The HyperTexts

Fowles in the Frith: Modern English Translations with a Summary and Analysis of the Poem's History, Poetic Devices, Theme and Content

Who wrote "Fowles in the Frith"? No one knows who wrote the famous little poem, 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 in 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." It could have been a song sung by wandering minstrels that the monk heard and recorded, although that's speculation on my part.

Fowles in the Frith
(Anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation 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!

"Fowles in the Frith" appears on the surface to be a poem written by a someone who sympathizes with the plight of the earth's animals. However, I am going to propose an alternate reading of the poem. Do we really see birds and fish going mad everywhere? Or does it only seem the whole world has gone mad when we're in love and things aren't working out the way we had hoped and dreamed? I propose that the word beste in the original poem is wordplay, with beste meaning both "the best of bone and blood" and "the beast of bone and blood." Is the poet saying that his lover is the best creature living, and yet she is also a beast because she has spurned his advances? If so, "Fowles in the Frith" could be the first, or at least one of the very earliest, English poems in the "courtly tradition" of male lover complaints like Geoffrey Chaucer's "Merciless Beauty" and William Dunbar's "Sweet Rose of Virtue" (in which the male poet accuses his lover of being heartless and cruel because she refuses to have sex with him!).

Analysis of History, Poetic Devices, Theme and Content

HISTORY: "Fowles in the Frith" is short lyric poem. It is a very early example of an English metrical rhymed poem. The original rhyme scheme was abbab, with alliteration in each line that harkens back to older Anglo-Saxon poetry (also called "Old English" poetry). Anglo-Saxon poetry was more Germanic that modern English poetry because the Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes. (The name England derives from Angle-land.) When the Angles and Saxons migrated to England in large numbers, they brought their language, culture and poetry with them. Anglo-Saxon poetry was primarily alliterative and did not employ regular meter or rhyme. But after England was invaded and conquered by the Normans in 1066, under William the Conqueror, there were continental influences as well, and two of those influences were the use of meter and rhyme in poetry.

POETIC DEVICES: The poetic devices employed include meter, rhyme, alliteration, imagery, and possibly symbolism or metaphor (the latter is addressed in the Translator's Notes below, as is the poet's use of alliteration).

THEME AND CONTENT: 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 to be metaphorically 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. But as I mentioned previously, it seems possible that the poet was accusing his lover of driving him mad, and only making it seem like the rest of the world had gone mad as well.

Here are alternate translations with translation notes:

Fowles in the Frith
(Anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation 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."

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 the best of bone and blood.

In this interpretation the last line might mean "for the best of bone and blood" or "for the best creature living." The "best creature living" could be a lover, some other person known to the poet, a saint or Jesus Christ. Or the ambiguity might be intentional.

But is it possible that the poet is punning on "best" and "beast" and actually intends both?

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 the best/beast of bone and blood.

If the poet is referring to his lover, is he calling her both the "best" and a "beast" because she rejected him or treated him badly? I pick up this idea in Interpretation #15 below. The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature says "frith" means both "woods" and "divine law." The scop may have been punning. In any case, it's marvelous little poemone with attributes of Old English poetry (alliteration in each line) and Middle English poetry (meter and rhyme).

The poem can be taken at face value, or it can be interpreted metaphorically. Here are fifteen different possible interpretations, and there are probably more ...

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 his lover, his mother, 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 is a vegetarian or early PETA-type, in a world full of carnivores! 
Interpretation #6: The speaker envies the (assumed) harmonious 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 and estranged 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; he is a wodewose, a "wild man of the woods." 
Interpretation #15: The speaker has been spurned by his lover, who is both "the best" and a "beast," making this poem an early example of the "courtly love poem" in which a male would-be lover complains that the object of his affection has been cruel and unfair by denying him sex! Wonderful examples of this genre include Geoffrey Chaucer's "Merciless Beauty" and William Dunbar's "Sweet Rose of Virtue" (I have translated both poems).

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.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Tegner's Drapa
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You" has been translated into English by Michael R. Burch.
Whoso List to Hunt
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Meleager
Sappho
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

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

Michael R. Burch Related Pages: Early Poems, Rejection Slips, Epigrams and Quotes, Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

The HyperTexts