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Medieval English Lyrics and Carols ed. by Thomas G. Duncan (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 184-185 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0074

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A fresh edition of these lyrics and carols is a welcome addition to literature of the genre. This one is not entirely new, but presents, in revised and accessible form, Duncan's previous editions, Medieval English Lyrics,1200-1400 (Penguin, 1995) and Late Medieval English Lyrics and Carols, 1400-1530 (Penguin, 2000), as Parts I and II of this book, with 132 and 150 poems respectively. The format is inviting, with marginal glosses for words in context, a helpful Introduction, and endnotes on individual poems. Duncan normalises the language of Part I to the late fourteenth-century form of Chaucer, and defends his inclusion of sixteenth-century lyrics in medieval style. He prints those of Part II 'largely as found in the surviving sources' (p. x), for example leaving Scots lyrics in Middle Scots.

The selection has much of the range of specialised collections, including those of Carleton Brown, Rossell Hope Robbins, Richard Leighton Greene, G. L. Brook, and Douglas Gray. In scope it resembles those of R. T. Davies and of Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman, but differs in the additional material provided. As headings, Duncan uses first lines of poems. This is unexceptionable, of course, but some titles in frequent use are not obviously derived from the first lines, for instance the 'Corpus Christi Carol' ('He bare hym up, he bare hym down') and 'Sunset on Calvary' ('Now goth sonnë under wode'). Thus it would be helpful to mention them, perhaps in the endnotes. In those notes, Duncan supplies numbers in the New Index of Middle English Verse, manuscript sources and textual variations, general remarks, and notes on significant lines and words. In both parts the poems are grouped as those of love, aspects of religious life, and 'Miscellaneous' and 'Popular,' but without practical verses, such as those of the calendar. His choices cover a wide range, with many fascinating examples of the lyricist's art. The Introduction uses the same order for its expositions.

Duncan relates early love lyrics for a lady to Old English poems of devotion to the lord of a comitatus, considering the influence of troubadour lyrics and conventional structures and tags. He prefers Chaucer's urbane lyrics, and rather sweepingly finds others of the period inferior, excepting those of MS Harley 2253. Part II has more courtly love lyrics, and Duncan commends the graceful works of Charles d'Orléans.

Early religious lyrics present Old English themes in newer ways. For example, Duncan contrasts the treatment of the ubi sunt topos in The Wanderer and that of 'Where ben they before us weren' (Part I, p. 47). The poems are not unsophisticated, but voice tender devotion in the style of sermo humilis, and some exploit conventions of secular love, such as the chanson d'aventure. Later poets drew on more complex imagery and convention. Duncan uses aureate diction masterfully, and the chanson d'aventure frequently appears. Other lyrics encapsulate sermons. Both parts offer moving complaints of Christ and the Virgin, and Duncan shows their techniques of relating to the reader, as in the touching pieta, 'O alle women that ever were borne' (p. 75). Lyrics of penitence include the warning memento mori, and those of death are among the more affecting examples. Duncan chooses 'Farewell, this world! I take my leve for evere' (p. 102) as one of the finest, for its 'poise and restraint' (p. 35). Many religious lyrics, mostly from the fifteenth century, are carols. Duncan's account of their flavour and strengths is concise and sensitive, conveying abilities to engage the audience and express emotions, as some lullabies of the Nativity impart the anticipation of sorrow, unlike the livelier carols of festive joy.

'Popular' and 'Miscellaneous' enclose a wide and zestful range, with songs of love, laments of betrayed girls, and jolly secular carols of drinking, feasting, and games. There are patriotic carols such as the 'Agincourt Carol' (p. 132), ballads of Judas ('Hit was upon a Shere Thorsday', p. 112) and Stephen ('Seynt Stevene was a clerk', p. 126), anti-feminist and anti-clerical jibes, and satire, varying in subtlety between elegant and coarse.

After the Introduction's general remarks there are sections on metre, reading, manuscript...



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