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.
Today is ‘Whan That Aprille Day’, a celebration of ‘oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges’ and languages which are Old, or Middle, or Ancient, or Dead. I’d like to celebrate Charles of Valois, duke of Orleans, who wrote first in one language, French, and then another, English (and later still had his French poems translated into Latin). Charles was taken prisoner at Agincourt in 1415 and was then held captive in England for twenty-five years. During this time he translated some of his French poetry into English, and then wrote more English poetry, creating a long work (edited by Mary-Jo Arn as Fortunes Stabilnes) which combines lyric sequences and narrative sections.
Troilus and Criseyde is written in rhyme royal stanzas of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Despite the various subdivisions within the narrative (for example its proems, songs, letters, prayers, and apostrophes), Chaucer doesn’t vary the form of his stanzas as a French dit amoureux might for inset lyrics but keeps to this stanza throughout. In later Middle English, the term balade referred not only to a fixed-form lyric but also to the stanza forms generally used within such lyrics. To write in balade was to write stanzaically, most often in seven-line rhyme royal stanzas, though the term ‘rhyme royal’ was coined later during the sixteenth century.
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.