El regreso del invierno

I’ve just looked out of my window and noticed that it is snowing.  I gather much of the rest of the country has been enjoying (or at least experiencing) snow for the past few days but round here we’ve just had rain (and a sort of rain/hail hybrid for a while last night).  The snow doesn’t seem to be settling, at least for now, but what’s falling from the sky is definitely snow rather than rain.

This simple meteorological observation brings me back to some poetical and (vaguely) philosophical musings that have been on my mind  recently.  I’ve just looked out of my window and noticed that it is snowing. I gather much of the rest of the country has been enjoying (or at least experiencing) snow for the past few days but round here, we’ve just had rain (and a sort of rain/hail hybrid for a while last night). The snow doesn’t seem to be settling, at least for now, but what’s falling from the sky is definitely snow rather than rain.

A couple of weeks ago my brother, Wulf, who is evidently a bit of a closet poet like me, blogged about a short poem he’d written on the return of winter.  The poem itself runs:

Who invited winter back to sup
At dawning summer’s promised cup?

It is, however, worth visiting the original blog post (which is also pretty short), as the sentence introducing the poem itself is also quite poetical in its imagery (albeit written in prose).  Incidentally, the title of my post is “the return of Winter” in Spanish, for no particular reason.

I’m not sure if it was reading that poem or talking to somebody else about the Canterbury Tales, or possibly a combination of both, that has led me to think several times over the past few weeks about the first couple of lines of the General Prologue.  Although I’m fairly familiar with a fairly large chunk of the Canterbury Tales (I’d estimate that I’ve probably read about half of them and know a handful of them pretty well), there are very few lines that I know by heart.  Amongst these are the lines which open the whole thing:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

As Middle English goes, those lines are fairly easy to understand but, in case you don’t dig the funky spelling, a modern paraphrase is “When April with its sweet showers / has pierced the drought of March to the root…”.  This suggests that in Chaucer’s time (the end of the 14th Century), March was a generally dry month in the South East of England and April was a wet one.  Of course, this same rule of thumb may not necessarily be expected to apply several hundred years later in North Wales (especially the dry part!) but we do often seem to get quite good weather in March.  This time last year, as I recall, we were going through a mini heatwave.  This year, we had particularly fine weather through much of February and it has turned quite wintry through March.  It had, however, managed to stay mostly dry until this last week but it seems that the sweet April showers have arrived a little prematurely.

Finally, I started reading an anthology of French poetry this morning and the very first poem, by Charles d’Orléans (who was roughly contemporary with Chaucer, though a few years younger), gives us something to look forward to (hopefully soon) once the current reprise of winter has run its course.  It begins like this:

Le temps a laissié son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluye,
Et s’est vestu de brouderie,
De soleil luyant, cler et beau.

Although that’s in fairly early Middle French (probably roughly to modern French what Chaucer’s English is to modern English), it should be reasonably easy to understand for anyone with a moderate grasp of French.  For the benefit of anyone else reading this, here’s a translation (the one from my bilingual anthology – Introduction to French Poetry by Stanley Appelbaum (Dover, 1969) – which doesn’t seem to list the translators; it could well be the work of Appelbaum himself):

The season has shed its mantle
Of wind, cold and rain,
And has clothed itself in embroidery,
In gleaming sunshine, bright and fair.

Regaining Paradise

If you’ve read my previous posts on the subject of poetry, you may well have come to the conclusion that my poetic tastes tend towards shorter poetic forms such as haiku and lyric poetry.  That’s probably a fair assessment, but every now and then I like to immerse myself in longer works of poetry too (at least for reading — my attemts to write poetry have so far been confined to shorter pieces and I don’t currently feel any inspiration to write anything longer).

At the moment, I am working my way through John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost.  This is widely hailed as a masterpiece of English literature and a copy has sat on my shelf for the last 3 years, waiting to be read (I’ve been meaning to read it for much longer, but that’s when I actually got round to getting a copy).  The poem is divided into twelve books (ten in the first edition) and, apparently, contains over 10,000 lines of verse so I’d say it’s definitely epic in length, at least. 🙂

It is written in blank verse (i.e. unrhymed iambic pentameter), which is quite a common metre for English poetry — it has been claimed that up to three quarters of all English poetry is in blank verse.  Shakespeare was another early proponent of blank verse, but apparently Milton was amongst the first people to use it significantly (and well) for non-dramatic poetry.

This is not the first time I’ve read, or at least started, an epic poem.  However, more-or-less by definition, any epic poem is too long to be read at a single sitting (unless you have plenty of time and a very comfortable chair) and I usually find myself reading part of an epic and then putting it aside for too long and losing the plot.  This time, I’m aiming to read a book each day, which breaks it into manageable chunks.

In general, I prefer to read poetry aloud, so that I can fully appreciate its sound (which, after all, is an essential part of what poetry is all about); by contrast, I usually try to read prose silently and without subvocalising so I can read it faster.  Since the first two books of Paradise Lost each took me about three quarters of an hour to read aloud, even going at a fairly fast pace, and since my time for reading each day is fairly limited, I’ve decided to go for a compromise and mostly read it quietly but with subvocalisation, pausing occasionally to reread particularly juicy phrases out loud.  This approach seems to be yielding an average reading time of about 20 minutes per book which, hopefully, makes it feasible to stick to my target of one book per day.  At that rate, I should have finished reading Paradise Lost just before Easter.

My plan, once I finish Paradise Lost, is to try to keep reading epic poetry on a fairly regular basis, in manageable chunks (the idea being to try to read any given epic in daily doses but probably to have longer breaks between poems).  Next up on my epic poetry reading list will probably be Paradise Regained, John Milton’s sequel to Paradise Lost (which I have bound in the same volume).  I shall then probably revisit some of the epic poems I’ve previously tried to read and not yet got round to finishing.  The ones that spring to mind are the Iliad (I’m just over half-way through it, reading a parallel text Greek-English edition mostly in English with occasional forays into the Greek), Dante’s Divine Comedy (I’ve read Henry Longfellow’s translation up to about the middle of Purgatorio – the second of three volumes – so I’ll finish this one, although someday I’d like to tackle it in Italian) and the Kalevala (again, in translation, as I doubt I’ll ever learn enough Finnish to read the original; I got about half-way through this one too — there seems to be a pattern developing). With each of these, I’ll have to decide whether to try and pick up the thread from where I previously got to (I think my bookmarks are still in all the relevant volumes) or to start again from scratch.

I’m not sure whether Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales count strictly as epic poetry but I’ll probably add them to my list and see if I can complete my long-ago started project of reading the whole lot (in Middle English, of course).  And then there’s the rest of Chaucer to read, as well as Piers Plowman and quite a lot of other Middle and Old English verse (including Beowulf in at least two modern translations as well as the original language!), not to mention many other epic poems from around the world and across the centuries.  In short, I’m not going to run out of poetic reading matter any time soon!