Joyous in love, I make my aim
by Guilhem IX of Poitou
English version by J. Lindsay
Joyous in love, I make my aim
forever deeper in Joy to be.
The perfect Joy’s the goal for me:
so the most perfect lady I claim.
I’ve caught her eyes. All must exclaim:
the loveliest heard or seen is she.
You know I’d never base my fame
on brags. If ever we’re to see
a flowering Joy, this Joy, burst free,
should bear such fruit no man can name,
lifting among the others a flame
that brightens in obscurity.
/ Image by MYLermontov /
Today let’s take a leisurely journey through romance, love, and the world of Troubadours…
Troubadour poetry, though not widely read in English, has had a profound impact on modern Western art in general, and particularly love songs and love poetry. Modern notions of idealized romantic love can be traced back to a certain extent to the Troubadour love poets in southern France in the 1200s.
The Troubadours lauded love, especially the sweet pain of unattainable love, as embodied by an idealized Lady. They were the poets of courtly love.
Modern commentators often miss the sacred dimension to Troubadour poetry and the path of courtly love. It’s a pity that modern audiences tend to read Troubadour poetry as if it was purely of lovesick romantic poetry — and it is, but not exclusively. Much of Troubadour poetry, though couched in romantic or even sexual imagery, should also be read as sacred poetry, emerging from a genuine mystical tradition.
The Troubadours emerged in Aquitaine and Provence (what is today southern France) at the height of the Albigensian Cathar movement and immediately following their slaughter in the Albigensian Crusade. Many of the Troubadours may have themselves been Cathars or at least influenced by Cathar notions. The Cathars were a gnostic group of Christians who rivaled the Catholic Church in Southern France and other parts of Europe, until they were declared heretical and wiped out, with the few survivors driven underground. The Cathar Elect were celibate vegetarians who upheld notions of non-violence, reverence for the natural world (with special focus on the sun and the moon), and the spiritual equality of women. While some aspects of Cathar spirituality had a world-denying quality that might be unappealing to the New Age notions of today, the Cathars were a vibrant group with a rich mystical and spiritual heritage.
Just as the Cathar connection to Troubadour traditions is often overlooked, the connections to Moorish Spain are often ignored, as well. The startlingly new music and poetry of the Troubadours did not emerge from a vacuum, as is sometimes asserted in European histories. These new artistic and spiritual sentiments can be traced directly to the courts of Andalusian Spain during the period of Muslim rule. Duke William (Guilhem) of Poitou, who is often cited as the “first” Troubadour, was raised in a household populated by Spanish musicians and poets brought back by his father from Muslim Spain. Duke William led a childhood immersed in the innovative music and ideas imported from his Muslim neighbors in nearby Spain. Duke William’s contribution was to popularize this “new” art in Christian northern Europe.
The most notable element of Troubadour poetry was their idea of “courtly love.” Courtly love is often thought of as a strange societal pattern that occurred because marriage among the wealthy was a practical affair brokered between families, leaving little room for love. That may have added to the appeal of courtly love, but it doesn’t really explain it. Let me say this directly: Courtly love was a conscious spiritual practice. The ideal in courtly love was to embody the archetypal forces of Lover and Beloved.
In the songs of the Troubadours, the Beloved was usually the woman. She was to embody the ideal of the Divine Feminine, Sophia, Divine Wisdom. She was to be ever slightly out of reach, but within sight. Her presence was to draw the Lover with her presence, her goodness, her feminine divinity. She was to be a beacon. In striving to embody this for her Lover, she was to merge with the Divine she embodied.
The Lover was usually the man. His was the more active role. He was to seek his Beloved, his idealized Lady. He had to prove himself worthy of her, face great obstacles with humility and perseverance, in her name. In the Lover’s intense passion for his Beloved, his constant focussing on her, he was to ultimately become a perfect Lover of the Divine and unite with the divinity he saw embodied in his Beloved.
The goal of this idealized courtly love was not sexual intimacy. In the spiritualized notion of courtly love, sex was avoided because it would satiate the longing that acted as the spiritual force that drew the man and woman as Lover and Beloved to the goal of spiritual marriage. This was the ideal, and certainly not every couple followed this path, nor did all Troubadours celebrate the inner sacred meaning of the path. Yet this was the core, and it was a pathway taught through societies and particularly passed on through Troubadour poetry and song. Courtly love should be seen as genuine spiritual pathway and not be superficialized. It is not inappropriate to think of courtly love as similar to Tantric sexual spirituality, as developed in India — in some expressions the sexuality can be explicit and socially transgressive, but for others the energies of desire are channeled toward the transcendent.
It is interesting to consider how powerful this mysticism of romantic love can be, especially when we consider that our world is filled with the modern descendent of Troubadour poetry: the pop love song. Buried somewhere deep in those catchy melodies and words of longing, lust, and love is an ancient spark of yearning for spiritual union.
As with Troubadour music and new poetic styles, this notion of courtly love had its origins in the nearby Muslim world. The Beloved of the Troubadours is the same Divine Beloved of the Sufis. When reading Troubadour poetry, as with Sufi poetry, the Beloved — though sometimes pictured as a real person — can be understood to be the Divine Beloved.
Troubadour influence spread through many related poetic/mystical traditions that emerged from their diaspora: the Trouveres in northern France, the Minnensingers in Germany (including Wolfram von Ehrenbach, author of the first Grail romance), the Fideli di Amore in Italy (including Dante).
St. Francis of Assissi himself was a great lover of French Troubadour songs and traditions. Though he lived and taught within the Catholic Church, elements of Cathar and Troubadour and, yes, even Sufi spirituality can be seen in his own radiant ministry: his love of nature (particularly the sun and the moon), his vision of a divine woman, and his relationship with St. Clare (which was very much in the tradition of the chaste Lover-Beloved relationship.)
More poetry by Guilhem IX of Poitou