Last time I promised another post on Philip Sidney, but before that, I want to take a little diversion into the early years of the 16th century…
The poem will have a familiar ring to anyone who has read a lot of late-medieval and early 16th century poetry, from the years before Wyatt and Howard (and, in a different way, Thomas More) brought new influences and ideas into English poetry. The poetry of this era is characterised by its simplicity – even the most famous poet of the age, John Skelton, wrote a great deal of his poetry in rhymed couplets. Poetry of this era has a sort of endearing naivety and often a sweetness – sometimes quite at odds with the character of the poet who wrote it (Skelton comes to mind again, but also his pupil, Henry VIII, who wrote a bit of verse on the side). The language has much of the middle ages in it, and the familiar themes are often drawn from the great cultural influences of the day: Catholic piety and (as here) chivalric romance.
You and I and Amyas,
Amyas and you and I,
to the green wood must we go.
Alas! You and I, my life and Amyas.
The knight knocked at the castle gate;
the lady marvelled who was thereat.
To call the porter he would not blin;
the lady said he could not come in
The portress was a lady bright;
Strangeness that lady hight.
She asked him what was his name;
he said ‘Desire, your man madame’
She said ‘Desire what do you here’;
He said ‘Madame, as your prisoner.’
He was counselled to brief a bill;
And show the lady his own will.
Kindness said she would it bear;
And Pity said she would be there.
Thus how they did we cannot say;
We left them there and went our way.
*(blin – cease, Strangeness – Aloofness, hight – be called, brief a bill – call a petition)
*Poem and language notes from The New Oxford Book of 16th Century Verse, ed. Emyrs Jones, Oxford, 2011
William Cornish was a poet, dramatist and composer who worked in the court of Henry VII and VIII, and was most famous for arranging the entertainments at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a great ersatz palace of cloth and wood, resembling a castle from a medieval romance, built for the meeting of Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. That was a great homage to the ideals of the chivalric age for the benefit of two young kings, at least one of whom was eager to renew the great martial endeavours of the middle ages – war between England and France. It is not surprising then that his poetry, too, celebrates the chivalric values.
The most beautiful part of the poem is the first stanza. I have not found a version of this poem with any kind of textual notes, but I take it that this stanza is a kind of chorus, although another version available online repeats only the last line of this chorus as a short refrain every four lines. Part of its beauty is in its directness – unlike the rest of the poem, it is in first person, and its message is urgent. Part of its beauty lies in its very mystery. Who are this couple, and why must they so urgently flee to the green wood with only love – Amyas – to accompany them? But a greater part of its beauty is in its sound. Reading that first stanza aloud, it is almost monosyllabic, and, with increasing syllables in each line, it accelerates the rhythm, as if it to evoke the heart beating beneath the armour’s knight or the lady’s mantle, or the beating hooves of the horse as he takes them on their way.
The rest of the poem, somewhat less mysteriously, explains the situation. A knight knocks at the castle gate and will not desist until the lady answers his call. It turns out this lady is Strangeness (Aloofness), and the knight is Desire, who is her prisoner – that is, he is in love with her- and has brought her a petition, no doubt asking that he be freed from his captivity – i.e. that she submit to him. The rather heavy-handed allegory is a reframing of Romance of the Rose motifs: a lovelorn man, a knight no less, supplicant to an unattainably aloof, beautiful noblewoman. The knight gets what he wants: Kindness and Pity, two chambermaids of the lady perhaps, or aspects of her inscrutable character, intercede on the Knight’s behalf and then – and then what, exactly? We don’t know, although we may guess – the poet, revealing himself as a passing stranger, tells us his party just then left the couple to their business.
This ending to the poem, like a camera moving towards a crackling fireplace as a hero embraces his heroine lustily, winks at the flesh and blood relationship between man and woman behind the categorical figures of Desire and Strangeness. If the opening stanza gives the poem a heartbeat, the ending gives it a very human little smile.