Lovers, Skeltonics and Songs, O My

As I mentioned last week, this is my current goal: to read the Oxford Book of English Verse from beginning to end in a month. To this I add that I want to blog moderately intelligently about it on Sundays.

I am now 284 pages in. I have traversed Chaucer, achieved Shakespeare, gotten lost by Milton’s syntax, plowed through Samuel Johnson and am about to start Christopher Smart.

I enjoyed Ricks’s introduction greatly. He turns a fine phrase. Rather unusually, to my experience, he uses the introduction to offer general ideas from great poet-critics of the past about how to read and appreciate poetry, rather than offer a systematic view of the history of British poetry.

In addition, in the interest of allowing poems “to do what poems are particularly good at: speaking for themselves,” Ricks does not provide any biographical, critical, or historical notes on the poets (xli). There’s something challenging and exciting about this unmediated contact with the original writing, about the trust Ricks places in both poems and readers, and I also like that I spend more time in the anthology reading the actual work than reading work about the work.  Still, I find myself turning to Wikipedia to learn about poets’ biographies and how they were received. I can’t tell whether the intended audience for the anthology is a) people who already have enough knowledge of English literature not to require the background that I seem to want but also b) people who don’t, and don’t care, and just want to enjoy fine poetry. It’s just that with some of the poetry one loses (or at least I lose) a lot of nuance without context.

Finally, Ricks chose not to modernize spellings and punctuation, and for this I am quite grateful. I knew intellectually that the English language was less standardized than it is today for a long, long time—but seeing the word gentle spelled both jentill and jentyll in the same Renaissance poem drove this point home. It’s a challenge reading this non-modernized language, but a rewarding and educational one.

One highlight, for its marvelous atmosphere (though I fear talking about the atmosphere of a poem like this is exoticising something meant to be quite serious), is “A Lyke-Wake Dirge.” (According to Ricks, a Lyke-Wake is “the watch kept at night over a dead body” (13).)

I also liked the excerpt from Lydgate’s “The Daunce of Death.” And I like Spenser, but I already knew that.

In addition, I was reminded of something I realized in college: courtly love and whatever one would call its descendants in Renaissance poetry drive me up the wall. They feel manipulative, questionably sincere, and leave me cold. This reflects my gender and the very (very!) different cultural milieu in which I function, as well as my temperament—but if someone were to start emailing me many of these sonnets, I would not be moved to pity or even artistic appreciation. I would want a restraining order.

Also, Skelton. Skelton is funny. Possibly unintentionally funny (but I want a lot more context before I feel certain of this.) But judge for yourself. His short, irregular, rhyme-y, alliterated lines are called Skeltonics.

I read some Skelton aloud to someone, who in reply began reading from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to show that the Persians were maybe a little bit ahead of the British in the poetry department historically speaking. I would not disagree with this. I did find it interesting that both poets (and, my impression is, both traditions), though separated not only by culture but by several centuries (and not in Skelton’s favor) wrote a lot about how death comes to everyone, duh, duh, duh….but Khayyam’s response was make the most of your time here while the British response was do not give yourself lofty airs.

Finally, another—most appropriate to the month and the weather—highlight: a song for spring (apparently, spring was not differentiated from summer in the 1200s, the date Ricks gives this round). Loosely semi-modernized by yours truly, with a little help from the translation on the Wikipedia article.

Summer is a-coming in
Loudly sing cuckoo.
Grows the seed
And blooms the mead*
And springs the wood anew!**
Sing cuckoo!

Ewe bleats after lamb
After calf the cow
Bullock prances
Bull-goat*** dances****

Merry sing cuckoo!
Well you sing cuckoo!
Never stop now!

Sing, cuckoo, now; sing, cuckoo;
Sing, cuckoo; sing, cuckoo, now!


**(okay, actually the wood comes into leaf now, but rhyme is nice)

***or stag; no consensus on this

****actually, either turns or farts—which is debated—but see above about rhyme

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