A spring in one's death
Or: a fountain of youth/doom in (Middle English) lyric
Your heart aches, you’re stabbed with hunger — for so long you become unsure of the difference between your organs; where in your body they lie and what are their functions.
When a bird alights on thy shoulder she opens her beak like a beetle’s wing casings and tries to feed thee as she would her young. She first regurgitates hemlock, but stops herself as though knowing this isn’t quite right, and makes another attempt: dish water.
Alone under a tree that for the seasons is temporarily dead, separated from your love by the stone fortress walls of ocean or geopolitical borders: you sing out of longing; sing to a decorated vase filled with oil, history, or flowers. You sing something to the world and it becomes human. Do you? Such violence there is in silence. In sound.
— My lyf is long on thee.
In the thirteenth century emerges that which we would first recognize as poetry in English. But for some continuities in themes and patterns of alliteration, the native Saxon prose tradition lies some distance from the recognizably rhymed stanzas of Middle English lyric phoning in the influences of continental verse. R. M. Wilson: “No lyric poetry is extant from the Old English period.” Transmitted via the poets of Southern and/or Northern France were the conventions of fin amor — courtly love — such that almost all lyrics in the medieval Anglo world take as their thematic heart either secular or religious passion. Just as the lyric becomes near-synonymous with poetry in general as the centuries wear on.
Prototypically: a poet experiencing unrequited love for a lady not present — geographically removed, of higher status, already married, or some combination. For this he suffers as though tortured or poisoned but is her unwavering servant, a would-be unquestioning vassal knight who is as abundantly worthy of spirit as he is materially destitute. Through obsessions in class, rhetoric, and etiquette, fin amor is less concerned with the satisfaction of amorous desires than achieving sufficient merit, or having inherent merit recognized.
Much has been made of the provenance for Middle English lyric. The influence of fin amor pervades the cries of poets barred from idealized ladies, but the particular mechanism is unclear. The Troubadours of Provence were known to the English court, and English events also figure in Provençal poems, yet by the turn of the fourteenth century when Middle English was developing its secular love lyrics in earnest, the southern tradition was in deep decline. On the other hand, Northern French poetry was then flourishing, the Trouvères having imitated the Troubadours since at least the late twelfth century, perhaps transmitting to Britain indirectly the ideas that seem to lie “at the origin of a centuries-long tradition of high lyric poetry in Western Europe.”
In addition to materializing hazily from cultural exchange in post-conquest England, the first lyrics appear in the most fragile of contexts, often scribbled in what John Scattergood evocatively terms the “invitingly wide margins” of manuscripts otherwise devoted to more practical material. Lamenting that the poet’s intelligence will do nought for his happiness while his love is unattainable, the early lyric “Though I can wittes ful-iwis” sneaks into a top margin of British Library Royal MS 8 D XIII, full of Latin religious texts such as Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel’s Diadema monachorum and Rosweyd’s Vitae Patrum. The now famous “Nou sprinkes the sprai” piggybacks on a flyleaf of Lincoln’s Inn Hale MS 135 by a later scribal hand different from the main text, while the fragment “Fowles in the frith” is jotted down on a spare page in a legal manuscript amidst lists of names and dates:
Fowles in the frith, birds/woods
The fisshes in the flood,
And I mon waxe wood must go mad
Much sorwe I walke with sorrow
For beste of boon and blood. bone
Scattergood: “No manuscripts devoted principally to lyrics appear before the fifteenth century.” Not until the late thirteenth century in Bodleian Library MS Digby 86 are lyrics given any equality of presentation, though they remain isolated in a miscellany of prayers, devotions, and medical treatises. British Library MS Harley 2253 — dated to approximately 1340 — first sees lyrics appear in any significant number, and indeed without it the corpus of pre-Chaucerian lyric would be restricted to mostly a handful of fragments. Only very late in the medieval period did anything resembling collections ascribed to single known authors appear.
Two reactions are typical here. First, great anxiety over the corpus’s fragility. It is widely acknowledged that what survives must represent the merest fraction of that which was composed. This, combined with the lack of authorial context inherent in the general anonymity of pre-Chaucerian poets, restricts scholars to extremely modest claims. The great medievalist Thomas Duncan, concerned as he is with the endeavor to produce “corruption-free editions,” sees this precarity as a significant problem for systematic understanding. One can almost never be sure whether they are dealing with a complete poem, or just a fragment.
Then, the designation of lyric as a low genre in the medieval period; exemplars surviving only by virtue of being bound up with texts possessing a definitive value — religious or pedagogical. Note that Chaucer famously rebukes his own earlier lyric endeavors at the end of The Canterbury Tales, and significant manuscript illumination is rare for lyrics, even when other sections of the same document receive more lavish treatment.
The Middle English lyric tradition began with an almost purely oral currency, circulating as evocative or haunting bites worth committing first to memory, and arriving on the page only in the most contingent circumstances. Julia Boffey suggests a number of such conditions, ranging from pen trials, to autographs of scribes who would spend great lengths of time at work on a manuscript, and even bookplates of readers asserting ownership — marks at once functional and hyperpersonal. “Nou sprinkes the sprai” was added by a scribe responsible for a number of belated entries, all in some way concerning swans, in a document otherwise notable for Bracton’s De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae (On the Laws and Customs of England). Ensconced as they are in their manual labor, scribes make these addenda marginally, yet the very fact of these texts being so readily at hand to so spontaneously include attests to their powerful presence in imagination and culture.
So longe Ich have, lady,
Y-hoved at this gate, lingered
That mi fot is frore, faire lady, frozen
For thy love faste to the stake. (gate-)post
We appear to fall at the feet of fin amor: dutifully coveting a lady at distance, love never reciprocated let alone consummated, the poet stays the course out of some masochistic necessity of honor. But this stray quatrain lies in a religious manuscript on a page facing the sermon Deum ad cor intrare volentum excludant (God wishing to enter the heart they exclude), which may induce an allegorical reading: Christ as the lover-knight of medieval romance seeking access to humanity’s heart, or the poet engaged still in self-flagellation, but this time out of affective piety. With the consummate craftsmanship required to produce manuscripts in the medieval period, it is difficult to imagine scribes as oblivious to the complexities that such contrasts activate in both directions. Rather, it was clearly already well appreciated how these conjoined lyrics were able to provide commentary to standing texts, to say more than those texts could ever do alone.
At the horizon of that which we call lyric in English — the vanishing point where the vernacular emerges from the haze of post-conquest Anglo-Norman — lies an origin for one of our if not oldest then at least most habitual tales of poetry’s place in the world. A near-folk refrain with a well-worn sentiment, repeated often enough to be at best taken for granted, at worst for near-empty platitude. Naïvely put: a poet may sustain themselves in knowing that poetry is a practice freed from the usual demands of utility. In a maniacally productive world, where any and all things must be justified via concrete contributions to the workings of civilization, the poetic sojourns in what otherwise finds no expression within the norms of capitalist political economy. If one produces no viable commodity, one falls into a productive destitution; no ledgers in which to draw up the balance sheet for every letter or syllable.
Here is expressed a prevailing desire to reside on the margins, unable to be fully incorporated by dominant society, and thus resistant to some of the more predictable and easily outrun forms of economic capture. Yet it’s exercised as an affirmation of strength, or at least a talisman of resilience. The announcer supposes to draw power from it, a reason or defense for their creative acts, if not the raw energy with which to create. Thus we might equally expect it to come from somewhere, even if that locus turns out to be distributed in nature. Foucault: “… the return of the origin repeats its retreat.”
As the medieval scribes wield lyrics at once devoid of official value yet possessing of undeniable cultural currency, we find that the poetic holding a function outside classical utility is more than a mere old wives’ tale that doesn’t stack up to reality, but an idea with a palpable material history. The account of lyrics pervading manuscripts is the most solid foundation one could hope for in the mists of time, the proof of their power in how they proliferated perhaps not in spite of, but because of their subversive status as minor literature.
In the political economy of Georges Bataille — himself a practiced medievalist — society holds any loss of energy without profit or expenditure towards nonutilitarian ends in its repressed unconscious. Such denial lives not only because we try desperately to ignore our waste, but because to affirm such dissipation as necessary in order to produce anything in the first place goes so violently against the self-assurance that our economic consciousness possesses an infallibly rational basis. We are appalled by thermodynamics: “Involuntary destruction is seen as a failure or admission of impotence.” Poetry equal to the discharge of factory smokestacks goes some distance in explaining general public hostility to efforts spent on the poetic.
Any generated excess is put first into growth, so “real” excess does not become visible until a system’s growth has reached some basic limit. It is for this reason that expenditure and loss continue to be ends in themselves for economic activity, whether it is via war or unproductive works, since even the so-called sumptuary world has been unable to devise enough sufficiently sumptuary acts of expenditure to keep up with its own acquisitive exploitation of working classes. For Bataille, the origin of exchange is likely to be found not in the need to acquire, but the need to destroy or lose, to use up or exhaust.
Lyrics in medieval Britain began to acquire a cultural force exceeding the possibilities afforded by oral circulation. As existing outlets became insufficient, accomplished manuscripts achieved a basic limit once the officially planned text was complete — yet so much surface area remained blankly fertile. We can see marginal installations of lyrics as consistent in part with the horror vacui that impelled the illumination of documents such as Trinity College Library Dublin MS 58 — better known as the Book of Kells. What differentiates these practices is that instead of a prestigious fill like illumination, snatches of lyric were an infection from low culture, the acts of individual scribes’ more base and populist idiosyncrasies, rather than a grand system oriented towards some notion of glory.
For Bataille, the “unproductive” elements are not excluded from society wholesale, but are instead at first quarantined as heterogeneous matter excluded from the dominant homogeneous society. His dialectical progression of culture — owing much to Kojève’s developments of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic — is constituted by the base or perverse continually experiencing recuperation into the homogeneous. The neutralization of transgression. Just as base matter that is “dead” to the master is recuperated by the labor of the slave/worker, so too base culture — working by sheer quantity of circulation — is eventually absorbed by integrated society.
Poetry oscillates between sovereignty and servility, between excessive undirected activity and slavish representation of the status quo. Whatever the folk origins of Old English poetry, it would be turned towards the tasks of chronicles and national epics. Middle English lyrics germinate in the margins as vernacular challenges to the court language (Anglo-Norman), until their incorporation becomes premeditated, first as spacers, and later receiving concerted attention of their own.
This is all to say that our folk wisdom is anything but permission to breathe a sigh of relief. If we are able to draw power from a poetic raison d’être in rejecting the demands of classical economic utility, it is because the true meaning of any such assertion compels us always to find expressions and activities that cannot be reduced to the functional necessities of production and conservation. Not only to yield works that satisfy this ideal, but to create with the very purpose of boasting the untold excesses of the world at the core of all being. If each poetry is born in the quarantined zones of base heterogeneous matter, it comes with a future of being other than itself already built in. Such is the destiny of all revolutions, and the fountain of our impetus always to continue.
The bulk of lyrics featured in the remarkable Harley manuscript can be traced by their dialect to the West Midlands, where the manuscript is known to have been produced. However, the great medievalist G. L. Brook has determined that some originate from other parts of Britain, confirming the vigor with which these texts were able to migrate. The Harley lyrics appear in clumps between texts such as the popular romance King Horn, other Anglo-Norman poems, Latin devotionals, and instructional texts such as the delightful ABCs for Women, implying they became available in batches as scribes likely traded and collected texts until their appropriate use was found.  Manuscripts can thus be read as metanarratives of what stories were latent in a given region, but also what scribes and compilers valued enough to hold on to over the years of labor required to complete a manuscript.
Even as Middle English lyrics were being incorporated into lavish manuscripts — as heterogeneous material injected into artifacts commissioned by the homogeneous world — they were deploying richly bucolic images in order to evoke their particular anguishes concerning the torture of love and the terror of mortality. Such expressions never would have satisfied the high-art exemplars of the time, the Troubadours, who were near exclusively obsessed with the much more claustrophobic psychology of courtly interactions. Yet in this development, Middle English lyric may only have been prefiguring what would become yet another national poetry in the Romantics, recognizing that, as Joyelle McSweeney would have it, “The premier celebrity resident of Arcadia is Death.”
Wynter wakeneth al my care;
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte Y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie:
Hou hit geth al to noht!
Nou hit is, ant nou hit nys,
Also hit ner nere, ywys!
That moni mon seith, soth hit ys:
Al goth bote Godes wille;
Alle we shule deye,
Thath us like ylle.
Al that gren me graveth grene;
Nou hit faleweth al bydene.
Jesu, help that hit be sene,
Ant shild us from helle,
For Y not whider Y shal,
Ne hou longe her duelle.
Winter awakens all my sorrow;
Now these leaves grow barren.
Often I sigh and sadly mourn
When it enters into my thought
Regarding this world’s joy:
How it goes all to nought!
Now it is, and now it isn’t,
As if it had never been, indeed!
What many a man says, true it is:
All passes except God’s will;
We all shall die,
Though we dislike it.
All that seed men bury unripe;
Now it withers all at once.
Jesus, help that this be known,
And shield us from hell,
For I know not whither I’ll go,
Nor how long here dwell.
In the material origins of Middle English lyric we discover a source of more than just evasive negative freedom for the poet who bears as their standard a rejection of economic capture, and an origin for this idea as it pertains to the poetic in English. At this late juncture I must note that my own studies are restricted to the history of medieval manuscripts on the British Isles, but given this Cambrian explosion of lyric poetry at such a palpable crosscultural literary transfer, it seems likely that one would come to similar verdicts in other languages and cultures.
Poets are at once individuals and members of a broadly transtemporal group creating for the commons, ever expending us anew. For all its internal rhetoric of daring to innovate, the organs of representation in late capitalism have shown themselves poorly suited to the risk of manifesting that which is other than what the consumer public already seem to desire. If we are to become sure of but one thing following this race through our desires for the place of a generalized poiesis, it might be the indelible distinction between those creations as they are for the commons, and the neutralizing power of the homogeneous society that cannot help but absorb the brainchildren of its deviants. Badiou: “And it is essential for poetry that these inventions, these creations, which are internal to language, have the same destiny as the mother tongue itself: for them to be given to all without exception. The poem is a gift of the poet to language. But this gift, like language itself, is destined to the common — that is, to this anonymous point where what matters is not one person in particular but all, in the singular.”
For so long the cobbled street markets, the chemical plant piping, the rolling hills bleed together like paint, sweet embrace, or a houndstooth pattern. But still I get the sense that my eyes are in one piece; I could scoop the left / right out and hold it in my palm like a freshly laid egg.
5. Jensen gives the period of decline as 1250 to the end of the thirteenth century. It is unclear whether the known contact during the reigns of Henry II, Richard I, and Henry III can be reliably used to account for influence in much later poetry, closer to the turn of the fourteenth century.