Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Fowles in the frith

At seven, birds and squirrels flit and climb in the lilacs, and a lovely morning light lies in weightless panels on the green grass. To think that the air was juggling flurries so few days ago! And this little bit of 13th-century medieval marginalia runs in my head:

Fowles in the frith,
The fisses in the flood,
And I mon waxe wood
Much sorwe I walke with
For beste of bon and blood.

Wodewose being tamed by a lady,
15th-century tapestry, Basel
Wikipedia, public domain

Is it a courtly lyric in the voice of the lover in spring, thinking of his lady, to him the best of bone and blood, the best of all mortals? Is his unrequited love what sends him mad, to "waxe wood"?

Or has he suffered a great loss (death of the beloved lady, loss of a loved child, death of loved friends in battle?) Does he flee to the wild wood to be a wodewose, waxing mad in grief?

Or is he thinking of the Fall of Man and how all walk in sorrow because mortals are but beasts of bone and blood, mortal and sinful? (I'm remembering Chaucer's "Balade de Bon Conseyl," where a man is a kind of beast in a stall: "Forth, pylgryme, forth! forth, beste, out of thi stal!")

Or is the writer thinking of the Fall, sorrowing and thinking of Christ as the union of God and earthly man, the best of bone and blood? The fowls and the fish have no such need for reflection and are so without his sorrow.

Or, could it even be in the voice of Christ, so often portrayed as retreating in the wilderness? Could it be Christ, reflecting on Creation's fifth-day birds and fish and grieving for the human beast of bone and blood?

Is the poem somehow, mysteriously, all of these things at once, braided together, all those riches compacted? It's such a simple little abbab stanza, tied beautifully together by alliteration, jotted down in the midst of facts and numbers, with a bit of musical notation.

And somehow, also mysteriously, drifting in my mind.


A few notes

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini:
Merlin as war lord, mad in the Caledonian Forest.
Translation information and notes here

And [Merlin] mourns the [three brothers lost in battle], nor ceasing to pour out tears, he sprinkled his hair with dust and ripped off his clothes and lying flat on the ground he rolls now this way now that. Peredur comforts him, as do the nobles and dukes, but he desires neither solace nor to endure their supplicatory words. By now he had lamented for three days entire and had refused food, such great grief had consumed him. From that time on, after he had filled the air with so many and such great laments, he suffered a new madness and stealthily withdrew and fled to the woods, nor does he wish to be seen while fleeing, and he enters the forest and rejoices to skulk beneath the ash trees and marvels at the beasts grazing on the grass of the glade; now he follows them, now he passes by them at a run. He consumes the roots of plants, he consumes the plants, he consumes the fruit of the trees and the blackberries from the bramble bush; he becomes a man of the woods as though devoted to the woods. From then on during the whole summer he was discovered by no one and forgetful of himself and of his own kindred he hid himself in the woods, clothed in the manner of a wild beast. But when winter came and it had carried off the plants and all the fruits of the trees and he could not enjoy what he had, he poured forth such complaints as these in a pitiable voice: “O Christ God of heaven, what shall I do? In which part of the earth will I be able to remain since there is nothing here that I can eat?”

21  homo cum in honore esset non intellexit conparavit se iumentis et silebitur:
(Man when he was in honour did not understand: he hath been compared to senseless beasts, and made like to them.)


Only yesterday I thought that I might stop blogging--thought that perhaps it would be best. And now here I am again, all because of the little fowls in the frith, the happy fishes in the flood.


  1. in the bit of auld scottish poetry i've read, "firth" is spelled "frith"; so is this a scottish poem and are the birds swimming in the water? along with the fissies? it seems like it should have a religious context, what with all the walking in sorrow... along with the birds... i hope you don't quit blogging; you bring a lot of cheer into a lot of hearts; but your life is your own, like everyone's, and the only constant, maybe, is change... and so it goes(whatsisname, the guy who smoked pallmalls...)

    1. I probably won't stop... I thought about it yesterday and then posted today, so that suggests not!

      Well, I was just trying to find out the place where the manuscript notation was found to answer your question. And I found out something else interesting instead. "The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature" says "frith" means both "woods" and "divine law." I knew about the "beste" meaning "beast" as well as "best," but I did not know about "frith."

    2. Poet Robert Hass, in "Now and Then: The Poet's Choice Columns, 1997-2000," says that it was written in the margin of a legal manuscript. That's pretty much what I thought, but I don't know more than that it is in Middle English. So I haven't found where the legal manuscript was....

      Maybe somebody will come along and tell us!

    3. Oops, so no, the birds are in the woods and the fish are in the flood or sea.

      Middle English Dictionary online: Flod, sb. flood, sea, S, S2, PP; flood, C2, W; flode, PP; flodes, pl., PP; fludis, S3.—AS. flód.

  2. i get it. the guy's a lawyer. birds get to fly and fish get to swim, but i have to sit in this office dealing with below average jerks who barge in with silly and impossible requests.

  3. i get it. the guy's a lawyer. birds get to fly and fish get to swim, but i have to sit in this office dealing with below average jerks who barge in with silly and impossible requests.

    1. sorry i pressed the wrong button my better half helped me with the above; she's got masters in english and knows a lot of stuff...

  4. I'm so glad you've not stopped blogging! This is exactly the sort of writing that blogs do best, serving as a sort of vademecum that others can enjoy too. (I've been bad at it lately, but I should have a new poem installment up by Tuesday.)

    I have a glut of books about Middle Ages around our house, so I'll poke around and see what I can learn about this beautiful little lyric (which is new to me). If you prefer, I can not share anything with you that shrinks its gorgeous ambiguity...

    1. Yes, evidently not, though I did think about it strongly! I look forward to your new installment...

      Do! No, tell all. I think that I've come to feel that it's an extremely open poem that can be many things at once. I'm surprised that a piece of my head-furniture was new to you, Jeff--at least a medieval piece.

  5. I'm glad you haven't stopped.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.