English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages

By E. K. Chambers | Go to book overview

III POPULAR NARRATIVE POETRY AND THE BALLAD

THE distinction between narrative and lyric poetry is a difficult one. It owes its origin, as Professor Ker has pointed out, to Greek usage, in which the epic was a narrative for recitation, while the lyric was sung to music. This was no doubt so at the Panathenaea of the sixth century, although in Homer's own time the heroic lay, which developed into the epic, appears to have been accompanied by the harp. And this seems to be also true of the early Teutonic lays and of those of the Anglo- Saxon gleómen, and of many of the chansons de geste and romans d'aventure which succeeded them. But in course of time fableors begin to make their appearance as minstrels of a special type, and these presumably had laid the harp aside and were mere story-tellers. Even in the sixteenth century, however, Sir Philip Sidney could still hear the story of Chevy Chase sung, although the instrument which now accompanied it was the more portable crowd or fiddle rather than the harp. In Scotland and Ireland, however, the harp seems to have long survived. Evidently, as Professor Ker realizes, the sharp Attic dichotomy was not quite applicable to more modern poetry. In the fifteenth century we must be content to take as lyric, besides the carols, for which there is clear evidence of choric singing, most of those pieces which have the more elaborate stanza forms, and in particular those which have refrains; and as narrative those which, even if sometimes sung or at least chanted, primarily describe events and are, as a rule, in simpler couplet or septenar metres. But, as has been noted in the last chapter, there is often much incidental narrative in carols. You cannot always sing about nothing. And on the other hand, even in narrative the reporter does not always exclude his own personality, but may give his story a colouring or atmosphere of triumph, regret, or wonder which makes of it something more than a mere versified chronicle. Sung or not, it becomes a lyrical narrative.

The last flickerings of medieval romance and hagiographical legend find their place in more appropriate chapters of this

-122-

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English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Oxford History of English Literature i
  • The Oxford History of English Literature ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Editors' Note v
  • Contents vi
  • I Medieval Drama 1
  • II The Carol and Fifteenth-Century Lyric 66
  • III Popular Narrative Poetry and the Ballad 122
  • IV Malory 185
  • Bibliography 206
  • Index 233
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