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Twenty Iconic Poems – Part I

Posted by: Philip Carr - 22 February 2021 - MPW London - Read time: 5 Minutes

I was very pleased to be asked to assemble “twenty iconic poems” for the MPW blog. I have done my best. I have no doubt my selection will reflect my ignorance but hope it does not too greatly reflect my prejudices. Many of the poems are too long to reproduce entirely. I hope I have quoted judiciously – PJC.

Poem 1 “The Owl and the Nightingale”, anonymous, c. 1200

This poem uses two letters which no longer exist in Modern English. They are the thorn (Þ) which is our “th” and the yogh (ȝ) which is our “gh”. This sound would have been like the “ch” in the Scots “loch”. Our “v” is often represented by “u” and vice-versa. In this poem, the Nightingale represents the joys of living while the Owl reminds us of mortality and sinfulness. (The poem, perhaps unexpectedly, addresses the sort of “existentialist” concerns we find in much modern writing, e.g. Philip Larkin.) The debate between the birds is represented with comic vigour. Since the language is much closer to the Anglo-Saxon which was the language of England before the Norman Conquest, it is much more difficult than the language of Chaucer (c. 1380) when the French and Germanic elements of English had blended. I have translated the extracts.

The Nightingale says:

‘Hule, Þu axest me,’ ho seide,

‘ȝif ich kon eni oÞer dede

Bute singen in sumere tide,

An bringe blisse for & wide.

Wi axestu of craftes mine?

Beter is mine on Þan alle Þine:

Betere is o song of mine muÞe

Þan al Þat eure Þi kun kuÞe.

(‘Owl, you ask me,’ he said, ‘if I know any other skill apart from singing in the summer time and bringing happiness far and wide. Why do you question my skills? One of mine is better than all yours. Better is one song from my mouth than all that ever you can master.’)

The Owl says:

Þu seist Þat Þu singist mankunne,

& techest hom Þat hi fundieÞ honne

Vp to Þe songe Þat eure ilest.

Ac hit is alre wnder mest

Þat Þu darst liȝe so opeliche.

Wenest Þu hi bringe so liȝtliche

To Godes riche al singinge?

Nai, nai, hi shulle wel auinde

Þat hi mid longe wope mote

Of hore sunnen bidde bote,

Ar hi mote euer kume Þare.

(You say that you sing to mankind and teach them so that they set out hence up to the everlasting song [of heaven]. But of all wonders it is the greatest that you dare to lie so openly. Do you believe that you bring them to God’s riches so easily, all singing? No, no. They shall discover that they must weep a long time and pray for remedy for their sins before they may ever come there.)

Poem 2 “Pearl” by the Gawain Poet (anonymous), late fourteenth century.

This poem is written in a Midlands dialect of Middle English by the same poet who wrote “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. It is a poem of mourning for a lost daughter who is represented by the symbol of a pearl. The poem begins with a celebration of the beautiful pearl “withouten spot” which is lost – “to grounde it fro me yot”. The sadness of loss and the joy of reconciliation come across very poignantly in spite of the many years that separate us from this poem.

Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere,
Oute of Oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proved I never her precios pere.
So rounde, so reken in uche araye,
So smal, so smothe her sydes were,
Queresoever I jugged gemmes gaye
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure.
Allas, I leste hyr in on erbere;
Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of that pryvy perle withouten spot.

The poet enters a dream-state and sees his daughter in heaven. She tells him that she was very young “when thy perle con schede” but is now a “quene in blysse”. The Pearl tells her father:

A blysful lyf thou says I lede;
Thou woldes knaw therof the stage.
Thow wost wel when thy perle con schede
I was ful yong and tender of age,
Bot my Lorde the Lombe, thurgh Hys Godhede
He toke myself to Hys maryage,
Corounde me quene in blysse to brede
In lenghe of dayes that ever schal wage.

Poem 3 “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, c. 1380

Chaucer wrote in the dialect of Middle English which was the forerunner of modern Standard English. His prologue is a satirical account of various professions, particularly churchmen, though the parson is a perfect example of the godly life. (Satire is an important dimension in English culture – as we shall see later in the work of Dryden and Pope.) I am quoting some lines from the description of the Pardoner who went around duping credulous people with “relics” and selling them “pardons”:

He seyde he hadde a gobet of the seyl

That Seinte Peter hadde, whan that he wente

Upon the see, til Jesu Crist hym hente.

He hadde a croys of latoun, ful of stones,

And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.

But with thise relikes, whan that he fond

A povre person dwellynge upon lond,

Upon a day he gat hym moore moneye

Than that the person gat in monthes tweye;

And thus with feyned flaterye and japes

He made the person and the peple his apes.

Poem 4 “I sing of a maiden”, anonymous, earlier fifteenth century.

I like this five-verse poem for the simple gracefulness of its language as the poet describes the conception of Christ:

I sing of a maiden

That is makeles:

King of all kinges

To here sone she ches,

He cam also stille

Ther his moder was

As dew in Aprille

That falleth on the grass.

He cam also stille

To his moderes bowr,

As dew in Aprille

That falleth on the flowr

He cam also stille

Ther his moder lay

As dew in Aprille

That falleth on the spray.

Moder and maiden

Was never non but she:

Well may swich a lady

Godes moder be.

Poem 5 “Venus And Adonis” by William Shakespeare, 1593

This lengthy description of a love encounter between the goddess Venus and the young Adonis announces the spirit of the English Renaissance in its focus on human emotions and the beauty of the human form. I have copied the opening verses:

EVEN as the sun with purple-colour’d face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek’d Adonis hied him to the chase;
Hunting he loved, but love he laugh’d to scorn;
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
And like a bold-faced suitor ‘gins to woo him.

‘Thrice-fairer than myself,’ thus she began,
‘The field’s chief flower, sweet above compare,
Stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man,
More white and red than doves or roses are;
Nature that made thee, with herself at strife,
Saith that the world hath ending with thy life.

‘Vouchsafe, thou wonder, to alight thy steed,
And rein his proud head to the saddle-bow;
If thou wilt deign this favour, for thy meed
A thousand honey secrets shalt thou know:
Here come and sit, where never serpent hisses,
And being set, I’ll smother thee with kisses….’