Middle English Poetry

The varied assortment of the lyrics includes the most concentrated poetry of the period, and brevity intensifies the emotions expressed in poems such as "FoWELES in the Frith" and "Western Wind" and the compression of the lines intensifies their ambiguities. Although some works appear to be slight, this impression is deceptive, since much meaning may be packed within a few lines. For example, the rich implications of its imagery and sophisticated structure belie the apparent artlessness of "I Sing of a Maiden," and even the briefest lyrics repay close study. The most enduring of all the Middle English lyrics is "Thirty dayes hath November," one of many mnemonic short poems which shaped and preserved worldly information, religious doctrine, and social mores and so influenced and enforced attitudes in an era when many people could not read.

General anthologies of medieval poems usually include lyrics of love written to earthly mistresses and lyrics to the virgin Mary (often in very similar terms), religious meditations, and carols such as "Adam Lay Bound" and "Bring us in Good Ale." Specialized collections show more of the range of the style and material found in these works. Seeking to study medieval lyrics and ballads may seem to mean consulting forbidding texts with words that are difficult to understand. It is possible, though, to begin with editions in standardized form, to avoid the problem of varying dialects; many modern editions also give helpful notes on the same page as the text. Familiarity with these more encouraging forms will show that difficulties are more apparent than real, and a reader is soon prepared to consult and enjoy collections such as Child's, Brown's, and Robbin's, which use original dialects, allowing us contact with the literature, customs, faith, joys, and sorrows of those who spoke our language in the past and the tales they treasured.

See also ballad, reverdie, Virgin lyrics.

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