I’ve been thinking, lately, of courtly love, the romanticization of unrequited passion, of sacrifice and self-effacement and the willingness to die for the beloved. The concept of courtly love is convoluted and contradictory: Chaste but erotically charged, illicit yet noble.
What would be its inverse?
I wrote this poem from the perspective of a peasant girl who serves as a knight’s consolation prize when he’s rejected by his Lady. The peasant’s love for him is entirely uncomplicated: She has no time in her busy life of manual labor and communal endeavor to entertain elevated notions of romance. Jealousy is foreign to her. Her intimacy with others in no way compromises or diminishes her love for the knight.
I wrote from her perspective because it was her I related to most at the time: But I’ve also been the cruel Lady who scorns the deepest proffered expressions of devotion, and the brokenhearted knight who finds that all his demonstrations of loyalty and adoration and in vain.
Without further ado, I submit, for your consideration, this (sorta corny, but DEAL WITH IT) meditation on timeless themes through a Medievally lense:
Your Peasant’s Pledge
When she tires of you, come to me.
When your rough beard, sweat-stiffened tunic and animal stink offends,
I’ll receive you gladly: I stink too.
See, my hands are coarse with labor, my hair wild, the skin of my face sun-smitten
My body bears the marks of the toil that signifies my station.
Her crimson hair’s long and slick with sweet fragrance, set with rich combs,
Her daily work, the cultivation of delicacy.
She occupies herself in plucking the lute’s stings, composing a pining song of love
Embroidering silks with your name ensconced in roses,
Plumbing eternal mysteries in various tongues,
Teaching herself to wonder further. She gazes through glasses to view the stars,
And inscribes the ones that shine brightest with seething desire.
Me, I ease bitches in whelp, guiding pups through slippery muck
To blind encounter with the world. I reap, and thresh, and brew
I sweep and mend and milk and tend. My world is soil, the smell of beasts
My keenest pleasure, a cold draught and a hearty sup in a low smoke-clouded room
Amidst squalling dirt-smudged little ones, squealing sows’ brood
Ruddy-faced, big-bellied men of good cheer and limitless thirst.
In expanse of echoing hours, she waits for you, on cushions of ermine and velvet,
Impatient for your oft-imagined return:
When her head’s thrown back to show her soft white throat, her thoughts are of you.
High stone chambers’ coldness gives distinction to your fiery striving,
And she longs to be crushed in your hot embrace, to see herself submerged
And obliterated in the force of your fierce beauty.
But when you come, weather-scorched from your questing, reeking and thin
She’ll like as not turn aside in disgust: Your person can’t match your ghost,
And though all your passion and might and endeavor’s to glorify her, to tell
Of her beauty, her majesty, her splendor—she still may not be pleased.
When you proffer the bloody violet heart of a dragon slain in her name,
She’ll show her teeth in revulsion, demand that you get it away,
Lest it soil her white raiment. Though all the while, as you slept on stony ground
Ate poor rotten rations, let saddle rub raw tender flesh, the vision of her face in delight
Was the sole good you sought, the honey that sweetened your hardship
And animated your every movement.
When she turns you away, broken and soul-sore, come to me: I’ll give you succor.
My days are filled with brisk industry that yields scant space for high fantasy.
At eve’s fall, I’m weary and eager for simple sweet rest—
But I’ll always have spare vigor to warm you. I’ll share my bed with this man or another,
But my love for you’s no less for that.
Your touch is meat to me, your face the glowing moon.
I’ll hear your stories with honest awe, take joy in our base bodies’ union.
Though your heart’s song is for another, I welcome your use of me,
Invite your divided caress: A peasant has no time for torment, and no honor to save.
P.S. I wrote this while drinking scotch on the patio of the ridiculously-named-but-still-really-great bar 9 Million in Unmarked Bills in Fremont while ogling nubile revelers in their skimpy finery.