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Copyright © 2002 
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The Mays of Ventadorn by W.S. Merwin (National Geographic Directions)


The Mays of Ventadorn

by W.S. Merwin

Book review by Gary Hunt, Iconoclast Books

 

Open up W. S. Merwin’s most recent book, “The Mays of Ventadorn,” and you will be subjecting yourself to a literary incantation—a spell that will transport you somewhere in time within the realm of Languedoc, the volcanic foothills of the Massif Central in southern France. Through the mist there is the glimpse of a craggy landscape with the distressed ruins of medieval chateaux that conjure up romantic visions of 12th century knights composing songs of courtly love and then riding off to fight the infidels with lance and sword.

So much is contained in this book—which is part memoir, part history, a bit of literary criticism, and colorful travelogue—that it could only have been written by a poet the stature of W. S. Merwin, a man accustomed to distilling reams of meaning into the confines of a single poem. Herein is the story of the origin of the troubadours and the birth of romance in both language and deed. The decayed chateau of Bernart of Ventadorn, who was one of the greatest of the poets writing in the language of Provencal—or Occitan, as Merwin corrects us—is central to the portrait Merwin paints of the courts of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Kings of France and England during the Crusades, and the subsequent influence of the songs and poems of that era on the development of a literary tradition in the Romance languages, specifically Dante, Petrarch and Cervantes.

Merwin recalls for us his own early years as a poet, and his visit to Ezra Pound while Pound was confined at St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital. Pound encouraged him to pursue the roots of language and poetry by concentrating on the translation of the troubadours and the early Spanish ballads, to read “the seeds, not the twigs.” This led Merwin to Southern France where he eventually purchased an old stone farmhouse and set up residence. He was surrounded by legend, tradition and hawthorns—also known as mayflowers or the “Mays” of the title—which had inspired so many poets of old as a symbol of romance. The view from the window of his farmhouse also gives us a colorful account of the contemporary countryside and its residents whose traditional lives seem to shield them from the inevitable encroachment of the 20th century. 

“The Mays of Ventadorn” is part of a new literary travel series published by National Geographic Directions in which prominent authors are commissioned to write about places that they have been intimately associated with, or that are of major significance to them. It proves to be a very seductive series, and I caution you to be circumspect before putting your house on the market and moving off to Languedoc—but that will be your immediate impulse upon finishing this lyrical account of an amazing place by the distinguished poet W.S. Merwin.•


 

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