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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Number 100: Medieval poem "Sir Isumbras"

Excerpt from 14th century poem "Sir Isumbras"

He was mekil man and long
With armes grete and body strong
And fair was to se.
He was long man and heygh,
The fayreste that evere man seygh;
A gret lord was he.
Menstralles he lovyd wel in halle
And gaf hem ryche robes withalle,
Bothe golde and fe.
Off curteysye he was kyng
And of his mete never nothyng
In worlde was non so free.

A fayr lady hadde hee
As any man myghte see,
With tungge as I yow nevene.
Bytwen hem they hadde chyldren thre,
The fayreste that myghte on lyve be
Undyr God off hevene.
Swyche pryde in his herte was brought,
On Jhesu Cryst thoghte he nought
Ne on His names sevene.
So longe he levede in that pryde
That Jhesu wolde no lenger abyde;
To hym he sente a stevenne.

So hit byfell upon a day
The knyghte wente hym to play,
His foreste for to se.
As he wente by a derne sty,
He herde a fowle synge hym by
Hye upon a tre.
He seyde, "Welcome Syr Isumbras,
Thow haste forgete what thou was
For pryde of golde and fee.
The kynge of hevenn the gretheth so:
In yowthe or elde thou schall be wo,
Chese whedur hyt shall be."

The poem in its entirety is

Hap Notes: Well I wanted to show you the poem about the fella from the JE Millais painting on masthead (you can see a larger version here: However 14th century verse is not for everyone and I thought this would give you a good idea about the story.

It's an odd story- Isumbras (as these verses say) was a tall, powerful, handsome lanky man with a beautiful wife and three sons. He was generous to minstrels- giving them fine robes and gold (leave it to a poet to mention that since poets/minstrels were the same job really). Isumbrus had it all and wealth besides but he "thought not on Jesus Christ." One day a bird (a Holy Spirit messenger) come to Isumbras and said, "Okay, you haven't been thinking about your creator or your savior and I'm giving you a choice; do you want wealth and happiness in your youth or your old age?"

Isumbras (you'll have to go to the link to see this part of the poem) says he chooses old age- an interesting and fairly wise choice, actually, and says now he will live for "Chryste". Immediately bad stuff starts to happen. First his home and all his possessions burn to the ground. He comes home to find his naked family, who'd been roused by the fire in the night, standing in front of the burnt rubble that was his home. He takes his wife and sons away and they come to a river. Isumbrus swims the first child over and leaves him on the river bank and goes back for another son. The son left on the river bank gets "taken" (or maybe eaten) by a lion while he is gone. Oops.

So now he (honestly, this is beginning to be like one of those logic problems with taking the chickens and the wolves across the stream- you know that one?) takes the next son over and leaves him and, you guessed it, he gets "taken" by a leopard ("lybarte"). Uh, oops.

He now gets smart and takes his last son and his wife across at the same time. A rich Sultan appears and offers to buy Isumbrus' wife because she is beautiful and "white as a whale's bone". Of course he declines and they beat him up and take her anyway. She implores Isumbrus to search for her and not forget her. She manages to get some clothes and food and money to her husband and son before she is taken away which includes a red cloak. So now the aching Isumbrus travels the land with the son. One day he is sitting with his last son under a tree and a griffin steals the cloak. Isumbrus runs after the griffin to get the cloak back and while he's gone his last son is "taken" by a unicorn. (This is one of the only times I can think of when a unicorn does something sort of oddly bad.)

Isumbras goes on and ends up working for a blacksmith (where he hauls lumps of iron- and the name Isumbras is sort of a portmanteau of the German Eisen (Iron) and the Latin Umbra (shadow)- Iron Shadow.) He fights valiantly in a battle for a Christian king and humbly takes no laurels for his bravery. He travels as a pilgrim to Jerusalem and lives there for seven years. Finally an angel of the lord appears to him and tells him his years of suffering are at an end.

He is miraculously reunited with his wife, and the two of them face a battle with 30,000 men. It's two Christians against 30,000 guys- the odds are a bit daunting. And then- ta da!- the three sons ride in (they weren't eaten, just "taken" hurrah!). Now they are heartened because 5 versus 30,000 is so much better (!?!). And they win! And convert the country to Christianity! And they're rich again and better Christians for it. (!?!)

It's sort of a Job story in reverse since Job refuses to curse God and holds on through his troubles and Isumbras must learn hard lessons about devotion and faith before he will be rewarded.

Now, what has this to do with the painting, other than the title of it? Not much, I'm afraid. I guess Millais was making a statement of how the aged Isumbrus had become kind to all from his suffering. Notice that the girl has a purse and the little boy is carrying firewood, perhaps an illusion to Isumbras finally getting love and warmth and wealth after many years of suffering. I love the horse in the painting- so still and big and gentle looking.

This painting was much criticized in its day most notably by John Ruskin. Of course, one has to consider that Ruskin's wife left him for Millais. Maybe the painting was just a little too close to home for him.

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