Tuesday, 15 April 2008

stereotyping love

Most people are aware that there are some pretty standard features to the beautiful beloved woman of most medieval and early modern poems. The basic features are to be found everywhere, and one often gets the impression that they are mentioned as mere signs of beauty rather than an attempt at anything like accurate description. The similarity of such descriptions can seem boring at times, but it is an important tradition, as poets like Shakespeare subvert it ironically (see Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun...", for an example of this).

But despite critical leanings in the last thirty years or so, the beauty of a tradition is not just in its subversion - this poem by Charles d'Orleans from Harley MS. 682 (and to be found in Robbins' Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries) is quite a traditional description of the beauty of the beloved, but manages to be graceful rather than stale:

The Beauty of His Mistress

The smylyng mouth, and laughyng eyen gray,
The brestis rounde, and long smal armys twayn,
The hondes smoþe, þe sidis streiyt & playne,
yowre fetis lite - what shulde y ferþer say?
hit is my craft when ye are fer away
To muse þeron in styntyng of my payne -
The smylyng [mouth, and laughyng eyen gray,]
The brestis [rounde, and long smal armys twayn.]
So wolde y pray yow, gef y durste or may,
The sight to se as y haue seyne;
fforwhi þat craft me is most fayne,
And wol ben to þe howre in which y day -
The smylyng [mouth, and laughyng eyen gray,]
The brestis [rounde, and long smal armes twayn.]

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