Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, December 8, 2012

William Dunbar's The Thrissil and the Rois, The Thistle and the Rose

The Poem, unpacked, with some translation from medieval Scots English to English.
The Thrissil and the Rois (Thistle and Rose), composed by William Dunbar of Scotland, is comprised of stanzas in rhyme royale form. To clarify, rhyme royale stanzas consist of seven lines, usually of iambic pentameter (typical for narratives of the time). The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c and is normally made up either as a tercet with two couplets  (a-b-a, b-b, c-c) or as a quatrain with a tercet (a-b-a-b, b-c-c). 
This allowance for variance is particularly helpful in longer narratives. 

Notice that the poem uses aureate vocabulary (using both Latin and French) to glide it forward. Aureation is seen nowadays by some critics as being pretentious, however it is a method not of embellishment for embellishment’s sake but as necessary dressing. The narrative of Dunbar’s herein is presented via a quite common medieval device: dream vision. Since the poem was written to celebrate/commemorate a wedding (James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor of England), the embellishment of aureation and the dream vision device are appropriate.

Let’s look at the poem itself now, beginning with Dunbar’s description of Spring (also emblematic of the beginning of a married life).
Quhen Merche wes with variand windis past,
And Appryll had with hir silver schouris
Tane leif at Nature with ane orient blast,
And lusty May, that muddir is of flouris,
Had maid the birdis to begyn thair houris,
Amang the tendir odouris reid and quhyt,
Quhois armony to heir it wes delyt,

The sleeping poet has a dream in which he is addressed by the personification of May.

Me thocht fresche May befoir my bed upstude
In weid depaynt of mony divers hew,
Sobir, benyng, and full of mansuetude,
In brycht atteir of flouris forgit new,
Hevinly of color, quhyt, reid, broun, and blew,
Balmit in dew and gilt with Phebus bemys
Quhill all the hous illumynit of hir lemys.
"Slugird," scho said, "Awalk annone, for schame,
And in my honour sumthing thow go wryt,
Quhairto quod I, Sall I uprys at morrow,
For in this May few birdis herd I sing?
Thai haif moir caus to weip and plane thair sorrow,
Thy air it is nocht holsum nor benyng,

May reminds him that he had previously promised her to write a poem about the rose. 

With that this lady sobirly did smyll
And said, Uprys and do thy observance,
Thow did promyt in Mayis lusty quhyle
For to discryve the ros of most plesance.
Quhen this wes said depairtit scho, this quene,
And enterit in a lusty gairding gent.
And than, me thocht, sa listely besene,
In serk and mantill, full haistely I went,
Into this garth, most dulce and redolent,
Of herb and flour and tendir plantis sueit,
And grene levis doing of dew doun fleit.

In the garden, Nature (seen of course as a woman) sends messengers to the animals, birds and plants of the world, requiring their immediate presence, their homage. [All present were in twinkling of an eye, both beast and bird and flower, before the queen ... as embodied in the last couplet of this part.]
Scho ordand eik that every bird and beist,
Befoir hir hienes suld annone compeir,
And every flour of vertew, most and leist,
And every herb be feild, fer and neir,
All present wer in twynkling of ane e,
Baith beist and bird and flour, befoir the quene.

Nature calls the Lion forward, described as the Lion Rampant standard of Scots Kings. Notice the rich description of this kingly beast and know Dunbar, as poet of the Court, was wont to thusly honor James:
Reid of his cullour as is the ruby glance,
On feild of gold he stude full mychtely,      [on field of gold he strode most mightily.... think of royal banner]
With flour delycis sirculit lustely.
This lady liftit up his cluvis cleir,
And leit him listly lene upone hir kne,
And crownit him with dyademe full deir,
Of radyous stonis most ryall for to se,          [of radiant stones most royal for all to see]
Saying, The king of beistis mak I thee,
And the chief protector in the woddis and schawis.
Onto thi leigis go furth, and keip the lawis.
Exerce justice with mercy and conscience,
And lat no small beist suffir skaith na skornis
Of greit beistis that bene of moir piscence.

The lion is the embodiment of the duty of the King to bring justice to all of his subjects,
the humble and the more powerful.The animals therefore acclaim their new King. 
The Eagle appears to symbolize the King's plan to keep the peace within Scotland and,
perhaps, with England. Nature crowns the Eagle King of the birds, sharpens his feathers
to dart-like points, enjoining him to let no ravens, or other birds of prey, make trouble.

All kynd of beistis into thair degré
At onis cryit lawd, Vive le roy!
And till his feit fell with humilité,
And all thay maid him homege and fewté, 
Syne crownit scho the Egle, king of fowlis,
And as steill dertis scherpit scho his pennis,  [pennis = feathers]
And bawd him be als just to awppis and owlis 
As unto pacokkis, papengals, or crennis, 
And mak a law for wycht fowlis and for wrennis. 
And lat no fowll of ravyne do efferay,
Nor devoir birdis bot his awin pray.

Nature then inspects the plants and judges the spiked thistle to be 'able for war'. The thistle is crowned King of all plants with a gleaming crown of rubies.
The thistle seems to represent the King's determination to defend his Kingdom.
Nature then advises the Thistle to show discretion when judging other plants.

Upone the awfull Thrissill scho beheld
And saw him kepit with a busche of speiris.
Concedring him so able for the weiris,
A radius croun of rubeis scho him gaif.
And said, In feild go furth and fend the laif.
And sen thow art a king, thow be discreit,
Herb without vertew hald nocht of sic pryce
As herb of vertew and of odor sueit,
And lat no nettill vyle and full of vyce          [and let no nettle vile and full of vice]
Hir fallow to the gudly flour delyce,
Nor latt no wyld weid full of churlichenes
Compair hir till the lilleis nobilnes,          [compare her to the lillies’ nobleness]

Dunbar is a not-so-subtle admonisher to the King in this next part, wherein he seems to be warning the King to be done with the practice of having mistresses. He does this in the voice of Nature who praises the red-and-white rose over all the other flowers.The rose represents Margaret of England.

Nor hald non udir flour in sic denty
As the fresche Ros of cullour reid and quhyt,
For gife thow dois, hurt is thyne honesty,
Conciddering that no flour is so perfyt,          [considering no flower is so perfect]
So full of vertew, plesans, and delyt,          [so full of virtue, pleasance, and delight]
So full of blisfull angelik bewty,                  [so full of blissful angelic beauty]
Imperiall birth, honour, and dignité.               [imperial birth, honor, and dignity]

It is clear that these lines are meant to praise the lovely Margaret of England, and to serve as a warning to James that he has it all at home, and should not stray. Nature addresses the rose directly, praising her and calling her forward to be crowned.

Than to the Ros scho turnyt hir visage
And said, O lusty dochtir most benyng,
Aboif the lilly illustare of lynnage,
Fro the stok ryell rysing fresche and ying,
But ony spot or macull doing spring,
Cum, blowme of joy, with jemis to be cround,
For our the laif thy bewty is renownd.
A coistly croun with clarefeid stonis brycht,
This cumly quene did on hir heid inclois,  
Quhairfoir me thocht all flouris did rejos,
Crying attonis, Haill be thow richest Ros,
Haill hairbis empryce, haill freschest quene of flouris!
To thee be glory and honour at all houris!

The birds join the acclamation of the new Queen who is compared to a pearl which is totally expected in the poem as 'Margaret' is derived from the Latin term (margarita) for a pearl.
The commoun voce uprais of birdis small
Apone this wys, O blissit be the hour,
That thow wes chosin to be our principall,
Welcome to be our princes of honour,
Our perle, our plesans, and our paramour,
Our peax, our play, our plane felicité:
Chryst thee conserf frome all adversité! 

Now the poem switches from the dream of Dunbar to Dunbar himself.  Birdsong merges with the dawn chorus. Dunbar awakens and looks for the garden he saw in his dream but finds it gone. While half-frighted, he “begins” to write the poem. This is reminiscent of what would later be seen as a magical realism poem, much like Xanadu.

Than all the birdis song with sic a schout,
That I annone awoilk quhair that I lay,
And with a braid I turnyt me about,
To se this court, bot all wer went away.
Than up I lenyt, halflingis in affrey,
And thus I wret, as ye haif hard to forrow,
Of lusty May upone the nynt morrow.
It is the ninth of May.

This poem may be one of Dunbar’s best. It certainly engendered a fairly robust admiration for his work from James IV, who appointed him as Poet to the Court. Dunbar’s ability to connect nature (with a capital N) to the monarchy is without reproach, either then or now. I am reminded of Sir Elton John’s remake song sung at the funeral of Princess Diana, wherein he refers to her as England’s Rose. I’d like to think Sir Elton has read Dunbar’s Thrissil and Rois, but I’m not taking that leap. But I will happily claim a certain visceral intertextuality that comes from the collective unconscious. In the world of magical words and symbols, we can rest assured that there is more “out there” waiting for us if we allow ourselves to be dreamers and writers, and to pay attention to the issues of the day, happy and not so... all is the stuff of poetry.

Poet Laureate Project 2012 (winding down, gearing up)

It has been 8.5 months since I was named Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine. In the giddy haze of that announcement, I knew that there was plenty to do. Oh sure, there are laureates (including the US and various state laureates sometimes) whose tenure is filled with appearances and bravas and claps on the back, a public presence without much of the public being involved. I am not so much one of those. I am, have always declared myself to be, a working poet. Now don't confuse this with commerce, or pay, or even stipends to write or distribute poems to the masses. It doesn't come with some kind of contract to write books.  I mean down-in-the-ditches W-O-R-K. This is my joy over writing. I love to get poems out there to people who might not have seen a poem in a very long time. I like poetry to be the surprise they get for being alive. To that end, as I reflect on the last month of the first calendar year of my laureateship, I am in review. Each of the monthly projects has put poems into people's lives in direct ways.

1. Visits to local poets' readings during May-July; it's good to support local poets in their efforts to bring their writing to the public.

2. August  

Poetry Flash Mob  (200 poems distributed on Main Street in 15 minutes by a group of 13 poets.

3. September

Labor Day Send-Off  (over 100 poems of travel and farewell to departing visitors on the southbound bus and to those folks checking out of our historic inns)

4. October

Halloween Day... Poems and Pumpkins at the Library in the morning.

Poetry and pumpkins at Mrs Gould's 3rd grade class at South School, Rockland, from noon-2PM.

5. November

Attended and read at the Veterans Day event at the Dowling Walsh Gallery; this event was organized and hosted by our previous Poet Laureate, Kendall Merriam. He is a vet and this is a project he began during his two years as PL.

 Poems for the Palate   Thanksgiving week... nearly 500 poems distributed in packets to local eateries and inns; poems of thankfulness and poems about food.

6. December  

GUINNESS EVENT    On the day of Solstice, Dec 21, I will attempt a marathon reading at the Library. I will start reading aloud at 9AM (when the library opens) and keep reading until 5 PM (when the library closes). This reading in public by a single poet has not been recorded by Guinness as far as I can tell. I am still working on getting the needed paperwork to have this recorded and thus set a baseline record.

Thus will end 2012, and I am already planning for 2013.  Here are a couple hints as to what you can expect:

In January, I will launch a project The Poetry Box. I will install a box (the kind realtors use for flyers at homes) in the library where poems will be left for people to exchange one for another or simply just help themselves. I will keep it stocked from January until April (poetry month... see info later on that very PACKED month of activities.)

In February I will host a Sweetheart Poetry Tea, inviting poets to come and read poems of love and devotion, bringing their own sweethearts with them or reading to a long-lost love. This will be an event open and free to the public.

Keep your eyes peeled for more work with school children. In summer we hope to launch a Creative Writing Camp for students grades 5, 6, & 7. It will be free for the students and will be held at our local  middle school, with local writers and teachers as facilitators. This promises to be fun for all and to keep young minds engaged in the process of that fun!

That's enough for now. I hope you can see that being Poet Laureate is pleasurable work. I am inspired by the cooperation of local poets for the many projects I have done and will do in the future. I also thank the poets from here to California and everywhere in between for sending poems when I put out a call for a specific kind of poem for a project. They are all the backbone of poetry, and I couldn't do this without them!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Four words and a discussion on "Flyting"

I am a word freak. No doubt about that. Some people quilt or knit in front of the TV. I prefer finding interesting words and figuring out how to use them in poems and other writings. Today, looking up some information on my ancestor, Scot poet, William Dunbar, I discovered 4 words and came up with a poem analysis of a famous poem in which he is a participant (see below flyting).


1. Gleg (adjective)  means sharp-witted or intelligent
From that comes gleg-gabbit which means smooth-tongued.

OK so now I'm intrigued. Gleg might find its use in some poems where a rhyming word is needed, particularly in an ars poetica wherein I am striving to unveil the poetic process itself. Can you imagine how I might use gleg-gabbit that way? Hmmm. I'm starting to get itchy-fingered here and start writing that poem.

Certainly I'd love to be thusly described. Am I gleg-gabbit? Have I the quality of gleg?

2. Makar (noun)  means poet or bard. The qualities of a makar include quickness of expression, concision of expression (there go the darned adverbs and adjectives!). A makar creates quality, controlled, formal poems.

OK the intrigue grows. Am I in any way to be included in this illustrious group? Am I up to the poetic legacy of my ancestor who is legendary as a makar? I want to be known thusly. I really do.

3. Aureation (noun)

From gold. Means "to make golden." This is a device in rhetoric or poetry that involves a gliding or heightening of diction in one language by the use or introduction of terms from another. Consider this poem in which I use a French idiom to heighten the music of the wind's bluster. I use the idiom (It's a blustery day) as the title and immediately define it in the first line, first phrase:

Le vent souffle en bourrasques

It’s a blustery day, my head full of cotton
clouds and blue skies, lies
you once told have blown away like leaves
that died in November. Now we lie
under a maple, listening to the sap run
against our beating hearts. Tell me sweet
that you will stay. Le vent souffle en bourrasques
my darling; hold me close and stay.

Some critics believe aureation is an abomination, an unnecessary boasting of one's gleg as it were. Some critics think aureators are just showing off. What do YOU think? [talk among yourselves and then comment!]

4. Flyting (noun) is a kind of poem used in medieval times (when Dunbar was writing a performing his poetry) as a way to "roast" or insult another person, in Dunbar's case even King James of Scotland. His poem The Rose and the Thristle, Dunbar is calling out the monarchy for its self-centerdness and its excesses. Luckily for him, the King was flattered. 

The word, flyting, comes from flyta (meaning provocation) and flitan (meaning quarrel) and refers to a ritual poetic exchange of insults. Dunbar was a master of flyting. But he was not alone in his mastery.

In the dual poem (The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie) there are two exchanges. Dunbar opens the verbal, poetic battle with a three-stanza address to his commissar, heaping lofty scorn on the poetic pretensions of Kennedy.  Kennedy shoots back in three stanzas of his own, an address (very pointed and personal) to Dunbar, admonishing him to bide his wheesht. Undaunted, Dunbar unleashes a sustained poetic attack  in no fewer than 25 stanzas; Kennedy counters with an equally sustained reply, topping Dunbar's 25 with 38. And so the battle rages on and on, with each taunting, insulting and provoking the other in turn.

There is a great show of outrageous verbal glegness by both makars ending with with a showy verbal exchange in which are found the doubling and tripling of rhymes and intense alliterative language.

Evill farit and dryit, as Denseman on the rattis... (The Flyting, l.51)
Structurally, Dunbar uses the standard eight-line ballade stanza for his major attack, but his opening stanzas use the variant rhyme scheme ababbccb.

It is this variant that Kennedy employs throughout in both of his replies. The lines are pentameter, 5 feet of meter, 10 syllables in all.
It is interesting to study the content of the insults in this flyting: There are seen definite strategies of mock character assassination. Accusations even involve the capital crimes of theft, treason, and heresy [sounds a bit like what is going on in political circles and among talk-show pundits like Limbaugh and Hannity et al]. At certain points in the poem, there appears a potentially dangerous sense of political frisson. Kennedy actually describes the Dunbar coat of arms as a noose replete with "Hang Dunbar" written underneath. 
Most of the insults thrown by Dunbar are matched in kind by Kennedy, balancing the poem as to its overall structure. The insults are graphic and personal. Both cast doubt on the other's poetic skill; Kennedy states that while he ascends Mt. Parnassus to imbibe the insiprational waters, Dunbar goes in early spring to a farm pond and drinks of frogspawn.

Dunbar characterizes Kennedy as speaking in a rough and barbarian-style dialect, as well as being physically hideous and shriveled, and as being poor and hungry. Kennedy is no slouch in the insults department either, suggesting Dunbar was a dwarf, descendant of Beelzebub and having no control of his bowels, even to the point of nearly sinking a ship in which he was traveling. 
Anthologies often print Dunbar's portion alone, but the battle between the two makars was evenly matched. According to some, Dunbar may be stronger in his bombast, while Kennedy seems to exercise tonal subtlety. Even if no actual images of either man have survived, this flyting may indeed be the portraiture of these two well-armed gleg-gabbit makars.

Thus ends my afternoon of verbal delight. I am feeling full and satisfied. I hope that you take time to gleg this post and comment in your very best manner!

Carol B, hopeful gleg-gabbit makar