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Fowles in the Frith: Modern English Translations with a Summary and Analysis

Who wrote "Fowles in the Frith"? No one knows who wrote it, but we do know that it's a stunning little lyric—one of the best early rhyming poems in the English language. "Fowles in the Frith" is an anonymous Medieval English lyric poem, circa the 13th-14th century AD. This page contains the original poem with a word-for-word modern English translation, two looser modern English translations, translation notes, a summary, and a brief analysis. The poem can also be found on YouTube in the form of songs, and it has also been published as sheet music lyrics. As one commentator noted, we're lucky to have the poem today because "Fowles in the Frith" was "written on one page of a manuscript of legal texts, noted [jotted] down by some monk going about his labor, or we would not have it."

Fowles in the Frith
(Anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The warblers in the wood,
the fishes in the flood
and I must go mad: ...
such sorrow I've had
for beasts of bone and blood!

Analysis: This is short lyric poem. It is a very early example of an English metrical rhymed poem. The original rhyme scheme (below) is abbab, with alliteration in each line that harkens back to older Anglo Saxon or "Old English" poetry. The poet sounds suspiciously like an animal rights activist! The use of "and" is intriguing ... is the poet saying or suggesting that his walks in the wood drive him mad because he is also a "beast of bone and blood," facing a similar fate? While some readers have interpreted the poem as a love poem, a religious poem about Jesus Christ and/or the Virgin Mary, and/or a poem of alienation, in this case Occam's Razor may apply: the most likely answer seems to be that the speaker feels intense sympathy (or sorrow) for the animals he sees suffering around him. Whether that sympathy extends to the speaker himself is not altogether obvious, but that little innocuous word "and" does suggest such a connection. One might even interpret the speaker to be saying that everything is going mad together: the birds, the fish, the other beasts, and human beings like himself.

Here is an alternate translation, followed by translation notes:

Fowles in the Frith (Anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The fowls in the forest,
the fishes in the flood
and I must go mad: ...
such sorrow I've had
for beasts of bone and blood!

Translator's Notes: The original poem rhymed abbab, but the "frith"/"with" rhyme just isn't going to work in modern English! Furthermore, the ancient scop was using alliteration: fowles/frith, fisshes/flood, waxe/wood, walke/with, beste/boon/blood. In the first translation, I went for alliteration and rhyme, hence warblers/wood. In the second version I dropped end rhyme in the first line and stuck a bit closer to the scop's original opening line. You can choose whichever version you prefer, or go back to the original poem if you like it better:

Fowles in the Frith (Original Medieval English Lyric)

Fowles in the frith,                       The birds in the wood,
The fisshes in the flood,               The fishes in the flood
And I mon waxe wood:               And I must go mad:
Much sorwe I walke with            Much sorrow I walk with
For beste of boon and blood.      For beasts of bone and blood.

An alternate interpretation is that "beste" is not "beast" but "the best." In this interpretation the last line might mean something like "for the best of bone and blood" or "the best creature living." The "best creature living" could be a lover, a saint or Jesus Christ. Or the ambiguity could be intentional. In any case, it's marvelous little poemone with attributes of Anglo-Saxon poetry (alliteration) and traditional English poetry (meter and rhyme).

Interpretation #1: The speaker, taken literally, sympathizes with the plight of birds, fish and other living creatures.
Interpretation #2: The speaker sees all the suffering around him and it makes him think of his lover.
Interpretation #3: The speaker is thinking of the "best creature" he knows―perhaps a saintly person, the Virgin Mary, or Jesus Christ.
Interpretation #4: The speaker is going mad and rejects his own flesh.
Interpretation #5: The speaker has been spurned by his lover, in an early example of a "courtly love poem."
Interpretation #6: The speaker envies the natural state of other creatures and regrets his "unnatural" lust and fallen state.
Interpretation #7: The speaker empathizes with Christ, who, unlike the foxes, had nowhere to lay his head.
Interpretation #8: The speaker feels alienated from the natural world and its creatures.
Interpretation #9: The "bone" and "blood" are phallic and the poem is sexual in nature.
Interpretation #10: The speaker is Adam, walking through the fallen Garden of Eden.
Interpretation #11: All nature is upset by the speaker being separated from his lover.
Interpretation #12: The "best of bone and blood" is the speaker's beloved.
Interpretation #13: The speaker is Merlin, who has gone mad and is living like "sylvan man" or animal.
Interpretation #14: The speaker belongs to the Celtic wild man tradition. 
Interpretation #15: The speaker is a vegetarian or early PETA-type, in a world full of carnivores! 

Or perhaps this little poem's power lies ultimately in its ambiguity: we don't know exactly what the speaker means, but we can sense and feel his grief, dismay and powerlessness.

For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the translator, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.

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