Medieval Poetry

Philologist and philosopher Owen Barfield once wrote that the expression of an idea or emotion in poetry “ought to be in some sense the best, if not the only, way of expressing [that idea or emotion] satisfactorily.” That is, a poetic image and the way it’s described should carry an emotional freight that’s better than any prose description of an emotion or idea. Similarly, in The Educated Imagination, scholar and literary critic Northrop Frye wrote that, unlike the scientist, the poet’s job is “not to describe nature, but to show you a world completely absorbed and possessed by the human mind.” Frye says that the poet uses two primitive, archaic forms of thought and expression – simile and metaphor – to do this. These forms of expression can show thought and emotion in a way prose is not able to do. For example, the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary says that love is “a strong affection for someone arising out of kinship or personal ties,” but Robert Burns in a poem wrote that

O my love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June:
My love is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

There’s an important and tremendous difference between the love of a dictionary’s descriptive prose and the love of Burns’ poetic thought.

The medieval mind was much more apt for the expression of poetry and poetic thought in the way Barfield and Frye describe than the average mind in our time, or even the time of Robert Burns, because it was more “primitive” and “archaic,” and in a sense the world for the average person was more possessed by the human mind (perhaps more accurately, the human imagination). Poetry shifted dramatically when mankind grew into self-consciousness around the turn of the 17th century, at the same time that math and science began flourishing in (and out from) the minds of philosophers like Descartes and Newton. These men and their philosophies influenced our perception of the universe greatly and helped liberate the physical world from the tyranny of the religious and mythopoeic imagination. (In other systems, like the 19th-century positivism of Auguste Comte, matter eventually usurps the human imagination – to mankind’s potential detriment.) The medieval symbolical or allegorical poetry of Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, or the Pearl Poet has a far different texture than the 17th-century metaphysical poetry of John Donne or George Herbert, or the 18th-century Romantic poetry of Burns or Blake.

Folio 39r from Harley MS 4425

Though Roman de la Rose – a popular French poem written by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, translated into English by Chaucer – was written in the 13th century, the manuscript seen here, an illuminated copy of the poem, dates to about 1490. The British Library notes that the illuminators of the manuscript copied the text from a printed edition of the poem that was published in 1487, but they didn’t follow the illustrations from that printed edition. The manuscript, Harley MS 4425, is almost 200 leaves, and most stanzas begin with a decorated initial (some more elaborate than others). There are many miniatures throughout the manuscript, and one of the largest is shown in the image of the leaf seen here. See another elaborate miniature on the Many Miniatures page, and two smaller miniatures on the Allegory page.