The Medium of Middle English Lyrics
Stevick, Robert D.
Medieval English Studies, vol. 8 (2000)
A few years ago I prepared a revised edition of One Hundred Middle English Lyrics for a new publisher, about thirty years after completing the first edition. During the intervening years I had drifted into Old English, the history of English, and some of the early Irish and English manuscript art―and had drifted away from Middle English lyric verse. Reviewing all at once the scholarship and criticism of the years since the early 1960’s was not the bewildering experience that Rip Van Winkle must have had when he woke up, because the critical currents were familiar, and because it was possible to read the full record of the study of these lyrics for the intervening years.
During this time the main lesson we have learned―or to our peril, have not learned―is to read these poems in context. Siegfried Wenzel made it embarrassingly clear that “some objects which former scholars prized as precious coins have … turned out to be plain buttons, and what were thought to be intricate designs on them have proven to be merely the holes through which they were once fastened to a coat”2: George Kane, Stephen Manning, Edmund Reiss, Robert Evans, Thomas Hill wrote eloquent appreciations and critical interpretations of what turns out to be a list of headings for parts of a Latin sermon. Meantime, the work of Rosemary Woolf, Peter Dronke, Douglas Gray, Judson Allen, Patrick Diehl has removed the last excuses for reading these poems as if they were by modern poets―i.e., by the major writers living after about 1550.
What I want to consider here is context of two other kinds. One is the language, which lacked a standard even for written communication or record, much less for literature. The other is the set of metrical conventions that were in use. Together, the language and the meter constitute the medium of Middle English lyrics. In this context, “intertextuality” of these poems is a nearly empty notion.