“The Lyric of Tradition” is an essay written nearly twenty-five years ago by the late Donald Davidson, celebrated American poet, critic, and philosopher of cultural change who developed, out of his own artistic practice, a comprehensive theory of the role of literature in a healthy society. It was a view not at all like those of his friends and fellow Fugitives, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate; a view completely unrelated to the theory of alienation so important to almost all contemporary poetics. The essay is drawn from materials employed as part of a series of public lectures on the lyric given at Vanderbilt University in February and March of 1965—lectures that represented an early stage in Davidson’s work on a book about the origins of English lyric which he began with his retirement from the faculty of Vanderbilt in June of 1964. He finished this lecture and almost finished one other before his death on April 25,1968, but problems with health and a variety of writing obligations made the preparation (for Scribner’s) of a monograph on the early lyric, the poetry of song, a task too large for the time and energy which he still had at his disposal. Had Davidson lived longer he would assuredly have added to the essay some of the special grace notes that are part of his finished style. Still, the argument as he intended it is present in these pages and deserves our attention as it stands.

It was the opinion of Professor Davidson that literary forms have an occasional or circumstantial character and that they are best explained by the purposes they are designed to serve. They are not by nature better suited to be heard, performed, or read by a coterie, set apart from other men and women by the refinement of their sensibility, but are more naturally directed to a larger audience representative of a cross section of a particular society. “Private poetry” was for him an oxymoron. For audience or writer, the “guarded style” was, he believed, frequently a questionable consequence of aestheticism and the cultic view of art as a quasi-religious experience. None of which is to say that Donald Davidson underestimated the mystery of all poetic making or took a purely functional view of his craft. For his vision of the poet as keeper of a communal memory, as vates or uplifted singer functioning within the framework of a traditional society, is as high as anything ever imagined by Thomas or Yeats, Spenser, Wordsworth, or Milton. But it does not, according to what is now the fashion, presuppose the absolute isolation of the artist by the necessities of his art, or a poetry that is in its proper element only on the printed page.

Since the time of Davidson’s death there has been much critical attention to the special characteristics of the lyric poem as act and cultural gesture. But none of it quite supersedes the Tennessee poet’s reflections on the origins of his calling and its ancient, indissoluble connections with music and song. In his system irony, eloquence, and dramatization have their place, but are not all of poetry. “The Lyric of Tradition” should be compared to “Poetry as Tradition,” the opening chapter in Davidson’s most memorable book of criticism, Still Rebels, Still Yankees (1957), to Davidson’s own verse, and to his commentary on the best of other modern poetry.

        —M.E. Bradford

The Middle Ages cannot be exactly delimited as a historical period. In her anthology, Mediaeval Latin Lyrics, Helen Waddell goes as far back as the poem “Copa Surisca” (“Syrian Dancing Girl”), attributed to Vergil by Servius in the fourth century A.D. and quoted in a ninth-century manuscript as well as in the Benedict-beuern manuscript of the 13th century now famous as, the Carmina Burana. Miss Waddell explains this inclusion as “for the sake of the unbroken tradition.” The “Copa” is not medieval in any usual sense. But the “Copa”‘and some lyrics of the Latin Silver Age illustrate the “line of descent” that allies medieval verse with the older tradition—with Ausonius, Petronius, and the unknown author of Pervigilium Veneris. Even so, Petronius “is closer to the first Italian’ sonnet writers than he is to Horace.” But for Miss Waddell the medieval period ends with the year 1200 or thereabout.

For Sir Edmund Chambers, writing both of Old French, Middle English, and some Latin lyrics in “Some Aspects of Medieval Lyric,” the Middle Ages go back into the indefinite realm of folk song and forward into the 16th-century beginnings of the English Renaissance. For George K. Anderson, writing of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature, the term “medieval” is similarly flexible and indefinite. “Within the framework of history, all English literature is either medieval or modern. To designate any part of it as medieval is to describe it, explicitly or implicitly, as belonging to the era that formed the great bridge over which the Western world advanced from the confusion following the collapse of Rome to the complex modern world.”

Evidently the term “medieval lyric” will have a wavering kind of indefiniteness if we try to look at it in straight historical terms. A hymn to the Virgin Mary, a courtly love song, a ballade by Chaucer may be “placed” in the 14th-century. But such placement tells us little about its actual poetical quality, still less about it as a lyric. What if we encounter a lyric by Wyatt or Surrey in the 16th century with much the same poetical characteristics as the 14th century piece? Are we to think of it as “medieval”? Historically, it is “Renaissance.”

If we reject the historical label as unsatisfactory for critical purposes, what will serve better?

It is helpful to consider the difficulties that have beset scholars in their attempts to place the “ballad” historically. To Bishop Percy the old poems that he took from the famous folio manuscript and other sources were mostly either “ballads” or “romances,” and all were to his notion property tided in his collection as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. They were either the work of “minstrels”—and hence in our terms “medieval”—or of still more ancient “bards” and therefore in his terms “Gothic.” By the time of Francis J. Child, a century and more later, the idea of popular origin and a slow development or even evolution through the workings of oral tradition took foremost place. English ballads might be medieval, but few documentary traces of medieval ballads could be salvaged. The title of Child’s great collection very properly expresses a dominant theme of 19th-century scholarship: English and Scottish Popular Ballads. But “popular” does not quite avail. Walter Scott’s “literary” ballads, Byron’s fashionable love lyrics. Burns’ more homely “songs” were all popular in the sense of .being immensely liked, indeed of being absorbed and possessed by the “people” if not by the “folk.”

By 1932 ballad scholarship had passed into a new phase, and Gordon H. Gerould arrived at a more realistic and useful solution to the problem in his book The Ballad of Tradition. Here at last, in Gerould’s discussion, the ballad is disengaged from its merely historical associations and studied as an art product that owes its distinction to certain social arid* cultural conditions. “The popular ballad,” Gerould writes, “or The Ballad of Tradition as I believe we may more justly call it, has no real existence save when held in memory and sung by those who have learned it from the lips of others. . . . Strictly speaking, the ballad as it exists is not a ballad . . . until it has been in oral circulation. . . . For the ballad is a folk-song, and is subject to all the conditions of production and transformation peculiar to folk-song, though it is distinguishable in respect of content and purpose.” Gerould’s emphasis is on the “moulding” process of tradition as it shapes, or fails to shape, the ballad, and not on the nature of tradition itself or the traditional society, and he is still involved with that most ill-defined of critical and cultural terms, the “folk.” But the very term “ballad of tradition” promises and indeed brings clarity and light into areas that have been as foggy as Poe’s misty mid-region of Weir.

Is there also such a thing as the lyric of tradition? Without hesitation I would say yes. If “ballad of tradition” is a better term for the popular ballad than “folk ballad,” and if, possibly, “story of tradition” might be a better name for popular story than “folk tale”—and I believe they are more sensible terms—then “lyric of tradition” is the right term for most of the English lyrics composed between the last stand of Harold in 1066 and the much less edifying death of Henry VIII in 1547. The term “folk lyric”—like “folk song,” “folk tale,” and “folk ballad”—involves any critic in the baffling mystique built up around the word folk by the enthusiastic yet fruitless efforts of anthropologists and literary scholars to force our more ancient stories and poems into a conjectural sequence that will somehow correspond with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Since Herder came forth in 1771 with his tempting question. War nicht Ossian unser Bruder? and Wolf in 1795 issued his Prolegomena ad Homerum, “the folk” have had almost divine creative power attributed to them, but seem to flourish more in the realm of analogy and conjecture than of solid fact. George Lyman Kittredge of Harvard and other notable 19th-century scholars were impressed by the maxim attributed to Jakob Grimm: Das Volk dichtet (“The folk make poetry”). Perhaps so, we may now say, but only if Chaucer, Will Shakespeare, even Jack Donne may also be admitted on occasion to the sacred company of “the folk.”

It is not easy to appreciate the lyric of tradition for what it really is. We are a bookish people. We find English medieval lyrics jammed in somewhere near the beginning of a large anthology or textbook that soon hastens on to Wyatt, Sidney, and Shakespeare and so along the regular historical line to Pope, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats, and Tennyson, with T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats at the book’s end, surrounded by a scattering galaxy of moderns to constitute the rear guard that turns out to be a vanguard. The natural inclination then is to try to “read” a 13th-century lyric as we would “read” the later poetry. But what if the 13th-century lyric was intended to be sung, not read at all—though just possibly it might be read aloud, or memorized and spoken? It will be impossible to use a biographical approach, since the authors’ names are rarely attached to a medieval lyric. No one will ever know whether the unidentified poet of the following 12th-century (or possibly 13th-century) lyric was unhappily married or was out of favor at Court or was merely suffering from an attack of gout:

Mirie it is while sumer ilast

With fugheles song;

Oc nu necheth windes blast

And weder strong.

Ei, ei, what this nicht is long!

And ich with wel michel wrong

Soregh and murne and fast.

(Merry it is while summer can last

With birds’ song;

But now nigheth wind’s blast

And weather strong.

Oh, oh, how this night is long!

And I with many a wrong

Sorrow and mourn and fast.)

We shall never know this or any other English medieval lyric for what it really is if we look at it only with the eyes and hear it only with the ears that are adjusted to the entirely literary standards and taste of the 20th century. Or, for that matter, of the 19th or 18th century, or any time subsequent to a date that might be fixed, say, in the later part of the 17th century. My choice would be for 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution. In that year English Whigs and Tories agreed on the interesting fiction, suddenly developed as ad hoc political theory, that King James II, not they, was in rebellion against constituted authority. Whereupon they brought in William of Orange from the Netherlands, with an invading army, to throw out King James. From that moment the advent of literary modernism was guaranteed, no matter how lithely Pope might dribble couplets or Samuel Johnson thunder against the Chesterfields or MacPhersons. But the date might be set still earlier, even as early as the accession of Elizabeth in 1558. One must allow a century or more for the clock of tradition to run down—in good English style—from simply not being any longer wound up.

A word of caution is needed here about the word lyric. The great medieval scholars—E.K. Chambers, Carieton Brown, R.H. Robbins, and others—entitle their collections Early English Lyrics, Religious Lyrics, Secular Lyrics, and the like. But the medieval manuscripts or early printed books from which these editors drew their material do not use the term lyric. Apparently it was unknown to the authors of the poems, and it was not used by the learned or at least literate monks and friars to whose devotion we owe many important manuscripts of early English verse of various kinds. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Sir Philip Sidney’s use of lyric in 1581 as the earliest appearance of the word in English. In The Defense of Poesy Sidney says, for example, that he found “in the Earle of Surrey’s Liricks, manie things tastting of a noble birth and worthie of a noble mind.” The rhetoricians Webbe (in 1586) and Puttenham (in 1589) also use the word. But Richard Tottel, who published in 1557 the first printed anthology of English lyrics, entitles his historic collection Songes and Sonettes Written by the Ryht Honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and Other. Tottel does not refer to these poems as “lyrics.” In his admirably concise preface Tottel uses a homely phrase: “That to have written wel in verse, yea and in small parcelles, deserveth great praise, the workes of divers Latines, Italians, and other, doe prove sufficiently.”

It is therefore an anachronism to apply the term lyric to the songs, complaints, ballades and “balets,” roundels, epigrams, and other kinds of non-narrative poems originating during the Middle Ages or perhaps during at least the first half of the 16th century. The term lyric, as applied to such poems, owes its currency to the understandable enthusiasm of the Renaissance Humanists to imitate what they rather foggily conceived to be the Greek practice of singing poems to the accompaniment of the lyre. Since Renaissance musicians had no lyres—and would not have known how to tune lyres in true Greek fashion if they had had any—the lute had to serve as an equivalent. Ronsard in France urged a revival of “l’usage de la lire aujourdui resucite en Italic” and boasted that he was responsible for the fashion of accompanying “odes” with the lute. Baif, his confrere in the Pleiade group, founded an Academy devoted specially to the unity of poetry and music in terms conceived to be derived from the Greek example. These early Academicians wished to explore the miraculous power of music when joined with poetry and pondered the Greek myths of how Orpheus moved beasts and even trees, as well as men, and how Amphion waltzed stones into place to form the walls of Thebes, all by the power of voice and lyre. Shakespeare, remembering such myths, provided Orpheus with a lute in his song for Henry VIII:

Orpheus with his lute made trees

And the mountaintops that freeze

Bow themselves when he did sing.

Poets and singers of the Middle Ages not only did not have the lyre; they did not have the lute, either. It became a popular instrument in the 16th century. Yet custom makes lyric an inescapable term. To ban it from this discussion would be as odd and inappropriate as to insist on calling an automobile a “horseless carriage.” If the Middle Ages did not have lyre or lute, they had other instruments and sang often—much more often than we do—and with gusto or piety as the occasion invited.

The term lyric will serve well enough if we properly qualify its reference to the medieval lyric. To qualify it properly is to define the lyric of tradition as a kind of poem, not primarily narrative, that was commonly sung or recited, or at least read aloud—and in certain instances danced to, as well as sung. These uses strongly affect its diction, its structure, its total rhetoric, and easily distinguish it from the more literary poetry which we call modern, the poetry that is intended to be read in silence by the secluded individual. A poetry that is sung calls for listeners—who of course join in singing when the occasion becomes social, whether in the courtly hall, the tavern, or the village green. It was truly functional or applied art, intended for performance on recognized occasions—the liturgical or nonliturgical uses of the Church, public ceremonies, festivals; or in a less public sense, to lighten work, to influence conduct, to serve various practical needs of guildsmen, sailors, farmers. This kind of poem has a specific purpose in view: to compliment and if possible win the lady, according to the etiquette of courtly love; to mourn the dead; to praise the victor; to pass the time away in mirth or festivity; but above all to worship God, as in a hymn or sacred carol.

Such lyrics, most often by unknown authors, do not set out to be works of art. Nonetheless they turn out to be art, and when at their best—the art that William Butier Yeats praised and desired, in which, he said, “We cannot distinguish the handiwork of Scopas from that of Praxiteles . . . an art where the artist’s handiwork would hide as under those half-anonymous chisels or as we find it in some old Scots ballad, or in some twelfth- or thirteenth-century Arthurian Romance.”

If old Anglo-Saxon custom had dominated rather than the conquering Norman—that is, if some of the medieval poems that we call medieval lyrics were sung or chanted to the sound of the harp—then medieval England would in truth have had, and maybe did have, something close to or paralleling the Greek lyric as performed in ancient times. It would not have been anything that the Renaissance Humanist would have admired—though Sidney did once go so far as declare that he was moved by the performance of some “blinde crowder” singing “the old song of Percy and Douglas.” The “crowd” or “Grouth” (Welsh “Crwth“) was a relative of the lyre or harp, and Sidney heard what was in effect a “lyric” rendering of a traditional ballad.

The professional minstrel with his harp is no mere romantic fancy of Bishop Percy and Walter Scott. In England the harper survived well into the 16th century, and the sturdy prevalence of “Harper” as an occupational surname in America today perhaps suggests how firmly the ancient profession was planted in the mother country before the New Music came in along with the New Poetry. [A sampling of surnames in the telephone directory of a city of about 200,000 reveals 125 Harpers as compared with 49 Shepherds (Shepards), 49 Carpenters, and 26 Joiners (Joyners). The Smiths and Cooks are of course much more numerous.] Harpers were retained by royalty and nobility as a matter of custom, but more out of inertia than preference, we may suspect. A blind harper named More was chief harper under four sovereigns of England, including Henry VIII. The rhetorician Puttenham records that, even in the time of Elizabeth, romances were recited to the strumming of the harp. He himself had composed a “historical ditty . . . to be more commodiously songe to the harpe in places of assembly, where the company shall be desirous to heare of old adventures and valiaunces of noble knights in times past.”

We get a lively picture of harp-playing for lesser folk in a 15th-century carol of the convivial type. The “gossips”—waiting until their husbands are safely out of the house—gather at a tavern. Each one brings a dish—some of “flesh,” some of “fish.” Then Margery makes a wish: “I wold that Frankelyne the harper were here.” Suddenly, by remarkable coincidence, he is:

She hade notte so sone the word isayd

But in come Frankelyn at a brayd;

“God save you, masteres,” he sayde;

“I come to make youe some chere.”

Anon he began to draw out his harpe;

Then the gossyppes began to starte;

They callyd the tawyrner to fyll the quarte

And lette note for no coste.

Then seyd the gossyppes all in fere,

“Streke vp, harper, and make gode chere,

And wher that I goo, fere or nere.

To owre husbondes make thou no [boste.”]

“Nay, mastres, as motte I thee,

Ye schall newyr be wrayed for me;

I had leuer her dede to be,

As hereof to be knowe.”

They fylled the pottes by and by;

They lett not for no coste trully;

The harpyr stroke vpe merrely.

That they myght onethe blowe.

So the gossips dance and drink. When the time comes to add up the “scot” and go home, they find that their merriment has been quite costly—sixpence each. They go home by roundabout ways and later tell their husbands that they have been to church.

We know little in an exact musical sense about harp music and its uses. The notation of music developed slowly and for a long time was almost entirely a craft of the church musicians, the only musicians who were both learned and, in a sense, professional. The surviving manuscripts of medieval church music far outnumber the few manuscripts of secular songs with musical notation. As for harp music—if it was notated—practically nothing survives. Gustave Reese, in his Music in the Middle Ages, refers to only one manuscript of harp music—a manuscript in the British Museum “containing Welsh harp music, reputedly of great antiquity.” Reese also interprets a passage in Caesar’s Gallic Wars as meaning that the Druid bards of the Continent forbade the writing down of the “verses” that they taught in their “schools.” Their students must rely on memory alone. The use of letters would allow their art and wisdom to pass into vulgar hands. The art of singing to the harp—or playing the harp for dances—remained in the oral tradition, like the art of the “old-time fiddler” or of the bagpipes, Scottish or Irish.

There is of course no lack of references to the harp and other instruments and to singing and dancing in the literature of the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s Friar was an amateur harper—

And in his harpyng, whan that he hadde songe,

His eyen twynkled in his heed aryght,

As doon the sterres in the frosty nyght.

The Clerk Nicholas of “The Miller’s Tale” played the psaltery and sang Angelus ad virginem so “sweetly that all the chamber rang,” and after it sang “The King’s Note”; his rival Absolon sang in a very high tenor (perhaps a falsetto or “countertenor”) to the accompaniment of “a smal rubible” or rebeck. The Franklin “had in remembrance”—that is, could recite from memory—a Breton “lai,” and Chaucer makes him say in “The Franklin’s Prologue” that these “layes with hir instrumentz they songe / Or elles redden hem for hir pleasaunce” (that is, read them out loud to a listening company).

But this oral tradition was much older than Chaucer’s time and had deeper roots and wider provenience than we might suspect from a study of Chaucer’s courtly productions, which are literary in the then-new French manner even while they remain sturdily English in so many impressive ways. The medieval romance “King Alisaunder” epitomizes the whole cultural situation in two lines:

Mery hit is in halle to here the harpe

Theo mynstral syngith, theo jogolour carpith.

The “audience” in the great hall includes all “degrees,” not only the king and the nobility but other persons of the feudal community, whether of palace, castle, or manor house. Even monasteries at certain times might invite the minstrel to sing or recite. The tale that is “told” is sung to the harp in the earlier stages; or it may be recited; and later, when the tale (that is, the “romance”) is written down, it finally comes to be read out. We should not confuse the minstrel of earlier times, who may himself be the bard or creative poet, with the beggarly entertainers of a later time when books and broadsides have begun to exert their modern influence. The lyric of tradition was produced—like the romance, ballad, and mystery play—in a cultural situation like that described by John Speirs in his discussion of alliterative romances and poems:

There is ample evidence not only that in the early communities poetry was oral but that there was a class of men, highly honoured by nobles and kings for their skill and insight, whose whole occupation in life was poetry, and who composed and recited long poems which they did not write down and many of which were never written down.

What we know, then, with complete certainty, is that the lyric poets, as we call them, of the Middle Ages, even in the decline of the medieval culture, do not set out to compose “poems.” They make songs for definite and rather practical purposes. The purposes may be lofty—as in a hymn or laude for Christ, the Virgin, or a saint; or merely jovial, as in a drinking song for the tavern; or useful, as in the traditional rhyme for remembering the number of days in the 12 months. Exceedingly popular was Lydgate’s rhymed catalog, “The Kings of England”—15 stanzas in rhyme royal, laboriously arranging the monarchs from William of Normandy to Henry VI. Robbins reports this menace to the medieval schoolboy’s happiness as being found in 46 manuscripts. Briefer was the medical student’s rhymed helper for remembering teeth, bones, and veins:

XXXII teth that bethe full kene,

CCbonys and Nyntene,

CCC vaynys syxty and fyve,

Euery man hathe that is alyve.

Or, for anybody and everybody, rhymed verses will preserve the proverbs and wise sayings that guide conduct:

Drah thyn bond sone ayen,

yf men the doth a wycke theyn,

ther thyn ahte ys lond.

So that child with draweth is bond

From the fur & the brond,

that hath byfore hue brend.

“Brend child fur dredeth,”

                     Quoth Hendyng.

(Draw back thy hand quickly again

If a man doeth thee some wicked thing,

When thine own is lent.

So doth the child withdraw his hand

From the fire and from the brand.

“Burnt child fire dreadeth,”

                     Quoth Hendyng.)

Today we speak of Chaucer’s “poems.” Chaucer himself speaks of writing “tales,” or, at the end of “The Parson’s Tale,” in his famous “Retraction,” he refers to his “translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees” and—after listing his various works—he includes (not his “lyrics”) but “many a song and many a leccherous lay.” He does not labor to distinguish between “poetry” and “prose.” The distinction for him is between prose and rhyme. “Poesie” for Chaucer—if the “epilogue” to Troilus and Criseyde can be taken as good authority for his view—meant poetry in its larger dimensions: epic, romance, dream-vision, or else literature in its dramatic and fictional aspects as contrasted with history and philosophy. This is what he seems to be saying when he prays that his “litel bok”—

But subgit be to alle poesye;

And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace

Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

Thus Chaucer is drawing away from, and even “outside,” the oral tradition in the sense that he is composing both his narrative poems and his small and less distinguished group of lyrics in the “new” and more literary manner of Guillaume de Machaut and other contemporaries on the Continent. Still Chaucer had an “audience”—as poets in later bookish times have not had—a true audience that could hear his poems read aloud—and possibly even sung, although we have no medieval settings of any of Chaucer’s “lyrics.” And there was also for him an “audience” in the modern figurative sense: the quite small “audience” of silent readers who might be wealthy enough to own manuscript copies or lucky enough to get access to them in other ways. Chaucer himself—again in the “Epilogue” to Troilus and Criseyde—speaks of this long poem as being “read . . . or else sung.” Professor Arthur K. Moore, in his valuable discussion of these alternatives, so puzzling to the modern student, suggests that Chaucer may here be reflecting the preference advanced by Eustache Deschamps in his L’Art de dictier (1392) for musique naturele (recitation in the natural speaking voice) over musique artificiele (the singing voice, no doubt with instrumental accompaniment). Most likely Troilus and Criseyde was intended to be read aloud and was a “song” only in a metaphorical sense. The reading must have been for a social group, large or small, like that indicated by Chaucer himself when he depicts Pandarus as coming on a May morning “unto his niece’s place”:

And fond two othere ladys sete, and she,

Withinne a paved parlour, and they thre

Harden a mayden reden hem the geste

Of the siege of Thebes, while hem leste.

But the inescapable influence of the oral tradition is more obvious in the familiar example of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer must pretend that the Pilgrims actually told their tales—in his excellent verse, too—and that all listened while the lengthy procession took the road to the shrine of the “holy, blissful martyr,” amidst clopping of hoofs and jingling of bridles, at a little better than a footpace. Incredible, to a modern! How could the tale-teller be heard? How could the Pilgrims comment back and forth? Possibly the big-mouthed Miller or the obnoxious Summoner could be heard from one end of the column to the other, though even they would have to shout somewhat in the manner of the old-fashioned cavalry captain to his troop. But what of the gentle Prioress or the stately Knight? Yet in many bits of