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22.04.05 Klinck, The Voices of Medieval English Lyric

22.04.05 Klinck, The Voices of Medieval English Lyric

This volume is a new edition of many well-known Middle English lyrics, frequently used throughout universities for undergraduate teaching. The author, Klinck, offers a marvellous introduction that calls into question the category of “lyric,” which I believe is extremely useful both to the scholar and student, and which causes the reader to question the decisions made by other editors in the selection and presentation of their texts.

Beginning with “The Earliest Texts: Song and Meditation,” the impression is that volume is organised chronologically. The explanation for this section undercuts this somewhat, noting that some early poems have been included in a different category later in the volume. It appears that the early composition of these poems (prior to 1250) is the sole organising feature, as the author notes the lyrics “project very diverse themes and voices” (56). This, however, need not be seen as a negative feature of the collection, as the author explains this variety highlights the variety of early verse, a good reminder that so little survives from the early Middle Ages, and that we ought not to draw too many conclusions from the few that survive.

“Poems on Mortality” is a significant shift in focus for the volume, but does comprise later poems compared with the previous section. Klinck offers a detailed explanation of death and mortality, using the poems to illustrate the range of literary methods used by poets, as well as highlighting the many ways that mortality may be interpreted by the reader. There is no doubt this level of analysis and illustration will be invaluable for the undergraduate student encountering these poems for the first time.

Where other collections of medieval lyrics tend to create a group of “religious lyrics,” here the author has chosen to create several categories: “Poems on Mortality,” followed by “Personal Devotion,” which is itself subdivided into the “Voice of Mankind” and the “Voice of Christ.” These are not unhelpful categories, as they do reflect distinctly different topics that a reader will find useful. The section following this is entitled “Marian Poems and Lullabies,” which also appears to be among the religious lyrics. Again, it is useful to have these identified as a separate topic.

The author’s categorisation of the lyrics into a range of “voices,” particularly revealed in her interest in song, is interesting. On the one hand, considering the lyrics as oral/aural experiences is a valid approach. On the other, I find this categorisation useful not so much because I believe this a neglected focus for the lyrics (the poems are, after all, well known), but rather because it reminds one that the collection of poems in this volume, which we frequently refer to as a homogenous group of “lyrics,” may well have very little real connection among them. “Voice” is as good a category as any if it achieves the purpose of reminding the reader of the arbitrariness of categories.

The remainder of the collection contains poems that are frequently labelled “secular poems” in other editions. There is no doubt that the term “secular” is an inadequate term for poetry of this type, and to suggest a distinction between religious and secular is a generalisation (although I note it is still implied in the grouping of the sections of the volume). I assume this is among the reasons behind the structuring of this author’s edition. The sections tend then to become significantly less coherent, including collections from specific manuscripts, or on a range of topics and genres.

The volume concludes with a selection of poetry by Charles d’Orleans and the Scottish poets Robert Henryson and William Dunbar. The author retains a focus on English lyrics in this volume, and while attention is paid to importantly dismembering the term “lyric,” attention could also have been paid to the focus on a linguistic continuity. The inclusion of Charles D’Orleans and the Scottish poets rather brings this to the fore. Their poems are, indeed, in English, but their presence reminds us of the multilingual cultural environment from which many of these lyrics have come. Indeed, with a subsection on both the well-known Rawlinson D 913 and Harley 2253 lyrics, it seems odd not to mention the Latin, Dutch, and Anglo-Norman texts that sit alongside the English lyrics. No doubt one reason is that authors must simply establish limits on their work, but it seems, in the current academic climate that is so receptive to cultural difference, this might have warranted some comment.

A new edition of the lyrics is immensely useful in the undergraduate classroom, and the range of categories used by the author makes identifying and selecting texts for teaching purposes very simple. It is in the attempt to identify the intellectual basis for the structuring of the volume that things become unclear. This may be of no matter. The author’s introductory assessment of the lyrics is valuable and raises many of the scholarly topics that one would want to consider (including what even counts as a lyric), particularly if the volume is being used for undergraduate teaching.

The lyrics themselves are presented with extremely thorough glosses for ease of reading, while maintaining the scholarly information that one might want at the same time. I wish to particularly commend the Textual Notes, and lists of Facsimiles, Digital Editions, and Manuscripts. While not of such interest to the undergraduate student, this information, readily accessible, is immensely valuable for the scholar, enabling future research, but also encouraging teachers to contextualise the lyrics for student readers.