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Fowles in the Frith

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 and a brief analysis. As one commentator noted, we are lucky to have the poem today because Fowles in the Frith was "written on one page of a manuscript of legal texts, noted 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 wrens 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 an early example of an English metrical rhymed poem. The original rhyme scheme (below) is abbab, with alliteration in each line. The poet sounds like an early 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, as a religious poem, and/or as a poem of alienation, in this case Occam's Razor may apply: the most likely meaning seems to be that the speaker feels intense sympathy (sorrow) for the animals he sees around him. Whether that sympathy extends to the speaker himself is not altogether obvious, but that little word "and" does suggest 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 forrest,
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 poem, I went for alliteration and rhyme, hence wren/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 prefer it:

Fowles in the Frith (Original Medieval English Lyric)

Fowles in the frith,                       Birds in the woods 
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 "best." In this interpretation the last line might mean something like "for the best of bone and blood" or "the best creature living." Then the "best creature living" could be a lover, or Jesus Christ. Or the ambiguity could even be intentional.

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