Saturday, 10 April 2010

Love songs for April

Walking through the fields with the puppy is just gorgeous in this sunny April weather. It's a physical relief to fill the lungs with warm air and see the flowers coming - the blackthorn white in the hedges - and hear the birds singing. And if it's so for us, who spend winter in centrally-heated houses, how much more so for the medieval people who celebrated spring in so many joyful poems?

I was thinking this morning about one of my favourites, and the way English has changed to the point where it's really not possible to quite do it justice with a modern translation...

"Bytuene Mershe ant Averil
When spray biginneth to spring,
The lutel foul hath hire wyl
On hyre lud to synge:
Ich libbe in love-longinge

For semlokest of alle thynge,
He may me blisse bringe,
Icham in hire bandoun.

An hendy hap ichabbe y-hent,
Ichot from hevene it is me sent,
From alle wymmen my love is lent
Ant lyht on Alisoun...

The first two verses mean, roughly,

"Between March and April
when leaf-sprays begin to spring,
the little bird(s)please themselves
by singing about their loves:

"I live in love-longing
for the loveliest of all things,
She may bring me bliss;
I am under her power."

But as for the chorus, those last four lines (which come at the end of each successive verse), my clumsy translation simply cannot convey the lilt and lift and the charm of them.  With their dancing rhythm, they mean something like:

"But I have got the most wonderful luck,
I think it must have been sent from Heaven:
Among all the women in the world, my love
Has lit upon Alison."

'From alle wymmen my love is lent...'   You can't translate it as 'I have forsaken all other women', since that implies that the lover could choose - whereas, what he is celebrating is his perfect helplessness in the matter.  And this is why the lyric is so charming.  He might have fallen in love with someone else: how lucky he is that he fell in love with Alison!

I say 'lyric', not just in the modern poetic sense, but in the modern musical sense: this poem was almost certainly intended to be sung.  And so little have such things changed over the centuries, that I almost think the best translation might be these lines by George Gershwin:

I've got beginner's luck,
The first time that I'm in love
I'm in love with you.
Gosh I'm lucky!

I've got beginner's luck,
There never was such a smile
Or such eyes of blue.
Gosh I'm fortunate!

This thing we've begun
Is much more than a pasttime
For this time is the one
When the first time is the last time!

I've got beginner's luck
Lucky through and through
For the first time that I'm in love
I'm in love with you.

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