Despite signs of rewakening interest in the medieval English lyric, recent book-length studies are still scarce on the ground, and the field remains strongly marked by the authoritative monographs of Rosemary Woolf, Douglas Gray, and Peter Dronke, now some 40 or 50 years old. An important volume of essays edited by Thomas G. Duncan, in 2005, convened more recent reactions to the main lyric categories, and this volume, together with his accessible editions of the lyrics themselves, and the editions of single lyric manuscripts pioneered by Susanna Fein, represent some of the most notable landmarks within current lyric scholarship. As such, a new monograph on the Middle English lyric is a very welcome addition, in particular one which addresses the knotty question of lyric genre and its definition. As Nelson explores usefully in her introduction, definitions of the lyric have tended to prioritize a classical line running from Pindar and Horace to the English Renaissance and beyond, or to universalize Romantic and post-Romantic perceptions of the lyric as the space of private (often alienated) subjective expression. Even Jonathan Culler’s well-received study, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge, MA, 2015), carries out the majority of its work within these perimeters. However, neither maps with much conviction onto the space or interests of the Middle English short poem, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why it has sometimes remained such a marginalized and forgotten corpus. Working contrary to the generic definitions arising from this lineage, Nelson proposes a new definition, based not on form but on social practice. Utilizing De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, she describes the Middle English lyric genre as a tactical practice, in which the short poem, notable for its propensity to mutate, fragment, and evanesce, nimbly traces out ‘makeshift pathways (for itself) amongst institutional structures’, never fully resisting, but constantly negotiating its oblique relation to the dominant textual order from which it arises. This is a promising approach, and certainly gains traction with regard to those many lyrics which survive pencilled into a margin, or scrawled upon a blank page or flyleaf around the edges of more ‘institutional’, often Latinate, texts. Whether it holds true for the entirety of the Middle English lyric corpus is less certain, and in fact, the chapters which follow interpret the idea of tactical behaviour from rather different perspectives. In the course of four chapters, Nelson focuses on single manuscripts and long texts from the early and late fourteenth century in order to observe how the insular genre responds to the onset of French and Italian lyric influence (Machaut, Froissart, De Grandson, Petrarch, etc.) from the mid-century forwards, arguing that it adapts these influences in tactical directions. The first two chapters establish Middle English lyric behaviour prior to this continental onset, engaging, respectively, with two largescale manuscript anthologies: BL MS Harley 2253 (now judged likely to have been read within an affluent Herefordshire household), and Friar William Herebert’s commonplace book, BL Additional MS 46919. Nelson discerns ‘ethopoetic voices’, that is, performative voices, operating throughout the lyrics of Harley 2253, which respond flexibly to the transmissional circumstances in which they find themselves, but refuse tactically to coalesce into any single perspective or utterance. By contrast, she argues that the vernacular translations of Latin hymns which make up the lyric content of William Herebert’s book, come provided with authorizing devices such as Latin rubrication, in order to stress the unity of voice necessary to doctrinal orthodoxy. Yet at the same time, their translation into the vernacular adds an affective dimension designed to appeal tactically to the laity (it remains a moot point, however, whether vernacularity necessarily equates with affectivity). Both chapters supply excellent background content on attitudes towards voice in rhetorical treatises, and the contemporary controversies surrounding the deployment of song within sermons, but could have been further enriched by a more wide-ranging engagement with the lyrics themselves. Chapters 3 and 4 shift their focus to Chaucer, the late fourteenth-century touchstone for new continental lyric influence. Chapter 3 examines the inset lyrics interspersed throughout Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer’s great romance of antiquity, focusing in particular on Antigone’s Song praising love in Book II and the more negatively amorous cantici Troili, which include the earliest English recasting of a Petrarchan sonnet. Nelson contends that, in all cases, the French and Italian sources that stand behind these songs are re-assembled tactically; that is, the attitudes to love which they express are repositioned within a narrative situation of historical crisis: the Trojan War, and redeployed as tools with which to explore ‘the political implications of privileging private desire’. Nelson’s interest in the way a lyric works within a longer narrative, and the way in which literary forms modify one another, re-emerges in her final chapter which examines lyrics inset within various kinds of exempla. How does the recursive and suspensive form of the lyric tally with a genre driving inexorably towards a totalizing, moral conclusion? Nelson initially explores the exemplum of ‘The Dancers of Colbek’, in which dissolute revellers within a churchyard are cursed by being forced persistently to dance the same carol, and finds that the poetics and movement practice of this lyric encourage the narrative to exceed its exemplary form, demonstrating ‘a tactical response to exemplary morality’. She then transfers to the collection of exempla comprising Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, where, once again, French and classical influences intervene, and discovers that Chaucer frequently replaces the anticipated sententia of each legend with translated excerpts from Ovid’s lyrical Heroides, providing their moralities with a more subjective, contingent and affective quality. Taken as a whole, Lyric Tactics returns our attention to the fourteenth-century Middle English lyric from a number of original angles, and opens up some promising areas of discussion, perhaps most productively with regard to the relation of inset lyrics to larger literary forms: the classical romance and exempla collection. There is much to ponder and develop here. I do however have two small reservations. First, I query whether such various and open-ended demonstrations of tacticality as we are shown across these chapters, hold together sufficiently tightly to provide a fully satisfactory definition of the genre. So much can be evaluated as tactical, and I rather wonder whether French and Italian lyrics are not also more tactical within their own immediate contexts than they are given credit for being. Second, looking forward into the early fifteenth century, what would it mean to say that the devotional lyrics of Lydgate and Audelay, or the numerous aureated lyrics to Mary, deploy tactical methods in the main senses put forward by this study? Impeccably orthodox and edificatory, these and many other religious lyrics enact practices and devotions at the heart of the church institution, and for all their utilitarianism it is not clear that they necessarily create more contingent, less totalizing representations of that institution. The language of tacticality offers a fascinating and profitable point of entry for exploring many Middle English lyrics, whether it can be made to serve for all is a different question. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Oct 12, 2017
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