In Lyric Tactics, Ingrid Nelson argues that the lyric poetry of later medieval England is a distinct genre defined not by its poetic features—rhyme, meter, and stanza forms—but by its modes of writing and performance, which are ad hoc, improvisatory, and situational.
2017 | 224 pages | Cloth $65.00
View main book page
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. The Voices of Harley 2253
Chapter 2. Enchanting Songs and Rhyming Doctrine in William Herebert's Hymns
Chapter 3. Lyric Negotiations: Continental Forms and Troilus and Criseyde
Chapter 4. Form and Ethics in Handlyng Synne and the Legend of Good Women
The "boat song" of King Cnut survives in the twelfth-century monastic chronicle of Ely, making it the earliest post-Conquest evidence of an English lyric. The chronicle preserves the song's first quatrain, along with an account of its composition and performance:
When they were approaching the land, the king rose up in the middle of his men and directed the boatmen to make for the little port at full speed, and then ordered them to pull the boat forward more slowly as it came in. He raised his eyes towards the church which stood out at a distance, situated as it was at the top of a rocky eminence; he heard the sound of sweet music echoing on all sides, and, with ears alert, began to drink in the melody more fully the closer he approached. For he realized that it was the monks singing psalms in the monastery and chanting clearly the Divine Hours. He urged the others who were present in the boats to come round about him and sing, joining him in jubilation. Expressing with his own mouth his joyfulness of heart, he composed aloud a song in English the beginning of which runs as follows:The chronicle's description of the composition and performance of Cnut's song suggests certain features of the survival, composition, reception, and adaptations of vernacular lyrics in later medieval England. Hearing the liturgical singing by chance, Cnut first joins and then departs from it. Liturgical formulae frequently occasioned new Anglo-Saxon and Middle English verses, in the form of tropes or sequences that amplified the original Latin text. Yet Cnut's song differs from these kinds of adaptations in the oblique relationship it poses between the liturgical source and the new poem, which does not cite or embellish the liturgical text. Rather, it narrates its own inspiration and situation of composition as at once aleatory and somatic. According to the prose account, Cnut's inspiration occurs by chance, and his response to the liturgical song engages multiple senses: sight ("he raised his eyes towards the church"), hearing ("he heard the sound of sweet music"), and, metaphorically, taste ("and . . . began to drink in the melody"). By describing Cnut's response to the song in this way, the chronicler suggests features of vernacular lyric that at once identify it with and distinguish it from the monks' song. Such songs were central to regulated institutional practices, from their liturgical use to their function in early education, as children learned them in cathedral "song schools." Yet, as the chronicler's account shows, even these songs can have an element of chance in their reception. Cnut's sensory response to the song emphasizes the somatic and sensual aspects of all music, produced and heard by the body, notwithstanding medieval theories of music that foregrounded its abstraction as a branch of mathematics. Although emanating from the architecturally and symbolically fixed point of the church, the monks' song seems, to the rowers, to have no single point of origin but "echo[es] on all sides." It inspires both a communal performance of the original song ("He urged the others who were present in the boats to come round about him and sing") and a new, spontaneous, vernacular composition. The performances are simultaneous and multiple, as Cnut sings his song over (and with) a chorus of the monks' and knights' liturgical song and continues either aloud or mentally, by "tossing [it] around in his mind."
Merie sungen the munekes binnen Ely monks
Tha Cnut king rew ther-by When; rowed
Roweth, cnihtes, ner the land, knights
And here we thes munekes sang. . .
This and the remaining parts that follow are up to this day sung publicly by choirs and remembered in proverbs.
The king, while tossing this around in his mind, did not rest from singing piously and decorously in concert with the venerable confraternity, until he reached land.
The surviving quatrain, too, takes as its subject its own composition and in particular its debts to, and differences from, its inspiration. The lyric first describes the occasion of its composition in the third person ("Merie sungen the munekes binnen Ely / Tha Cnut king rew ther-by"). It then shifts tense (from past to present), point of view (from third person to first person), and mood (from indicative to imperative): "Roweth, cnihtes, ner the land, / And here we thes munekes sang." Who speaks the final two lines? The first-person plural at once suggests that Cnut's voice is speaking and invites other singers, past and present, into the voice of the lyric. The combination of all three grammatical shifts marks a distinction between the temporalities of the song and the chronicle. Where the chronicle narrates a linear and completed history, the song continuously re-performs itself as an ongoing event. All of the lyric's singers and audiences—past, present, and future—are invited to "here . . . thes munekes sang." The chronicler represents Cnut's song as a kind of contrafactum, or lyric written to fit existing music, which can be sung along with the liturgical offices, recalling the original even as it transforms it. As Sarah Kay remarks, a medieval person would ask of these lyrics not "who is speaking?" but "what am I hearing?" (i.e., what is the musical referent?). Thus, the line, "here we thes munekes sang," alludes at once to an irrecoverable, singular past event and to a recurrent one, the daily singing of the Divine Hours; it is commemorative but also generative. The monks' singing is vigorously present in the line's deixis ("thes munekes"), in the melody of the immediate performance, and in the acknowledgment of the synchronic liturgical performance. And while the lyric's inspiration is affective (Cnut "[e]xpress[es] with his own mouth his joyfulness of heart"), its content is practical: "here we thes munekes sang." Following its composition, Cnut's song persists as a lyric ("sung publicly by choirs") and also migrates to other textual forms ("remembered in proverbs"). Indeed, the song survives for modern readers because of its inclusion in the more robustly attested textual form of the chronicle.
Cnut's boat song merits a place of distinction in English literary history as the first post-Conquest record of an English lyric and thus, in some sense, the first "later medieval" (if not perhaps "Middle English") lyric. Yet this quatrain is also in many ways representative of much of the surviving corpus of insular lyrics between 1100 and 1500. It takes as its subject its own composition and projects its future reception, as many of these lyrics do. Its emphasis is somatic and yet the lyric itself is rhetorically and formally undistinguished by modern standards. Finally, it is incomplete. Far from the "verbal icon" of a complex and totalized poetic object, as the influential twentieth-century critics W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley described the lyric poem, Cnut's boat song is permeated by its own history of composition, reception, and transmission.
The song thus raises many questions. Is this a lyric? What does it mean to use as a generic descriptor a word that only enters English in the sixteenth century and comes in the twentieth century to designate a genre whose ascendency is tied to the associated critical practice of "close reading"? Given these anachronisms, does the corpus we call "Middle English lyrics" indeed represent a coherent genre? Do these short poems share features that organize and distinguish them from other medieval literary, didactic, or practical texts? Does identifying them as a genre suggest specific critical reading practices? These questions have come to concern many readers of medieval and later lyric poetry, and they apply equally to most Middle English short poems, as well as to many of those in French and Latin, that circulated in later medieval England. Further, examining the generic properties of these poems promises to contribute to broader concerns in literary studies, such as historical poetics (the study of how historical circumstances influence poetic forms and practices) and New Formalism (the integration of formalist and historicist methodologies for literary study), that have motivated scholars across periods to return to questions of literary form, poetry, and the genre of lyric. Some provocative essays and book chapters on medieval English lyrics, notably by Ardis Butterfield, Nicolette Zeeman, and Jessica Brantley, have sought to answer the above questions by considering lyrics as lateral clusters of texts, as implicit literary theory, and as multimedia objects. Yet the last influential book-length study on the medieval lyrics of England, Rosemary Woolf's The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages, appeared in 1968.
This book undertakes such a study. My central claim is that in later medieval England, the lyric genre is defined as much by its cultural practices as by its poetic forms. As Cnut's song shows, plural practices (whether actual or imagined) are attested in the texts of medieval lyrics themselves, as well as in the apparatus and contexts of their survival. Further, lyrics' constellation of practices emerges indirectly and obliquely from regulated institutional forms, such as liturgical performance and ecclesiastical chronicles. They are propagated within and outside these institutions, as singers, audiences, readers, and writers follow and depart from their norms in varying degrees. In short, these lyric practices are tactical, in the sense defined by twentieth-century social theorist Michel de Certeau. In tactical practices, subjects find unauthorized, spontaneous, and makeshift pathways among institutional structures (just as Cnut's new song uses and departs from the liturgical offices). By contrast, strategic practices follow defined and normative uses of those structures (e.g., the monks singing the Hours). The tactical reliance on and departure from the institutional forms of textual production define the genre of later medieval English lyric, which draws on other literary and cultural norms both to shape itself as a distinct kind of literary object and to reform the structures that shaped it. And while other medieval genres, such as drama and romance, enjoyed vigorous performance practices and written forms throughout the later Middle Ages, I will argue that the vernacular lyrics that circulated in later medieval England had a unique place within this textual culture because of their particular formal features.
While this study centers on Middle English lyric, it also includes Anglo-French and macaronic poems in its analysis. As several scholars have recently observed, the multilingual environment of England during this period and its situation within a regionally rather than nationally organized Europe invite the expansion of our understanding of medieval "English" literature to include texts in other languages. Lyrics, in particular, are vibrant participants in this multilingual landscape. Their brevity allows for their frequent inclusion in multilingual compilations. Their participation in oral-performative as well as written practices (discussed in greater detail below) allows them to draw on the different registers of each of these languages, which limned a range of "microliteracies" and sociolinguistic practices.
Nonetheless, as Ardis Butterfield has recently observed, insular lyric texts and practices differ markedly from those of their Continental neighbors. In France, Germany, and Italy, lyric poetry is more coherently anthologized and theorized beginning in the thirteenth century. Perhaps because of this coherence, Continental medieval lyrics have been more greatly admired and more extensively theorized than their insular counterparts. While English lyrics bear some marks of the influence of mainland poetry, their practices and forms are largely unique. Thus, while I often situate English lyrics in relation to Continental contexts, and where appropriate draw on critical approaches developed for mainland lyrics, more often the study of insular lyrics demands a departure from these ways of thinking. While the French tradition, in particular, greatly influences English lyric, critical models developed for French lyrics do not completely account for insular practices. To cite just one influential example, while the insular corpus offers examples of the kind of textual lability that Paul Zumthor called mouvance, whereby performed texts undergo linguistic changes that defy the determination of a stable "best text," this concept does not account for the kind of transformation witnessed in the relationship between the sung liturgical offices and Cnut's composition. Rather, this is an essentially social relationship of tactics, as a regulated textual performance is transformed by occasional practice. In short, while Continental and especially French lyric traditions will frequently provide contexts for my readings of English and Anglo-French lyrics, this book will focus on insular texts and practices as constituting a distinct medieval literary tradition.
Examining lyric tactics further promises to advance our understanding of medieval literary culture, integrating written texts, performance practices, and poetic forms as central and interdependent features of medieval literature. This book thus defines the medieval lyric genre as much by what it does (its cultural work) as by what it is (its formal features). Indeed, these two aspects of lyric constitute and influence each other. The episode recording Cnut's song demonstrates many of the features of lyric tactics, both as a practice and as a poetics, in post-Conquest England. This lyric is inspired by an institutionally regulated text but departs from it; it relies on a communal act of singing to facilitate individual composition, and it survives by means of the plural channels of repeated performance, migration into other forms, and inscription in a well-defined textual form. This genre distinguishes itself from its Continental peers by its development, navigation, and theorization of this unique constellation of practices, which emerge from specific aspects of later medieval England's textual and performative cultures.
The next section of this chapter gives an account of the features of these cultures that are most relevant to this study. I then develop a theory of lyric tactics, with reference to Certeau's work, by way of a reading of the thirteenth-century English lyric "Fowls in the Frith." While this book is most interested in examining the short poems of medieval England as a cultural production specific to a time and place, it also is cognizant of the provocative and fraught history of the term "lyric" within the discipline of literary studies and the anachronism of using this term to describe medieval poetry. This chapter thus concludes with a discussion of the difficulties of placing medieval English lyrics in the long history of the lyric genre and suggests how lyric tactics might offer an alternate literary history in which the medieval lyric is paradigmatic rather than marginal.
Text and Practice in Later Medieval England
The modes of textual transmission in later medieval England were diverse. An increase in the production of written texts, by scholastic and legal institutions, occurred within and alongside vibrant cultures of performance. Michael Clanchy's landmark study, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, describes the sweeping post-Conquest changes in English legal culture as it shifts from a performative to a documentary system. Earlier legal culture was event based, centering on performances like the trothplight ceremony, in which symbolic clothing and objects as well as oaths spoken in the presence of witnesses confirmed a legally binding contract. The thirteenth century saw the rise of a documentary bureaucracy, energized by Henry II's legal reforms and Edward I's quo warranto proceedings, which asked the nobility to document "by what warrant" they held their franchises. When it appeared, Clanchy's work formed part of a body of transdisciplinary scholarship evaluating the differences between oral and literate cultures, particularly the impact of written textuality on culture. The tone of this work oscillated between the elegiac and the triumphal. By some accounts, once supplanted by literacy, a lost oral culture survived only in fragments or performance practice quickly succumbing to the "technologizing of the word," in Walter Ong's evocative phrase. Yet literacy also drove the creation and adoption of new ways of organizing experience and cognition that drew on the conventions and structures of written texts.
Lyrics circulate within and across these contexts in distinct and often partially attested forms. Yet when considered as one part of the multimodal practices of lyric performance, reception, and recording, we can think of these fragments not as relics of an extinct oral culture but as positive evidence of a comprehensive network of lyric practice, in which partial texts serve as records of and cues for a vibrant culture of performance and dissemination. What are described elegiacally as "lost" lyrics by R. M. Wilson often appear in a form similar to Cnut's boat song: a verse or stanza quoted in another context, such as the partial English lyrics composed by St. Godric, or the single refrain line, "Swete lamman dhin are" (Sweet lover, your favor), recorded in a tale of a priest who misspeaks the mass after being kept awake by churchyard revelers. Flyleaves, margins, and unfilled folios of longer works often preserve lyrics or lyric fragments. Four haunting poems on a flyleaf of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson D 913, including "Maiden on the Moor Lay" and "Ich am of Irlaunde," appear to be the lyrics of danced carols. In a collection of scientific treatises, an enigmatic verse appears following an account of the constellations: "Simenel hornes [horn-shaped loaves] ber non thornes Alleluya." Lyrics and lyric fragments appear as pen trials or as appendages to longer works. They also survive in manuscript miscellanies or anthologies among nonlyric texts. As Julia Boffey puts it, "These poems were recorded unsystematically and often simply accidentally." In other words, the written records of lyrics are unlike those of other medieval texts. Whereas a scientific treatise, theological summa, or even a long literary work is copied for preservation, with the expectation of consistency and completeness, written lyrics often bear witness in their very incompleteness to their survival in other contexts: in the popular memory, for instance, and in performance.
Even when complete lyrics survive, they tend to appear among diverse collections of texts. Clusters of English lyrics appear in both religious and secular commonplace books; two of these are discussed in later chapters. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, English lyrics often appeared in sermons or in preachers' handbooks. Such lyrics frequently served as summaries of the structure of a sermon (the distinctio) or as mnemonics to drive home important themes. What we seldom find in England, especially before the fifteenth century, are dedicated lyric "anthologies," or single-genre codices. By comparison, England's closest neighbor, France, produced many chansonniers of troubadour lyrics beginning in the thirteenth century. These "songbooks" canonized lyrics and their composers. They frequently arranged their contents by individual authors, with any anonymous lyrics clustered at the end; others were organized by subgenre (sirvente, jeu-parti, etc.). Features particular to the medieval manuscript further developed the identity of each poet, from portraits in illuminated initials, to rubrics naming the poet, to prefatory vidas describing the poet's life. The first surviving single-author chansonnier, comprising the works of Adam de la Halle, dates from the early thirteenth century. These collections also gained generic force in Continental Europe, as the anthologizing of short poems gave rise to "poetry existing for and because of the book": a lyric genre forged in writing rather than in performance, created as much by compilers and readers as by poets. Although later medieval England was not without its own "songbooks," they are distinctly different from the French chansonniers. One of the best-known examples, British Library MS Harley 2253 (1330-40; the subject of the next chapter), includes no authorial attributions, and its lyrics appear among a trilingual collection of saints' lives, verse sermons, and fabliaux. The preacher's handbook of John of Grimestone, compiled in 1372, contains lyrics organized according to possible sermon themes. Richard Rolle's lyrics were collected in single-author manuscripts, and collections of liturgical songs in Latin, French, and English, such as we find in the thirteenth-century manuscript British Library MS Arundel 248, are not uncommon. Yet English lyric manuscripts tend to be plain and unadorned by comparison with the lavishly illuminated chansonniers, indicating that lyrics occupied a different place in English culture than in French. Further, these recognizably anthologistic collections from England form only a small part of the material textual history of medieval English lyric, with lyrics more frequently found among diverse texts without recognizable generic organization. On the whole, the kind of authorizing and generic work that the chansonniers do for French lyric does not apply in England.
However, it is important to note that while the material forms of lyric texts in England and France differ significantly, English books frequently record French lyrics, reflecting the multilingualism of the English "vernacular." French is an insular language in medieval England, less a foreign and colonizing tongue than a "common possession," an idiom used in a broad array of cultural, social, or institutional contexts. Lyrics especially bear witness to England's linguistic landscape. Many English lyric manuscripts (including the two studied in subsequent chapters) contain French and Latin texts. We find versions of the same lyric in French, English and Latin, such as the lyric beginning "Love is a selkud wodenesse [strange madness]," in Oxford, Bodleian MS Douce 139, where it is copied with Latin and French versions of the same quatrain. And we even find all three languages in the same lyric, as in the lyric beginning "Dum Ludis Floribus," whose final stanza reads,
Scripsi hec carmina in tabulis;Further, the relationship between a written text and its medieval performance contexts is necessarily attenuated. As a category of medieval culture, "performance" is less a distinctly demarcated event than a mode or habitus that was available within a range of medieval activities, from socializing in the town center to private reading. As befits their name, many lyrics were sung, but it is often unclear whether surviving lyric manuscripts are directly connected to performance. Some lyric collections that have been dubbed "minstrel manuscripts" have potential institutional affiliations and may be as well suited to private reading as to singing. Lyrics were also sung by nonprofessionals. The performance instructions for the thirteenth-century lyric "Sumer is icumen in," found in a manuscript associated with Reading Abbey and accompanied by music and the parallel Latin text "Perspice Christicola," describe the round form for singing its verses and chorus and suggest that "this canon may be sung by four companions." A handful of other medieval English lyrics also survive with musical accompaniment. The absence of music does not necessarily mean a poem went unsung; many lyrics may have been adapted to well-known tunes contrafactually. For instance, the Latin lyric "Flos pudicitie," which appears with music alongside its French analogue, "Flur de virginite," in British Library MS Arundel 248, bears the rubric "Cantus de Domina post cantum Aaliz." Its editor speculates that this refers to a troubadour or secular song based on the romance connotations of the name "Aaliz." In two manuscripts, the lyric "Man mai longe lives weene [expect]" appears with musical notation, where it is followed immediately by a contrafacta (without notation), "On hir is mi life ilong" (My life belongs to her).
Mon ostel est enmi la vile de Paris;
May Y sugge namore, so wel me is;
Yef Hi deye for love of hire, duel hit ys!
[I've written these songs on a tablet. My lodging's amid the city of Paris. I may say no more, as seems best; should I die for love of her, sad it is!]
While music is perhaps the most obvious indicator of lyric performance, other performance structures also influenced lyric practice. A significant part of the surviving corpus of Middle English lyrics appears in the form of carols, refrain-driven poems that once accompanied a round dance but in the later Middle Ages had an existence independent of the dance form. Guests at fifteenth-century banquets were often asked to sing carols. Other lyrics also have their origins in dance songs, especially those taking the French forms of the balade, roundel, or virelai that started to appear in England in the second half of the fourteenth century. The sermon lyrics mentioned above were, of course, influenced by a rhetorical tradition that placed as much emphasis on performance as on the composition of the written text. Preachers sometimes drew on the very popularity of performed lyrics, taking them as the texts of their sermons and explicating their moral meanings. In the thirteenth century, one friar built his sermon around an English carol, "Atte wrastlinge my lemman I chese." Another, Stephen Langton, took the French carol "Bele Aelis" as his theme. Evidence of lyric performance, possibly apocryphal, also survives in chronicles like the Liber Eliensis that records Cnut's boat song, as well as in Pierre Langtoft's Chronicle, later translated by Robert Mannyng of Brunne, which records invective lyrics of Scottish "flyting."
The plural forms of lyric survival and transmission have implications for the widely discussed concept of auctorite, the idea that material textual apparatus confers or reifies authorship and authority in medieval English literature. While some critics have argued that particular poets—Chaucer, Gower, and Richard Rolle—developed a kind of authority based on the lyric form, medieval English lyrics more often tend to be, as Rosemary Woolf says, "genuinely anonymous": authors' names were lost not through the vagaries of archival survival but rather because of their unimportance to contemporary scribes and readers. Indeed, practices of lyric composition—from the mouvance and variance of a lyric's multiple versions, to the citation of known lyrics in new poems, to the composition of contrafacta—meant that it was often meaningless to speak of a single lyric author. Further, the legal and scholastic institutions that produced the written texts of the auctores seldom copied vernacular literature, and in England, short poems were even less likely than longer works to be framed with the apparatus of auctorite. And while the scholastic prologue's well-defined taxonomy of forms offers a structure for reifying auctorite that was deployed by some vernacular authors, if we survey a broad range of vernacular prologues, we discover a more expansive and open-ended literary theory. As Emily Steiner points out, "Authority is something that one is always in relation to, that one is never absolutely identical to, and that one can only provisionally be said to possess." The editors of a collection of English literary prologues note, "Latin theorizing is often too far removed from the situation in which vernacular texts came into being to provide a satisfactory governing template for understanding these prologues or the texts they introduce." With their diverse material contexts and performance practices, insular lyrics require reorienting our "governing template" for literary analysis away from Latinate models, which are too often taken as foundational in the study of medieval English literature, and also away from the hegemonic authority presumed to be the aim of this literature and its composers. What these lyrics demonstrate, instead, is a vital tradition of the literary as a component of community, in which a text's range of potential practices defines and shapes its social and literary existence and importance.
The written records and performance contexts of medieval English lyrics reveal their distinct constellation of practices across the institutions of documentary production and cultures of performance. Further, these lyrics' formal features, especially their (relative) brevity, their mutability (via mouvance, variance, citation, and contrafacture), and their reliance on rhetorical topoi, which I discuss in the next section, differentiate them from other performed texts like romances or plays. These formal features distinguish lyrics as a particularly nimble and modular group of texts, able to insinuate themselves into and around longer narrative or didactic texts, or into the literal blank spaces of the manuscript page, as marginalia or filler. Lyrics also traverse the distinct yet not isolated categories of French and English vernacularity, of writing and performance, of official and popular practices. In sum, what unites these shorter poems as a genre is not only their formal features but also the ways in which these features permit and encourage a set of practices that navigate later medieval England's specific textual and performative cultures.
The brief survey of lyric survival above reflects the complexity of textual and performative cultures in later medieval England. What has been described as a culture in "transition" from orality to literacy can be understood instead as a culture of generative hybridity, in which written texts and performance practices intersect in the corpus of short poems we now call lyrics. Such poems are deeply implicated in, but not entirely of, a range of institutional forms and practices. Yet, by and large, they are not characterized by their resistance to or subversion of such forms and practices; indeed, lyrics frequently emerge from and circulate within institutional contexts. Thus, a participatory and interdependent account of the encounters between lyrics and the institutions of textuality is needed. In particular, the social theorist Michel de Certeau's admittedly speculative and incomplete concept of "tactics" offers a way to describe the practices surrounding medieval lyrics. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Certeau makes a distinction between the strategic and tactical uses of institutional forms. A strategy is "the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an 'environment.'" Such a strategy defines an "other" by defining an institutionally controlled space, which Certeau calls a "proper," and generating a set of authorized relations between subjects within and without the proper. By contrast, a tactic is a practice of this "other" subject, a "way of operating" within the structures of power that does not necessarily obey the determinate relationships of strategy. Tacticians seize "opportunities" in order to manipulate events to their advantage, follow "wandering paths" (lignes d'erre) through and around the defined trajectories of the proper, and are alert to changing circumstances that might alter their operations. Tactics are, then, the "practices of everyday life," the mundane and irreducible actions of the "others" that are informed by without conforming to institutional procedures. In Certeau's most famous example, from the essay "Walking in the City," strategies and tactics are illustrated with the example of an urban pedestrian. Certeau's walker, a tactician, navigates the fixed forms of an urban landscape to create "pathways" that elude the disciplinary force of the power structures that created them. The walker's itinerary is a creative practice whose map is, we might say, a kind of text composed from the forms and structures of the city. Most important, for this study, tactics, like strategies, are relationships to structures of power. But unlike strategies, they are ad hoc, improvisatory, and unregulated. These relationships are responsive and adaptive rather than proscribed and determinate, everywhere shaped by structures without being subordinate to them.
"Lyric tactics" refer to the practices by which lyrics are composed, modified, performed, transmitted, and circulated among institutional forms of textuality. Describing these practices as "tactical" emphasizes the relationships between them and the existing structures with which they interact. These structures may be literary forms, scribal or compilational conventions, or cultural or institutional norms. Certeau's conceptual tools and the plurality of practices and subject positions they describe are in many ways more appropriate to medieval culture than those premised on the more totalizing reach of discourses in modernity, such as Foucauldian discourse theory. Where Foucault studies practices ("procedures") that, by their repetition, develop into a governing apparatus, Certeau seeks a complementary theory that would account for the manifold practices that are not governed by procedural relationships. The difference is subtle: while both theorists begin with practice, Certeau critiques Foucault for focusing on procedures that produce a systematic discourse and overlooking others that "have not given rise to a discursive configuration." Certeau seeks to describe the outliers, the eccentricities, and the singularities that lend vibrance and spontaneity to everyday life. These practices do not necessarily oppose or resist the dominant order; rather, they operate within the structures created by them.
As Certeau scholars have observed, The Practice of Everyday Life is in many ways an unfinished work, more a "blueprint" of the parameters of a cultural studies methodology than a "map" of a complete theory. His dominant metaphor of the tactical is spatial; a strategy "assumes a place," whereas a tactic has no distinct "localization" and therefore no recognizable "borderline" that totalizes it with respect to the other. This metaphor seems to anticipate recent work on mobility and networks emerging from social theory. Inspired by the actor-network theory of sociologist Bruno Latour, a new model of textuality and cultural transmission sees texts as assemblages created by multiple actors working in a network. These distributed models of textual production and dissemination describe many premodern practices, especially the diverse modes of mobility affecting medieval texts, bodies, and objects. As Jacques Le Goff put it, "The mobility of men in the Middle Ages was extreme." From the itineraries that offer a new perspective on medieval literary history to the decentering and recursive journeys of literary characters, nonlinear and distributed mobilities inform a variety of medieval texts and practices. The most trenchant application of such network theories to the medieval lyric has been put forth in some recent essays by Ardis Butterfield. Butterfield notes that English and Anglo-French lyrics tend to reuse and circulate set phrases—in fact, clichés—that may come from lyric or nonlyric contexts, such as sermons. This aspect of medieval lyric was once derided under a twentieth-century critical paradigm that privileged originality and uniqueness in its assessment of literary value. Yet as Butterfield points out, these clichés are generative and creative; they are an important component of medieval lyric form that encourages a model of reading that differs from the New Formalist paradigm of close reading. Instead, Butterfield proposes "lateral" reading, which would take into account the contexts (social and textual) in which these set phrases circulate, and the Latourian networks of lyrics that together constitute the literary object.
Latour's theories are in many ways more complex and complete than Certeau's, and Butterfield's applications of them are helpful in understanding how medieval lyric form uses and reuses common language in creative rather than derivative ways. Yet exploring medieval lyrics with respect to tactics allows us to extend these theories in two important ways. First, it broadens our definition of the genre from one based on form to one based on practice. Framing it in this way creates a largely false dichotomy; of course, practice is integral to both Latourian network theory and Butterfield's lyric theory. Yet because tactics apply explicitly to practices or modes of operation, considering medieval lyrics in this light shifts our focus from verbal patterning to social practice. Second, Certeau's theory invites us to consider the relationships between lyrics and the normative textual, literary, or performative conventions in a way that refuses to set up a hierarchy or opposition between them. The lyric is a tactical text that relies on and emerges from these standards without being disciplined by them. In this model, rather than appropriating institutional textual practices to gain legitimacy (in the form of authority, for example), lyrics deploy them tactically, exploiting their potentialities, multiplicities, and ambiguities that strategic proscriptions attempt to unify, streamline, and regulate.
Further, lyrics are tactical not only in their practices but also in their implicit theorization of their own genre. Nicolette Zeeman has suggested that lyrics offer one example of how literary genres can, if situated or flagged in a certain way, act as forms of self-theorization that emerge from literature rather than treatises. Throughout this book, studies of lyrics will elaborate how this implicit genre theory takes shape when poetic forms are understood within the contexts of their practices. To begin to understand how this works, I will examine how a pervasive rhetorical figure, the topos or commonplace, demonstrates and develops lyric tactics in a thirteenth-century poem, "Fowls in the Frith." Ernst Robert Curtius, in his magisterial study, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, identifies the topos as a foundational form of medieval literature. In classical rhetoric, these conventional figures served to locate an audience in a common rhetorical place. Topoi evolved in the Middle Ages as cross-textual motifs: the "book of nature," the locus amoenus or ideal landscape, or the world upside-down. For Curtius, topoi are the rhetorical matrix from which medieval literature is generated. While contemporary readers often associate the study of topoi with conservative philological methods, Michelle Warren has recently argued that it can promote ethical humanist modes of reading. In her words, topoi can be understood "not as fixed points but rather as nodes in dynamic global relations, anchored in specific landscapes while claiming vast proportions." With their anonymity and mobility, lyrics perhaps best illustrate how topoi are essentially relational rather than totalizing.
"Fowls in the Frith" not only exemplifies the lyric's reliance on topoi but also unites rhetoric and practice to theorize lyric tactics. Surviving with musical notation in a thirteenth-century cartulary, this poem consists of five short lines.
Foweles in the frith, woodsThe poem's frame of reference is ambiguous; it could be a sacred or a profane work. The "birds in the woods, fish in the river" formula was both a secular and a religious topos in the Middle Ages. It has an extensive tradition in Christian writing, beginning in Genesis 1:20, when both birds and fish were created on the fifth day, and continuing in medieval religious literature. The placement of the birds and fish in their natural habitats refers to the cosmic hierarchy created by God, from which man is alienated due to original sin. (Passus 11 of the B-text of Piers Plowman, to cite one example, offers an extended meditation on this topos.) Further, the language of the poem appears in other lyrics of the later Middle Ages, such as a lullaby that survives in autonomous copies and in sermons. In the religious or secular context, the final line of the poem is ambiguous. In one reading, the speaker feels sorrow on account of Christ, who was the "best of bone and blood," and of the suffering of his Passion: "I walk with much sorrow that I feel for the best of bone and blood." (If secular, "the best of bone and blood" can equally describe the beloved.) Alternately, the speaker himself or herself is the "best (or beast) of bone and blood"—the highest order of being in God's earthly creation—who nonetheless feels sorrow: "I walk with much sorrow despite being the best/a beast of bone and blood." Even the musical accompaniment to "Fowls in the Frith," which some readers have believed to be liturgical, might have been used for secular purposes.
The fisses in the flod, river
And I mon waxe wod. must; mad
Mulch sorw I walke with
For beste of bon and blod.
The poem's topoi locate it within a network of lyric forms while also pointing to the expansiveness of lyric practice. They demonstrate how this particular form creates mobile relations rather than totalizing and isolating the lyric text. Like the rest of the poem, the opening topos works across sacred and secular meanings. Birdsong frequently opens love lyrics, especially in a springtime setting, or reverdie. This season excites carnal love but can also heighten a rejected lover's feelings of dissatisfaction. In a secular reading of the poem, the birds and the fish are in their proper places in nature, enjoying the satisfaction of their carnal desires, while the speaker is out of place, experiencing sorrow on account of the "best" woman "of bone and blood." The poem's economical language does not reveal whether the cause of the speaker's sorrow is Christ or a woman.
Further, "Fowls in the Frith" uses its topoi, the rhetorical common places, to thematize place as a poetic and metaphysical construct. The first two lines locate animals in their habitats with isocolons that hinge on the word "in." The preposition replaces the verb in these lines, substituting location for action, and evokes a classical definition of place that was well known in the Middle Ages. In the Physics, Aristotle describes eight different uses of "in": the part in the whole, the species in the genus, and so forth. The two opening lines of "Fowls in the Frith" demonstrate Aristotle's final use of "in," when "something is contained in a vessel, and, in general, in a place." These lines thus thematize place by using this preposition in lieu of a verb. They suggest stasis but also motion, evoking the micromovements of each animal within its habitat. And indeed, Aristotle conceives place and motion as interdependent concepts: "[I]t would never occur to us to make place a topic for investigation if there were no such thing as change of place. That is the main reason that we think that even the heavens are in place—because they are in constant motion. This kind of change may be either movement or increase and decrease." Aristotle here identifies two kinds of motion, what he calls "movement," or locomotion, and "increase and decrease," or change. Place itself, however, is motionless; it is "the limit of the containing body, [where] the container makes contact with what it contains." Further, the "contents" of such a container must be "a body which is capable of movement." In other words, it is the potentiality of motion that defines the boundary of place, and of form. The first two lines of "Fowls in the Frith" announce this theme, locating mobile entities (birds, fish) in their respective places.
Following the assertion of place and in-place-ness of the first two lines of "Fowls in the Frith," we have an image of Aristotle's second kind of motion, change: "And I mon waxe wod." The verb "waxen," to grow, alludes to an affective state, which the next line connects to Aristotle's first kind of motion, locomotion: "Mulch sorw I walke with." The alliteration of "waxe" and "walke" and the parallel affective terms "wod" and "sorwe" suggest a relationship between the two kinds of motion, change and locomotion, that makes explicit the potential mobility of the birds and fishes invoked in the first two lines. Change and locomotion enter the poem concurrent with its affective content: "I mon waxe wod." As Curtius points out, the topics of medieval poetry, even though they reflect "timeless" emotional states and human relationships, are also figures of change: they generate more topoi, and they describe changes in affect. In other words, this poem's concern with motion is multiply valenced: rhetorical, affective, and hermeneutic.
We have seen how the poem's rhetoric thematizes tactics as situational movements, both human and poetic, across determinate structures (natural, poetic, and metaphysical). But what of this lyric as an object of practice? We have already noted that its musical accompaniment is similarly tactical, with both secular and religious potential. Further, the material form of the lyric is itself displaced in its unique manuscript witness, Oxford Bodleian MS Douce 139. Largely a collection of thirteenth-century legal documents relating to the town of Coventry, the codex also includes copies of a reissue of the Magna Carta from 1253 and a French verse rendition of the Statute of Gloucester from 1278. "Fowls in the Frith" and its music appear on folio 5r. The poem shares a hand, which appears nowhere else in the manuscript, with the Anglo-French lyric "Ay queer ay un maus," also set to music. These lyrics, copied around 1270, were inserted in the manuscript as quire endpapers after the rest of its contents were compiled. The lyric copies were essentially scrap paper used to protect the more valuable legal material within the book.
In other words, not only does the text of "Fowls in the Frith" thematize displacement, the material text of the poem is itself displaced from a literary context. The vernacular songs have been located in a context of documentary place, among the legal records of an English town. MS Douce 139 owes its existence to an increasing emphasis on the documentary construction of place (in this case, Coventry) arising from the bureaucratic expansion of thirteenth-century England. As the presence of "Fowls in the Frith" shows, the lyrics of medieval England rely on such literary and textual structures but navigate them tactically. This navigation is at once "internal," within the form and rhetoric of the poem, and "external," in the material and performative contexts of its transmission. Yet tactical practice inherently belies the distinction between interiors and exteriors, as the mobility of the one displaces and reshapes the other.
Most vernacular texts of later medieval England are influenced by its particular cultures of textual production and performance. As the example of "Fowls in the Frith" demonstrates, certain formal features of the lyric—its brevity, its rhetoric of the commonplace—make it more amenable to tactical inclusion among other texts and, indeed, to the implicit theorization of the tactical. This conjunction of forms and practices unites these short poems as a genre specific to the culture of later medieval England. How, then, can we understand the relationship between what I am calling the medieval English lyric and the transhistorically defined literary genre of "lyric"? To address this question, I briefly examine the modern emergence of theories of the lyric and of the definition of the Middle English lyric corpus.
Medieval English Lyrics and "the Lyric"
Middle English lyrics have entered modern literary criticism through the highly mediated apparatus of modern genre making, which has been informed as much by post-Romantic aesthetic expectations of lyric poetry as by the philological methods central to medieval studies. Thus, it is worth considering what is at stake in using the word "lyric" to describe this corpus and to what extent the integration of medieval short poems into modern genealogies of lyric can inform and revise transhistorical lyric theory. As many critics of lyric and nonlyric poetry seek to integrate formalist methodologies with their political and historicist critiques, the medieval lyric's difference from the post-Romantic genre promises to make it paradigmatic rather than marginal, as it has frequently been conceived in literary histories of English poetry. This premodern corpus offers a lyric theory that precedes the early modern appropriations of Classical poetics that defined lyric poetry as a genre, as well as Enlightenment concepts of subjectivity that influenced modern poetics. In order to begin to locate medieval short poems in this longer history of lyric genre, I describe below how this corpus came to be identified with the genre, despite the lack of a generic name or poetic theory in the Middle Ages. I then briefly discuss the post-Romantic aesthetic theories that defined and privileged the lyric genre, as well as their more recent critiques, suggesting how medieval lyric can advance culturally and historically inflected formalisms and poetics.
If individual medieval lyrics take shape by means of rhetorical and material tactics, so too does imagining this corpus as a genre—within its own cultural context as well as transhistorically—require tactical thinking. For a medieval person, there was no such thing as a lyric. The Latin lyricus seldom appeared in the Middle Ages, and the word "lyric" entered the English language only in the sixteenth century, when it was used to translate Horace's Ars Poetica and in the neoclassical treatises on poetics of Sir Philip Sidney and others. In one of its few medieval appearances, in Isidore of Seville's Etymologies (615-30), lyricus is affiliated with song: "Lyric poets are named after the Greek term lērein (lit. 'speak trifles'), that is, from the variety of their songs. Hence also the lyre is named." Indeed, of the lyre's etymology, Isidore says, "The lyre is so called from the word lērein, that is, from 'variety of voices,' because it renders diverse sounds." For the Benedictine schoolmaster Conrad of Hirsau (c. 1070-1150), lyric is merely one of eleven poetic forms (including pastoral, comic, tragic, elegiac, etc.). According to Conrad, "The verse-form in which drinking-parties with their accompanying amusements are described is lyric. It gets its name from apo to lirin, that is from variation, hence delirus ('crazy') is he who alters from what he was." Of course, the short poems of which Isidore and Conrad speak are Latin compositions whose forms vary greatly over the five centuries separating the two writers and further bear only an attenuated relationship to the poems we now think of as medieval English lyrics. Yet it is worth noting that "variety" seems to be a defining feature of lyricus, suggesting at once its plurality and variability. The variety of medieval songs is also evident in the array of vernacular terms that described short poems in later medieval England. These include "all-purpose terms like song, dite, and tretys, . . . function-related titles such as complaint and supplication, and the formal terms (usually French-derived) like ballade and roundel." Thomas Duncan suggests that the term "song," with its implications of musical accompaniment, best names this corpus, since many of these poems were either composed for singing or took their verse forms from music.
If the names for short poems are diverse, medieval poetic theory also tends to separate them by type. Manuals of lyric forms generally focus on Latin or Continental vernacular poetry. John of Garland's Parisiana Poetria (1220-35) includes a section on the ars rithmica that describes rhyming and rhythmic Latin poetry, including lyrics. Dante's polemic on vernacular literature, De vulgari eloquentia, comes closest to unifying diverse forms of lyric poetry (the sonnet, ballata, and any "arrangement of words that are based on harmony") under a single term, canzone or "song," which privileges the words rather than the music of these compositions and emphasizes authorship. The French produced manuals on troubadour poetry and anthologies of lyric quotation in the thirteenth century and treatises on the newly popular fixed forms (rondeaux, balades, virelais, etc.) in the fourteenth century. However, the most influential poetic treatises focus on narrative poetry: Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria Nova (1208-13), Matthew of Vendôme's Ars Versificatoria (1175), and the anonymous Tria Sunt (1256-1400).
Most medieval English lyrics demonstrate only patchy or limited awareness of Continental treatises, and as we have seen, they survive in very different material forms from their Continental analogues. Thus, our current conceptions of the corpus and theorization of "Middle English lyrics" emerge largely from twentieth- and twenty-first-century editorial and critical work. The pioneering editions of Carleton Brown and Rossell Hope Robbins, published between 1924 and 1952, created a broadly conceived corpus from the short poems scattered across a diverse collection of manuscripts and made it visible to readers. The Index of Middle English Verse and its permutations cast an even wider net, including all English verse texts, making possible the comparison of versions and analogues of the short poems. If this kind of editorial work tends toward broad inclusivity, contemporary criticism generally subdivides the corpus thematically or formally. Religious lyrics have been most comprehensively studied. Rosemary Woolf described these poems as "meditative" and traced their motifs across the Latin tradition. Peter Dronke's Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love-Lyric takes a similar approach to secular lyric, locating Continental and English courtly love lyrics in relation to Latin literary rhetorics. Manuscript contexts also reveal localized meanings and functions of lyrics, from verses that act as distinctiones in thematic sermons to the regional politics of the poems of MS Harley 2253.
Yet medieval lyric practice, whether sacred or secular, was not only textual but also read, heard, spoken, and sung—in short, embodied, as a growing critical literature demonstrates. As Emma Dillon points out, the implicit theory of song that emerges from Occitan troubadour lyrics links verbal expression with sound: in these songs, "there are no words which do not have voices." Private devotional reading can also invite performative "habits of thought" into the monastic practice of lectio, as Jessica Brantley shows in her discussion of a fourteenth-century Carthusian manuscript containing illustrated lyrics of Richard Rolle. And the poetics of devotional lyrics affect audiences cognitively and psychologically: figurative language mirrors the union of human and divine in the incarnation, for example, and lyric texts can "script emotional performance" in order to instruct readers and speakers in particular modes of feeling. At the same time, secular love lyrics are as much indebted to embodied performance—especially in song and dance—as to conventional textual figures, tropes, and idioms. And like their modern counterparts, medieval lyrics have been studied according to formalisms old and new, from R. L. Greene's magisterial study and compilation of English carols to Nicolette Zeeman's suggestive readings of the "imaginative theory" implicit in English chansons d'aventure.
Given the difficulties of working with this corpus, this body of scholarship represents a relatively vigorous critical literature. But while medievalists embrace lyric readings, they are less forthcoming with lyric theories that would unite these diverse texts under a single and comprehensive generic identity. It is perhaps this scarcity that accounts for the elision of the premodern short poem in the broader transhistorical reassessment of English lyric and poetic form. For if medieval English lyrics have been undertheorized in their own time and in ours, they differ starkly from the post-Romantic lyric, whose generic identity is central to the development of modern literary criticism. For Hegel, the three primary literary genres—lyric, epic, and drama—were determined by the relationships they presented between the inner and outer worlds, or "subjectivity" and "objectivity." In this theory, lyric is subjective, epic objective, and drama at once subjective and objective. His theory had a long afterlife: to cite one example, Stephen Dedalus paraphrases it in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But while this tripartite theory of genres claims to descend from Aristotle and Horace, its modern permutations elide the modal system on which Classical aesthetics is based, which is less dialectical and more tabular in its structure. That is, Classical aesthetics separated rhetoric from content, implicitly constructing a matrix of genres that permit combinations of each. Indeed, the modern capacious sense of "lyric" is absent from most classical poetics, which, like the later work of Isidore and Conrad, divides short poems into iambics, satires, praise poems, and so forth.
Hegel's dialectic privileges the dramatic genre for its capacity to unite internal and external experience. Yet for many post-Enlightenment thinkers, lyric's ability to express the inner experience of the solitary and autonomous subject lent it a special interest. Lyric poetry was thought to be the language of a contemplative solitude (Latin otio) untouched by the compromises and negotiations (neg-otio) of intercourse with the world. This understanding of lyric led to its definition as a particular kind of private speech. John Stuart Mill's dictum, "Eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard," was taken up by Northrop Frye, who remarks that lyric is "preeminently the utterance that is overheard." It is expanded in M. H. Abrams's description of a subgenre, the "greater Romantic lyric," which "present[s] a determinate speaker in a particularized, and usually a localized, outdoor setting, whom we overhear as he carries on, in a fluent vernacular which rises easily to a more formal speech, a sustained colloquy, sometimes with himself or with the outer scene, but more frequently with a silent human auditor, present or absent."
The expression of interiority that characterizes this model of lyric poetry made it an apt object of study for twentieth-century humanist critics, who saw the psyche as transcultural and transhistorical. The creator of "practical criticism," I. A. Richards (a psychologist by training), claimed that reading poetry existed on a continuum with other experiences that develop a person's selfhood: "It is impossible to divide a reader into so many men—an aesthetic man, a moral man, a practical man, a political man, an intellectual man, and so on. It cannot be done. In any genuine experience all these elements inevitably enter." A good critic "must be an adept at experiencing, without eccentricities, the state of mind relevant to the work of art he is judging." For other critics, the primary subjectivity constituting the lyric poem is that of the poet himself. Eliot identifies "three voices of poetry" that depend as much on who speaks as on who listens. The three voices are the poet talking to himself or to no one (lyric), the poet addressing an audience of any size (epic or, Eliot asserts, dramatic monologue), and the voice or voices of distinct dramatic characters addressing an audience (drama). Eliot prizes the "first voice" of lyric, which he prefers to call "meditative verse," as fulfilling the primary function of poetry: "The first effort of a poet should be to achieve clarity for himself." Likewise, in an analysis of Herrick's "Corinna's going a-Maying," Cleanth Brooks remarks, "The poet is a maker, not a communicator. He explores, consolidates, and 'forms' the total experience that is the poem. I do not mean that he fashions a replica of his particular experience of a certain May morning like a detective making a moulage of a footprint in wet clay. But rather, out of the experiences of many May mornings, and out of his experience of Catullus, and possibly out of a hundred other experiences, he fashions, probably through a process akin to exploration, the total experience which is the poem." Rejecting mimesis, Brooks posits poetry as the linguistic "vehicle," to use his term, of the poet's complex subjectivity.
W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley expunge both poet's and reader's subjectivities from the reading of lyric, replacing it with a "speaker": "[E]ven a short lyric poem is dramatic, the response of a speaker (no matter how abstractly conceived) to a situation (no matter how universalized). We ought to impute the thoughts and attitudes of the poem immediately to the dramatic speaker, and if to the author at all, only by an act of biographical inference." This at once anonymizes and universalizes the complex, experiential subjectivity that generates a lyric poem. This view of lyric persists, notably in the work of Helen Vendler, for whom modern lyric poetry expresses the common "soul" divested of attributes such as race, gender, or social class.
Most recently, Jonathan Culler's aptly titled Theory of the Lyric puts forward a model of the genre that identifies the distinctive language of lyric poetry as the defining feature of the genre. Culler identifies four qualities language specific to lyric poetry: (1) its mode of address to another person or object, which constitutes an indirect address to the reader; (2) its nonmimetic language "events"; (3) its "ritualistic" sound patterns (rhyme, rhythm, etc.); and (4) its use of hyperbole. Just as post-Enlightenment poetic theorists found lyric's transhistorical genre identity in its capacity for subjective utterance, Culler identifies these verbal and rhetorical features as the basis for defining a unified lyric genre across time and space. As he puts it, genres "have the singular property of being potentially resistant to unidirectional historical evolution, in that generic possibilities once exploited remain possible, potentially available, while political, social, and economic systems have moved on in ways we think of as irreversible."
Critiques of such universalizing claims frequently situate both lyric and nonlyric verse in its plural, contingent, and social contexts. In his 1957 radio address, "Lyric Poetry and Society" (translated into English in 1974), Theodor Adorno observed that the concept of the solitary speaker of lyric has ideological underpinnings, since this figure emerges from the alienation produced by capitalist social structures. Adorno and other Marxist critics articulate ways in which qualities of the lyric genre, such as Hegel's durable assertion that it is "subjective," emerge from specific structural and ideological features of culture, such as the alienation produced by capitalism. When applied to modern lyric, Marxist critique tends to be oppositional: the private self is in necessary conflict with a postindustrial society; what Charles Bernstein calls "official verse culture" is antagonistic toward the eccentric poetry of the avant-garde. The group of poet-theorists that identify as the Language poets assert that their writing "places its attention primarily on language and ways of making meaning that takes for granted neither vocabulary, grammar, process, shape, syntax, program, or subject matter. All of these remain at issue." Language poetry attempts to extend the boundaries of linguistic expression beyond reference, rhetoric, or ritual, drawing into the ambit of poetry (if not of lyric) abstract sound, discourses from the colloquial to the bureaucratic, and the layout of the printed page. This school largely subscribes to a Marxist politics of lyric, in that it understands uses of language to express "the social determination of consciousness," especially, for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, by capitalist economic and cultural forces. As Marjorie Perloff notes, however, the protesters against "official verse culture," too, adhere to particular lyric canons that, even as they claim expansiveness, elide a great deal of poetry that could productively enter into and alter their lyric theories. Recognizing marginal voices and difference as constitutive of the plural identities within cultures, many readers have turned away from lyric to focus on forms that more apparently express these heteroglossic voices: novels, autobiographical narratives, and other writings not conventionally considered literary.
Yet lyric in particular and poetry more generally are far more diverse and flexible than conventional post-Enlightenment aesthetics allow. As so-called New Formalist analyses, especially those pertaining to lyric and poetics, demonstrate, rhetorical and material poetic forms are themselves historically contingent, and expanding our study of verse beyond the traditional definitions of "lyric" promises to reveal a different literary history. Yet many critics also find lyric's formal and practical qualities compelling enough to retain its status as a distinct object of study. For every call to "let 'lyric' dissolve into literature and 'literature' into culture," there is a plea to preserve lyric as a distinct genre. Defenders of lyric cite many qualities that distinguish it as an object of study: its special ability to suspend temporality, its difference from narrative, the particularities of its voice, and its verbal music, to name a few. Further, the pedagogical usefulness of lyric that I. A. Richards recognized—it is a text short enough to be read, digested, and discussed in a single classroom session—remains for many a compelling reason for its study. Another is doubtless the unique pleasure of reading lyrics: their gemlike intricacies, their verbal music, their rhetorical richness, and the intimacy of lyric voices.
Medieval lyrics, it must be said, have often been accused of falling short of these marks. For every "Alisoun," with its earthy eroticism and intricate stanza form, there are ten monorhymed didactic lyrics prodding their readers toward renunciation and contrition. For this reason (among others), medieval English lyrics have often been omitted from or superficially treated in transhistorical accounts of the genre. But it is precisely because these poems resist the formal paradigms and aesthetic models that have determined much lyric criticism in the past century that a new examination of this corpus promises to generate a critical paradigm that might productively enter into and enrich transhistorical lyric theories. Conversely, features of multiple contemporary poetic theories that present themselves as oppositional can productively inform a study of medieval English lyric, which at once participates in the kind of rhetorical ritual language that Culler identifies and draws widely on the kinds of linguistic and material resources championed by the Language poets. Yet none of these modern poetic theories offers an entirely adequate lens for understanding the premodern genre. While the theory of tactics that I have outlined above is essentially Marxist (in its concern with practice, use, and structures of power), it differs from existing Marxist lyric criticism in an important way. The theory of tactics is not oppositional with respect to the structures of power; it is relational, recombinative, and generative. As such, while specific tactics may be subversive in effect, they are as a whole dependent on existing structures. Further, while medieval English lyrics share some commonalities with lyrics of other times and places, their specific cultural contexts influence and even produce their forms, material witnesses, and performances. Thus, understanding that all of these features of medieval lyrics are governed by ad hoc tactics allows us to recognize how a particular approach to practice can do as much to define a genre as its rhetorical forms. Shifting the emphasis from form to practice in the study of this genre suggests that for medieval people, as for us, the lyric genre performs a distinct kind of cultural work. And while it is outside of the scope of this book to explore fully the implications of the model of medieval lyric tactics for the long history of the genre, it is my hope that this study will provide an entry point for thinking about the place of the medieval insular corpus in this history. It is for this reason that, in this book, I call these poems "lyrics" despite the lack of historical justification for the term, in order to assert that this corpus deserves a place within the broader history of this English genre. It is precisely the lack of generic definition that allows the cultural object we now call "medieval lyric" to work tactically on institutional forms of textuality and, conversely, to define itself as the genre that does this tactical work. The very looseness of this medieval corpus suggests its extension to postmedieval poetry within and outside of traditional definitions of "lyric."
Tactics are above all modes of relation. Thus, this book focuses on lyrics in contexts where their relations—to the manuscript page, to a compilation, to longer or distinct literary forms—help to define the genre's practices. Of particular interest are those poems and contexts that emphasize and theorize lyric practice, especially when it encounters more standardized or normative forms. Taken together, these textual relationships suggest an implicit lyric theory centered on tactical practice and demonstrate particular aspects of lyrics that facilitate these practices. Each chapter of this study thus considers a larger structure that contains lyrics, whether a manuscript compilation or a long literary work, and each begins with a lyric from its text or manuscript that exemplifies its implicit lyric theory. Although it is not comprehensive, this study attempts to be expansive in its corpus, including sacred and secular, anonymous and authored, compiled and interpolated lyrics. By integrating poetry that is usually separated by theme or context in critical discourse, I seek to demonstrate the persistence of tactics across the significant formal changes to the lyric during the later Middle Ages in England. If tactics define the practices of a genre, then they should flexibly adapt to new forms the genre takes. Thus, conceiving broadly of lyrics in relation to other textual forms (within miscellanies as well as in longer poetic works) demonstrates how tactics persist as lyric forms change.
The core chapters of the book focus on compilations and literary texts of the fourteenth century (although their lyrics, in many cases, record or adapt earlier compositions), while this introduction and the conclusion extend my findings to the longer later medieval period. I have chosen this temporal frame for a few reasons. First, the textual cultures I discussed earlier were still taking shape during the fourteenth century, inviting a sense of freedom and experimentation with their conventions. Second, many lyrics survive in fourteenth-century texts and manuscripts (even when they were composed earlier), offering a significant corpus that is unavailable in earlier post-Conquest England. My final reason is literary-historical. The fourteenth century, once central to Middle English literary criticism, is now rarely considered in its entirety: the newly vital rubric "early Middle English," the significant cultural changes of post-Plague England, and the sense that a disproportionate focus on what were once called the "Ricardian poets" led to overlooking important medieval literature and culture, especially in the fifteenth century, have all served to expand medieval literary studies in productive ways. In this study, though, I suggest that the fourteenth century is an identifiable and distinct epoch in the history of English lyric, whose tactics bear on earlier and later lyrics. Examining this century in its entirety additionally suggests a new reading of a primarily narrative poet who was deeply interested in lyrics and lyricism: Geoffrey Chaucer. Rather than an originary figure who transforms Continental lyrics into a new English form, Chaucer emerges in this study as a transitional figure in the history of English lyric with ties to an existing insular genre based not on influence or sources but on practice.
This book falls roughly into two parts that both show how lyric tactics emerge in and as relations to established medieval forms. The first two chapters focus on manuscript compilations containing significant groups of lyrics. My decision to emphasize the material contexts of lyrics in the first half of this book has to do, in part, with the lack of a comprehensive critical edition of medieval English lyric poetry. Anthologies of Middle English lyrics have long been available, but these largely neglect the multilingual and multigeneric contexts in which these poems tend to survive. As I was completing this book, Susanna Fein and David Raybin's enormously helpful edition of the complete manuscript of British Library MS Harley 2253 became available, as did the digital edition of the Vernon manuscript. Such manuscript editions promise to illuminate the contexts of English lyrics; my own chapter on Harley 2253 contributes, I hope, to an understanding of the place of lyrics in medieval English books. Yet any single compilation is also necessarily idiosyncratic; thus, I have chosen to examine two very different, near-contemporary books containing lyrics. My final reason for emphasizing material contexts in the first part of this book has to do with understanding medieval written texts as a kind of practice. Like lyric poems, medieval English manuscripts are governed by conventional forms that their creators, transmitters, and audiences improvise on, elaborate, and modify. The manuscript compilations discussed in the next two chapters navigate such forms tactically in order to render and theorize the performative and textual practices of lyrics.
Chapter 1, "The Voices of Harley 2253," focuses on the Herefordshire household book containing the well-known "Harley lyrics," British Library MS Harley 2253 (1330-40). The compilation and layout of this lyric's texts demonstrate an attention to a concept of voice that can productively replace our modern idea of a lyric "speaker." Medieval scholastic philosophy, grammatical and rhetorical theory, and the Derridean phenomenology of voice all theorize it as a tactical practice. The Harley manuscript's inclusion of lyric dialogues, poems with nested speakers, and even the scribe's deployment of parchment holes to influence the voices that might perform his texts suggest that lyric voices are important tactics for a diverse range of writing and performance practices.
A tactical lyric voice probably seemed productive and inclusive to the secular household that produced Harley 2253. Yet its moral implications could be troubling for the major producers and disseminators of liturgical or sacred lyrics: friars. To understand how friars relied on lyric tactics for what are ultimately strategic ends, Chapter 2 studies William Herebert's commonplace book (1314-33), a collection of practical and preaching texts that includes the friar's own English hymn translations. This chapter demonstrates that for Herebert, the tactical practices encouraged by lyric language, with its tendency to adopt different meaning according to circumstances, pose a doctrinal problem. How can the popularity of lyrics be deployed in the service of pastoral care while preserving their doctrinal consistency, especially in a literary form whose tactics make it morally ambiguous? A little known Anglo-French lyric in Herebert's compilation, "Amours m'ount si enchanté," poses (and resolves) this problem thematically and formally. Herebert's hymn translations draw on the tactics suggested by this poem to separate song's affective power in performance from its doctrinal regulation in written texts. Lyric tactics thus permit Herebert to reconcile its performance practices with the more strategic forms of scholastic textual conventions.
Whereas manuscript miscellanies use tactics to navigate between the performative and the written aspects of lyric practice, later insular lyrics increasingly explore relationships among literary forms. The second half of this book thus considers how these tactical relationships continue to inform the development of the medieval English lyric. Putting the lyrics in Geoffrey Chaucer's longer works in dialogue with their literary and practical contexts, I demonstrate how later fourteenth-century lyrics continue the tactical practices that shaped earlier lyrics. This is not an argument for direct influence. Rather, my claim is that tactical practice continues to define the insular lyric even as new lyric forms and lyric theories, chiefly those of Continental poetry, influence English literature. Recalling that tactics are modes of relation to existing structures, we can see that these later English lyrics define themselves tactically in relation to other literary forms.
In Chapter 3, "Lyric Negotiations: Continental Forms and Troilus and Criseyde," I focus on the relationships between insular lyric practices, new Continental lyric forms, and the political issues raised by Chaucer's historical romance. This chapter takes the social forms and practices of Antigone's song as paradigmatic of Chaucer's understanding of the insular lyric genre, even as it draws on French and Italian poetic sources. The poetics, performance context, and reception of the song present a tactics of negotiation, which speaks to Troilus and Criseyde's political concern with reconciling individual and communal desires. Subsequently reading the cantici Troili and the palinode through the model of lyric developed from Antigone's song, I demonstrate how Chaucer's adaptations of Petrarch diminish the kind of panoptic authorial control that the original texts generated and, further, resist (even if they ultimately succumb to) totalizing Petrarchan models of poetics and governance. The lyric tactics of Antigone's song permeate the poem's formal and political concerns, as Chaucer uses the insular lyric's practices to challenge Petrarchan absolutism.
If the lyric tactics of Troilus and Criseyde motivate considerations that are essentially political, those of The Legend of Good Women(1385-96) are more ethically focused. Largely a collection of exempla, or short narratives that teach a moral lesson, The Legend of Good Wome purports to act as a further palinode to Troilus and Criseyde by telling stories of faithful women. Chapter 4, "Form and Ethics in Handlynge Synne and The Legend of Good Women," locates the Legend's lyricism within an English tradition of practical ethical lyric: in particular, the use of lyric within exemplum. This chapter reads the lyric interludes in the Legend alongside those of Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne (1303), a collection of verse exempla. For both authors, lyric interpolations expose and reform the exemplum's formal and ethical disjunction: its conflicting drives toward narrative contingency and moral closure that challenge a practice of moral reasoning based on cases. By contrast, lyric practices suspend exemplary narrative's drive toward closure, encouraging an ethics that consists of recursion and attentiveness to contingency rather than telos. While all of the lyric interludes in these narrative poems draw on medieval and proto-modern lyric forms, ultimately their practices remain central not only to the definition of the genre but also to its ethical and cultural work. As the "father of English literature," Chaucer has often figured in stories of origin: the "first" English poet, for instance, to appropriate and reform Latin theories of authorship. My reading of Chaucer is rather as a transitional figure, between the tactics of earlier English lyric and the increasingly vernacularized forms of textual authority.
The lyric tactics described in these chapters suggest an alternate narrative of English lyric history, in which a distinct insular genre not only informs Chaucer's lyrics but also continues to influence the development of lyric in the fifteenth century and beyond. By way of conclusion, I suggest that the tactical cultural work of lyric continues into the late medieval and early modern periods, even as they anticipate features of modern lyric. I discuss how the medieval Orphic myth of the verse romance "Sir Orfeo" offers an alternative to the classical Ovidian narrative of loss that can inform our reading of the relationship between medieval and modern lyricism, as well as read two later lyrics, the fifteenth-century "Adam lay y-bounden" and Thomas Wyatt's "Whoso list to hunt," through this alternate Orphic lens.
To understand genre as a conjunction of practices rather than forms recovers the social and cultural existences of texts. Literature, in particular, offers audiences outside of institutions and their protocols flexibility in their adaptations of and responses to these texts. The forms of lyric poetry especially invite tactical practice. Their brevity, performativity, and stylistic features make them nimble and modular with respect to larger textual structures, both material and rhetorical. Even as lyric texts change forms, the practices they initiated continue to teach us to read, respond, and adapt poetry to our world and our world to poetry.