The Medium of Middle English Lyrics
Robert D. Stevick
A few years ago I prepared a revised edition of One Hundred Middle English Lyrics for a new publisher, about thirty years after completing the first edition.1 During the intervening years I had drifted into Old English, the history of English, and some of the early Irish and English manuscript art―and had drifted away from Middle English lyric verse. Reviewing all at once the scholarship and criticism of the years since the early 1960's was not the bewildering experience that Rip Van Winkle must have had when he woke up, because the critical currents were familiar, and because it was possible to read the full record of the study of these lyrics for the intervening years.
During this time the main lesson we have learned―or to our peril, have not learned―is to read these poems in context. Siegfried Wenzel made it embarrassingly clear that "some objects which former scholars prized as precious coins have ... turned out to be plain buttons, and what were thought to be intricate designs on them have proven to be merely the holes through which they were once fastened to a coat"2: George Kane, Stephen Manning, Edmund Reiss, Robert Evans, Thomas Hill wrote eloquent appreciations and critical interpretations of what turns out to be a list of headings for parts of a Latin sermon. Meantime, the work of Rosemary Woolf, Peter Dronke, Douglas Gray, Judson Allen, Patrick Diehl has removed the last excuses for reading these poems as if they were by modern poets―i.e., by the major writers living after about 1550.
What I want to consider here is context of two other kinds. One is the language, which lacked a standard even for written communication or record, much less for literature. The other is the set of metrical conventions that were in use. Together, the language and the meter constitute the medium of Middle English lyrics. In this context, "intertextuality" of these poems is a nearly empty notion.
In the matter of the language, Middle English can hardly be said to constitute a single linguistic system at all. By the end of the twelfth century English had differentiated into widely varying regional dialects; by the end of the fourteenth century (if not before) dialects at opposite ends of Great Britain were different enough to make communication difficult. Until the sixteenth century no one of these dialects carried enough prestige or offered enough practical value to be adopted as a standard, or even as a koine. During this time, there was not much need for a single language system, stable and widespread, because most communication (in English) was local and because literacy had not yet become common; where written communication or record was needed, the language most used was Latin or French. The one exception was Chancery English, emerging in the fifteenth century, for royal documents. When people did write English, they based it on the way they spoke it.
To get a feel for this circumstance, think of any of the texts you may know in "ethnic" or national forms of English other than standard―in Jamaican English or Trinidadian, or Hawaiian, Nigerian, Indian, Malaysian, Scots, or in any of the North American immigrant dialects going back to the eighteenth century. Then suppose you are a native speaker of one of these dialects, and that Standard English had disappeared. How many texts in the other forms of English do you expect you would read? And when you did read any of them, what would be the effect? So long as the topics were familiar you could understand all or most of them, though only some of a few of them. But in terms of literary interests, over and above basic message, how much of the feel, the texture, the nuance, the resonance that depends on collocations and echoes, or even the speech rhythms would you expect to grasp? Or to put it synoptically, how much would your literary life be fed or influenced by most of these texts?
Let your dialect be much like Chaucer's, and you can read these opening lines readily as poetry:3
Whan I see on rode / Jhesu my lemman (14B, Index 3965)
Whan I on the rode see / Faste nayled to the tree (15, Index 3961)
Whan I thenke on the rode / Wher-upon thou stood. (16, Index 3968)
But how much immediate literary response would you get from these next lines?
Quanne hic se on rode / ihesu mi lemman
Vyen i on þe rode se / Faste nailed to þe tre
Qvanne i zenke onne þe rode / quorupe-one þu stode.
Or how sensitively will you read words such as ugsom, skere, putte, hore, hiþe, wogh ? I think the answers to both questions would be, "Not much." And when you came to write another poem yourself, your interest in an audience among these other groups of English speakers would in turn probably be, not much.
Then add the dimension of time. When the morphology and the syntax and the lexicon of these Englishes was in a rapid process of change, texts from three or four generations earlier would also be enough unlike those of your own language that they probably would not become readily interactive with your literary activity (even if there had been no change of information or beliefs).
So in England of the twelfth through the fifteenth century, almost any text written in English wouldn't have much literary value for someone living sixty miles away or eighty years later― except, of course, as something to be re-interpreted, re-worked, or re-written in a different variety of the language system. Seldom would the redaction be as easy as this one:
Or study the variants among the longer narrative texts such as Lawman's Brut or Sir Orfeo , for example. In these circumstances, the sources and models for writers of English poetry remained for the most part in texts written in languages other than English.
And then there is the factor of prestige. Latin had it for liturgy, law, learning and literature, and French (or Anglo-French) had it for vernacular literature as well as the vernacular speech of certain privileged classes (early on, anyway). Either of these languages provided a sort of a "standard." To write in English, though, was to write in a local language, and to commit oneself to a kind of poetry that had its importance and characteristics apart from a language form that was either fairly uniform, prestigious, widespread, or of long continuance.
There were secular songs, which probably are better known to us from their fragments than from full written texts. Apart from these, mostly this English poetry is verse with a religious rather than literary purpose. Even then, seldom is there profound meditation or radiant celebration. It is mostly verse to be recited by any and all (in the way common prayers are made) whether for purposes of prayer or as simple reminders of common elements of Christian doctrine. The main point is this: that until near the end of Middle English, there was not a stable language widely shared, within which a tradition of lyric poetry in English that could evolve on its own.
Now consider the meter. In the surviving texts it is virtually all stanzaic. It is remarkable for the thoroughness of the canvassing of stanza forms in the course of three hundred years. The simplest forms are pairs of rhymed couplets, aabb (1, 4, Index 2164, 2320), or alternating rhymes abab (23, 24, Index 3894, 2162), or most unusually, a set of four lines with the same rhyme aaaa (26, Index 3939). Still another pattern is abcb (56, Index 1303). The more complex stanza forms are many. They range from linking lines in groups of six (18, 19, 39, 42, Index 3310, 3211, 2025, 2023), or eight (34, 35, 50, 51, 97, Index 1921, 1922, 1463, 2716, 1609, and others), or ten (5, 31, Index 2070, 2359, et al), or twelve lines (28, 43, Index 1861, 3996), to linking them in odd numbers of lines-five (68, 85, Index 925, 4198, for instance) or seven (2, 75, Index 2163, 1331, and more), or nine (11, 86, Index 2645, 4189). And then there are French forms of fixed length and rhyme scheme, with a repeating line (66, 67, 71, Index 3162, 922, 2243).
But this kind of metrical form is entirely unrelated to the meter of all English verse earlier than the beginning of Middle English lyrics. It is a new beginning in poetry written in English. This is the case not only with rhyme. It is also the case with the smallest unit to recur in a regular and patterned way, the basic unit usually termed a "foot." The established notion of "foot" has to do with recurring patterns of syllables. Meter can have these patterns as the smallest regular and recurring unit, of course, as texts in Latin, late Middle English, Modern English, and other languages can illustrate. But it doesn't have to be built from these units, and it had not been so constituted in Old English. The regular and recurring unit within the metrical line earlier had been English (and Germanic) in nature, and it cannot be represented accurately in units alien to that language. That native, or traditional, unit, rather, had been based on regular recurrence of prosodic stress-accent. When we read early texts of lyrics, the number of syllables between these accents may be several―
Gbriel hire grtte and syde hire, "Av!
Mrie ful of grce, oure Lrd be wyth the." (10.9-10, Index 2366)
Or they may be few―
Whan mn beth mriest t her mle
Wyth mte and drnke to mken hem glde.... (43.1-2, Index 3996)
Still later the intervals may be filled regularly with single unstressed syllables―
The fírste dy whan Críst was brn,
Ther sprng a rse out f a thrn (83.1-2, Index 3344)
While there is much variation in the patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables in these three examples, making it nearly meaningless to compare their metrical "feet," they all show regularity in employing a prosodic pattern quite common throughout Middle English―the grouping of four stress-accents to form a verse line. This was the case until the late fourteenth century.
The natural English metrical unit may be better grasped, perhaps, when it is thought of as a "measure," as in the terminology of music. Measures are the smallest timed units. If a line is analyzed as having a certain number of measures, nothing is implied about the patterns of syllables within those units. All that is implied is that there is that same number of stress-accents falling at regularized intervals. This is clearest in songs or song-like texts such as
Yonge mn, I wrne you verichon,
Élde wves tketh ye nn. . . . (57, Index 4279)
or in stylized, sententious verses, such as
Érthe took of rthe, rthe wyth wgh;
Érthe other rthe to the rthe drugh. . . . (26, Index 3939)
At the same time it should be recognized that foot-measure was introduced early, in imitation of Latin texts (and often in translating them), using English syllable length and stress-accent. It developed fairly rapidly, eventually dominating the original meter of English, though never quite displacing it. That is the reason that many more of the later texts of Middle English exemplify foot-meter than do the earlier ones. And this development coincided generally with loss of syllabic unstressed final -e.
Wyth fvour ín her fce fer pssyng m resun (86.1, Index 4189)
That hrte myn hrte hath ín swich grce (100.1, Index 3271)
But that is how the meter of Middle English ended, not how it began.
So during the first half of the period of Middle English there was not a meter for English verse lines which could provide a "net" adequate to world class tennis games of lyric poetry. Typically one tended to count linguistic stresses (not syllables) for English, and usually in binary patterns―a pair of duples making a four-stress line; even three-stress lines usually occurred within a dominant four-stress pattern, for a ballad-like form, or fourteeners. And always at the end of a line is rhyme. Along with that, the line-end is usually the end of a syntactic clause as well. Consequently, the most affective verses in Middle English must play with this primitive net, and with starkly simple rules:
Juxtaposition of verses is the key to this―juxtaposition together with interaction with variation. There has to be some connection across or athwart the divisions, some play against the succession of simple-structured and end-stopped lines, if there is to be enough complexity of expression to generate interest or pleasure. The kind achieved in these two poems is in a way similar to metaphor―the side-by-side, essentially paratactic, placement of elements, which becomes meaningful through a spontaneous inference of the relation between or among them.
This is entirely unlike Old English verse. Its meter had been binary as well, a pair of duples making a four-stress line. But end-rhyme wasn't a characteristic of this verse tradition, and end-stopping of lines was not a regular feature of the poetry. It proceeded in half lines instead, with alliteration linking the half lines in pairs. The syntax remained entirely free to allow clause ends at mid-line or at line-end; and further, the syntactic structure was endlessly varied and played against this radically simple line structure. Typically this play was by variation―repeating a syntactic element of a sentence but with different constituents, for example―or by releasing pieces of a syntactic phrase in different half lines. I would like to illustrate this characteristic of earlier English meter with the opening sentence of the Old English Seafarer, but the syntactic tree diagram exceeds page size in the fourth line, only halfway through the sentence. So I offer instead the opening sentence of Widsith (figure 1). It is not very complex, as these things go in Old English, but it is the sort of thing absolutely impossible to achieve in the usual rhymed line structure in Middle English lyric forms. Notice how we have to get to the end of the relative clause before the syntactic role is clarified in that clause for all the words except the initial relative pronoun construction― we must wait for the essential finite verb that heads the Verb Phrase that embraces most of the words. Along the way are characteristic variations, connected by the symbolin the diagram. By contrast, most Middle English rhymed verse is syntactically a succession of line-length clauses with verb early in the clause; the clauses may make up simple, compound, or complex sentences, yet main clauses tend to be identical in length and prosodic pattern.
But then in the latter half of the period of Middle English new metrical resources developed. This came with foot-meter based on syllable-grouping becoming stable. It became immensely more flexible with adoption of five measures, or feet, instead of four to the line, toward the end of the fourteenth century. Breaking the binary structure of the line―even though it was still heavily marked by end-rhyme―gave new possibilities for play of syntax and meter. So did new stanza forms, especially those with an uneven number of lines; seven was optimal.
From Chaucer, from Charles d'Orleans, and from others like them known by name or not, evolved the metrical principles that were in place in early Modern English, when a standard written form of the language was coming into place, when new stanza forms were imported (the sonnet being the most important), and when once again the lines broke free from end-stop format, whether with rhyme or not. There were sonnets and Spenserian stanzas and other forms in rhyme. Without rhyme and with five feet came blank verse, the magnificent medium of Elizabethan drama and Milton's Paradise Lost .
The lyrics of Middle English began in a linguistic medium something like modern colonial varieties of English without a written standard, and in a metrical medium now found mainly in nursery rhymes and child verse, and perpetuated as well since the sixteenth century in Protestant hymns. They ended in a national vernacular which had a norm in a common written form of English, and a pliant, flexible range of metrical forms. The writing of lyric verse at that time changed from producing poems nearly all anonymous to producing poems by individuals leaving a personal stamp upon their poetic creations. At that time medieval English literature was transformed into the literature of early Modern English.
(University of Washington)
N O T E S
1First edition, 1964. Revised edition, University of Illinois Press, 1994.
2Preacher, Poet, and the Early English Lyric (1986), ix.
3The texts are identified first by boldface numerals, for their number in One Hundred Middle English Lyrics , and then by their number in Carleton Brown and Rossell Hope Robbins, The Index of Middle English Verse.
The Medium of Middle English Lyrics
Robert D. Stevick
refers to the language and the conventions of meter. The variations and
rapid changes in Middle English were such that the full literary effect
of a lyric could hardly be felt fifty miles away or seventy years later,
restricting the development of a tradition of lyric verse within English.
Until late fourteenth century, the meter was restrictive as well: the four-lift
lines, rhymed at the end, had clausal units synchronized with them, blocking
many kinds of exploitation of the interaction of medium and matter. This
was unlike earlier English verse with four lifts but unrhymed and not end-stopped,
and unlike later verse with five-foot lines. These aspects of the medium
of the lyrics tell a great deal about the kinds of poems that excel. Diagrams
are included that superimpose tree-structures of sentences upon verse-lined
text, to illustrate the effects of these aspects of the medium on Middle