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.