I cannot remember if I have made any foremother poet postings on this blog as yet. I used to do them regularly on Jim and Ellen have a blog, too, and two years ago Wom-po, a women's poetry listserv community put up a festival site where 30 of my essay-postings were published. If you should click on any of these, you will discover they consisted of the name of a woman poet, her life span, a few poems, and a short life, crossing a span of time from Sappho until the mid-20th century. The criteria was that the woman should have been born 60 years since since Walter Scott said 60 years since constituted an historical novel. Here's a typical woman I did outside this 30: Henrietta St John Knightley who I liked as a person as well as poet, a kind of imaginary companion
Well, I did a group on medieval poets, among them my favorite, Christine de Pisan,
Christine de Pisan (1363-1430) Imagined Writing
including a few on the once famed troubadour women of southern France who flourished during the early crusades. Among these was Beatrice, Countess de Dia (b 1140).
Well more than a month ago now a kind generous friend on WWTTA, Fran, told me about a new novel which recreated the presence of Beatrice: The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her minstrel Laura (a novel in thirteen books and seven intermezzos), by the German novelist, Irmtraud Morgner, as translated by Jeannette Clausen.
Here's a review which includes a brief life of this Eastern German woman novelist, Morgner.
What purports the nomination of this book?
Well Irmtraud and Clausen invent new ballads for Beatrice, recreate songs in the troubador mode. It's just so 18th century to do this kind of imaginative fakery. So for today here is one I find appealing and convincing (as recreation -- reminding me of the fakes 18th century poets liked to do):
Chapter 9 . . . .An old song by Beatrice de Dia, freely rendered into German by Paul Wiens.
The one I lost, that cavalier
my song laments for sorrow pure,
For time immemorial shall it be known
how well I loved him evermore.
So grievously for love betrayed
because my love for him I hid,
I suffer in solitude and bereft
at night in bed or when I'm dressed.
How gladly would I him enclose
within my arms at eventide
and offer my fair breast to him
to serve as pillow for his head.
That would yield me greater joy
than Floris had from Blancaflor
To him I give my hair, breath, and heart,
his are my eyes and my life.
Friend, handsome, good, and sensual,
were you but one night in my power
and could I but a single night
lie with you and kiss you softly,
know then how great my hunger were
to have you as my husband dear
were you to promise evermore
to treat me thus as I desire.
I have omitted the inbetween sections about the audience's response, and I know nothing of the German original by Irmtraud.
I looked up in Bodin (which is the one book of women troubadour poetry I own) and from the translations and texts there, don't recognize this poem in the novel. Hence I half-assume it's a recreation, an original poem done in this older mode. Beatrice's poetry is much angrier, more stringent, tells of betrayals and is by turns, bitter, vexed, asking abjectly for protection, demanding her lover do her bidding, or near cursing him. The mood of the medieval poetry is caught more in the recreations of the Pre-Raphaelites and book illustrations of the Victorians, and the few women who did it tried for spectacularly transgressive woman too, e.g.,
This Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919), Hope in the Prison of Despair (1887)
So perhaps this is an idealization you see, something like that end of 19th century Bedier Daphnis and Chloe-like recreation of Tristan and Isolde [Joseph Bédier's The Romance of Tristan and Iseult as translated by Hilaire Belloc and Paul Rosenfield] which omits all the stress and miseries.
But maybe not ...
There is also a lovely interpretation of the Unicorn tapestries.
This is a detail from a tapestry to be found in the Cloisters Museum, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan, NYC
This too is a generalization, an idealization for there are a number of different extant tapestries. While the underlying myth is the same, there are distinct differences between them, and people should read Suzy McKee Charnas's The Vampire Tapestry (fine vampire novel where he is brutal, dangerous, for real), the best chapter is called the Unicorn Tapestry where our hero-vampire meets up with a psychiatrist and their relationship is likened to that of the lady and unicorn where she bests the unicorn and Charnas does a lovely number on this new idea of the tapestry.
Chapter 11: Transcript of an interview ...
Led by the accordion player, singing folk, battle, partisan, and revolutionary songs in Russian, Spanish, Italian, English, and French, we quickly arrived at ideal pastures. Where sensations were aroused as in the eleventh hall of the Musee de Cluny in Paris. This hall is round. It's the only one; the objects on exhibit demand the ideal perfection of a circle. I'm speaking of the famous tapestry series 'The Lady and the Unicorn.' According to the catalog, in five symbolic depictions of the human senses the life of a noble lady is displayed beside the legend of the wild unicorn that, as we know, can only be tamed by a pure virgin. But the meaning of the sixth tapestry is said to be a mystery to scholars even today. The blue and gold tent, held open by the lion and the unicorn so that the medieval lady can be seen, bears the inscription Amon seul desir. Which means 'To my only desire.' I don't want to cast doubt on the scholastic subject as deciphered by researchers; Jean Paul was always satisfied with the first subject that came along too. His art unfolded in digressions. But since art is only paid for with life, and countless women's lives are preserved in the tapestries, that is, the lives of the women who knotted them, the allegory couldn't help but pale significantly. In favor of an excessive peacefulness. To which even beasts of prey succumb. Never have I seen a gentler ideal of world harmony; never was the longing for unwarlike conditions so pure and radical: the masculine variant has been suppressed. Thus an image of longing that evolved from despair - extreme conditions produce extreme utopias. Who among us has not refused to obey in moments or years of anger; who, when shipwrecked on the egotistical sea, following her own desire, has not stepped onto this gentle land where plants animals, and one human species dwell in sisterly . . .
Irmtraud interrupts Laura
I know that Freudians will tell us that the horn is a man's penis and the myth is the archetype where the woman gains power by taking over a man's power. These are images which in the medieval period were of the lady's power, her strength, but the focus is still the male and she gets her strength by capturing the ultimate male in the form of a chaste beast. I also know vampire myths stem from terror of dead people, a very different source than unicorn myth ...
Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Acquaintaine: the historical woman gained her power by whose daughter she was, what she inherited and then who she married
Still I like the prose poetry of Morgner.
A little about the novel: The mode is what's called magic realism, to wit, it opens with a gothic kind of device: our author has a manuscript thrust on her. That scene is a woman's bleak comedy one: our author is accosted by a woman like herself burdened with a child on the way to day care. The woman named Laura thrusts the manuscript at her and asks for a huge sum. Slowly the price goes down all the while the woman insists this is a priceless find to publish. Our author discovers it's about Beatrice di Dia and goes to her funeral -- a few hundred years late :).
Then there is an interweaving of present day narratives by Laura with present day narratives by Beatrice, only Beatrice's are by a woman 843 years old who feel asleep a la Sleeping Beauty. Her castle is being blown up to make way for a highway. She listens to the workmen and escapes. We the reader recognize it's 1968 in France and she is in the midst of the demonstrations. She hitches a ride, the man seems nice, but turns out he's a rough nasty semi-rapist, she escapes.
Interwoven is Laura going on vacation. I found Laura's sections heart-warming hilarity because of the mockery of vacations -- I'm not exactly your vacation illusion type.
A third presence, too, our author's interrogation of Laura: Morgner is presented as disbelieving from the get-go there was a Beatrice, and then disbelieving what is asserted about her based on norms and likelihood of the era, and Laura then says it's all so. So we get regularly scheduled interrogations which present medieval history from a woman's point of view. This gets them talking about norms then and now.
In Beatrice's narrative, we have a working out of archetypes brilliant without showing off. Sleeping beauty is a rape story. The descriptions of the castle are beautiful, redolent, the pleasures of romance on offer and she tells of her former life as she wanders about. Laura's is the situation comedy person, but no self-deprecation such as one finds in say Bridget Jones. Irmtraud's interrogations are done in a new legalese -- which I find irritating because it's hard to understand and so smacks of coterie and elitism. But it is filled with fascinating detail of the era.
Audrey Hepburn in a nun's outfit from the 14th century, playing an aging Maid Marion to Sean Connery's Robin Hood