Exploring the nine-line stanza in Middle English is a good lesson in what sort of identities stanza-forms can have. If you search for nine-line stanzas in the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, you find 60 odd entries. About a third of the poems in this form are written by Charles d’Orleans, some of the many lyrics which make up his Fortunes Stabilnes. In French lyric verse, ballades are written in stanzas of various different lengths. Charles’s nine-line stanza ballades are merely one variation amongst a number of different stanza-forms which he uses for his ballades.
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. Continue reading
It’s #WhanThatAprilleDay16 today, a celebration of ‘oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges’ and languages which are Old, or Middle, or Ancient, or Dead. To learn any of those languages takes baby steps, something I’ve seen a lot of in recent years watching our daughter, and all her little cousins, learning to walk. Once they are up on their feet, they want to run, even when their legs are still wobbly. So the imagery in the second and third stanzas of the poem below, written in the dying days of Middle English, leapt out at me, and I hope it will leap across 500 years to you too. Scroll down for text and translation.
In medieval Latin prose cursus composition, cadences are the patterns of long and short vowels in words and phrases at the ends of clauses. The Libellus de arte dictandi rhetorice (by ?Peter of Blois, 1182/3) records that the notaries of the Roman Curia call their cursus clause endings ‘cadencias’, i.e. cadences. An Oxford treatise on the art of letter-writing says that ‘cadencia could not be anything other than the final closure of clauses or phrases, and especially of words’ [cadencia nichil aliud esse poterit nisi distinccionis vel scissure et precipue diccionum finalis clausura] (Summa dictandi, trans. Cornelius). Continue reading
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.
On Valentine’s Day, of course, a fifteenth-century Valentine’s ballade. By coincidence, I found this one in the manuscript which preserves the proverbial text translated for Margaret of Anjou which I’ve been working on for the last few weeks. It was printed once in Skeat’s multi-volume Works of Chaucer, but not much looked at since, I think. I like the tone of voice in this lyric: the histrionic lover, completely and utterly devoted, but also full of a sense of his own absurdity and the unfairness of love.
This post is really just the story of how one thing leads to another in research. It’s also to tell you about what I’ve been working on in the last three weeks, a sudden and unexpected digression from my poetics book. It’s also to highlight the role of noblewomen in the commissioning of English verse in the middle of the fifteenth century.
Over New Year’s, I went to the British Library to look at a fifteenth-century manuscript with a little-known prologue to a little-known text. The text, the Liber Proverbiorum, is a 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 these were hard to get hold of, so I went to look at it myself. Continue reading
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.