lai (noun), also laylaye, lei

Before I attempt this glossary entry, I concede that there is no wittier definition of lai than that by Jonathan Hsy on Twitter:

As per its Middle English Dictionary entry, lai in Middle English can refer to a short romance narrative of love and adventure, the Breton lai of the Franklin’s Tale.  It can also mean both ‘song’ and ‘birdsong’.  In medieval French, lai can also refer to a type of lyric.  Barbara K Altmann, in an essay on ‘Guillaume de Machaut’s Lyric Poetry’ in A Companion to Guillaume de Machaut, ed. McGrady and Bain, defines it as follows: ‘It is elaborate in its structure, generally consisting, in the work of Machaut and his followers, of 12 strophes, each one heterometric (i.e. composed of lines of different lengths) and internally divided into two or four sections.  Each strophe is different from the others, with the exception that the last one mirrors exactly the format of the verse’ (p. 322).

Chaucer, well-read in French poetry, may have loosely imitated the form of a lai in Anelida’s Complaint, which has twelve stanzas with various different rhyme-schemes.  Some of Chaucer’s uses of the word lai may also have this more specialised formal meaning.  Aurelius in the Franklin’s Tale composes ‘many layes, / Songes, compleintes, roundels, virelayes’ like a stereotypical lovesick squire, Chaucer’s catalogue imitating similar lists of lyric forms in French poetry.  These might be imagined to be songs with lyrics or lyrics without music.  Damian’s letter in the Merchant’s Tale, made ‘In manere of a compleynt or a lay’, might not only be a lover’s complaint in its content, but also in its form.  Damian’s letter may be versified, and hence May’s disposal of the letter down the privy is an ignominious end not only for the language of courtly love but also for the most sophisticated forms of courtly love lyric.  However, Chaucer’s Complaint of Venus, a triple ballade, refers to itself as ‘this compleynt or this lay’, indicating that Chaucer could use these terms to refer to content/register rather than particular form.

Gavin Douglas, in his Palis of Honoure, calls his inset lyric complaint in 10-line stanzas on two rhymes (and the corresponding joyful lyric later in the poem) ‘this lay’, suggesting that later in the fifteenth century (under the influence of Chaucer’s ballade complaints) lai was used to refer to complaints and other lyrics written in technically demanding stanza-forms but not the particular form of the French lai lyrique.

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