Notes on Middle English Lyrics
Generally, the middle English lyric is short, personal, and subjective.
Because of their brevity, they tend to be very intense, and, if well done,
portray a unified expression of the author's feeling. Often this brevity
is achieved by use of comparison, contrast, and allegory; in addition,
internal ryhme is a frequent poetic device. Most of the lyrics we have
today were originally created to be sung by one person and were set to
the lyre. None of them were ever intended to be published and were not
until the seventeenth century.
TYPES OF MIDDLE ENGLISH LYRICS
1. The carol: These are basically communal lyrics and deal with
festive occasions, happy times, lovemaking (and complaints about women
as lovers), harvests, and celebrations of Nature, particularly spring;
they were used extensively for dancing.
2. The contemptus mundi or momento mori: These lyrics
are very contemplative and tend either to analyze the futility of living
a life contrary to God or the church or the certainty of death; topics
include individual sin, the mutability of and transitoriness of life, and
ubi sunt (where have they gone?)
3. The plain style: These lyrics are typically a simple prayer or rearrangement of Scripture; topics include meditations on the crucifixion, the Virgin Mary, and Christ.
Additional notes on Middle English lyrics, from Middle English Literature, J. A. W. Bennett:
Middle English lyrics are numerous and reflect several characteristics:
they are related to and often overlap with other literary forms (ballads,
e.g.); they occur in a variety of shapes and styles; they are a humble
kind of writing meant to be used rather than to be admired for literary
merit; and they are mostly anonymous. Often they appear embedded in sermons
and more frequently are accompanied by music. They are very difficult to
date but can be considered by theme and general category. Many focus upon
Jesus and Mary. They see the passion of Christ as the supreme act of love
and treat His human sufferings with intensity and tenderness; those on
the Virgin Mary often focus upon two scenes: when she comforts Jesus as
a baby and when she stands sorrowing beneath the cross. In addition, some
portray an imagined dialogue between the crucified Christ and his mother
beneath him or a lament or an appeal directly addressed by the crucified
Christ to the "onlooker." Others show the figure of Christ covered
with wounds and ironically presented as a lover-knight (lover of men's
souls). Many present and celebrate the scheme of salvation made real through
the Virgin Mary and Christ; others show man how he may, by the imitation
of Christ and by virtuous living, achieve salvation. Still others concern
the 10 Commandments, the 7 deadly sins, and various reflections on morality.
Also, there are many that deal with ubi sunt (where have they gone?), contemptus
mundi (contempt for the world), and momento mori (the moment of death).
Occasionally we find comic, satirical, and romantic lyrics but these secular
lyrics are in the minority. Such lyrics are part of the penitential and
homiletic ethos and tend to be didactic, intended primarily for instruction.
Some are simple prayers or meditations in verse ranging from simple couplets
or quatrains to elaborate stanza patterns. Almost all are practical and
meant to be used. Typically they don't record the agonies of an individual
soul or grapple with problems of disillusionment or loss of faith. Instead,
they are profoundly traditional in idea, image, and phrase.