Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Getting-into Middle English

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I am having the pleasant experience of becoming more-and-more able to 'appreciate' a wider range of Middle English poetry: in particular Piers the Plowman by William Langland - which makes the third leg of great English poets who were active in the 1350-1400 era (i.e. Chaucer, the anonymous 'Gawain poet' and Langland).

Aside from the wonderful opening lines: -

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"In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes as I a shepe were,
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world wondres to here.

Ac on a May morwenynge on Malverne hilles
Me bifel a ferly, of Fairye me thoghte.

I was wery forwandred and wente me to reste
Under a brood bank by a bourne syde;
And as I lay and lenede and loked on the watres,
I slombred into a slepyng, it sweyed so murye.

Thanne gan I meten a merveillous swevene —
That I was in a wildernesse, wiste I nevere where.

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Aside from this, Langland previously never did anything much for me.

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Of course, it helps greatly that I am now a Christian; when I previously tried reading it the great slabs of theology were just torture, whereas now I find them profound.

Previously, skipping - as I was - the religious bits; Piers Plowman struck me as a satirical, dystopian political treatise (a medieval Animal Farm - which is not a genre I enjoy, and never has been). Now, this aspect recedes and delicious poetic qualities jump-out.

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I should point out that I am an inept linguist; French was objectively my weakest subject at school despite that I put twice as much effort into it as anything else, and I was utterly clueless about German grammar after two years, before ditching it - I had literally no idea what was going on (yet found all the other academic subjects facile and obvious).

So my 'method' for reading Middle English is very un-scholarly - it consists in reading modern translations to get the gist (e.g. translations by JRR Tolkien for the Gawain poet, and Nevill Coghill for Chaucer and Langland), and then reading passages of Middle English through, then reading the specific translations and notes for those passages.

I am also using old editions, where possible.

At the same time I am reading literary history of the period, Coghill, C.S. Lewis etc.

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In fact I do not have any great love for the Middle Ages in England - some aspects, yes indeed; but overall not really.

Certainly I cannot see it as an ideal - not so much because it was a corrupt, uncomfortable and cruel time; but in the sense that the medieval ideal was not my ideal.

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I recently read that the Middle Ages was a distinctively Western concept - the idea of an era between the Classical and the Modern. In England we tend to think of the Middle Ages as a kind of 'natural' society, or a default state; yet it was not - it was a semi-Modern society: in abstract terms, a relatively specialized and internationalized society; with a strange dual, parallel system of leadership from monarchs and their nobles, and the Pope and his hierarchy.

And Medieval society was in a continual process of change - although relatively slowly, measured over generations for much of the time.

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The special appeal of the English Middle Ages is to intellectuals, since the achievements in the arts and crafts (especially architecture and the associated decorative crafts) were extraordinary, and an intellectual such as Chaucer could apparently encompass the whole thing.

Coghill suggests Chaucer was the most widely-read man in England, and perhaps in Europe - the range of his writing (even in the compass of a single volume) - and of his sympathy - is astonishing.

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7 comments:

Sam Schulman said...

Bruce, I highly commend to you and your readers getting a copy of E. Talbot Donaldson's Chaucer's Poetry (here it is on US Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Chaucers-Poetry-Anthology-Modern-Reader/dp/0826027814/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1302634383&sr=1-2)
It is a perfectly judged compromise between modernization or translation ala Coghill and forcing yourself to read the original - and it works by the seemingly simple device of using modern English spelling for Middle English words that are identical but spelled differently. It preserves the poetry but removes 75% of the effort - and leaves truly different words in place. E.T. Donaldson was (is?) a great Chaucer scholar, so he does it with tact.
Reading it was a revelation to me.

dearieme said...

"the Middle Ages was a distinctively Western concept - the idea of an era between the Classical and the Modern": don't forget the Dark Age.

bgc said...

I should have said 'ancient' rather than 'classical'...

dearieme said...

Come to think of it, is one of the great divides in Western Europe between those places that had a post-Roman Dark Age (e.g. England, Wales, and (tenuously) Southern Scotland, most of France, the Low Countries, parts of the far west of Germany), those that had "Late Antiquity" (Italy, above all) and those that had never been Romanised in the first place - most of Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia, most of Scotland? Or is that just too bleedin' obvious to be interesting?

James A. Donald said...

Certainly I cannot see it as an ideal - not so much because it was a corrupt, uncomfortable and cruel time; but in the sense that the medieval ideal was not my ideal.

William the Marshal and the society in which he operated does not seem corrupt to me. Does he seem so to you?

bgc said...

@Sam - thanks for this - I will certainly take a look.

I *think* I recall C.S Lewis somewhere recommending this approach to making Middle English more accessible; certainly I approve of the idea.

@James - I don't know William the Marshall. What should I look at?

The Crow said...

If faddenf mine mind to fee fuch verfe af thif, being unable af I am, to make fenfe of it.
Fhakefpeare, even, fpoke little unto me, fuch if mine affliction.
Alaf, alaf, fo limited if mine mind.