Siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye
þe borʒ brittened and brent to brondez and askez
The poem seems to ask to be recited aloud - and enthusiastically, with spittle flying everywhere and exaggerated rolled r's on "brittened," "brent," and so on. It's delightful.
(I suppose this is as good a place as any to apologize to anyone who has had the misfortune to meet me at some party and be subjected to my extempore recitations of "Sir Gawain" or the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.)
This musical quality persists, albeit considerably altered, in modern poetry, and so along with Chaucer and co. I find myself recollecting bits of Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Eliot, and so on. The problem, though, is that in reconstructing the texts of these poems in my memory I conflate quite unrelated bits of verse from different periods. Thus, in attempting to remember Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" I invariably produce the following novel variant:
Whose woods these are I think I know.At this point I usually realize that something is amiss and stop.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high.
(For the benefit of my non-Canadian readers, the poem that interrupts after the fourth line is John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields," a poem written by a Canadian doctor during World War I. It is probably the only Canadian poem that everyone in the country stands a good chance of knowing, having heard it read on Remembrance Day every year since time immemorial. To be truly authentic, the poem must be read by a sweaty ten-year-old in an undifferentiated monotone, pausing at the end of each line for a sharp intake of breath; at the back of the gymnasium, a harried teacher should be shushing a restless grade two class.)
It is perhaps understandable that I should conflate Frost's poem with McCrae's: they both have the same slightly pedestrian tetrameter rhythm (ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump), and use repeating rhyme schemes to similar effect. The transition from the one poem to the other is made seamless by a coincidence in their two rhyme schemes ("snow" with "foe"). One can even imagine a shared narrative in which the two poems' meanings are reconciled. Why does Frost's narrator resist his morbid fascination with the snowy woods? Because he has obligations to fulfill ("promises to keep"). Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that his "promises" were made to the dead soldiers in the fields of Flanders ("Take up our quarrel with the foe") - and that by honourably fulfilling their charge the traveller and the soldiers can finally reach the rest they yearn for? (Compare Frost's "miles to go before I sleep" with McCrae's "If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep") Nunc dimittis servum tuum, indeed!
I may perhaps be excused for taking some aesthetic satisfaction in the combination of the two poems above, although I leave it to future scholars to decide whether it is preferable to the original as poetry. I am rather less proud of my other contribution to English literature, a mutant hybrid of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and Shakespeare's Sonnet 116:
About suffering they were never wrong,I would welcome suggestions on what these two poems could possibly have to do with each other, or - more pertinently - on how I can separate them again.
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.