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1.16: Middle English Lyrics

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    The anonymous Middle English lyric poetry that we have is doubtless only a fraction of what existed. Since the lyrics were part of an oral tradition, it is difficult to know exactly when they were written. In general, the lyric tradition appears to have been most prominent from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, and the similarities to French lyric poetry indicate that there was some kind of influence (probably earlier French lyrics influencing the medieval English lyrics). Some lyric poems include music, and the form of the poems usually follows a song-like rhyme scheme, often with a refrain. The topics of the lyrics are varied, just as the authors were, but they tend to fall into certain categories. Perhaps the most well-known Middle English lyric poem is the Cuckoo Song, with its joyful celebration of spring, complete with a farting deer (a typical kind of medieval humor). In poems such as Spring Song, Alysoun, Blow Northern Wind, and When the Nightingale Sings, a man laments that he does not have the love of a beautiful woman (the subject of songs to this day). The poem Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Fuerunt? (“Where are those who were before us?”) uses the same motif as earlier Anglo-Saxon poetry such as The Wanderer (found in this anthology). Many of the lyrics were religious, whether they were about Jesus or the Virgin Mary (such as Ave Maria or Lullaby), mankind’s sinful nature (such as the poem Earth), or reflections on death and the afterlife (such as Life and Winter Song).

    1.12.1 Cuckoo Song

    Summer is a-coming in,

    Sing loud Cuckoo!

    Groweth seed, and bloweth mead

    And springeth the woode noo

    Sing Cuckoo!

    Ewe bleatheth after lamb,

    Lows for her calf coo;

    Bullock sterteth, buck verteth,

    Merry sing Cuckoo!

    Cuckoo, Cuckoo, well sing’st thou Cuckoo:

    So cease thou never noo.

    Sing Cuckoo, noo, sing Cuckoo!

    1.12.2 Spring Song

    Spring is come to town with love

    With blossom and with bird in grove,

    That all this bliss now bringeth.

    There are daisies in the dales;

    Notes full sweet of nightingales;

    Each bird song singeth.

    The throstlecock out-sings them all;

    Away is fled the Winter’s thrall,

    When woodrow springeth.

    Then chanting birds in wondrous throng

    Thrill out their joy the glades among

    Till all the woodland ringeth.

    The crimson rose is seen,

    New leaves of tender green

    With good-will grow,

    The moon shines white and clear,

    Fennel and Thyme are here,

    Fair lilies blow.

    Their mates the wild drakes find,

    Each creature seeks his kind.

    As stream that trickles slow,

    We plain when life is drear,

    For cruel love the tear

    Unchecked must flow.

    The moon sends forth her light,

    The goodly sun shines bright,

    And birds sing well.

    Dews drench the soft young grass,

    And whispering lovers pass,

    Their tale to tell;

    Snakes woo beneath the clod,

    Women grow wondrous proud

    On field and fell.

    If one shall say me no

    Spring joy I will forgo

    And banished dwell.

    1.12.3 Winter Song

    Winter wakeneth all my care;

    Leaves are few and branches bare;

    Oft I sigh and mourn full sair,

    When there cometh to my thought

    All the world’s joy, how it all goes to nought.

    Now it is, now no more seen;

    Gone as it had never been,

    Many men say truth, I ween,

    That all goes by God’s will.

    We all must surely die, though it seem ill.

    All that green that graced the year, Now is dying, brown and sere.

    Jesus, let thy help be near

    And shield us now from hell.

    For I know not whither I shall go nor how long here shall dwell.

    1.12.4 Alysoun

    Between soft March and April showers,

    When sprays of bloom from branches spring,

    And when the little bird ’mid flowers

    Doth song of sweetness loudly sing:

    To her with longing love I cling,

    Of all the world the fairest thing,

    Whose thrall I am, who bliss can bring

    And give to me life’s crown.

    A gracious fate to me is sent;

    Methinks it is by Heaven lent

    From women all, my heart is bent,

    To light on Alysoun.

    Her sheeny locks are fair to see,

    Her lashes brown, her eyes of black;

    With lovely mouth she smiles on me;

    Her waist is slim, of lissom make.

    Unless as mate she will me take,

    To be her own, my heart will break;

    Longer to live I will forsake,

    And dead I will fall down.

    A gracious fate, etc.

    All for thy sake I restless turn,

    And wakeful hours sigh through at night;

    For thee, sweet lady, do I yearn;

    My cheeks wax wan in woful plight.

    No man so wise that can aright

    Her goodness tell, her beauties bright;

    Her throat is than the swan’s more white,

    The fairest maid in town.

    A gracious fate, etc.

    Weary as water in the weir,

    With wooing I am spent and worn;

    Lest any reave me, much I fear,

    And leave me mate less and forlorn.

    A sharp, short pain is better borne,

    Than now and evermore to mourn.

    My love, O fair one, do not scorn,

    No longer on me frown.

    A gracious fate to me is sent;

    Methinks it is by Heaven lent;

    From women all, my heart is bent,

    To light on Alysoun.

    1.12.5 Blow, Northern Wind

    I know a maid in bower bright,

    That full seemly is to sight

    Maid of majesty and might,

    Of loyal heart and hand.

    ’Midst many a nobler one

    A maid of blood and bone,

    I know not ever none

    So fair in all the land.

    Blow, Northern Wind,

    Send thou me my sweeting

    Blow, Northern Wind, blow, blow, blow.

    With her long and lovely tresses,

    Forehead and face fair for caresses

    Blest be the joy my lady blesses

    That bird so bright in bour,

    With lovesome eyes so large and good

    With blissful brows beneath her hood,

    He that once hung upon the Rood

    Her life holds in honour.

    Blow, Northern Wind,

    Send thou me my sweeting

    Blow, Northern Wind, blow, blow, blow

    Her face is full of light,

    As a lantern in the night

    She sheds a radiance bright,

    So fair is she and fine.

    Her neck is slender to enfold

    Her loving arms bring joy untold

    Her little hands are soft to hold

    Would God that she were mine.

    Blow, Northern Wind,

    Send thou me my sweeting

    Blow, Northern Wind, blow, blow, blow.

    She is coral of goodnesse

    Ruby she of rightfulnesse

    She is christal of cleannesse

    Beauty’s banner she.

    She is lily of largesse

    Periwinkle of promesse

    She the sunflower of sweetnesse

    Lady of loyalty.

    Blow, Northern Wind,

    Send thou me my sweeting

    Blow, Northern Wind, blow, blow, blow.

    For her love I mourn and moan,

    For her love I grieve and groan,

    For her love my good is gone

    And I wax all wan.

    For her love in sleep I sigh

    For her love I wakeful lie

    For her love I droop and cry

    More than any man.

    Blow, Northern Wind,

    Send thou me my sweeting

    Blow, Northern Wind, blow, blow, blow

    1.12.6 When the Nightingale Sings

    When the nightingale sings, the woodes waxen greene,

    Leaf and grass and blossom springs, in Averil I weene,

    And love is to my hearte gone, with a spear so keene.

    Night and day my blood it drinks, mine heartes death to teene.

    I have loved all this year, that I can love no more,

    I have sighed many sighs, Lady, for thine ore,

    Ne’er my love comes near to thee, and that me grieveth

    sore. Sweetest Lady think on me, I loved thee of yore.

    Sweetest Lady, speak I pray, one word of love to me,

    While in this wide world I stay, I’ll seek for none but thee,

    Your kind love might give me bliss, from pain might set me free,

    A sweet kiss of thy dear mouth, might my surgeon be.

    Sweetest Lady, here I pray, one boon of love bestowe,

    If you love me, as men say, as I, dearest, knowe,

    If you will it, look on me, just a look will showe,

    So much have I thought of thee, I all ghastly growe

    Between Lincoln and Lindesey, North-Hamptoun and Londoune,

    I wot not of so fair a may, by tower, dale, or toune,

    Dearest one, I humbly pray, love me a littlesoone.

    I now will plain my song,

    To her to whom it doth belong.

    1.12.7 Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Fuerunt?

    Where are they that lived before,

    Hounds they led and hawks they bore

    And had both field and chase?

    Ladies rich in bowers fair,

    Nets of gold bind up the hair,

    Rosy-bright of face.

    They ate and drank and made them glad

    Their life was all with pleasure led,

    Men kneeled them beforn,

    They bore themselves full proud and high

    And in the twinkling of an eye

    Their souls were all forlorn.

    Where is that laughing and that song

    The pride with which they passed along,

    The hawk, and hound, and bower?

    All that joy is gone away,

    That weal is come to welaway,

    To many a bitter hour.

    They took their heaven while they were here

    And now in hell they lie in fere;

    The fire it burneth ever,

    Long is ay, and long is o,

    Long is wy, and long is wo,

    From thence come they never.

    1.12.8 Earth

    [Note: That this singular and impressive little poem may be more readily understood, the word earth has been here printed with a capital wherever it is used to signify man, the creature made of the dust of the earth. This emphasizes the distinction between the different senses in which the word earth is used throughout the poem.]

    Earth out of earth is wondrously wrought,

    Earth of earth hath got a dignity of naught,

    Earth upon earth hath set all his thought,

    How that Earth upon earth may be high brought.

    Earth upon earth would be a King;

    But how Earth shall to earth thinketh nothing;

    When that earth biddeth Earth his rentes home bring,

    Then shall Earth out of earth have a piteous parting.

    Earth upon earth winneth castles and towers,

    Then saith Earth to earth: “Now all this is ours!”

    When that Earth upon earth hath built up his bowers,

    Then shall Earth upon earth suffer sharp showres.

    Earth goes upon earth as mold upon mold,

    So goes Earth upon earth all glittering in gold,

    As though Earth unto earth never go should,

    And yet Earth shall to earth before that he would.

    O thou Earth that on earth travailest night and day,

    To deck thee, Earth, to paint thee with wanton array;

    Yet shalt thou, Earth, for all thy earth, make thou it never so quaint and gay,

    Out of this earth into the earth, there to cling as a clod of clay.

    O wretched man, why art thou proud that art of earth maked?

    Hither broughtest thou no shroud, but poor came thou and naked!

    When thy soul is gone out, and thy body in earth raked,

    Then thy body that was rank and undevout, of all men is hated.

    Out of this earth came to this earth this wretched garment,

    To hide this Earth, to hap this Earth, to him was clothing lent;

    Now goes Earth upon earth, rueful, ragged, and rent,

    Therefore shall Earth under earth have hideous torment.

    Why that Earth too must love earth, wonder me think,

    Or why that Earth for superflue earth, too sore sweat will or swink;

    For when that Earth upon earth is brought within the brink,

    Then shall Earth of the earth have a rueful swink.

    So, Earth upon earth, consider thou may How

    Earth cometh into earth naked alway,

    Why should Earth upon earth go now so stout or gay

    When Earth shall pass out of earth in so poor array?

    Therefore, thou Earth upon earth that so wickedly hast wrought,

    While that thou, Earth, art upon earth, turn again thy thought,

    And pray to that God upon earth that all the earth hath wrought,

    That thou, Earth upon earth, to bliss may be brought.

    O Thou Lord that madest this earth for this Earth, and suffered here paines ill,

    Let not this Earth for this earth evil e’er spille,

    But that this Earth on this earth be ever working Thy will.

    So that this Earth from this earth may fly up to Thy high hill.

    1.12.9 Life

    The life of this world

    Is ruled with wind,

    Weeping, darkness,

    And stirring:

    With wind we blowen,

    With wind we lassen:

    With weeping we comen,

    With weeping we passen.

    With stirring we beginnen

    With stirring we enden,

    With dread we dwellen,

    With dread we enden.

    1.12.10 Ave Maria

    Ave maris slella

    The star upon the sea

    Dei mater alma

    Blessed mayest thou be

    Atque semper virgo

    Pray thy son for me

    Felix cell porta

    That I may come to thee.

    1.12.11 Lullaby (1)

    I saw a fair maiden a-sitting to sing

    She lulled a little child, a sweete lording

    Lullaby my litling, my dear son, my sweeting.

    Lullaby my dear heart, my own dear darling.

    That child is the Lord who hath made everything,

    Of all lords he is Lord, of all kings he is King.

    Lullaby, etc.

    Angels brought their song that night and said unto the child

    “Blessed be thou and so be she that is both meek and mild.”

    Lullaby, etc.

    Angels brought their song that night and said unto the child

    “Blessed be thou and so be she that is both meek and mild.”

    Lullaby, etc.

    Pray we now to that Child and his Mother dear

    To grant them his blessing that now make good cheer.

    Lullaby my litling, my dear son, my sweeting,

    Lullaby my dear heart my own dear darling.

    1.12.12 Lullaby (2)

    Lullay, lullay, little child!

    Why weepest thou so sore?

    Needes must thou weep,

    Thou wert doomed of yore

    Ever to live in sorrow,

    Ever to sigh and strive,

    As thy fathers did ere this

    Whilst they were alive.

    Lullay, lullay, little child!

    Child lullay, lullow!

    To this world unknown

    Sadly come art thou.

    Beasts and birds and cattle,

    The fishes in the flood,

    And each thing that liveth

    Made of bone and blood,

    When into the world they come

    They do themselves some good,

    All but that poor imp

    That is of Adam’s blood.

    With care art thou beset;

    Thou knowest naught of this world’s wild

    That is before thee set.

    Child, if it betideth

    That Time shall prosper thee,

    Think how thou wert fostered

    On thy mother’s knee;

    Ever mind thee in thine heart

    Of those thinges three,—

    Whence thou earnest, where thou art,

    And what shall come of thee.

    Lullay, lullay, little child!

    Child lullai, lullay!

    With sorrow thou earnest to this world,

    With sorrow shalt wend away.

    O! trust not to this world,

    It is thy fell foe.

    The rich it maketh poor,

    The poor man sick also.

    It turneth woe to weal,

    And also weal to woe.

    Trust not man this changing world

    While it turneth so.

    Lullay, lullay, little child!

    The foot is on the wheel,

    How ’twill turn thou knowest not,

    Whether to woe or weal.

    Child, thou art a pilgrim

    In wickedness yborn;

    Thou wanderest in this false world,

    Look thou well beforn.

    Death shall come with sudden blast

    Out of the darkness hoar,

    Adam’s children down to cast,

    Adam he slew before.

    Lullay, lullay, little child!

    Adam did woes oppress

    In the land of Paradise

    Through Satan’s wickedness

    Child, thou’rt not a pilgrim,

    But a helpless guest.

    Thy day already told,

    Thy lot already cast.

    Whether thou shalt wend

    North, or East, or West,

    Death shall thee betide,

    With bitter bale in breast.

    Lullay, lullay, little child!

    Child lullay, lullow!

    To this unknown world

    Sadly come art thou.

    1.12.13 Reading and Review Questions

    • How does the poem Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Fuerunt? compare to the ubi sunt passage in The Wanderer? For that matter, how does it compare to Aragorn’s speech in Tolkien’s The Two Towers (see the introduction to The Wanderer for the context)?
    • What is the attitude about the afterlife presented by the speakers in the poems Life and Winter Song? Why do you think so?
    • In the poems, how do the descriptions of religious love compare to the descriptions of romantic love?
    • Taking one of the poems, discuss how the author conveys a certain emotion. How effectively does the poem convey that emotion? Why?
    • Take one of the love poems and compare it to a modern love song. Which themes and topics in the medieval poem are similar to or different from the modern love song?

    This page titled 1.16: Middle English Lyrics is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Bonnie J. Robinson & Laura Getty (University of North Georgia Press) .

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