Social Dimension and Sitz-im-Leben of Troubadour Lyric

Troubadour songs certainly existed and circulated in oral form a long time prior to William’s compositions. The genuine historical-literary significance of William IX as the “first” of the Troubadours can only be that he was first to write down his vernacular texts. William inaugurates Troubadour poetry in the sense of being the first to have committed such compositions to writing so that they are still extant. Furthermore, and momentously, it is just this written form that first frees the lyric to pursue, untrammeled, its aspiration toward transcendence of all social contexts—and eventually even of all semantic contents. Frederick Goldin describes the original limitations of the courtly lyric hemmed in by a concrete performance situation and, therefore, not yet free to explore language for its own intrinsic possibilities and powers, reaching beyond its social uses toward religious transcendence and experience of an absolute or spiritual self.

The situation was what effectively prevented this poetry from speaking to the human longing for transcendence; and, except for versification, it kept poetic resources in a state of poverty. The language had to be appropriate for a performance, and the experience of love could not be explored beyond the point where it ceased to have a communal significance. Figurative language was frozen stiff: it had to stay strictly representational, it could not make many associations outside the facts of courtly life—the heavens themselves were

framed by the windows of the court. Thus the basic poetic means of exploring experience, namely, the exploration of language, was practically unavailable. The moment poets sought to create a lyric that would not require the perspectives of an audience, that would be free to examine the consequences of its own figures of speech—that is the moment when the troubadour tradition changed forever.[1]

Goldin concludes concerning the Troubadours and their experience of love that “no mortal fact, like time and circumstance” could delimit it (123) but that the writing of poetry was necessary as the means of its liberation from external, social constraints so as to deliver it into this unlimited, speculative dimension.

The Troubadours broke down social and stylistic barriers by combining highly refined culture with popular poetry in the “natural” language of the vernacular. They hybridized high-church liturgy, which had chanted and hymned divine love throughout the preceding centuries, with profane songs of court jesters and street entertainers. They lent to the highest and most ethereal artistic ambitions, and to the most noble and refined sentiments of love, strikingly original expression as thoroughly worldly. Dialogued tensos and partimens are the remote ancestors of call-and-response rap and hip-hop today: such performance art has its roots in medieval jousts.11 Something of the Troubadours and their art of liberation at all levels still lives in American folk song as represented by poet-musicians such as Bob Dylan. The thirteenth-century Occitanian verse romance Flamenca incarnates sexual liberation and even the gender equality of women, thereby bringing certain covert implications of Troubadour culture out into the open. Yet this liberation does not exhaust the Troubadours significance for modernity: their indelible legacy is bound up also with a sublimation directed toward a higher level of existence beyond any objective, external, social world.

Even while still allowing for and incorporating into his poetry the circumstances of performance, William, among his most stupendous innovations, nevertheless, inaugurates the existence of love in lyric in the form of a written text. It is this textual nesting that opens the possibility for lyric to take wing without deflating its aspirations to transcendence by dissolving them into the immanent exigencies of the poem’s function in performance situations. Literariness, as it begins to take shape in the fledgling corpus of William’s poems, thus becomes a dimension opening to infinity. As a written work, the poem can become a vehicle of metaphysical speculation or mystical love. It is no longer limited as a pragmatically circumstanced communication subservient to mundane exigences. The

written text can mediate these extraliterary factors as conditions immanent to itself rather than simply being conditioned by them from the outside as constraints circumscribing the possibilities of its self-expression.

William’s provocation of putting song into written form in this way usurps upon clerical privileges, for clerics had previously possessed a virtual monopoly on employment of the techniques of writing for all higher cultural purposes—all those with permanent significance beyond merely pragmatic motives such as accounting and inventorying. The word “clerk” itself serves as an etymological reminder that writing was reserved for the clergy or “clerics.” William’s revolutionary gesture constitutes a sally unseating ecclesiastical authority by showing how, in the case of the lyric, even thoroughly secular writing can acquire the means of taking on universal and speculative significance. This would eventually include the theological type of significance that becomes fully manifest in the Paradiso.

Courtly love, at least from its literary origins, is in principle about objectless desire, and this opens it in the direction of transcendence toward the indescribable. Of his two “friends” (“amies”), Agnes and Ermessen, William’s persona does not know where, or even whether, they have ever done anything to please him or not. The woman, as object of desire, is essentially a creation of desire in its narcissistic self-enclosure. William’s love of pleasure, his “joi d’amor,” in the courtly poems, is strongly interiorized. If Guilhem’s name originally connoted his being a jokester (his “willfulness” or “will” at the “helm”), we might read its English equivalent as “Will I am.” Particularly in the context of his gaily and giddily playful verse, formal play becomes the very substance of his poems, as of those of the Troubadours more generally, with a premium placed on prosodic technique. In “Ben vuelh que sapchon li pluzor,” William names himself “master craftsman” (“Qu’ieu ai nom ‘maiestre certa’”).

Ezra Pound associated this revalorizing of conscious artistry and consummate craftsmanship in the rebirth of poetic lyric among the Troubadours especially with Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante designated as the superlative craftsman or artisan of the vernacular or the “mother tongue” (“il miglior fabbro del parlar materno,” Purgatorio XXVI. 117). Pound was himself in turn offered this honorific by T. S. Eliot in the latter’s dedication to him of The Waste Land (1922).

The craft in question is perhaps most fully displayed in the elaborate formal system of the sestina. Invented by Arnaut and taken up by Dante in his Rime CI-CII, it consists in six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi. The six terminal words ending the lines in each stanza are the same, but they are rotated in a regular pattern from stanza to stanza. They are then condensed into double doses in each of the last


Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (New York: New Directions, 2005 [1910]), Chapter 2: “11 Miglior Fabbro.”

Origins of Lyric Reflection in Nothing 49 three lines of the poem. A powerful machine of self-reflection—with power to intensify technical dexterity and mastery more than, or at least alongside, spiritual sublation—becomes manifest here. The resources of self-reflection in language make both directions of development—the technical and spiritual—possible. This underlying ambivalence of selfreflection is followed out in its duplicitous consequences especially in Part IV, section 52.

In these ways, the value of art as a means of renewal is affirmed from the beginning of the Troubadour tradition. This poetry proclaims a new birth of individual awareness in the artist’s self-conscious cultivation of craft. The invention of “new song” (“novel chan”) is conxtualized by the sweetness (“dolchor”) of the “new time” (“temps novel”) of spring in Williams’s “Ab la dolchor de temps novel.” Art is a self-reflective means employed by the human subject just coming to consciousness of its original powers of creation—of echoing and appropriating the energy and inspiration of the Creation all around. This is a birth of modern consciousness centered on the self-reflexive self, but still with a constitutive relation to the other, to the universe as a whole, and to its creative Source. Reflexivity enfolds the ability to generate from its own self-relation this relation outward and inward that is at the core of this new resource discovered by Troubadour lyric. Such creation arises immanently, without depending on relation to anything else that is independently and objectively present. Yet the self-engendering self is not isolated and cut off but rather itself encompassed in a wider circle of self-reflection that it reflects.

  • [1] Goldin, Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères, 122. 2 Pierre Bec, La joute poétique. De la tenson médiévale aux débats chantés traditionnels (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2000). 3 See René Nelli, L’érotique des troubadours (Toulouse: Privât, 1963).
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