Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse

July 12, 2010

Before I leave for Durham in late September, I’m going to finish reading the Norton Anthology of Poetry (all 2200-odd pages). I have a little white string-bound journal that I’m keeping as my record, but this blog will also serve as an enthusiastic pasting-point. To start with, these are some anonymous lyrics from the 13th or 14 century, titled ‘Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?’, which translates roughly to ‘Where are those who came before us?’:

Mayden moder, hevene quene,
Thou might and const and owest to bene
Oure sheld ayein the fende.
Help aus sunne* for to flen*
That we moten* thi sone i’seen
In joye withouten hende.

[*: sin / flee / might]

[‘Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?’ ll. 55-60; Norton: 17].

Now, I’ve never learned Middle English, but I find this quite easy to understand. I think the mistake that many readers make is failing to read this older poetry aloud: with sound, meaning can often be wrought from the words and phrases our modern eyes fail to immediately recognise. Certainly, it would be easier to edit such a poem to appear as this:

Maiden mother, heaven queen,
Thou might and can and ought to be
Our shield against the fire.
Help us from sin to flee
That we might your son/sun see
In joy without an end.

Oh, oh, but the magic is lost! The metre is more or less preserved (the stresses of the fourth line are a little muddied, but still), the words merely modernised, but yet how much is lost! One of the absolute joys of reading old texts lies in that moment when, for the briefest fraction of time, our instinctual, aural mind understands in completeness what our eyes and analytical mind momentarily spurn. My tongue skips through these lines with an understanding before my eyes can make sense of what they see.

I laughed when I first came to the eleventh line of the same poem:

And in a twincling of an eye…

[l. 11; Norton: 16]

Isn’t it magnificent over how many centuries our twinkling eyes have carried? Isn’t it heartening and strange and terrifying and wonderful to think of how little people have changed? These poems I’ve been reading lately read of the same terrors and desires and happinesses we hold preciously to ourselves, six or seven hundred years later. Chaucer’s ‘Truth’ is just as difficult for many of us to grasp now as, no doubt, it was for us then:

Flee fro the prees* and dwelle with soothfastnesse*;
Suffise unto thy thing, though it be smal;
For hoord* hath hate, and climbing tikelnesse*;
Prees hath envye, and wele blent overall.

That thee is sent, receive in buxomnesse*;
The wrastling for the world axeth* a fall;
Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse*…

[* prees: crowd
…soothfastnesse: truthfulness
…hoord: hoard, hoarding, of material goods, money
…tikelnesse: insecurity
…wele blent: the Norton translates this as “prosperity blinds”
…buxomnesse: obedience
…axeth: asks for
…Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse: this beautiful line is what it sounds like, “Here is no home, here is nothing but wilderness”]

[‘Truth’ ll. 1-4, 15-17; Norton: 69]

2 Responses to “Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse”

  1. Cara Says:

    I agree with you, it sounds much better in the older English than in the newer stuff. I’m not sure what it is about it. The things that sound good in poetry and sound terrible despite their similarities continue to fascinate me.
    Sorry random comment 🙂

  2. […] and Most Animated (albeit slow-moving) Norton Discovery Tour, documented for the first time here: “bombleth” […]

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