Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Troubadours

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The roots of modern Western poetry are in the works of the troubadours, musicians and poets whose tradition flourished in southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They were the popular entertainers of their day, and they either performed their writings or had it performed by apprentices or professional musicians known as jongleurs.

The troubadour tradition began in the Gascony and western Aquitaine regions, and it reached its height in Provence. The earliest known troubadour poets are Elbe II of Ventadorn and William IX of Aquitaine. The language of troubadour poetry is Provençal, also known as Occitan or langue d'oc. The subjects they sang about were almost exclusively love and chivalry.

The poems come in a number of different forms. Among them were the sirventes, a satirical poem written to a melody. Two others were the aubade, a poem about lover's parting at dawn, and the tenso, a poem composed in a verse contest with other troubadours. The most common form is the canso, a love song written in stanzas.

Bernart de Ventadorn (c. 1145-1200) provides an early example of a canso with "In anguish and torment am I":

In anguish and torment am I
because of a love that grips and holds me
so that I can go neither here nor there
without her holding me in her harness.
And now I have courage and desire
to court, if I can,
one who, if the King himself were to pursue her,
he would show great audacity.

Alas, unhappy one that I am! What shall I do?
What counsel shall I take?
For she does not know the sorrow that I bear,
nor do I dare beg her for mercy.
Fool, you have little understanding,
since she will never love you,
neither in name nor through intimacy.
Let yourself be blown away by the wind!

And so, since I must die,
shall I confess to her my sorrow?
Truly, I should do it right away.
I won't do it, by my faith,
even if I knew that
all Spain would be mine.
I would rather die of shame
than to have entertained such a thought.

Since I shall not send her a messenger,
and it is not fitting for me to speak myself,
I don't know how to advise myself.
But one thing consoles me:
she knows the alphabet, and how to read,
and I enjoy writing
words, and if she pleases,
may she read them so that I may be saved.

(This translation is from poemhunters.com, where the poem can also be seen in the original language. If you click the link, be warned: the pop-up ads at the site are more annoying than usual. The line breaks are mine, and reflect those in the original Provençal.)

The poem owes a good deal to the thinking found in the philosophy of courtly love, which flourished during the Middle Ages, and it illustrates the self-pitying attitude that medievals associated with true romantic love's early stages. It must be remembered that the medieval bourgeois, by and for whom poetry was produced, did not see love as we do today. Men and women were betrothed to one another as children in order to promote family alliances. They were married in their teens or early twenties, and love was not a consideration. Romantic and spousal relationships were not allowed to form organically, as they are in our culture. But that impulse was still there for the medievals, and this aggrandizement and sanctifying of infatuation was largely its only outlet. However, a man is not seen as forever trapped in lonely infatuation. Eventually his feelings of regard are accepted by the lady of his desire, and he is inspired by his love to great deeds. The man and his lady pledge each other to secrecy, and they must remain fathful against all odds.

Another striking aspect of this poem and others in the troubadour tradition is how much they avoid the use of tropes. Modern formal analysis of poetry centers on tropes, or "turnings" of meaning in words. There are three basic types: analogy, which includes simile and metaphor; metonymy, which includes synecdoche and metonymy proper; and verbal irony. Bernart only employs one metaphor: the description of himself as being in his lady's "harness." The implicit comparison of himself to a domesticated horse, mule, or ox as an indication of subservience is the only piece of transformative meaning in the poem.

A troubadour poet's main technique of expressive language is hyperbole. He loves exaggeration. Examples in the Bernart poem: Even the King "would show great audacity" in pursuing the poet's object of desire. The poet is so insignificant that he should be "blown away by the wind." He would not confess his sorrow even if he "knew that all Spain would be mine" if he did, and he would rather "die of shame than to have entertained such a thought." And finally, the desired lady's reading of his writings would be his salvation. Bernart is thinking of love in grander terms than life itself. This is reflective of the medieval view that the initial stages of love were the first steps towards a transcendent state of mind and spirit.

The most well-known of the troubadours today is Arnaut Daniel (c. 1150-1210). This is in no small part due to Dante's potrayal of him in the Divine Comedy. (Dante has Guido Guinizelli, the founder of the dolce stil novo school of poetry with which Dante identified, refer to Arnaut as the "miglior fabbro/better craftsman [Purgatorio 26.117]. T. S. Eliot alluded to this reference in his dedication of The Waste Land to Ezra Pound.) Arnaut's work shows a greater metrical sophistication than Bernart's, and it shows how the canso evolved into a more complex structural form, as the poem "Love and joy and time and place" demonstrates. Click here to read.) Arnaut adheres to a strict seven-stanza format, with six stanzas of eight lines are each followed by an envoy. This is a two-to-four line stanza in which the poet identifies himself, and generally declares that he is sending forth the poem to a personage of distinction. In general, there are no tropes. Hyperbole is again the principal technique of expressive language, as can be seen in these lines:

I don't know anyone as devoted to God,
hermit nor monk nor cleric,
as I am to her about whom I sing, (25-27)

Arnaut evolved the canso even further, creating a new form called the sestina. This type of poem consists of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy. The lines of the stanza are generally unrhymed, and the poem instead relies on a pattern of end-words. Each stanza must use the same end-words, although in a different order each time. The first example of this type of poem is Arnaut's "The firm will that my heart enters." (Click here.) I personally think Arnaut's effort with this is too clever by half; the various stanza configurations using the end-words "intra/enters," "ongla/nail," "arma/soul," "verja/rod," "oncle/uncle," and "cambra/room," make the poem seem more like a stunt than a piece of expressive writing. The sestina form is far from hopeless--a number of outstanding poems utilizing it appear in Petrarch's Il canzoniere--but Arnaut doesn't seem to be able to rise to the challenge he's set himself.

He pushes himself, though. The restrictions of the sestina format seem to lead him into using tropes, particularly similes. "The firm will" (1) is likened to the "garden" and "room" metaphors of the lady's presence and thoughts (6). In the second stanza, the poet's limbs shake like a child's "before the rod" (10-11), and that child is likened to the poet's fear (11-12). The tenor of being close to the lady's soul in the fourth stanza finds its vehicle in the closeness of the finger to its nail (21), which is echoed in the third stanza's line of the poet being with his lady "what flesh is to nail" (17), a metaphor and allusion to crucifixion. In the final full stanza, Arnuat compares his heart's closeness to her to the bark on a rod (31-32), and, using metaphor, he says his lady "is to me tower, palace, and room" (33).

The troubadour movement spread considerably beyond southern France. Among others, it influenced the trouvères of northern France and the minnesingers of Germany. Its most notable offshoot was the Sicilian School.

My closing thought is that certain scholars, such as Harold Bloom, are wrong when they assert that tropes are the essence of poetry. Hyperbole is a key part of it as well, and the use of it may be the beginning of expressive language. The most prominent of these early poets appears to have discovered tropes only when avenues for hyperbole were largely closed off.

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