By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Medieval poetry can be a daunting field to dip into (to mix our metaphors terribly). Although Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales and Dante’s Divine Comedy are masterpieces and essential reading, perhaps the best route into medieval poetry – as with any poetry – is to start small. What follows is our pick of the best short medieval poems written in English.
They are all presented in the original Middle English, because here at Interesting Literature we believe that that’s the best way to read the poems. This does mean that several words/phrases need glossing, so we’ve done this briefly before each poem.
All of these poems were written (or at least written down) some time during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: our source for them is the excellent Penguin book of Medieval English Lyrics, 1200-1400 (Penguin Classics) which we’d thoroughly recommend if this post whets your appetite for more medieval marvellousness. It’s the perfect book for dipping into on a cold winter night, in front of the fire, while sipping a sherry or egg nog. For more medieval fun, you might also enjoy our interesting Robin Hood facts.
We’ve had to leave some personal favourites out: alas, we couldn’t squeeze in the wonderful medieval poem about a cat, ‘Pangur Bán’, though you can find that discussed in our pick of the best poems about cats. There’s also no room for ‘I have a gentil cok’, so you’ll have to seek that one out for yourself.
1. ‘Fowls in the frith’ (a ‘frith’ is an old name for a wood) is a somewhat enigmatic poem: the speaker ‘mon waxë wod’ (i.e. must go mad) because of the sorrow he walks with, but what causes this sorrow?
The last line is ambiguous: does ‘beste’ mean ‘beast’ or ‘best’? The spelling reveals nothing, and in the context of that final line it could be either. If the sorrow is a result of the ‘best of bone and blood’, it could refer to a woman (who is the best living thing in the world, according to the poet) or, as has also been suggested, Christ (a divine being in human form). So, the poem can be read either as a love lyric or as a religious lyric, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining the poem’s popularity. Anyway, here it is:
Foulës in the frith,
The fishës in the flod,
And I mon waxë wod;
Much sorwe I walkë with
For beste of bon and blod.
2. ‘Merry it is while summer lasts’ seems to use a sort of pathetic fallacy (as John Ruskin would later call it) to reflect the speaker’s moral penitence (‘I for great wrongdoing / Sorrow and mourn and grieve’, the last two lines say) by relating this to the passing of the summer and the coming of autumn and winter.
Like ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’, which we include in our pick of the best poems about winter, it’s a medieval lyric about the cycle of the seasons.
Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.
3. ‘Somer is y-comen in’ (also ‘Sumer is icumen in’, i.e. ‘Summer has come in’) is an altogether more uplifting medieval lyric about summer, designed to be sung as a ’round’ with several people.
The poet entreats the cuckoo to sing loudly as the seed grows and the meadows blossom, and the wood now springs into leaf. The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow after the calf, the bullock leaps, and the buck cavorts. (Well, I say ‘cavorts’, but the Middle English ‘vertëth’ has also been interpreted or translated as ‘farts’; either arguably fits, given the subject of the poem, as both are symbols of health and energy, we suppose.)
The last line, ‘Ne swik thou never nou!’, is an entreaty to the cuckoo never to stop singing. We’ve analysed this wonderful summer poem here.
Sing cuckóu, nou! Sing cuckóu!
Sing cuckóu! Sing cuckóu nou!
Somer is y-comen in,
Loudë sing, cuckóu!
Growëth sed and blowëth med
And springth the wodë nou
Ewë bletëth after lamb,
Lowth after cálve cóu;
Bullok stertëth, bukkë vertëth,
Merye sing, cuckóu!
Wél singést thou, cuckóu,
Ne swik thou never nou!
4. ‘Whan the turuf is thy tour’ (i.e. when the turf is your tower) is a memento mori lyric reminding the listener or reader that s/he will die. When the grass lies over you, your skin and white throat shall (‘Shullen’) be good for worms.
What use then are all the world’s pleasures? We’re guessing this was an early seduction lyric addressed to a woman (‘thy whitë throtë’): the poet is basically trying to persuade the woman to go to bed with him (or so we reckon).
5. ‘Ech day me comëth tydinges thre’ is a lament telling of the poet’s three worst fears and worries: that he must die; that he doesn’t know when this will happen; and that he doesn’t know where he will go after death.
6. ‘Why have ye no routhe on my child?’ is a lament for a lost child (‘rode’ is the ‘rood’ or Cross, and ‘routhe’ is ‘ruth’ or compassion – which is why someone who lacks compassion is described as ‘ruthless’).
7. ‘Of every kinnë tre’ is a simple song or medieval poem about desire. A rough (and inferior) paraphrase is: ‘Every kind of tree, the hawthorn blossoms sweetest; she shall be my lover, the fairest of every kind.’
My lemman she shal be.
Ful dere it is y-bought!
9. ‘Say me, wight in the brom’ is perhaps something of a controversial poem – it effectively features a woman asking a mysterious figure (or ‘wight’) how she can get her husband to love her, only to be told, ‘hold your tongue, and you’ll get what you want.’ Charming.
Say me, wight in the brom,
Teche me how I shal don
That min housëbondë
Me lovien woldë.’
‘Hold thine tongë stillë
And have al thine willë.’
10. ‘Ich am of Irlande’ is a famous song, perhaps one of the most famous medieval English lyric poems. Its meaning is pretty self-explanatory, so we’ll let the anonymous poet speak for himself (and for his homeland):
And of the holy lande
For of saynte charité
Come and daunce with me
If this post has whetted your appetite for more medieval literature, check out our pick of the best works of medieval literature, our short summary of the poem Beowulf, these classic Anglo-Saxon poems, and our interesting facts about Magna Carta. Or step forward in history into our best short Renaissance poems in English.
For more poetry, see our short history of English poetry told through 8 short poems. For more short poems, check out our pick of the best very short poems by the Victorians.
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Foulës in the frith Is about a man who loves nature, and as a hunter holds sorrow in his heart for the bone and blood of the beasts he has killed.
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Who wrote these?
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it is sad that medieval poems aren’t included in school subjects anymore! Love this!
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Love this! Brilliant!!
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This is eye opening,the words so like our own and unlike at the same time. It’s the evolution of language in action.
Just had to share it with some poet friends of mine. Reblogged on Word Shambles https://lynnmlovewords.wordpress.com/
Reminds me of Bill Bailey’s ‘Three fellowes wenten into a pubbe’ routine’- in a good way!
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Just had to share this wonderful article. Don’t be put off, don’t assume it’s going to be stuffy- dive in and feel those vowel sounds rolling round your tongue. Try reading the poems aloud- the language sounds like a hybrid of modern English and a Scandinavian . It’s a beautiful, powerful link to the past.
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Hi, loved your educational article on medieval poetry so I reblogged. Thank you.
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Wish I could say I understood the poems but seeing as its a first attempt at reading medieval poetry, it wasn’t a tormenting experience.
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I especially liked poems 4 & 5 as I’ve been brooding about memento mori lately while writing for my blog. I just published a post about the beginnings of memento mori during the Middle Ages up to and including more contemporary interpretations. As a follow up, I’m now preparing a new post (soon to publish I hope) about a painting by my father from 1967 that includes me as a little girl with a strange memento mori. https://myartsyodyssey.wordpress.com/2015/02/13/memento-mori/
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Thank you for this, really, I’m interested in poetry but never get to really understand the old stuff since English is not my mother language. I’ll make sure to learn more about this topic.
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GOOD TO READ. AN INTERESTING ARTICLE.
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this is awesome
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This is amazing. NOT a poetry fan but i could read this all day. And have almost had to. Worth it though.
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A wonderful and inspiring collect. Thank you!
Great list, some of my favourites.
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Would someone mind checking out my first blog? I had a lot to get off my chest and I finally did. I needed to tell someone and I never thought of using a blog until now. Someone say something – give me advice…tell me what to do next, how to feel. I beg you.
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Number 3 reminds me of a Welsh song we used to sing in the round when I was in primary school- about summer coming and the cuckoo singing- the bit where you sang Cuckoo! Cuckoo! was the best, because you actually started to sound a bit like a cuckoo!
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This is such a great post. Unexpectedly. Thanks!
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What a cool idea for a post! I’m glad you included the Ireland poem, I love that. About the wight poem (9): I wonder what the Wife of Bath would say.
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Really cool stuff here. Nice to connect with art and language from so long ago!
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I enjoyed your quick tidbits of origin and meaning. Your explanations are very easily understood. Although it is not technically “medieval poetry,” I would love your explanation of Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson. My favorite!
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For my fellow English nerds (or anyone!), this is a great post of Medieval poetry with some quick tidbits about origin and meaning. Worth the read!
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Thanks for this post! Medieval poetry is really interesting and can be haunting and impressive. Good of you to point out that it’s not just Beowulf, but there’s plenty more.
Thanks for this. These poems are so interesting, perhaps because for the most part you have to say them out loud to get the full effect.
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wow such beauty
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Very interesting. I am a fan of all types of poetry
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Love these! Thanks for sharing.
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Lovely post ! :)
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It has been a while that I have visited “Freshly Pressed” on the WordPress program. Several years ago, I had issues with some of the selected WordPress Bloges, hence a form of disconnect on my part on this portion of so-named WordPress high profile selections. I found this selection “interesting” in pointing out the various forms of poetry from ancient history. It is hard reading, but bits of insight to poetry writing can be form if one practices patience in its reading. To my way of thinking the best of what should represent the best of “Freshly Pressed” should come from the “Most humble of us WordPress Posters.” The majority of us are not professional writers, nor art-enabled posters who wish to demonstrate the “higher priced” programs WordPress sells in its marketplace. Again, this my own “humble take with seven years now with WordPress; WordPress is my only “social network.”
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Fantastic post and fabulous poems.
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They sound like fun. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!
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Thank you for the amazing poetry.
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These were so interesting! Check my blog?😘
Thank you for sharing. Very interesting read.
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Sheesh! Ne’er seen more confusing poetry like this one.
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has anyone read a midsummer nights dream?
ha! this is very cool
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An interesting blog post for writers always looking for something different to inspire a story hidden somewhere in the depths of their mind.
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Tears in my eyes reading number 6. No wonder “ruthless” just really sums up an action sometimes …
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I love to read all things medieval an renaissance! Terrific!
This is one of the most interesting things I’ve read all day. Live the pics too!
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Hey…. Check out this blog page…its re
Interesting to read. I am glad you explained the meanings first. That was a great help!
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Random fact, my dad and step mum had a medieval wedding simply because our old house was called Exely hall -_- my dad then decided to call himself Lord Exely. Hence the medieval wedding -_-
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Interesting blog. Thanks! https://pinni888.wordpress.com/
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Something different to enjoy–medieval poetry.
Damn…. Some of them are pretty difficult to decode haha
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Finally, a chance to dust off my Middle English skills. Thanks!
Utterly fascinating – I loved this post and will be quoting these lines for days to come I’m sure! Give us more of these please!
Thanks for a great and interesting post!
A good list, but I missed the wonderful poem by a man complaining that he couldn’t get any sleep because of the noise made by blacksmith.
Oh, do share. Modern version of living next to a motorway? Or rennovations next door? Or a good-ol leaf blower at work while you’re trying to edit …
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This was a fabulous post. It has been a long time since I’ve read any of this, and it took me back to the first time in high school English when we were charged with reading and interpreting it on our own, and then reporting to the class. After we all had our laughs, our teacher corrected our mistakes.
I did not know the origin of ruthless.
That sounds fun. Can someone write a medieval prayer for English teachers … one with a sense of adventure and playfulness can give our kids so much
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Reminds me of Pangur Ban.
Wonderful poems. Thanks for sharing this. I really enjoyed them. :-)
I teach Lord Randall and Get Up and Bar the Door to my students. They actually appreciate the story once they get past the spelling. I find playing the audio reading adds interest as well.
1 & 2 were set by Benjamin Britten as part of his choral collection of 8 medieval lyrics, ‘Sacred and Profane’. A very difficult sing!
What an interesting article! And I say that as somebody whose knowledge of Medieval literature (not translated into modern English) started and ended with the Canterbury Tales at school!
Finally! A demonstration of the word routh/ruth in poetry form. Ruthless I like to use, but I was never clear on if ruth/routh could stand on its own as a descriptor. Ah, writer problems. :) Thank you for this post!