Carmina Burana, Vols. 1 & 2


Carmina Burana, Vols. 1 & 2 ed./trans. by David A. Traill
Harvard University Press, 2018. Vol 1: 567 pp. Vol 2: 794 pp.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid

Here is something good. Two volumes, and you get all the poems from that famous medieval manuscript, whether they’re good, bad, or indifferent, and you even get the little plays that are in there. This is part of why I like the Dumbarton Oaks series. They don’t go by poems; they go by manuscripts.

So, for example, if you’ve ever wondered what else was in Cotton Vitellius A15 (the Beowulf manuscript), the Dumbarton volume has your back. When it comes to the Carmina Burana poems, partly you just want to see the Latin originals en face (mostly Latin, but also a little dab of German and an even littler dab of French), and partly you want to get beyond the most famous material.

For most people, that’s (a) the “Orff stuff,” the small batch of poems Carl Orff made into that famous cantata in the ’30s, plus (b) whatever they’ve seen in Helen Waddell’s justly famous Medieval Latin Lyrics.

Granted, these poems, even the best of ’em, aren’t for everybody. “Spring is returned, and lo! the birds…,” “That pert lady with her heart-gladdening eyes…,” and so on. A guy I knew in grad school summarized the whole thing as “titties and beer.”

If you don’t know where you stand on those issues, Carmina Burana may serve as a battery tester for you. Have a look.


ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).