Medieval Verse: The Virelai

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March 4, 2014 by phicks2012

ctree2Once again I address The Challenge of composing poems in various medieval verse forms. This time around it’s something called The Virelai. While I was an English major in college, I don’t recall ever having heard of this form previously, but a challenge is supposed to be a challenge, after all!

According to Wikipedia at

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
A virelai is a form of medieval French verse used often in poetry and music. It is one of the three formes fixes (the others were the ballade and the rondeau) and was one of the most common verse forms set to music in Europe from the late thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries.

One of the most famous composers of virelai is Guillaume de Machaut (1300–1377), who also wrote his own verse; 33 separate compositions in the form survive by him. Other composers of virelai include Jehannot de l’Escurel, one of the earliest (d. 1304), and Guillaume Dufay (c.1400–1474), one of the latest.
By the mid-15th century, the form had become largely divorced from music, and numerous examples of this form (including the ballade and the rondeau) were written, which were either not intended to be set to music, or for which the music has not survived.
A virelai with only a single stanza is also known as a bergerette.

Structural schema of the virelai.
The virelai as a song form of the 14th and early 15th century usually has three stanzas, and a refrain that is stated before the first stanza and again after each. Within each stanza, the structure is that of the bar form, with two sections that share the same rhymes and music (“stollen”), followed by a third (“abgesang”). The third section of each stanza shares its rhymes and music with the refrain.[1][2]
Within this overall structure, the number of lines and the rhyme scheme is variable. The refrain and abgesang may be of three, four or five lines each, with rhyme schemes such as ABA, ABAB, AAAB, ABBA, AAAB, or AABBA.[2] The structure often involves an alternation of longer with shorter lines. Typically, all three stanzas share the same set of rhymes, which means that the entire poem may be built on just two rhymes, if the stollen sections also share their rhymes with the refrain.

“Douce Dame Jolie” by Guillaume de Machaut is an example of a virelai with rhymes “AAAB” in the refrain, and “aab” (with a shortened second verse) in each of the stollen sections.

Douce dame jolie,
Pour dieu ne pensés mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement.
Qu’adès sans tricherie
Vous ay et humblement
Tous les jours de ma vie
Sans villain pensement.
Helas! et je mendie
D’esperance et d’aïe;
Dont ma joie est fenie,
Se pité ne vous en prent.

Douce dame jolie,
Pour dieu ne pensés mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement.

The song above is a plea to the poet’s Lady love to take pity upon him and love him, claiming to be her humble servant all the days of his life. Writing a verse in this form is challenging in English, because, as with a number of other Medieval forms, it requires so many identical rhymes. In this case, since the final four lines are repeats, we have ten A-rhymes and four B-rhymes.
Some forms are more suited than others to certain languages, but usually even the most challenging rhyme schemes can be adapted. The following is my own first attempt at a Virelai:

Virelai No. 1 “Wait Love for Me”

Wait, love, for me.
For I seek after thee,
And show me clemency,
That I may take thy hand.
Thy frown would ever be
For me
A lasting reprimand
Thy smile a legacy
Would be
That none could countermand.
No sweeter song could be
Than one you sing to me.
I stand bemusedly
Awaiting thy command.
Wait, love, for me.
For I seek after thee,
And show me clemency,
That I may take thy hand.

[14 November 2013]


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