Looking for the Archpoet

It began like all the best projects, sideways.  I wanted to learn about the Archpoet for a paper I’m writing about a wartime radio play he pops up in (pretty sideways in itself).  Wikipedia gave the basics; more importantly it did what Wikipedia does best and pointed me towards the next stage.



So … who is/was the Archpoet?  Nobody knows.  He may or may not have been attached to the retinue of Archchancellor Rainald of Dassel.  He possibly died around 1165 when he might have been in his early thirties.  Or maybe not.

He survives because several poems attributed to him are bound up in the Carmina Burana.  No, not the Orff song cycle, but the medieval songbook of the Benedictine monastery of Buren in Bavaria (Benedictbeuern), which surfaced in a Munich library in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The full text of the Carmina has never been published in English, which is a pain for me because I am attracted to the liturgical plays which seem to be included.  The Archpoet seems to refer to himself by the title and it’s hard to say whether he does so ironically or bombastically.  What little we know about him comes from his ‘Confession’, which comes across as an account of a fairly rollicking nomadic lifestyle.  Again, we don’t know for sure whether he’s being autobiographical or fantastical.  The lifestyle depicted, though, is that of a Goliard.

So … what’s a Goliard?  A Goliard is a follower of the mythical bishop Golias, who may well be a parody or play-on-words of Goliath, in which case Rabelais’s Gargantua is the ultimate Goliard, a gross, gluttonous, self-indulgent sybarite.  This is good for me, because the radio play I’m writing the paper about also has Rabelais in it.

The Goliards of medieval Europe were scholars, usually young, attached to monasteries and courts and the fledgling universities.  Like students since the beginning of time they liked to drink and dream about sex.  Well, male students anyway, and all students in the Middle Ages were perforce male.  Like every young buck they relished taking a dig at their elders and betters and whatever it was they stood for.  There was, as ever, an element of revisionism about their cutting edge modernity, and in the Goliard case it was love of the late Latin poets.  In fact it is the Goliards who link the likes of Ovid and Petrarch, even though they are 1300 years apart.

The thing about the Goliards is that they were peripatetic.  They wandered from abbey to court to drinking den and bordello.  They wrote Latin because Latin was readable anywhere.  And much of what they wrote were songs rather poems, hence the carmina or songbook.

The Carmina Burana is a collection of Goliard writings compiled in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.  It therefore postdates the movement because by then there were rules of Goliardism and rules, as ever, are the death of alternative movements.  The Archpoet, then, comes from the very end of Goliardism.  In England Henry II was on the throne and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, fostered the next literary sensation, courtly love and the cult of King Arthur.


As for the poems themselves, I started with the Penguin Classic Selections from the Carmina Burana.  ‘Selections’, unfortunately, that did not include any drama.  It does include the Archpoet’s ‘Confession’, though, in a new verse translation by David Parlett (1986).  Parlett is really a scholar of games (see his website, www.davidparlett.co.uk) and I can’t help thinking he translates intellectually rather than from the soul.  He does, however, provide extensive notes on each poem pointing out where he differs from other translators and why he made the decisions he did.  This is excellent scholarship.  Parlett’s USP is that he provides the lyrics for Orff’s cantata, in running order, in an appendix.




Parlett’s notes led me to the brand leader in Goliard scholarship, Helen Waddell, (1889-1965), whose seminal The Wandering Scholars (1927) was followed two years later by Medieval Latin Lyrics.  The latter also includes her selected translations from the Carmina Burana.  I find her translations more to my taste than Parlett’s; Waddell also provides notes but the real boost is that she also supplies the Latin originals on facing pages, so we can see what she is working with.  She also, it goes without saying, includes her version of the Archpoet’s ‘Confession’.



But it is in Wandering Scholars that Waddell provides her version of the Archpoet himself.  Indeed, her version is the only version we have.  It is Waddell’s Archpoet that Eric Linklater brings to life in Rabelais Replies (1943), the radio play which started me off on my quest.  The original recording in the Sound Archive actually reveals this as a mistake of dramaturgy.  The Archpoet is only meant to be a walk-on, but explode-on is a probably a better term.  He strides in singing: “In a tavern I shall die/With a glass up to my nose and the bottle standing by.” He wanders off “to meet a little pretty soul … a sad creature, as neat as a mouse.”  And in the meantime he has blown Rabelais from our attention, which is not good when Rabelais is supposed to be our protagonist.


This is Waddell’s Archpoet all right, a version of Keats as he really was, rumbustious, hot-tempered, consumptive only at the end – but Keats with a satirical humour. “Droll, shameless, spendthrift and importunate… Now and then comes a gleam of the dangerous agate knife-edge of genius, a gesture of the singing robes about him …  He never sustains it: a verse or two of haughty defiant sincerity, and the comic mask is on again, the hand outstretched palm upwards, the impudent grin.” [Waddell 1927, Fontana paperback p. 169-170]


As this passage shows, Waddell was no mean genius herself.  The whole book is like that, an emotive outpouring of beautifully distilled knowledge, refined by the ear of a sublime artist.  I’d never heard of Waddell before I started my quest for the Archpoet and you have to wonder, is it because she was a woman academic before Germaine Greer and her generation changed the scholarly world?  I started off seeking the Archpoet but what I found was Waddell and I must have more.  She wrote a novel about Peter Abelard.  Is that my next target?

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