I think that the book I am working on will become more and more focused on lesser-known poetic experiments in Middle English. Because these curious creatures don’t often fit into standard accounts, they have often been unduly overlooked. Scroll down for an extract (with a translation) of a real hidden gem, describing a lover’s thoughts on a cold winter’s night. This is from a poem often attributed to Lydgate (though it seems very unlike anything else he wrote) and is often called A Lover’s New Year’s Gift.
(The lover walking near a castle, from MS Douce 195, Roman de la Rose)
The whole poem presents itself as a gift from a lover to his lady, describing his devotion and praising her virtues. In this extract, the speaker describes a set of prayers made to the moon and sun, and then his thoughts of hope and despair as the year turns from old to new on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The meteorological descriptions of quickly changing thoughts (first cloudy and stormy, then sunny and clear) are inspired by Chaucer’s account of Criseyde’s changing thoughts in Book II of Troilus and Criseyde, lines 764ff. The poet of these lines picks verbs which enhance the imagery of his adjectives. Hope makes the speaker’s heart adowe (a verb meaning both to recover and to dawn) and makes the sorrow of his stormy despair apeese (a verb which can refer both to grief subsiding and to storms abating).
(King Cresus being rained on, from MS Harley 1766, Lydgate’s Fall of Princes)
Despite its Chaucerian inspiration, however, the poem goes its own way in formal terms. It is written in groups of three lines, a couplet followed by a third line rhyming on –ere throughout all 71 lines of the poem. It’s an odd and rare form, but one perhaps reminiscent of twelve-line tail-rhyme stanzas (aabccbddbeeb), though without every third line being shorter. Every third line provides a sonic reminder that this poem is occasioned by a new year – here, near, year by year, my dear…It claims to be a simple gift, but that merely draws attention to its rhyming virtuosity.
I like its metrical swing and sway. This poet steers clear of octosyllabics or decasyllabics, and does his own thing in loosely iambic fourteeners, with each line often dividing up into a four-stress first part and a three-stress second part (producing something rather like ballad metre, though more delicately variable). This suggests a rather idiosyncratic approach. He reads Chaucer, but has his own preferences as regards metre and form. Whoever he was, he could write poetry really well.
And as I stoode myself allone upon the nuwe year night
I prayed unto the frosty moone with hir pale light
To go and recomaunde me unto my lady dere.
And erly on the nexst morowe, kneling in my clos,
I prayed eke the shene sonne the houre whane he aroos
To go also and say the same in his bemys clere.
But tho ther came a clowdy thought and gan myn hert assayle
And sayde me howe my servyce ther me shoulde not avayle
Til my lady mercylesse me hade brought on beer.
Hit is ful hard to grave in steel and in a flynt also
And yit men may smyte fyre of hem both two:
But I may of hir hert of steel — mercy noon requere.
Tho cume gode hope ageyne and gan myn hert adowe
And of myn hevy stormy thought apeese wel the wowe
And so the skyes of dispeyre began to wexen clere.
(spelling and punctuation modernised)
[And as I stood by myself alone on New Year’s night, I prayed to the frosty moon with her pale light to go and commend me to my dear lady. And early the following morning, kneeling in my chamber, I prayed also to the bright sun at the hour when he arose to go as well and say the same by means of his shining sunbeams. But then there came a cloudy thought which assailed my heart and said to me that my devotion there would not be of any use to me until my pitiless lady had brought me to my bier. It is very hard to engrave steel and also flint, and yet one can strike fire using both of them together: And yet, if I am able [to strike fire] from her heart of steel, mercy [will be?] not at all required. Then good hope comes again and my heart recovers and the sorrow of my heavy stormy thought abates and so the skies of despair begin to grow clear.]