Reviewed by Peregrine Fairchylde
For the Pennsic Independent
To merely hold in your hands The Thorned Rose, the book of sonnets by Master Michael McPhe (called Alewright), is a delight. Hand-bound on fine paper, printed in a typeface that recalls its 16th century counterparts and decorated with bold block prints, the small volume of some 70 pages is a pleasure to behold.
Yet what lies within its covers is the truest treat, as Alewright’s poetry stands as testament to the wisdom of the Crown of Æthelmearc in elevating him to the Order of the Laurel.
Subtitled “A Booke of Sonnetes,” The Thorned Rose is dedicated primarily to the Shakespearean form (let’s review: 14 lines, rhymed ABAB CDCD EFEF GG), but departs from it occasionally to indulge the reader with variations on that style, as well as “sundrie pleasing posie and songs.” And these works are truly an indulgence for the reader, displaying a breadth of talent that ranges from formal sonnets to sparkling wit, humor and whimsy, and gratifying examples of applying the art to the spirit of the Society’s recreation of the Middle Ages with odes and memorial works reflecting the poet’s perception of significant events and persons.
Love, naturally, is the common thread among many of the poems, and Alewright approaches this universal virtue from many angles, sneaking up behind it at times, so the reader doesn’t have to suffer through Yet Another Sonnet About My Love. (That said, his own paean to his lady, Katherine Sinclaire, is unabashedly sentimental, yet sublime and not at all saccharine.)
Take, for example, “A lover complains of the coldnesse of his beloved.” Here Alewright, after a dozen lines of the narrator repudiating his lover, subtly lays his finger on the complexity of true affection when he resolves in the final couplet, “And yet, I know I cannot wander far/I am your slave, and you, my shining star.”
Alewright’s wit is perhaps best appreciated in the innuendo-laced poem, “In celebration of a marriage.” Here he simultaneously celebrates and satirizes marriage in verse; every line, taken at face value, would seem an essential truth of wedlock: “This pair, a sight to glorify the sun,/Become much more together than apart.” However, such lofty observations are rendered comic by the collective first letters of each line of the poem, which spell out, “A pregnant bride” – and are compounded by the new meanings that revelation applies to his choice of words like “berths,” “great labor,” “swells” and “deliver.” Even after several readings, the poem remains fresh and delightful.
Returning momentarily to the construction of the book itself, it is modeled after a type of volume that could be purchased in the late 16th century – and we know this because Alewright himself tells us, courtesy of a very informative pamphlet included with the book. The binding method uses a laced-in limp paper structure, with a strip of soft goatskin serving to hold the signatures (individual sections) together. The interior paper is a laid imprint, similar to what would have been used in the period, and the text and illustrations, as mentioned, selected to closely mimic what would have been used at the time, as well. For anyone who has ever wondered what good someone’s A&S project would ever lead to, here’s your answer: A handsome and desirable volume that serves to reinforce the illusion of the Middle Ages being recreated here at War and in our home groups.
The Thorned Rose is available in two forms: The hand-bound edition, which costs $35 for the first copy and $25 for the second, and an unbound version for $10. They may be purchased at the stave church of Master John the Artificer. Alewright has also brought his binding equipment to War and is willing to discuss the binding process with those who are interested; he may be found at his camp, the Black Legion, on Fosse Way between Brewers and Battle roads (N17).