Middle English Lyric

Middle English Lyric

Middle English Lyric is a genre of English Literature, popular in the 14th Century, that is characterized by its brevity and emotional expression. Conventionally, the lyric expresses "a moment," usually spoken or performed in the first person. Although some lyrics have narratives, the plots are usually simple to emphasize an occasional, common experience. Even though Lyrics appear individual and personal, they are not "original;" instead, lyrics express a common state of mind.



Middle English Lyrics were meant to be heard, not read. Keeping in mind an aural audience, the lyric is usually structured with an obvious rhyme scheme, refrain, and sometimes musical effects. The rhyme scheme primarily functions as a mnemonic device for the audience. The Refrain, however, has several critical functions. The Refrain gives the lyric unity and provides commentary (this is not unlike the bob and wheel found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). In addition to functioning thematically, the refrain encourages audience to participate in singing the lyric. Finally, Musical Effects also encourage audience participation, and they take the form of rhythms and sounds (for example, onomatopoeia is not an uncommon trope employed).


Most Middle English Lyrics are anonymous. Because the lyrics reflect on a sort of "community property" of ideas, the concept of copyrighting a lyric to a particular author is usually inappropriate. Additionally, identifying authors is very difficult. Most lyrics are often un-dateable, and they appear in collections with no apparent organic unity. It is most likely many lyrics that survive today were widely recited in various forms before being written down. Evidence for this appears in a variety of Middle English poetry, especially Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Many of Chaucer's lines bear an uncanny resemblance to Middle English Lyrics.


Middle English Lyrics were not meant to be read or written down. Consequently, the few that survive are probably a very small sample of lyrics. Surviving Lyrics appear in miscellanies, notably the Harley 2253 manuscript. The lyrics often appear with many other types of works, including writings in other languages.


Gray, Douglas (1972). Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric. London, Boston: Routledge and K. Paul. ISBN 0-7100-7253-8.

Manning, Stephen (1962). Wisdom and Number; Toward a Critical Appraisal of the Middle English Religious Lyric. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. LC PR365.M3.

Reiss, Edmund (1972). The Art of the Middle English Lyric; Essays in Criticism. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-0279-1.

Speirs, John (1957). Medieval English Poetry: the Non-Chaucerian Tradition. London: Faber and Faber. LC PR311.S7.

Oliver, Raymond (1970). Poems without Names; the English Lyric, 1200-1500. Berkeley: University of California Press. LC PR351.O5.

Woolf, Rosemary (1968). The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-811487-7.

Further reading

  • Astell, Ann W.(1995). Song of Songs in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-801-48267-4.
  • Brown, Carleton Fairchild (Ed.) (1965, 1932). English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. LC PR1203.B68.
  • Luria, Maxwell S. and Richard L. Hoffman (1974). Middle English Lyrics. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-04379-7. ISBN 0-393-09338-7 (pbk). (Large Selection of Lyrics with Selected Criticism)
  • Stevick, Robert D (1994). One Hundred Middle English Lyrics. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06379-1.

External links

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