men’s unruly sexual imagination: a beauty white as whale’s bone

separated from a whale-white beauty

Hear me! I to you will tell
of such anxious distress in which I dwell.
There’s no fire so hot in Hell
reserved for a man
who loves secretly and dares not tell
what he cannot understand.

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

I wish her well, and she wishes me woe;
I’m her friend, and she’s my foe;
I think my heart will break in two
for sorrow and sighing many nights.
In God’s favor may she go,
that beauty oh so white!

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

A beauty white as whale’s bone,
a gem in gold radiantly shown,
a turtledove my heart’s set on,
truest one in all men’s days.
Her blissfulness will never be gone
while music I can play!

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

No other woman’s so splendidly wrought!
When she’s blissfully to bed brought,
well were he who’s one with her in thought,
that excellent one!
Well I know she doesn’t want what I’ve got,
my heart is filled with woe.

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

Those eyes have truly torn my heart amiss,
her curved eyebrows bringing bliss,
her comely mouth that one might kiss,
he’d be filled with mirth!
I would change my lot for this:
to with her share a hearth.

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

May he who with her shares a hearth be so free,
and see worth in that he might accept a fee,
for that one woman I’d give three,
without haggling!
From Hell to Heaven, from sun to sea,
there’s none so beguiling,
nor with favors so free.

I wish I were a throstle-cock,
a bunting or a laverock,
sweet bird!
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would be hid.

{ Herkneth me! Y ou telle,
In such wondryng for wo Y welle!
Nys no fur so hot in helle
Al to mon
That loveth derne ant dar nout telle
Whet him ys on.

Ich wolde ich were a threstelcok,
A bountyng other a lavercoke,
Swete bryd!
Bituene hire curtel ant hire smoke
Y wolde ben hyd!

Ich unne hire wel ant heo me wo;
Ych am hire frend and heo my fo;
Me thuncheth min herte wol breke atwo
For sorewe ant syke.
In Godes greting mote heo go,
That wayle whyte!

(refrain)

A wayle whyt ase whalles bon;
A grein in golde that godly shon;
A tortle that min herte is on,
In tounes trewe!
Hire gladshipe nes never gon
While Y may glewe!

(refrain)

A wyf nis non so worly wroht!
When heo ys blythe to bedde ybroht,
Wel were him that wiste hire thoht,
That thryven ant thro!
Wel Y wot heo nul me noht;
Myn herte is wo.

(refrain)

Hyre heye haveth wounded me ywisse,
Hire bende browen that bringeth blisse!
Hire comely mouth that mihte cusse —
In muche murthe he were!
Y wolde chaunge myn for his
That is here fere.

(refrain)

Wolde hyre fere beo so freo,
Ant wurthes were, that so myhte beo,
Al for on Y wolde geve threo,
Withoute chep!
From helle to hevene, ant sonne to see,
Nys non so yeep,
Ne half so freo.

(refrain) }

*  *  *  *  *

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Notes:

manuscript text of A wayle whyt ase whalles bon

The Middle English text above includes most of the poem (minstrel song) known as “A wayle whyt ase whalles bon {A beauty white as whale’s bone}.” It is recorded only in the Harley manuscript (London, British Library MS Harley 2253), folio 67r. The Harley manuscript is dated to about 1330. “A wayle whyt ase whalles bon” is recorded in that manuscript in a condensed form, with the order of the stanzas apparently misplaced. Fein (2014) seems to me to provide the best reconstruction of the Middle English song. Millett (2003) follows more closely the manuscript presentation.

Relative to Fein’s reconstruction of the poem, I’ve made changes to help modern readers appreciate the poem as a minstrel song. I’ve used prose capitalization style in the modern English translation to lessen readers’ fears of poetry. The invocation “Who would of love be true, do listen to me! {Wose wole of love be trewe, do lystne me! }” I’ve eliminated as distracting. In addition, I don’t believe the song would have begun with its refrain. As Parker (2011) points out, “Hear me {Herkneth me}” is a common opening to Middle English poems.

I’ve eliminated the fourth stanza as potentially upsetting to readers in our more orthodox and doctrinaire age. That stanza declares:

When she is blissful,
Of all this world I ask no more
Than to be with her, my own, lodged
Without argument.
The distress I’m entangled in,
I blame upon a woman.

{ When heo is glad,
Of al this world namore Y bad
Then beo with hire, myn one, bistad
Withoute strif.
The care that Ich am yn ybrad
Y wyte a wyf. }

Trans. and text from Fein (2014). The specified circumstances “When she is blissful … Without argument” hint that wives could have difficult moods and be argumentative. In the last line of the stanza, the poet went as far as to blame a woman. That’s just not acceptable today, even if the woman is guilty of a criminal offense. Following current academic orthodoxy, Ransom describes the last two lines of this stanza as “antifeminist” and as having a “misogynistic ring.” Ransom (1985) p. 69.

I’ve also eliminated stanza six. That stanza invokes a man lovesick for a woman to the point of death. Modern academics are obsessed with myths of misogyny and scarcely comprehend that most men love women dearly. Even relatively innocent, unlearned persons tend not to appreciate how much men love women. That makes the stanza difficult for readers to understand.

Another problem is the last two lines of the stanza:

Greet her well, that sweet thing
With eyes of gray.

{ Gret hire wel, that swete thing
With eyenen gray. }

Trans. and text from Fein (2014). A leading medieval scholar has noted that “eyenan gray” is a fairly common medieval English expression meaning eyes of clear blue color. But my sense is that the song focuses on behavior and action, not physical description of the beloved. The phrase “eyes gay” would suggest a way of behaving; “eyes of clear blue” doesn’t. Moreover, eyes of clear blue, at least to readers today, might allusively connect to a whale through water / sea. I think such a connection detracts from the emotional tension of “whyt ase whalles bon.” For these reasons, I believe that “gray” plausibly might be a scribal miscopying of “gay.”

The modern English translation above is mine, benefiting mainly from that of Fein. Relative to Fein’s translation, I’ve more strictly preserved the end rhymes and inter-stanza keyword / conceptual linking. I’ve also used some different diction to add alliteration and to bring out my sense of the song. Parker (2011) provides an alternate translation of Millett’s Middle English text.

The poem’s refrain figures the masculine poetic voice’s sexual longing for the beautiful woman. In contrast to the devaluation of men’s bodily desire in “courtly love,” the refrain boldly thrusts forward with a vigorous image of a bird. In ancient Greek myth, Zeus seduced Leda by taking the form of a swan. According to Pausanias, Zeus also ingratiated himself with his future wife Hera by turning himself into a cuckoo:

The presence of a cuckoo seated on the sceptre {of Hera} they explain by the story that when Zeus was in love with the virgin Hera, he changed himself into this bird, and she caught it to be her pet.

{ κόκκυγα δὲ ἐπὶ τῷ σκήπτρῳ καθῆσθαί φασι λέγοντες τὸν Δία, ὅτε ἤρα παρθένου τῆς Ἥρας, ἐς τοῦτον τὸν ὄρνιθα ἀλλαγῆναι, τὴν δὲ ἅτε παίγνιον θηρᾶσαι. }

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.17.4, Greek text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Perseus. There is no other ancient account of these events. Nonetheless, in accordance with a fundamental communicative principle, Wikipedia charges Zeus with raping Hera.

The Middle English poem more directly refers to delightful heterosexual intercourse. With learned analysis, Ransom showed that in fourteenth-century England, “cock” plausibly signified male genitals, as well as more typically a rooster. He poetically observed, “the assimilation of cock-rooster and penis would be perfectly natural, especially for any male compounder of metaphor.” Ransom (1986) pp. 71-2. Moreover, a woman’s “smok” was used in Middle English to refer to her genitals. Id. pp. 70-9.

The eminent classical Latin poet Catullus produced a fine poem about the delights of a woman and a bird:

Sparrow, my girl’s darling,
with whom she plays, whom she holds in her lap,
to your approaching she gives her finger-tip to peck and
provokes you to bite sharply,
whenever she, the bright-shining desire of my love,
has a mind for some sweet pretty play.
She hopes, I think, that when the sharper pang of love abates,
she may find some small relief from her longing.
Ah, might I but play with you as she does,
and lighten the gloomy cares of my heart!
This is as welcome to me as was
to the swift maiden the golden apple,
which, they say, loosed her girdle too long tied.

{ Passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quicum ludere, quem in sinu tenere,
cui primum digitum dare appetenti
et acris solet incitare morsus,
cum desiderio meo nitenti
carum nescio quid lubet iocari
et solaciolum sui doloris,
credo ut tum grauis acquiescat ardor:
tecum ludere sicut ipsa possem
et tristis animi leuare curas!
Tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae
pernici aureolum fuisse malum,
quod zonam soluit diu ligatam. }

Catullus, Carmen 2, Latin text and my English translation building on that of Harry Walker. Here’s Catullus 2 with a different translation and commentary.

The concluding stanza of the Middle English poem contrasts transactional sex-seeking with freely given sexual favors. Ransom perceives in the poem a humorous debunking of courtly love. Ransom (1986) p. 69. Yet it is more than that. Men often feel compelled to purchase sex.  With its repeated invocation of “sweet bird,” the Middle English song subtly affirms the intrinsic value and intimate goodness of men’s sexuality.

[images] (1) Whale bones on show at Burton Constable Hall, Burton Constable, East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Excerpt from an image thanks to Lawson Speedway and Wikimedia Commons. (2) The only surviving manuscript text of “A wayle whyt ase whalles bon {A beauty white as whale’s bone}.” From British Library manuscript Harley 2253, excerpt from folio. 67.

References:

Fein, Susanna Greer, ed. and trans. 2014. “A wayle whyt ase whalles bon: Introduction, Text, and Translation.” The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, Volume 2, Art. 36 in Booklet 5 (online).

Millett, Bella, trans. 2003. “A wayle whyt ase whalles bon: Introduction, Text, and Translation.” Wessex Parallel WebTexts (online).

Parker, Eleanor. 2011. “A Medieval Love Poem: White as Whale’s Bone.” A Clerk of Oxford (online).

Ransom, Daniel R. 1985. Poets at play: irony and parody in the Harley lyrics. Norman, Okla: Pilgrim Books.

4 thoughts on “men’s unruly sexual imagination: a beauty white as whale’s bone”

  1. most authors explain what they are doing at the beginning of a story or poem. I had to go to the footnotes to see what this was.
    Didn’t you ever learn the first lesson of “good” writing–
    i.e. 1) tell what you are going to say,
    2) tell them and then 3) tell them what you said
    Guess Who

  2. But why not an introduction to the poem
    telling where it came from
    Why hide that is in a footnote.
    But style aside — an interesting poem.

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