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.