dit, dit(i)e and ditee (noun)
The various dictionary entries give a sense of the overlap between these terms, and also the range of general and specific meanings they can communicate. The Oxford English Dictionary separates dite (meaning ‘something said or put in writing’ or ‘a poem or song’) from ditty (meaning ‘lyrics for singing’, ‘birdsong’ and ‘a poem’). The Middle English Dictionary likewise has dit (‘a poem’) and dite (‘literary composition’, ‘poem, song’). Both words are borrowed into English from French. The Dictionnaire du Moyen Français has dit (meaning both ‘thing said/written’ and ‘a poem’) and dité or ditié (meaning both ‘a poem’ and also ‘the text of a song as opposed to its music’); the Anglo-Norman Dictionary likewise has both dit (‘saying’, ‘tale’) and dit(i)é (‘poem’, ‘story’, ‘writing’, ‘song’). The trilingual Magnus Cato in the Vernon manuscript translates Latin carmen with dit in French and dite in English, showing their equivalence as terms for verse.
Chaucer doesn’t call his own works dites, though the Eagle in the House of Fame acknowledges that Chaucer has made ‘bookys, songes, dytees, / In ryme or elles in cadence’ in praise of Love and lovers. The Eagle presents Chaucer as the stereotype of the young love poet, and Gower uses exactly these terms (‘ditees…songes glade’) when Venus describes Chaucer’s youthful service at the end of the Confessio. I suspect that both Chaucer and Gower use ditee somewhat ironically and somewhat tautologically: generic terms to indicate the generic forms of juvenilia, from which Chaucer is moving on in the House of Fame.
Dite in Middle English does not have the pejorative connotations of Modern English ditty, and other poets were not as wary of the term. All kinds of poetry can be called a dit(e). Lydgate names several of his short poems as ‘dite’, and the word is used self-referentially by many other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century authors. Henryson calls the Testament of Cresseid his ‘cairful dyte’, his sorrowful piece of writing. The Virgin Mary tells Mary Magdalen that she should make ‘Sum dolorose ditee’ at the sight of the crucified Christ in the Digby play of Christ’s Burial and Resurrection. Puttenham, in The Arte of English Poesie, uses it fairly frequently as a term meaning ‘poem’ of whatever sort, using it particularly as a word to refer to an entire poem in contrast to an individual stanza.
Another particular meaning of dite refers to the words of a song rather than its music. The MED doesn’t record this usage, but this more specific meaning does appear in English. The narrator of the Kingis Quair, walking in his prison garden, hears birds singing a song in praise of Love and the springtime, the supposed words of which he gives. The narrator, not yet dreaming but in a wonderful world where a matins bell seems to speak to him and where he can simultaneously experience things and write a poem about them, thinks that he can understand ‘the plane ditee of thair note’, a punning use of dite referring both to the meaning and the lyrics of their song. The choice of this term, with its exact focus on what exactly the birds are doing (singing words!) in this impossible world, heightens our sense of James’s fictitious world-creation.
Later in the Kingis Quair, the narrator grumbles at a nightingale who will not sing a song of love in praise of the beautiful lady whom he has seen from afar. Then, as if by magic, the nightingale begins to sing (after the narrator has left things to Fortune to see whether the wind will blow the branches and make the bird sing). Now in love, the narrator provide the nightingale’s song with a text: ‘to the notis of the philomene / Quhilkis sche sang, the ditee there I maid’. Now he is the lyricist to the nightingale’s composition.
These instances confirm my thinking that these technical terms tend to appear when authors are thinking literary-theoretically in some way. John Metham, in his mid-fifteenth-century romance Amoryus and Cleopes, gives as an inset lyric a song sung on Amoryus’s journey to the Temple of Venus by a lovesick young knight and four other knights. Metham gives the text of the song (a 14-line lyric which might have a claim to being the first sonnet in English) and then the narrator says that he has given the ‘dyte’ and ‘sentence’ (i.e. lyrics and meaning of song), implicitly acknowledging that he can’t provide the music. It’s a neat point about what poetry can and can’t do – metre has a rhythm but can’t communicate the music of the song. The song itself features a first-person narrator who overhears another lover complaining to Venus and Fortune. A complaint within a frame within a song, sung to Amoryus who is about to fall in love, inset into a narrative poem. Metham’s narrator may confess what he can’t do, but the song demonstrates exactly what poetry can do.