A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature

By Laura Cooner Lambdin; Robert Thomas Lambdin | Go to book overview

15

Lyric Poetry

Sigrid King

In the lyric form in English there are two distinct linguistic classes, the Germanic and the Celtic. Most prevalent in English studies are the Germanic works, which tend to fall into two time frames: the Old English or Anglo-Saxon period, which began with the North Germanic invasion of Britain in the fifth century, and the Middle English period, which followed the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Old English works are distinguished by their use of alliteration and the kenning, a rhetorical device that is formulaic in its dissemination of novel ways of expounding common objects (e.g., the “sea” is the “swan–s road,” the sky is “dove–s lane”). The poems depend little upon rhyme, so alliteration is the key element of these works, binding them together with the aid of a caesura. The alliterative sound is usually repeated three times in a segment (Wilhelm 337–338).

The lyric poetry of the Middle English period has much more of a lilt to it; gone is the imposed harshness of alliteration, replaced by a love of ambiguity and a fondness for puns. This technique is similar to that seen in the ballads, which tend to be more folk oriented and sometimes reflect the tragic spirit of the love crazed in a way very different from medieval romances (Wilhelm 338). Regardless, the lyrics can be seen to mirror the history of English literature. Holman notes that some passages of Beowulf have lyrical qualities, and Deor–s Lament is for all intents a lyric poem. The sheer bulk of extant anonymous lyrics demonstrates the popularity of this genre. By 1310 there was a collated collection of some forty different lyrics. By 1400 even Geoffrey Chaucer had written his share of lyrics, particularly influenced by the French prototypes (Wilhelm 283).

Defining the term “lyric” has always been difficult. Studying this genre from its etymological roots in the Greek word lyra, a stringed musical instrument,

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A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • 1 - Old English and Anglo-Norman Literature 1
  • Selected Bibliography 23
  • 2 - Religious and Allegorical Verse 26
  • 3 - Alliterative Poetry in Old and Middle English 37
  • Selected Bibliography 48
  • 4 - Balladry 50
  • Selected Bibliography 66
  • 5 - The Beast Fable 69
  • Selected Bibliography 84
  • 6 - Breton Lay 86
  • 7 - Chronicle 98
  • 8 - Debate Poetry 118
  • Selected Bibliography 152
  • 9 - Medieval English Drama 154
  • 10 - Dream Vision 178
  • Selected Bibliography 196
  • 11 - Epic and Heroic Poetry 210
  • 12 - The Epic Genre and Medieval Epics 230
  • Selected Bibliography 253
  • 13 - The Fabliau 255
  • 14 - Hagiographic, Homiletic, and Didactic Literature 277
  • Selected Bibliography 294
  • 15 - Lyric Poetry 299
  • 16 - The Middle English Parody/ Burlesque 315
  • Selected Bibliography 333
  • 17 - Riddles 336
  • 18 - Romance 352
  • Selected Bibliography 373
  • 19 - Visions of the Afterlife 376
  • Selected Bibliography 394
  • Selected Bibliography 399
  • Index 425
  • About the Editors and Contributors 431
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