The poets of Louchébem – so Scaliger informs us – do not prize novelty, either of content or of form. Their themes are taken from a rigorously circumscribed palette. Young love, the frailties and pleasures of the body, the changes of the seasons; these few phrases suffice to describe the subjects of their entire corpus. Likewise, the verse forms permitted them are exactingly strict in their prosody; and, beyond this, there are still more abstract restraints on the appropriate rhetorical structures for a given form or subject.
It may seem surprising, then, that the quality most prized by these poets was improvisational skill. But we need only consider the example of Baroque music to see that the combination of strict formal rigour and a relish for impromptu composition can spur on artists to heights of creativity. In Louchébem, the greatest poets, or makars, to give them their formal title, are those who, when given a form and a theme, rise to the challenge of inventing a poem on the spot with the greatest verbal adroitness.
With this in mind, we can, perhaps, imagine the feelings with which our young poet Aniseed approaches the dais in the Great Hall of the Academy, on the day of his Master-work. The Great Hall is low, damp and long, and resembles the dining room of a provincial coach-inn. Its name does not refer to physical grandeur but rather to the august names of those – Smilax! Tansy! – who have gone through this ritual before Aniseed, and of whom he must surely be thinking now.
He reaches into the ballot cauldron and takes one of the many small terracotta pots. It is shaped like a miniature amphora, sealed at the end with red wax. He dashes it to the floor before the eyes of the Masters, where it breaks into four shards. Two white mice, their tails tied with a red ribbon, are released from the pot and scamper in futile circles on the tiles.
“Four stanzas,” comes the voice of a Master. “A tied ballad.” He gestures towards the musician standing discreetly to one side of the dais, who begins to pluck a repetitive, ritualistic phrase on his aoud.
Aniseed begins, as is customary, with two long, drawn-out syllables.
Once had a girl who was seven-parts troll,
She put her finger right into my
Wholegrain is good but sourdough is better,
I kissed her down there and it tasted like
Fetter your horse and lie down by this rock,
They call me “The Stallion” because of my
Cockroaches, cockroaches, breed in the heat,
It’s awful in summer, they crawl on my
Meat is a luxury, tighten your purse,
But loosen it now and give thanks for my verse.
He doffs his journeyman’s cap and waves it before the Masters in an elaborate, stylised gesture which ends in a deep bow. The aoud falls still.
“The fourth hinge-word,” says the eldest Master. He is not, of course, addressing Aniseed. “I see the double-entendre, but there is no homonym.” His cracked voice is enlivened by pedantry.
“Now, Master Borage. The word is clearly used in two senses.” The Master who replies is rotating a gold coin between his thumb and fingers.
Aniseed’s nervousness is at such a pitch that he is not surprised by the fact that it is his old enemy, Dock, who has come to his defence. “This insistence on an alteration in spelling, as well as in meaning…”
He lets the insinuation of an over-reliance on the printed word, as opposed to the verbal, linger for a few seconds. It is more than enough to make Borage retract his objections, although he makes his retreat fussily and his colleagues are obliged to settle his ruffled feathers with low, soothing voices.
Aniseed has the disturbing sense of being privy to an ancient and scandalous disagreement between his elders. He barely catches the gold coin which Dock tosses into his cap as a token that he has passed.