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Excerpt from the Parlement of Fowls (c1382, 42)
1. Now welcom Summer with thy sunne soft,
2. That hast this winter's weathers overshak,
3. And driv'n away the longe nighties black.
4. Saint Valentin, that art full high aloft,
5. Thus singen smalle fowles for thy sak:
6. Now welcom Summer with thy sunne soft,
7. That hast this winter's weathers overshak.
8. Well hav they cause for to gladden oft,
9. Sith each of them recover'd hath his mak.
10. Full blissful may they singe when they wak:
11. Now welcom Summer with thy sunne soft,
12. That hast this winters weathers overshak,
13. And driv'n away the longe nighties black.
Chaucer here shows his mastery of versification with this delightful little poem using a form derived from French originals called 'rondeaux'. Not only has he borrowed the forms, but we also find similar delicate, nicely painted sentiments to the courtly French originals. This 'courtliness' can, of course, be taken too far, resulting in stiff, formulaic verse which is of interest to no-one. But Chaucer invests his poetry with a life and naturalmess which balances the rigidity of the form. The 'sunne soft' that everybody in northern climes has welcomed at the end of winter, the 'longe nighties black' which weigh on the human spirit during the cold months, and the singing of small birds which heralds the onset of Spring, are images which are rooted in common experience, understandable equally by peasant and king.
As you can see, the line scheme uses a strange 3:4:6 grouping giving thirteen lines in total, a strange number in itself, and the complex rhyme scheme and repetitions develop a sense of a finely woven fabric, which nevertheless constantly defeats expectation. English is, of course, a much more difficult language to rhyme than either French or Italian, but Chaucer's rhymes nowhere give the sense of being forced.
Given the difficulties, it is hardly surprising that Chaucer's roundels had few imitators, until we reach Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909), that is, whose Century of Roundels is just that, one hundred poems written in a slightly variant form of Chaucer's roundel. Wikepedia warns us not to confuse Swinburne's Roundel with Chaucer's Rondel, but this rather misses the point. If we were to give a new name to everything that was a slight variation of an original, we would end up with a vocabulary that may be precise, but it would also be practically useless. Swinburne's attempts, however, lack the power of Chaucer's poetry, and he concentrates on cleverness rather than poetry. We can happily concede that what he produced was very clever. But poetry is something else.
Another poet to take up the Roundel was Christina Rossetti, to whom Swinburne dedicated his book of Roundels. She brought her own, sometimes morbid, but always delicate and moving imagery to the form. Fine examples of her ability as a poet are reproduced here, and here, though it has to be said that the overwhelmingly negative imagery of her poetry restricts its appeal. One is brought very quickly to a choice: either to committ suicide or to go on to something else. Most people choose the latter course.
No such choice is necessary in reading Chaucer, however. He is resoundingly life-positive, possibly more so than any poet before or since, and certainly more so than some people can stomach. He has been found obscene by some, even pornographic, but one wonders how these people whose rejection of nature is implied in these judgements manage to reproduce themselves. With considerable difficulty, one imagines.
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