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  • Lyric Tactics: Poetry, Genre, and Practice in Later Medieval England by Ingrid Nelson
  • Helen Cushman
Ingrid Nelson. Lyric Tactics: Poetry, Genre, and Practice in Later Medieval England. The Middle Ages Series, ed. Ruth Mazo Karras. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Pp. 224. $59.95.

In Lyric Tactics, Ingrid Nelson sets out to define the lyric genre as much by "what it does (its cultural work) as by what it is (its formal features)" (6). Medieval lyric—and especially insular lyric—is famously undertheorized and understudied, in part because of its divergence from post-Romantic notions of lyric form. Here Nelson proposes a new approach to lyric studies wherein form is subordinated to practice. This adjustment of emphasis, she contends, would provide a historical account of lyric in which medieval lyric is "paradigmatic rather than marginal" (6). Central to Nelson's analysis throughout are the terms tactics and strategy. The distinction from which the book takes its title is borrowed from Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life. Tactics and strategy describe modes of relation to and uses of institutional forms. As Nelson explains, where strategists follow authorized and prescribed uses of these forms, tacticians navigate institutional forms in an ad hoc and improvisatory way that often results in unauthorized hybridization of forms. Lyric Tactics seeks to prove, then, that the lyric genre is defined by its singularly tactical relationship to institutional forms. [End Page 367]

Each of the four chapters begins with a single lyric contained within a larger textual framework—a miscellany, a commonplace book, a long-form poem, and two collections of exempla. But to say that the book consists of four case studies is to undersell it. Nelson's initial reading introduces the chosen lyric, which then serves as a guide to the cultural and textual environments that medieval lyrics so nimbly navigated. Beginning with the example of "When the Nightingale Sings," the first chapter argues that the English and French lyrics of MS Harley 2253, such as "Cyl qe vodra oyr mes chauns," "De clerico et puella," and "Annot and John," actively employed the "inherently tactical" medieval concept of literary voice to distribute authority across text, performance, and audience (35). Responding to Leo Spitzer and others' characterization of the medieval lyric "I" as an "everyman" for which any "I" may be substituted, Nelson instead describes the medieval lyric voice as ethopoetic, a descriptor borrowed from medieval rhetoric. The ethopoetic voice, she explains, "is an utterance specific to both a speaker and his or her local and contingent circumstances" (43). In Nelson's view, then, medieval lyric voice expresses not a universal "everyman," but rather a contingent but portable "anyman," a "circumstantially qualified utterance that can nonetheless shift readily among speakers" (59). The chapter concludes by turning to the non-lyrical content of the manuscript, showing how ethopoetic vocal tactics are also central to the devotional prose of MS Harley 2253.

The second chapter turns from secular lyric to the religious lyrics of Additional MS 46919, the commonplace book of the Oxford Franciscan William Herebert (d. c. 1330). Beginning with a reading of the little-known Anglo-French lyric "Amours m'ount si enchanté," Nelson shows how friars who attempted to conscript popular lyrics for their pedagogical and pastoral strategies "had to reconcile the tactics of the lyric genre with their strategic aims for its usage" (60). More specifically, the friars' strategic aim both to instruct and to delight lay audiences with moral didactic lyric required maintaining fidelity to orthodox doctrinal meaning on the one hand, and harnessing the affective power of improvisatory musical performance on the other. The chapter situates Herebert's lyric practices within the context of post-Lateran debates about liturgical performance, emphasizing how these debates especially scrutinized the populism of fraternal preaching and the moral ambiguity of song. Through a combination of formal analysis of Herebert's lyrics and hymn translations, and an account of the cultural history of preaching and [End Page 368] song as told by texts such as John Grimstone's 1372 preaching handbook and John of Garland's Parisiana poetria, Nelson shows how Herebert combined lyric formal techniques such as rhyme and...