Pendragon Lectures (III)


The Chaunt Royale

When Denis Diderot wrote, ‘Poetry wants something enormous, barbarian and savage,’ he was alluding to the infinite possibilities of poetic forms. One of these in a particular is a big ‘un, but has a such  natural feel, the ‘Chaunt Royale’ shoudl be seen as the Queen of them all. It’s heyday was in Northern France during the 15th century, with a revival of interest in late Victorian Britain. The form consists of 5 eleven-line staves (mini stanzas), & an ‘envoi’ of five lines to close – a total of 60 lines. I looked at the Chaunt Royale about a decade ago, & found the 11 lines a little too complex for the English artistic temperament; dropping a line from the staves to make them like those wondrous wee 10-lined staves of Keats’ Odes.  The results were pleasant, with lots of possibilities for rhyming patters within the 10-lines, including Blank verse, I also noticed that as the poem was divided into 5 parts – like a Shakesperian play –  I thought each Chaunt Royale could be as a mini-play, & poured the dramatic muse into its mould.

Denis Diderot - clearly on laudanam
Denis Diderot – clearly on laudanam

I would wager a good ninety-nine percent of the world’s poets would not have heard of the Chaunt Royale, which is a shame as it allows the poet to become Shakespeare for a moment – fifty five lines of bombastious dialogue are much easier to pull off than, lets say, composing a Hamlet. My only work with the form was an 8-part ‘Chaunt Royale Grande,’ which told the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie & the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46. Here is Scene 6 …

SCENE 6 - Drummossie Moor… it is a rainy morning… The British cannon are pounding the Highland Lines

Come see the Pretender in the distance,
His rascally & ragged rebel bands,
The Irish… & there look! the flag of France
At last those fools are fed into our hands!
From Lancaster, Carlisle & Falkirk Moor
He slipped my net, I thought him rather shrewd,
But this, a broken field of boggy moor,
All credence lacks, his choice seems rather crude,
& should, methinks, have shut up in the town…
Now ve princes contest the British crown!
Lord Bury
Most noble Duke, as I surveyed the moor
Close to those blasted pipes of shrieking skirl
Above me passed the first shots of the war…
& as you hear our answer is aswirl
Their lines harangued by wind & hail & sleet
With cannonballs theirs is a sorry lot
& hastening th’onset of their defeat
We rain upon them thick shards of grape shot
But wait! what is that roar? at last they charge!
Our guns shall seek the measure of their targe!

They watch the battle

Sir, now your men in mortal combat meet,
All is confusion, noise, concern & heat
On the left the thickest of the fighting
Barrel’s brave boys on their broadswords biting
But of this day the king will never fret
Those heathen fall beneath infernal fire
Or spitted on an English bayonet
& on the right their charge shows no desire
Strict discipline & guts rip thro that shield
This godless place becomes their killing field

Orpheus to my ears! the fleeing shout
& come to a decision the matter
Tis strange to see the nation’s bravest rout
Those boasted broadswords not as they flatter
Not since Lord Noll had they such a thrashing
Let Lord Ancram pursue them with the horse
Hold no quarter, slaughter, sabres slashing
& extirpate that race as fighting force
Destroy clannism, burn their homes & grain
So these wretches shall never rise again!

Great tidings sir, when London hears the news
The oldest wines shall happily be drunk
The Bonnie Prince & all his bonnet blues
Into the freezing Moray Firth hath sunk
The flower of the highlander lies strewn
Upon this ghastly field & down the roads
Shall ride many a merciless dragoon
All to the weeping streets of Inverness
So far we have counted a thousand swords
Now raise a cry for Britain & God bless

The crucial battle has been fought
The tartan torn & strewn
The fleeing rats so easy caught
VENGEANCE shall cut the Celtic throat
Beneath a weeping moon


What has happened is that modern poetry has detached itself from a tradition going back thousands of years, beyond the Egyptians & even the Sumerians. But like I’ve said before, is it not the right time to, if not banish completely, at least demote Free Verse from its domination of the page, recognizing it only as a mere medium through which we can translate one’s mimesis. Let us instead enrich the poetical sensibilities of both ourselves & that of the entire Zeitgeist. Any old fool can chuck a few words  down on a piece of paper in slap-dash fashion, but if you can pull off a half-decent Chaunt Royale, you can consider yourself a ‘proper’ poet.  You may still write better in Free Verse, but the fact you have a Chaunt Royale in the bank means wider horizons, & a clearer view of the art form as a fully composite & universal being.

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