Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Writing a Virelai

By THLaird Colyne Stewart, MArch AS 49 (2015)

One of the formes fixes, the virelai was often used in poetry and music (it was, in fact, one of the most common verse forms set to music from the 13th to the 15th centuries). However, by the mid 15th century the virelai was no longer usually set to music.

If a virelai only had one stanza it was known as a bergerette.

Virelai written as songs in the 14th and 15 centuries had three stanzas and a refrain that is stated before the first stanza and again after each one. Within each stanza the structure used is the bar form. Within this overall structure, the number of lines and the rhyme scheme varied. The refrain and the abgesang (part of the bar form) could be three, four or five lines each, with rhyme schemes such as aba, abab, aaab, abba, aaab or aabba. The structure often involved an alternation of longer and shorter lines. Usually, all three stanzas shared the same set of rhymes (which means the whole poem could be built on just two rhymes).

In the 15th century, when the virelai was no longer always set to music, its structure varied widely. Two of these variants (which weren’t defined until the 17th century) are detailed below.

The virelai ancient had no refrain. It used an interlocking rhyme scheme between the stanzas. In the first stanza the rhyme scheme is aabaabaab (with the b lines being shorter in length). In the second stanza the b rhymes are shifted to the longer lines and a new c rhyme is introduced on the shorter ones (bbcbbcbbc).

The virelai nouveau had a 2-line refrain at the beginning, with each stanza ending with a repetition of either the first or the second refrain verse in alternation, and the last stanza ending in both refrain verses in reversed order.

When I wrote the following virelai (called “MacFarlane”) I decided to use the virelai ancient form. I also resolved to try to keep the meter in iambic meter. As is usual for me, the first thing I wrote was the first line:

A shield, a sword, an axe, a lance,

I then came up with a list of words that could rhyme with lance, to make sure I could incorporate them into the theme (which was a praise poem for my knight, Sir Nigel MacFarlane). I was pleased with the words I came up with, as each could easily be incorporated into describing Sir Nigel. So for the second line I went with:

He takes with him to melee’s dance,

The following line was the first short line of the poem. It was also the first b rhyme, so I needed a rhyme rich word to end the line on (as the b rhyme continues into the second stanza). Nigel is known for his kit, so I called attention to it:

Upon his head his crest;

The following two line refer to his role in the Battle of the Thirty at Pennsic (where he is often the captain of the French side), and to his famous glare (also known as his ‘stink-eye’):

In tourney leads the folk of France,
In war he’s known for piercing glance,

In the sixth line I make reference to the heraldry of his household (House Arrochar) which includes a mullet (star) over his heart. This mullet represent his lady, Duchess Adrielle Kerrec, and ties into the last line of the poem:

And the star upon his chest;

I then spend two lines describing his skill at arms and his dedication to his kingdom, while in the last line of the first stanza I again call out to his lady:

In battle preaux, leaves naught to chance,
To brave protect the northern manse,
Love beats within his breast.

Now starting the second stanza, the b rhymes replace the a rhymes, while a new c rhyme replaces the b rhymes. In the first two line I again make reference to his determination and his fine kit:

On virtue’s anvil he would test,
While in fine raimments he is dressed,

In the third line I introduced the new c rhyme. To come up with the c rhyme I actually wrote the last line of the poem first:

All for his Adrielle.

Knowing where I wanted to end, allowed me to finish the first c rhymed line (taking a bit of poetic license with the first word in the line):

Dischivalry his hell;

In the following two line, while again referencing his skill at arms, I point out that he does win victory for himself, but for his teammates:


From the jaw of lose he’ll wrest
Victory for the sorely pressed,

I then point out that there are even more virtues I could praise in Sir Nigel:

And yet more I could tell;

The last three lines are dedicated to Adrielle, his inspiration in all things:

He clutches favour she has blessed,
Which drives him to his very best,
All for his Adrielle.

So in the end, the poem read:

A shield, a sword, an axe, a lance,
He takes with him to melee’s dance,
Upon his head his crest;
In tourney leads the folk of France,
In war he’s known for piercing glance,
And the star upon his chest;
In battle preaux, leaves naught to chance,
To brave protect the northern manse,
Love beats within his breast.

On virtue’s anvil he would test,
While in fine raimments he is dressed,
Dischivalry his hell;
From the jaw of lose he’ll wrest
Victory for the sorely pressed,
And yet more I could tell;
He clutches favour she has blessed,
Which drives him to his very best,
All for his Adrielle.


Sources

Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, New York, 1990.

Cushman, Stephen, ed. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th edition. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2012.

Fischer, Todd H. C. “Medieval Poetic Forms, Genres and Devices,” 2015.

Harmon, William and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature, Seventh Edition. Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1996.

Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. Houghton Mifflin Publishing, New York, 2014.

Kupier, Kathleen, ed. Mirriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature. Mirriam Webster, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1995.

Kupier, Kathleen, ed. Poetry and Drama: Literary Terms and Concepts. Britannica Educational Publishing, New York, 2012.

Myers, Jack and Don Wukasch. Dictionary of Poetic Terms. University of North Texas, Denton, Texas, 2003.

Preminger, Alex, ed. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1974.


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