The popularity of seven-line rhyme royal stanzas in late medieval and early Tudor verse means that it’s easy to overlook eight-line stanzas, especially those rhyming ababbcbc. This verse form doesn’t really have a name in Middle English, though eight-line stanzas are sometimes called ballades (meaning a discrete stanza unit such as that used in the French fixed-form lyric, in contrast to verse in couplets or long lines), a word that is also used for stanzas of seven or nine lines. Fifteenth-century French arts of poetry call this rhyme-scheme ‘double croisée’, meaning that the rhymes cross over each other twice.
I’ve been tracking the life-cycle of rhyme royal, the stanza form (rhyme-scheme ababbcc) that Chaucer developed and used in his Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde, and some of his Canterbury Tales in the last decades of the fourteenth century. In the first half of the fifteenth century, it was the fashionable stanza form that every courtly poet wrote and every reader wanted to read.
As promised, another example which shows how cleverly and self-consciously late medieval dramatists exploited the familiar forms of late medieval lyrics in their drama. At the beginning of John Skelton’s early Tudor morality play, Magnificence, Liberty (i.e. the character personifying liberality or generosity) and Felicity (i.e. the character personifying prosperity and happiness) debate between themselves whether they can happily co-exist. Felicity argues that Liberty needs to submit himself to ‘Continence’, i.e. moderation, whilst Liberty argues that there can be no wealth or happiness when Liberty is constrained.
The relationship between religious lyric and religious drama in medieval England is a close one. Dramatic speeches of welcome and salutation (with each line beginning ‘hail…’ or ‘welcome’) are very similar in structure to surviving lyrics, often drawing on the same liturgy. Research by George C Taylor has carefully explored the overlap in form and content between lyric and drama, and Lu Emily Pearson and Richard Osberg have also drawn attention to passages within plays which can be isolated as lyrics. I’m interested not only in lyrics that you can isolate, but also moments in drama which draw on shared awareness of lyric form. Here’s a post on one example in the N-town cycle, and next week a similar example from John Skelton’s early Tudor play, Magnificence.
Some medieval English playwrights use different types of stanza for different types of characters. In the fifteenth-century morality play Mankind, the personification Mercy begins the play speaking in stanzas which are often called octaves, rhyming ababbcbc (also sometimes called eight-line ballade stanzas, or Monk’s Tale stanzas following their use by Chaucer). This stanza form is often used for moral or educational writing in later Middle English poetry. This is a good fit for Mercy’s character, as he begins the play in priestly guise, reminding the audience to persevere in good works and to avoid sin.
My last post looked at characters sharing lines and stanzas in Middle English cycle plays. These shared lines and stanzas were sometimes ominous or implicative, showing how characters are drawn into evil or collaborate in cruelty. But joining together in the construction of a stanza can also signal joy and celebration in these plays. This post shows you some of these spectacular collaborative stanzas in Middle English drama.
Must look at the drama, must look at the drama. That’s been running through my head and scribbled down in notebooks for as long as I have been working on this poetics project. Drama in medieval England was drama in verse, so it has the potential to be a great source for my book. But I have been very surprised by how purposeful and subtle the use of form is, especially to emphasise key moments in the action. This post (the first of several on form in medieval English drama) shows some of the effects playwrights create with stanzas and rhyme. This is perhaps very obvious to people who research and teach a lot of medieval drama, but it is new and fascinating to me.