>Friday Poetry Blogging: Middle English Edition

>Morgan blogged her favorite Middle English poem/song (with music still surviving), so I’ll blog mine:

Fowles in the frith,
The fisshes in the flood,
And I mon waxe wood.
Much sorwe I walke with
For beste of boon and blood.

[My pedestrian prose translation: Birds in the woods, the fish in the sea, and I must go mad. Much sorrow I walk with because of (OR: on behalf of) the best of bone and blood.]

(Once upon a time I knew a web page that showed the poem in its original musical notation contexts, but now I can’t find it. Darnit!)

I love the ambiguity of the “for” in the last line and I love the fact that we don’t know for sure who “the best of bone and blood” is. I often use this poem in the opening day of many classes — general lit. classes, medieval lit. classes, poetry classes, Middle English linguistics classes, etc. — to establish the problems and pleasures of interpretation and/or translation. (It’s also a good little poem for getting students to pay attention to grammar and syntax and to avoid “impressionistic” readings based only on every 4th word. Since it’s short, they take it all in.) I often show them just the poem and ask them who they think “the best of bone and blood” is and why he/she/it is causing the speaker to go mad. (And what, for that matter, birds and fish have to do with it.) Then I show them the poem in various anthologies — some put it in “love lyrics” (best of bone and blood = the beloved) and some put it in “religious lyrics” (best = Christ) — and ask them how those editorial decisions might affect their interpretations and/or personal responses to the poem. Then I show them an anthology that reproduces the musical setting of the manuscript and ask what that adds to their knowledge. And I continue to add a little more context (manuscript, date, etc., etc.) as we go along at different stages, and we generate more interpretations, but in the end my point is not to arrive at a definitive interpretation — because I don’t think there is one for this wonderfully elusive poem — but to show how interpretations are made, and that multiple viable ones can be made for the same work, even one as tiny and compact as this poem. But I also point out that some elements remain the same across interpretations — no matter the reason why the speaker is going mad, the result is still madness and an alienation from the natural world.

By the way, the quirkiest reading a student ever offered — one to which I had to give a polite response of “highly unlikely” — saw the speaker as a lone vegetarian in a meat-eating world. Still, I found it a very charming interpretation. Hey, based on the text all by itself, it works. Then again, that makes a good lesson in the problems of context-free reading!

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12 thoughts on “>Friday Poetry Blogging: Middle English Edition

  1. >This is my favourite too. I always think the Christian interpretation is the most likely, but that could be because I’m Jewish and keep seeing Christianity everywhere. I do adore that poem, though.

  2. >Hit and run comment!Great stuff. My impressionistic reading is thinking of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, where Merlin goes mad and flees into the woods, where he lives with the animals among the animals, eating, as animals do, by grubbing what he can from the earth. Et fugit ad siluas nec uult fugiendo uideriJngredientur que nemus gaudet que latere sub ornisMiratur que feras pascentes gramina saltusNunc has insequitur nunc cursu preterit illasUtitur herbarum radicibus utitur herbisVtitur arboreo fructu moris que rubetiFit siluester homo quasi siluis deditus esset (ll. 74-80) [John Jay Perry, ed. and trans., Illinois, 1925][He entered the wood and rejoiced to lie hidden under the ash trees; he marveled at the wild beasts feeding on the grass of the glades; now he chased after them and again he flew past them; he lived on the roots of grasses and on the grass, on the fruit of the trees and on the mulberries of the woods. He became a sylvan man just as though devoted to the woods.]He goes mad because he has witnessed the horror of battle, particularly the deaths of three brothers he knew well: best of blood and bone indeed.No proof for this! But it’s just what jumps out at me.

  3. >Awesome, Karl! I’m going to bring that up next time I teach it, just to throw one more possibility into the mix. I think I’ve vaguely mentioned the “wodemen” idea to students in the past, but that didn’t do anything with the “best of bone and blood.”Btw, great to hear from you — I was just wondering the other day what you were up to and if I’d see you around these parts again.And Gillian, I think the religious interpretation is probably the most likely, too — especially given its manuscript contexts — but it certainly works as a love lyric, too, and if it showed up in a MS full of love lyrics, I wouldn’t be surprised. In fact, I think both interpretations are perfectly medieval, which I point out to my students, because the language of religious poetry and love poetry so often overlaps.And now Karl’s given me yet another very medieval posibility.And, of course, I still think if a modern reader wants to adopt for themselves as the lament of a vegetarian, why the hell shouldn’t they? 🙂

  4. >What I’ve been up to: getting married (which, given that we–by ‘we’ I mean mostly Wifey–did virtually everything ourselves, was a lot of work) and then getting back into the swing of things. Which includes blogging: but not too much, because the diss. & the market call to me plangently.If your students find my throwaway reading (Notes & Queries? Maybe?) attractive, here’s some more info:Thomas, Neil. “The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?” Arthuriana 10 (2000): 27-43.Tantalizingly, Merlin’s drawn back to court by song, but grows disgusted and goes back to the woods. Neat stuff.Laments of vegetarians: well, there’s a couple late classical and medieval laments of eaten animals. There’s the Testamentum Porcelli (4th c.?) [Testament of the Little Pig] and, much later, the ‘Lament of the Roast Swan’ from the Carmina Burana. You might point your student at those?Back to work!

  5. >Whyfore redest thou (yf ich may ‘thou’ thee) nat ‘beste’ as ‘beaste,’ a thyng wyth lyf, as yn the louer bestes or even a manne? The Middel Englysshe Dictionarie doth use thys passage as a citacioun for yts entrie on ‘beste’ (id est animal uel bestia).Mesymeth the spekeres sorwe cometh from hys or hir mortale bodye, the ‘beste of bone and blood’ — peraventure, thogh the foules and fisshes haue litel tene or vexacioun wyth hir corporalitee, the speker doth fynde yt a thynge of woo and divisione (enactede thurgh the spekeres abilitee to discuss hys or hir corpus as yf it were a thynge separaat, a ‘beste’). Methynketh of Yeats’s sayinge that his herte was ‘fastnede to a dyinge animal.’ Le VostreGC

  6. >Chaucer quoting Yeats…so confused! (Reminds me of the main character’s dissertation in Lodge’s Small World: “T.S. Eliot’s Influence on Shakespear.”)Anywho, as a matter of fact I *have* mentioned to students the “best/beast” possibilites — especially in the Middle English class, but also in literature classes. And we’ve come up with similar interpretations. No, really! So why didn’t I mention this in the blog post? I dunno — I think I was too pressed for time to “go there” at the moment and so I decided to keep it simple. Even without the “beast” possibility, it’s an elusive little poem!Btw, I find that with my students you have to be careful to explain to them that “beast” doesn’t have the ferocious connotations in ME that it does in Present Day English — that a mouse can be a “beast.” Otherwise you get funny interpretations that the speaker is afraid of “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

  7. >That’s a really great lyric! Your student should read the beginning of The Parlement of the Three Ages. If something would make you go vegetarian, that would!Dede als a dore-nayle doun was he fallen;And I hym hent by the hede and heryett hym uttire,Turned his troches and tachede thaym into the erthe,Kest up that keuduart and kutt of his tonge,Brayde owte his bewells my bereselet to fede.And I slitte hym at the assaye to see how me semyde,And he was floreschede full faire of two fyngere brede.

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