Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Small log / a Middle English poem

small log
10/30: Small log, oil on canvas panel, 3.5x7 in.

I found this perfect little log and had to do something with it. There was a lot of dragging of paint in the beginning because I started when the underpainting was still a bit sticky, but I liked that. It was about an hour and a half, and overall it feels good to me.

Old English word of the day:

wudu [wŭd'-ŭ]: wood.
I wish some of my previous pieces were this loose, and I like the colors a lot. I'm starting to really like the blue-green that comes from lightening the weird Prussian blue/oxide red mix, as it has a watery and almost mystical feel to it. This makes me think of a fish in water, which brought to mind this Middle English poem I'd read:

Foweles in þe frith,
   þe fisses in þe flod,
   and I mon waxe wod.
Mulch sorw I walke with
   for beste of bon and blod.

Birds in the forest,
   fishes in the sea,
   and I must grow mad.
Much sorrow I walk with
   for best of bone and blood.

This is an ambiguous but incredible little poem, very personal no matter what genre you believe it belongs to. I don't know anything really about Middle English so I'm unable to elaborate on the large amount of material already written about it. Leaving aside the expert discussions I've found on rhyme, rhythm etc., and how it all comes together to create such emotional impact in a few lines, here is what I've digested.

The shift from a picture of harmony in the world to something personally troubling comes on the word wod - which if it means "wood" could continue the pattern of the first two lines, but which in this context apparently means "mad." I assume that these two meanings of wod were pronounced differently (either with a short or long vowel, none of which are ever indicated), so if there is a play on words it is a subtler one. But the real ambiguity of the poem lies in what was originally meant by beste, and therefore the source of the sorrow:

(1) To be a "beast" of bone and blood means to experience sorrow like the aforementioned animals of the sea and sky, as creatures of flesh; or perhaps the sorrow comes from simply being alive after original sin (everything being written in a Christian context).
(2) Or, being human, the "best" of bone and blood, means ironically to be the creature capable of actually knowing sorrow (and becoming mad), separate from the rest of nature. There would be no sorrow if he were a fish in the sea.
(3) It has also been suggested that this is just one of a large number of religious poems, the "best" signifying Christ - because Christ suffered, the poet sorrows; and in addition to carrying the weight of original sin, the poet knows what is expected of him in this life. Furthermore, this could be an echo of a verse in Matthew and Luke: "the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head."
(4) Perhaps the most widely held belief is that this poem is of the courtly love tradition and that the "best of bone and blood" is simply the woman for whom the poet yearns.

It's for every reader to decide, but I prefer (2) or perhaps (3).

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