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Givin’ it up to Gawain

What, you thought that this rarely-literary blog would forget all about National Poetry Month?  Not a chance.  We’re just getting around to it the way we get around to everything, namely, at the next-to-last possible minute.

OK, so I’m not posting a whole poem, just an excerpt that happens to contain some of my favorite lines ever written in English – even if it happens to be a kind of English you just don’t hear very often these days.  The lines below are from the beginning of Book II of Gawain and the Green Knight, and there’s nothing very dramatic about them; all they do is narrate the passing of the year between the time Gawain decapitates the Green Knight in Arthur’s hall and the time he is compelled to ride to the Green Knight’s castle to receive a similar blow.  But if you really want to get a sense of why these lines rock, you have to read ‘em out loud.  Remember, the Great Vowel Shift hasn’t happened yet, all the g’s are hard, and words like “yeldes” and “foldes” are two syllables (not that this is syllabic verse, anyway).  Also, the word “lyghten” is pronounced something like “licten,” just as “bryght” is pronounced something like “bricked.” Don’t forget to roll your r’s, too.

Oh yeah, one more thing.  If you’re reading this at work, it helps to recite these lines really loud.

A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldes never lyke;
The forme to the fynisment foldes ful selden.
Forthi this Yol overyede, and the yere after,
And uche sesoun serlepes sued after other:
After Crystenmasse com the crabbed Lentoun,
That fraystes flesch wyth the fysche and fode more symple.
Bot thenne the weder of the worlde wyth wynter hit threpes,
Colde clenges adoun, cloudes uplyften,
Schyre schedes the rayn in schowres ful warme,
Falles upon fayre flat, flowres there schewen.
Bothe groundes and the greves grene ar her wedes,
Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of the softe somer that sues therafter
bi bonk;

And blossumes bolne to blowe
Bi rawes rych and ronk,
Then notes noble innoghe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.

After, the sesoun of somer wyth the soft wyndes,
Quen Zeferus syfles hymself on sedes and erbes;
Wela wynne is the wort that waxes theroute,
When the donkande dewe dropes of the leves,
To bide a blysful blusch of the bryght sunne.
Bot then hyyes hervest, and hardenes hym sone,
Warnes hym for the wynter to wax ful rype;
He dryves wyth droght the dust for to ryse,
Fro the face of the folde to flyye ful hyghe;
Wrothe wynde of the welken wrasteles with the sunne,
The leves laucen fro the lyne and lyghten on the grounde,
And al grayes the gres that grene was ere;
Thenne al rypes and rotes that ros upon fyrst.
And thus yirnes the yere in yisterdayes mony,
And wynter wyndes ayayn, as the worlde askes,
no fage,

Til Meghelmas mone
Was cumen wyth wynter wage.
Then thenkkes Gawan ful sone
Of his anious vyage. 

The whole passage is amazing, but I love it especially for its opening couplet, which the footnotes of my Cawley and Anderson edition render as “A year passes swiftly, and events never repeat themselves; the beginning is very seldom like the end” (178).  Yeah, yeah, true enough, but that loses something in translation, you might say.  For the couplet does not merely tell us that you can never tell what a year will bring; it couches this cliché in the language of the “forme” somehow folding to the fynisment, thus at once revivifying and literalizing our sense of how the events of our lives don’t quite fit our plans.  The couplet renews our perception of the truism, making the stone stony, as Viktor Shklovsky would say.  What’s more, the syntax makes the most of the potential relation of the forme to the fynisment, leaving the verb hanging for a moment – and leaving “seldom,” a discouraging word, for the very end of the sentence – while we imagine that maybe, just this once, the forme will fit the fynisment just fine.  In other words, if you read the line really slowly, you get this:  The forme to the fynisment foldes . . . without a hitch?  like a hand in glove?  if you give it a little English?  Nope, ful selden.  Damn.  Ain’t that the truth.

Even if you’re familiar with Middle English, and are inclined to line up this sumptuous rendering of the seasons with the much more famous opening eighteen lines of The Canterbury Tales in order to do a little compare-and-contrast on the topos of the passing year (you know, “Whan that April with his showres soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote” and so forth), I think you’ll find that the language of Gawain is wilder, thicker, and more richly textured than Chaucer’s (and that’s saying something), from the exuberant bursting-and-burgeoning of “Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen” to the alien “wod so wlonk.” Of course, one poem is alliterative while the other is written in that five-iambs thing, so some of Gawain’s sound effects come with the territory.  But still.  Great stuff, all in all, even for a theory-addled postmodernist like me.

I can’t wait for National Prose Month!

Posted by on 04/28 at 12:28 PM
  1. Well it’s clear how scrumptious and yummy your poetry choice is, and why it’s one of your favorites. But I’m missing out on not hearing it recited by someone who can do it true Middle English justice. Can’t you record it and have a techno-person do something so we can “click” on it and hear you read it the way it’s supposed to sound?

    Slightly off topic: So, we have a South Park cartoon character in place of your photo. This begs the question: what cartoon icon should be on “D. Ho’s” web page?  In my opinion the choice is clear - the Simpsons’ Ralph Wiggum in his classic pose: dopey grin and finger firmly inserted up his nose.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  02:02 PM
  2. Yeah, I definitely need more audio on this long-silent blog.  As for D. Ho, great idea.  Now if only someone would come up with a Simpsons Cartoon Character Generator, the way that Planearium guy did with South Park. . . .

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  02:08 PM
  3. no yogh? no thorn? blogware doesn’t do those?

    a &ere &ernes ful &erne, etc.

    david (who used to roll the typewriter carriage
    up a half line and type “3” for a yogh.

    Posted by david mcirvine  on  04/28  at  02:15 PM
  4. Dude!  Every yogh has its thorn.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  02:24 PM
  5. A Simpsons’ Cartoon Generator is a great idea. (Though I wonder if it would be as amenable to Flash as the South Park one.) But Ralph Wiggum to represent D. Ho.? That’s so unfair. To Ralph I mean. The problem is that all of the Simpsons’ characters are too sweet to be D. Ho. Except for Montgomery Burns and he’s too competent. I’m tempted to suggest the Carbon Rod since it too received far more attention than it should have. On second thought, Mayor Quimby is perfect: incompetent, big ho, changes political direction with the wind, dishonest. A good fit.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  02:24 PM
  6. Bill & Ted wrote:

    “Dude!  Every yogh has its thorn.”

    Kiss my ash!!

    (& in the news from arkansas, my hoodyboo told me this (she’s a delta country girl)):

    Posted by david mcirvine  on  04/28  at  02:35 PM
  7. Pfft. National Prose Month. You’re one of those “we should have a White History Month” young republican-types, aren’t you. Knew it all along. A South Park Conservative, even!

    Posted by Alex  on  04/28  at  02:37 PM
  8. Those interested in what the heck the Great Vowel Shift was (and why it should matter to you), should check out this website.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  02:39 PM
  9. JDC - I love Ralph Wiggum. His character is kind and loving and genuine. I just think his “classic pose” is the perfect D. Ho icon.

    Believe me, I considered saying specifically, “apologies to dear Ralph”, followed by a listing of his wonderful characteristics. The only reason I did not was so that my “slighty off topic” comment would not be too long.

    But that train has clearly left the station. So since I’ve driven us into a ditch, let’s go all the way. For Last Minute poety month, the assignment is to write poetry to your favorite Simpons characters. Bonus points if you can include and rhyme any of the following words:

    1. Gwain 2. Green Knight 3. lyghten or bryght in their CORRECT pronunciation.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  02:50 PM
  10. Oops! Comment #9 should say “Oaktown Girl”, not just “o”. It’s hard to see from down here in this ditch!

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  02:53 PM
  11. Ben, thanks for that link!  OK, everyone, if you want to know what Gawain might have sounded like, go here and hit the “play” button.  It’s a trip.

    And Alex, despite your snide insinuations, I have also called for National Concrete Poetry Month.  I consider myself a South Park Dadaist, if you must know.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  02:56 PM
  12. For some reason i always thought Lewis Carroll’s writings should have been read aloud in Middle English.  Then again, a reediting of a South Park episode done in M.E. might be pretty hysterical.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  03:17 PM
  13. How do you say, “D’oh!” in Middle English?

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  03:27 PM
  14. Here is a site that contains ME text, including thorns, yoghs, and eths:

    De Casu Ciʒaris Dutis Regis Iabin

    And here is a beginner’s guide to our language’s missing letters… and how to spot their remnants still lurking about (esp. in older British place names).

    Posted by Maximus  on  04/28  at  05:42 PM
  15. Hurrah for Gawain! I love that poem. I keep meaning to try to read it in the original language.

    Perhaps with a translation handy. I did manage to get the hang of Chaucer, but this North Country dialect might be a step too far from modern English for me.

    Not that it isn’t fun to say anyway. Like another version of English:

    Hwaet! we Gardena in geardagum
    Theodcyninga thrym gefrunon
    Hu tha aethelingas ellen fremedon

    ...missing thorn, aesc, AND eth for that one… dang, it looks different.

    Posted by Kirala  on  04/28  at  07:15 PM
  16. Here’s your thorn: þ = þ

    And your capital thorn: Þ = Þ

    And your eths: ð = ð Ð = Ð

    But I don’t know the ampersand code for yogh. There’s probably a UTF one somewheres.

    Could you use an ess-zed for a yogh? ß = ß

    Posted by HP  on  04/28  at  07:54 PM
  17. Hwæt!

    Here’s your ligature: æ

    Posted by HP  on  04/28  at  07:56 PM
  18. Ode to Ralph Wiggum:

    It’s perfectly clear
    Ralph Wiggum’s a dear
    And his heart is as pure as a rose.
    And though he eats paste
    (Which is not to my taste)
    He’s a saint from his head to his toes.

    The Green Knight has said
    (To the Round Table’s dread)
    Ralph surpasses Gawain and it shows.
    And it can’t be much fun
    To be so roundly outdone
    By someone who still picks his nose.

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  08:59 PM
  19. Michael, I’m just disappointed you didn’t use today as an opportunity to honor the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lolita...ah, perhaps it’s too controversial for THIS blog.  : )

    Btw, love your new pic...or more appropriately, your new avatar!

    Posted by  on  04/28  at  11:28 PM
  20. Lolita?  Never heard of it.  But perhaps if you can say a few words about it, I might feature it during National Prose Month. . . .

    Posted by Dolores Haze  on  04/28  at  11:33 PM
  21. Lovely. Hey, did you catch the translations of modern poetry into Anglo-Saxon, over at Making Light last month? It was a thread well worth delving into. Here is a link.

    Posted by Jeremy Osner  on  04/28  at  11:38 PM
  22. And heck, to give you a taste thereof:

    þys is efne to secgenne

    Ic æt
    þa pluman
    þe wæron
    þære iscieste

    and þe
    þu eallmæst cuþice
    for morgenmete

    Forgief me
    hie wæron smæcclice
    swa swete
    and swa cealde

    Posted by Jeremy Osner  on  04/28  at  11:40 PM
  23. Swa muckle pone&thorn
    (how you say wheelbarrow?)

    Posted by david ross mcirvine  on  04/29  at  12:15 AM
  24. I remember how one of the English Dept. Plumbers only taught Beowulf, etc. aloud.  Half of every class involved singling out one of the students to read parts of the poem.  When people complained, he said reading it aloud improved your comprehension of the poem.  In my head, Prof. Plumber would always read the battle scenes himself, but I think that’s my mind playing tricks.

    (Plumbers is what my Logic and Rhetoric instructor at Columbia called any English professor studying literature older than Shakespeare.  “All these white haired guys in tattered sweaters, worrying over two thousand year old texts.")

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  12:26 AM
  25. Cool new photo. Can I use it in the CDSS conference program?

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  12:35 AM
  26. Ex-cellent.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  01:46 AM
  27. Are we gone to swearing “by yogh aesch ond thorn” again?

    Lovely bit of Gawain, just the thing to start the morning: thank you.

    Posted by Teresa Nielsen Hayden  on  04/29  at  08:47 AM
  28. Middle-English-wise, in Piers Plowman there is a stretch of about eight lines rhymed on “-cion”.
    Bono of U2 also uses this crutch in one of his songs. The difference is that in Piers Plowman the “cion"-words are parts of actual sentences, whereas Bono Bono just shouts out “Redemption, exemption, creation.... etc.” one after another.

    Posted by John Emerson  on  04/29  at  09:16 AM
  29. "Bot then hyyes hervest, and hardenes hym sone,
    Warnes hym for the wynter to wax ful rype;”

    Oh, this is one of the best Friday posts ever.

    Odd, but this reading of Gawain makes me think of Seamus Heaney. Probably because Michael’s “renewing our perception” returns me with a more rigorous assessment of my recent lazy thoughts about syntax & diction in Heaney’s often-anthologized poem “Death of a Naturalist"--in the wake of this spring’s frogsplosion in our front pond.

    Sheer indulgence, but in the spirit of Late English meditations on nature and time, here’s a poem Heaney contributed to TNR for the 6/21/93 issue that I’ve always wished got more airplay:

    MINT by Seamus Heaney
    It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
    Growing wild at the gable of the house
    Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
    Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.

    But, to be fair, it also spelled promise
    And newfangledness in the yard of our life
    As if something callow yet tenacious
    Sauntered in green alleys and grew rife.

    The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday
    Mornings when the mint was cut and loved:
    My last things will be first things slipping from me.
    Yet let all things go free that have survived.

    Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless
    Like inmates liberated in that yard.
    Like the disregarded ones we turned against
    Because we’d failed them by our disregard.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  09:25 AM
  30. Double bugger! A daeg laet and a bucca sceort. From here on out, the first goof is a given. Freakin’ outrageous post for a Thursday.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  09:41 AM
  31. Great post.  Thanks, sian, though, for posting the Seamus Heaney poem.  It’s given me newfound compassion for the mint that’s taking over my backyard.

    Posted by  on  04/29  at  11:18 AM
  32. I like the poem that closes Blaed Runner, myself:

    Things Ich hauen y-sein
    thaet ye, peple, nicht wolde bileven.
    Assaut schippes on fyre
    off ye shulder of Orioun.
    Ich hauen wacchit ye C-beomes
    thaet darklyng gliter bi ye Tannhauser gate.

    All thies moments wille be in tyme forlorn,
    liche teares in ye reyn.
    And ye tyme haues icummen for to deyen.

    Posted by ben wolfson  on  04/29  at  12:52 PM
  33. M- I struggled through reading it aloud and you were richt.  Even not getting all the words, the sound is wonderful.

    And al grayes the gres that grene was ere


    Posted by  on  04/30  at  05:12 PM
  34. A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldes never lyke;
    The forme to the fynisment foldes ful selden.

    “A year passes swiftly, and events never repeat themselves; the beginning is very seldom like the end”

    A year comes full circle, it ends where it starts
    Yet how those two ends can be worlds apart.

    Posted by south(west)paw  on  04/30  at  06:34 PM
  35. Alas and welawey! (ME for doh!)—I go away for a few days and you post in Middle English!

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  06:39 PM
  36. PS - *Thanks* for posting ME poetry!

    Posted by  on  04/30  at  06:41 PM
  37. All thies moments wille be in tyme forlorn,
    liche teares in ye reyn.
    And ye tyme haues icummen for to deyen.

    Laughten out loude!  Rutger Hauer’s fynest moment, withouten doubt. 

    Posted by Will Langland  on  04/30  at  07:22 PM
  38. Thanks for the sound-sensual passage, at best semi-comprehensible to Mod English readers.  Gawain rocks. 

    Chaucer and the contemporaneous Gawain-poet have so much in common. 

    1.  Intense, comprehensive attention to the sensual surfaces and rhythms of the natural world.  The Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters share this virtuoso attention.

    2.  Complex perception of human personality and social interaction.

    3.  Along with the complex perception of humanity, a deeply humane sympathy with human foibles and weaknesses.

    4.  The sympathy can show itself in a wry sense of humor.

    5.  Spectacular aesthetic lushness.

    How did such similarities come about in such different dialects? 

    Sorry for the pedantic comment.  The stuff blows me away (in translation).  Thanks.

    Posted by John S.  on  05/01  at  12:53 AM
  39. A fine reminder that pop culture alone can’t always take you where you need to go.

    Not that I have anything against pop culture.

    Posted by  on  05/03  at  10:50 AM
  40. tsirbdnu shuppxrq ojeidoez http://ereqenim.com jkglbssm osswuiya

    Posted by gebshnrv  on  01/01  at  06:01 AM
  41. buzibzaf krbjvrlu sfcxmeze http://guxvjqsd.com wkrpxzef zuajshck

    Posted by xezikxwt  on  01/05  at  05:49 PM
  42. In one way, we have seen this kind of thing before.  The American Association of University Professors was created, back in 1915, partly in response to the firing of professors who were deemed, at the time, to be insufficiently patriotic or dangerously pro-labor; more recently, even though the right wing claimed that political correctness was “the new McCarthyism” of the 1990s, and the left sees the current attacks as “the new new Car Headlight

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  09:01 AM
  43. Wow great passage!  I’d never seen that one before and poetry is one of my main passions.

    Posted by Tattoo Artists  on  02/08  at  02:59 PM





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