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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

§ 7. Lyrics and Carols; The Religious Plays

A careful examination of fourteenth century religious poems preserved in the Vernon MS. and elsewhere, of the minor verse of the school of Richard Rolle of Hampole, of passages in the religious plays such as those which tell the story of Abraham and Isaac and of the fugitive verse of the fifteenth century should convince the most sceptical of the wealth of early English anonymous poetry, and of its great prosodic interest; it should abolish the practice of regarding verse associated with the outstanding names, and the so-called “court-poetry,” as the only poetry worth consideration; and it should help us to render tardy justice to periods sometimes dubbed barren wastes.

The note of simplicity of utterance, often combined with perfection of form, which is struck in such poems as the thirteenth or early fourteenth century lyric from the Egerton MS.

  • Somer is comen and winter is gon,
  • this day begini[char] to longe,
  • And this foules everichon
  • joye hem wit songe!
  • So stronge kare me bint,
  • Al wit joye that is funde
  • in londe,
  • Al for a child
  • That is so milde
  • of honde,
  • is found again in the Sayings of St. Bernard in the Vernon MS.
  • Where ben heo that biforen us weren,
  • That houndes ladden and haukes beeren,
  • And hedden feld and wode;
  • This Riche ladys in heore bour,
  • That wereden gold in heore tressour,
  • With heore brihte rode?
  • It is carried on by Michael of Kildare, in a hymn written at the begining of the fourteenth centry in which there are movements like this:
  • This worldis love is gon a-wai,
  • So dew on grasse in someris dai,
  • Few ther beth, weilawai!
  • that lovith Goddis lore;
  • it becomes exquisitely melodious in the northern Hampole poems of, approximately, the middle of the fourteenth century, notably in the alliterative verses beginning
  • My trewest tresowre sa trayturly taken,
  • Sa bytterly bondyn wyth bytand bandes;
  • How sone of thi servandes was thou forsaken,
  • And lathly for my lufe hurld with thair handes,
  • and in Eve’s lines in the “Coventry” play:
  • Alas! that evyr that speche was spokyn
  • That the fals aungel seyd onto me.
  • Alas! oure makers byddyng is brokyn
  • Ffor I have towchyd his owyn dere tre.
  • Oure fflescly eyn byn al unlokyn,
  • Nakyd for synne ouresylf we see,
  • That sory appyl that we han sokyn
  • To dethe hathe brouth my spouse and me.
  • It exerts magical power in the beautiful carol from the early fifteenth century Sloane MS.:

  • I syng of a mayden that is makeles,
  • Kyng of alle kynges to here sone che ches.
  • He cam also stylle ther his moder was,
  • As dew in Aprylle that fallyt on the gras.
  • He cam also stylle to his moderes bowr,
  • As dew in Aprille that fallyt on the flour.
  • He cam also stylle ther his moder lay,
  • As dew in Aprille that fallyt on the spray;
  • it shows itself capable of infinite pathos in the appeal is Isaac to his father in the Chester play:
  • Alas! father, is that your will,
  • Your owne childe here for to spill
  • Upon this hilles brynke?
  • Yf I have trespassed in any degree,
  • With a yard you maye beate me;
  • put up your sword if your will be,
  • For I am but a Childe [char]
  • Abraham
  • Come hither, my Child, that art so sweete;
  • Thou must be bounden hand and feets;
  • it reveals passion, strong though subdued to that it works in, in the Quia amore langueo of the Lambeth MS. c. 1430; and it finds an echo in the poem to the Virgin, printed towards the close of the fifteenth century in Speculum Christiani, beginning
  • Mary moder, wel thou be!
  • Mary moder, thenke on me.
  • There are, of course, duller and more sophisticated utterances than these. Mysticism often acts as a clog and didactic aim frequently achieves its usual end and produces boredom. But that happy sense of familiarity with the company of Heaven, which is one of the characteristics of an age of profound faith, finds delightful expression in hymns from Christ to His “deintiest damme” and, above all, in the religious plays. These last, which were written to be understood by the common folk, are mirrors which refelect the tastes of the people, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. An ingenuous audience wished to be moved easily to tears and laughter; rough humour and simple pathos jostled each other on the booths or travelling stages on which were set forth the shrewishness of Noah’s wife, and Isaac submissive to his father’s stroke, the boisterous comedy of quarrelling shepherds and their criticism of the angelic voices. It was not gold and frankincese and myrrh that would appal most to the imagination of the idler in the market place, but a ball, a bird and “a bob of cherys,” which the visiting shepherds give to the Child-Christ, as they address him with

  • Hayll, lytyll tyne mop!
  • Of oure crede thou art crop;
  • I would drynk on thy cop,
  • Lytyll day starne.
  • Truly these writers and actors “served God in their mirth,” but they were not allowed to go on their way unmolested. There are poems against miracle plays as against friars, and sermons too; and in the mass of carols and love lyrics, whether amorous or divine, which form a characteristic feature of fourteenth and fifteenth century English poetry, and which are treated in an earlier chapter in this volume, there appear now and then the spoil-sports who think “the worlde is but a vanyte” and, when the briar holds the huntsman in full flight, only take it as a warning to ponder on more solemn things.