Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours

by Mark McGuinness on 31 March, 2014

Troubadour and dancer, from the cover of Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, edited by Robert Kehew

We all know vaguely who the troubadours were: those minstrels with (in Ezra Pound’s words) “trunk-hose and the light guitar” who wandered through the middle-ages, serenading ladies outside their windows and dodging jealous glances (and arrows) from the lord of the castle. They mastered the game of courtly love, or fin amor, and inspired generations of Romantically-minded poets, from Dante, Petrarch and Chaucer onwards.

The bohemian aura of the troubadour persists to this day: the Troubadour Cafe is a legendary performance venue in West London, its tiny stage having been graced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, as well as countless poets (including yours truly) at the Coffee House Poetry readings.

But who were the real troubadours? And what were their songs like?

For such an influential group of poets, it’s remarkable how little most of us know about them. Speaking from personal experience, it’s possible to take an English degree at a venerable university without knowing much more than the above, plus a hunch you might get brownie points for an essay on versification by name-dropping Arnaut Daniel as the inventor of the sestina.

Seeking to remedy my ignorance I naturally turned to Amazon, and discovered Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours edited by Robert Kehew.

Opening the book for the first time, I realised I’d stumbled on a treasure-trove. If you’re curious about the troubadours and their poetry, Kehew gives you practically everything you could wish for:

  • an introduction explaining the historical context, who the troubadours were, and how the game of fin amor was played
  • chronological selections from 28 troubadours, allowing you to trace the rise and fall of their kingdom of song through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries
  • individual introductions to each poet, including a contemporary biography (vida)
  • the original Old Occitan poems on the left-hand pages, and modern verse translations on the right.

The icing on the cake is that the book is beautifully designed and printed, and the cover is stunning.

There were only two minor disappointments for me, neither of which is the editor’s fault. Firstly, I was hoping my French might help me make enough sense of the original poems to enjoy them unaided by the translations. Alas, no. It really is another language, not just French with ye olde spellings:

Non es meravelha s’eu chan
Melhs de nul autre chantador,
Que plus me tra∙l cors vas amor
E melhs sui faihz a so coman.
Cor e cors e saber e sen
E fors’ e poder i ai mes.
Si∙m tira vas amor lo fres
Que vas autra part no∙m aten.

(Bernart de Ventadorn, ‘Non es meravelha s’eu chan’)

I can get the gist of this after reading the translation, and pick out a few words to check against the English, but not much more than that. It is, however, a delight to read the original text, to get a sense of the sound and structure of the verse, which seems a lot spikier than modern French.

Secondly I was hoping to discover some exciting new stanza forms I could use in my own poetry, and start playing with the troubadours’ dazzling technical effects. Which may still happen on some level – no one can read Arnaut Daniel without learning a thing or two about versification (see what I did there?). But it turns out that reproducing the verse forms in English is a pretty tall order. Kehew points out the common troubadour practice of estramp rhyme: rhyming across stanzas, not just within them. For example, here’s the second stanza of the poem by Bernart de Ventadorn I’ve just quoted:

Ben es mortz qui d’amor no sen
Al cor cal que dousa sabor;
E que val viure ses valor
Mas per enoi far a la gen?
Ja Domnedeus no∙m azir tan
Qu’eu ja pois viva jorn ni mes
Pois que d’enoi serai mespres
Ni d’amor non aurai talan.

So the rhyme scheme looks like this:



Note how the ‘B’ and ‘D’ rhymes retain their place, while the ‘A’ and ‘C’ rhymes swap places with each stanza break, so that the third stanza starts with ‘A’ again:


In other words, the poet is showing off. We may wonder whether his patron and audience noticed such technical subtleties, but we can rest assured his competitors did.

In a Romance language like Occitan, of course, there are many more rhyming words than in English, so it’s easier to do this kind of thing. It’s similar to the problem of translating Dante into English – but this is like terza rima on steroids, as you need a lot more than three rhymes at a time. No wonder even such an accomplished translator as Pound was forced to concede defeat:

I have proved that the Provençal rhyme schemes are not impossible in English. They are probably inadvisable.

(Quoted in Songs of the Troubadours by Anthony Bonner)

So no troubadour verse from me for the moment.

Three translators are better than one

One of the book’s strengths is that it gives us not one but three translators, allowing us to triangulate between them and the Occitan, to get a sense of what the poets were like, especially in those cases where a troubadour is served by more than one translator.

At one end of the spectrum we have Ezra Pound, with his inspired, archaic, and not-necessarily-literal translations. Sometimes Pound doesn’t even pretend to be translating the original, as in his ‘Descant on a Theme by Cercamon’. Fair enough: if you’re as good as Pound, you can get up on stage and improvise with the masters.

Pound’s versions are enchanting, haunting – and inevitably, we’re never entirely sure how much of this is Pound or his sources. The only instance where this is a real limitation for me is in the case of Arnaut Daniel, who wrote, according to his vida, “a kind of poetry with difficult rhymes, which is why his songs are not easy to understand or to learn”:

The bitter air
Strips panoply
From trees
Where softer winds set leaves,
And glad
Now in breaks are coy,
Scarce peep the wee
And un-mates.
What gaud’s the work?
What good the glees?

(Arnaut Daniel, ‘The Bitter Air’, trans. Ezra Pound)

Here we have one famously idiosyncratic poet translated by another. And all the poems by Daniel are presented in Pound’s translations, so we don’t have anything to compare them with. So while I’m dazzled by Pound’s versions, I’m still not sure that I’ve heard Daniel’s voice clearly. In Pound’s defence however, the jagged lines and violent enjambment don’t distort the form of the original:

L’aura amara
Fals bruoills brancutz
Quel doutz espeissa ab fuoills,
Els letz,
Dels auzels ramencs
Ten balps e mutz,
E non-pars;
Per qu’eu m’esfortz
De far e dir

Hold the page at arm’s length and you could be looking at a piece of deliciously free modern verse – it’s hard to believe Daniel was doing this kind of thing in the twelfth century. Inevitably, it’s not as free as it looks, since this opening is followed by another seven stanzas with identical line-length and rhymes.

At the other end of the translator’s spectrum are the texts by the anthology’s editor, Robert Kehew. These are, as far as I can tell, scrupulously accurate, and faithful to the verse form of the originals. They don’t have Pound’s extravagant magic, but they are very readable and enjoyable in their own right:

By the bank where the green grass grows,
Where the orchard’s fountain flows,
And the fruit tree’s branch bestows
Shade on the flowers there arranged,
Listening to the year’s new chanson,
I found her, without companion,
Who my company disdains.

(Marcabru, ‘By the Bank’, trans. Robert Kehew)

Somewhere between Pound and Kehew is W.D. Snodgrass: more scrupulous than Pound, and allowing himself more freedom than Kehew, his versions have a delightful zest and music:

Now the birds are leaving
And the leaves forsake the tree;
Others may go grieving,
You’ll see no grief in me.
How could leaves or flowers
Be worth my while to see
When my lady lours
And treats me scornfully.
I’ve a heart to leave her
But never find the power;
Mine, I still believe her
Through each despairing hour.

(Bernart de Ventadorn, ‘Now the birds are leaving’, trans. W.D. Snodgrass)

Beyond courtly love

So what do we glimpse through the prism of the three translators? I find myself reaching for cliches: it’s as if a door has opened on a secret garden; or as if a hidden spring has been released, gushing pure water; or as if a bird has been freed from a cage and started to sing – like the lark in the poem by Bernart de Ventadorn that gives the anthology its name:

Now when I see the skylark lift
His wings for joy in dawn’s first ray
Then let himself, oblivious, drift
For all his heart is glad and gay,
Ay! such great envies seize my thought
To see the rapture others find,
I marvel that desire does not
Consume away this heart of mine.

(Bernart de Ventadorn, ‘The Skylark’)

Isn’t this exactly how we imagine a troubadour singing of love? It’s so spectacularly familiar, this must be how the Richard III archaeologists felt when they uncovered a skeleton with a curved spine and a stove-in skull. The bird is clearly a distant ancestor of Shelley’s skylark. We can also trace the DNA of the nightingales heard by Milton, Keats and Coleridge:

When tender grass and leaves appear
While buds along the branches throng,
The nightingale so high and clear
Uplifts his voice to spill his song;
Joy in the bird and joy in the flower,
Joy in myself and my Lady much more.
Joy quite surrounds me; I live joy-possessed
Yet here’s one joy that outjoys all the rest.

(Bernart de Ventatorn, ‘When tender grass and leaves appear’, trans. W.D. Snodgrass)

So if you’re looking for searingly beautiful expressions of romantic love, with the thrill of discovering the hidden influences on countless famous poems, Lark in the Morning will not disappoint. But it turns out there’s a lot more to the troubadours than courtly love.

Some of the fare is anything but refined, such as ‘The Ladies with the Cat’ by Guillem de Peiteus, in which the cat gets off lightly compared to a not-so-gentle knight who encounters the ladies on the highway. This poem would delight the Chaucer of the Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales, and has even made it into the pages of Playboy.

Or how about this piece by the warrior-baron Bertran de Born, which opens like a conventional troubadour love song:

Well pleaseth me the sweet time of Easter
That maketh the leaf and the flower come out.
And it pleaseth me when I hear the clamor
Of the birds, their song through the wood;
And it pleaseth me when I see through the meadows
The tents and pavilions set up, and great joy have I
When I see o’er the campagna knights armed and horses arrayed.

(Bertran de Born, ‘A War Song’, trans. Ezra Pound)

The pastoral idyll is short-lived however, as the knights and horses start to run amok, attacking defenceless townsfolk, much to Bertran’s delight:

And it pleaseth me when the scouts set in flight the folk with their goods;
And it pleaseth me when I see coming together after them an host of armed men…

As the poem descends into carnage, with “battle-axes and swords… a-hacking through shields” and combatants “breaking heads and arms” on all sides, Pound’s (presumably unfinished) translation breaks down into prose, and we realise we are in the company of a bloodthirsty lunatic:

I tell you I find no such savour in eating butter and sleeping, as when I hear cried “On them!” and from both sides hear horses neighing… and see the dead with lance truncheons, the pennants still on them, piercing the sides.

It’s as though Brian Blessed’s Richard IV from the first Black Adder series had developed a taste for writing poetry. The gentle reader who finds this kind of thing a bit much may be reassured to know that Dante administered poetic justice to en Bertran, condemning him to carry his own severed head around the Eighth Circle of Hell in the company of other troublemakers.

If few troubadours can match en Bertran for sadism, plenty of them wrote enthusiastically of war, in the canso de crozada or ‘crusading song’:

The popularity of this song type reflected the grip that the so-called holy wars had on the Western medieval imagination. These lyrics could be openly propagandistic, such as Marcabru’s recruitment song “Pax in nomine Domini!” (“The Cleansing Place.”)

So there’s plenty in this anthology to trouble those of a Romantic sensibility. Not least in the power politics that are everywhere apparent in the feudal world of the troubadours – most crudely in the crusading songs, but also right at the heart of courtly love. In almost every case, the cansos of love make clear the relative social status of the lovers: in their songs, troubadours routinely abase themselves before their exalted ladies; the pastorela was a popular type of song that inverted the conventional status by describing an encounter between a knight and a lowly shepherdess; and the collection features two tenso (debate poems) between male and female troubadours, both of which discuss how much service a lover owes his lady, and vice versa.

What’s that? Female troubadours? Oh yes. Not all the ladies were content to be the subjects of troubadour songs. They were called trobaritz, and weren’t as numerous as the fellows in trunk-hose, but were accomplished, respected and even notorious composers in their own right. Like the Comtessa de Dia, who might be a distant, continental, aristocratic cousin of the Wife of Bath:

One night I’d like to take my swain
To bed, wearing no clothes –
I’d give him reason to suppose
He was in heaven, if I deigned
To be his pillow!

Comtessa de Dia, ‘Cruel Are the Pains I’ve Suffered’, trans. Robert Kehew)

As well as sex and violence, Lark Song in the Morning also contains plenty of humour, not all of which is confined to the poetry. According to the vida of Peire Vidal he was “one of the craziest men who ever lived, for he believed to be true whatever he liked or wanted”, and once disguised himself as a wolf and invited his neighbours to hunt him with dogs. Apparently his neighbours found it very funny when the mastiffs half killed him, but the biographer doesn’t mention whether Peire Vidal shared the joke.

Sirventes (satire) was one of the main types of troubadour song, and there are a few here that are still funny after eight hundred years, especially those of the Monge de Montadon, and Peire Cardenal, who wrote a ballad about “this worlds’ mad sanity” with a plot remarkably similar to the start of The Day of the Triffids.

The Last Troubadour

It’s almost too poetic to learn that the history of the troubadours ends with the lonely figure of Guiraut Riquier, dubbed ‘the Last Troubadour’. Born in 1230, he lived into his nineties, and saw the numbers and status of troubadours decline, to the point where he could no longer find a patron, lamenting “I was born behind my time”:

For now no art is less admired
Than the worthy craft of song.
These days the nobles’ tastes have run
To entertainments less inspired.
Wailing mingles with disgrace:
All that once engendered praise
From the memory has died:
Now the world is mostly lies.

(Guiraut Riquier, ‘It Would Be Best If I Refrained from Singing’, trans. Robert Kehew)

For the modern poet lamenting the world’s indifference to the art, it may be some consolation to know that poetic nostalgia has a long history. And for anyone interested in the roots of poetry in English, Lark in the Morning will be an eye-opener and a page-turner.


Are you new to the troubadours?

If so, have I sparked your interest?

If not – any suggestions for further reading? (Beyond Pound’s collected translations, which I have.)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Marial Shea April 2, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Wonderful! Thank you for this. I especially loved reading about the female troubadors, or troubairitz, who Wikipedia tells me were the very “first known female composers of secular music.” I also love the line from Snodgrass’s translation, “Joy quite surrounds me; I live joy-possessed.” I would love to know how these poems, and this language, sounded.


Mark McGuinness April 3, 2014 at 11:08 am

“first known female composers of secular music.”

Wow, I hadn’t realised that. They truly were groundbreaking.

I would love to know how these poems, and this language, sounded.

Me too. Apparently there are a few surviving troubadour melodies, so some people are trying to reconstruct the songs in performance.

There’s a CD on Amazon where you can listen to snippets of the recordings, but some of the reviewers question the authenticity of the arrangements, so I’ve held off from getting it.

If anyone can recommend a good recording of troubadour songs, I’d love to hear it.


Robert Longley May 20, 2014 at 12:26 am

As someone who writes a lot of poems, I probably should know more about the history of the art. I’ve occasionally found myself using old English in some of my writings. It’s a somewhat less than conscious effort on my part so I just go with the flow and write whatever I’m supposed to write. I don’t know that I would have made a very good troubadour. Interesting discussion thought.


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