01 April 2017

a poem for #WhanthatAprilleDay17

The first day of April is Whan That Aprille Day, a day celebrating "alle langages that are yclept ‘old,’ or ‘middel,’ or ‘auncient,’ or ‘archaic,’ or, alas, even ‘dead’" in the words of the day's founder, Geoffrey Chaucer Himself. Ignore all other holidays alleged to take place on this day. You may find the 2014 poem here, which has some internal linkage to other Middle English posts; check here for 2015, and here for 2016. I've posted Middle English poems a few other times; you can click the poesy label and read through all the poems, and honestly there are worse ways you could be spending your time.

In a further tradition, the Google machine is apparently unable to cope with the sophisticated typesetting I had in mind, in which the lines of the original Middle English, set in green and roman, are interleaved with a crib, set in black and italic. Only the color thing didn't quite work out and my attempts to fix it disappear no matter how many times I save, so: apologies for the confusion, but the lines in italic are my version of the lines above in roman. If any scholar wishes to dispute my interpretation, I will accept the rebuke gratefully and gracefully, as a true student should.

When the nightegale singes,
When the nightingale sings,
The wodes waxen grene:
The woods grow green:
Lef and grass and blosme springes
Leaf and grass and blossom spring
In Averil, I wene,
In April, as I expect,
And love is to min herte gon
And love goes to my heart
With one spere so kene:
With a sharp spear:
Night and day my blod it drinkes;
Night and day it drinks my blood;
Min herte deth me tene.
My heart grieves me so.

Ich have loved all this yer
I have loved all this year
That I may love namore;
So much that I can't love any more;
Ich have siked mony sik,
I have sighed many sighs,
Lemmon, for thin ore.
Sweetheart [leman], for your favors.
Me nis love never the ner,
But love has not come any nearer,
And that me reweth sore.
Which grieves me sorely.
Swete lemmon, thench on me:
Sweet sweetheart, think on me:
Ich have loved thee yore.
I have loved you for so long.

Swete lemmon, I preye thee
Sweet lover, I beg you
Of love one speche.
For one word of love.
Whil I live in world so wide
While I live in this big old world
Other nulle I seche.
I will seek no other but you.
With thy love, my swete leof,
With your love, my sweetest love,
My bliss thou mightest eche:
You would increase my happiness:
A swete cos of thy mouth
A sweet kiss from your mouth
Mighte be my leche.
Would be my doctor [leech, meaning doctor, as applying leeches was a frequent medical maneuver]

Swete lemmon, I preye thee
My beloved, I beg you
Of a love-bene;
For this lover's boon:
If thou me lovest, as men says,
If you love me, as men say,
Lemmon, as I wene,
Darling, then I expect,
And if it thy wille be,
And if you desire it,
Thou loke that it be sene.
That you shall see that it happens.
So muchel I thenke upon thee
I think about you so much
That all I waxe grene.
That my whole self grows green.

Bitwene Lincolne and Lindeseye,
Between Lincoln and Lindsey,
Norhamptoun and Lounde,
Northhampton and Lound,
Ne wot I non so fair a may
I do not know of so fair a maiden
As I go fore ibounde.
As the one I am bound to.
Swete lemmon, I preye thee
Sweet sweetheart, I beg you
Thou lovie me a stounde.
To love me, at least for a moment.
     I wole mone my song
     I will moan my song
     On wham that it is on ilong.
     To the one who inspired it.

Anonymous, Harley 2253

The speaker goes right from the lovely springtime renewal of the natural world into his (or her; I don't want to rule out that possibility) world of love-pain, though he (or she – from here on I'll stick with the masculine adjective but feel free to supply any other one you want) cleverly brings the waxe grene back in the end, this time in reference to his whole self: does this mean that thinking about love renews him? or that it makes him jealous (was green already the color of envy at this time?)? or sick, with the greenish tinge of anemia, hence the term green-sickness? I am utterly charmed by the declaration that the beloved is the fairest maiden between Lincoln and Lindsey, Northhampton and Lound – so much more discreet, sensible, and provable than proclamations about your beloved being peerless in the world.

This poem is from the Harley Lyrics, a manuscript now in the British Library and dating from the middle of the fourteenth century containing poems in Middle English, Middle French, and Latin. You may read more about it here, and you may see some pages of the manuscript here.

The Middle English text is taken from Middle English Lyrics: A Norton Anthology, selected and edited by Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman.

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