The Medieval Review 14.09.13


Duncan, Thomas G. Medieval English Lyrics and Carols. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013. Pp. 480. $45.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9781843843412 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


John Haines
University of Toronto
j.haines@utoronto.ca

In reading this book I was thrown back to my undergraduate years at Bemidji State University in Minnesota singing English medieval carols as part of Paul Brandvik's Madrigal Dinners. Dressed up in fancy hats and pointy shoes, we entertained our middle-class guests with songs that Brandvik had culled mainly from R. V. Williams' The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) and John Stevens' Medieval Carols (1952). The reader aghast at my inauthentic American medieval experience should know that it was an American, and not an Englishman, who first put the medieval English carol on sure scholarly footing. R. L. Greene's unwieldy Princeton dissertation-turned-book, The Early English Carols (1935), was eventually pared down to A Selection of English Carols (1962). The "musical implications" of "Greene's fundamental treatise" (Stevens, Medieval Carols, p. xiii) soon followed thanks mainly to the editorial work of John Stevens, but the problem still remained of how anyone beyond a clutch of Middle English specialists would be able to read lines like "this edi hath on hond y-had that heven hem is heist to hede" (I.54 in this anthology).

The dilemma of how to bring English carols to a lay audience was elegantly solved with Thomas Duncan's Late Medieval English Lyrics and Carols, 1400-1530 (2000), itself the companion volume to his Medieval English Lyrics, 1200-1400 (1995). The success of these two books, both published in paperback for Penguin Classics, had to do with their layout: modern English glosses of select words and phrases alongside the original texts. The present volume represents a publisher's opportunity, as D. S. Brewer has conflated the two Penguin volumes into a single affordable tome, leaving the original Penguin contents virtually unchanged, pace the introductory claim that this is a "revised edition" (xiv). The preface and introductory material of the 1995 Medieval English Lyrics, 1200-1400 are on pp. ix-xiv, 1-15 and 40-51 of the present volume; all 132 poems from the 1995 volume are here placed on pp. 53-185 and their commentary on pp. 312-373. In short, the 1995 Medieval English Lyrics, 1200-1400 becomes Part I of the present volume. Part II similarly reshuffles the contents of the 2000 Late Medieval English Lyrics and Carols, 1400-1530: the earlier Penguin introduction here becomes pp. 15-40; all 150 poems from the 2000 book are here on pp. 187-311, and their commentary on p. 373-451. The reason for reproducing the two Penguin books' contents unchanged is given at the bottom of p. xiv: "in order to preserve a system of reference…compatible with the earlier volumes already widely quoted in scholarly literature" (xiv). Regardless, the resulting conflation is confusing. Except for a brief warning on p. ix that Parts I and II represent two different eras--namely, 1200-1400 and 1400-1530--nothing on the table of contents (vii) or on the two parts' title pages (53 and 187) explains why these "lyrics and carols" are divided up into two parts (one lyrics, the other lyrics and carols), nor why these two parts are divided into slightly dissimilar section types: love lyrics, penitential and moral lyrics, devotional lyrics and miscellaneous lyrics in Part I; courtly lyrics, devotional and doctrinal lyrics, moral and penitential lyrics, and popular and miscellaneous lyrics in Part II. All of this follows the two earlier Penguin volumes, but makes less sense when the two are uncomfortably squeezed together into a single volume.

Who is the intended reader of this book? This is not clear. At times s/he seems to be one of the erudite contributors to the aforementioned "scholarly literature" (xiv); Duncan refers at one point to "readers familiar with Middle English" (45). Certain technical labels--the Old French chanson d'aventure, the Old Occitan chanson d'amour and the Middle English "high style" (3-5 et passim)--are not explained, implying that the learned reader already knows them (although the first two are not common in the scholarly literature on Old French and Old Occitan). Elsewhere the reader is understood to be "a non-specialist" (48) who in her leisure time will peruse "these texts in a readily readable form" (ix). Indeed, Duncan's intentionally "eclectic" (x) editorial approach is decidedly low-brow. He freely picks and chooses different manuscript readings and regularly alters them without indication (52). In the end, the book's main goal seems to be for a non-specialist to get a taste of Middle English poetry.

"To enjoy these poems to the full," Duncan advises, "modern readers must, at the very least, be able to read them with a confident sense of movement of the verse" (40). And so I set out to do one afternoon, with a china cup of steeped tea at my side. But by the time I had ploughed through the sections on "lyric stanza and metre" (40-45), "guidance to metrical reading" (45), "language and texts" (47-49), "pronunciation guide" (50-51) and "the syllabic analysis of Middle English verse" (454-456), and had started to worry about such things as "synizesis" (455) and the "-est" endings of the past tense, my tea had gone very cold. Besides, my guide seemed pessimistic at my chances of correctly declaiming Middle English verse. After a survey of the historical evidence--or lack of it--Duncan notes that "it will have become apparent why Middle English scansion is so problematic" (43). The surviving music for some of these poems might have offered some help to my musicological self, as Duncan, himself an organist and orchestral conductor, initially suggests (41). But his appendix on music only reveals more "notoriously problematic" issues of rhythmic interpretation (452). Besides, Medieval English Lyrics and Carols contains not a note of music, and neither edition nor commentary clearly indicates where musical editions of individual lyrics and carols can be located.

Technicalities aside, Medieval English Lyrics and Carols makes accessible to the lay reader fully two hundred and eighty-two Middle English lyrics and carols, among them some real gems. The poetry ranges from the ribald (e.g., II.115) to what Duncan calls the high or aureate style (e.g., I.54). With a contagious enthusiasm, Duncan highlights some noteworthy works in his introduction, including Chaucer's Petrarchan sonnet (I.31), the poignant Swetë Jhesu, king of blisse (I.67), the famous Cuckoo Song (I.110), the subtle Man in the moone (I.114), Charles of Orléans' My gostly fadir (II.7), William Dunbar's Sweit rois of vertew (II.29), the carol Ther is no rose of swych vertù (II.46), Christ's complaint Wofully araide (II.71), Dunbar's resurrection hymn (II.77), Farewell, this world! (II.102), and the pithy Westron wynde (II.105).

I confess that in the end Duncan's method of mixing learned and lay approaches worked for me. Rereading these lyrics and carols, I fell in love with this poetry again as I began remembering the joy of singing English carols under Paul Brandvik's direction during my medieval training at an American state university; the boar's head carol (II.131) sung at banquet or This endrys nyght (II.66) performed to a hushed audience after the meal. These were special moments, but Brandvik knew his Lutheran Minnesotan audience well enough to always end the Madrigal Dinners with a crowd pleaser: the early nineteenth-century carol "Silent Night." It never failed to prompt a tear or two. At one point, in Medieval English Lyrics and Carols, Duncan nostalgically discusses Benjamin Britten's setting of Ther is no rose of swych vertù, a setting in which, he says, "the words Alleluya and Res miranda are alike sung quietly, as with awe, on one repeated low note" (23). A two-page digression on Britten's Ceremony of Carols may seem inappropriate in an academic edition of medieval poetry. But it just goes to show that non-academic interpretations of medieval song--which is to say, accessible and enjoyable ones--are often those that create the most lasting impressions.



Copyright (c) 2014 John Haines



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