The Art of Loving Honourably

After finishing her degree in 2000, Jenny Lewis was given an Arts Council grant to go to the Languedoc area in what is now Southern France, to follow the troubadour trail and study troubadour lyrics. She went to the castles – Puilaurens, Peyrepertuse, Saissac, Cabaret de Lastours – where the troubadours climbed to with their jongleurs (musicians) to entertain the nobility.

The troubadours were influenced by Catharism, which regarded the physical side of humanity as insignificant and wanted to separate the physical from the material world. A lot of troubadour poems explore this idea including Bernart de Ventadorn’s wonderful poem can vei la lauzeta mover(‘when the lark beats her wings against the sun…’). Jenny explains

In courtly love, the state of mind of the lover becomes the site of the poetry. He (or she) suffers the exquisite pains of amor de lonh – orloving from afar – and adoring the beloved becomes a way of ennobling and purifying the lover himself (or herself). This idea of fin amor travelled into secular writing from the religious ideas around the worship of the Virgin Mary.”

The Art of Loving Honourably was commissioned for the Oxford Literary Festival and first performed at the Holywell Music Rooms, Oxford with the Early Music group Third Voice. The company went on to perform at many festivals including the Brighton Early Music Festival and at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

Four poems from The Art of Loving Honourably:

Fin amor

When I remember the sudden delight
of first seeing you, the way my heart beat
like a bird’s wings beating against the sun:

when I remember the heat that ran
through me, the way my breath
came in gasps like a climber
needing oxygen, the summit in sight;

when I remember the weakness I felt,
reaching for a chair, as if overwhelmed
by some unbearable news;

when I remember the way we smiled,
then stood in silence, gazing
at each other, in a busy office,
surrounded by the thrum of phones;

when I remember how it made
me feel that God must exist and must
be good because he eventually allowed us
to find each other;

I remember also that love
is just a fantasy; because if ours
was not real, how could anything else
be real; how could anything else matter?

Pastorela

I can’t say I was an innocent
country girl holding out my apron
for daisies and hazelnuts

or that it was springtime
and the birds were singing
Provencal love songs:
because it was November

when we met by chance
in the car park, after work.

How about a drink? you asked,
always the perfect wooer.

You said there was something
you wanted to tell me
which couldn’t wait ’til morning.

Soon after, morning
became the enemy we wished
would never come.

Alba 2

Last night, your voice
came as if through water,
drowning:

your hand on my body
rasped like a saw.

It seems impossible
that the language I use to describe
such nightmares

is the same I use for everything:

for the cold slats of on-off lightening
that must be keeping you from me;

for the stark, racing skies
and for all the empty, billowing forest.

Perfect

A dual existence between matter
and spirit, poised between elements
like a lark beating her wings over water

against the sun’s rays; feeling it better
to be translated into air, to fight
the dual existence between matter

and spirit with poverty, to batter
flesh into chastity, make it light
as a lark beating her wings over water.

Power of blossom and bloom to flatter
our senses with joy of touch, smell and sight
betrays every creature’s need for matter

as well as spirit. For the pure creator
has a dark counterpart of equal might,
and the lark beating her wings over water

represents spirit trying to shatter
its vessel, reveal its light, give insight
into duality – spirit and matter:
a lark beating her wings over water.

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