Foweles in the frith,
The fisses in the flod,
And I mon waxe wod.
Sulch sorw I walke with
For beste of bon and blod.
Birds in the wood,
The fish in the river,
And I must go mad.
Such sorrow I walk with
For best of bone and blood.
These lines make the Middle Ages seem close: sorrow is timeless, and the compressed style reads almost like modern verse. But the poem’s mysteriousness also suggests how much is irrecoverable. Its author is unknown, as it is written (along with a musical setting) in a 13th century manuscript which is otherwise comprised of legal documents. Its context sheds no light on it, and this makes the poem attractive to a school of criticism which looks at literary texts in isolation, based on their words alone, above more historically or theoretically informed readings.
The poem’s ambiguities leave it open to hugely divergent readings. The word ‘mon’, for instance, could mean either ‘must’, or ‘will’, the former carrying implications of compulsion which become interesting when the poem is considered as a religious lyric. Most famously, though, ‘beste’ could mean either ‘best’ or ‘beast’, allowing the final line to read ‘For the best of bone and blood’, ‘For beasts of bone and blood’ or ‘For a beast of bone and blood’. It is unclear how exactly the first two lines relate to the rest of the poem: if the birds and fish are the cause of the poet’s sorrow (the ‘beasts of bone and blood’) then this seems like an early plea for the recognition of animal rights, recalling the opening of Passus IV of Gawain and the Green Knight, where the wind blows harshly ‘þe naked to tene’ (‘to hurt the unclothed’), a reference to the suffering of birds unsheltered from the cold. One does not expect such sympathy from an age where people were cruel enough to each other, and presumably indifferent to animals’ pain. It’s a reminder that modern attitudes have antecedents.
The ‘animal rights’ reading has never had broad critical currency. Readers of the poem have tended to see it either as romantic or religious, with the latter view gaining increasing prominence in the 1960s. If romantic, the fact that animals have their proper places (and are perhaps also in couples) makes the poet feel alone given that he is isolated from his love. Pointedly, he walks with sorrow, not with his beloved, like the grief that ‘walks up and down’ with Constance in place of her lost son in Shakespeare’s King John. This gives two possibilities to ‘beste’: either the poet is especially sorrowful because his beloved is the best person alive (‘of bone and blood’), or he is reduced to (misogynistic?) rage at his beloved’s absence: she is a mere beast.
In a poem so tender this latter reading seems unlikely, and there is a less angry way of reading ‘beste’ as ‘beast’. From a religious perspective, everyone is a ‘beast’ because (as Edmund Reiss puts it) humanity ‘living after original sin’ is ‘deranged and out of harmony with the world’. The birds and fish might remind the poet that he shares the essentially animalistic, fallen state of nature, he ‘mon waxe wod’ because of the ‘sorwe’ of living on a postlapsarian earth. The last line then comes to mean something like ‘Because I am a mere beast of bone and blood’. The religious reading also allows ‘beste’ to mean ‘best’: the poet’s sorrow might not be despair at his own fallen state, but pious pity for the suffering of Christ, literally considered the best person ever embodied.
Neither the romantic nor religious readings can fully reconcile the first and second sections of the poem. It is not clear what the birds and fish have to do with the poet’s sorrow. Thomas C. Moser finds a parallel between this pairing of animals (which, incidentally, are both created on the fifth day in Genesis) and Jesus’ description of himself: ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests: but the son of man hath not where to lay his head’ (Matthew 8.20). This lends credence to the possibility that the poet’s ‘sorw’ is empathy with the suffering Christ.
Moser’s attempt to unravel the poem through its context begs the question of (in his words) ‘whether the mysteriousness we feel is somehow in the poem or only a product of time and our ignorance’. Of course this cannot be answered, and to some extent is true of all poetry. We cannot know exactly what Shakespeare meant by ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, nor what ‘Things fall apart’ meant to Yeats. We only know what they may mean to us. It is possible that the poem was intended to be relatively straightforward (although the pun on ‘beste’ was surely intentional), but the removal of its context (it may, for instance, have been a refrain to a longer poem) has deprived it of its single intended meaning. It raises the further question of whether we are really hearing a medieval voice, or only our own modern voice echoed back to us by a poem short and unclear enough to mean anything to anyone. I like to believe there is a real consciousness behind the poem though, that it is a whisper out of time.