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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XVII. Later Transition English

§ 1. Middle English Lyrics

FROM the middle of the thirteenth century to the days of Piers Plowman, writers of English were still polishing the tools used in the preceding century. We have seen their predecessors at work in monasteries on saint’s lives and religious verse; chroniclers have come under consideration; and the flourishing of romance, both home-grown and imported, has been noted. It remains to discuss the evidence which is gradually accumulating that neither court nor cloister were to exercise a monopoly in the production and patronage of English letters: there was also “the world outside.” Certain of the romances—Havelok notably—bear traces, in their extant forms, of having been prepared for ruder audiences than those which listened, as did the ladies and gentlemen of plague-stricken Florence towards the close of this period, to tales of chivalry and courtly love and idle dalliance.

A famous collection of Middle English lyrics shows signs that there were writers who could take a keen pleasure in “notes suete of nyhtegales,” in “wymmen” like “Alysoun” and in the “northerne wynd.” There are still poems addressed to “Jhesu, mi suete lemman,” full of that curious combination of sensuousness and mysticism which is so notable a feature of much of the religious verse of these centuries; but more purely worldly motifs were beginning to be preserved; tales which were simply amusing and cared little for a moral ending were being translated; and indications appear that the free criticism of its rulers, which has always been a characteristic of theEnglish race, was beginning to find expression, or, at any rate, preservation, in the vernacular.

To the early years of the period under consideration belongs one of the most beautiful of Middle English lyrics:

  • Sumer is i-cumen in,
  • Lhude sing cuccu.
  • Its popularity is attested by the existence of the music to which it was sung in the first half of the thirteenth century. If summer had not yet “come in,” spring, at any rate, was well on the way when verses like these became possible. A sense of rime, of music, of sweetness, had arrived; the lines were settling down into moulds of equal length, and were beginning to trip easily off the tongue to an expected close. And, instead of the poet feeling that his spirit was most in harmony with the darker aspects of nature, as was the case with most of the Old English writers whose works have been preserved, the poet of the Middle English secular lyric, in common with the poet of The Owl and the Nightingale, feels “the spring-running” and cannot refrain from entering into the spirit of it with a gladsome heart:
  • Groweth sed and bloweth med,
  • And springth the wde nu.
  • Sing cuccu! Awe bleteth after lomb,
  • Lhouth after calve cu:
  • Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
  • Murie sing cuccu!
  • The same note is struck, only more often, in the Harleian lyrics above referred to, which are dated, approximately, 1310, and were collected, apparently, by a clerk of Leominster. The slim volume in which these lyrics were printed sixty-five years ago, by Thomas Wright, contains poems familiar, perhaps, to most students of English poetry and familiar, certainly, to all students of English prosody. The measures of the trouvères and troubadours had become acclimatised in England—Henry. had married a lady of Provence—so far as the genius of the language and the nature of the islanders permitted; and the attempt to revive the principle of alliteration as a main feature, instead of, what it has ever been and still is, an unessential ornament, of English verse was strong in the land. And first among these spring poems, not so much in respect of its testimony to the work of perfecting that was in progress in the matter of metre, as in its sense of the open air, and of the supremacy of “humanity,” is the well-known Alison lyric beginning

  • Bytuene Mershe & Averil
  • When spray biginneth to springe, The lutel foul hath hire wyl On hyre lud to synge; Iche libbe in love-longinge For semlokest of alle thynge, He may me blisse bringe, Icham in hire baundoun. An hendy hap ichabbe yhent, Ichot from hevene it is me sent, From alle wymmen mi love is lent
  • & lyht on Alysoun.
  • There is a world of difference between these lines and the ideal of convent-life set forth in Hali Meidenhad. By natural steps, the erotic mysticism that produced the poems associated with the Virgin cult passed into the recognition, not merely that there were “sun, moon and stars,” “and likewise a wind on the heath,” but also that there existed earthly beings of whom

  • Some be browne, and some be whit…
  • And some of theym be chiry ripe.
  • In another of the Harleian poems, “the wind on the heath” inspires a refrain:

  • Blou, northerne wynd,
  • Send thou me my suetyng.
  • Blou, northerne wynd, blou, blou, blou!
  • which, by its very irregularity of form, shows the flexible strength that was to be an integral feature of the English lyric. Yet another poem has lines:
  • I would I were a thrustle cock,
  • A bountyng or a laverok,
  • Sweet bride. Between her kirtle and her smock
  • I would me hide:
  • which form a link in the long chain that binds Catullus to the Elizabethan and Jacobean lyrists. And the lines beginning
  • Lenten ys come with love to toune,
  • With blosmen & with briddes roune
  • are full of that passionate sense of “the wild joys of living” which led “alle clerkys in joye and eke in merthe” to sing Right lovesome thu art in May thu wyde wyde erthe.