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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVIII. Political and Religious Verse to the Close of the Fifteenth Century—Final Words

§ 3. The Vows of the Heron

Political verse to the end, approximately, of the reign of Edward II was glanced at in a previous chapter. In addition to the two poems in the mixed languages therein mentioned, may be noted a Song against the King’s Taxes, written in the reign of Edward II, in five-line stanzas, the first half of each line, save the fifth, being in Anglo-Norman and the latter half of each line and the whole of the fifth being in Latin. Its theme and its form can best be seen by such a stanza as the following:

  • Depus que le roy vodera tam multum cepisse,
  • Entre les riches si purra satis invenisse;
  • E plus, à ce que m’est avys, et melius fecisse
  • Des grantz partie aver pris, et parvis pepercisse.
  • Qui capit argentum sine causa peccat egentum.
  • From the reign of Edward III onwards, English, as the main vehicle for political verse, apparently ousts Anglo-Norman. A late Anglo-Norman poem, written about 1338, Leus veus du hairon, The Vows of the Heron, has, for its object, the goading of the young king Edward III to war with France, by comparing paring him with what was held to be a cowardly bird. The poem relates that Robert of Artois, who had his own purposes to serve, caused a heron to be served at the king’s table and called aloud the bird’s virtues and vices as it was carried in:
  • Et puis que couers est, je dis à mon avis,
  • C’au plus couart qui soit ne qui oncques fust vis
  • Donrrai le hairon, ch’est Edouart Loeis,
  • Deshiretés de Franche, le nobile pais,
  • Qu’il en estoit drois hoirs; mès cuers li est falis,
  • Et por sa lasquethé en morra dessaisis;
  • S’en dois bein au hairon voer le sien avis.
  • This is too much for the king; and he and his courtiers make their warlike vows on the heron. The war that ensued, together with the Scottish war of the earlier years of the boyking’s reign, were sung by Laurence Minot; and the death of the king, in 1377, called forth a tribute the overmastering thought in which was the very old fashioned sentiment
  • That alle thing weres and wasteth away.
  • That the evils of the time were not absent from the minds of thinking men we see by the writings of Gower and by the Plowman poems. In these last, there is no room for the lighthearted gaiety, the easy-going happiness that causes us to regard Chaucer, though a contemporary, as almost belonging to another world. To the writers of the Plowman poems the times were out of joint and more than jesting was required to set them right; their sharp solemn rimeless lines ring in the ear like the sound of an alarm or the first few strokes of the passing bell.