This short verse comes to us from the 13th-14th Centuries – although via a very modern medium – I was introduced to it by a blog post called “10 Short Medieval Poems that Everyone Should Read” (this poem is number 4). I never took a class or studied Chaucer or Medieval literature, so all the poems in the article were new to me. I find it fascinating to watch the English language transforming into something that is nearly recognizable to our modern eyes. The name of the author of this poem is lost to the mists of time – but the composition and collage are by me. Click on “Read More” or the post if you would like to see a Modern English translation of the Middle English.
If you go back a little further in time, to the twelfth century, there is an English alliterative poem called The Grave that discusses death, putrefaction, and worms feasting on flesh and is most definitely NOT a seduction poem. This was a very widespread motif, in all kinds of medieval poetry. See: http://www.jstor.org/stable/432811?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
Thank you for the link, Eric! Do you think that “Whan the Turuf…” has been misidentified as a seduction poem? The article I took it from doesn’t offer much evidence other than the mention of a “white throat,” presumably that of a lady?
It was interesting to read in “The Grave” article about the debate on whether it is a fragment or a complete short poem. I had not considered how we know a poem is fragmentary or complete – how do we make that determination if the records are unclear?
Well, it could be a seduction poem (sleep with me since we will all die anyway). But like The Grave, “Whan the Turuf…” is primarily a memento mori, a reminder of impending death. Think a portrait of a man with books and a skull: same genre. It’s actually a very international and widespread medieval and early modern genre.
It is interesting to me to think that in a few hundred years our “modern” language will be like this to the readers of the future.
Exactly – your comment made me think of several articles I’ve read recently about how cursive handwriting is no longer taught in school and that high school students can’t read their grandparents’ journals or letters, so I suppose that in one way it is already happening. But one place that this has not happened is in Iceland – apparently, modern Icelandic is so similar to the language the Vikings spoke and wrote in that children have no trouble reading original Viking documents!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Very cool! I remember memorizing the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English when I was in high school and loving the twisty taste of it. These are all great poems, and it amuses me that this one was a seduction lyric! Oh baby, tell me more about the worms… 🙂
It made me laugh as well – I also wondered if there was more to the poem at one point (maybe something more seductive?). I feel like those let’s-do-it-now-before-we-die poems reached a zenith with Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” in the 17th Century, and he too went with a worm line: “…then worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity…” – so what do I know?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Comments are closed.