Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.06.11

P.G. Walsh, Love Lyrics from the Carmina Burana. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Pp. xxxv + 218. ISBN 0-8078-2068-7.

Reviewed by Penelope Rainey, Germantown Friends School.

Scholarly commentaries in English on the Carmina Burana were non-existent until Walsh's Thirty Poems from the Carmina Burana (Reading, l976); Love Lyrics from the Carmina Burana is a welcome addition to this earlier work. Author of numerous books and articles on both classical and medieval Latin studies, Walsh has given us a very knowledgeable and useful commentary on about half the love poems in the famous manuscript from the monastery of Benediktbeuern in Bavaria.

Love Lyrics from the Carmina Burana contains an extensive and valuable Introduction, the texts and translations of 60 poems, a commentary on each poem in which Walsh both discusses major themes of the poem and gives line by line annotations, a scholarly and up-to-date Bibliography, and Indexes of First Lines, of Authors and Passages, and a General Index. For the texts, Walsh has made a very careful evaluation and choice among manuscript readings and editors' emendations; he has chosen superior readings from other mss. when a poem exists in one or more mss. besides the Carmina Burana.

Part 12 of the Introduction is a brief summary of the development of medieval rhythmic verse; however, Walsh in his commentaries on the poems gives no rhythmic schemata (he observes, "such detail is hardly necessary for an appreciation of the sound of the lines," p. xxix) and, except for a brief paragraph on p. xiii, makes practically no acknowledgement that many of these poems were sung. In my opinion, this is a sad omission; the aural quality of the poetry is left largely unelucidated.

In the final portion of the Introduction, Walsh gives a handy summary of the development of medieval Latin, and data on special characteristics of medieval Latin under the headings of Orthography, Morphology, Syntax, and Vocabulary. In the body of his commentary, however, he often does not explicate difficult grammar or annotate unusual vocabulary. In his preface, Walsh indicates that he intends this work to be useful for students; I think he underrates the difficulty of medieval Latin. He may feel that the presence of his translations obviates the necessity of such explanations. However, for the student, it would help to have more of the unusual words glossed, and it would be of interest to know more often when a word is not found in classical Latin. By not giving the range of meanings possible for some words, Walsh on occasion fails to call attention to imagery, or misses a connotation: surely a gloss on prona would point to the possible sexual pun (given the context) of universa clerico constat esse prona (translated "clearly all things are subject to the cleric," No. 29.38.1).

The decision to add translations of the poems was made with some difficulty, as Walsh admits, and at the insistence of one of his readers. I think this decision was a mistake. Walsh explains that these literal translations are "intended to help students who are struggling with the Latin," p. ix. The necessity of disentangling the meaning of a text for oneself is surely the best way to learn to surmount this struggle. Furthermore, though Walsh's translations are commendable and often clarifying, by the very nature of translation they tend to limit the ambiguities or subtleties of the poetry, and sometimes to lose the imagery of the original. For example, Veris leta facies / mundo propinatur; / hiemalis acies / victa iam fugatur (translated as "The glad face of spring attends upon the world. The sharp edge of winter is now overcome and put to flight") fails to give us spring as cup-bearer to the world and the battle line of winter conquered.

An evaluator of this commentary as a whole can only state that it is a very valuable work. In particular, the texts are enhanced by three aspects of Walsh's learned approach. Any reader of this book will acquire a thorough grasp of the conventions of the Carmina Burana love poetry (in particular, the "coming of spring" opening, heralding the blossoming of love), of numerous aspects of the "courtly experience," and of the pastourelle. The reader will also learn much about the context of thinking of the period: Walsh comments insightfully on the twelfth century attempts to reconcile Christian theology with classical philosophy, on the period's recognition of the importance of science and of the world of nature, and on the unique tension in Latin poetry between the classical and Christian visions of the world. Further, as in his Thirty Poems from the Carmina Burana, Walsh frequently gives fine analyses of the structures of poems, and makes some thought-provoking comparisons of poetic structures (e.g., of Nos. 16 and 17).

If held up to the mirror of a perfect commentary from the world of ideal commentaries, Walsh's work, not surprisingly, falls short. In l974, Dronke called for a commentary on the Carmina Burana in which "the textual and literary problems must be seen as interdependent" and in which there should be "a conjunction of textual and interpretative criticism."1 Walsh heroically attempts to achieve this goal. He repeatedly weighs and discusses rival readings of the text; consistently, he introduces poems by recounting current scholarly debate about their interpretation.2 Perhaps the problems that he encounters can best be seen by a look at some questionable examples of his usually admirable textual decisions. He introduces his discussion of the famous lyric Dum Diane vitrea by re-arguing an ongoing debate about stanzas 5-8 (the last half of the poem), which Schumann in his text of the love poems3 had excised as a later addition to the original poem (= stanzas 1-4) but Dronke had restored.4 As a compromise, Walsh prints the text of stanzas 5-8 with a translation but no commentary. He continues to argue that these stanzas are not part of the original poem when he might rather have presented the arguments pro and con and left the decision to his readers. He does not accept the usual emendation of vi to vis, so he is left with the odd translation "the West Wind ... by the power of his strings (vi chordarum) relieves men's breasts..." He thus erases the imagery of music that is, I think, present in the first stanza and so in stanza 4 accepts the emendation Morpheus for Orpheus, thus mutilating the imagery again. He summarizes the theme of the p oem: "Stanzas 1-4 form a miniature masterpiece on the single theme of the blessings of night for the wearied lover. Lovemaking, so conspicuous in the appended stanzas, is irrelevant to the treatment."

For Carmina Burana 167a & 167b (Walsh No. 56), Walsh follows Schumann in assigning stanzas 1 and 3 to one poem, stanzas 2 and 4-6 to another, though they appear as one poem in the ms. with identical meter and rhyme schemes. Walsh in his work has devoted a great deal of care to the study of conventions; it is possible, I think, that his awareness of the conventional colors his interpretation of poetic meaning. Here, he observes "The theme of Laboris remedium (stanzas 1 and 3) is that amor de lonh which is a feature of contemporary troubadour poetry, and in a sense the counterpart of the amicitia Christiana ..." (p. 190); he identifies the theme of the remaining stanzas (the girl is now old enough for full love-making) as very similar to that of another poem (No. 26). If we keep the text as printed, we have a complex and unusual poem, where absence from the girl intensifies and clarifies her lover's feelings for her and heightens his urgent desire for total consummation.

Again, for the charming three stanza pastourelle, Exiit diluculo, Walsh follows Schumann's conservative decision that the third stanza of the poem is a later addition: he prints the stanza in brackets and argues against its authenticity. Walsh cites the comments of other scholars on how the third stanza forms an effective and amusing close to the poem, but he asserts his own judgement: "the shepherdess reveals an uncharacteristic forwardness in issuing such an invitation; more normally in the pastourelle if the girl speaks first, it is to issue an appeal in distress" (p. 101). Walsh may also be influenced in his decision here by his lack of interest in the musical dimensions of these poems; he dismisses Dronke's closely reasoned arguments from musical versions of this song5 as "quite inconclusive."

In these and other instances Walsh's decisions about what text to print and how to evaluate that text are clearly influenced by his own attitudes and interests. Medieval poetry involves a world of criticism where there is still freedom for much choice of interpretation and even text; as a result there should be a continuing effort to explain the parameters of text and meaning and, in a commentary, to leave open matters of final interpretation.6 Perhaps the major way in which Walsh's views have colored his commentary is his presentation of the nature of the writers of these Latin poems. He sees them as dedicated clerics writing for other clerics what are essentially literary exercises cut off from real life. In an earlier article on Si linguis angelicis (Carmina Burana No. 77),7 Walsh pointed out that clerics could marry, but if married they could not be ordained; without ordination, "the prospect of advancing to a higher career in the Church was dimmed. Since the composers of such poems as this came from the ranks of those who aspired to such higher preferment, they were resigned to the life of celibacy which the Church enjoined." This partially mistaken belief about the writers of the Carmina Burana leads Walsh to two related conclusions: (1) personal experience has little to do with the creation of these love poems; (2) complete sexual love is less often the theme of these Latin love poems than might be generally believed.8

If one considers the historical context of writers of Latin in the twelfth century, it is probably a mistake to separate too sharply the writers in Latin from the writers in vernacular, or to detach too absolutely the clerics from secular society. A glance at what we know about some poets' careers is suggestive. The Archpoet, whose famous "Confession" appears in the Carmina Burana and who writes in the epitome of the learned, witty, skillful style of the Latin twelfth century poets, was apparently a knight by birth and probably served Frederick Barbarossa's chancellor, Reinald of Dassel, as diplomat or court official as well as poet; there is no evidence that he held any church office. Peter of Blois held secular offices for years, probably rubbed elbows with the troubadour Bernart de Ventadour and other Latin and vernacular writers at the court of Henry II and Eleanor, and only later in life took ordination. His career can be paralleled by the career of a troubadour like Peire Rogier who, if one can believe his Vida, was born of a noble family and became a canon before he decided on a jongleur's career in courts at Narbonne, Castille and Toulouse; Peire finally ended his life in the Premonstratensian Order of Grandmont.

Vernacular, troubadour poetry of the twelfth century, as Peter Dronke made clear in Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric, bears many similarities to medieval Latin lyric in its presentation of the "courtly experience." Though Walsh knows Dronke's work well and writes extensively about courtly love, he does not accept the full dimensions of the "courtly experience" of love for the Latin poets. This may be because he has chosen not to make full use of vernacular writings (aside from some consideration of vernacular pastourelle) in his commentary. In the case of the love poems of the Carmina Burana that consist of Latin stanzas followed by a stanza in German, Walsh has (regrettably) not chosen to give the German texts, and casts doubt on the possibility that the composers of the German stanzas also wrote the Latin. In the notes of his commentary he makes few comparisons with contemporary vernacular poetry. He might, for instance, have compared the mockery of courtly love in Volo virum vivere viriliter with Farai un vers de dreit nien of William IX of Aquitaine or with Marcabru's spoofs of the spring openings of many troubadour (and Latin) love poems. The avoidance of comparison of Latin love poetry with vernacular love poetry may be either the cause or the result of Walsh's belief that the love poetry of the Carmina Burana represents learned, rhetorical exercises rather than life experience. On the one hand, speculation about the "reality" behind a poem is probably always pointless; art is always distilled and removed from real experience. On the other hand, it seems perverse to doubt that polished and learned art can ever reflect great intensity of feeling. Throughout his evaluations of the love poems, Walsh adds comments such as "Though the vivid lubricity of the description appears to reflect an actual love encounter, the highly literary texture gives us pause" (p. 45); "The literary patterning of the poem, with its successive evocations of Horace, Virgil, and Ovid, warns us against regarding it as an expression of spontaneous emotion" (p. 143); "Before we signal the poem as emotional release from personal frustration, we should note the art of the craftsman..." (p. 183).

It is true that the official, theoretical stance of the Church was to denigrate physical love and to advocate chastity, and there was certainly tension between religious and secular values, as we can see in Andreas Capellanus, who at one place in his text advocates amor mixtus, at another sharply condemns it, and in Peter of Blois, who in a dialogue (Quod amicus suggerit)9 between a courtier and a "warner," juxtaposes one voice defending clerical involvement in the powers and delights of public life at court and another attacking it. Sometimes in love poems medieval writers may have deliberately left ambiguity about the nature of the love they were describing. However, Walsh tends to avoid fully sexual interpretations of a number of poems that seem concerned with physical sex. He interprets Amor habet superos (No. 26) as uncomplex praise of amor purus -- whereas the fact is that the girl is so extremely young that the speaker is waiting until she grows up (uvam sino crescere / donec sit matura; / spes me facit vivere / letum re ventura, s. 7.3-4). One suspects that the same attitude has led Walsh to interpret the pastourelle, Lucis orto sidere (No. 50) as a religious allegory. There is, it is true, a good deal of religious language, and the words used of the shepherdess may well have evoked the Virgin Mary. However, religious language, with all shades of meaning, is typical of medieval love poetry, and the beloved of courtly poetry is often compared with the Virgin. Further, the wording of the last stanza may well carry sexual overtones, as is clear from a comparison with the sexual language of Marcabru.10 Again, in his interpretation of the very difficult Si linguis angelicis, Walsh rejects without discussion Dronke's interesting interpretation of the poem as conveying the mystic aspects of courtly love with its ideal of the unity of divine and earthly love; he also discards other scholars' interpretations of the poem as at the same time a humorous and an emotionally meaningful love poem. His decision is: "the theme is handled wittily as a literary mode rather than with deep emotional involvement. In short, the composition is a stylized exercise" (p. 68).

Whatever (minor) points one might wish to alter or to criticize, Walsh's commentary remains a sound work of scholarship that will be of great use. Through his work the reader may enjoy, with ease and intelligence, the lyrical Hebet sidus leti visus (No . 57; possibly by Abelard), the subtle use of imagery of No. 43, the moving evocations of classical poetry in Transit nix et glacies (No. 35), and delightfully witty poems where the poet renounces love by contrasting his amatory efforts with the labors and loves of Hercules (No. 6), laments the decline of courtly love (No. 32), or refuses to play the courtly love-slave (No. 60). Walsh has given us the texts and the explanations that supply the background knowledge necessary to appreciate these outstanding examples of medieval literature.


  • [1] P. Dronke, "Poetic Meaning in the Carmina Burana." Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 10 (l974-5): 116-37; now in The Medieval Poet and his World (Rome, l984), pp. 249-279.
  • [2] Walsh regularly discusses important critical opinions on individual poems; some American critical works seem unknown to him, e.g., J. M. Ferrante and R. W. Hanning, The Challenge of the Medieval Text: Studies in Genre and Interpretation, New York, l985; J. F. Plummer, ed., Vox Feminae: Studies in Medieval Women's Song, Kalamazoo, Michigan, l981; J. J. Wilhelm, The Cruelest Month: Spring, Nature and Love in Classical and Medieval Lyrics, New Haven, Yale University Press, l965.
  • [3] No. 62 of Carmina Burana, edited by A. Hilka, O. Schumann, and E. Bischoff, Heidelberg, l933-70.
  • [4] P. Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric, 2d ed. (Oxford, l968) pp. 306 ff.
  • [5] P. Dronke, "Poetic Meaning in the Carmina Burana," cited above, note 2.
  • [6] In the words of an earlier reviewer of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (4.1, l993, p. 50), "A commentator's duty is to provide the user with whatever information may be needed to construe the text properly and to understand it in the context of its genre, its time, and so forth. This duty stops short of offering directions on how to interpret matters that must be left to each individual reader" (Joseph Farrell).
  • [7] "Amor clericalis," in Author and Audience in Latin Literature, edited by T. Woodman and J. Powell, Cambridge, l992, p. 200.
  • [8] Walsh gives perhaps undue prominence in his interpretations to amor purus (which stops short of intercourse) rather than to full sexual love (amor mixtus). Both terms are from Andreas Capellanus, edited by Walsh as Andreas Capellanus on Love (London, l982).
  • [9] See P. Dronke, "Peter of Blois and Poetry at the Court of Henry II," Medieval Studies 38 (l976) 185-235.
  • [10] See Simon Gaunt, Troubadours and Irony, Cambridge, l989, a work that Walsh might have found helpful in analyzing irony in the Carmina Burana songs.