Pulitizer Prize-Winning Author Looks to the Past
by Douglass Dowty

Children are taught to be experts on medievalism at an early age — knowledgeable on chivalry and romance, the benevolent thievery of Robin Hood, the Crusade legends of Aladdin Scheherazade and, of course, the immortal Humpty Dumpty and all the king’s men. But how about those who really want to know the story behind the myths of our youth? Pulitzer-Prize winning poet W. S. Merwin, fills in all the glory behind these ancient times in his intriguing and lyrical autobiography, The Mays of Ventadorn.

Astounding anecdotes, from English King Richard II’s amphibious trip home from the Crusades in 1190 to reclaim his inherent power (en route to be captured in a Vienna tavern and ransomed for 100,000 marks and 200 hostages by forces loyal to the Roman Empire) to the travels of Bernard de Ventadorn, most famous of all French troubadours, bask in a rare balance of inexhaustible accuracy and historical human interest.

From the very first scene, we see Merwin pulling himself out of the picture, In the first chapter, Merwin recounts vividly his encounter with controversial and influential American poet Ezra Pound, incarcerated in Italy after he campaigned for Mussolini during WWII.
While this scene could have sent the story in a number of different directions, we are shown the artistic Pound, a great champion of his contemporaries’ works, including those of ancient French troubadours. Intrigued, Merwin samples selections of Pound’s translations, taken from the archaic language, l’Occtain. He finds them despicable, “couched in a language that no one could have spoken or sung in any age, a jangling, affected concoction…dreamed up for a high-school production of Ivanhoe.”

But even considering such criticism, this encounter pushes Merwin slowly backward, from inner-city Washington, D.C. to the Gothic libraries of McGill University, to two prolonged stints in the archaic French countryside and, finally, to the Crusades and times of European feudalism and strife — the age of the troubadours.

After an impulsive buy of an abandoned farmhouse in a mountainous southern French town, Merwin begins his research on this age of religious fanaticism, courtly love and barbaric militarism to an all-encompassing and interconnected anecdote where Crusaders are kings and famous poets.

From here, Merwin describes his extraordinary findings at the chateau at Ventadorn, where the famous troubadour, later entouraged with kings from France and England, was born under the auspices of Count Guilhem.

Sadly, the castle where the great Bernard de Ventadorn originated has fallen on hard times; the then-famous moat could not be filled with all the straw in France and was built over by a road. So much had been removed by that time, that the French Government instituted an “ironic public works project of protecting the neighborhood by lowering the walls that had been built to defend it.”
The Mays of Ventadorn is as interesting as history itself — through incredible means Merwin proves that neither detracts from the other. If we are curious about the unknown, it seems that we would also be partial to a distant, unrealized past as well. As a poet, Merwin stayed close to his origins and his interests with his first published novella (following more than 30 collections of poems and prose). Included are several partial and full translations of poems from famous troubadours.

What cannot be denied about this work is its enthusiasm — for the truth, for history and, above all, for the enjoyment of all of the ignorant, but curious, souls who pick it up to read.


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