- Truth of My Songs: Poems of the Trobairitz by Claudia Keelan
Many English-speaking poets—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Paul Blackburn, and W. S. Merwin, to cite the most eminent—have loved the songs of troubadours. These twelfth- and thirteenth-century poet-composers wrote in the language that is now termed Occitan and seem to have plucked the whole Romance lyric tradition out of thin air; William, the Count of Poitou, progenitor of the genre, wrote, “Farai un vers de dreyt nien” (I’ll make a poem from absolutely nothing), claiming to invent his vers in real time, on horseback, perhaps on the way to a crusade.1 With Truth of My Songs: Poems of the Trobairitz, Claudia Keelan joins poets such as Meg Bogin and myself who have labored lovingly to illuminate the women troubadours, or trobairitz, for English-speaking readers—a labor unlikely to find a vast audience, as the poets are elusive and esoteric. Keelan, however, makes an impressive effort with her bilingual edition: Occitan and colloquial English.
Bringing trobairitz to a modern audience is fraught with difficulties. Occitan, which once prevailed in over a third of what is now France, has become the language of an embattled minority. The social context in which the songs were created and performed vanished with the great feudal courts. Troubadour melodies and exacting rhymes had to be collected from scattered manuscripts, deciphered, edited by scholars, and made available to poet-translators, who ponder whether a common Occitan phrase like bel semblan, for example, should be rendered as “pleasant looks,” “smooth face,” or, simply, “smile.”
Keelan, in her introduction, cites a more significant hurdle she faced in producing her ambitious and often virtuosic book: “I had to find a way to hear [the women troubadours’] voices, over and beyond the somewhat repetitive and stylized surfaces of the poems’ conventions” (p. 11). It is true that the marked spontaneity of the swashbuckling William of Poitou decreased in the later poetic generations to which the trobairitz belonged. We find the woman troubadour challenging herself to fulfill, in her own way, the elaborate rhyming and metric rules of her forebears. In fact, one of the charms in trobairitz verse is its stated awareness of composing within the constraints of a genre established by men:
I should give up on song, since the more I sing, the more love goes wrong(“I Should Give Up on Song,” p. 41)
I sing of things better left unsaid(“I Sing of Things Better Left Unsaid,” p. 87) [End Page 479]
My tears drown out the song that I might sing. I’m deaf—there’s no music in anything, not even these words.(“The Dull Weight I Carry Inside,” p. 107)
The men, who established the restrictions of their verse, may also have been poetic rivals as well as problematic lovers.
Nothing is known about the trobairitz as individuals. Even the few who are named left no biographies beyond brief, conventional ones (known as vidas or razos) belatedly attached to the poems in manuscripts. However, Keelan’s well-researched introduction does much to situate her poets as members of a class of women residing in the southern courts, where they found their themes and their audience. In these enclaves, marriage was a dynastic and hierarchical affair intended to benefit not the spouses themselves but the family, church, and community. Amor (love) in this context is always independent of marriage and, most often, antithetical to it. Love is expressed as a power struggle—wife against jealous husband or uncle, lovers against lauzengiers (court spies and gossips), and lovers against each other. Lovers are accused of infidelity, disrespect, and cruel unresponsiveness, which make the accuser miserable but, happily, causes her to sing. Keelan demonstrates her understanding of the subtle power-plays enacted by the trobairitz: “the trobairitz were very aware of the essential fictionality of their subjective position . . . . the poem, while always associated with love, is equally associated with itself” (p. 25). To me, Keelan’s evocation of...