Wednesday, 29 April 2015

'Ac ich alle blisse mid me bringe'

When the nyhtegale singes,
The wodes waxen grene,
Lef ant gras ant blosme springes
In Averyl, Y wene...

So says a famous Middle English love poem, telling us that April and nightingales, spring and love have long been almost synonymous with each other. In the following extract from the thirteenth-century debate poem The Owl and the Nightingale, the nightingale prides herself on bringing bliss with the coming of the spring - apt reading for the last days of April.

"Al so þu dost on þire side:
vor wanne snov liþ þicke & wide,
an alle wiȝtes habbeþ sorȝe,
þu singest from eue fort a-morȝe.
Ac ich alle blisse mid me bringe:
ech wiȝt is glad for mine þinge,
& blisseþ hit wanne ich cume,
& hiȝteþ aȝen mine kume.
Þe blostme ginneþ springe & sprede,
boþe ine tro & ek on mede.
Þe lilie mid hire faire wlite
wolcumeþ me, þat þu hit wite,
bit me mid hire faire blo
þat ich shulle to hire flo.
Þe rose also mid hire rude,
þat cumeþ ut of þe þorne wode,
bit me þat ich shulle singe
vor hire luue one skentinge:
& ich so do þurȝ niȝt & dai,
þe more ich singe þe more I mai,
an skente hi mid mine songe,
ac noþeles noȝt ouerlonge;
wane ich iso þat men boþ glade,
ich nelle þat hi bon to sade:
þan is ido vor wan ich com,
ich fare aȝen & do wisdom.
Wane mon hoȝeþ of his sheue,
an falew icumeþ on grene leue,
ich fare hom & nime leue:
ne recche ich noȝt of winteres reue.
Wan ich iso þat cumeþ þat harde,
ich fare hom to min erde,
an habbe boþe luue & þonc
þat ich her com & hider swonk.

This is such pacy and lively dialogue that it seems a shame to render it in prose, so here's a fairly free rhyming translation - a more literal one can be found here (ll. 429-462). The nightingale begins by insulting the owl for singing in the winter, when life is hard and people are melancholy:

"That's what you do on your side:
For when the snow lies thick and wide,
And every creature feels sorrow,
Then you sing from eve til morrow.
But I all brightness with me bring:
Each creature's glad at my coming!
They all rejoice when I arrive,
And at my coming all are blithe.
The blossom starts to spring and spread,
Both in the tree and on the mead.
The lily, white and fair as snow,
Welcomes me, as you well know;
And beckons with her pretty eye,
To say that I must to her fly;
The rose, with her complexion red,
Growing from the thorny hedge,
Bids me that I must sing,
For her love, one little thing;
And so I do, by night and day,
The more I sing, the more I may.
I give them pleasure by my song,
Yet, nonetheless, not for too long -
Though I like to see them glad,
Too much pleasure makes men sad.
When all is done for which I came
Away I fare - and wise I am!
When men's minds turn towards their sheaves
And yellow comes to the green leaves,
Then I go home, and take my leave;
I don't care a bit for winter's grief!
When I see the hard times come,
I travel back to my own home,
And thanks and love I with me take,
Because I worked here for their sake."

This poem is a debate, so of course the owl has a riposte: winter's the time when people need music the most, she says, and so she sings carols to cheer and comfort them. And she takes the war into the enemy's camp by accusing the nightingale of going around kindling shameful thoughts of love and lust in the spring. But on an April day, our sympathies are probably with the nightingale.

Here's a nightingale singing to some people (not that they look very blissful) from a thirteenth-century Bestiary, BL Sloane 3544:

1 comment:

Itinérante said...

I was thinking about owls, swallows and nightingales all week ^^