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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    Book Notes: Chaucer, Shakespeare, love and heartbreak

    This is the story of Geoffrey Chaucer being sent, in 1380, as an envoy to negotiate the marriage of Anne of Bohemia to the young Richard II.

    It was about this time that he began to write his dream poem “The Parliament of Fowles” that is thought to be in celebration of the royal marriage, particularly since the principal bird among the Fowles is a beautiful female eagle, the eagle being Anne’s symbol.

    An entrancing, and wildly imaginative, fantasy grounded in realistic detail, (in the magic garden all the trees are named along with their attributes, all the fowls have distinct, and recognizable, characters), it is a poem of courtly love as well as a satire poking fun at parliamentary procedure (Chaucer was a Member of Parliament for a short time).

    It is this poem that brought attention to a rather obscure Roman saint, St. Valentine, from the third century C.E., a priest and physician who was martyred for aiding persecuted Christians and who became the patron saint of betrothed couples and those seeking love.

    It is from this tale that Chaucer told in the 14th century, that urges “Be glad, thou redere, and thy sorwe ofcaste,” that we have the Valentine’s Day as we know it today.

    Of some 700 lines, “The Parliament of Fowls” is written in Rime Royale - stanzas of seven lines, a tercet and two couplets rhyming aba, bb and cc - the Chaucerian invention so perfect for storytelling.

    Here is the famous opening, taken from the Latin quip of the Greek physician Hippocrates (c.450-c.380 BCE) “ars longa, vita brevis”:

    “The lif so short, the craft so long to lerne,

    The assay so hard, so sharp the conquering,

    The dreadful joye always that slit so yerne

    [that slides away so swiftly]

    All this mene I by Love, that my feelings,

    Astonisheth with his wonderful werking

    So sore, ywis, that whan I on him thinke

    Nat woot I wel wher that I flete or sinke.”

    The spirit of Hippocrates appears again at line 127:

    “Thurgh me men good into the blisful place

    hertes hele [heart’s healing] and deadly woundes cure:

    Thurgh me men good unto the welle of Grace

    Ther greene and lusty May shal ever endure;

    This is the way to al good adventure.

    Be glad, thou redere, and thy sorwe ofcaste.

    Al open am I; passe in, and speed thee faste!”

    We soon come to a description of the bewitching young female eagle who is a central character in the tale:

    “Nature heeld on hir hond

    A formel eagle of shap the gentileste

    That ever among his werkes fond,

    The most benigne, and the goodlieste;

    In her was every virtu at his reste

    So ferforth that Nature hirself had blisse

    To look on hire and oft her bek to kisse.” (ll. 172-178)

    And at last, around line 300, we come to the heart of the story:

    “And in a launde [grassy clearing] upon an hil of floures

    Was set this noble goddesse Nature;

    …. …. …. ….

    For this was on Saint Valentines day,

    When every foul cometh to choose his make.” [mate]

    So the vying and jostling and the parliamentary-style debates begin until all is resolved:

    “Saint Valentine, that art ful hy on lofte; ––

    Thus singen smale foules for thy sake ––

    Now welcome somer, with thy sonne softe,

    Thou hast this wintres wedres overshake,

    And driven away the longe nightes blake!” (ll. 683-687).

    Alas, as we know, it did not end well for the hapless Richard and his Queen. Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard ll,” first performed in 1597, tells a tale of a fall from grace and tragic end, a “longe nightes blake,” after the promise of sun-filled days that are the delight of Chaucer’s poem.

    Among the most lyrical of all Shakespeare’s plays, it is written entirely in iambic pentameter with frequent rhyming couplets. It is this lyricism and formal structure, as well as the historical subject and time frame, that find echoes in “The Parliament of Fowles.”

    Richard is defeated and deposed by Bolingbroke (the soon to be Henry IV), and led in disgrace through the London streets, vilified by his former subjects, “dust was thrown upon his sacred head,” he will go to prison and death.

    But it is the love that Richard and Anne hold for each other, the betrothal that Chaucer, in his office as envoy, helped to arrange and which he celebrated in his joyous poem, which links poem and play.

    Richard urges his queen, in a scene of poignant tenderness, to flee to France, his queen who “came adorned hither like sweet May/ Sent back like Hallowmas, or short’st of day” (Act V: sc.I ll.79-80)

    Richard: “So two together weeping make one woe.

    Weep for me in France, I for thee here;

    Better far off than near, be ne’er the near.

    Go count thy way with sighs; I mine with groans.

    Queen: So longest way will have the longest moans.

    Richard: Twice for one step I’ll groan, the way being short,

    And piece the way out with a heavy heart.

    Come, come, in wooing sorrow let’s be brief,

    Since wedding it, there is such length in grief:

    One kiss shall stop our mouths, and dumbly part;

    Thus give I mine, and thus take I thy heart.” (Act V: sc. 1, ll. 89-96).

    But leaving behind Valentine’s Day, here are poems that speak of love in some of its many guises.

    Here is another farewell to another Anne - John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” - Anne his beloved wife, for whom he gave up a career at court when he married her in secret, and by whom he had 12 children. The year is 1611 or 1612, Donne is about to leave on a journey to France:

    “Our two souls therefore, which are one

    Though I must go, endure not yet

    A breach, but an expansion

    Like gold to airy thinness beat.

    If they be two, they are two so

    As stiffe twin compasses are two.

    Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show

    To move, but doth if the other do.

    …. …. …. …. ….

    Such wilt thou be to mee, who must

    Like th’other foot, obliquely runne;

    Thy firmnes drawes my circle just,

    And makes me end, where I begunne.” (ll: 21-28 & 33-36)

    As Donne wrote in another poem, “Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,/ Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time.” (‘The Sunne Rising’).

    So, with that encouragement, we will jump ahead to the 20th century, to the poetry of Seamus Heaney and one of the many vignette’s in which he immortalizes his deep love for his mother .

    This if from “The Swing” in his 1996 volume “The Spirit Level,” a memory of childhood play, with George Herbert overtones, that, like so many Heaney poems, offers a vision far beyond the immediate moment. His mother is with the children in the barn as they play on the swing-

    “With an old lopsided sack in the loop of it,

    Perfectly still, hanging like pulley-slack,

    A lure let down to tempt the soul to rise.

    Even so, we favored the earthbound. She

    Sat there as majestic as an empress

    Steeping her swollen feet one at a time

    In the enamel basin, feeding it

    Every now and again with an opulent

    Steaming arc from a kettle on the floor

    Beside her. The plout of that was music

    To our ears, her smile a mitigation.

    Whatever light the goddess had once shone

    Around her favorite coming from the bath

    Was what was needed then: there should have been

    Fresh linen, ministrations by attendants,

    Procession and amazement. Instead she took

    Each rolled elastic stocking and drew it on

    Like the life she would not fail and was not

    Meant for.

    …. …. …. …. ….

    In spite of all, we sailed

    Beyond ourselves …….”

    And finally, a little earlier in the 20th century, another basin and another washing, as simple and domestic as the one in the barn, and just as intimate and sacramental. Here is the lyric ’The Shampoo’ by Elizabeth Bishop, (whose February birthday we celebrate!). The final poem in her second volume, “A Cold Spring,”it was published in 1955 and is addressed to her lover and partner, Lota De Macedo Soares,

    “The still explosions on the rocks,

    the lichens, grow

    by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.

    They have arranged

    to meet the rings around the moon, although

    within our memories they have not changed.

    And since the heavens will attend

    as long on us,

    you’ve been, dear friend,

    precipitate and pragmatical;

    and look what happens. For Time is

    nothing if not amenable.

    The shooting stars in your black hair

    in bright formation

    are flocking where,

    so straight, so soon?

    ––Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,

    battered and shiny like the moon.”

    [You can find a recording of James Merrill reading “The Shampoo” at a 1993 seminar in Key West, and also find any of these poems online].

    I hope you have enjoyed these poems. I have enjoyed sharing them with you, and may they the “wintres wedres overshake,/And drive(n) away the longe nightes blake!”

    Belinda de Kay is director emeritus of Stonington Free Library.

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