The Poetry of England


“Sir Jeffery Chaucer and the Nine and Twenty Pilgrims on their Journey to Canterbury,” by William Blake, detail


A Song and a Dance


The English have always excelled at popular song, untouched by any conscious literary art. Dance songs, and part songs, and ballads, and processional chants, were once as much part of communal life as the social and religious ceremonies which decorated existence in a more formal way. Several thousand lyrics from the eleventh to the fifteenth century survive; most of them are anonymous and, therefore, the unnamed songs of the land. There are religious lyrics in the vernacular dating from the eleventh century, although we know from other testimony that “English” songs were being performed by travelling singers or wandering minstrels in earlier centuries. It has to be remembered that sung verse was a more direct, and indeed easier, form of communication than prose. Sermons were turned into rhyme and moral homilies also acquired the natural dimensions of verse; even the hermit in his cave or simple thatched dwelling might proclaim that “the songe of louyng & of life es commen.” Just as Caedmon, the herdsman from Whitby Abbey, was the first to sing naturally in Anglo-Saxon, so the first medieval lyrics to survive sprang from the mouth of St. Godric. Yet it is perhaps characteristic that sacred and profane material became thoroughly intermingled; the addresses to Christ became those of a human lover, while the lyrics of courtly love were permeated with spiritual allegory. There are songs of love from 1300:

Nou sprinkes the sprai, All for love icche am so seeke That slepen I ne mai

These are matched by songs of sacred woe as Mary laments the death of her son:

Sodenly afraide, Half wakyng, half slepyng, And gretly dismayde, A wooman sate wepyng

The monks (here “muneches”) of Ely are celebrated with a dance measure, at a date put in the eleventh century:

Merye sungen the muneches binnen Ely Tha Cnut King rew ther by; Roweth, knites, noer the land And here we thes muneches saeng

It is perhaps significant that dance songs were never prohibited by English ecclesiastics, unlike their counterparts on the continent; indigenous tradition was stronger than religious caveats. As Layamon wrote in 1189, “Tha weoren in thissen lande blissfulle songs.”

The most blissful are those wrapped in mystery and enchantment. Some lines on the conception of Jesus, for example, emphasise the delicacy and simplicity of medieval English:

He cam also stille Ther his moder was, As dew in Aprille That falleth on the grass. He cam also still To his moderes bowr, As dew in Aprille That falleth on the flowr

There is the strange ballad scribbled down in the early fifteenth century:

She sente me the cherye Withouten ony ston . . .

It is matched by the enchanting carol of Corpus Christi, which begins:

Lully, lulley, lully, lulley, The fawcon hath born my mak away

in which a series of still images, as vivid as hallucinations, ends with:

And by that bedes side there stondeth a ston, “Corpus Christi” wreten theron

It is the simplicity of these verses that is most arresting and significant, as if they came from a pure well of speech undefiled. The same lucidity and clarity are to be found in ballads, originally of oral provenance and later turned into “broadsides” to be distributed throughout the country. As Philip Sidney wrote in A Defence of Poesy, composed in the early 1580s, “I never heard the olde song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart mooued more than with a Trumpet . . .” The same simplicity occurs in dance songs, the extant fragments of which are to be found jotted down in the margins of manuscript books:

Trippe a lutel with thy fot And let thy body go

They are described as possessing a “peculiarly English strength,” 1 which in certain circumstances may simply be marked by the resonance of key words. “Drinke to him derly of full god bous” and “To revele with this birdes bright” are salient examples where “booze” and “birds” make up a significant line of English music. A short poem on the Passion, dated to the early fifteenth century, has a strange affiliation with the later verse of George Herbert:

O! Mankinde, Have in thy minde My Passion smert, And thou shall finde Me full kinde— Lo! Here my hert

In part it is the ancient pattern of four stresses which fulfils a native cadence, and can easily be turned into the octosyllabic couplet which is also one of the mainstays of English verse:

For many ben of swyche manere, That talys and rymys wyl blethly here

This movement has as its counterpart the process of alliteration, which seems to represent a national or instinctive tendency in the language. Much has been written about the “alliterative revival” of the fourteenth century, when poems such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Piers the Plowman were written. These are all works of highly conscious literary art, and were by no means the issue of some “popular” or “buried” tradition of Old English speech, but their alliterative form is entirely consonant with their English origin. It is remarkable how much alliterative verse is concerned with the incidents and examples of English history, for example, so that the native preoccupation with the past seems to clothe itself in significant and appropriate form. Alliteration is also widely employed for the purposes of translation from the French and Latin, as if the Englishness of the new versions could then be most effectively conveyed. The Latin prose of the Church fathers was translated into heavily marked cadence and ingenious alliterative prose, as a way of creating an informal English rhetoric in compensation for classical stylistics. Alliteration was also a means of assimilating foreign learning into the vernacular, so that historical as well as theological texts could be transmitted to “lewed” men. It was once believed that the “alliterative revival” sprang out of the north or the north midlands, and there is some evidence of northern inflexions or dialect forms, but provenance is less important than purpose.

Language may fashion as well as convey meaning, and the alliterative style, in particular, seems to guide its exponents towards moral and social complaint; this political or didactic tradition is normally accompanied by the use of Old English words, as if it truly were the dialect of the tribe. The alliterative line is marked by concreteness and specificity also and, in poems like Piers the Plowman or Wynnere and Wastour, it carries the moral weight of balance and parallelism. That is why sermons and homiletic pieces made extensive use of alliteration, and why a poem on London’s guardian saint, Erkenwald, concludes with “Meche mournyng and myrthe . . . mellyd together”; it is the reason why a moral treatise of Richard Rolle reminds the reader that “Al perisshethe and passeth that we with eigh see.” It may be that alliteration is implicated in the natural English tendency to compromise, since it balances opposing forces with equal strength. There is no doubt, however, that the alliterative voice was accommodating and encompassing; it could harbour a range of what anachronistically might be termed “populist” sentiment as well as the refined narratives of courtly adventure. That again is a token of Englishness or, as one critic has written of the alliterative Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that “combination of the romantic and the real, of humour and high tone, of lyrical delicacy and verbal wit.” 2

If it is a genuine native utterance, then, it may be profitable to identify other of its characteristics. Alliterative English verse is not a particularly subtle medium for the expression of human feeling. Of the English lyrics it has been claimed that they are “almost entirely wanting in ‘romance’ resonances”; 3 the “cloying sentiment” of French originals has been “stripped away . . . as if not acceptable to English audiences.”This refusal to sentimentalise, or express strong feeling, is extended to the author who tends in general to adopt the role of embarrassed narrator excusing a lack of artistry. In similar spirit the alliterative poems tend to address serious topics with a certain lightness of touch or what has been described as “laconic presentation”; 5 the quality of understatement is directly inherited from Old English poetry but it preserves its stern life in Middle English and beyond. In translations from the French, also, “a dramatic pattern of events, vividly conveyed, often seems preferred to subtle thematic undercurrents,” and the ambiguous or complicated knights and ladies of Gallic provenance “tend to take on the clearly defined outlines of folk-tale types.”6This is a very significant observation because it emphasises a profound tendency in the English imagination—to eschew dramatic complexities for dramatic incident, to avoid intimate or interior character development in favor of the broad outlines of popular tradition, to abandon the messy complications of love or sentiment in favour of action or spectacle. The tendency always is towards simplification. The stanzaic Morte Arthur takes a pencil to the French Mort Artu and “the English poet, as the English habit was, has compressed and simplified the French story.”Four centuries later French dramatists were complaining that their English adaptors shortened their plays out of all recognition, and even mingled the plots together in order to provide “variety.”

The English author of Ywain and Gawain took the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and removed “the web of psychological generalisation and paradoxical ratiocination in which he emmeshes his characters”;in addition the “long passages of emotional and intellectual intricacy are much reduced by the English poet.”Therefore, “formality and intellectual reasoning vanish to be replaced by sweetness of tone and dramatic immediacy.” 10

It is the difference between those two icons of their respective national cultures, Racine and Shakespeare; it is also the distinction between Dickens and Balzac. Even when the English poets borrow from French lyric originals, they still manage to excise the paradoxes and the abstractions, the conflicts and the contradictions, in favour of a “harmonious and optimistic” construction of the world of love. It is the same optimism and gaiety to be found in Julian of Norwich. Shakespeare suggested that the truest poetry is the most feigning but on this occasion the borrowed words burn brighter than the originals. Indeed this aspect of the English imagination is of some significance. Is the national genius, after all, simply a collection of borrowings?

The English vision tends towards the local and the circumstantial. The prose and poetry of the fourteenth century are filled with material imagery, and with specific, almost humble, detail. The interest is once more in shared or common feeling, with the alliterative line elucidating and eliciting a popular voice; many of the alliterative romances were indeed aimed at a public assembly which would have welcomed local allusions and enjoyed the narration of physical adventure in homely language. That is why there is a great emphasis on visual detail, so that the audience might see the scenes being presented to them. Here once more we recognise the tutelary presence of the illuminations and the wall-paintings, the liturgical plays and the stained-glass windows.

The apparent resurgence of alliterative poetry in the fourteenth century is matched by textual evidence of an increase in all forms of English writing, again complemented by an increased confidence in the national sensibility. There are many now forgotten names and forgotten poems; Cursor Mundi is a scriptural history of some thirty thousand lines in rhymed octosyllabics, matched only by Robert of Brunne’s Handlyng Synne in the same measure and The Prick of Conscience similarly rhymed. Dan Michel’s Ayenbite of Inwit is a penitential work in prose, which provides the context for the visionary works of the fourteenth century. John of Trevisa’s translations of Higden’s Polychronicon and of Bartholomew the Englishman’s De Proprietatibus Rerum were part of the same urgent desire to “Englisch” every aspect of the world. Robert of Gloucester’s Chronicle and Gower’s Confessio Amantis fulfilled the same cultural project. Gower himself brought to the English world the received tales of Dido and Ulysses, Orestes and Penelope; he was avidly read by Ben Jonson and introduced by Shakespeare into Pericles. He lived and died in the borough of Southwark—where his tomb rests in the cathedral—but his renown and influence have now been far surpassed by a much more illustrious friend and contemporary.


“Longways Dance” by Thomas Rowlandson

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