The HyperTexts

The Archpoet (circa 1130-1165)
aka Archipoeta [Latin]


with an introduction and stanza-by-stanza analysis and summary of "His Confession" by Michael R. Burch

Besides his having the coolest pen name ever, not much is known definitively about the Archpoet, the heretical medieval poet who may be responsible, to some degree, for our modern conception of the wandering vagabond poet and rogue scholar. The Archpoet's living circumstances have been surmised from the content of his poems. Because he designates Rainald of Dassel as Archbishop of Cologne, the Archpoet was most likely alive between 1159 (when Rainald became archbishop) and 1167 (when he died). Furthermore, all the Archpoet's datable poems fall within 1162 and 1164.

The Archpoet's irreverent, hedonistic lines about drinking in "the tavern" are reminiscent of later work by Rumi and Omar Khayyam, so he may have been influential far beyond his seeming anonymity. He may also have been an early model for anti-establishment poets like William Blake and rebellious songwriters like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen.

The Archpoet left us ten poems, all written in Latin. His best-known poem, "His Confession," appeared in the Carmina Burana manuscript, a collection of medieval Latin and German writings. He is considered to be an exemplar of the Goliardic school of poets. The Goliards wrote bibulous poems: satires and parodies which mocked and lampooned the Catholic Church and the excesses and abuses of its clergy. A possible root of Goliard is gailliard, a "gay fellow." The Goliards were famous (and infamous) for thumbing their noses at the authorities, in verse.

In her influential study The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages, Helen Waddell said that "Confessio Goliae is something more than the arch-type of a generation of vagabond scholars, or the greatest drinking song in the world: it is the first defiance by the artist of that society which it is his thankless business to amuse: the first cry from the House of the Potter, 'Why hast thou made me thus?'"

Philosopher Herbert Marcuse said of the Archpoet's artistic posture and keen sense of his particular situation: "Archipoeta is perhaps the first artist with the artist's genuine awareness of himself, who comprehended and openly emphasized that his vagabond life and his opposition to the surrounding world were an artistic necessity ... The splendid strophes of his vagabond's confession resonate with the elevated consciousness of the authentic lifestyle of the freelance artist."

The Archpoet wrote on the cusp of the first Inquisition, when to contradict or even question the teachings and authority of the Roman Catholic Church was becoming increasingly dangerous, and would soon result in the most exquisite tortures and bloodcurdling murders. So it shouldn't surprise us if he chose to express his heresies anonymously. But whoever he was, his "Confession" is a timeless masterpiece of passionate irony and rapier wit. I will comment further on the poem, and analyze it, stanza-by-stanza, but first please devour whole this wonderful translation by Helen Waddell:

His Confession

translated from the original Medieval Latin by Helen Waddell


Seething over inwardly
With fierce indignation,
In my bitterness of soul,
Hear my declaration.
I am of one element,
Levity my matter,
Like enough a withered leaf
For the winds to scatter.

Since it is the property
Of the sapient
To sit firm upon a rock,
it is evident
That I am a fool, since I
Am a flowing river,
Never under the same sky,
Transient for ever.

Hither, thither, masterless
Ship upon the sea,
Wandering through the ways of air,
Go the birds like me.
Bound am I by ne'er a bond,
Prisoner to no key,
Questing go I for my kind,
Find depravity.

Never yet could I endure
Soberness and sadness,
Jests I love and sweeter than
Honey find I gladness.
Whatsoever Venus bids
Is a joy excelling,
Never in an evil heart
Did she make her dwelling.

Down the broad way do I go,
Young and unregretting,
Wrap me in my vices up,
Virtue all forgetting,
Greedier for all delight
Than heaven to enter in:
Since the soul is in me dead,
Better save the skin.

Pardon, pray you, good my lord,
Master of discretion,
But this death I die is sweet,
Most delicious poison.
Wounded to the quick am I
By a young girl's beauty:
She's beyond my touching? Well,
Can't the mind do duty?

Hard beyond all hardness, this
Mastering of Nature:
Who shall say his heart is clean,
Near so fair a creature?
Young are we, so hard a law,
How should we obey it?
And our bodies, they are young,
Shall they have no say in’t?

Sit you down amid the fire,
Will the fire not burn you?
To Pavia come, will you
Just as chaste return you?
Pavia, where Beauty draws
Youth with finger-tips,
Youth entangled in her eyes,
Ravished with her lips.

Let you bring Hippolytus,
In Pavia dine him,
Never more Hippolytus
Will the morning find him.
In Pavia not a road
But leads to venery
Nor among its crowding towers
One to chastity.

Yet a second charge they bring:
I'm forever gaming.
Yea, the dice hath many a time
Stripped me to my shaming.
What an' if the body's cold,
If the mind is burning,
On the anvil hammering,
Rhymes and verses turning?

Look again upon your list.
Is the tavern on it?
Yea, and never have I scorned,
Never shall I scorn it,
Till the holy angels come,
And my eyes discern them,
Singing for the dying soul,
Requiem aeternam.                              Eternal rest

For on this my heart is set:
When the hour is nigh me,
Let me in the tavern die,
With a tankard by me,
While the angels looking down
Joyously sing o'er me,
Deus sit propitius                                 May God be gracious
Huic potatori.                                      To this lush.


'Tis the fire that's in the cup
Kindles the soul's torches,
‘Tis the heart that drenched in wine
Flies to heaven's porches.
Sweeter tastes the wine to me
In a tavern tankard
That the watered stuff my Lord
Bishop has decanted.

Let them fast and water drink,
All the poets' chorus,
Fly the market and the crowd
Racketing uproarious.
Sit in quiet spots and think,
Shun the tavern's portal
Write, and never having lived,
Die to be immortal.

Never hath the spirit of
Poetry descended,
Till with food and drink my lean
Belly was distended,
But when Bacchus lords it in
My cerebral story,
Comes Apollo with a rush,
Fills me with his glory.

Unto every man his gift.
Mine was not for fasting.
Never could I find a rhyme
With my stomach wasting.
As the wine is, so the verse:
'Tis a better chorus
When the landlord hath a good
Vintage set before us.

Good my lord, the case is heard,
I myself betray me,
And affirm myself to be
All my fellows say me.
See, they in thy presence are:
Let whoe’er hath known
His own heart and found it clean,
Cast at me the stone.

The Archpoet obviously had great disdain for Christians who condemned him to "hell" in the name of God. If it troubles you that hundreds of millions of children all around the world are being terrified and brainwashed by the dogma of an "eternal hell," please read this simple proof that there is no "hell" in the Bible. For readers who are intrigued by the Archpoet's "Confession," and would like to explore it further, here is my stanza-by-stanza analysis of the poem.―Michael R. Burch

His Confession

translated from the original Medieval Latin by Helen Waddell


Seething over inwardly
With fierce indignation,
In my bitterness of soul,
Hear my declaration.
I am of one element,
Levity my matter,
Like enough a withered leaf
For the winds to scatter.

In his first stanza, the Archpoet lets readers know where he's "coming from," so to speak. He is seething over with fierce indignation, but "levity" is his "matter," with a pun on "element." The Archpoet is about to enter the fray with his foil, his weapon of choice, being his wit. But his "levity" is likely to do him no more good than the "levitation" of the wind does the leaves it scatters. One of his methods will be to declare various Christian "vices" to be his virtues. In this stanza wrath, "bitterness of soul" and levity are to be taken as virtues, not vices, although the Archpoet will constantly seem to "agree" with his enemies (i.e., religious moralists) that he is full of "faults." The dramatic tension created by the Archpoet seeming to agree with his detractors, while simultaneously mocking them at every turn, makes "His Confession" the poetic equivalent of a rollercoaster ride. So hang on to your hats! 

Since it is the property
Of the sapient
To sit firm upon a rock,
it is evident
That I am a fool, since I
Am a flowing river,
Never under the same sky,
Transient for ever.

Here, the Archpoet mocks the dubious "wisdom" of religious types who sit with asses firmly planted on the rock of faith. The Archpoet realizes that he must seem like a "fool" to "men of faith," since he is transient and ever-changing, like a Heraclitian river. By calling himself a "fool" for realizing and stating what he actually is, the Archpoet mocks his enemies while seeming to agree with them.

Hither, thither, masterless
Ship upon the sea,
Wandering through the ways of air,
Go the birds like me.
Bound am I by ne'er a bond,
Prisoner to no key,
Questing go I for my kind,
Find depravity.

Here, the Archpoet suggests that his enemies (i.e., "men of faith") are mastered and bound, while he is not. When he seeks out his own kind, he finds "depravity": those things which bring the "birds and the bees" simple, natural joys, but which "men of faith" call "sins." Throughout his "Confession" the Archpoet will continually mock his enemies by seeming to agree with them, while illustrating how much freer and happier he actually is.

Never yet could I endure
Soberness and sadness,
Jests I love and sweeter than
Honey find I gladness.
Whatsoever Venus bids
Is a joy excelling,
Never in an evil heart
Did she make her dwelling.

Here the Archpoet makes it clear that his allegiance is to love (Venus), jests and gladness. He says that love (Venus)  never makes her dwelling in an evil heart; therefore he strongly suggests that "men of faith" who prize piety over earthly love and happiness have evil hearts, while his is pure. His lines "Whatsoever Venus bids / Is a joy excelling" are reminiscent of similar lines by William Blake: "He who binds to himself a joy / Doth the winged life destroy. / He who kisses the joy as it flies, / Lives in eternity's sunrise." Blake and the Archpoet seem to agree that the essence of human happiness is freedom. But the method of religious orthodoxy is to constrain freedom, thus producing unhappiness. The Archpoet is in favor what is natural for a man (wine, women, song, jests), rather than what is unnatural for a man (abstinence, piety, etc.).

Down the broad way do I go,
Young and unregretting,
Wrap me in my vices up,
Virtue all forgetting,
Greedier for all delight
Than heaven to enter in:
Since the soul is in me dead,
Better save the skin.

Here "the broad way" alludes to the Bible, which says the path to destruction is broad, while the path to "salvation" is narrow and requires renouncing things that make men happy, such as sex, gambling and drinking. The last two lines are wonderfully ironic. The Archpoet suggests that if his enemies are correct, and his soul is dead (i.e., dead in sin), he had "better save the skin." But his irony is such that we can never assume that he actually agrees with his enemies. We should assume exactly the opposite. that the Archpoet is making the point that he is purer of heart than his enemies, and far more honest to boot.

Pardon, pray you, good my lord
Master of discretion,
But this death I die is sweet,
Most delicious poison.
Wounded to the quick am I
By a young girl's beauty:
She's beyond my touching? Well,
Can't the mind do duty?

What a wonderfully scathing phrase "Master of discretion" is! It reminds me of one of Oscar Wilde's most searing epigrams: "Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality." When poetic geniuses like Oscar Wilde and the Archpoet debate morality with "men of faith," it's much like Einstein carrying on discussions about cosmology with flat-earthers. According to the highly dubious "morality" of orthodox Christianity, it is a "sin" to touch a young girl, or merely to think about touching her. After all, Jesus said thinking about sex is the same as committing adultery, according to the Bible. But as Mark Twain pointed out, any red-blooded man will give up any possible chance at an eternity in heaven to be with the earthly Eve of his choice for a few precious seconds. Blake, Twain, Wilde and the Archpoet were honest men who freely admitted they had no desire or ability to "overcome" their "lust." Instead, they realized and accepted that "lust" was part of their human nature. While the "Master of discretion" likes to pretend that human sexual desire is a "disease" which can be "cured" by the "Holy Spirit," he invariably gets caught with his pants down, just like everyone else.

Hard beyond all hardness, this
Mastering of Nature:
Who shall say his heart is clean,
Near so fair a creature?
Young are we, so hard a law,
How should we obey it?
And our bodies, they are young,
Shall they have no say in’t?

The puns on "hard" compare the hardness of male erections to the "hardness" of the "law" of Christianity, which says sex outside marriage is a "sin." The Archpoet is winking at the "law" of the Church while sticking out his tongue at moralists unwise enough to attempt to "master" nature. Centuries later Blake would say, "Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained." Like the Archpoet, Blake had no patience with or sympathy for the black-robed priests who nailed a "Thou Shalt Not" sign above the entrance to his Garden of Earthly Love and Delights.

Sit you down amid the fire,
Will the fire not burn you?
To Pavia come, will you
Just as chaste return you?
Pavia, where Beauty draws
Youth with finger-tips,
Youth entangled in her eyes,
Ravished with her lips.

The first two lines are wonderfully ironic. If a man sits down amid the fire of earthly love, how can he not be burned? If his earthly Eve embraces him, how can he resist? If he meets her in Pavia, how can he return chaste? The Archpoet is too honest to lie to himself. He knows that he cannot resist the temptations of women, because he has no will to resist them. He longs for them to ravish him with their fingertips, eyes and lips.

Let you bring Hippolytus,
In Pavia dine him,
Never more Hippolytus
Will the morning find him.
In Pavia not a road
But leads to venery
Nor among its crowding towers
One to chastity.

According to the Archpoet, in Pavia all roads lead to venery (indulgence, sexual intercourse) and no one has yet been led to chastity there. (This seems to suggest that Pavia's clergy were far from chaste.) Hippolytus was an early Christian theologian who suggested that the "Song of Songs" (also known as the "Song of Solomon") was not about earthly, sensual love, but about the relationship between Christ and the Church. The Archpoet seems to be saying that if Hippolytus were to spend just one night in Pavia, the morning would find him a changed man: no longer a believer in religion, but a convert back to the flesh. Like Solomon, the Archpoet was a sensualist, so he probably wasn't enamored of Hippolytus' attempt to claim the sexiest book in the Bible for purposes of asceticism.

Yet a second charge they bring:
I'm forever gaming.
Yea, the dice hath many a time
Stripped me to my shaming.
What an' if the body's cold,
If the mind is burning,
On the anvil hammering,
Rhymes and verses turning?

Now that the Archpoet has confessed his main "sin" (that he loves women far more than he loves religion, church or God), he begins to "confess" his other "sins," starting with gaming, gambling and writing burning poems.

Look again upon your list.
Is the tavern on it?
Yea, and never have I scorned,
Never shall I scorn it,
Till the holy angels come,
And my eyes discern them,
Singing for the dying soul,
Requiem aeternam.

"Requiem aeternam" means "eternal rest." Here, the Archpoet "confesses" yet another "sin," drinking. Moreover, he "confesses" that he will never scorn drinking until the holy angels come to offer his dying soul eternal rest!

For on this my heart is set:
When the hour is nigh me,
Let me in the tavern die,
With a tankard by me,
While the angels looking down
Joyously sing o'er me,
Deus sit propitius
Huic potatori.


The last two lines mean something like: "May God be gracious / to this lush." Here again the Archpoet is wonderfully, wickedly ironic. In the last two stanzas he has "confessed" that he will drink till he kicks the bucket, then expects the angels to intercede with joy for their beloved lush! Whether this is what he actually "believed," or whether he is merely mocking the beliefs of his enemies, I cannot say, but in either case I admire his audacity. 

'Tis the fire that's in the cup
Kindles the soul's torches,
‘Tis the heart that drenched in wine
Flies to heaven's porches.
Sweeter tastes the wine to me
In a tavern tankard
That the watered stuff my Lord
Bishop has decanted.

The Archpoet continues to be outrageously heretical. Now it's hearts "drenched in wine" that fly to "heaven's porches" while the watery faith of religion is written off as so much weak slop. The Archpoet has taken "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" to impressive new heights. According to him, getting drunk is the surest way to fly off to heaven, attended by angels!

Let them fast and water drink,
All the poets' chorus,
Fly the market and the crowd
Racketing uproarious.
Sit in quiet spots and think,
Shun the tavern's portal
Write, and never having lived,
Die to be immortal.

Once again the Archpoet blasts the faith of his enemies, who avoid "uproarious" life on this planet, then "never having lived / Die to be immortal."

Never hath the spirit of
Poetry descended,
Till with food and drink my lean
Belly was distended,
But when Bacchus lords it in
My cerebral story,
Comes Apollo with a rush,
Fills me with his glory.

Here the Archpoet praises the "sins" of gluttony and drunkenness, saying that Apollo (poetry) only comes when his belly is "distended" with food and wine (Bacchus). Furthermore, there is an interesting pun on Bacchus who "lords" in the good stuff, while the "Lord" Bishop dispenses only watery gruel. Bacchus, a God, is not an authoritarian figure and "lords" is a positive, active verb, so there is quite a discrepancy between the portrayals of Bacchus and the Bishop. And the last four lines make getting drunk and writing poetry seem like heaven on earth, and thus the basis of a far better religion! 

Unto every man his gift.
Mine was not for fasting.
Never could I find a rhyme
With my stomach wasting.
As the wine is, so the verse:
'Tis a better chorus
When the landlord hath a good
Vintage set before us.

"As the wine is, so the verse" continues the Archpoet's onslaught against the "seven deadly sins." According to him, the following Christian "vices" are actually virtues: wrath, sloth, pride, lust, gambling, gluttony, drunkenness and writing "burning poems." The best poems are produced by the best wine, which suggests that the Bishop's watery fare can produce only tepid poems. 

Good my lord, the case is heard,
I myself betray me,
And affirm myself to be
All my fellows say me.
See, they in thy presence are:
Let whoe’er hath known
His own heart and found it clean,
Cast at me the stone.

The Archpoet concludes his "Confession" by "agreeing" with his enemies that he is everything they say he is. Of course in their eyes he is a "sinner," when in his own eyes he is far more virtuous and honest. But knowing they will never agree with him, he invokes the Bible, pointing out that Jesus said the man without sin should cast the first stone. If anyone had listened to Jesus Christ and the Archpoet, the horrors of the Inquisition could have been avoided. But unfortunately "men of faith" are notorious for forcing their beliefs on people who would rather not be bothered with them. Hopefully the Archpoet eluded their grasp and died in bed with a jug of good wine, a full, distended belly, a buxom beauty on either side, and a head teeming to the end with burning poetry.

Amen!

Michael R. Burch
Editor, The HyperTexts

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