“Funny how my memory slips while looking over manuscripts…”

March, enfeebled, limps to its grave—for some of us, not a snowflake too soon. I’ve been digging through medieval sources in search of poetry that expresses frustration with overdue spring, but the poets of the early Middle Ages apparently didn’t see much promise in that complaint. They hailed the coming of spring, but they knew that the seasons advanced and retreated with little regard for our whims.

That said, I did take a fresh look at “The Debate Between Spring and Winter,” a derivative bit of Vergilian pastoralism attributed to Alcuin, the eighth-century abbot of Tours and one of Charlemagne’s most influential advisers. At a gathering of shepherds on a sunny spring day, the personifications of cheerful Spring and misanthropic Winter snipe at each other—until two shepherds, young Daphnis and old Palaemon, decide they’ve had enough:

Desine plura, Hiems; rerum tu prodigus atrox.
Et veniet cuculus, pastorum dulcis amicus!
Collibus in nostris erumpant germina laeta,
Pascua sit pecori, requies et dulcis in arvis,
Et virides rami praestent umbracula fessis,
Uberibus plenis veniuntque ad mulctra capellae
Et volucres varia Phoebum sub voce salutent!
Quapropter citius cuculus nunc ecce venito!
Tu iam dulcis amor, cunctis gratissimus hospes:
Omnia te expectant — pelagus tellusque polusque —
Salve, dulce decus, cuculus, per saecula salve!
(MGH Poetae I, 272, 45–55)

Here it is, rendered into alliterative, Anglo-Saxon-style half-lines that Alcuin might have recognized, though he’d disavow the diction:

Zip it, Winter, you wasteful shit,
And hey, cuckoo! Come be the shepherd’s
Number-one pal. Let’s popcorn the hillsides
With giddy seeds and grazing sheep!
Let’s find us fields fit for siestas!
Let the bone-weary dream under drooping green leaves
While queued at the pail, the pap-swollen goats
Just beg us to milk them. Let all beaks warble
Their mashed-up salvēs to sunny Phoebus!
Faster, cuckoo, flap thy ass hither!
Luv, you’re the greatest guest of ’em all
And everyone’s waiting, Earth, Sea, and Sky,
So welcome, sweet cuckoo-grace! Welcome forever!

That’s hardly a translation for the ages, but its restlessness is sincere, and it’s the poetic equivalent of something else I did today: scrape the snow from an exhausted garden, hoping to find that something green was budding underneath.

6 thoughts on ““Funny how my memory slips while looking over manuscripts…”

  1. I’ve never known such fever for spring as I see up No’th this year–everyone is yammering of spring and their longing for the snows to stop and snow to melt! Enjoyed that bit of translated verse…

    I am listening to (while doing house-drudgery) Chesterton’s “A Short History of England” on Librivox and thinking strongly of you. Have your read it? He is very insistent about the importance of medieval people’s acts and modes, and about how much they have left behind in the world.


  2. Was it because of his clerical vows that Alcuin took a different view of the cuckoo from Shakespeare’s in the concluding song of “Love’s Labours Lost”?

    It appears that you have a plot in one of DC’s community gardens. Which?


  3. Marly: I’ve been reading about Chesterton in the context of modern medievalism, but I’ve read very little by the man himself. I expect to remedy that in the not-so-distant future, because he really did shape a big part of the popular perception of the Middle Ages.

    George: What an odd, interesting, and unexpected question! Alcuin was neither priest nor monk, so he’s generally believed not to have taken any vows beyond whatever was required to become a deacon in the early Middle Ages. (Perhaps no vows at all?) But if he does avoid the love-and-marriage angle, it’s likely a combination of his own celibacy and his interest in imitating classical poetry to create a useful rhetorical exemplum for students to follow. (In the full poem, Alcuin’s Winter is a jerk who does, however, score a few useful points in the debate.)

    I have a corner plot near the beehives at the Newark Street garden. If you ever see me toiling out there as you jog past, feel free to say hello!


  4. I used to run up Glover-Archbold Park from the towpath or Reservoir Road to Van Ness St. These days, I don’t get quite so far west.


  5. “They hailed the coming of spring, but they knew that the seasons advanced and retreated with little regard for our whims.”

    …a state of mind that would have come naturally to a population who were so naggingly at the mercy of circumstance. We certainly are different, now. Somewhere, we feel we should have a button to click to fix things like snow. If spring is late, we are downright insulted by its audacity.


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