Emily Buffey: Making the Middle Ages

Emily Buffey’s blog discusses the perception and conception of the ‘medieval’ in the ‘early modern period’ and beyond…

May 21st 

‘Ode to an Eyeball’: Robert 2nd Duke of Normandy
Poore teare, dim’d taper which hast lost thy brother
And thus art lest to twinkle here alone,
Ah might’st thou not haue perrisht with the other,
And both together to your set haue gone,
You both were one, one wanting, thou not one,
Poore twins which like true friends one watch did keepe,
Why seuer’d thus yt so you shold not sleepe.

And thou pore eye, oh why sholdst thou haue light,
The others black eclipse thus soone to see,
And yet thy fellow be depriu’d of sight,
For thy sad teares the while to pitty thee,
Equall your griefes, your haps vnequall be:
Take thou his darknes, and thy sorrow hide,
Or he thy light, his griefe so well espied.

Let that small drop out of thy iuicie ball,
Canded like gum vpon the moist’ned thrid,
There still be fixed that it neuer fall,
But as a signe hang on thine eyes staind lid,
A witnes there what inward griefe is hid:
Like burning glasses sired by the Sonne,
Light all mens eyes to see what there is done.

[…] Good night sweet Sunns, your lights are cleane put out,
Your hollow pits be graues of all your ioy,
With dreadfull darknes compassed about,
Wherein is cast what murther can destroy,
That buried there, which did the world annoy,
Those holy Fanes where vertue hallowed stood,
Become a place of slaughter and of blood.

Poure downe your last refreshing euening dew,
And bathe your selues in fountains of your tears,
The day no more shall euer breake to you,
The ioyfull dawne no more at all appears,
No cheerfull sight your sorrow euer cheers:
Shut vp your windows ere constraint compell,
Be-take your selues to nights eternall Cell.

These are the words of the ghost of Robert, 2nd Duke of Normandy (c. 1051 –1134, nicknamed ‘Short-thigh’), the eldest son of William the Conqueror. Nineteen stanzas make up his ‘mone’, a drawn-out apostrophe to his eviscerated eyeballs and a lament over his inability to form proper tears. The complaint is so ludicrous, that even the goddess Fortune cannot suppress her giggles: ‘… straight forgetting what she had to tell, / To other speech and girlish laughter fell’.

Though the author of this poem, Michael Drayton states in the ‘Epistle to the Reader’ that Robert is deemed ‘A subject in my poor opinion, as worthy as any, howsoever I have handled it in the writing,’ such darkly comic and irreverent mishandling of the story continues in the spirit of Robert’s thirteenth-century chronicler, Matthew Paris. This late sixteenth-century revival of the legend of Robert’s blinding exists alongside the ‘newly corrected and augmented’ complaints of Peirs Gaveston and Matilda in a 1596 edition of verse under the title The tragicall legend of Robert, Duke of Normandy.

Robert_curthose

Robert ‘Curthose’, Duke of Normandy

Robert’s tale thereby falls within the structural and thematic scheme of the Mirror for Magistrates, a tragic vision of English history made immensely popular (though finally exhausted) by a fifty year print-run. Drayton’s poem provides the equally tragic foresight that Robert – appearing here as a ghost flanked by Fame and Fortune – must return once again to the depths of obscurity:

Thou art an Eccho, a by-word, a wind,
Thine ayrie bodie is composd of breath,
A wandring blast, within no place confin’d,
Which oft of nothing, silly somthing saith,
Yet neuer canst speake well till after death;
And from imagination hast thy birth,
Vnknowne in heauen, & vnperceiu’d on earth.

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