Sir Orfeo

This poem was composed in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century in the South Midlands, perhaps in London. The text below is from the Auchinleck manuscript, which was copied between 1330 and 1340. Those of you who are familiar with Ovid's Metamorphoses may recognize the origin of the story in classical mythology. But here the story as been recast as a Celtic tale of the other-world.

We redeth oft and findeth y-write,
And this clerkes wele it wite, know
Layes that ben in harping
Ben y-founde of ferli thing: composed; marvelous
5 Sum bethe of wer and sum of wo, war
And sum of joie and mirthe also,
And sum of trecherie and of gile, guile
Of old aventours that fel while; adventures; happened formerly
And sum of bourdes and ribaudy, jokes; ribaldry
10 And mani ther beth of fairy. fairyland, the Otherworld
Of al thinges that men seth, one sees
Mest o love, forsothe, they beth. most of; in truth
In Breteyne this layes were wrought,
First y-founde and forth y-brought, composed; produced
15 Of aventours that fel bi dayes, adventures; happened in the
Wherof Bretouns maked her layes.
When kinges might our y-here anywhere hear
Of ani mervailes that ther were, marvels
Thai token an harp in gle and game took; minstrelsy
20 And maked a lay and gaf it name.
Now of this aventours that weren y-falle have happened
Y can tel sum, ac nought alle. I; but
Ac herkneth, lordinges that ben trewe, but listen
Ichil you telle of "Sir Orfewe." I will
25 Orfeo mest of ani thing
Lovede the gle of harping. glee/music
Siker was everi gode harpour sure
Of him to have miche honour. much
Himself he lerned forto harp, taught
30 And leyd theron his wittes scharp; applied
He lerned so ther nothing was in no way
A better harpour in no plas. anyplace
In al the warld was no man bore born
That ones Orfeo sat bifore - once
35 And he might of his harping here - hear
Bot he schuld thenche that he were think
In on of the joies of Paradis, one
Swiche melody in his harping is.
Orfeo was a king,
40 In Inglond an heighe lording, high (great) lord
A stalworth man and hardi bo; brave also
Large and curteys he was also. generous; courtly
His fader was comen of King Pluto, descended from
And his moder of King Juno,
45 That sum time were as godes yhold Who once; considered
For aventours that thai dede and told. did
This king sojournd in Traciens, dwelled
That was a cité of noble defens - fortifications
For Winchester was cleped tho called; then
50 Traciens, withouten no. denial
The king hadde a quen of priis excellence
That was y-cleped Dame Heurodis, called
The fairest levedi, for the nones, lady, indeed
That might gon on bodi and bones, walk [about] in
55 Ful of love and godenisse - goodness
Ac no man may telle hir fairnise. but; beauty
Bifel so in the comessing of May it happened; beginning
When miri and hot is the day, merry (pleasant)
And oway beth winter schours, away
60 And everi feld is ful of flours, field
And blosme breme on everi bough blossoms bright
Over al wexeth miri anought, Everywhere grow; enough
This ich quen, Dame Heurodis same
Tok to maidens of priis, two; refinement
65 And went in an undrentide late morning
To play bi an orchardside,
To se the floures sprede and spring
And to here the foules sing. hear; birds
Thai sett hem doun al thre
70 Under a fair ympe-tre, grafted tree
And wel sone this fair quene very quickly
Fel on slepe opon the grene.
The maidens durst hir nought awake, dared
Bot lete hir ligge and rest take. lie
75 So sche slepe til after none, slept; noon
That undertide was al y-done. until midday; past
Ac, as sone as sche gan awake, but; began [to]
Sche crid, and lothli bere gan make; loathsome outcry made
Sche froted hir honden and hir fete, rubbed
80 And crached hir visage - it bled wete - scratched her face; profusely
Hir riche robe hye al to-rett she tore all to pieces
And was reveyd out of hir wit. driven
The two maidens hir biside
No durst with hir no leng abide, longer
85 Bot ourn to the palays ful right ran; immediately
And told bothe squier and knight
that her quen awede wold, was going mad
And bad hem go and hir at-hold. bade them; seize
Knightes urn and levedis also, ran; ladies
90 Damisels sexti and mo. sixty and more
In the orchard to the quen hye come,
And her up in her armes nome, took
And brought hir to bed atte last,
And held hir there fine fast. very securely
95 Ac ever she held in o cri persisted in one
And wold up and owy. wished [to go]; away
When Orfeo herd that tiding
Never him nas wers for nothing. it had never been worse for him
He come with knightes tene
100 To chaumber, right bifor the quene,
And bi-held, and seyd with grete pité, beheld [her]; sorrow
"O lef liif, what is te, dear life; it with you
That ever yete hast ben so stille who; calm
And now gredest wonder schille? cries very shrilly
105 Thy bodi, that was so white y-core, exquisitely
With thine nailes is all to-tore. torn
Allas! thy rode, that was so red, face
Is al wan, as thou were ded; pale, as if
And also thine fingres smale slender
110 Beth al blodi and al pale.
Allas! thy lovesum eyyen to lovely two eyes
Loketh so man doth on his fo! as; foe
A, dame, ich biseche, merci!
Lete ben al this reweful cri, let be; pitiful
115 And tel me what the is, and hou, what's bothering you; how
And what thing may the help now."
Tho lay sche stille atte last then
And gan to wepe swithe fast, very hard
And seyd thus the King to:
120 "Allas, mi lord, Sir Orfeo!
Sethen we first togider were, since
Ones wroth never we nere; once; angry
Bot ever ich have yloved the
As mi liif and so thou me;
125 Ac now we mot delen ato; must separate
Do thi best, for y mot go." I must


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