virelai (noun), also virelay

(NB this post has been improved and corrected thanks to some very helpful advice from Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach, who kindly but firmly educated me in the core structure of the French virelai)

The word virelai appears in Middle English in lists of examples of lyric forms for love poetry, often lists translating or imitating similar lists in French poetry.  Aurelius, in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, laments his unrequited love for Dorigen in ‘manye layes, / Songes, compleintes, roundels, virelayes’.  Alceste, in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, tells the God of Love that Chaucer himself has written hymns for the God of Love’s feast days in various forms: ‘balades, roundels, virelayes’.

In Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Genius the Confessor personifies the vice of Vainglory as a fashionable neophyte who composes ‘caroles … / Rondeal, balade and virelai’.   Amans then correspondingly confesses that he has attempted to devise ‘Rondeal, balade and virelai’ as well as ‘Caroles’ in order to woo his lady, singing them in hall and in chamber.  The inhabitants of the fifteenth-century love-vision The Isle of Ladies make ‘virleyes and leyes’ to pass time in the evening.  Henry Watson’s 1509 translation of Brant’s Ship of Fools has Voluptuosity surrounded by ‘mynyons syngynge and dauncynge, playnge balades,  roundelettes, vyrelettes, and dytees of musyke or layes’.  A poem printed in Thynne’s 1532 works of Chaucer has a lover telling his lady that he has made ‘many a roundel and many a virelay / In fresshe Englisshe’.  What is being imagined in these various examples may well be songs with lyrics, rather than poems without music.

In French poetry, the virelai begins with an opening refrain (usually on two rhymes), though extant examples show variety in the number of lines in the refrain, in the refrain’s rhyme-scheme, and in the number of syllables in each line.  Then there are three sections which make up one ‘stanza’ (or ‘verse’ in the musical sense), the first two sections sharing the same structure (corresponding to the twice-repeated second melody in the musical virelai), sometimes using the same rhyme-sounds as the refrain and sometimes using different rhymes.  Again, surviving examples show variety in rhyme-scheme and line-length.  Then the rhyme-scheme and versification of the refrain are repeated in the final part of the three-section ‘stanza’, though with different words.  Finally the refrain is repeated in its entirety.  The virelai can be extended at this point by repeating the pattern of another three-section ‘stanza’ followed by the refrain and so on.

As far as my researches can tell, there is no surviving example of a non-musical virelai written in Middle English, which might make us question whether Chaucer, Gower and other poets knew anything more than the name of the form.  Various medieval English poems have been identified by editors as examples of a virelai (DIMEV 5357, 6498, 1290, 5490, 6143, 453, 4994, 2147, 607) but none of these are in fact virelais, being either experimental ballades or responses to a different French lyric form, the complainte.

3 thoughts on “virelai

  1. Thanks for this post. It would be fun to see some of those examples — my experience is that sometimes the problem (in French sources too) is with scribes suppressing repeating and/or missing out lines in virelai copying. But I’m also perfectly prepared to believe that English scribes and poets didn’t know this form and might just be referring to the (turning) dance that accompanied the poem rather than the poem’s form.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I’ve an article on this in press which I’ll email to you if you don’t mind: I would be interested to know what you think of the English examples labelled as virelais by editors. As far as I could see, the errors stem from 19thC editorial judgments, but I’d really value your expert opinion.

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