Friday, August 29, 2008

For Sam Lohmann

Here’s that quote with the thought I garbled last night in Guanajuato. The dream of Middle English as an “unliterary literature”—word art stripped of pointyheaded poetic ambition—seems close to what the language of the Internet at its best might be: an “illiterate literacy” untroubled by originality, canons of taste, or “the genius” and free to make new folk forms.

What would the lyric under those conditions look like? As language transmission shakes free again of the book, is Middle the new late?
“We do know, for example, that many of the earliest lyric poems [in Middle English], known from surviving fragments and references, were the words of popular songs and sayings of uneducated, unlettered people. The earliest fragments are quoted in such sources as sermons condemning the behavior that accompanied the songs—dancing, especially in churchyards; games and other enjoyments of pleasures of the flesh; non-Christian celebrations; and so on. When texts are numerous and complete enough to give some basis for comparison, it seems clear that many poems were perpetuated orally rather than in writing. There was, of course, no publication of texts. However, some texts apparently were composed in writing and propagated through copies or memorization of written versions…. Subsequently, among the preserved texts, the popular oral verse seems to disappear, and poems of poets, properly so called, remain as the principal texts of which we have record. This development suggests that the lyric verse of England has origins that are lowly, popular, and undisciplined (or noninstitutionalized) but tells us little that is more specific or substantial than that.

At the latter end of its history, the Middle English lyric form and its influence on later English poetry are difficult to trace. The rise to fashion of self-consciously educated poets, adopting modes, forms, themes, and techniques from foreign literatures, and experimenting a great deal, caused the earlier kind of verse to decline. So did the rise of conditions favoring individual authorship, reading, and, hence, fixed texts; printing is a major example…. A literate, self-conscious tradition of educated poets superseded the homely, religious, and unself-conscious tradition of the makers of Middle English lyric verse. In literature, the Renaissance displaced the Middle Ages.

—Robert D. Stevick, One Hundred Middle English Lyrics (Bobbs-Merrill, 1964)


Sam Lohmann said...

Thanks. I should look at that book. I love when oral traditions get preserved because someone took the trouble to condemn them in writing. I wonder if anyone's tried to reconstruct the tunes of those songs.

rodney k said...

Hi Sam,

Been wondering the same thing re: the tunes, since most of the poems come equipped with choruses. It's that intimacy of the lyric with song that I dig about post-Saxon lyric, too.

Don't know if this book is anything special--it's one of the cheapies I picked up in Berkeley--but it's got the sort of "public academic" tone of that time, where all knots are Gordian but easily sliced.

Found "Unless As Stone Is" at last on the Powell's spinner. Glad to have it.

H.W. said...

Stevick is so full of shit. How are the scribes who copied out, or the jongleurs who performed the lyrics "uneducated and unlettered"? What constituted "publication" when the works are being disseminated orally and in manuscript form, in little scraps and in songs? And just what are poets "properly so called"? I hate it when literary critics act as if the Middle English poets were a bunch of rabblerousing barbarians and the Renaissance poets enlightened and sipping from golden goblets. True, the M.E. period did produce such gems as lines like "Horn icham ihote / Icomen out of bote," but the Teams editors urge us not to be fooled by such "folksy simplicity." And who is Stevick to claim that Middle English writers were unself-conscioius?

Here I shcal beginnen a rym;
Krist us yeve wel god fyn!
The rym is maked of Havelok.
(Havelok the Dane, 21-23)

Middle English poery, just as often as "Renaissance poetry" is self-consciously wrought, aware of its relationship to an audience, and highly rhetorical in addition to being "lowly, popular and undisciplined."

Stevick also "cleans up" the idiosyncratic dialects and spellings of the poems and edits them all to look like Chaucer, who comes at the very *end* of the Middle English period. Stevick writes that the poems in his edition are "normalized as fully as possible with the emerging literary dialect of the London-East Midland region from about 1400." I don't want my poetry normalized, thanks.

Take a look instead at editor John C. Hirsh's _Medieval Lyric_ (Blackwell, 2005), who at least allows manuscript spellings. It's also worthwhile to check out the stodgy but delightful edition of _Early English Lyric_, edited by E.K. Chambers and F. Sidgwick which has a very adequate scholarly apparatus, notes on manuscripts and an essay "Some Aspects of the Mediaevel Lyric" (Chambers).

H.W. said...

Also, in re the music--music exists for the lyrics "Worldes bliss ne last no throwe," "worldes bliss, have good day," "sumer is icomen in," "mirie it is while sumer ilast," "foweles in the frith," "with right all my herte now I you grete," "brid one brere, brid, brid one brere" and many others. See the Norton edition of Middle English Lyrics, eds Luria and Hoffman.