My Lute Awake

Although its theme is quite conventional, the poem is notable for the subtle treatment of the speaker's position, which is expressed in the middle line of the stanza: "I may nat com her to" (I cannot come to her). The lines just above and below, literally surrounding the middle line, reinforce the speaker's immobility. Line 3 refers to his being "sore bounde," but the reader does not know whether he is bound by obligation, physical constraint, or perhaps the command of the beloved. In line 5, the lover's heart is described as "in hold"—that is, imprisoned. This phrase suggests that his confinement is at least partially metaphorical: he is a prisoner of, and for, love.

The lyric is best known for its appearance in GEoFfrey Chaucer's "The Nun's Priest's Tale" as the song that the rooster Chanticleer and his mate Pertelote are in the habit of singing together at sunrise. There is a mild irony in this lyric's serving as the birds' song, for the tale relates how Chanticleer is stolen away by the fox. Chanticleer is the one who must "faren in londe," while Pertelote becomes the lover who cannot follow him.

Because the poem appears in "The Nun's Priest's Tale," which was written about 1396, it is more than a century older than the single manuscript in which it appears, a collection of courtly short poems and verse tales, including two by Chaucer and several by JoHN Lydgate, compiled about 1480. The poem is appended to a longer, similarly themed lyric, which ends "And for your love, evermore weeping I sing this song." "My Lief" can thus be read as a coda (ending) to the longer poem.

The poem is frequently anthologized, and editors vary in using the phrase "in a londe," which appears in the manuscript, or "in londe," which scans more smoothly and appears in most manuscripts of "The Nun's Priest's Tale." There is a slight difference in meaning, however. "In a londe" suggests a journey to a specific place, while "in londe" could mean simply "far away." "In londe" can also function as meaningless filler to finish out a line.

See also Middle English lyrics and ballads.

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