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Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric

Fowles in the frith,
The fisses in the flood,
And I mon waxe wood
Much sorwe I walke with
For beste of bon and blood.

[Birds in the woods, fish in the stream, and I’m going mad. I walk with much sorrow for the best (or beast) of bone and blood.]

These brief five lines, found on a single page in a legal manuscript amid lists of names and dates, have attracted considerable attention in modern times, though their interpretation remains highly uncertain. The concision and elaborate sound-play of the piece have charmed readers even as experts cannot agree on the poem’s theme. The very mystery of the text may be itself admired, if the ambiguity be a sort that results not in lack of communication, but in the more precise communication of a more complex theme.

The unfolding of the sound pattern is a marvel of incantation, justifying the poem as a virtuoso melodic invention. The alliteration with the f-sound in the first line is repeated in the second to a resounding three-beat accentual rhythm. The third line turns instead to alliteration on w which is continued in the fourth and, in the end, all is swept away with three stressed words in the final line beginning with b.

This tight alliterative pattern, drawing on the Old English poetic tradition is combined with the ABBAB rhyme scheme to knit the whole into an almost hypnotic spell. The lovely music of the piece is self-sufficient, though many recordings exist due to the two-part musical notation accompanying the poem.

When these powerful phonic effects are linked to a semantic structure so delicately poised that an approximately equal number of critics have read the poem as an expression of romantic love and of Christian faith. The secular reading, which was dominant until the 1960s, treats the first two lines as the most conventional of medieval love poetry openings: a reverdie. Presumably the original form of the convention was equivalent to Tennyson line in “Locksley Hall”: “In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” “Foweles in the frith” tropes on the expression by reversing that sympathy with nature. In this poem all nature is fertile and thriving, but the speaker is depressed, presumably due to his lover’s lack of complaisance. The hyperbolic compliment (“beste of bon and blood”), the woman’s coolness, and the lover’s consequent suffering are among the expected components of the sort of courtly love familiar from countless other texts. The phrase itself appears with very nearly meaning the same other love lyrics such as “The Fair Maid of Ribbesdale” and “Blow, northerne wind.”

Early scholars took the poem without question as an expression of romantic love. Yet in the 60s another school of thought arose to whom the lines required a Christian reading. [1] For them the speaker is an Everyman suffering, “mourning and weeping in the valley of tears” while nature chugs on, grandly unbothered. [2] But the religious interpreters do not agree on the poem’s end. One camp favors the Hebrew scriptural association and the other the Greek. [3] Among the former, the word “beste” in the last line is read as meaning “beast,” and the derangement of the speaker, so out of tune with the rest of nature, is the result of original sin. A variety of Biblical passages have been adduced in support of this interpretation. The word beast is indeed used the Psalms to indicate a fallible, sinning person [4] In another Psalm the thoughtless human is identified with the brute creation. [5] The poem’s final line, read in this manner, might be paraphrased as “ I live in pain because I am a physical being, afflicted with His sorrow is the sorrow of Genesis 3:17 to which postlapsarian mankind is universally subject. As a creature of blood and bone, he feels the prick of thorns and thistles. The “unfallen” birds and fish, unburdened by original sin, enjoy a sort of bliss the tortured, self-conscious human envies.

Thomas Moser found that there are sixteen mentions of birds and fish together in the Christian Bible, thirteen on the Old Testament and three in the New. The two, encapsulating as they do the worlds of the air and the sea, are first linked in the creation story which describes both as the sole creations of the fifth day. Several ancient Hebrew passages imply just the sort of gap between humanity and the rest of the animal world that maddens the speaker in “Foweles in the frith.” Psalm 8 praises God for the birds and fish as marvels of his handiwork, yet asks “what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Similarly in Job beasts, birds, and fish are all called to astonish and awe, to humble the human, asking the devastating and unanswerable question: “what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” [6] The poem from this point of view delivers the same chastening reminder of the wretchedness of humankind in contrast to the brute creation.

Some, however, would maintain the romantic love reading of “beste of bon and blood,” but consider this as referring to Jesus Christ, the paragon. Christ is, after all, to them the Man of Sorrows foreseen by Isaiah. [7] Christ, too, was estranged from creation, enduring particular extreme suffering. As Matthew has it, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” [8] The poem’s speaker is sympathetically identifying with Christ’s suffering as Christians seeking to follow the imitatio Christi have done throughout history.

Ambiguity need not be a result of sloppiness. (In fact, I suspect that it is a major rhetorical device in Chinese poetry; it certainly is in Elizabethan.) I have here mentioned only a few of the puns and ambiguities of this little lyric. The two or three readings of “Foweles in the frith” continue to contend because, far from excluding each other, each elaborates, enriches, and, in the end, reinforces the others. Lyric is typically an expression of affect. This poem is like a cameo engraved with a mythological scene in which the hero battles a monster. The enemy might be a woman who rejects the poet. For a person of a different sensibility, it would be the ineluctable nastiness of our lives with which the ego fights, or the contemplation of such undeserved suffering projected onto a divine (or human/divine) figure. The emotional truth remains the same. The vision of a rich a thriving nature constantly reproducing itself without existential woe is identical for each reading. The consequences of being made of bone and blood does not change. It is this underdetermination that gives the poem its magic.

1. "A Critical Approach to the Middle English Lyric”, College English 27 (February 1966).

2. From the Salve Regina.

3. Thomas Moser’s PMLA article vol. 102, no. 3, May 1987.

4. For instance in Psalm 73.

5. 49.

6. Job 12.

7. 53:3.

8. 8:20.

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