Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A New Look at Jaufré Rudel: Amor de Lonh as Criticism

The ultimate object of this study is not even dear Jaufré or poetry at all, but dualism. The poet wrote not of satisfied love, but of love from afar, love “under erasure,” if I may make him sound Derridean. The notion could as well be linked to Nagarjuna’s tetralemma; it has links to Graham Priest’s dialetheism. To fit the notion in a fortune cookie, it might be “if the truest love is absence of love, existence is emptiness.” Should these thoughts seem silly or fruitless, have no fear. Jaufré’s poems are so lovely, the rest need not matter.





Since early troubadour poetry stands at the historical fountainhead of the the vernacular European lyric, one's understanding of it will have profound implications. In part for that very reason, many of the most basic questions concerning the themes and techniques of this poetry, not to mention its origins and development, are vexed indeed. If the problem is courtly love, its heart is Jaufré Rudel. [1] Jaufré’s amor de lonh (“love from afar”) has been interpreted as biography, mysticism, and allegory. [2] A more structural analysis of this extraordinary poetry of paradox and metaphysical sensuality [3] reveal the fundamental relationships of several ever-varying sets of associative possibilities [4]. Their variation and transformation doubtless accounts in part for the multiplicity of critical opinion, yet this very ambiguity allows the poet to enact a notion of the nature of poetry itself. Though I believe that readings around themes of love, spirituality, and psychology are all fruitful, it is the self-reflective reading, in which the apparent self-contradiction of the rhetoric is most clearly essential to its precision, that I intend to pursue here. In this connection I mean to note an analogy for the problem of Jaufré in the work of Robert Johnson, [5] an American blues singer. I believe that the relationship between the medieval courtly poet and the itinerant American musician are apparent not only in the semantic content of the text, but equally in the manipulation of sound values. Though consideration of the musical element of Jaufré’s work is not possible today, his poetry may be read as music and this music then read for its critical implications about the genre of poetry.

Particularly in view of the portion of this project that will be devoted to sound patterns, I will isolate a very small portion of Jaufré’s work for examination. The canso “Lanquan li jorn son lonc en may,” called “undoubtedly the best known of Jaufré's works,” and “also the most enigmatic,” [6] begins with the following stanza.


Lanquan li jorn son lonc en may
M’es belhs dous chans d'auzelhs de lonh,
E quan mi suy partitz de lay
Remembra•m d’un’amor de lonh:
Vau de talan embroncx e clis
Si que chans ni flor d'albespis
No•m platz plus cue 1'yverns gelatz.



[When the days are long in May. the far-away song of the birds seems beautiful to me, and when I have gone away from there, the parting reminds me of my far-away love: I go bent with desire and my gaze downcast, so that neither songs nor hawthorne blooms please me more than frozen winter.]


The Natureingang (nature introduction, similar to the French reverdie) in its simplest forms celebrates the speaker’s love together with the spring-time rejuvenation of vegetation. Here, however the primary values inverted as in several albas. [7] Nature is conceded its obvious fecundity and life-richness, but it is also viewed as mocking the poet by the contrast in their moods. Perceiving nature as hostile, he expresses indifference to it. In fact there is a hint of hostile perversity in the last line suggesting a morbid sentimental preference for nasty weather. But the poem has pretensions far beyond the depiction of the depression of a frustrated lover. The poem develops with other vectors in the field: the senhor (lord, l. 8), the pairi (godfather, l. 51), the themes of pilgrimage and pagan lands, but the first mystery of this stanza stands at its center, in the fourth line. The quality of distance, lonh, which asserts the lady’s absence as a constitutive element of her value epitomizes the contradiction I am seeking to explicate.

Ignoring the many possible erotic-psychological implications of this formulation, [8] I would propose an alternate reading of the stanza in question. Birds are not a simple emblem here of nature's unselfconscious reproductive energy; more specific associations are at play. For instance the birds suggest freedom [9] and are often thought to be intermediaries between god and man. [10] Further, and most immediately to the point at issue, birds are very commonly identified with poets. The reader has license for this association from Jaufré’s own usage: the first stanza of “Quan lo rius de la fontana” (“when the waters of the spring”) declares that he should modulate his song as the nightingale does. If one interprets the birds of Jaufré's stanza as other poets with whom the author is familiar, the attribute lonh here would mean the distance between the poet and tradition, in time, space, and set of mind. With this association one finds Jaufré rejecting poetry even as he sings. The entire weight of past art is insufficient for his needs and is thus irrelevant. He is “embroncx e clis” (bent and bowed) by his desire in spite of hearing the birds, though he had been fond enough to call them belhs only a few lines earlier. While recognizing the charm of song, Jaufré finds it impotent in the face of his current despair. His response is to relegate song (though not song alone, for it is still linked to the larger world of nature through the bird’s perch, the albespis) to a category worse than useless. He likens it in value to the ivern (winter), clearly an enemy of life.

But the opposition is a complex one, and it is significantly blurred. The birds’ song had pleased him and in fact led him to his own canso. Yet Jaufré says he now cares no more for song than for winter, but he says this in a song. He is a poet; his fate is that of poetry, and the text before us leaves no doubt that, whatever else may be said about the occasion it describes, it produced poetry. In fact, in an almost magical way, the unease of the poet’s depression elicits the verse as a balm, though the line itself says that singing is useless.

If one considers the song of the first stanza to be poetry, this stanza of Jaufré’s canso rejects past literature, as every new poem must do, and claims for the itself a privileged position as the only meaningful text (for the moment of its creation at any rate). (Following that moment, it will be obliged to submit to the judgment of others.) Just as tragedy laments the human predicament and in some sense exorcises it or redeems it, just as the music of the blues is an aesthetic remedy to suffering, Jaufré’s song of complaint is a victory over his circumstances.

The stanza's structure is even more nakedly present when emptied of the aesthetic terminology of self-reference and, indeed, of the languages of alternative applications. One might call the vague but directly life-bearing quality which subsumes notions of god, beauty, love by none of these names but plainly X. The canso’s singer notes X in birds, but feels put off and depressed by it as he recalls his lack of some great X of his own. Lacking X he spitefully embraces not-X, all the while employing rhetoric which itself exudes the X-factor.

Now because of the very fact that the poem itself possesses X-like qualities of formal beauty, pleasure, and design, the poet’s verbal technology, far from perverse, is as effective at salving the speaker’s suffering as it was at formulating the pain. The whole operation is like a magical spell, the goal of which is to reproduce X qualities anew within the poem and thus, through verbal technology, to reintegrate the poet with X. These relationships, while cumbersome to describe and abstract, function smoothly and naturally in the poem, whether one thinks of the Countess of Tripoli or the logos or the crusader's halo as the primary meaning of the greater X.

To return, then, to the self-referential terms one may insert legitimately into this abstract paradigm of relationships, one finds the reaction to tradition which Jaufré exemplifies one that is most familiar in contemporary critical discourse. (12) Bloom’s talk of the “anxiety of influence” and Paul de Man’s concept of literary modernity are both quite close to what Jaufré seems to be saying. But the pattern in the poem is prior, conceptually as well as historically, to the formulations of these critics. The whole notion of the primacy of structural relationships clearly disallows any final delimiting semantic fix on the poem's position. The most significant structure is that which precedes and encourages polysemic interpretation. It might most generally be conceived as a psychic mood, a posture of the mind that might be elicited by any of a variety of situations, but which is limited by none of them. Such a structure will exemplify the critics’ statements without being contained within them. Its power derives from its formal “rightness,” rather like a fugue or a blues lick, though, like those musical forms, it may bear considerable affective energy.

As a highly conventional linguistic structure, troubadour poetry is particularly laden with comment on the weight of past tradition and the poet's relationship to it. Stanza-form, melody, phrasing, image choice, even in the earliest period, are heavily dependent on intertextuality for their effects. The phenomenon has then been multiplied by the vast and complex tradition that has since sprung from these poems. These facts in part justify my reading of Jaufré’s stanza as a description of itself within that larger setting of literature necessary to its existence, but which it must fend off to make room for itself.

A similarly conventionalized and self-referential lyric genre commenting on the varieties of frustrated love developed in the twentieth century United States. As Jaufré is the quintessential mysterious troubadour, the touchstone for any theory of “courtly love,” Robert Johnson has for some years been accepted by blues aficionados as the most artful and enigmatic of blues musicians. Both have accumulated biographies rich in legendary accretions, though Johnson was singing hardly more than forty years ago. One might compile a catalogue of coincidences connecting the two artists, but a meaningful relationship may arise from even a single point of contact. A reading of the following stanza from one of the bluesman’s most celebrated songs “Stones in my Passway” [13] will immediately suggest comparison with Jaufré’s previously cited stanza.


I have a bird to whistle, and I have a bird to sing,
I have a bird to whistle, and I have a bird to sing.
I got a woman that I’m loving, boy, but she don't mean a thing.


Here the significance of the bird, is the same as in Jaufré. Its song is assumed to be beautiful (to possess a positive power one might call X) but that song is either meaningless or faintly mocking to the poet since he lacks satisfying love. The “whistle” is the trivialized negative projection of music, as the song is its positive promise. The bird song is available but scorned. Though the post claims to have a lover, the second half of the line undercuts that claim, leaving it sounding both bitter and wistful. Though Jaufré’s stanza is neither so compressed nor so elliptical as Johnson’s, the same information is present. Song is revalued in the present crisis and found wanting, thus allowing the poet to produce his new song. [14] In order to maintain the dialectic of the situation, the new song, the poem being enacted, is perverse or “diabolical” in that it willfully embraces inverted values — icy weather for Jaufré, acceptance of the frustration of an unsatisfying love for Johnson. [15]

The ambiguous value of Johnson’s bird, which represents on the one hand the possibility of lyric liberation and its unattainability, lying beyond the poet's grasp, is conveyed by the ironic contrast between “whistle” and “sing” and by the driving ferocity with which the line is delivered. When the line is repeated, the tension intensifies by repetition alone, but also by the sinister disappearance of the ego in the “I” of the second line. Having emphasized the psychic cul de sac against which the bird is impotent by the first two lines, the poet concludes with the balanced paradox of the third line. The rhyme with which it ends promises a harmonious resolution, but its superstitious vagueness (“thing”) and defensive retreat into cliché contrast dramatically with the potential of “sing.” Thus there is no resolution to the problem apart from what is unstated here and unstated in Jaufré but implicit in both, that the poem is the product of the contradiction the poet experiences, that the poem is an assertion of ego against all previous poets and
an attempt to magically harmonize the contradictions of experience by orchestrating them in language. [16]
The ambivalences I have been tracing represent reactions toward a quantity I called X. It displays both a positive and a negative face and could most broadly be identified with the dualistic structure of thought itself. Just as the cosmos was created by separating polar opposites, whether light and dark, land and sea as in Genesis, or antimatter and matter as the scientists tell us, the world of dualities generates also pain and pleasure, life and death. As the man tries to charm love from it, the poet tries to charm a poem. Thus, having passed from a consideration of content to one of structure, I have returned to thematics, now defined as the binary organization of thought. In this sense the poem’s concerns are epistemological.

Approaching from a different direction altogether, one may also trace the events and relationships suggested by the sound of Jaufré's poem and investigate the implications of the sound patterns.[17] The stanza has seven lines of eight syllables each, rhyming ababcca. In some manuscripts the poem ends with a three line tornada. This in itself suggests an exposition tending toward a pattern of resolution for the whole. Within the stanza the rhyme scheme would cause the first four lines to cohere and the last three, though the unrhymed last line must stand to some extent alone. Thus the verbal foundation for each statement in the poem decreases: from four to two to one line and then vanishes completely, making way for the next stanza which will prove equally unstable. [18]

A source of regularity that flows against the trend of the diminishing line groups is the end rhyme where it does occur. Since the end rhymes knit otherwise unrelated portions of the text, they tend to increase order and coherence. The end words in this stanza are may, lonh, lay, lonh, clis, albespis, gelatz. The first and third lines have unobtrusive and commonplace sounds, while the second and. fourth highlight the unusual and thematically central lonh. Lines five and six end in a sound which does not attract attention, though the three syllables of albespis prepare the way for the cynical and odd gelatz that ends the stanza. The rime riche on lonh is the only appearance of the on sound except for embronx in line five. Thus, just as in Robert Johnson’s blues pattern, the rhymes lead one to look for a problem (lonh, line two), which is restated in a more intense form (lonh, line four), and which then concludes with a wholly new element which remains for the present ambiguous in implication. One is impelled toward the next stanza for further information.

The first line flows decorative idyllic way, its 1’s and n’s lulling the reader, but these sounds leave by mid-stanza, though both return at the end. So they reinforce the ambivalent pattern of flight and return with renewed vigor. As for vowel sounds, the a’s dominate the first line and e’s the second; the pattern precisely repeats in lines three and four. In the last three lines, though, the two vowels occur in a balanced static pattern. The nasalized sounds which were identified with the nut of the mystery lonh, are repeated in the rhyme words of Iines two and four, yet are absent from the last line.

Is the dilemma resolved or is it merely kept at bay? The center line, stuffed with consonants, slows to make a statement of the problem being processed, but its shape is so very elegant that it implies that the problem cannot be devastating.

The penultimate syllable of every line of the stanza has the vowel sound e. This subtle effect is at once a bearer of an absolute drumbeat of regularity and a representation of the distance between desire and fulfillment, a sound, that holds itself back just before the end.

In reviewing the sound patterns, harmonious patterns include the shrinking size of the syntactical unit, the unfamiliarity of the sounds in the last line, and the inconclusiveness of the penultimate e's. Contrary to these elements are the predictably returning stanza form, the symmetrically returning 1’s, and the dependability of the e’s. The evocation of ambiguity is not, then, limited to the words’ meaning in the poem, but also includes their sounds.

What does the balance of these patterns suggest about the nature of poetry? The same concept that the muses were enunciating when they told Hesiod they could both lie and speak the truth, the same as Prometheus had in mind when he said that in his agony he could neither speak nor be silent. Though the poet cannot dissolve the distress, he can assume magical control over it and act out its subjugation once it is rendered in a form available to manipulation. He presents even intractable elements of his situation in forms that are apparently “tamed,” though neither sounds nor idea can be wholly tamed; that is, neither will cease generating problems, but this is precisely the energy that moves the poem forward.

To cast a poem, however, the poet must first conduct his own work safely through the gauntlet of paternal tradition, what Bloom calls the paternal/prenatal/protonomic. Though the materials of art may react ferociously against one another, their field of play is reduced to an arena of graceful and melodic piping in relation to the world beyond the work of art. This is true even for an artist like Robert Johnson in whose recordings the enacted tension is so great it is as though the man sang by grinding his teeth. In Jaufré’s poems the differing requirements of convention produce a surface more cosmetically calm, but with a calmness profoundly ironic. For this canso is evidence to the reader of what he already knows, that only in struggle, in the no man’s land between silence and speech, can language turn on itself and make a poem.



1. The complex love Jaufre expounds provides one of several “germinative moments” for this poetry. Another is found in the highly economical statements of riddling as in several poems of William IX, old English riddles, etc. At times both the richness and the red herring of erotic associations are removed and the contradiction appears bare, as in Zen koans.

2. Very briefly, one might note the biographical approach to be characteristic of earlier critics. Grace Frank (“The Distant Love of Jaufré Rudel,” MLN 57, 1942, p. 528) reads the poems as allegories of a desire to go to the Holy Lands, while Carl Appel (“Wiederum zu Jaufre Rudel," Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 107, 1902, p. 138) took their true object to be the Virgin. To my mind the
most sophisticated formulation is that of Leo Spitzer (L'amour lointain de Jaufré Rudel et les troubadours, Chapel Hill, 1944). Spitzer provides meaningful parallels for certain troubadour expressions in the writings of St. Bernard and explicates both as evidence for the “paradox of love,” combining an ego-aggrandizing wish to possess with a devotional, self-debasing impulse.

3. This is attempted in a rudimentary way in Wilhelm's Seven Troubadours (University Park, Pennsylvania; 1970), though there the intent is only to dispose of more unlikely hypotheses.

4. Rupert Pickens in his edition of The Songs of Jaufré Rudel (Toronto, 1978) provides in his introduction an original rationale for the acceptance of a polymorphous text. Not only is he critical of the generally accepted search for a single authoritative reading; he is also interested in the text's subsequent mutation through emendation and the like, regarding even changes that are definitely not the original author's intention as possible "improvements", and the text that results is to him deserving of critical attention qua poems regardless of authorial intention.

5. Perhaps the very violence of this yoking is itself salutary. The surprise we expect each text to show in reaction to the other may shake loose certain rarely questioned assumptions and allow us to come up on ourselves unawares.

6. Alan R. Press, Anthology of Troubadour Poetry (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), p. 18. The text of Jaufré’s poem which I am using is from this edition, though it lacks the tornada, which may be found, for instance, in that of Thomas G. Bergin, Anthology of the Provençal Troubadours (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973).

7. See the thorough discussion of nature values in the alba in Jonathan Saville, The Medieval Erotic Alba: Structure as Meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972).

8. Among the possible extensions of the situation in erotic psychology would be sado-masochist lovemaking, yogic sex without orgasm, infantile longing for the remote and all-powerful mother.

9. A specifically poetic example of this association is in the rather sham use of the word "metarsios"by Pindar to describe the poet in inspiration.

10. This is, of course, very familiar. One might think first of Greek divination and of the Holy Ghost.

11. Though the identification is a commonplace, I would like to mention two especially intriguing examples: first, the complicated metaphor of the Falkenlieder of Minnesang and second, the negative form of the type -- the poet as absurd chicken in the film of Der Blaue Engel or in Neidhart von Reuental’s “Sinc an, guldin huôn, ich gibe dir weize.” Here not only the plumpness of chickens makes them ridiculous and even hateful, but also their economic use as food source which compels their keepers to view them with contempt.

12. I am thinking here specifically of Bloom’s discussion, toward the end of Kaballah and Criticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1975) and of de Man's in Chapter 8 of Blindness and Insight (New York: Oxford Press, 197l).

13. The song is recorded on Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers (Columbia Records CL l654), side 2, track 4. The recording was made in 1937. Unable to obtain a transcript- of the text, I simply copied the words from the record. The only transcription of which I am not entirely certain is the exclamation in the last line which may be slightly misrepresented by my rendering “boy.”

14. Often early troubadour poets will explicitly claim to be making a new song, or a new sort of song. One example among many is William IX's “Farai chansoneta nueva.” Similar claims occur in many traditions, including archaic Greek and ancient Hebrew.

15. Johnson deals frequently, even obsessively with themes of diabolism. Compare his “Me and the Devil Blues” or “Hellhound on my Trail” on the same record cited above.

16. The very blues form, with its repeated first line of the stanza and the rhyme
that ends the second line, implies this sort of pattern. See below for its likeness to the stanza-tornada system in Jaufré.

17. The same sound analysis could be set forth for Johnson's work, of course, as
well, but I will not delineate its details here not only for reasons of space, but because, having a recorded performance of the poem enormously complicates the task of understanding in ways irrelevant to Jaufré for whom we can have no such recording.

18. The same obvious pattern is expressed in the modulation of end-line punctuation, from rest to half-rest, and in the enjambement or lack of it.

19. There are not only four l’s in the last line as opposed to three in the first, but also the end position implies by its geography on the page a greater weight, a solidity of conclusion, just as the end of a line does in a lesser way, and the of the work as a whole in a greater.

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