Alysoun


Alysoun
(ca. 1300)
   The MIDDLE ENGLISH lyric beginning “Bitwene March and Averil,” generally entitled Alysoun by editors, is one of the best known and most often anthologized of all Middle English poems. One of several important poems known as the HARLEY LYRICS because of their inclusion in the British Museum Ms.Harley 2253, Alysoun consists of four stanzas, each with eight lines of three or four metrical feet, rhyming ababbbbc. A refrain or “burden” follows each stanza, rhyming dddc, where the last word of the refrain is always “Alysoun”—thus the c rhyme at the end of each stanza always rhymes with the “Alysoun” that ends the refrain. The poem describes a succession of the speaker’s attitudes and responses to his love for the fair lady Alysoun. The attitudes expressed by the speaker are quite conventional in the COURTLY LOVE tradition, but this particular lyric is admired for its fresh images and lyricism, particularly in the refrain:
   An hendy hap ich habbe ihent!
   Ichot from hevene it is me sent;
   From alle wimmen my love is lent,
   And light on Alisoun.
   (Luria and Hoffman 1974, 23, ll. 9–12)
   The alliteration, especially in the first line, contributes to the rhythmic musicality of the lines. The “hendy hap” is a fortunate destiny, sent to the lover, he believes, “from hevene” itself.His love has been taken away from all other women and has settled on Alysoun alone.
   In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker places his love in the traditional season of spring, and says he lives in “love-longinge” for the “semlokest” or fairest of all things. He becomes her servant and hopes she will bring him “blisse”—the first of many religious terms in the poem that give the lady a quasi-divine status.
   After the refrain establishes the speaker’s joy in his situation, the second stanza moves into a very conventional description of the lady. The speaker praises her hair, her eyes, her countenance, and her figure in a manner similar to that prescribed by medieval rhetoricians like GEOFFREY OF VINSAUF. Alysoun is depicted as cheerful and laughing—not the disdainful and aloof lady more typical of the courtly beloved. At the end of these lines of praise, though, the speaker very predictably declares that he will die of love if he cannot have Alysoun. But this is followed, again, by the rhythmic, affirming refrain. In the third and fourth stanzas, the speaker describes his sufferings, particularly his lack of sleep and his tormented jealousy and fear of losing his beloved to someone else.What is striking about these stanzas is the speaker’s use of memorable, somewhat colloquial alliterative images: Of his insomnia, he says he is “Wery so water in wore” (as weary as water in a troubled pool) (l. 30).When he addresses Alysoun directly, he calls her “Geynest under gore” (kindest under petticoat) (l. 35), an expression some have seen as highly suggestive but that seems more likely to have simply been an earthy expression for “kindest of women,” whom he begs in the final stanza to hearken to his song. One critical crux of the poem is how seriously we are to take the speaker’s suffering, particularly since every stanza ends with the upbeat refrain. Some have suggested that the poem is a parody of conventional love poems. It seems more likely that the tone is playful: The speaker goes through the conventional motions of the lover’s malady, but cannot really restrain the joy of his love.
   Bibliography
   ■ Brook, G. L. The Harley Lyrics: The Middle English Lyrics of Ms. Harley 2253. 4th ed. Manchester, U.K.:Manchester University Press, 1968.
   ■ Fein, Susanna, ed. Studies in the Harley Manuscript: The Scribes, Contents, and Social Contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.
   ■ Luria,Maxwell S., and Richard Hoffman.Middle English Lyrics. New York: Norton, 1974.
   ■ Ranson, Daniel J. Poets at Play: Irony and Parody in the Harley Lyrics. Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1985.
   ■ Reiss, Edmund. The Art of the Middle English Lyric: Essays in Criticism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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