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A Short Critical Analysis of Poem Alysoun (Harley’s Lyrics)

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

  • British Library manuscript Harley 2253 from the early 14th century consist of the collection, known as the Harley Lyrics, the love poems, such as “Alysoun” after the poems of the Provençal troubadours.

  • “Alysoun” also referred to as “Bitwene March and Averil,” generally entitled Alysoun by editors, is one of the best known anthologized of all Middle English poems.

  • Written in the late 13th century and registered by the Ludlow scribe in the first of the 14th century. Consisting of seven quires with no columns set for the layout.

  • The poem is four eight-line stanzas, containing a refrain following a rhyme-scheme of ababbbbc (stanza), dddc (refrain) and the c-rhyme repeated through the four stanzas. This cause discontinuity on the order of thought which is seen in lines 15-16. The extensive use of alliteration also has noticed. The downside is that it performs the function of decorative one rather than structural.

  • The poem narrates the speaker’s attitudes and responses to his love for Alysoun. The attitudes demonstrated by the speaker are commonly found in the courtly love tradition. It gained its popularity due to the new materials and lyricism.

  • The alliteration, especially in the first line, contributes to the recurring musicalness of the lines.

  • In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker places his love in the traditional season of spring, and express great devotion towards her. The use of religious terms in the poem have given Alysoun a status equivalent to higher authority.

  • The second stanza begins with traditional description of the lady. The speaker praises her physical beauty and her expression which is similar to that medieval speaker.

  • Alysoun is portrayed cheerful qualities and doesn’t possess typical detached characteristics of the courtly beloved. Although the end of lines the speaker announces that he will die if he cannot have Alysoun’s love. Yet again it is followed by the rhythmic refrain.

  • In the third and fourth stanzas, the speaker describes his sufferings that consisted of insomnia, jealousy and fear of losing his lady love. These stanzas are unique as the speaker uses extraordinary but slightly informal alliterative images. This results into articulating somewhat evocative even though the true meaning would be simple.

  • One critical analysis of the poem that can be deduced is that the suffering of the speaker is debatable. Due to the continuous use of upbeat refrain at the end of every stanza.

  • Another conclusion made about the poetry is that it is a parody of love poems. For the tone set here depicts playful as the speaker suffers lover’s misery alongside, he is bursting with the bliss of love.

  • Lastly the poem is about the speaker’s passionate love for Alysoun. However, it can be considered as unhealthy obsession as negative traits have surfaced more than the positive ones. He saved his love just for Alysoun which is romantic but he is miserable at the same time which is impacting the speaker’s mental state as well as his health.


- 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.

- 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.



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