The Works of Gwerful Mechain: A Broadview Anthology of British Literature Edition, Trans. by Katie Gramich

The Works of Gwerful Mechain Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsThe Works of Gwerful Mechain
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Official Summary

Gwerful Mechain is the only Welsh female poet from the late middle ages whose poems have survived as a substantial body of work. One of the most immediately striking characteristics of her poetry is the easy coexistence in her oeuvre of devotional and erotic works. Even to those who may be familiar with the bawdiness of Chaucer or Boccaccio, Gwerful’s work is remarkably direct. Yet, as the introduction discusses, some coexistence of the erotic and the religious was not entirely untypical of medieval literary production in Wales; overall, indeed, one of the most important characteristics of Gwerful’s work is its position in the mainstream of medieval Welsh poetry. Her themes and techniques do not mark her as a marginal or isolated figure, participating in some putative female sub-culture; on the contrary, she engages in poetic dialogues with her male contemporaries, using the same forms, tropes, and vocabulary as they do, and jousting with them verbally as their equal. At the same time, she often speaks with a female voice, taking her peers to task for their male arrogance.

All of Gwerful’s known work is included here-as are several poems of uncertain authorship, and a number of other works that help to fill in the historical and literary context.

A unique feature of the volume is the provision, for each work of medieval Welsh poetry included, of two different translations. The first, a literal translation, is presented in facing page format opposite the original Welsh; a second, freer translation, with rhyme patterns approximating those of the original, follows.

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Review

After I learned that there was a semi-famous female Welsh poet from the Middle Ages, I knew I had to track down Gwerful Mechain’s work. She is perhaps most noted for her poem celebrating her, um, lady parts, but she fascinated me because of how she wrote both erotic and religious poetry. It was her frank enjoyment of her sexuality that apparently led to her being erased from the canon, since her poems proved embarrassing to later, more prudish generations. (We should probably acknowledge here that male writers like Chaucer managed to live on, even if the more risqué parts of their writings were sometimes excised by later editors.) But that coexistence of the earthly and the heavenly is part of the Middle Ages, and many writers at that time apparently saw no reason to be ashamed of it. Mechain is a true poet of her time!

And, as the book takes pains to note, Mechain’s work is not part of any female sub-culture. She was part of a number of Welsh writers who exchanged poems with each other. They apparently saw her as an equal. Sometimes our understanding of the past is a little more simplistic than what actually happened. Though female, Mechain, in her own day, was an active agent, a known poet. People collected her works and many were copied down for us to discover later. (Other poems in this collection are only suspected to be by Mechain, their authorship not definitively recorded.)

Part of what makes Mechain’s work so interesting is her female perspective on things–a perspective she shares in response to some of the sexist writings of her day. In one poem, Mechain pokes fun at the trope of the jealous husband by pretending to criticize wives who will not share their spouses with other women. In another, she defends a woman who was being attacked by a male poet (the woman’s one-time lover)–Mechain even goes as far to allude to the allegation that the man had raped the woman. And her famous poem to her female anatomy? A response to a male poet’s celebration of his, shall we say, member. But also a response to the male poets who celebrated every part of a woman’s body except, as Mechain playfully says, the most important part. Mechain was working within the poetic culture of her day, but also challenging and subverting it.

This Broadview anthology notes that the poetic form in which Mechain usually worked was extremely complicated–one that is perhaps not easily replicated outside of the Welsh Mechain wrote in. To give readers some idea of the spirit of the poem, one freer translation is provided, along with a more literal translation. (The original Welsh version is also given.) How well the translations work I cannot say, not being able to read Welsh. However, I still found that Mechain’s voice seemed to come through. Her intelligence. Her liveliness. Her wit.

That so few of Mechain’s poems remain is a shame. I loved the sheer breadth of them, from a reflection on Christ’s death on the cross to her exchanges with another Welsh poet thought to be her lover. Mechain never holds herself back, imbuing her poetry with raw emotion that sings out even today. Anyone interested in writings from the Middle Ages should not overlook Gwerful Mechain.

4 stars

A Few Favorite Poems (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

What are some poems you enjoy from classic authors?

Although Stephen Crane (1871-1900), author of The Red Badge of Courage, may be best known as a novelist in the naturalist tradition, he also released two volumes of poetry: The Black Riders and Other Lines and War Is Kind and Other Lines.  His poems run the gamut from reflecting on life, the relationship of God and man, the nature of war, love, and more. They often strike questioning or contradictory notes with Crane seeming to teeter between belief and doubt, hope and despair, idealism and realism. They also have a tendency to focus on unexpected moments or to depict a keen sense of irony, such as in “Fast rode the knight,” where at first Crane seems to depict a romantic vision of war, only to end by illustrating war’s brutal effects on the innocent:

Fast rode the knight
With spurs, hot and reeking,
Ever waving an eager sword,
“To save my lady!”
Fast rode the knIght,
And leaped from saddle to war.
Men of steel flickered and gleamed
Like riot of silver lights,
And the gold of the knight’s good banner
Still waved on a castle wall.

. . . . .
A horse,
Blowing, staggering, bloody thing,
Forgotten at foot of castle wall.
A horse
Dead at foot of castle wall.

The cruelty of war is a theme Crane returns to again and again, as in his longer poem “Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.” This poem expertly juxtaposes all the words of empty comfort and propaganda that depicts war as a shining, splendid thing with the effects of the people left behind. This excerpt shows a certain kinship with the work of Wilfred Owen, the WWI poet whose works revealed the horror of war, in contrast to some of his more patriotic contemporaries:

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

      Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
      Little souls who thirst for fight,
      These men were born to drill and die.
      The unexplained glory flies above them,
      Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom—
      A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

      Swift, blazing flag of the regiment,
      Eagle with crest of red and gold,
      These men were born to drill and die.
      Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
      Make plain to them the excellence of killing
      And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Still other poems from Crane grapple with questions about justice, mercy, death, God, and romance. But one of my personal favorites is one on the nature of writing:

Many red devils ran from my heart
And out upon the page,
They were so tiny
The pen could mash them.
And many struggled in the ink.
It was strange
To write in this red muck
Of things from my heart.

Here he depicts writing as a violent, horrifying act, one that probes his innermost heart and finds terrible things there. It is an interesting contrast to depictions of writing as peaceful, illuminating endeavors where one finds one’s inner self, passes on a vision, or creates something beautiful. Crane’s poem acknowledges the darkness inside people as well, and suggests that the act of creation can simultaneously have a destructive quality. Or perhaps that writing actually exorcises the demons? As with so many of his poems, what exactly he means to say, what stance he is taking, remains unclear, and completely opposing interpretations of his lines seem equally valid.

Crane’s poems are in the public domain so, if you want to read more, they’re just a search away.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Information

Goodreads: Long Way Down
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Will just watched his older brother die.  And he’s pretty sure he knows the guy who shot him.  So it’s time to follow the Rules.  The most important Rule?  Get revenge.  But as Will takes the elevator down to find his target, he is joined by a series of spirits who tell him their stories.  It seems that the Rules solve nothing and only continue the cycle of violence.  And suddenly Will has a choice: follow the Rules and end up like Shawn, or ignore the Rules his family has passed down for generations.  A novel told in verse about the futility of gun violence.

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Review

Jason Reynolds has previously impressed me with his vivid characterization and his sympathetic portrayals of young people trying to make their way through a broken world.  I was therefore very excited for Long Way Down, which has collected an impressive array of awards and honors.  However, though it pains me to say so, I did not connect with Long Way Down in the way I expected.  Instead, I was left with the impression that the awards were given for the message of the book and not for the actual execution of the story.

Long Way Down continues a long tradition of ghost tales in which individuals from the afterlife return to convince the protagonist to make better choices.  In this case, protagonist Will must be persuaded that following the Rules of his neighborhood–the Rules that demand he kill the person who killed his brother–will result in his death and continue the cycle of gun violence in his neighborhood.  This is an obviously didactic approach and one that must be handled deftly if readers are to immerse themselves in the story and not feel instead like they are receiving a Very Important Message.  And here the story struggles.

The bulk of the story focuses on various ghosts as they enter Will’s elevator and reveal details about their lives Will previously did not know.  As each new ghost appears, it becomes clear that the men in Will’s family have fallen one by one as they, following the Rules, were in turn shot by someone else following the Rules.  But as each ghost tells their story, Will himself fades into the background.  It is thus difficult to connect with Will or to feel his struggle, even though this is the critical point upon which the story turns.  Readers know more about Will’s confusion about how ghosts smoke than they know about his inclination to choose to follow or to reject the Rules.

Obviously, promoting an end to gun violence is a very laudable goal and it is heartening that Jason Reynolds chose to use his platform to spread a positive message.  In this respect, I commend Long Way Down.  However, I wish that the story had spent a little more time with Will so that readers could truly get to know him, before his story was subsumed by the stories of the others.  I appreciate that his story is, of course, a continuation of theirs.  But I still wanted to hear Will’s voice more.  The point of a book like this is to make a message personal, to make readers understand why Will sees a choice where someone else might see no choice at all.  But it is difficult to hear Will’s voice when the moral of the story is shouting over him.

3 Stars

Poets Who Might Surprise You–Even if You Don’t Like Poetry

Did you forget that April is National Poetry Month?  Here are few reading suggestions for you to celebrate–before it’s too late!  Even the non-poetry reading readers may find something to enjoy here, from Stephan Crane’s short (and easy to read) selection to Noyes’ celebrated romantic ballad “The Highway Man.”

Stephen Crane

Although best known as a novelist in the naturalist tradition, Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, also released two volumes of poetry: The Black Riders and Other Lines and War Is Kind and Other Lines.  His poems run the gamut from reflecting on life, the relationship of God and man, the nature of war, love, and more.  I particularly like his poems because they are often questioning and even contradictory.  In some, Crane seems to reaching for an idea of a just God–but may be conflicted about whether this justice is something people should be consoled by.  In others, Crane wonders whether there is a God at all.  Or if God is just making sport of humans.

Most of Crane’s poems are short and free form, so it’s easy to pick a few to read even if you are short on time.  They’re currently in the public domain, so available with a quick online search.  Here’s one from The Black Riders and Other Lines to get you started.

If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
Echoless, ignorant-
What then?

John Donne

One of England’s most famous metaphysical poets, John Donne’s work ranges from the erotic poem “The Flea”  (in which he compares sex to being bitten by a flea to seduce his lover) to his Holy Sonnets.  His work often deals with religion, but in unexpected ways, such as in “Holy Sonnet 14,” which begins, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.”  From there, the poet implores God to attack and overthrow him as if he were a fortress; only by capture, he says, can he be free.  His unconventional imagery may shock and disturb some readers. However, it is also one of his great strengths as poet, causing readers to think about topics in new ways.

Alfred Noyes

Noyes’ best-known work may be “The Highway Man,” a romantic ballad that tells of how the titular highwayman and his lover were betrayed by a jealous ostler.  The repetition and cadence make it wonderful for recitation.  Indeed, readers are probably most familiar with the poem as one recited by L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley.  This is the perfect poem for readers who unabashedly love the dramatic and the romantic.

Who are some of your favorite poets?

Collected Poems by Primo Levi, Trans. by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Collected Poems
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: 1988

SUMMARY

Primo Levi, perhaps best known for his testimony on surviving the Holocaust, also wrote a range of poems, some dealing with the Holocaust and the aftermath, others on simple pleasures like a game of chess.  This volume collects the poems of Shema and At an Uncertain Hour.

Review

Primo Levi’s poems are the type you can accurately call “haunting” and not feel like you are bandying about an empty cliche.  Steeped in the horror and emptiness of the Holocaust, many of them lament lost lives, lost belief, lost strength.  Many of them ask how humans became inured to horror.  Levi seems compelled to return again and again to the problem of the nature of evil, asking how things could go so wrong, and how he and the others are supposed to move forward now that they have physically left the camps.  And there are hints that he has never left at all, that history keeps repeating.

Levi’s testimony is mixed with other gems, poems about classical figures or about a game of chess.  His range and his learning are deep, and each poem is a delight and a surprise–even the painful ones delight with their precision and skill, the pleasure of a rightly placed word or an evocative image.  That translations could be so powerful indicates, I think, that Levi’s original work is extraordinarily powerful, as well.

The book is quite a short read, so even if you do not typically read poetry, it is worth picking up.  Levi wrote so that his experiences would not be forgotten.  And his words are always timely.

5 stars

Whimsical Fairies: Tolkien’s Disowned Poem is My Favorite (Guest Post by Lyse @ Belle Reads)

Tolkien Reading Event 2017

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the complete schedule here.


Early in Tolkien’s career, he published a whimsical fairy poem. It was quite popular at the time, although he eventually came to distance himself from it, as one does with early writing. In the time before his graceful warrior elves were introduced, he portrayed happy little creatures, the elves of fairy tales. He titled the short piece with words that conjure very different images in his well-known books: “Goblin Feet.”  Here is the first stanza:

I am off down the road
Where the fairy lanterns glowed
And the little pretty flitter-mice are flying
A slender band of gray
It runs creepily away
And the hedges and the grasses are a-sighing.
The air is full of wings,
And of blundery beetle-things
That warn you with their whirring and their humming.
O! I hear the tiny horns
Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padded feet of many gnomes a-coming!
O! the lights! O! the gleams! O! the little twinkly sounds!
O! the rustle of their noiseless little robes!
O! the echo of their feet – of their happy little feet!
O! the swinging lamps in the starlit globes.

 

Tolkien seems to have written the poem for his fiancee, Edith Bratt. And while he may have come to regret it, this poem has always been my favorite of his verses. I do like The Lord of the Rings, of course, and I’ve read Roverandom and portions of The Silmarillion. But “Goblin Feet” is my earliest memory of Tolkien’s writing.

His writing, not of him. I was born knowing about Tolkien. My older sisters were a little obsessed with LOTR. They had movie calendars and all the soundtracks and beautifully matched trilogies. So I knew about Tolkien. But I wasn’t allowed to see the movies (my parents were quite concerned about the violence) and too young to read the books. I tried to join the obsession though. I memorized the track listings from hearing the soundtrack too many times. And I kept all the loose sheets from my sister’s page-a-day calendar. Even now, broody Aragorn graces my wall, reminding me of 2003, which is, now that I think about it, a really long time ago.

Aragorn Poster

So I knew about Tolkien. And when I discovered “Goblin Feet” in my Favorite Poems: Old and New, I was astonished. This was Tolkien just for me. This was Tolkien of the scary orcs and too-old-for-me bloodshed writing about dancing and fairies and everything that warmed my small girl heart. This was Tolkien in a length and lilt that I could memorize and impress adults with. This was Tolkien I could dance and skip and imagine to.

I’m sad–not surprised, but sad–that Tolkien eventually disowned this poem. “Goblin Feet” is the perfect amount of whimsy and earnest awe for small children. And for adults. We could all use more whimsy in our lives. Even today, 10+ years later, this poem reminds me of the little girl who was so yearningly serious and daringly whimsical. She might have been idealized and suppressed over time, hidden by “maturing” and “responsibility,” but I hope she never stops looking for fairies.

About the Author

Lyse was born into a family of Tolkien enthusiasts and proudly displays LOTR art on her mantelpiece. When she’s not doing adulty things, she reads YA & blogs about whatever enters her mind. Follow her blog at https://lyseofllyr.blog/ or follow her on Twitter for hardcore fangirling.

Myths, Marriage, and Making a Fool of Myself: Tolkien’s Legacy (Guest Post by Claire Wong)

Tolkien Reading Event 2017

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the complete schedule here.


Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun

There’s a lot of advice I’d like to go back and give to my 15-year-old self, and somewhere on that list would be “make sure you marry someone who accepts and endorses your love of Tolkien’s work.”

So when my husband surprised me on my birthday with a copy of a brand new posthumously-published Tolkien book, I knew I’d made some good life choices to reach this point.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is a book containing two long poems that tell the stories of characters such as Sigurd, Brynhild and Gudrun. It’s inspired by Old Norse mythology and features dragons, dwarves, doomed marriages and grisly deaths. This is not likely to be made into a film trilogy any time soon.

Gripping though the story is, it’s the style that really stands out. For where many authors choose to “update” mythology for their own time, retelling an old story in a modern format (Adele Geras’ novels “Troy” and “Dido” are just two of hundreds of examples you could find), Tolkien has stayed true to his source material by writing the poems in the traditional style of the Norse Poetic Edda. It’s not difficult to spot comparisons with Old English and Beowulf as you read it. The effect of this is that the reader is transported to another time and place. You have to imagine yourself in a Viking hall in a Scandinavian land many centuries ago. In the light of a roaring fire, a bard steps forward and begins to recite: he is telling you the story of the Volsungs.

It was therefore perhaps an error on my part to take this book into work and read it during my coffee break. You see, so good is Tolkien at his craft, that the words on the page are just crying out to be spoken aloud. Go on, read this next section out and see how delicious the words are:

In forge’s fire
of flaming wrath
was heaviest hammer
hewn and wielded.
Thunder and lightning
Thor the mighty
flung among them,
felled and sundered.

Isn’t it wonderful? The rising and falling rhythm with the alliteration makes a beautiful combination. It’s wonderful, that is, unless, like me, you just accidentally read those words out to a room full of your colleagues. Ignore the strange looks; they don’t understand.

Spoken poetry has been an important part of many cultures, from the Ancient Greek poet conjuring up the destruction of Troy by reciting lines from the Iliad, to today’s poetry slams where performers compete to deliver the most powerful verses. Some words simply refuse to stay confined to a page.

I challenge you to get through The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun without needing to hear how the words sound as Sigurd faces the dragon Fafnir:

but fell Fafnir
folk all name him
of dragons direst,
dreaming evil

Or indeed when he wakes Brynhild from her enchanted slumber, rather like Sleeping Beauty except that Brynhild is a lot fiercer than your average fairy tale princess, and even in her sleeping state wears full armour with a sword by her side. The relationship between these two is also less ‘happily ever after’ and more grim Norse myth, but you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly why.

All this muttering poetry to myself reminded me of another favourite Tolkien quote, from The Two Towers, where Gandalf says “I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to…!”

So if anyone looks at you oddly while you read Tolkien’s poetry, just tell them it’s a sign of your wisdom.

About the Author

Claire is an author and charity worker based in Yorkshire, where she spends a lot of time writing her next novel from a two-hundred-year-old cottage while drinking coffee and listening to folk music. Visit her at Claire Wong Writing.