Foweles In The Frith Anonymous

(ca. 1270) This short, enigmatic lyric appears, with musical accompaniment, in one manuscript found at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In the opening two-line "section" of the poem, the speaker looks outward and notes that the creatures of the natural world are where they ought to be: "Foweles in the Frith, / The fisses in the flod . . ." (ll. 1-2)—birds are in the woods, the fishes in the stream. The speaker then turns inward and finds that harmonious nature contrasts with his own, disordered state: "And I mon waxe wod. / Mulch sorw I walke with . . ." (ll. 3-4)—literally, "And I must grow mad. I walk with much sorrow . . ." What is the nature of the "sorw" that separates the speaker from nature? The answer comes in line 5: "For beste of bon and blod" (l. 5). A corporeal being is the source of his pain, and the opposition with the natural world seems to heighten his suffering.

The fundamental critical debate surrounding this lyric concerns genre: Is "Foweles in the Frith" a secular or a religious lyric? Many critics assume that the poem borrows conventions from the discourse of courtly love and find the pained, subjective emotion typical of the Provençal and Middle English love lyrics of the 12th and 13th centuries, as well as reminiscent of lovesickness. However, others argue that the poem is religious, either a meditation on the fallen state of humanity or a lamentation over Christ's sacrifice. This particular lyric, though, refuses to fall unambiguously into either camp—even the manuscript context offers no clues—and continues to tantalize readers, making it an often anthologized piece.

"Foweles in the Frith" draws upon a number of recognizable commonplaces and poetic traditions, but even these do not help to settle the debate over its nature. Most obvious is the notion of courtly love; the "beste of bon and blod" is apparently a secular lover who has rejected the speaker and occasioned the lyric. Also, the natureingang, or "nature walk," that opens the poem is a conventional way to begin a medieval love song and ties the poem to the reverdie tradition—the world is greening in springtime and teems with life and joy. However, natureingang also recalls the biblical Creation theme. Birds and fish were both created on the fifth day, and Adam would classify and name them, establishing lex aeterna, or eternal law, which alienates human beings from nature. Further, frith can mean not only "woods" but also "divine law."

Biblical analogues to the first three lines of the lyric (Matthew 8.19-20 and Psalms 8.5-9, for example) argue powerfully that this is, in fact, a poem with a strong religious orientation.

The poet's use of paronomasia (punning), however, confounds any reader looking for an easy interpretation. The obvious pun in line four is on wod, most commonly translated "mad," with a play on "woods." in the last line of the lyric, though, the linguistic paronomasia has a profound effect. The speaker suffers because of the "beste of bon and blod." The ambiguous word here is beste. Does the "i" suffer because of the "best of bone and blood" or for the "beast of bon and blood"? The "best of bone and blood" would seem to suggest Christ. Beast, though, suggests a human being. There are two different poems contained in this lyric, depending on the reading of a single word. And because of the overlapping orthography (spelling) of beste in the 13th century and the lack of context provided by either the poet or the manuscript, beste could be either. Finally, could the speaker be Christ, suffering for as long as humanity continues to sin?

This lyric responds well to an exegetical reading, and critics have speculated on its reception—for instance, was it sung in court or in the monastery? However, the most fruitful direction for future study could lie in what this short song reveals about medieval hermeneutics, since its essential meaning always lies just beyond solution. The central figure that prob-lematizes the poem—paronomasia—is a common mannerism of medieval hermeneutic writing.

See also exegesis, Middle English lyrics and ballads.

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