Sunday, 22 May 2011

On Transience, I: Where beth they biforen us weren?

A particularly mournful Sunday lyric today. Here are some verses from a thirteenth-century poem on the theme Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?

Where beth they biforen us weren,
houndes ladden and havekes beren,
and hadden feld and wode?
The riche levedies in hoere bour,
that wereden gold in hoere tressour,
with hoere brightte rode?

Eten and drounken, and maden hem glad;
hoere lif was al with gamen i-lad,
men kneleden hem biforen;
they beren hem wel swithe heye;
and in a twincling of an eye
hoere soules weren forloren.

Were is that lawhing and that song,
that trayling and that proude yong,
tho havekes and tho houndes?
Al that joye is went away,
that wele is comen to weylaway,
to manye harde stoundes.

Hoere paradis they nomen here,
and nou they lyen in helle i-fere;
the fuir hit brennes hevere:
long is ay, and long is o,
long is wy, and long is wo;
thennes ne cometh they nevere.


Where are they who lived before us,
Led hounds and carried hawks,
And owned the fields and woods?
The rich ladies in their bowers
Who wore gold in their hair,
With their bright faces?

Who ate, and drank, and enjoyed themselves;
Their life was lived with pleasure;
Men knelt before them,
And they held themselves very high;
And in a twinkling of an eye
Their souls were lost.

Where is the laughing and the song,
The trailing gowns of the proud young man,
The hawks and hounds?
All that joy is gone away;
The bliss is turned to 'weylaway' [alas]
And many hard times.

Their paradise they took here,
And now they lie in hell, together;
That fire burns for ever.
Long is 'ah!' and long is 'oh!'
Long is 'why?' and long is 'woe!'
Thence will they come never.

There are many poems on such a theme; but compare this, from Browning's 'A Toccata of Galuppi's':

Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May?
Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to mid-day,
When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do you say?

Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red, —
On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed,
O'er the breast's superb abundance where a man might base his head?

Well, and it was graceful of them — they'd break talk off and afford
— She, to bite her mask's black velvet — he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?


So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
"Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay!
"I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!"

Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.


"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

"Dust and ashes!" So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too — what's become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.

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