The Non-Narrative Lyric Impulse

views updated

The Non-Narrative Lyric Impulse

Lyric Development.

In addition to long heroic and romance narratives in verse and prose, short "lyric" poems, some intended for singing to musical accompaniment, were composed from the ninth through the fifteenth centuries throughout Europe. Their subject matter varied by region, reflecting local political, religious, and cultural developments. And as these issues changed throughout the European Middle Ages, the trends in what was "sung" or recited in these short poetic works shifted commensurately. Even so, as also occurred with the long heroic narrative and the romance, there was much mutual imitation of short poetic forms among European nations, especially on the Continent.

The Lyric in Early Medieval England.

In the Anglo-Saxon period in England (ninth through eleventh centuries), lyric poetry had a distinctively nostalgic or elegiac tone. Although the poets could not have known the ancient Greek and Roman elegy lamenting the loss of a person, place, or thing, the brooding or gloomy tone of these poems reflects the harsh conditions of life for isolated tribal peoples who were often separated from their comrades or families by brutal weather, lengthy sea travel, or internecine warfare. Lyric poems produced during this era reflect many of the heroic themes of Beowulf, but at the same time sometimes give evidence of a shift in religious sensibility from belief in the old pagan Germanic divinities and myths to the formal adoption of Christianity. More than any poetry of the Continent, these verses resemble the Skaldic and Eddic poems of early Scandinavian lyricism. These elegiac poems were set against a bleak, wintry seascape, a marked contrast to the spring-like setting of later medieval lyricism on the Continent. For example, the respective narrators of "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer" are roaming almost aimlessly by ship, traversing the icy winter seas off the coast of England while lamenting the death of an earthly leader, who is sometimes allegorized as the Christian "Lord," indicating the often uneasy transformation of formerly pagan Britain to Christianity. In another elegy, "The Ruin," the narrator recalls with regret a once imposing feasting hall that is now a crumbling pile of stones battered by the elements. As in Beowulf, these poems employ the trope of "ubi sunt," a series of unanswered questions ("Where are the brave warriors?"), which underscores the absence either of missing or dead comrades from the comitatus, or of buildings demolished by the ravages of time and the harsh northern weather.

A New Arab Influence.

On the Continent, beginning in the eleventh century, a new style of lyric poetry developed, inspired, as in Britain, largely by political, religious, and cultural shifts. Charlemagne's campaigns against the Muslim inhabitants of Spain in the ninth century, illustrated in the Song of Roland and other chansons de geste (heroic poetry), anticipated the even more extreme anti-Muslim military expeditions to the Middle East called Crusades, which began in 1095. The Crusades changed the cultural life of Europe through the introduction by the returning crusaders of the Arabic music, poetry, and luxury goods to which they had been exposed while in the East. Coming to Europe through southern France, the returning knights brought back a new Arab-inspired approach to lyric poetry, featuring themes of erotic love. A prominent early crusader, William IX of Aquitaine (1071–1127), became one of the first practitioners of this new kind of lyricism. William was the grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of both France and England through her successive marriages to King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England in the twelfth century. At their respective courts, Eleanor and her daughter by Louis, Marie of Champagne, became patronesses of this new style of French poetry, which reflected the discourse of courtly love described by Andreas Capellanus in his treatise, De Arte Honeste Amandi, which may have been commissioned by Eleanor's daughter, Marie of Champagne, at one of her "courts of love."

The Troubadours in France.

Paralleling the development of the idea of courtly love in the twelfth century, these Arab-inspired poems, some of which were written about the experience of going on Crusade, calledchansons de croisade ("Crusade Songs"), were created first in Provence in southern France by the troubadours and later continued by the trouvères in the north of France. The terms troubadour and trouvère derived from the verb trobar, which meant "to find or make." Although these poets could be attached permanently to a particular court and patron, often they moved about from court to court, seeking more powerful and lucrative patronage. Troubadours in the south include Cercamon (1130–1148), Marcabru (1130–1150), Bernart de Ventadorn (1140–1180), Bertrand de Born (1140–1214), Pierre Vidal (1170–1204), Arnaut Daniel (1170–1210), and even a female poet (female troubadours are known as trobairitz) the Countess of Dia (1150–1200). The northern trouvères included Richard the Lion-Hearted (1157–1199), Gace Brulé (1170–1212), the Châtelain de Coucy (d. 1203), and Adam de la Halle (1270–1288). In contrast to the chilly, elegiac mood of Anglo-Saxon lyrics, this Continental poetry, influenced by the Crusaders' experiences in the exotic Middle East, celebrated a new poetic theme: romantic love for a woman—sometimes the lady of the court to which the poet was attached, who was unattainable because married, and whose every whim controlled the singer of the chanson d'amour (love song). The vocabulary expressing the roles of the lover and the beloved of the troubadour songs echoed the terminology of lordship so that the beloved lady played the role of the haughty "domna" (female "lord") to the poet, her vassal. If the poet/lover was successful, these songs were expressed joyously as in the fusion of identities between the human singer and the lark he sings about in Bernart de Ventadorn's "Can Vei la lauzeta" ("When I see the lark"). If the lover was unsuccessful, he might sing mournfully, against the backdrop of a paradise-like setting, the paradys d'amour ("paradise of love"), an almost ubiquitous springtime landscape complete with bird-song, gentle breezes, and fragrant flowers that inspire the poet to sing about his love of the lady.

New Poetic Genres.

Although these French poets are best known for their crusade songs and songs of love, the poetic repertoire practiced by the troubadours and trouvères included a number of different types reflecting both cultural life and social conditions. Among these were the jeu parti (a game-like debate poem reflecting the competition between poets to produce the best lyric poetry); the chanson d'aventure (song of adventure) about an unusual encounter experienced by a knight errant; and the aubade or aube, or alba (dawn song), a lyric in which lovers lament the coming of the dawn because they must part after a night of clandestine lovemaking. Troubadours also produced the planh (complaint) about unsuccessful love or oppressive political or economic situations; the pastourelle (song about shepherdesse), a short, dialogue-filled, narrative account of a courtly knight's attempt to seduce an innocent, but clever shepherdess; the chanson de toile (working song), a song voiced by female workers spinning cloth or doing other chores; and the chanson de mal mariée (a woman's song about being badly married), a complaint about marital problems often stemming from the practice of arranged marriages. By the fourteenth century, the emphasis shifted from genres based on theme to genres based on form, as French poets like Guillaume de

in Medieval Literature

Birds are among the most commonly encountered creatures in medieval poetry, perhaps because it is so easy to understand the analogy between the poet as singer of love "songs" and the bird whose only means of communication is singing. Various types of birds or "fowles" are used to represent many different moods and situations in both English and Continental poetry. The chanson d'amour, the lyric poem of love "sung" to the accompaniment of music by the troubadours in France, the minnesingers in Germany, and courtly love lyricists in England, nearly always begins with reference to the singing of birds—larks, nightingales, or other woodland birds. In poems such as these, birds evoke the mood of the springtime reverdie ("regreening"), and the courtly lover expresses or "sings" his feelings of joy at success or sorrow at disappointment in his love pursuit, as in this example by the troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn, who wrote between 1150 and 1180:

When I see the lark moving
Its wings with joy against the sunlight,
Till he forgets and lets himself fall
For the sweetness that has come into his heart,
Alas! such great envy comes over me
For all those whom I see rejoicing,
I am amazed that my heart—right then—
Does not melt with desire.

So tired! I thought I knew so much
About love, and I really know so little,
For I cannot keep myself from loving
A lady from whom I will get no reward.
She has my whole heart, my whole self,
And herself and the whole world besides;
And when she departed, she left me nothing
But desire and a hungry heart. …

Dream Visions, such as the Romance of the Rose and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, use birds and their song to awaken the dream-narrator from sleep and to beckon the dreamer into the narrative of his dream. But other literary birds are more verbal in their depiction. Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale is a delightful beast fable about a rooster, Chauntecleer, and a hen, Pertelote, who are married and who debate over whether or not the rooster's nightmare about being captured by a fox is meaningful. The narrator reminds the audience that although his tale is of a "cock," they must decide what in the tale is "wheat" and what is "chaff," the standard metaphor for the possibilities of simultaneous literal and figurative meanings in allegory. Chaucer's other bird poem, the Parliament of Fowls, features a dream in which various species of birds argue with one another about the issue of which aristocratic avian suitor the noble peregrine falcon should choose for her mate. This situation is reminiscent of the many arguments about which rank of suitor is appropriate for which rank of courtly lady in Andreas Capellanus's twelfth-century Art of Courtly Love. Chaucer's use of debating birds follows another earlier poem, the thirteenth-century The Owl and the Nightingale, in which the two title birds debate such issues as predestination, natural character, and carnal sin. Marie de France's Breton Lay Nightingale features a bird whose singing is the occasion for the secret meetings of a married lady and her lover, but which eventually becomes a symbol reminiscent of the nightingale in Ovid's Meta-morphoses, in which the raped Philomela is transformed into the melodic bird. Chaucer includes this myth of a woman whose tongue is cut out to keep her from telling the story of her attack as one of the tales about tragic females in his Legend of Good Women. Although, at first glance, the birds of medieval poetry may appear to be mere background for the immediate plot situation, birds were favored vehicles by which poets expressed ideas about love, the creation of art, and the human voice and its silencing.

source: Bernart de Ventadorn, "Can vei la lauzeta mover," translated from the Provençal by Kristen M. Figg.

Machaut and Jean Froissart perfected "fixed form" lyrics with complicated patterns of rhyme and meter—genres such as the ballade, the rondeau, and the virelais, which at first were matched to complicated new musical forms, but later circulated independently. These challenging genres emphasizing the elevated language that corresponds to refined love were the precursors of the most famous Renaissance lyric form: the sonnet.

The Influence of the Troubadours in Germany.

Eventually, most of these French models were imitated all over the Continent. In Germany, the minnesingers (singers about mine which means "love"), such as Walter von der Vogelweide (1170–1280), continued to develop the themes of fin'amors (refined or distilled love), but the Germans addressed their love poetry to ladies who offered less daunger (resistance), and consummation was more realistically attainable in German courtly love poetry than in the French models. On the other hand, the sequences and hymns composed by the polymath Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), the abbess of a convent of nuns located on the Rhine and the author of both medical treatises and accounts of her mystical visions, exemplify how secular and religious poetic themes could be fused. Like troubadour lyrics, Hildegard's hymns combine celebrations of the re-greening of nature in springtime with awed praise for God's creations and for the role of the Virgin Mary's paradoxical chaste fertility in the Incarnation. For example, Hildegard's hymn, "O viridissima virga" ("O greenest branch/virgin") develops complex wordplay between conventional springtime tropes about re-greening branches, Mary's role as a metaphoric "branch" on the family tree of Jesse (Christ's genealogical lineage), and her giving birth to Christ, which helped endow the earth's flora and fauna with new life and brought mankind into identification with the human/divine Redeemer, her son.

Cult of the Virgin Mary in
Medieval Literature

Modern readers may be surprised by the number of medieval lyric poems that focus on the Virgin Mary not only in her role as intercessor or sorrowing mother of Jesus, but also as a type of idealized woman to be addressed with the language of love. Indeed, Dante's decision to depict the highest reaches of heaven as a celestial rose in which the Virgin Mary is the central petal reflects a medieval devotional practice, the "Cult of Mary," that began in the twelfth century and attracted Christian devotees throughout medieval Europe for centuries to come. This form of intense Marian devotion echoed the language of Courtly Love, with the Virgin metaphorically cast in the role of the chaste and sometimes demanding courtly "domna" (literally the Ma-donna) of a male supplicant. Also about this time, the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, who purportedly was permitted to suckle from Mary's breast in an ecstatic vision, promoted special reverence for the Virgin, highlighting Mary's role as Christ's mother, and emphasizing the nutritive function of her breasts in her role as the "nurse" of God. Bernard's Commentary on The Song of Songs provided many new poetic images to be applied to the Virgin in lyric poetry. Samples of Mary's milk, brought back from the Holy Land by Crusaders, became highly prized relics to be venerated at various shrines to the Virgin throughout Europe, including the English shrine in Walsingham in East Anglia, which attracted thousands of pilgrims from both England and abroad in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

On the Continent, veneration of the Virgin increased during the fifteenth century through the promotion of the rosary, especially by members of the Dominican Order, as part of the Counter Reformation. The rosary as an aid to Marian devotion consisted of a strand of beads used for counting prayers, called "Aves," as in the prayer "Hail Mary." Increasing numbers of lay confraternities (organizations focused on a religious figure or shrine) devoted to the recitation of the rosary endorsed the rosary's efficacy at attaining from the Virgin both her Son's intercession on behalf of the supplicant, and her defense against physical injury. Mary's protection of supplicants was implied in popular visual images of the monumentally proportioned Virgin who shelters diminutive petitioners, and even whole cities, under her mantle. The belief in her ability to protect her supplicants was so great that, in the fifteenth century, another petition was added to the conclusion of the "Ave," asking Mary in turn to pray for the sinner both immediately and eventually at the hour of death. Also in the fifteenth century, woodcuts or paintings promoting the rosary often represented the "Fifteen Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries" of Mary and her Son. The Sorrowful Mysteries, which directed the supplicant's attention to Mary's presence at Christ's crucifixion and death, contributed powerful imagery to lyric poems about Christ's Passion, and to Mary's role as "Mater Dolorosa" (sorrowful mother).

The Influence of the Troubadours in Italy.

In Italy, the poets of the dolce stil nuovo ("the sweet new style") mirrored the themes of the southern French troubadours, many of whom had traveled—wandering from court to court in search of better patronage—from nearby Provence and Aquitaine to Italy. Notably, Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divine Comedy, wrote independent love poems and also incorporated songs and sonnets about Beatrice Portinari in his early autobiography La Vita Nuova (The New Life). These anticipate his veneration of Beatrice almost as if she were a saint in the Divine Comedy, placing her in the highest circles of Heaven with other saints and the Virgin Mary. The troubadour term "ma domna" for the courtly beloved resonated linguistically with Madonna, the Italian epithet for the Virgin Mary, encouraging association between the model of divine femininity and the courtly love object. In Italy, late in the medieval period, the humanist scholar and poet Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) developed the sonnet, a formal fourteen-line poem, in a famous sequence of sonnets, the canzoniere (songs) honoring an idealized courtly lady, Laura. This popular lyric form, which had probably been invented by Giacomo da Lentini in the Sicilian court in the mid-thirteenth century, was revived in England in the sixteenth century as the "Petrarchan" or "Italian" sonnet, used to great effect in the hands of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the earl of Surrey, and, of course, Shakespeare.

Spiritual and the Erotic in the
Middle English "Foweles in the frith"

Foweles in the frith,
The fisses in the flod,
And I mon waxe wod.
Mulch sorw I walke with
For beste of bon and blod.

A modernization of the Middle English text follows:

Birds in the wood,
The fish in the river,
And I must go mad.
I live in great sorrow
For the best of bone and blood.

"Foweles in the frith" (modernized from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 139, folio 5, thirteenth century) is one of the simplest and yet one of the most enigmatic of Middle English lyrics. With its terse placement of the birds in the woodlands and fish in the river, it opens with an extremely abbreviated evocation of the landscape of springtime, the traditional opening of many chansons d'amour. This traditional start abruptly precedes a statement that the speaker "must" go mad. Is the speaker envious of the birds and fish, who are in their proper element while he "walks" aimlessly in "much sorrow" to the point of madness?

The mysterious source of this extreme feeling of passion is revealed in the next and final two lines: the speaker is sorrowful because he has lost the "best" creature made of bone and blood, that is, the best human ever created. With no other clues as to the meaning of the five lines, one must consider what spring means in the medieval calendar. Spring brings the time of vernal rejuvenation in the natural world, a time when humans feel, like Chaucer's "little birds" in the opening lines of the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, "pricked by nature" to answer their physical urges. In this sense, the poem seems a spare song of thwarted passion, in which the speaker, wracked by pangs of traditional courtly love, explains how he has become crazed after losing the "best" female made of bone and blood, his lost beloved. In the exaggerated diction of Courtly Love poetry, the male lover's beloved is always the best lady of all women. However, springtime also suggests the season of Lent in the liturgical calendar, a sorrowful time of meditation on the Passion of Christ, leading up to the Resurrection at Easter. In this sense, the poem may also be the lament of a devoted Christian expressed about the loss of the "best of bone and blood," the Godhead in His human incarnation as Christ, who suffered death at the time of year when birds are in the wood and fish are in the river. Whatever the interpretation, this tiny poem packs a great deal of possible meaning in five seemingly simple lines of verse.

Middle English modernized by Lorraine K. Stock.

Lyric Poetry in England in the later Middle Ages.

After the Norman Conquest (1066) in England, lyric poets also borrowed or absorbed many motifs from the Continental chansons d'amour, such as the conventional natureingang ("nature-entrance"), also known in Middle English as the reverdie ("re-greening"), a song celebrating the reappearance of spring after a long winter. Many chansons d'amour, chansons d'aventure, and Crusaders' songs begin with an evocative celebration of the glories of the re-greening of nature in April or May, and Hildegard of Bingen had used the idea to great spiritual effect in her hymns. This lyric motif clearly influenced and contributed to the reverdie-like openings of dream visions such as the Romance of the Rose and the famous opening sentence of the General Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which describes how the sweet showers of April, the tender shoots of plant life, the birds making melody, and the spring breezes inspire sundry folk from all over England to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The love professed by the Middle English lyric singer for flesh-and-blood courtly ladies—for example in the Harley Lyrics' "Alysoun"—was less intense and more playful than that of his passionate French counterpart, more like the German minnesingers. As in the case of Hildegard and the Italian practitioners of the dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style) of the late thirteenth century, Middle English poets also imaginatively developed the conventional devices and motifs of the Continental courtly love lyric by applying them not to a worldly female love object, but to the Virgin Mary, who became the spiritual "domna" revered by the lyric singer. In fact, Middle English poets wrote various sub-genres of religious lyric poetry devoted to such themes as veneration of the Virgin Mary, contemptus mundi (contempt for worldly things), the mutability of earthly life and the permanence of salvation, lamentation for the crucifixion of Christ, and the effect of the Fall of mankind on the human condition. In many Middle English lyrics, genres are combined paradoxically and provocatively, as in the brief lyric "Foweles in the frith," which fuses the spiritual and the erotic in a reverdie that can be interpreted as being both about unsuccessful love and about the tragedy of Christ's crucifixion. Perhaps harking back to the earlier dark, brooding Anglo-Saxon elegies at the close of the fourteenth century, Middle English poets like Geoffrey Chaucer also incorporated serious philosophical ideas and political sentiments in lyrics such as "The Former Age," "Truth," and "Gentillesse," which were inspired by passages in Boethius's philosophical treatise Consolation of Philosophy. Other Middle English poets used the lyric form to comment on contemporary political acrimony and social dissent that reflected such socioeconomic movements as the "Peasants' Revolt of 1381" in which the lower classes protested against the nobility, the clerical orders, and the legal courts because of heavy taxation and denial of their demands for higher wages and freedom of mobility.


F. P. R. Akehurst, and Judith M. Davis, eds., A Handbook of the Troubadours (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1995).

Kristen Mossler Figg, The Short Lyric Poems of Jean Froissart: Fixed Forms and the Expression of the Courtly Ideal. Garland Studies in Medieval Literature 10 (New York: Garland, 1994).

Frederick Goldin, ed. and trans., German and Italian Lyrics of the Middle Ages; Original Texts, With Translations and Introductions (New York: Anchor Books, 1973).

—, Lyrics of the Troubadours and the Trouvères; Original Texts, with Translations and Introductions (New York: Anchor Books, 1973).

Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).

Laura Kendrick, The Game of Love; Troubadour Word Play (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1988).

Stephen Manning, Wisdom and Number: Towards a Critical Appraisal of the Middle English Religious Lyric (Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1962).

Edmund Reiss, The Art of the Middle English Lyric; Essays in Criticism (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1972).

James J. Wilhelm, ed., Lyrics of the Middle Ages: An Anthology (New York: Garland, 1990).

see also Music: The Monophonic Secular Tradition

About this article

The Non-Narrative Lyric Impulse

Updated About content Print Article