>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!