Throwing Poetry on the Highroad

June 21, 2011 § 4 Comments

The concluding lines to an Anglo-Norman French poem, “An Outlaw’s Song of Trailbaston,” from the early fourteenth century:

This rhyme was made in the wood, beneath a laurel tree;
There sing the blackbird and nightingale, and there hovers the hawk;
It was written on parchment to be better remembered,
And thrown on the highroad so that people should find it.

The whole poem can be found in this volume. The piece as a whole is pretty interesting–it’s a bitter complaint about and satire of laws of outlawry mixed with some pastoral reflections on the forest–but these last lines struck me the most with their poignancy and, of course, the figure of the poem as a gift. It’s a message-in-the-bottle type of gift, a present to anyone who might happen by it. There’s no reciprocity expected in it–no expected return for the poet’s efforts–and as such it’s the type of gift that Derrida might be almost be able to get behind: a “pure” gift, given without a desire for a gift in return, without even the knowledge of who would receive it.

Of course, Derrida would inevitably follow this up by saying that since the giver receives some form of gratification from knowing that he is giving the poem, it turns out not to be a “pure” gift after all. And moreover, the gesture of throwing the parchment on the road is clearly rhetorical here: the posture of casually, almost thoughtlessly, tossing the political complaint out on the road serves the poet’s stance as an innocent and almost unwitting victim of the law. Rhetorical though it may be, it’s an interesting image of a work of art as gift–and not just gift but squander, excess, something cast out on the road to be trampled (wasted) or–perhaps–received and given again. That image may be purely rhetorical and polemical, or it may have something to do with the poem’s rustic, idyllic setting. But either way there’s a nice little tinge of melancholy to it, given the tenuous state of the poem’s manuscript: like so many works from the medieval era, it survives in only one manuscript.

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§ 4 Responses to Throwing Poetry on the Highroad

  • Brent says:

    Several thoughts-
    1. Authorship would be terribly important in helping find the meaning of the throwing the thing on the highway. If the Author was an outlaw or wished to continue the character of the lamenting outlaw, this would be the only way to distribute the actual poem given the status of being outside of the law. Its propposed ( namely by me) that much werewolf lore has its origins in law that sentenced the person out side the law not so much to death but to be treated in the same fashion the city/agrarian community would treat wolves. Throwing your poems on the highroad then becomes the only option of distributing your work if you are automatically treated as a dangerous animal on contact with society of any sort. Outlawry would seem to place you out side of the normal system of gift exchange, which works to a certain extent with the thought in grouping #13 that coins are exchanged for nothing in the world of an honest person under the law ( http://www.outlawsandhighwaymen.com/trail.htm )
    2. This ones a question, do you think that throwing line presumes the literacy of those on the highroad? This seems unlikely to me, but you wouldn’t throw something on the road unless you intended for the people your robbing to read it while you went through their valuables before you struck off their heads. I suppose it could be a vague reference to throwing ones voice in singing, but that seems terribly unlikely to me.

    • Brent, thanks for the comment. First, I should have specified that the poem is clearly an aristocratic, political performance–Anglo-Norman French was the language of the upper crust. So it’s unlikely the author was an actual outlaw (Robin Hood only became an aristocratic figure in the Renaissance). The poem actually probably circulated in noble society as a political tract of sorts–so I’m not sure we can say that it presumes the literacy of those on the road. Maybe if we say that within the poem’s world, where an outlaw can write in Anglo-Norman French, others on the road can be presumed to be equally literate–which is to say, equally upper-crust pretenders to outsider status.

      I like your notion of the poet as outside the normal system, but I would suggest that in this period that system was becoming more and more one of commerce rather than gift exchange. The outlaw band, in fact, becomes a sort of gift-exchange community (sharing the wealth among themselves) which is decidedly outside the market economy. So maybe the image of the manuscript flung on the road suggests the outlaw acting with the economy appropriate to his outsider status.

  • Brent says:

    So the audience then would be exclusively literate and the authors list of names ( bad guys/ good guys) can be presumed to be contemporaries? Also, other then the line that it was writ ( ten) down to be better remembered would you support the idea that the lyrical format was more for effect then performance?
    Random Idea- You could almost make the case that the outlaw is the proto Marxist revolutionary in the business of radical regifting.

  • I don’t know much about the list of names, but I think they were likely to be contemporaries that the readers would have known. Also, yeah, I don’t think there’s any suggestion that the poem was oral or performative. The editors point out that the poet displays a “copious and accurate use of legal vocabulary,” which I would think suggests a tract in verse form more than a popular performance.

    You could definitely make the case for outlaw as (crudely) proto-Marxist, until the Renaissance gentrified the character.

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