23 Middle English Lyrics

“Cantigas de Santa Maria of European and Islamic musicians in 13th century playing stringed instruments,” by unknown artist. Wikimedia Commons.



The “Middle English Lyric” is a genre of English Literature, popular in the 14th Century, is characterized by its brevity and emotional expression. Conventionally, the lyric expresses “a moment,” usually spoken or performed in the first person. Although some lyrics have narratives, the plots are usually simple to emphasize an occasional, common experience. Even though Lyrics appear individual and personal, they are not “original;” instead, lyrics express a common state of mind. Those states of mind are wide in range. Some deal with religious topics pertaining to Jesus or the Virgin Mary, focusing on Christ’s sacrifice and salvation, or Mary’s roles as a mother and intercessor. Other religious topics focus on Adam and the Fall, or the necessity of faith. Others are secular, focusing on ale, women, and the simple joys of life. Some are sarcastic, take on satire, humorous, and sometimes even crude. Two of the lyrics presented below are given alongside their original middle English versions.


Literary Context

Middle English Lyrics were meant to be heard, not read. Keeping in mind an aural audience, the lyric is usually structured with poetic devices: an obvious rhyme scheme, internal rhyme, wordplay, allegory, refrain, and sometimes musical effects. The rhyme scheme primarily functions as a mnemonic device for the audience. The Refrain, however, has several critical functions. The Refrain gives the lyric unity and provides commentary (this is not unlike the bob and wheel found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). In addition to functioning thematically, the refrain encourages the audience to participate in singing the lyric. Finally, Musical Effects also encourage audience participation, and they take the form of rhythms and sounds (for example, onomatopoeia is not an uncommon trope employed). We do not know if they were set to music, but it could be possible, as several include music for accompaniment.



Most Middle English Lyrics are anonymous. Because the lyrics reflect on a sort of “community property” of ideas, the concept of copyrighting a lyric to a particular author is usually inappropriate. Additionally, identifying authors is very difficult. Most lyrics are often un-dateable, and they appear in collections with no apparent organic unity. It is most likely many lyrics that survive today were widely recited in various forms before being written down. Evidence for this appears in a variety of Middle English poetry, especially Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Many of Chaucer’s lines bear an uncanny resemblance to Middle English Lyrics. Since these lyrics were written in a clear medieval Latin, scholars infer that these authors were likely clerics, familiar with other languages as well. Since the topics of the lyrics are secular, it is possible that the clerics were not writing the lyrics, but simply writing them down. It has also been inferred that the authors of these lyrics were primarily male. Some lyrics are written in a female voice, but it would be unlikely since those lyrics are written in a harsh satire against women.

Discussion Questions

  1. What similarities can you see here between the works of the Pearl Poet? How about Geoffrey Chaucer?
  2. Consider the differences between secular and religious lyrics; what purpose might each have served for the audience of that time?
  3. Read aloud a lyric. What techniques are being used and are they still effective to modern “ears”?

Further Resources

  • A video of Ardis Butterfield, Yale professor of English and Music, discussing Medieval Lyrics and Chaucer
  • Luminarium’s webpage on Middle English Lyrics
  • A comprehensive webpage entry on specifically Marian lyrics by Karen Staupe (editor) for the University of Rochester’s middle English texts series

Reading: Selected Lyrics


Cuckoo Song

Summer is a-coming in, Sumer is icumen in,
Sing loud Cuckoo Loude sing cuckou!
Groweth seed, and bloweth mead Groweth seed and bloweth meed,
And springeth the woode noo And springth the wode now.
Sing Cuckoo! Sing cuckou!
Ewe bleatheth after lamb, Ewe bleteth after lamb,
Lows for her calf coo; Loweth after calve cow,
Bullock sterteth, buck verteth, Bulloc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Merry sing Cuckoo! Merye sing cuckou!
Cuckoo, Cuckoo, Cuckou, cuckou,
well sing’st thou Cuckoo: Wel singest thou cuckou:
So cease thou never noo. Ne swik thou never now!


Between soft March and April showers, Bitweene Merch and Averil,
When sprays of bloom from branches spring, When spray biginneth to springe,
And when the little bird ’mid flowers The litel fowl hath hire wil
Doth song of sweetness loudly sing: On hire leod to singe.
To her with longing love I cling, Ich libbe in love-longinge
Of all the world the fairest thing, For semlokest of alle thinge.
Whose thrall I am, who bliss can bring Heo may me blisse bringe:
And give to me life’s crown. Ich am in hire baundoun.
A gracious fate to me is sent; An hendy hap ich habbe yhent,
Methinks it is by Heaven lent Ichoot from hevene it is me sent:
From women all, my heart is bent, From alle wommen my love is lent,
To light on Alysoun. And light on Alisoun.
Her sheeny locks are fair to see, On hew hire heer is fair ynough,
Her lashes brown, her eyes of black; Hire browe browne, hire yën blake;
With lovely mouth she smiles on me; With lossum cheere heo on me lough;
Her waist is slim, of lissom make. With middel smal and wel ymake.
Unless as mate she will me take, But heo me wolle to hire take
To be her own, my heart will break; For to been hire owen make,
Longer to live I will forsake, Longe to liven ichulle forsake,
And dead I will fall down. And feye fallen adown.
A gracious fate, etc. An hendy hap, etc.
All for thy sake I restless turn, Nightes when I wende and wake,
And wakeful hours sigh through at night; Forthy mine wonges waxeth wan:
For thee, sweet lady, do I yearn; Levedy, al for thine sake
My cheeks wax wan in woful plight. Longinge is ylent me on.
No man so wise that can aright In world nis noon so witer man
Her goodness tell, her beauties bright; That al hire bountee telle can;
Her throat is than the swan’s more white, Hire swire is whittere than the swan,
The fairest maid in town. And fairest may in town.
A gracious fate, etc. An hendy, etc.
With wooing I am spent and worn; Wery so water in wore.
Lest any reave me, much I fear, Lest any reve me my make
And leave me mate less and forlorn. Ich habbe y-yerned yore.
A sharp, short pain is better borne, Bettere is tholien while sore
Than now and evermore to mourn. Than mournen evermore.
My love, O fair one, do not scorn, Geinest under gore,
No longer on me frown. Herkne to my roun:
A gracious fate to me is sent; An hendy, etc.


Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Fuerunt?

Where are they that lived before,

Hounds they led and hawks they bore

And had both field and chase?

Ladies rich in bowers fair,

Nets of gold bind up the hair,

Rosy-bright of face.

They ate and drank and made them glad

Their life was all with pleasure led,

Men kneeled them beforn,

They bore themselves full proud and high

And in the twinkling of an eye

Their souls were all forlorn.

Where is that laughing and that song

The pride with which they passed along,

The hawk, and hound, and bower?

All that joy is gone away,

That weal is come to welaway,

To many a bitter hour.

They took their heaven while they were here

And now in hell they lie in fere;

The fire it burneth ever,

Long is ay, and long is o,

Long is wy, and long is wo,

From thence come they never.



[Note: When the word “earth” is capitalized (as “Earth”) it is mean to signify mankind, the creature made from the dust of the earth.]

Earth out of earth is wondrously wrought,

Earth of earth hath got a dignity of naught,

Earth upon earth hath set all his thought,

How that Earth upon earth may be high brought.

Earth upon earth would be a King;

But how Earth shall to earth thinketh nothing;

When that earth biddeth Earth his rentes home bring,

Then shall Earth out of earth have a piteous parting.

Earth upon earth winneth castles and towers,

Then saith Earth to earth: “Now all this is ours!”

When that Earth upon earth hath built up his bowers,

Then shall Earth upon earth suffer sharp showres.

Earth goes upon earth as mold upon mold,

So goes Earth upon earth all glittering in gold,

As though Earth unto earth never go should,

And yet Earth shall to earth before that he would.

O thou Earth that on earth travailest night and day,

To deck thee, Earth, to paint thee with wanton array;

Yet shalt thou, Earth, for all thy earth, make thou it never so quaint and gay,

Out of this earth into the earth, there to cling as a clod of clay.

O wretched man, why art thou proud that art of earth maked?

Hither broughtest thou no shroud, but poor came thou and naked!

When thy soul is gone out, and thy body in earth raked,

Then thy body that was rank and undevout, of all men is hated.

Out of this earth came to this earth this wretched garment,

To hide this Earth, to hap this Earth, to him was clothing lent;

Now goes Earth upon earth, rueful, ragged, and rent,

Therefore shall Earth under earth have hideous torment.

Why that Earth too must love earth, wonder me think,

Or why that Earth for superflue earth, too sore sweat will or swink;

For when that Earth upon earth is brought within the brink,

Then shall Earth of the earth have a rueful swink.

So, Earth upon earth, consider thou may

How Earth cometh into earth naked alway,

Why should Earth upon earth go now so stout or gay

When Earth shall pass out of earth in so poor array?

Therefore, thou Earth upon earth that so wickedly hast wrought,

While that thou, Earth, art upon earth, turn again thy thought,

And pray to that God upon earth that all the earth hath wrought,

That thou, Earth upon earth, to bliss may be brought.

O Thou Lord that madest this earth for this Earth, and suffered here paines ill,

Let not this Earth for this earth evil e’er spille,

But that this Earth on this earth be ever working Thy will.

So that this Earth from this earth may fly up to Thy high hill.



The life of this world

Is ruled with wind,

Weeping, darkness,

And stirring:

With wind we blowen,

With wind we lassen:

With weeping we comen,

With weeping we passen.

With stirring we beginnen

With stirring we enden,

With dread we dwellen,

With dread we enden.

Source Texts:

Robinson, Bonnie J. and Getty, Laura, British Literature I: Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century and Neoclassicism (2018). English Open Textbooks. 17, is licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0

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An Open Companion to Early British Literature Copyright © 2019 by Allegra Villarreal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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