THIS selection of Middle English poems is not meant to be representative of Middle English poetry in general. I have chosen poems (in most cases) which have real literary value and are so hard to read in the original that they are not as well known as they deserve to be. Another control on my selection is my object of presenting the poems as poetry. I do include one patently inferior poem, The Thrush and the Nightingale, because it throws light on The Owl and the Nightingale.
The poems brought together here do reflect a variety of medieval English ways of thinking and feeling. The neglected masterpiece Morte Arthure is the only "heroic romance" in Middle English -- in other words, it is a poem in (roughly) the same genre as the French Song of Roland. Winner and Waster and The Parliament of the Three Ages are fine examples of that favorite medieval mode, the elegant, stylized debate. The lyric Summer Sunday, with its intricate repetitions of words and phrases, its close rhyming, its handsome use of traditional images, is a gem among medieval lyrics. The darker strain of medieval thought, hellfire terror, is represented here by The Debate of Body and Soul. And the lighter side of life in the Middle Ages comes alive in The Owl and the Nightingale.
Since I have modernized these poems in verse, it should go without saying that I have occasionally sacrificed literalness to preserve aesthetic qualities. For instance, in Summer Sunday, a tightly alliterated poem, I translate the phrase I warp on my wedes as "I caught up my clothes," not "I put on my clothes," which would be accurate but prosaic. I translate to wode wold I wende as "I would go to the groves in haste" not "I planned to go to the woods," a more accurate rendering but one which loses both alliteration and the excitement of the poet's opening. I frequently modernize kene, here and in other alliterative poems, as "keen," not "bold," which would be more correct. Cer