Sometimes I worry that I am too obsessed with getting things exactly right in my forthcoming Big Bumper Book of Middle English Poetics (TM). But making sure you understand something, which for this project often means painstakingly learning about forms in other languages and media, can ultimately pay off. For far too long I have been getting to grips with what defines a roundel, the English name for a French lyric called the rondeau (and the related form sometimes called the chanson). The form is rare in Middle English, except for the series of roundels which Charles of Orleans includes in Fortunes Stabilnes, many of which are translations of French originals.
The early sixteenth-century poem presented and translated at the foot of this blog probably needs a trigger warning, at least for those of us who’ve had such dark moments in life that we’ve thought of ending it all. This ballade (if you use that term pretty loosely) describes a night-time vision of a murdered man who encourages the narrator, perhaps a despairing lover, to kill himself. The final stanza revamps the familiar ending of a dream vision in which an authority figure urges some action and/or some startling event occurs, the violence of which awakens the dreamer. Here it is the speaker’s suicide which ends the dream. The last line, flinging us into the present tense, gives a vivid picture of the speaker’s heart thumping as he wakes.
Just a quick post to say that my article on a group of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century lyrics which in the past were misidentified as Middle English virelais has been published in Medium Ævum 85.1 (2016). The poems in question are in fact English versions of various French complainte forms. The article explains how they came to be misidentified, and discusses the imitation of French forms in English. It argues that this form was recognisable and had distinctive connotations, meaning that it could be used parodically or ironically in some instances. You can download a copy of the article here:
Here’s the text of the short talk I’m giving as part of a Roundtable discussion (Session 5D) on ‘After Chaucer’ at the New Chaucer Society Congress on Tuesday afternoon.
As I explained in a previous post, over New Year’s I stumbled upon a little-noticed prologue, uniquely preserved in London, British Library MS Harley 7578. It prefaces the Liber Proverbiorum, a mid-fifteenth-century verse translation of an early fourteenth-century collection of proverbs and wise sayings by the friar and preacher Nicole Bozon. The text as a whole had been edited in two American PhD dissertations, but neither had been published, and so the poem had faded into obscurity.
Before Christmas, I read an article by Michael Rosen on Why we love limericks which celebrated the popularity of a new book of limericks by Ranjit Bolt, A Lion Was Learning to Ski. Given that I’m writing a guidebook to Middle English poetic form, I was surprised to read that ‘the history of the limerick form itself […] stretches back to at least the 11th century’. Had I missed something? Medieval limericks, it seemed, were a thing.
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.
My contribution to the commemorations of the sixth-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt is, of course, a poem (scroll down for text and translation). These stanzas are embedded in a London prose chronicle in British Library MS Cotton Cleopatra C. IV: it’s clear that the author of the chronicle was un-versifying this poem to form part of his account of the battle, before giving up and just copying the stanzas out verbatim. So here we have a surviving section of another Agincourt poem to put alongside the Agincourt carol and the other accounts of the battle.
The theme for this year’s United Kingdom National Poetry Day is LIGHT. What sprung into my mind, thinking of light in Middle English poetry, was an image of jasper walls gleaming like egg white in a city which doesn’t need the light of the sun or the moon because it is lit by divinity itself: ‘The selfe God was her lambe-lyght, / The Lombe her lantyrne’ [God himself was their lamp-light, the Lamb their lantern]. It comes in what might just be the best stanza in Middle English poetry.