to 260 BC). Theocritus wrote a variety of poems but is famous for his idylls and bucolics. The word idyll is Greek and originally meant simply ‘little scene’ or ‘vignette’. In Theocritus’s hands, an idyll became a short poem describing an idealised view of country life among peasants, farmers and especially shepherds. A bucolic is a similar form, describing idealised peasant life in the country.

Theocritus helped establish the long literary tradition whereby apparently artless depictions of idealised country life turn out to be the opposite of naive and simple-minded but often the most sophisticated verse of all. Theocritus’s shepherds display a surprising ability to quote previous poets or refer to Greek legend and seem to spend far more time reciting beautifully formed verse to each other than tending their flocks.

Theocritus stands at the start of that tradition that pretending to rural simplicity is nearly always associated with sophisticated and aristocratic audiences who like to take a break from their more serious urban responsibilities with fantasies of country living. Look at the elaborate form and demandingly allegorical content of Spenser’s Faerie Queene or the 18th century’s endless paintings of shepherds and swains. Vide Marie Antoinette’s fondness for dressing up as a shepherdess.

Virgil takes the already sophisticated form Theocritus had developed and adds a whole new range of subterranean depths to it. His stretching of the form he inherited is indicated by the very first eclogue in the set. This deals, albeit tangentially, with a controversial aspect of contemporary Roman policy (see below). Other poems address the turmoil of romantic love with a disruptive intensity not found in Theocritus.

An indication of his difference is that Virgil didn’t use Theocritus’s term, idyll, but called his poems eclogues, eclogue in Latin meaning ‘draft’, ‘selection’ or ‘reckoning’. By the Middle Ages the terms idyllbucolic and eclogue had become almost synonymous.

Eclogue 1

A dialogue between Tityrus and Meliboeus. Tityrus describes having been up to Rome to petition ‘the young prince’ to keep his family land. The prince grants his petition and so Meliboeus is a ‘fortunate old man’, whereas Tityrus laments that he and many like him will be dispersed to Scythia, ‘bone-dry Africa’, even to Britain, ‘that place cut off at the world’s end (line 66).

This poem was probably written in 41 BC, when Octavian was arranging the demobilisation and settlement around Italy of soldiers who had fought for him and Antony in the campaign to defeat the assassins of Julius Caesar, which climaxed in the Battle of Philippi (October 42 BC). Antony went on to sort out the East while Octavian was given the unwelcome task of settling the demobbed veterans. He carried out the very unpopular policy of dispossessing current farmers from their land in order to assign it to veterans (who often had no clue about running a farm, something Meliboeus bitterly points out in this poem):

To think of some godless soldier owning my well-farmed fallow,
A foreigner reaping these crops!

And laments that this is what the civil wars have brought them to:

…To such a pass has civil
Dissensions brought us: for people like these have we sown our fields.

So the first eclogue may be cast as a Theocritan idyll, and feature descriptions of idealised country scenery and farming practices – but it makes no bones about dealing with very contemporary politics, unfair state policy, unfairness and bitterness.

Eclogue 2

By contrast the second eclogue consists of the soliloquy or monologue of the shepherd Corydon who burns with love for the ‘handsome boy’, Alexis. Corydon boasts of his ability with the Pan pipes, the fertility of his flocks, and the idyllicness of the lives they could live together…but to no avail.

And, again, although the poem is deceptively dressed in rural imagery, the feeling is intense:

Yet love still scorches me – love has no lull, no limit. (line 68)

It’s worth pointing out that this is an explicitly homosexual poem, which did Virgil no harm at all with his patron, Maecenas nor his emperor.

Eclogue 3

The third eclogue feels different, again. It features rough and tumble squabbling between Menalcas and Damoetas, which leads up to Damoetas suggesting they hold a singing contest to decide who’s best.

At which point the poem turns from consisting of Virgil’s standard hexameters into alternating series of four-line, four-beat stanzas which have much shorter lines, a lyric format which Day-Lewis captures by making them rhyme.

The wolf is cruel to the sheep,
Cruel a storm to orchard tree,
Cruel is rain to ripened crops,
Amaryllis’ rage is cruel to me.

Eclogue 4

A dramatic departure from the stereotypical idea of an easy-going chat between shepherds, this eclogue is an extremely intense, visionary poem prophesying the birth of a divine baby who will usher in a Golden Age, peace on earth and describes a new age of peace and plenty when farm animals mind themselves and there is enough for all.

Later, Christian, commentators took this to be a prediction of the birth of Christ (about 40 years after the poem was written) and this was part of the mystique that grew up around Virgil in the Middle Ages, one reason why Dante chose him to be his guide through Hell in his long poem, the Divine Comedy.

Chances are, however, that Virgil had a much more mundane practical event in mind. The alliance between Octavian and Antony following Caesar’s assassination was very ropey indeed, and kept needing patching up. One such occasion was the Pact of Brundisium, agreed in 40 BC, whereby, among other provisions, Antony agreed to marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia (a betrothal portrayed in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra). According to this interpretation, the ‘saviour child’ of this poem is the son everybody hoped would be born of this union, who would usher in a post-civil war era of peace and plenty.

In the event, the alliance wore very thin before Octavius eventually declared war on Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, leading to their naval defeat at the Battle of Actium and their double suicide soon thereafter. Thus, the cynical reader may conclude, all hyperbolic expectations of a New Age tend to be brutally disappointed by real world politics.

Eclogue 5

In a completely different mood, back in the land of idylls, shepherds Menalcas and Mopsus bump into each other and decide to have a singing contest, taking turns to sing poems they have written about the lovely Daphnis.

Eclogue 6

Two naughty shepherds (Cromis and Mnasyllus) come across the old drunk, Silenus, in a cave and tie him up, but he insists on singing a series of strophes absolutely packed with references to Greek mythology, a kind of 2-page summary of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Eclogue 7

Goatherd Meliboeus relates how Daphnis called him over to listen to a singing competition between Corydon and Thyrsis, who proceed to take turns singing 12 4-line rhyming stanzas.

More sweet than thyme, more fair than pale ivy,
More white to swans you are to me:
Come soon, when the bulls through the meadows are homing,
Come soon, if you love me, my nymph of the sea!
(lines 37 to 40)

Eclogue 8

Another singing competition, this time between Damon and Alphesiboeus, and this time, instead of alternating short verse, each takes it in turn to sing a page-long poem made of longer, rhyming stanzas, each ending with the same line repeated as a refrain. Damon’s verses go like this:

A child you were when I first beheld you –
Our orchard fruit was chilled with dew –
You and your mother both apple gathering:
Just twelve I was, but I took charge of you.
On tiptoe reaching the laden branches,
One glance I gave you and utterly
My heard was ravished, my reason banished –
O flute of Maenalus, come, play with me!

Alphesiboeus’s verse is more interesting: it describes the magic, witchcraft, incantations and magic objects the narrator creates and casts in order to get his beloved, Daphnis, to return to him:

These keepsakes he left with me once, faithless man:
They are things that he wore – the most precious I own.
Mother earth, now I dig by my door and consign
Them to you – the dear keepsakes that pledge his return.
Make Daphnis come home from the city, my spells!

This also appears to be an explicitly gay poem, a man keening for his male lover.

Eclogue 9

This is another poem lamenting the unfair and divisive policy of land sequestration. Two out of the ten poems are on this subject. Sad Moeris complains to Lycidas that an outsider has taken over his farm and made him a servant on his old land and that’s why he is now driving his (the new owners’) goats to market.

Interestingly, Lycidas says he’d heard that the intercession of the poet Menalcus had prevented the land appropriation going ahead. Not so, replies bitter Moeris. But the interesting point is: is this a reference to Virgil’s attempts to moderate the land confiscation policy by appealing to Augustus? And a sad reflection on his failure?

MOERIS:… But poems
Stand no more chance, where the claims of soldiers are involved,
Than do the prophetic doves if the eagle swoops upon them.

This touches on the broader point of Virgil’s ambiguity: his verse is very finely balanced between political allegory, factual description and poetic fantasia. It hovers and shimmers between different layers of meaning.

Meanwhile, the two characters manage to get over their initial bitterness and swap fragments of poems they themselves have written or other people’s lines which they remember. Lycidas points out that the wind has dropped, the lake waters are still. It’s a golden opportunity to stop their trudge to the market town and recite to each other their favourite old songs. At which point the poem ends.

Complex effects. Although the rural setting and the simple names and many of the homely details about goats and plants and whatnot frankly derive from his Greek model, the emotion or psychological effect is more complex and multiflavoured than Theocritus.

Eclogue 10

A poem dedicated to Virgil’s friend, Caius Cornelius Gallus, politician and poet. He wrote elegies devoted to a fictional female figure, Lycoris who, the note tells us, is probably a code name for the courtesan Cytheris, also Mark Antony’s lover. (Shades of Catullus’s beloved Lesbia, being the code name of Clodia, lover of umpteen other young Roman men. Roman poets and their aristocratic affairs).

The translation

I liked Day Lewis’s translation well enough, it is light and clear, as the examples I’ve quoted demonstrate. I suppose you could quibble about the slight unevenness of register: some of his phrasing uses the vague, rather stagey diction of so much translationese:

Let us honour the pastoral muse of Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Whose singing, when they competed together, left the lynxes
Dumbfounded, caused a heifer to pause in her grazing, spellbound,
And so entranced the rivers that they checked their onward flow.
(Eclogue 8, opening lines)

It’s clear enough but not really what any actual modern poet would write. Anyway, my point is that this slightly stiff style comes a cropper in the many places where Day Lewis attempts a more demotic, matey note:

I’m driven from my home place but you can take it easy…

I have two roes which I found in a dangerous combe…
Thestylis has been begging for ages to take them off me…

‘Bumpkin! As if Alexis care twopence for your offerings!’

I wonder when the last time was that any English speaker used the word ‘bumpkin’ in a literal, serious sense? Or:

‘Watch it! What right do you have to lecture a chap!’

‘You desperado, while his mongrel was barking his head off!’

‘Strike up if you have a song to sing, I’ll not be backward…’

‘I’ll not be backward’ – of course I understand the meaning, I just kept being brought up short by Day Lewis’s well-meaning 1950s slang. Maybe it’s in the original: maybe the Virgil has a variety of tones, from the tragically lovelorn to the banter of farm workers. But this unevenness is definitely a feature of the Day Lewis translation.

Scansion

Scansion means the method of determining the metrical pattern of a line of verse. Latin (and French and Italian) verse uses patterns based on the number of syllables in a line and the different ‘lengths’ of each syllable. English poetry, rather more crudely, is based on the number of beats in each line. In English poetry each beat is at the heart of a ‘foot’, and each foot can have 1, 2 or 3 other unstressed syllables either before or after the beat. Thus a iambic pentameter is a line made up of five beats and so five ‘feet’, with each ‘foot’ made up of two syllables, the beat falling on the second one, di dum. A ‘foot’ with two syllables with the stress falling on the second one was called, by the ancient Greeks, a iamb, and so a iambic pentameter is a five-beat line, consisting of five feet, all of them in the form di dum.

Di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

But I struggled to figure out the metre of many of Day Lewis’s verses. First off, the eclogues are not all written in the same style. Day Lewis varies the verse forms a lot. There appears to be a long form line for the basic narrative sections, which he varies when the various shepherds and goatherds go into their singing competitions. But I found it difficult to scan even his basic form. Take the opening of Eclogue 4:

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

This seems to me a regular iambic heptameter i.e. seven beats.

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

But the next two lines throw me:

Shrubberies or meek tamarisks are not for all: but if it’s
Forests I sing, may the forest be worthy of a consul.

If the first line is intended to have only 7 beats in it, surely it would end on ‘if’. Not only do these lines not have 7 beats but the beat is difficult to assign. Is it shrub-be-ries or shrub-ries? Either way that appears to be a trochee i.e. a foot which starts with the beat instead of having it second.

Maybe it’s deliberate. Maybe Day Lewis writes a loose long line which occasionally falls into the regularity of a heptameter but just as often skips round it. Maybe it’s designed to shimmer round regularity just as Virgil’s allegories and political meanings shimmer into view then disappear again.

At the start of the book Day Lewis writes a brief note about his approach to translation, which mentions that in some of the singing competitions between shepherds he uses ‘rhythms of English and Irish folk song’. This explains the stimulating variety of verse forms found throughout the book. Some of them have a regularity I enjoyed, but I found others puzzling and a bit irritating:

The fields are dry, a blight’s in the weather,
No vine leaves grow – the Wine-god is sour

So far I read these as having four beats per line (and so tetrameters), with variation in the feet i.e. they’re not all strict iambs. But having got into that swing, the next 2 lines (and there are only four; this is a quatrain) threw me by having five beats, but beats which don’t occur in any neat way:

Shading our uplands – but when my Phyllis comes here,
Green shall the woodlands be, and many the shower.

I wondered whether he was using the Latin technique of literally counting the syllables in each line and ignoring the beats, but I don’t think it’s that, since the first line has 10 syllables, the second 9, the third 12 and the fourth 12. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but I found this lack of regularity in Day Lewis’s verse irksome and distracting.

Competition

All the histories I’ve read of the period describe the escalation of once-sensible rivalry between Rome’s leading men into increasingly violent, bitter and unforgiving conflict. It becomes almost an obsession of Tom Holland’s account, which blames out-of-control, toxic political rivalry for the Republic’s collapse.

That was my first thought when I realised that, far from idyllic peace and tranquility half of the poems describe and enact poetic competitions. Now I know that the competing goatherds aren’t bribing the voters and having each other’s supporters beaten up in the streets, as in the chaotic final decades of the Republic, nothing like that, the competitions are presented as amiable, good-hearted exercises (Eclogues 7 and 8). Still. Its presence in these would-be idyllic poems suggests that competition was a fundamental category which informs / underpins / infects absolutely every aspect of Roman existence.


Credit

The Eclogues by Virgil were translated into English by Cecil Day Lewis in 1963. I read them in the 1999 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995)

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics along with an extensive introduction explaining their historical and cultural context and explaining the rhyme scheme, scansion and pronunciation of the poems. Each work benefits from a ‘crib’ or translation of obscure phrases which is on the same page as the text, and extensive notes on each poem at the back of the book.

The pronunciation

First the pronunciation. In the following short poem ‘i’ is pronounced like a long ‘e’ as in leave so ‘miri’ is pronounced like mini except with an r in the middle and ‘while’ is pronounced weelë. ‘Sumer’ is soomer, the ‘i’ in ‘i-last’ is ee. The extra ‘e’ on the end of many words is generally voiced which is why Duncan prints it as ‘ë’ to remind the reader to pronounce it. ‘Ou’ is pronounced oo, so ‘foulës’ is pronounced foolës. Gh is like loch in Scottish. So ‘night’ is pronounced with an ‘i’ as in lit or sin and the ‘gh’ sounding as in loch, to make it sound like the German word nicht. ‘Ich’ is pronounced itch, ‘michel’ sounds like mitchell. A’s are short as in cat.

Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.

So a phonetic version would go something like this:

Mirry it is weel soomer eelast
with foolës song
oc noo neiyeth windës blast
and weder strong.
Ei, ei, wat this nicht is long,
and ich with wel mitchell wrong
sorwe and mourne and fast.

You can make out the pronunciation in this medieval setting of the poem.

‘Mirie it is’ on the Luminarium website

Read out loud

As to the meaning, well, when I studied Middle English (and Anglo-Saxon) at university I found it was best to read the poetry aloud, over and over again, to get the pronunciation and rhythms and sounds into your mouth and mind for some time before worrying about the ‘meaning’.

The kind of crib Duncan provides – i.e. not a full translation into modern English, but just picking the hardest words or phrases and suggesting a meaning – helps because it is fragmentary and doesn’t swamp the poem with a full modern version but just guides you in interpreting some of the original medieval words.

This is one of the appeals of medieval poetry, that it speaks to us before we completely understand what it means and, even after we’ve read modern translations and ‘cribs’, it still says something more than a literal translation into modern English can do.

Thus Duncan helps by pointing out in his glosses that ‘i-last’ means lasts, ‘foulës song’ means birds’ song, ‘oc’ means ‘but’, ‘neigheth’ means ‘draws near’, ‘wat’ means ‘how’ (so the line means ‘how this night is long’), and – most suggestively – that ‘with wel michel wrong’ means ‘for very great wrong doing’…

Given these clues, the reader is forced to reread the poem and assimilate these new meanings to the lines. In effect, to begin to learn Middle English. Compare and contrast the effort required and the reward of trying to understand a different language, with simply swamping your mind with a brisk modern translation:

Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds;
but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.
Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,
sorrow and mourn and fast.

In my opinion all the power and mystery is lost in this or any modern translation. How much more powerful, mysterious and interesting (and difficult to scan) it is to say:

and ich with wel mickle wrong

than it is to say:

And I, most unjustly

If one of the purposes of poetry is to refresh the language, or our understanding and use of language, this can be done far more quickly and deeply by learning just one medieval lyric which transports you to a different universe, than by listening to a hundred rap songs which merely entrench you deeper and deeper into the baleful, violent present.

Scansion

Another cause of uncertainty, mystery and pleasure is the odd scansion of most of the lines. Some of them fall right into our modern-day feel for iambic pentameters and regular rhythms. But others just don’t. Duncan has a long essay explaining the scansion i.e. how the rhythm of the poems is made up of the emphases which should – in theory – be given to different vowels, consonants, or words which start lines or words which end them.

For example, it’s important to realise that Middle English had far more words ending in ‘e’ than we do and that sometimes the ‘e’ was voiced but sometimes it wasn’t. It is generally voiced before a consonant but if a vowel begins the next word, elided into that vowel and so not distinctly sounded.

This is why Duncan sometimes prints ‘e’ with a diaeresis over it – ë – when it is to be pronounced – as in ‘foolës song’ – but otherwise leaves the e plain, when it is to be elided into the following vowel to create just one syllable instead of two – ‘Sorwe and murne and fast’ where the e’s on the end of sorwe and murne blend into the a of the following and.

But – in practice – as Duncan admits, many of the poems seem to ignore these rules or to only obey them erratically. No manual or criticism or explanation survives by contemporaries to explain the thinking behind rhythm and syllables and beats, so scholars have had to reconstruct ‘the rules’ six or seven hundred years after the poems were written and there is still a lot of debate because whichever rules you devise, you can immediately find examples which seem to break them.

All this adds to the sense of mild challenge about the poems and forces you to read and reread each one until you think you’ve got the correct rhythm.

Music

And finally, all the poems were in fact lyrics, designed to be set to music and this music – genuinely medieval music – worked according to rules and values most of us find strange, lacking the basic ideas of a dominant key and a structured progression through related chords with the voice picking out melodies from the chord progressions. Instead, in medieval music, the voice was its own master, far less constrained by ideas of harmony and chord progression.

This is particularly true of a solo vocal rendition, as of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ which I quote below. In this instrumental version of ‘Miri it is’, there is a strong sense of rhythm which rides over the doubts and uncertainties you get from just reading the words.

For example, they sing just one ‘ei’ whereas the presence of two ‘eis’ in the original is one of the complicating factors in trying to scan that line. As so often in musical settings of a poem, the composer / performer just ignores the problems of scansion in order to produce a smooth product.

Amended spelling

I am intrigued that the singers in this performance pronounce the word Duncan has given as ‘sorwe’ as ‘sorrich’. This is because they have spelt it ‘soregh’ and not ‘sorwe’ which brings us to a big point.

In this edition Duncan has made the big editorial decision to change the spelling of all the poems in his collection to ‘bring them into conformity’ with the dialect of south-east England. During this period – 1200 to 1400 – there were many distinct regional variations of English, complete with different grammar, spelling and vocabulary. Duncan says he has brought all the spellings into line with the dialect of south-east England – or London – because that is the Middle English of Chaucer and so the version which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with.

I think this is a controversial decision. On the whole I think I would like to be in possession of what the medieval scribes actually wrote than a cleaned-up version which Duncan thinks will be easier for me to read and understand. I don’t want it to be easy. I want it to be accurate and faithful.

There’s a fascinating article devoted to this very song:

which contains a photo of the one and only surviving manuscript of the song (complete with stave lines indicating the note to be sung over each word).

Manuscript of Miri it is

Immediately you can see that the first word is a) missing the initial M b) is written [M]irie, not ‘miri as Duncan gives us. This is a vast difference. The article suggests it should be pronounced with three syllables: mi-ree-e (the last e pronounced as in web). That’s a hell of a difference from the two syllables of Duncan’s ‘miri’.

Similarly, on the second line you can quite clearly see that what Duncan has given as ‘foulës song’ is in fact written ‘fugheles song’. They both mean birds’ song, but Duncan has changed the northern dialect word fughel to the word Chaucer would use, ‘fowl or foul’.

I don’t want to be churlish, but I object to this. 1. I prefer to know what the scribe actually wrote and 2. fugheles quite obviously has three syllables unlike ‘foulës’. Or at least there is a flicker of hesitation over the ‘ughe’ which has been removed by turning it onto ‘ou’.

(Also, as explained, none of the originals have the diaeresis over the e – ë – because that is an entirely Duncan invention, put in hte poems to help the reader with the correct pronunciation.)

In other words, any effort made trying to scan Duncan’s version is effort wasted, or led astray, by the fact that he doesn’t print the words of the actual poem! The online article I’ve referred to gives this as the poem’s correct, unexpurgated text:

[M]Irie it is while sumer ilast
with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast
and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and [fast].

(Note that the final word, ‘fast’, is not included in the text as we have it, but is a guess by all succeeding editors.)

Conclusion

Study of this one short poem suggests an approach to Duncan’s entire book which is:- to use it to ramble and surf and browse through the wonderful world of medieval lyrics, to let yourself be caught and captivated by individual poems and work with Duncan’s cribs and read up his notes on each one…

But then to use the wonders of the internet to search for the actual original text of each poem, and to get to know that and not the bowdlerised version Duncan has confected for us.

I sing of a mayden

One hundred and thirty-two is a lot of poems and they range from short seven-liners like the above, to the five short stanzas of a classic like ‘I sing of a mayden’, to much longer, wordier, and more complex poems, poems with elaborate refrains such as ‘Alysoun’, or even dialogue poems where alternate verses are spoken by characters.

‘I sing of a mayden’ is a favourite among fans of this period and has been set to music by many modern composers. Duncan’s version is:

I syng of a mayden
that is makëles:
King of alle kingës
to her sone she chees.

He cam also styllë
ther his moder was
As dewe in Aprylle
that fallëth on the gras.

He cam also styllë
to his moderës bowr
As dew in Aprille
that falleth on the flour.

He cam also stillë
ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
that fallëth on the spray.

Moder and mayden
was never non but she:
Wel may swych a lady
Godës moder be!

It appeals:

  • because of the short simplicity of the lines
  • because of the repetition of the three central verses which vary only the rhyme words was/gras, bowr/flowr, lay/spray
  • because of the sweet innocent purity of the floral imagery
  • and because of the way the simplicity, repetition and natural imagery convey an immensely gentle, sweet and loving relationship between Mary and her beloved son

Does it need translating? As mentioned, Duncan has already bowdlerised it a little, converting the original ‘þ’ into modern ‘th’, and adding his diaeresis e’s to clarify pronunciation and emphasis. The original version of the first two verses reads:

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

You can feel the rhythm and the meaning, cant you, but your mind just needs guiding and supporting at a few of the more obscure moments, and this is the merit of Duncan’s ‘cribs’ i.e. printing the meaning of some of the more obscure terms on the same page as the poem. Thus you need to know that ‘makeles’ means ‘matchless’, ‘ches’ means ‘chose’ and that ‘þ’ is pronounced as ‘th’ as in this or that. Once you know that you’re away!

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

As to pronunciation, key points would be that ‘makeles’ is not pronounced like modern ‘make’, but mack-e-less, and that maiden is pronounced my-den. Again, once you’ve grasped its meaning and a feel for the pronunciation, how much cooler and slicker it is to say:

Moder and maiden
Was neverë noon but she

Than:

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;

Just as it is cooler and slicker to refer to someone’s savoir faire than to their ‘knowledge of how to do things properly’. Learning Middle English is like learning another language which 1. is not, at the end of the day, that difficult because so much of it is similar, sometimes identical, to modern English, and 2. you don’t have to learn well enough to have conversations in it, just well enough to begin to have a feel for the words and phrases, enough of a feel to bring these magical poems to life.

Rhythm and repetition

These two poems epitomise one aspect of Middle English, its ability to make brief, punchy phrases pregnant with meaning:

[M]irie it is while sumer ilast

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,

But ‘mayden’ also highlights the ability of what are, for the most part, songs made to be sung, to use repetition with variation to create beautiful rhythms. (In this example remember ‘bounden’ is pronounced ‘boonden’.)

Adam lay ybounden
bounden in a bond,
fowre thousand winter
thoughte he not too long;

And al was for an appil
an appil that he took,
As clerkes finden writen
writen in hire book.

Ne hadde the apple taken ben
the apple taken ben,
Ne hadde nevere Oure Lady
ybeen hevene Quen.

Blessed be the time
that appil taken was:
Therfore we mown singen
Deo Gratias.

Even if you’re not sure what ‘Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond’ exactly means, it’s not hard to 1. get a feel for the nice rhythm of the thing and 2. get the gist of the meaning – that Adam paid dearly for his original sin of eating the forbidden appil, and defying God’s ordinance, and triggering the Fall of Man.

But all’s well that ends well, because if that appil had never been taken, there would have been no need for Christ to have been conceived and born and crucified to redeem us all, in which case there would have been no Virgin Mary, and imagine the world without the Virgin Mary! No, it can’t be done!

And therefore Adam lying bounden in a bond is a small price to pay for having the Mother of God reigning in heaven to guard over us poor sinners and hear our prayers.

(Duncan’s note explains that in medieval theology, Adam was supposed to have remained in bonds with the other patriarchs in the limbus patrum from the time of his death until the crucifixion of Christ, and that this was estimated to have lasted four thousand winters.)

There’s something immensely powerful in the way the entire theology of the Christian religion, with its vast holy books and thousands of theologians, can all be compressed down into this simple carol, whose well-chosen repetitions can all be sung in less than a minute, and bring great spiritual and psychological reassurance.

The literary critic John Spiers makes the acute point that part of the poem’s appeal is the way the idea flows so naturally. ‘The doctrine of the song is perfectly orthodox… but here is expressed very individually and humanly. The movement of the song reproduces very surely the movements of a human mind.’

I think of Shakespeare with his colourful conceits, of John Donne with his far-fetched similes or John Milton with his heavy Latinate tread. Compared to all those later poets, this poem flows as simply but as profoundly as a fairy tale.

Four categories

Duncan divides his book up into four categories:

  • Love Lyrics
  • Penitential and Moral Lyrics
  • Devotional Lyrics
  • Miscellaneous Lyrics

In the modern, post-romantic world almost all the poetry and certainly all the songs we are subjected to are about worldly love. Another appeal of medieval poetry is the way it transports you beyond the limits and clichés of modern poetry to an entirely different world, which had different priorities and perspectives.

Some of the love poetry has a familiar feel, and Duncan makes the point that it was during this period that the notion of courtly love, of romantic love for a powerful and demanding mistress which originated among the troubadours of the South of France, first entered English culture. He goes on to make fine distinctions between the highly sophisticated and deliberately intellectual poetry of the troubadours and the more relaxed, more sensuous love poems to be found in medieval England.

The frailty of man’s estate

But personally, I never get tired of the central medieval theme of the decline and fall, the turn of Fortune’s wheel, the inevitable decay of all earthly success, wealth and love, the frailty of man’s estate, and so liked the section of Penitential and Moral Lyrics most. Take ‘Wynter wakeneth’. Here’s Duncan’s made-easy version.

Wynter wakenëth al my care,
Nou this levës waxeth bare.
Ofte I sike and mournë sare
When hit comth in my thought
Of this worldës joie hou hit goth al to nought.

Here’s the original text:

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Remembering medieval pronunciation, here’s my phonetic interpretation:

Winter whackeneth Al me ca [a as in car]-rë
Noo this lay-vës waxeth ba[a as in bar]rë
Ofte ee sick ant mournë sa[a as in saab]re
When hit comëth in mee thocht
Of this worldës joy, hoo hit goth Al to noght.

Once you’ve got the pronunciation right and rolled it round your mouth a few times, it shouldn’t take much translating; you just need to know that that ‘leves’ means leaves, ‘waxeth’ means grow, ‘y’ means I, ‘sike’ (pronounced sick, the final e elided into the a of ant) means sigh, ‘sare’ means sore or sorely or bitterly, ‘goth’ means goeth i.e. goes. Thus a modernisation would read:

Winter wakens all my grief,
Now these leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and sorely mourn,
When it enters my thoughts,
Regarding this world’s joy,
how it all comes to nothing.

But once you’ve really processed and absorbed the meaning, how much smoother and more musical it is to say:

Wynter wakëneth al me care

which is strange and far more invigorating, than:

Winter wakens all my grief

Which is boring.

Wele and wo

The poems describing spring and maidens and love and flowers and bowers contain sweet simple imagery, dance along with gladsome rhythms, and have been turned into songs of striking happiness and joy.

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen & with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth;
Dayes eyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales;
Uch foul song singeth.

Translated:

Spring has come with love to town,
With blossoms and with birds’ song
Which all that this bliss bringeth;
Daisies in these dales,
Notes sweet of nightingales;
Each bird his song singeth.

‘Lenten is come with love to toune’ (pronounced toon’), isn’t that a great opening line? In fact it’s a noticeable characteristic that many of the poems, short or long, announce their presence with a striking first line.

But by the same token, the poems lamenting man’s brikkelness and the unpredictable turns of destiny also have just such a primitive, almost primeval force, reeking of a society with no safety nets, where most people were close to famine and disease all their lives, where average life expectancy was around the mid-30s.

This rendition of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ captures perfectly the sound of a lone survivor of the Black Death or one of the period’s endless wars, sitting in the pew of a burnt-out church, sole survivor of his family and his community, lamenting his fate as the cold snow falls endlessly all around, smothering the land.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

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