Like The Prose Day#9

Today’s challenge has resulted in an interesting blend of poetry and prose – the Tale of Pardal and Enara is not, alas, a ‘real’ poem and exists solely within the realm of this story – but I thought it would be fun to create the sort of poem that might be studied at university as part of an English degree and then to let a group of fictitious academics discuss it. (If you want to know more about the two imaginary lovers, I wrote a prose version of their story earlier this year – if it’s not already on this site, I’ll post it at a later date.)

Apologies in advance for the Middle English – once you get your head past the spelling, it should make sense! And I will be forever indebted to Simon Hermitage for thoughtfully translating the poem into a more accessible version for those of us without degrees in English literature.


The power point was not going well. Perhaps she needed something to take her mind off Year 9’s poetry lesson so she could come back to it later, feeling a little more energised. Jasvinder grabbed her phone and clicked onto the BBC Sounds app – they’d had some pretty good adaptations of classic novels recently.

“– almost a Disney interpretation, one might say.”

She knew that voice: wasn’t it Wendy Jenkins, one of her lecturers from uni days? Rewinding the programme to the beginning, she began to listen.

“This week’s programme takes a look at one of the lesser known poems of the Middle English era,” Melvyn Cragg told her, “and with me in the studio are Professor Wendy Jenkins from Leeds University; Doctor Andrew Spittle, a leading expert in medieval poetry; and the current Poet Laureate, Simon Hermitage. Wendy, you’ve lectured extensively on ‘The Song of Pardal and Enara’ – or ‘The Lovebirds’ as they’re more commonly known.”

“Their love was pure; their hearts were true,” muttered Jas. How did the rest of it go?

“Their love was pure; their hearts were true:

Their song of longing grew and grew

And with his song he did her woo.”

“Yes, we’re extremely lucky to have one of the earliest versions of the original narrative poem at the university.” The voice was just as Jas remembered: cultured and slightly patronising. “It would have been transcribed at some point in the thirteenth century.

‘This ronde I mayke of two yongge sāwel

And how Kinge Petyr did them wrongge

And tortured them for yerès longge

Until that torture toke its toll…’

            These days, we’d call that a spoiler, but it was part of the tradition to summarise the story before you told it in detail and then people knew exactly what to expect.”

            “Only, we don’t really know, do we?” broke in Andrew Spittle, struggling to contain his excitement. “All it tells us is that Petyr tortured two young lovers – we have to read the poem in its entirety to discover how and why.

                        ‘Golde was hyr haire and faire hyr cheeke

                        And Pardal did hyr favyre seeke

                        And with his songges he did hyr woo…’

Description like that lulls the reader into a false sense of security: we think it’s going to be a traditional ballad about a young man courting his lady fair, but then Petyr arrives just at the crucial moment of their handfasting and it all goes pear-shaped.

            ‘His haire was blacke and blacke his harte

            And crule his lippe and vile his ways,

And when Enara met his gaze

He knew he wode that true luve parte.’

            So he carries her off to his castle, despite the fact she’s just married Pardal – and Pardal rides after her like any young husband would, desperate to save his love – and the storyteller plays with us by making us think that he’ll be successful because he enlists the help of one of the castle servants

            “And because Pardal’s technically the hero of the piece,” broke in Jenkins. She obviously felt that Spittle was getting more airtime than her.

            “Quite,” Spittle agreed absently. “Now, where was I? Ah, yes, the old serving-woman.

                        ‘And olde she was, some ful three-score

                        With wrinkled lippes and foule of face

                        And yet her harte was ful of grace;

                        To aid yongge Pardal this Dame swore.’

            The plan is that she’ll take Pardal to the tower where Enara’s locked up by Petyr and that he’ll have a rope ladder under his cloak. If he can manage to shoot an arrow through her window – remember, windows are just slits in the wall: there’s no glass – with a string tied to the arrow and the other end of the string tied to the ladder, she can make it fast and he’ll climb up to rescue her.”

            “Thus perpetuating the old cliché that women need to be rescued by men.” That was Jenkins again. Jas had forgotten how much the woman’s voice grated on her nerves. “It’s a reworking of the Rapunzel scenario: beautiful girl locked in high tower and handsome prince coming to rescue her – almost a Disney interpretation, one might say.”

“Except Pardal isn’t a prince but a bard.”

Finally! thought Jas. She’d been worried that Simon Hermitage wasn’t going to say anything.

“I appreciate Wendy’s comment about the fairy tale aspect,” Hermitage continued, “but those tropes are an important part of English folk lore: the protagonists have to overcome adversity to grow.

Besides, when we look at Enara, we realise she’s not a plot device to showcase Pardal’s masculine superiority: she chooses to let herself starve to death in the tower rather than agree to marry Petyr.

‘His body weak and racked with pain;

His bones as broken as his heart –

He tried to hear her voice in vain,

Calling out her name again

With all his minstrel’s art.

Yet in the cell above him lay

A maid who would not bend the knee

And name another wedding day

So that King Petyr’s wrath might stay.

“For still my husband lives,” said she.

And Petyr’s wrath was great indeed

And swore he then a heinous oath

To make her Pardal sigh and bleed

And tortured him without a need

For that did wound them both.’

            A modern heroine would have probably given in to Petyr to stop him torturing Pardal, but Enara has too much integrity for that: she’d rather see her husband suffer physically than let him live with the knowledge that she’s in another man’s arms.”

                        ‘Those lippes shal never call me hys

                        Nor shal those armes entwyne me rounde,’ muttered Spittle. “Of course, if we retrace our steps to the beginning of the poem, we see there’s an equality between them right from the start:

                        ‘Then sange Pardal of light and luve

                        And every notte was pur and true

                        And echoed in the skyes above;

And yet he wot not what to do

For he was but a simple barde

And coulde not court a lass like hyr

And though he sange with al hys harte

Enara did he not deserve

For shee was of far greater worthe –

But lo, she smyled and bid him fair

And sunnelight danced upon her haire

As she dyd synge sweete songes for hym…’

            They court each other with music and she teaches him songs he doesn’t know.”

            “And even their names are indicative of how important song is to this story,” Hermitage added. “Pardal means ‘sparrow’ and Enara means ‘swallow’, so they’re calling each other nicknames that sum up who they are. A sparrow is a common bird and Pardal is just a common bard – bit of word play there; whereas a swallow is graceful and soars high into the sky and Enara’s a high flier too – her father’s the leader of the village council. Song is a great leveller in this story.”

            “And the writer makes use of traditional ballads, doesn’t he?” Cragg sounded as enthusiastic as the rest of the panel. “There’s the song they sing together at the start that takes on tragic undertones later.”

            “You mean,

 ‘He lost the girl with golden hair

                        His one true love so rich and rare

                        He lost the girl with golden hair

All to the king of the fairies,’ quoted Hermitage.

“Only, I’d hardly equate Petyr with a fairy king! He’s far too macho for a start.”

            “But they certainly find common ground in the songs they sing together,” Spittle added. He began quoting from the original text. “I think it goes like this:

‘And so together did they synge

And all the worlde befor them laye

And they did synge both nighte and daye,

Not mindful now of dam nor sire,

Nor field nor stream nor barn nor byre –

Their songe a worlde unto them twain

Until the nighte grewe daye again.’

It’s an almost utopian world where only song exists and they’re the Adam and Eve of this new paradise.”

            Jas thought back to the essay she’d written all those years ago – hadn’t she made a similar point herself, only quoting from a different part of the text?

                        ‘And many a happy hour spent they

                        In song and rhyme and chant and lay:

                        Their notes each other chased around –

                        No sweeter sound did e’er abound.

                        This world of theirs from music made

                        Would never by real life be swayed.

                        And so it was that they did lie

                        In grassy fields as life went by

                        And talk of how the song of birds

                        And other natural sounds they’d heard

                        Were set in chorus every day –

                        And she would sing and he would play

                        Upon his lute; then nature stilled

                        As if to listen; and they willed

                        Not any other in their sphere

                        But only their own hearts to hear.’

She couldn’t imagine today’s teenagers constructing a world of their own like that.

            Hold on, Wendy Jenkins was off again, rabbiting away for all she was worth. “And you must remember, however, that the audience of the 1200s would have been steeped in religious superstition so the lines about Enara’s purity would have been linked to the Virgin Mary as the only appropriate role model for a good Christian woman – which is why the Adam and Eve analogy falls down, since Eve was a temptress.” She cleared her throat.

                        “Ahem. ‘Yet though hys cryes did wound hyr harte

                        And echo nightly in hyr ears,

                        Stil swore shee with much grief and teares

                        To be a pris’ner many years

                        ‘Ere shee would let King Petyr’s darte

                        Hyr maiden’s treasure set aparte.’

It’s quite obvious that although she’s married Pardal, she still retains her virtue; and she chooses to keep that treasure locked away rather than share it with anyone other than her husband. Of course, not everyone’s an expert in Middle English,” she said smugly.

            Jas remembered well how Professor Jenkins had failed her end of term paper in the first year because she’d quoted from a translation of the text and not the original poem. Luckily, Melvyn Cragg seemed to be on Jasvinder’s side.

            “Simon, you’ve recently written a modern version of the poem, and your translation really bounces along,” he began.

            “I think scholars have wasted too much time in the past trying to translate the poem word for word,” Hermitage began. (Was that a dig at Wendy Jenkins? Jas wondered.) “If you do that, you lose the vitality of the piece – there’s a real joy in the rhythm of the language and, dare I say it, in the rhyme itself.”

“And yet it’s not a poem that ends happily, is it?” Cragg pressed.

“No,” Hermitage sounded thoughtful, “but there’s a beauty and poignancy for me in the last lines:

            ‘She then let rise a single note

            And through his window it did float.

            “My sparrow – Pardal – are you there?”

            “Enara – swallow – loved one, fair.”

            “Were I a sparrow, through these bars I’d fly.”

            “Were I a swallow, I’d not need to die.”

            But fainter grows her voice until – sweet fate! –

            A flutt’ring tells him that it is too late.

            He sees a swallow soar into the sky

            And knows Enara chose this hour to die.

            No reason now for him to cling to life:

            He chooses death and flies to join his wife.’

What’s interesting about this is that the rhythm of the lines changes from eight beats in a line to ten when Pardal compares himself to a sparrow – and it’s a deliberate choice, almost as if the two of them have to fit as many words as they can into their last lines before they die – and the poet continues that right up to the end. It’s a feature of the original poem, so I’ve mirrored it in my updated version too.”

            “Wonderful!” Melvyn enthused. “And sadly, that’s all we have time for this week, but I hope you’ve enjoyed the ballad of ‘The Lovebirds’ as much as we have. Next week …”

            Jas clicked the pause button, her mind already back on the power point. Perhaps, later, she would dig through her old uni notes and re-read the poem; but for now, Blake’s ‘Tyger’ was far more important.

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