Looking for some great short medieval poems which are easy to read? Look no further than this, our latest post…
Medieval poetry can be a daunting field to dip into (to mix our metaphors terribly). Although Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales and Dante’s Divine Comedy are masterpieces and essential reading, perhaps the best route into medieval poetry – as with any poetry – is to start small. What follows is our pick of the best short medieval poems written in English.
They are all presented in the original Middle English, because here at Interesting Literature we believe that that’s the best way to read the poems. This does mean that several words/phrases need glossing, so we’ve done this briefly before each poem. All of these poems were written (or at least written down) some time during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: our source for them is the excellent Penguin book of Medieval English Lyrics, 1200-1400 (Penguin Classics) which we’d thoroughly recommend if this post whets your appetite for more medieval marvellousness. It’s the perfect book for dipping into on a cold winter night, in front of the fire, while sipping a sherry or egg nog. For more medieval fun, you might also enjoy our interesting Robin Hood facts.
We’ve had to leave some personal favourites out: alas, we couldn’t squeeze in the wonderful medieval poem about a cat, ‘Pangur Bán’, though you can find that discussed in our pick of the best poems about cats. There’s also no room for ‘I have a gentil cok’, so you’ll have to seek that one out for yourself.
1. ‘Fowls in the frith’ (a ‘frith’ is an old name for a wood) is a somewhat enigmatic poem: the speaker ‘mon waxë wod’ (i.e. must go mad) because of the sorrow he walks with, but what causes this sorrow? The last line is ambiguous: does ‘beste’ mean ‘beast’ or ‘best’? The spelling reveals nothing, and in the context of that final line it could be either. If the sorrow is a result of the ‘best of bone and blood’, it could refer to a woman (who is the best living thing in the world, according to the poet) or, as has also been suggested, Christ (a divine being in human form). So, the poem can be read either as a love lyric or as a religious lyric, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining the poem’s popularity. Anyway, here it is:
Foulës in the frith,
The fishës in the flod,
And I mon waxë wod;
Much sorwe I walkë with
For beste of bon and blod.
2. ‘Merry it is while summer lasts’ seems to use a sort of pathetic fallacy (as John Ruskin would later call it) to reflect the speaker’s moral penitence (‘I for great wrongdoing / Sorrow and mourn and grieve’, the last two lines say) by relating this to the passing of the summer and the coming of autumn and winter. Like ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’, which we include in our pick of the best poems about winter, it’s a medieval lyric about the cycle of the seasons.
Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.
3. ‘Somer is y-comen in’ (also ‘Sumer is icumen in’, i.e. ‘Summer has come in’) is an altogether more uplifting medieval lyric about summer, designed to be sung as a ’round’ with several people. The poet entreats the cuckoo to sing loudly as the seed grows and the meadows blossom, and the wood now springs into leaf. The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow after the calf, the bullock leaps, and the buck cavorts. (Well, I say ‘cavorts’, but the Middle English ‘vertëth’ has also been interpreted or translated as ‘farts’; either arguably fits, given the subject of the poem, as both are symbols of health and energy, we suppose.) The last line, ‘Ne swik thou never nou!’, is an entreaty to the cuckoo never to stop singing. We’ve analysed this wonderful summer poem here.
Sing cuckóu, nou! Sing cuckóu!
Sing cuckóu! Sing cuckóu nou!
Somer is y-comen in,
Loudë sing, cuckóu!
Growëth sed and blowëth med
And springth the wodë nou
Ewë bletëth after lamb,
Lowth after cálve cóu;
Bullok stertëth, bukkë vertëth,
Merye sing, cuckóu!
Wél singést thou, cuckóu,
Ne swik thou never nou!
4. ‘Whan the turuf is thy tour’ (i.e. when the turf is your tower) is a memento mori lyric reminding the listener or reader that s/he will die. When the grass lies over you, your skin and white throat shall (‘Shullen’) be good for worms. What use then are all the world’s pleasures? We’re guessing this was an early seduction lyric addressed to a woman (‘thy whitë throtë’): the poet is basically trying to persuade the woman to go to bed with him (or so we reckon).
Whan the turuf is thy tour,
And thy pit is thy bour,
Thy fel and thy whitë throtë
Shullen wormës to notë.
What helpëth thee thennë
Al the worildë wennë?
5. ‘Ech day me comëth tydinges thre’ is a lament telling of the poet’s three worst fears and worries: that he must die; that he doesn’t know when this will happen; and that he doesn’t know where he will go after death.
Ech day me comëth tydinges thre,
For wel swithë sore ben he:
The on is that Ich shal hennë,
That other that Ich not whennë,
The thriddë is my mestë carë,
That Ich not whider Ich shal farë.
6. ‘Why have ye no routhe on my child?’ is a lament for a lost child (‘rode’ is the ‘rood’ or Cross, and ‘routhe’ is ‘ruth’ or compassion – which is why someone who lacks compassion is described as ‘ruthless’).
Why have ye no routhe on my child?
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child,
Or prik me o rode with my derling!
More pine ne may me ben y-don
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same.
7. ‘Of every kinnë tre’ is a simple song or medieval poem about desire. A rough (and inferior) paraphrase is: ‘Every kind of tree, the hawthorn blossoms sweetest; she shall be my lover, the fairest of every kind.’
Of every kinnë tre,
Of every kinnë tre,
The hawthorn blowëth swetest,
Of every kinnë tre.
My lemman she shal be,
My lemman she shal be,
The fairest of every kinnë,
My lemman she shal be.
8. ‘Ich have y-don al myn youth’ is a short lament for unfortunate love: ‘All my youth I have loved, often; long loved and keenly yearned, and it has cost me dearly!’ Quite.
Ich have y-don al myn youth,
Oftë, ofte, and ofte;
Longe y-loved and yerne y-beden –
Ful dere it is y-bought!
9. ‘Say me, wight in the brom’ is perhaps something of a controversial poem – it effectively features a woman asking a mysterious figure (or ‘wight’) how she can get her husband to love her, only to be told, ‘hold your tongue, and you’ll get what you want.’ Charming.
Say me, wight in the brom,
Teche me how I shal don
That min housëbondë
Me lovien woldë.’
‘Hold thine tongë stillë
And have al thine willë.’
10.‘Ich am of Irlande’ is a famous song, perhaps one of the most famous medieval English lyric poems. Its meaning is pretty self-explanatory, so we’ll let the anonymous poet speak for himself (and for his homeland):
Ich am of Irlande
And of the holy lande
Good sir, pray Ich thee,
For of saynte charité
Come and daunce with me
If this post has whetted your appetite for more medieval literature, check out our pick of the best works of medieval literature, our short summary of the poem Beowulf, these classic Anglo-Saxon poems, and our interesting facts about Magna Carta. Or step forward in history into our best short Renaissance poems in English.
For more poetry, see our short history of English poetry told through 8 short poems. For more short poems, check out our pick of the best very short poems by the Victorians.
Images, top to bottom: Heures de Maréchal de Boucicaut, c. 1410, public domain; Codex Manesse, 71v, Kristan of Hamle (medieval Lovers, pulled in a basket), c. 1305, public domain.
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric
Fowles in the frith,
The fisses in the flood,
And I mon waxe wood
Much sorwe I walke with
For beste of bon and blood.
[Birds in the woods, fish in the stream, and I’m going mad. I walk with much sorrow for the best (or beast) of bone and blood.]
These brief five lines, found on a single page in a legal manuscript amid lists of names and dates, have attracted considerable attention in modern times, though their interpretation remains highly uncertain. The concision and elaborate sound-play of the piece have charmed readers even as experts cannot agree on the poem’s theme. The very mystery of the text may be itself admired, if the ambiguity be a sort that results not in lack of communication, but in the more precise communication of a more complex theme.
The unfolding of the sound pattern is a marvel of incantation, justifying the poem as a virtuoso melodic invention. The alliteration with the f-sound in the first line is repeated in the second to a resounding three-beat accentual rhythm. The third line turns instead to alliteration on w which is continued in the fourth and, in the end, all is swept away with three stressed words in the final line beginning with b.
This tight alliterative pattern, drawing on the Old English poetic tradition is combined with the ABBAB rhyme scheme to knit the whole into an almost hypnotic spell. The lovely music of the piece is self-sufficient, though many recordings exist due to the two-part musical notation accompanying the poem.
When these powerful phonic effects are linked to a semantic structure so delicately poised that an approximately equal number of critics have read the poem as an expression of romantic love and of Christian faith. The secular reading, which was dominant until the 1960s, treats the first two lines as the most conventional of medieval love poetry openings: a reverdie. Presumably the original form of the convention was equivalent to Tennyson line in “Locksley Hall”: “In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” “Foweles in the frith” tropes on the expression by reversing that sympathy with nature. In this poem all nature is fertile and thriving, but the speaker is depressed, presumably due to his lover’s lack of complaisance. The hyperbolic compliment (“beste of bon and blood”), the woman’s coolness, and the lover’s consequent suffering are among the expected components of the sort of courtly love familiar from countless other texts. The phrase itself appears with very nearly meaning the same other love lyrics such as “The Fair Maid of Ribbesdale” and “Blow, northerne wind.”
Early scholars took the poem without question as an expression of romantic love. Yet in the 60s another school of thought arose to whom the lines required a Christian reading.  For them the speaker is an Everyman suffering, “mourning and weeping in the valley of tears” while nature chugs on, grandly unbothered.  But the religious interpreters do not agree on the poem’s end. One camp favors the Hebrew scriptural association and the other the Greek.  Among the former, the word “beste” in the last line is read as meaning “beast,” and the derangement of the speaker, so out of tune with the rest of nature, is the result of original sin. A variety of Biblical passages have been adduced in support of this interpretation. The word beast is indeed used the Psalms to indicate a fallible, sinning person  In another Psalm the thoughtless human is identified with the brute creation.  The poem’s final line, read in this manner, might be paraphrased as “ I live in pain because I am a physical being, afflicted with His sorrow is the sorrow of Genesis 3:17 to which postlapsarian mankind is universally subject. As a creature of blood and bone, he feels the prick of thorns and thistles. The “unfallen” birds and fish, unburdened by original sin, enjoy a sort of bliss the tortured, self-conscious human envies.
Thomas Moser found that there are sixteen mentions of birds and fish together in the Christian Bible, thirteen on the Old Testament and three in the New. The two, encapsulating as they do the worlds of the air and the sea, are first linked in the creation story which describes both as the sole creations of the fifth day. Several ancient Hebrew passages imply just the sort of gap between humanity and the rest of the animal world that maddens the speaker in “Foweles in the frith.” Psalm 8 praises God for the birds and fish as marvels of his handiwork, yet asks “what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Similarly in Job beasts, birds, and fish are all called to astonish and awe, to humble the human, asking the devastating and unanswerable question: “what is man, that thou art mindful of him?”  The poem from this point of view delivers the same chastening reminder of the wretchedness of humankind in contrast to the brute creation.
Some, however, would maintain the romantic love reading of “beste of bon and blood,” but consider this as referring to Jesus Christ, the paragon. Christ is, after all, to them the Man of Sorrows foreseen by Isaiah.  Christ, too, was estranged from creation, enduring particular extreme suffering. As Matthew has it, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”  The poem’s speaker is sympathetically identifying with Christ’s suffering as Christians seeking to follow the imitatio Christi have done throughout history.
Ambiguity need not be a result of sloppiness. (In fact, I suspect that it is a major rhetorical device in Chinese poetry; it certainly is in Elizabethan.) I have here mentioned only a few of the puns and ambiguities of this little lyric. The two or three readings of “Foweles in the frith” continue to contend because, far from excluding each other, each elaborates, enriches, and, in the end, reinforces the others. Lyric is typically an expression of affect. This poem is like a cameo engraved with a mythological scene in which the hero battles a monster. The enemy might be a woman who rejects the poet. For a person of a different sensibility, it would be the ineluctable nastiness of our lives with which the ego fights, or the contemplation of such undeserved suffering projected onto a divine (or human/divine) figure. The emotional truth remains the same. The vision of a rich a thriving nature constantly reproducing itself without existential woe is identical for each reading. The consequences of being made of bone and blood does not change. It is this underdetermination that gives the poem its magic.
1. "A Critical Approach to the Middle English Lyric”, College English 27 (February 1966).
2. From the Salve Regina.
3. Thomas Moser’s PMLA article vol. 102, no. 3, May 1987.
4. For instance in Psalm 73.
6. Job 12.