Wordcraft: Planes and Files in a Troubadour Poem

There are not many surviving poems by the Troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel, who wrote in Provencal French and died circa 1200.  One of his most famous works, “Ab gai so cundet e leri,”  features a full stanza of woodworking imagery in which the poet likens the writing of a lyric poem to expert craftsmanship.

Here is the original French:

Ab gai so cundet e leri
fas motz e capus e doli,
que seran verai e sert
quan n’aurai passat la lima,
qu’Amor marves plan e daura
mon chantar que de lieis mueu
cui Pretz manten e governa.

And here it is in an English translation (source here):

On a nice, gleeful and happy melody
I write, and polish and plane words
that will be true and certain
when I have filed them smooth,
since Love soon levigates and gilds
my song, which moves from her
upon whom Worth wakes and rules.

The poet draws an explicit comparison between woodcraft and wordcraft–between the act of building fine furniture and the act of building a fine poem.  He speaks of making his words “true” as a woodworker might “true” a board, then refining the words with various finishing tools.  In the fourth line, the word translated as “file” is lima, which is a Latin word meaning both the tool we now call a “file” and a revision of a document.  The latinate pun is, unfortunately, untranslatable.

What interests the poet most about the building process is not the structure or the joinery, but the finish.  He focuses on the smoothing, polishing, and gilding of the otherwise completed work, and in his mind, what sets apart superior work, both in woodwork and in poetry, is the quality of the finished surface.

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