I Know of a Beauty

I know of a beauty are the opening words of an untitled poem that was written between 1264-1314 and can be found in the Harley 2253 MS.

The poem is a paean of praise to the poet’s beloved. In the course of its five stanzas, she is compared to precious stones, herbs, birds, spices and heroic figures of the past.

As the introduction to the poem makes clear, I know of a beauty has a complex poetic structure.

… in the original, a single rhyme binds the first eight lines, and a couplet rounds it off. Each line has four stresses, and the foot is basically anapaestic: of the fifty lines, twenty-eight are alliterated on every stress, fourteen on three of the four, and of the remaining eight lines, seven have the stresses alliterated in pairs.

Phew. It makes me tired just to read that. Here is how the first stanza of the poem looks in translation.

I know of a beauty, a beryl most bright,
As lovely to look on as silver-foiled sapphire,
As gentle as jasper a-gleam in the light,
As true as the ruby, or garnet in gold.
Like onyx she is, esteemed in the height;
A diamond of worth when she’s dressed for the day;
Like coral her lustre, like Caesar or knight;
Like emerald at morning, this maiden has might.
     My precious red stone, with the power of a pearl,
     I picked for her prettiness, excellent girl!

Well, I can’t fault the poet’s use of imagery but the poem does rather creak. Its problem for me is that nearly every line is self-contained. There are a few run-ons but not enough to allow the poem to really breathe.

With that said, the poet’s inventiveness is very winning. His true love is ‘a beryl most bright…fragrant as sage… a laverock untamed… cinnamon chested… Fairer than Floris…’. There is a little uncertainty here – what, exactly, is a laverock? According to Wikipedia, ‘laverock’ is Scots for lark. When the poet describes his lady as being ‘cinnamon chested’, I wonder if this means she has tanned skin?

Going back to Wikipedia, it also says that larks have mythological significance, being a symbol of daybreak and – in the Renaissance – of Christ. As if that wasn’t enough, the birds have, historically, also been considered as game. That’s a lot of imagery and meaning packed into one word!

Was it all relevant to the poet, though? That requires further study. According to the Middle Ages blog, though larks were eaten at that time. The minute we suggest that the poet was comparing his lady-love to something that could be eaten, we are entering very fruity territory. Well, let’s not be modest about it, we are talking about sex.

But sex is definitely on the poet’s mind. We see the start of it in the rhyming couplet that concludes the first stanza, above, and it is continued in the second when the poet exclaims that the ‘sight of her beauty brings bliss’. The apogee of this element of the poem occurs in fourth stanza,

Christ blesses her gladly and grants me my boon
When our darkly-hid doings are done in the daylight.

I think it is a bit cheeky to invoke Christ in this way but there it is.

By the way, when the poet speaks of ‘our darkly-hid doings’, I wonder if he is not talking about the fact that they are having sex when they ought not to be (i.e. because they aren’t married). Although this may be accurate, I find myself resisting the notion because of the invocation of Christ’s name. Would he be invoked in this way? I suppose he has been for much worse.

An alternate reading of ‘darkly-hid doings’ is that it is a reference to the fact that normally the lovers – legitimately or otherwise – have only been able to make love at night time. Thanks to the Lord, however, they are sometimes able to do so during the day – a very precious gift because now they can see each other!

I know of a beauty has been a challenging poem to write about because I am unfamiliar with the detail of mediaeval love poetry. The opening paragraphs of this blog post could not have been written without the introduction to the poem.  As for the rest, larks and sex in a mediaeval context will never stop being interesting things to ponder!

lark_wikipediaLarking Around – Picture from Wikipedia


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