Friday, 8 February 2013

Telling the Truth

1. Þe Mon þat luste to liuen in ese
Or eny worschupe her to ateyne,
His purpos I counte not worþ a pese,
Witterli, but he ordeyne
Þis wikkid world hou he schal plese
Wiþ al his pouwer and his peyne;
Ȝif he schal kepe him from disese,
He mot lerne to flatere and feyne;
Herte and mouþ loke þei ben tweyne,
Þei mowe not ben of on assent;
And ȝit his tonge he mot restreyne,
ffor hos seiþ þe soþe, he schal be schent.

2. Þus is þe soþe I-kept in close,
And vche mon makeþ touh and queynte
To leue þe tixt and take þe glose;
Eueri word þei coloure and peynte.
Summe þer aren þat wolden suppose
ffor no tresour forte ben teynte:
Let a mon haue not to lose,
He schal fynde frenschipe feynte.
Summe þat semen an Innocent,
Wonder trewe in heore entent,
Þei beoþ agast of eueri pleynt,
ffor hos seiþ þe soþe, he schal be schent.

3. Þe wikked wone we may warie,
Þat eueri man þus Inward bledes.
Let a lord haue his Corlarie,
he schal wel knowe of al his dedes;
Þauȝ he be next his sacratarie,
Wiþ flaterynge his lord he fedes,
And wiþ sum speche he most him tarie,
And þus wiþ lesynges him he ledes;
To gabben his lord most him nedes,
And wiþ sum blaundise make him blent:
To leosen his offys euere he dredes,
ffor ȝif he þe soþe seiþ, he schal be schent.

4. And al is wrong; þat dar I preue;
ffor let a mon be sore I-wounde,
Hou schulde a leche þis mon releeue,
But ȝif he miȝte ronsake þe wounde?
ffor þauȝ hit smerte and sumdel greue,
Ȝit most he suffre a luitel stounde.
Ȝif he kneuh of his mischeue,
Wiþ salues he miȝte make him sounde.
Were grace at large, þat liþþe i-bounde,
Hap and hele mihte we hent;
Lac of leche wol vs confounde,
ffor hos seiþ þe soþe, he schal be schent.

5. ffor let a frere in Godes seruise
Þe pereles to þe peple preche,
Of vre misdede and vre quyntise,
Þe trewe tixt to telle and teche;
Þauȝ he beo riht witti and wyse,
Ȝit luytel þonk he schal him reche,
And summe þer ben þat wol him spise,
And bleþely wayte him wiþ sum wreche.
Þis pore prechour þei wolen apeche
At counseyl and at parliment;
But ȝif he kepe him out of heore cleche,
ffor his soþ sawe he schal be schent.

6. Seþþe þe tyme þat god was boren,
Þis world was neuer so vntrewe;
Men recchen neuer to ben for-sworen,
To reuen þat is hem ful duwe;
Þe peynted word þat fel bi-foren,
Be-hynde, hit is anoþer hewe.
Whon Gabriel schal blowe his horn,
His feble fables schul hym rewe:
Þe tonges þat such bargeyn gon brewe,
Hit weore non harm þouȝ þei were brent.
Þus þis gyle is founde vp of newe,
ffor hos seiþ soþ, he schal be schent.

7. Siþen þe soþe dar no mon say,
ffor drede to gete him a fo,
Best I holde hit, in good fay,
Let o day come, anoþer go
And mak as murie as we may,
Til eueri frend parte oþur fro.
I drede hit draweþ to domes-day,
Such saumples we han, and oþer two:
Now knowes a child boþe weole and wo
Þat scholde ben an Innocent,
Whil hit is ȝong, is norissched so;
But hos seiþ soþ, he schal be schent.

8. Þis world wol han his wikked wone,
ffor soþe, hit wol non oþer be;
His cursede cours þat is bi-gonne,
Þer may no mon from hit fle
Þat haþ longe a-mong vs ronne,
His oune defaute mai he not se.
Þe fader trust not to þe sone,
Ne non to oþer in no degre;
ffalshede is called a sotilte
And such a nome hit haþ hent.
Þis lesson lerneþ alle at me:
Ho seiþ þe soþe, he schal be schent.

This is a poem from the Vernon manuscript, a huge collection of poetry and prose which was produced c.1400 in the West Midlands, and which is one of the most important manuscripts of English verse.  You can read about it here; I've posted two poems from it previously ('This world fareth as a fantasy' and 'Think on yesterday').  Those two wonderful poems are both about the transience and untrustworthiness of the world, urging the reader to consider how fickle and unstable are all earthly things, and mankind most of all.  This theme, a very common one in classical and medieval literature, is rather out of fashion now; our age prizes positivity and living in the moment, and it's somehow considered morbid to think about this sort of subject.  Nonetheless, it's a theme I'm fond of in English medieval texts, from Beowulf and 'The Wanderer' to the various Middle English poems tagged here 'On Transience'; and both the poems linked above are superb reflections on the nature of human existence.  The poem I'm posting today has something in common with those poems (rhyme-scheme and pattern of verses, chiefly) but is not quite as good from a literary point of view, nor are its concerns as philosophical in nature.  This poem is about modern - that is, fourteenth-century - society, and its general lack of honesty and integrity.  Our society is no less deficient in these qualities, and I find this poem's lament, though bitter, strangely comforting; transient or not, the world never changes.

Here's a modernised version of the poem:

1. The man who wants to live at ease
Or any honours here to attain,
His aim I count not worth a pease,
Truly, unless he ordain
This wicked world how he shall please
With all his power and his pain;
If he shall keep himself from dis-ease,
He must learn to flatter and feign;
Heart and mouth, look that they be twain,
They may not be of one assent;
And, too, his tongue he must restrain,
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

2. Thus is the truth kept in close,
And each man maketh touh and queynte [takes trouble and effort]
To leave the text and take the gloss;
Every word they colour and paint.
Some there are one would suppose
That by no treasure might be taint: [corrupted]
But let a man have naught to lose,
He shall find their friendship faint.
Some who seem so innocent,
Wondrous true in their intent,
They are aghast at each complaint; [appeal]
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

3. These wicked ways we may warie, [lament]
That every man thus inward bleeds!
Let a lord have his corlarie, [sycophant]
He shall hear well of all his deeds;
When he is in his sacratarie, [secret place]
With flattering his lord he feeds,
And with some speech he must him tarry,
And thus with lying he him leads;
To trick his lord must him needs,
And with some blandish make him blent: [blinded]
To lose his office ever he dreads,
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

4. And all is wrong; that dare I prove;
For if a man have a sore wound,
How should a doctor this man relieve,
Unless he can clear out the wound?
For though it smart and a little grieve,
Yet must he endure a little stounde. [while]
If he knows all his mischeve, [what is wrong with him]
With medicine he can make him sound.
Were grace at large, which lies now bound,
Health and happiness we might hent; [enjoy]
Lack of medicine will us confound,
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

5. For let a friar in God's service
These wrongs unto the people preach,
Of our misdeeds and our deceits,
The true text to tell and teach;
Though he may be right witty and wise,
Yet little thanks he shall reche, [receive]
And some there are who will him despise,
And gladly harm him with some wreche. [tricks]
This poor preacher they will impeach
At council and at parliament;
Unless he keeps out of their clutch,
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

6. Since the time that God was born,
This world was never so untrue;
Men care never to be forsworn,
And take from others what is their due;
The painted word which falls before,
Behind, it shows another hue.
When Gabriel shall blow his horn,
These feeble fables they shall rue:
The tongues which such a fate shall brew,
It would be no harm if they were brent! [burnt]
Thus this guile is found again anew,
For who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

7. Since the truth dareth no man say,
For fear to get himself a foe,
Best I hold it, in good fay, [faith]
Let one day come, another go
And make as merry as we may,
Til every friend part another fro. [from]
I believe it draws to doomsday,
Such signs we see! And others too:
Now knows a child both joy and woe
Who ought to be an innocent;
While it is young, it is nurtured so;
But who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

8. This world will have his wicked wone, [ways]
For truth, it will none other be;
His cursed course now it is begun,
There is no man may from it flee,
Who thus has long among us run;
His own defects he cannot see.
The father cannot trust the son,
No man another, in no degree;
Falsehood is called a subtlety
And such a name it hath hent. [caught, obtained]
This lesson learn all from me:
Who speaks the truth, he shall be shent.

shent, as you may have been able to discern, means 'ruined, destroyed'.

A particularly interesting phrase in this poem occurs in the second verse, about 'leaving the text and taking the gloss'.  If nothing else showed this poem to be a product of the late fourteenth century, that phrase would, because it's a frequent charge levelled at clerics and theologians in the period - accusing them of distorting language in a way that was deceitful, and elevating 'gloss' (that is, interpretation) over 'text'.  There's a useful article on 'glossing as distortion', with multiple contemporary examples, available here.  While the particular context of this phrase is interesting and historically of great significance - think of how this anxiety about interpretation and text became such a key issue in the development of Protestantism - I was struck by a more general point when I read this post last week on one of my favourite blogs.  The post is about Wallace Stevens' poem 'Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself', and it quoted from John Ruskin:

"The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.  Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.  To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion -- all in one."   
Modern Painters, Volume III, Part IV, Chapter XVI (1856).

Beyond the immediate religious context of the question of text and gloss, the anxiety over 'painted words' reflects, I think, a similar desire to seek 'not ideas about the thing but the thing itself'; not what people say about truth, but the truth itself.  I wonder what the medieval poet would have said about our society, which is no less obsessed with status and celebrity than his own, no less full of flattery and feigning, and no more aware of its 'sore wound' of endemic falsehood.  In the past few months in Britain we have seen evidence that our politicians, policemen, journalists, NHS managers, bankers and supermarkets are all, regularly and systematically, lying to us - distorting the truth.  We are justifiably angry, but hardly at all surprised.  And why should we be?  Spin and distortion are a part of all our lives; we all engage in this kind of self-promotion, image management.  Admittedly, it's a wide spectrum of guilt which stretches from 'how will this picture make me look on facebook' to the "culture of self-promotion rather than critical analysis and openness" which permitted the deaths of hundreds of people in an NHS hospital; but it is on the same spectrum.  We must make ourselves look strong, successful, intelligent; no one can admit to failure, no one can tell the simple truth.

This has been on my mind recently partly because I've been applying for jobs - a process which involves an astonishing amount of spin and distortion on both sides - and partly because I've been experimenting with Twitter.  Whatever virtues that medium of communication may have, it's clear to me that it is a pre-eminent example of gloss triumphing over text - comment over content, 'ideas about the thing' rather than the thing itself.  It seems impossible to engage with the medium without slipping into mindless self-promotion; whatever the topic of the day is, every person and organisation feels the need to put their spin on it, and rare is the person who can resist a style of posting which works out, essentially, to "here's my comment (or joke or blogpost or promotional special offer) related to whatever it is other people happen to be talking about".  (I've been sucked into this as much as anyone, with my love of 'on this day'-type posts, which is why I want to think this out).  What results is a flurry of comment which skirts around truth; you have one still centre of a fact - a date, a festival, an archaeological discovery - and a maelstrom of thoughts and interpretations and ideas about it, none of them particularly well-thought-through, because the medium demands immediacy - all with the aim of grabbing and clinging onto a share in the conversation, whether you have anything useful to do with that share or not.  Even if the promotion is for a worthy cause (or a blogpost one is particularly proud of!) this can't but be harmful - for what is it but a flight from 'the thing itself', from simply and honestly seeing?

The internet has turned us all into PR men.  One reason I've guarded my anonymity so carefully on this blog is because I never wanted it to be a vehicle of self-promotion; I don't want to be a brand.  The purpose of this blog was always simply to share things - poems, pictures, experiences - and not to take ownership of them, but the more you build up a collection of such things, the more proprietorial you begin to feel.  I want to resist that, even if to do so seems ridiculously unworldly.  I'm glad that most of the people who come here (the random googlers) come for the 'text' and not the 'gloss' - for information, and not for me.  This is a personal blog, a private space within the public arena of the internet, but it's not about me, and I would never want people to read it just because they wanted to know about me - this is why I've never wanted my real-life friends and family to read it (online friends fall into a different category!).  I don't want the things I write about here to reflect on me in any way, positively or negatively; that would make me complicit in appropriating for my own use things which do not belong to me, or to anyone.  This is not about me.

There's a large dose of irony (or hypocrisy, if you prefer) in my talking about this, because this post, like many of my posts, literally contains both text and gloss, and what's more, I've just written three paragraphs of personal 'gloss' which goes far beyond the subject of the medieval poem.  But it's always been my aim here to give primacy to the text (whether that text is poem, picture, historical story, or 'something I have seen'); I never want my glossing to go beyond what is necessary to make an unfamiliar text accessible to an intelligent, curious, non-specialist reader.  This is the best way I know to tell the truth, and I'm writing about it today to remind myself of that.

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