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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

§ 8. Love Songs

Love songs are varied, and they are genetically so complex that they often baffle analysis. They range from the saucy and realistic, though always animated, songs of the clerks, to the ornate and figured address of the gallant, who imitates in his ruffled and formal phrases models brought from over seas. Though some songs have advanced little, if at all, from the rude amours of country swains, and others are merely a transplanting of the graceful and artificial toyings of the court-trained gallants of France, the majority fuse traditions, so that a single song must sometimes look for its ancestry not merely to direct antecedents in English folk-song and French polite verse, but, ultimately, to French folk-poetry and the troubadour lays of which this polite verse of France was compunded. Indeed, English verse itself may have been directly influenced by the troubadours.

The French types which were translated or imitated without material modification include the address, the débat, the pastourelle and the ballade.

The address is a poem in stately and formal language wherein the poet addresses his lady, his “life’s souereign pleasaunce.” His attitude is that of a humble and reverential suppliant, who, though confessing the unworthiness of the service which he proffers, yet relies upon the mercy of his lady to accept it. Not uncommonly the poem is a New Year’s letter, in which, failing a better gift, the poet offers his mistress his heart—to her a little thing, to him his all.

Though the débat has a variety of themes in French lyrics, in English it is restricted—save for the song of holly and ivy— to contentions between the lover and his heartless lady. These songs are as unfeeling as the vapid French verse of which they are but echoes.

Of the type of pastourelle in which a gallant makes love to a rustic maiden there are two examples. One of these pastourelles was sung by Henry VIII and his companions, and, in somewhat revised form, is still popular to-day:

  • “Hey, troly, loly, lo; made, whether go you?”
  • “I go to the medowe to mylke my cowe,” etc.
  • In the other, a gallant urges a maid to visit the wildwood with him that they may gather flowers, and at length she yields to his importunity:

  • “Come ouer the woodes fair & grene,
  • The goodly mayde, that lustye wenche;
  • To shadoo yow from the sonne
  • Vnder the woode ther ys a benche.”
  • “Sir, I pray yow do non offence
  • To me a mayde, thys I make my mone;
  • But as I came lett me goo hens,
  • For I am here my selfe alone,” etc.
  • The more primitive type of pastourelle in which one shepherd laments to another the treatment of an indifferent shepherdess survives in a song attributed to Wyatt, but which he can hardly more than have revised:

  • A! Robyn, joly Robyn,
  • Tell me how thy leman doeth, etc.
  • Transferred to the religious lyric, it has also survived in a shepherd’s complaint of the indifference of the clergy to the welfare of their flocks.

    Of all forms of French amatory verse, the ballade enjoyed the greatest popularity in England. It was the form in which the gallant most often essayed to ease his bosom of the torments of love. Every phase of the conventional love complaint, every chapter in the cycle of the lover’s history, is treated in these ballades precisely as in the corresponding verse in France.

    Light-foot measures, such as the lai and the descort, exerted a noteworthy influence upon late Transition lyrics, though English poets were content merely to adopt the characteristic common to all the species—the long stanza of very short verses—and did not observe the metrical peculiarities that differentiate one species from another. This light-foot verse was cultivated to good effect, and furnishes some of the best songs. They are rapid, musical and enthusiastic. Any phase of the lover’s experience may be treated in this verse, but it seems to have been most employed in those songs which deal with the parting, the absence, or the reunion of lovers. The following verses, which open one of these songs, will illustrate their grace and spirit:

  • Can I chuse
  • But refuce
  • All thought of mourning,
  • Now I see
  • Thus close by me
  • My love returning?
  • If I should not joy
  • When I behould
  • Such glory shining,
  • Sith her tyme of stay
  • Made me to decay
  • With sorrow pining,
  • Silly birds might seem
  • To laugh at me,
  • Which, at day peering,
  • With a merry voyce
  • Sing “O doo rejoyce!”
  • Themselves still cheering.
  • Absence darke
  • Thou dost marke,
  • No cause but fearing,
  • And like night
  • Turnst thy sight
  • All into hearing.
  • A French type, which, while having no complete exponent, has yet influenced several English songs, is the aube, or complaint of the lover at the envious approach of morn, a motive which Chaucer used with effect in Troilus and Criseyde, and which Shakespeare immortalised in Romeo and Juliet. In one of the songs, the refrain of an aube is put into the mouth of a “comely queen” (Elizabeth of York?) who, in a “glorious garden,” is gathering roses—

  • This day dawes,
  • This gentill day dawes,
  • And I must home gone.
  • The aube motive is also used as the introduction to another song, in which a lover complains of an inconstant mistress:
  • Mornyng, mornyng,
  • Thus may I synge,
  • Adew, my dere, adew;
  • Be God alone
  • My love ys gon,
  • Now may I go seke a new.
  • One of the earliest phases of the aube tradition, that the approach of day is announced by the crowing of the cock, is the theme of a festive little song, which, in other respects, is not at all like the conventional type. Indeed, the light-hearted spirit of this merry song is a direct violation of the aube tradition:

  • I haue a gentil cook
  • crowyt me day,
  • He doth me rysyn erly
  • my matyins for to say.
  • I haue a gentil cook,
  • comyn he is of gret,
  • His comb is of reed corel,
  • his tayil is of get.
  • I haue a gentyl cook,
  • comyn he is of kynde,
  • His comb is of red scorel,
  • his tayl is of inde;
  • His legges ben of asour,
  • so geintil & so smele,
  • His spores arn of sylver quyt
  • in to the wortewale;
  • His eyuyn arn of cristal,
  • lokyn al in aunbyr;
  • & euery ny[char]t he perchit hym
  • in myn ladyis chaumbyr.
  • The repetitions in this song show that it is of considerable antiquity.