Lenten Is Come with Love to Toune

Lenten Is Come with Love to Toune
(ca. 1300)
   One of the best-known of the HARLEY LYRICS—the group of MIDDLE ENGLISH poems in the British Museum Ms.Harley 2253—is the short poem that begins “Lenten is come with love to toune.” The lyric consists of three 12-line stanzas rhyming aabccbddbeeb. Thus the long stanza is divided into four triads, each forming an independent unit in itself but linked to the rest of the stanza through the b rhyme. There are four metrical feet in each line of the poem except the b rhyme lines, which contain three.
   The first stanza of the poem is basically an extended REVERDIE, or lyric celebrating the return of spring. The poet praises the blossoms and the song of birds. By the end of the first stanza, he has injected a pathetic fallacy into the natural world, ascribing human emotions to the birds who rejoice at their good fortune. This continues to a greater extent in the second stanza, where the emphasis is less on description of spring and more on the response of the natural world to spring’s arrival. The rose puts on her rosy complexion, and the leaves in the wood grow with desire, and even the moon puts on a radiant face. The animation of all natural objects emphasizes the feeling of abundant life introduced in the first stanza, but seems also to suggest that it is human participation in the natural phenomenon of spring that gives it meaning. In the final triad of the second stanza, the speaker introduces a human problem: He, like all men of passion, complains of unrequited love during the spring.
   The most conventional way to begin a love poem was to introduce a spring setting and then contrast the lover’s sorrow with the joy of the season. What is unusual about Lenten Is Come is that the springtime opening goes on for 21 lines before the lover introduces his situation.Moore said that the love theme in this poem was “intrusive” and that it disturbed “the unity of the nature study” (1951, 53). But the jarring juxtaposition of the harmonious natural world and the speaker’s lovesickness seems deliberate.
   In the final stanza, the speaker again praises the natural world, personifying the moon again as well as the deores (animals) with their derne rounes (secret songs) (Luria 1974, 6, l. 29). Then, as in stanza two, a sudden shift away from the natural world occurs with a juxtaposition of parallel lines:
   Wormes woweth under cloude,
   Wimmen waxeth wounder proude,
   (Luria 1974, 6, ll. 31–32)
   The parallelism invites a comparison of worms and women—and the women seem to get the worst of it. The worms make love underground, while the women simply grow overly proud. Worms, lowest of creatures in God’s universe, follow natural law in their mating. But the arrogance of women—and here the speaker clearly has in mind his own beloved’s disdain of him— causes them to behave in a distinctly unnatural manner.
   In the final triad of the poem, the speaker says that if he does not obtain what he desires from his lady, he will run off—will forsake human society altogether and become a wild man of the woods. This may seem appropriate in a poem that has shown the harmony of the natural world in contrast with the discord of human love. But the wild man was an image of madness in medieval literature: The speaker’s actions are as inappropriate as the disdainful lady’s in the poem. To emulate the natural world, the man and woman must come together.
   ■ 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.
   ■ Moore, Arthur K. The Secular Lyric in Middle English. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1951.
   ■ Oliver, Raymond. Poems Without Names: The English Lyric, 12001500. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
   ■ Ranson, Daniel J. Poets at Play: Irony and Parody in the Harley Lyrics. Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1985.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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