This week, at quite short notice, the excellent Michael Madrinkian and I found ourselves in a room recording readings of lyrics from Richard Rolle’s Ego dormio. This isn’t normal. Indeed, when I mentioned this to a friend and said that it’s unusual to be reading Rolle aloud, my friend said ‘It’s unusual to be reading Rolle full stop.’ So what happened?
Rolle probably knew St Laurence’s Church in Adwick-le-Street, and the church is beefing up the its Rolle coverage with some small-scale interactive displays. Katherine Zieman, who’s currently working on Rolle and the fifteenth-century reading of his works, invited us to make some recordings with the church’s rector, Revd Ann Wolton.
The lyrics in Ego dormio are fascinating, and a long way from either of what I used, as an undergraduate, to think of as the two poles of Middle English form, Chaucer’s later couplets and Langland’s alliterative long line. Neither of those are necessarily very representative, and it’s good to get into material like Rolle’s description of the Passion:
The þorne crowneth þe kynge ful sore is þat prickynge
Alas my ioy and my swetynge is demed for to henge
Naillet was his hand and naillet was his feet
And þurlet is his side so semly and so swete
Naked his white brest and rede his blody side
Wan was his faire hewe his woundes depe and wide
I have huge sympathy for anyone who has to impose editorial punctuation on this stuff! Not least because, as Catherine pointed out to me, the Middle English translations of Song of Songs which I’ve been working with lately offer some similar challenges.
Navigating the the cascade of rhyme and alliteration here requires care, and this is probably the second-hardest Middle English text I’ve had to ‘perform’, after The Aunters of Arthur. But the navigating is fun too, and probably very salutary.
What with this, my past involvement in a full reading of The Parliament of Fowls, and some consultancy which I’m due to do in a few weeks’ time, reading Middle English aloud is beginning to feel like One of My Things. Which is awkward because I’m not an expert on the sounds of Middle English(‘s many dialects) and I’m sure I make mistakes—and I do try to point this out to people when I’m called on.
There are real experts out there. But I suppose I feel that for the rest of us the trick is mostly having the courage to give it a go. As with reading poetry from any other period aloud, I think practising thoughtfully and then casting away fear to bull your way through confidently in the actual performance is the way to give the audience the best experience—which is what reading poetry aloud should probably be about.