Saturday, September 12, 2009

More on Change—And On What Comes Around

Having chided Dorothy Sayers for using the archaic second person forms of address in translating Dante, I looked about for samples of old English ready to hand. A good example on my shelf downstairs—testifying to strange ambitions to which occasionally I fall prey—I discovered a copy of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. It appeared between 1590 and 1609. Spenser’s writing is a sample exactly 400 years old, a nice round number, far enough away to have a certain strangeness, and yet not quite so strange as we encounter, say in Chaucer, whose The Canterbury Tales go back roughly 840 years.

Here is a sample of three stanzas from Spenser, lifted from Book V and Canto V. It tells the story of Artegall’s defeat and capture by the evil Radigund. The latter, by the way, is female. Here is how their combat began:

So forth she came out of the citty gate,
With stately port and proud magnificence,
Guarded with many damzels, that did waite
Vppon her person for her sure defence,
Playing on shaumes and trumpets, that from hence
Their sound did reach vnto the heauens hight.
So forth into the field she marched thence,
Where was a rich Pauilion ready pight,
Her to receiue, till time they should begin the fight.

Then forth came Artegall out of his tent,
All arm’d to point, and first the Lists did enter:
Soone after eke came she, with fell intent,
And countenaunce fierce, as hauing fully bent her,
That battels vtmost triall to aduenter.
The Lists were closed fast, to barre the rout
From rudely pressing to the middle center;
Which in great heapes them circled all about,
Wayting, how Fortune would resolue that daungerous dout.

The Trumpets sounded, and the field began;
With bitter strokes it both began, and ended.
She at the first encounter on him ran
With furious rage, as if she had intended
Out of his breast the very heart haue rended:
But he that had like tempests often tride,
From that first flaw him selfe right well defended.
The more she rag’d, the more he did abide;
She hewd, she foynd, she lasht, she laid on euery side.

Shaumes — wind instruments like flutes.
Pight — pitched.
Eke — also; old Germanic; in Germany today “auch,” a modern word, is a synonym.
Aduenter — adventure? Not sure.
Rout — meaning a pack, a word once used for groups of knights as well as wolves.
Dout — can’t find the meaning, but I just read it as “bout”
Foynd — feigned.
The reader will also have inferred that U is sometimes voiced as V and V as U.

What delights me about this sample—which but for spelling and a few strange words is quite ordinary and easily understood English—is that violent, ass-kicking, lord-it-over-men female TV characters are evidently “back” again; they’re quite at home in Spenser’s tale and evidently serve the same purposes of titillation. Spenser makes a huge and flamboyant show of writing a thousand-page poem about all of the virtues, but the book attracted its readership because it was soaked in sexuality. I discovered that when, having gotten my U’s right and learning the meaning of a few recurring odd words like eke, the sense of the narrative began to penetrate. To be sure, the sexuality is a kind of endless tease, but it is there on virtually every page.

* * *

Now two examples from Chaucer. Another 400-plus years back. Here, sometimes, the strange words are much more numerous—and a background in German and French help a good deal. But it amused me to find, in the second sample (both taken from the beginning) an obvious reference to battles with Islam and a veiled reference, as it were, to Aljazeera, although the actual word refers to Algeciras in Spain. Gezira meaning “island” in Arabic, thus it’s a common enough geographical reference.

Still, what goes around, comes around. We begin with the first lines of the Tales:

WHEN that Aprilis, with his showers swoot,
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such licour,
Of which virtue engender’d is the flower;
When Zephyrus eke with his swoote breath
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tender croppes and the younge sun
Hath in the Ram his halfe course y-run,
And smalle fowles make melody,
That sleepen all the night with open eye,
(So pricketh them nature in their corages);
Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeke strange strands,
To ferne hallows couth in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of Engleland, to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blissful Martyr for to seek,
That them hath holpen, when that they were sick.

Swoot — sweet.
Holt — grove or forest
Croppes — twigs or boughs
Corages — hearts, inclinations
Ferne hallows couth — distant saints known
Holpen — helped.

Herewith the third stanza:

A KNIGHT there was, and that a worthy man,
That from the time that he first began
To riden out, he loved chivalry,
Truth and honour, freedom and courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his Lorde’s war,
And thereto had he ridden, no man farre,
As well in Christendom as in Heatheness,
And ever honour’d for his worthiness
At Alisandre he was when it was won.
Full often time he had the board begun
Above alle nations in Prusse.
In Lettowe had he reysed, and in Russe,
No Christian man so oft of his degree.
In Grenade at the siege eke had he be
Of Algesir, and ridden in Belmarie.
At Leyes was he, and at Satalie,
When they were won; and in the Greate Sea
At many a noble army had he be.
At mortal battles had he been fifteen,
And foughten for our faith at Tramissene.
In listes thries, and aye slain his foe.

Farre — father
Reysed — journeyed
Thries — three; and listes are tournaments.

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