Middle English Poetry: Reviving the Oral Tradition

Sumer is Icumen In, MS Harley 978

When I teach poetry, I urge students to recall the definition of the word lyric: OED: “A. adj. Of or pertaining to the lyre; adapted to the lyre, meant to be sung; pertaining to or characteristic of song.” I find it so important to acknowledge that poetry is musical in nature, for much of the lyric’s musicality is hidden within the form (meter, rhyme, refrain). This is something that can be teased out in close reading and scansion, yet it is still difficult to really hear. Recently, Dr. Roy Liuzza reminded me that the sheet music for many of the Middle English Lyrics in the Harley manuscript survives. In addition to the above Sumer is icumen in, here is a lovely example:

Western Wind

Westron wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

It is unfortunate that the audience for poetry is so limited these days. It is not widely consumed by the general public, many students confess that they don’t enjoy it, and I once asked a poet-friend, “Who is your audience?” only to have him respond “other poets.” This saddens me, but I am comforted by the fact that popular music appears to be our new poetry, as if we have somehow reverted to our origins in this postmodern age of secondary orality.

While preparing to teach the Canterbury Tales last week, I came across the following melodic and entertaining rap version of the reverdie that begins The General Prologue:

It was a useful teaching tool. I hope you enjoy!

Melissa Rack

Melissa Rack

Melissa J. Rack (English) is a PhD candidate in Early Modern Studies. Her research interests include New Formalism, late 16th century Humanism, the evolution of the Early Modern lyric, secular ethics, Early Modern poetics, Hellenistic and Late Augustan poetry, and genre studies. She is currently writing a dissertation that seeks to define the cultural and aesthetic project of neotericism in the early modern epyllia.

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