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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

§ 7. Drinking Songs

Of all popular poems, convivial songs, with their festivity and their rollicking spirits, are the most engaging. For eight hundred years students have been singing

  • Gaudeamus igitur,
  • Juvenes dum sumus,
  • and it is to these medieval student songs that the youth of to-day turn as to the perennial source of convivial inspiration.

    Some drinking songs are daring parodies of hymns, justifications of drinking by the Sacrament, credos of wine, women and song. All these were already venerable in the fifteenth century.

    Other songs savour of the ale-house rather than of college halls. These look back to the folk-poetry. Drinking songs were, assuredly, one of the early types of communal verse, and the folk-element is apparent in many fifteenth century convivial songs, as, indeed, in the corresponding verse of the Elizabethans. Such well known refrains as “Hey trolly lolly” and “Dole the ale” are of venerable antiquity, and the songs which consist of variations of a common phrase show an indebtedness, of course, immediate or remote, to communal poetry. Thus, such a song as the following plainly took its cue from the folk-song:

  • Bryng vs in good ale, & bryng vs in good ale,
  • For owr blyssyd lady sake, bryng vs in good ale.
  • Bryng vs in no browne bred, fore that is mad of brane,
  • Nore bryng us in no whyt bred, fore ther in is no game,
  • But bryng us in good ale.
  • Bryng vs in no befe, for ther is many bonys,
  • But bryng vs in good ale, etc.
  • This song, however, can hardly claim so remote an ancestry as another, in which the repetitional phrases are, in themselves, of no significance, and are merely used as framework. This is evidence of remote origin, as the study of comparative literature testifies, and the little Latin courtesy with which the song introduces itself cannot conceal its real age:

  • Omnes gentes plaudite,
  • I saw myny bryddis setyn on a tre;
  • He tokyn here fley[char]t & flowyn away,
  • With ego dixi, haue good day.
  • Many qwyte federes ha[char]t the pye,
  • I may noon more syngyn, my lyppis arn so drye.
  • Many qwyte federes ha[char]t the swan,
  • The more that I drynke, the lesse good I can.
  • Ley stykkys on the fer, wyl mot is brenne;
  • Geue vs onys drynkyn, er we gon henne.
  • A merry song that links the convivial poem to the satire on women is the narrative of the gay gossips who hie them to the tavern, and there, tucked away, discuss their husbands, though not without many an anxious eye on the door.

    Hardly to be distinguished from convivial songs are the songs of good fellowship, of “pastyme with good companye,” which exhort

  • Tyme to pas with goodly sport
  • Our spryts to revyve and comfort;
  • To pype, to synge,
  • To daunce, to spryng,
  • With pleasure and delyte
  • Following sensual appetyte.
  • Such songs were especially liked by Henry VIII, when he was a youth, and a group of them is to be found in his song-book.

    The song of the death dance is represented in several manuscripts by a most melancholy and singularly powerful poem. The insistent holding of the mind to one thought, with no avenue of escape left open; the inexorableness of monotonous rimes; the irregular combination of monosyllables, imabics and anapaests, that strike like gusts of hail in a hurtling storm; all these aid in compelling heavy-hearted acquiescence:

  • Erth owt of earth is worldly wrowght;
  • Erth hath goten vppon erth a dygnite of nowght;
  • Erth vpon erth hath set all his thowght,
  • How that erth vpon erth myght be hye browght.
  • Erth vpon erth wold be a kyng;
  • But how that erth shall to erth he thynkith no thyng:
  • When erth biddith erth his rentes home bryng,
  • Then shall erth for erth haue a hard partyng.
  • And so the poem runs for sixteen stanzas.