Prize-Winning Author Looks to the Past
by Douglass Dowty
are taught to be experts on medievalism at an early age knowledgeable
on chivalry and romance, the benevolent thievery of Robin Hood,
the Crusade legends of Aladdin Scheherazade and, of course, the
immortal Humpty Dumpty and all the kings men. But how about
those who really want to know the story behind the myths of our
youth? Pulitzer-Prize winning poet W. S. Merwin, fills in all the
glory behind these ancient times in his intriguing and lyrical autobiography,
The Mays of Ventadorn.
Astounding anecdotes, from English King Richard IIs amphibious
trip home from the Crusades in 1190 to reclaim his inherent power
(en route to be captured in a Vienna tavern and ransomed for 100,000
marks and 200 hostages by forces loyal to the Roman Empire) to the
travels of Bernard de Ventadorn, most famous of all French troubadours,
bask in a rare balance of inexhaustible accuracy and historical
From the very first scene, we see Merwin pulling himself out of
the picture, In the first chapter, Merwin recounts vividly his encounter
with controversial and influential American poet Ezra Pound, incarcerated
in Italy after he campaigned for Mussolini during WWII.
While this scene could have sent the story in a number of different
directions, we are shown the artistic Pound, a great champion of
his contemporaries works, including those of ancient French
troubadours. Intrigued, Merwin samples selections of Pounds
translations, taken from the archaic language, lOcctain. He
finds them despicable, couched in a language that no one could
have spoken or sung in any age, a jangling, affected concoction
up for a high-school production of Ivanhoe.
But even considering such criticism, this encounter pushes Merwin
slowly backward, from inner-city Washington, D.C. to the Gothic
libraries of McGill University, to two prolonged stints in the archaic
French countryside and, finally, to the Crusades and times of European
feudalism and strife the age of the troubadours.
After an impulsive buy of an abandoned farmhouse in a mountainous
southern French town, Merwin begins his research on this age of
religious fanaticism, courtly love and barbaric militarism to an
all-encompassing and interconnected anecdote where Crusaders are
kings and famous poets.
From here, Merwin describes his extraordinary findings at the chateau
at Ventadorn, where the famous troubadour, later entouraged with
kings from France and England, was born under the auspices of Count
Sadly, the castle where the great Bernard de Ventadorn originated
has fallen on hard times; the then-famous moat could not be filled
with all the straw in France and was built over by a road. So much
had been removed by that time, that the French Government instituted
an ironic public works project of protecting the neighborhood
by lowering the walls that had been built to defend it.
The Mays of Ventadorn is as interesting as history itself
through incredible means Merwin proves that neither detracts from
the other. If we are curious about the unknown, it seems that we
would also be partial to a distant, unrealized past as well. As
a poet, Merwin stayed close to his origins and his interests with
his first published novella (following more than 30 collections
of poems and prose). Included are several partial and full translations
of poems from famous troubadours.
What cannot be denied about this work is its enthusiasm for
the truth, for history and, above all, for the enjoyment of all
of the ignorant, but curious, souls who pick it up to read.