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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.

XVI. Transition English Song Collections

§ 5. Didactic Songs

Apart from the types of religious songs already considered, there are a large number of moral and reflective poems. Some of these are hortatory, urging man to know himself, to beware of swearing by the mass, to make amends for his sins, or to acknowledge his indebtedness to God. Others are contemplative, and reflect upon the certainty of death, the fickleness of riches or fortune, the prevalence of vice, or the worldliness of the clergy.

In their most highly developed form these poems are allegories, with conventional introduction and conclusion, and a prelude, which is commonly in Latin. In some of the songs, the allegory is highly articulated. For example, the poet pictures himself as sallying forth on a bright summer’s morning in search of sport, with his hawk in hand, and his spaniel leaping by his side. A hen pheasant is flushed, and the hawk gives chase; but, while the sport is at its height, the poet suddenly finds himself entangled in a briar, on every leaf of which is written the warning revertere:

  • My hart fell down vnto my to,
  • That was before full lykyngly;
  • I lett my hawke & fesavnt fare,
  • My spanyell fell down vnto my kne—
  • It toke me with a sighyng fare,
  • This new lessun“revertere.”
  • The summer’s day symbolises the period of youth; the hawk, its fierce passions; and the briar, considence. In the majority of the songs, the allegory is less developed than in this.

    Most often the poet represents himself as wandering through a forest on a sunny morning. As he wanders, he hears the singing of a bird, or of a company of birds, and the burden of their song is some moral reflection or some exhortation. The allegory is usually neglected after the introductory stanza. Almost invariably the song concludes with a prayer for succour in death and deliverance from the fiend. The conventionalised nature setting and the allegory of these poems are clearly French, and the metres most often used are the ballade stanza and the rime royal.

    In the forms in which we have been considering them, these songs were ill adapted to the ordinary audience of the minstrel, and he, accordingly, popularised them by shortening them, introducing a refrain and substituting simple metres, in which the rhythm is strongly marked.

    These moral songs shade into another group of didactic poems, which embody shrewd practical wisdom, of the type dear to Polonius. They concern themselves with such homely advice as to hold your tongue, to try your friend, to look out for a rainy day and to beware of matrimony. These songs also employ the prelude and refrain, and, incongruous as it may seem, often close with a prayer. Some of them are distinguished by quaint and picturesque humour, as is shown in the following stanzas:

  • Quan I haue in myn purs inow,
  • I may haue bothe hors & plow
  • & also frynds inow,
  • Throw the vertu of myn purs.
  • Quan my purs gynny[char]t to slak
  • & ther is nowt in my pak,
  • They will seyn, “Go, far wil, Jak,
  • Thou xalt non more drynke with vs.”