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Art. 68, Herkne to my ron: Introduction

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CCC: Corpus Christi College (Cambridge); CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); IMEV Suppl.: Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse (Robbins and Cutler); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

This English poem is a loose paraphrase of a familiar Latin work, the first Elegy of Maximian. It has been seldom edited and printed because an earlier, better version survives in MS Digby 86. There the scribe sets it under a French title, Le Regret de Maximian. The Harley version of Maximian has thirty-one stanzas of variable length. The more regular Digby version has twenty-two 12-line stanzas and one apparently defective 9-line stanza. The level of variation and reordering between the two versions is quite freewheeling.

Like An Old Man’s Prayer (art. 45), Maximian laments old age within the “signs of death” tradition. The specific debt here is to the Elegies attributed to Maximianus, an elusive sixth-century Latin poet whose utterances may in fact derive from more than one person. In his verse he claimed to be a friend of Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy also spawned poetic exercises, sometimes on the same theme (see Ziolkowski 1998, pp. 126–29, 311–13 [no. 50]). The Elegies were frequently used in the Middle Ages to teach Latin to schoolboys, and they were therefore popular among medieval writers, Chaucer included. After beginning didactically, naming Maximian a handsome and rich man in his youth, the poet constructs a dramatic monologue of mournful lament, which becomes, especially in Harley, “excessively disordered in thought” (Woolf 1968, p. 105). Repeated stanza units suggest delivery by memory or even, perhaps, a performance that seeks to reenact an old man’s rambling forgetfulness. Scattered throughout the poem are Elegy-derived signs of aging and impending death: loss of strength, faded beauty, sexual impotency, bent stature, and so on. The speaker dwells bitterly on the contrast between youth and age, his loss of the former, and the contemptible state he is now in. He exemplifies the conventional moral warning that Death awaits everyone, and he utters this truth with the experiential knowledge of old age.

For commentary on Maximian, see Woolf 1968, pp. 102–15; and Tristram, pp. 63–64. For other Harley works with corresponding Digby versions, see the explanatory notes for Harrowing of Hell; Debate between Body and Soul; Sweet Jesus, King of Bliss; Stand Well, Mother, under Rood; The Sayings of Saint Bernard; The Blame of Women; Hending; and Prayer on the Five Joys of Our Lady (arts. 21, 22, 50, 60, 74, 77, 89, 104). On the broad correspondences between MSS Harley 2253 and Digby 86, see Corrie 2000. A Harley poem with a similar though more regular meter is The Laborers in the Vineyard (art. 41).

[Fols. 82ra–83r. IMEV, NIMEV 1115. MWME 9:3034–35 [336]. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 9. Meter: Thirty-one stanzas of typically six, nine, or twelve lines, built of 3-line tail-rhyme segments, aab3, with a final prayer couplet, aa3. The Digby version has twenty-two 12-line stanzas, aabaabaabaab3, and one 9-line stanza. Some stanzas in the Harley version possess more than two rhymes. Layout: Triple columns. Editions: Wright and Halliwell, 1:119–25; Böddeker, pp. 245–53. Other MS: Oxford, Bodl. MS Digby 86, fols. 134va–136vb (Tschann and Parkes, p. xxvi [item 49]; ed. Brown 1932, pp. 92–100 [no. 51]).]

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