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Rondel for Saint Valentine’s Day

by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340–1400) | modernized in the original lyric form by Margaret Coats

Now welcome, springtime, with your gentle sun
That wintry weather milder soon will make,
And tiresome nights’ long shroud of blackness shake.

Saint Valentine, great triumph you have won,
And little birds are singing for your sake:
Now welcome, springtime, with your gentle sun
That wintry weather milder soon will make.

They have good cause to chirp in unison
Since each today his mate again can take,
And both sing blissfully when they awake:
Now welcome, springtime, with your gentle sun
That wintry weather milder soon will make,
And tiresome nights’ long shroud of blackness shake.

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Readers of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls are told that, when the birds’ parliament always held on Saint Valentine’s Day ends, a choir of chosen birds sings to French music a rondel intended to honor and delight Dame Nature, who had presided over the parliament, in which birds (other than those already mated for life) chose mates. Below is the middle English rondel that immediately precedes the work’s final stanza:

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Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres wedres overshake
And driven away the longe nights blake.

Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on lofte,
Thus syngen smale foules for thy sake:
Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres wedres overshake.

Wel han they cause for to gladen ofte,
Sith ech of hem recovered hath his make;
Ful blissful mowe they synge when they awake:
Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres wedres overshake
And driven away the longe nights blake.

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Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others. 


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21 Responses

  1. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    What an appropriate and beautiful treat – mellifluous words put to music for Valentine’s Day. Margaret, your modernization is spot on and has me aching to take on the rondel. James your musical interpretation is lovely. A big thank you to both of you on this special day.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you for your comment, Susan. I’m delighted to hear you want to try the rondel form, but I’ll warn you it has many varieties! My one-page summary lists nine different rhyme schemes for rondels of 13 to 24 lines! The basic rondel is ABab abAB abbaA, capital letters being the repeated lines. Anyone who wants to try that should look at three poems by William Ernest Henley, “The Ways of Death,” “Beside the Idle Summer Sea,” and “We Shall Surely Die” (three rondels in three different meters).

      Chaucer’s rondel here also has 13 lines, but the rhyme scheme is ABB* abAB abbABB*. I used asterisks to show that there are two different B lines to be repeated. That really should be done with superscript numbers 1 and 2. Chaucer has a sequence of five poems called “Merciless Beauty” that uses this particular form. The form is sometimes called “English madrigal,” but it has nothing to do with the English madrigals (literary or musical) of the early 17th century. And it is not English, as I have found the largest number of such poems as songs in French miracle plays that were compiled by Benedictine abbot Gautier de Coincy (1177-1236). I’ll give one at the end of the Comments, to make the lines neat.

      Reply
  2. Mike Bryant

    Margaret, a perfect update, and James, this takes me back to Madrigal choir days 50+ years ago… I’ll be singing ‘Alan-a-Dale Went a Hunting’ and ‘A Little White Hen’ all day!

    Reply
  3. Russel Winick

    As the younger generation would say – OMG! This is so delightful! “Since each today his mate again can take.” Perfect!

    Reply
  4. Jeff Eardley

    Here’s me thinking that Sonny and Cher had disappeared forever.
    What a fabulous surprise for this cold, wet day in England and we expect no less than a full album.
    Margaret and James, I salute you and a happy Valentine’s Day to you both.

    Reply
  5. Brian Yapko

    This is so very lovely, Margaret. And James and unknown musician(s), what a wonderful performance! How did you do the harmonies? This is a very fine poetic gift for Valentine’s Day!

    Margaret, I do wonder about your translating the Middle English word “somer” into “springtime.” Is that a secondary meaning of “somer” or did you correct Chauncer’s designation of season since Valentine’s Day and summer are obviously inconsistent? Or was Valentine’s Day actually set in summer in the 1300s?

    Irrespective, a true delight all the way around!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      To go way back in etymology, the Sanskrit root for summer refers to the warm half of the year, and we often see this concept in Old English and Middle English, gradually moving toward division of the year into four seasons, with summer as the warmest quarter. Note that Chaucer says the soft sun of summer has overturned winter weather. We would say he describes what happens at the beginning of spring.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        I see, Margaret. In other words, the definition of “summer” has narrowed through the centuries. Thank you for the background clarification. I was curious. It certainly does not affect the beauty of the poem or translation!

    • James A. Tweedie

      Brian, Thank you for your kind comments on Margaret’s marvelous translation of Chaucer’s poem.

      As far as the music goes there are no “unknown musicians.” The composition, synthesized instruments, recording multiple tracks, editing and resulting video were all done at home on my computer.

      The inspiration, of course, was provided by Margaret when she shared her poem with me in an email correspondence some months ago.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        James, then this is that much more impressive! What a gift to be able to pull this together so beautifully! You did a great job.

      • Margaret Coats

        James, may you have a very happy Saint Valentine’s Day! I’m sure Geoffrey Chaucer and the saint himself would say so, as you have spent many hours and great effort on this project. I took a five-hour class in multitrack recording, and still couldn’t connect the cables right if I had the equipment. This presentation of our second greatest English poet is to your credit.

  6. Roy E. Peterson

    This is a wonderful juxtaposition of a classic love poem and a modern editing not only refreshing it but providing a beautiful perspective with tweaking of the lines. Well done!

    Reply
  7. Joseph S. Salemi

    This is a wonderful revivifying of a medieval text, making it accessible to a wide audience while at the same time showing the original Middle English. Such aesthetic acts are really keeping traditional poetry alive!

    Reply
  8. Margaret Coats

    Here is a poem in the same lyric form as Chaucer’s above. It’s from the place where I’ve found more of this form than anywhere else, Les Miracles de Nostre Dame, a collection of miracle plays compiled by Benedictine abbot Gautier de Coincy (1177-1236). This is the most profound among them, as it deals with the two great mysteries of Christianity, the Trinity and the Incarnation. I supplied the title with my translation:

    THE TWO GREAT MYSTERIES

    O human hearts, cease not to praise
    The infinite integrity
    Of God, the Blessed Trinity,
    And hers, who to the Son conveys
    Immaculate humanity.
    O human hearts, cease not to praise
    The infinite integrity
    Ennobling you when she arrays
    Her Son in your heredity.
    Revering the affinity,
    O human hearts, cease not to praise
    The infinite integrity
    Of God, the Blessed Trinity.

    Reply
  9. James A. Tweedie

    Margaret, two great mysteries indeed and beautifully expressed in a devotional text that you have, as always, brought back to life for us to enjoy and ponder.

    It may be interesting to note that the New Testament Greek word for “mystery” (μυστήριον) is rarely, if ever used in our modern sense as referring to something hidden–but quiet the opposite, it is nearly always used to refer to something once-hidden that has now been revealed, Colossians 1:25b-26 for example: ” . . .to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations[a] but now made manifest to his saints.”

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that we fully understand it–but we are now aware of it . . . including the revealed mysteries of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity.

    Reply
  10. Yael

    That’s a treat, thank you!
    I love the poem and the musical rendition. It sounds very medieval indeed. It’s interesting to read the original too, and see how much the language has changed in a few hundred years. Very interesting!

    Reply
  11. Tamara Beryl Latham

    Magnificent! There is nothing more inspiring for Valentine’s Day than Margaret’s perfect poetry, accompanied by such a beautiful vocal interpretation by James. This sounds similar to music I heard when I visited Ireland a decade or so ago.

    I expect to see you both on “America’s Got Talent.” in the not-too-distant
    future. 🙂

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Tamara. I very much appreciate your comment, as I’m sure James does. Folk music, like what you heard in Ireland, preserves traditions that help us imagine how older poetry might have been sung. In the collection of miracle plays where I found the above rondel in the same form as Chaucer’s, it was meant to be sung by angels. The plays are written in rhyming couplets, which represent ordinary talk by human characters, while the more elaborate lyric for the angels introduces a heavenly melody, to impress the audience with whatever miracle is being shown on stage. Chaucer and his contemporaries, whose favorite holiday seems to be Saint Valentine’s day, must have considered springtime renewal of the earth to be a miracle of love from God and Nature.

      Reply
  12. Tamara Beryl Latham

    Thanks for elaborating, Margaret.

    I find you to be a great critic, as well, especially in regard to constructive criticism. Those with credentials such as yours are very rarely appreciated by today’s poets. You, from what I can see on this board, have a great knowledge and an even greater in-depth understanding of poetry. Were you a poetry professor? I only took a one year course in beginner’s poetry, so don’t expect much. 🙂

    Evan’s probably elated to have you on board as a contributor.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      What really helps me, as both poet and critic, is all the reading I’ve done. That means you and others, without academic credentials, can become better critics by reading more good poetry. I read those French miracle plays that I mention above, long after my formal studies had ended. Or actually, I didn’t read the plays, but opened some volumes from library shelves to see if there were any interesting poems in them!

      I did take a lot of poetry courses in college and graduate school, because that was the kind of literature I wanted to study. And I did hold one university faculty appointment, but not as a poetry professor. English departments are generally organized by time period, and I was a Renaissance specialist hired to teach a medieval course. The one poetry professor I know of is the great poetry critic Helen Vendler, who has been a model to me. She has taught at several illustrious universities, where her wildly successful course in poetry observes no historical boundaries. She takes a kind of poem, such as the elegy for a deceased person, and discusses how it can work, using examples from the whole range of poetry written in English. Her method is something like what I’m doing in the “Comparing Translations of Charles d’Orleans” essay.

      The method, applied to reading a poem for the first time, means giving it intense attention while forgetting myself as much as I can. I can’t help bringing everything I know and am to my interpretation of a poem, but I can do my best to listen very closely to the poem and poet before I respond. That may sound obvious or trite, but it’s a good way to enjoy new poems and discover what’s unique in them.

      Reply
  13. Tamara Beryl Latham

    Fascinating!

    Thank you for the information you’ve provided that makes you who you are, Margaret.

    The poetry course I completed was at the Milford Fine Arts Council, Milford, CT, during the summer and not part of the college curriculum. My major was chemistry (a very difficult subject) so there was very little time for me to engage in coursework that was not associated with my field of study.

    At this time in my life I am unable to do much reading, but I certainly appreciate the information you’ve provided and I’m certain it will be beneficial to new poets who may frequent this board. 🙂

    Thanks again for your time and effort, Margaret.

    Reply

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