BEI M’ES QU’EU CHANT
Image by Giles Watson’s poetry and prose
BEI M’ES QU’EU CHANT
Right it is to sing of love:
The air is fresh, days are bright;
Meadows, hedgerows thrill the sight.
I hear the warbling above
Of little birds – trunks their nave,
Leaves their vaults – so help me, Love,
Greenfinch, goldfinch there above –
He who sings, his love to crave,
Like a lover must behave.
I am not a lover, but
A suitor. I do not fear
Grief or pain. I shed no tear
For pride, my eyes sealed shut
To wrong. I fear – fear itself.
But, to her I bend my art
And dare not reveal my heart
But must keep it dark in stealth:
I have found her hidden wealth.
I have learnt not to compare
Her allure with anything:
A rose is a tawdry thing,
But she is fresh. Would I dare
Describe her body? God’s grace
Made mouth, eyes, the world to light.
My one complaint: far too bright
The beauty shines from her face,
Too pure for her worldly place.
To the king, my worthy song!
Who nurtures joys through his laws –
King bereft of earthly flaws –
He alone can right this wrong.
Carcassonne he must regain
From Montagut, by the sword:
He will be my worthy Lord.
French or Arab, Cathar’s bane,
Bare your neck, and writhe in pain!
Source material: Paraphrase of a lyric by the Provençal troubadour, Raimon de Miraval (fl. 1180-1215). The poem begins as an almost stereotypical troubadour lyric, but the sudden, angry twist in the final stanza reveals a poet hoping – perhaps with his own measure of cynicism – to maintain the tradition of courtly love in the face of that most cynical of wars, the Albigensian Crusade. Raimon was almost certainly a Cathar, and therefore had recently been declared a heretic by the papacy as an excuse for the French annexation of Occitania. His castle at Miraval, to the north of the Carcassonne, was seized from him and his three brothers by Albigensian crusaders in 1209 or 1211, and here he looks forward to its recapture by one of his patrons: perhaps Count Raimon VI of Toulouse, who was ultimately defeated by the crusader Simon de Montfort in 1213. It is difficult to ascertain the exact beliefs of the Cathar ‘heretics’, since we have received most of their ideas through the filter of their conquerors and the loaded questions of the Inquisition. They are said to have been dualists who believed that spirit was good and flesh was evil, and therefore denied the incarnation of Christ. This seems paradoxical, given that the major cultural contribution of Occitania to the outside world was the idea of ‘courtly love’, in which a male courtier vaunted an earthly lady almost to the point of idolatry, thereby instigating one of the only noble mediaeval traditions that was not misogynistic or flesh-denying. I have tried to convey some of the tensions implied in this paradox in the third stanza. It must also be noted that the politics of courtly love were often intertwined with more worldly matters, and courtiers often sought the favour of noble ladies in order to improve their social position. Precisely what is meant by the lady’s “wealth” or “worth” (“Non aus mostrar ne retrair/ Mon cor qu’ill tenc rescondut,/ Pois aic son pretz conogut”) I have left for the reader to decide. Maria Lafitte may be heard singing the original on Ensemble Unicorn’s CD, Music of the Troubadours, 1999. Paraphrase by Giles Watson, 2009.