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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

§ 9. Pre-Christian Festivals and May Poems

A more apparent influence is observable in the case of the chanson à personnages. This type of poem find its germ in the spring rites attending the pre-Christian worship of Venus, when maidens, escaped from the tutelage of their mothers, and young wives, from the exacting authority of their husbands, rushed to the meadows, joined hands and danced and sang of their liberty. In the opinion of Jeanroy, such festivities had become an almost liturgical convention. By the twelfth century, these songs had been incorporated into semipolite poetry, and the resultant genre enjoyed two centuries of popularity. In the earlier form of the genre, the poet represents himself as listening to a young woman who complains of her tyrannical mother or of her cruel husband, and, sometimes, as even protecting her in an ensuring quarrel. In the later and more refined form, the mother or husband is not present, and the poet consoles the young woman, or even makes love to her, the emphasis thus having shifted from the narrative and dramatic elements to the lyrical. The opening words of the chanson are the conventional L’autre jour or L’autrier, and the opening verses contain a description of May, the scene being placed in a bower or a garden.

Though English songs furnish no complete example of the chanson à personnages as it existed in France, there are a score of songs in which the poet represents himself as chancing upon a maiden or a man who is lamenting an unrequited love, or the treachery of a false lover. As in the chansons, these poems open with the words “This other day” and a description of May-time, and place the scene in the “wilderness,” the wild wood supplanting the French bower, through the influence of the native English songs of the spring to which reference was made in a previous chapter of this work.

Whether this modification of the theme of the chanson began in France, or whether it was strictly an English development, I have not been able to determine.

Just as other types of love songs were taken over and employed in religious lyrics, so this type of song was transferred. In one song the poet comes upon a maiden deep in the wood, and she is great with child. This maiden does not lament her condition, however, but rather sings for joy, since it is given her to bear a Child in whom verbum caro factum est.

The chansons à personnages shade into the English May poems, the refrain of a chanson sometimes being taken from popular English verse, as the well-known refrain:

  • Colle to me the rysshys grene, colle to me.
  • The May poems that follow the English tradition all breathe that blithe, out-of-doors spirit, that vernal enthusiasm for the greenwood and the fields, which consistently characterises spring songs from “Sumer is i-cumen in” and “Blou northerne wynd” to “It was a lover and his lass,” and Herrick’s sweet summons to Corinna. Every wisp of a spring poem has this odour of green things about it, this contagion of happy abandon. One little song has only this to say,

  • Trolly, lolly, loly, lo,
  • Syng troly, lolo, lo.
  • My loue is to the grene wode gone,
  • Now [af]ter wyll I go;
  • Syng trolly, loly, lo, lo, ly, lo,
  • yet how completely it expresses the mood!

    Of kindred spirit are hunting songs, songs of the “joly fosters” who love the forest, the bow and the horn and the keeness of the chase. Who would not fain be present, when

  • Talbot, my hounde, with a mery taste
  • All about the grene wode he gan cast.
  • I toke my horne and blew him a blast,
  • With “Tro, ro, ro, ro; tro, ro, ro, ro!”
  • With hey go bet, hey go bet, how!
  • There he gothe, there he goth! [Hey go howe!]
  • We shall haue sport and game ynowe.
  • It is to be regretted that, for the most part, hunting songs have only survived in the more or less modified forms in which they were adapted to pageants, for they were usually marred in the effort to accommodate them to some allegory, as when the aged foster hangs his bow and arrows upon the “greenwood bough” and, at the command of Lady Venus, leaves her court in disgrace because his “hard” beard repels maidens’s kisses.

    The best of the songs written by official musicians of the court are those in praise of members of the royal family. One of these is a spirited recital of the prowess shown by Henry VIII in the tourney; a second is in praise of Katherine and “le infant rosary”; a third is an animated trio in which each singer professes to love some flower, the praise of which he sings, the last stanza making the disclosure that all three love the same, the rose which unites both the red and the white; and a fourth is a prayer with the refrain:

  • From stormy wyndis & grevous wethir
  • Good Lord preserve the estryge fethir.