"Sumer is i-cumen in"
Spring has come in
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blooms
And the woods springs now
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The calf lows after the cow
leaps, the buck leaps, twisting.
Merrily sing, cuckoo!
Well sing you, cuckoo.
Nor cease you ever now!
Translated by Craig E. Bertolet
As a matter of fact, there may be lessons to learn from the apparent simplicity of Middle English pieces. While today we might feel it is acceptable to layer our imagery past the point of immediate recognition and at the same time use obscure references which may not be understood without deeper study, but how many of these images and references are really ever understood or appreciated by anyone but the most dedicated critics or scholars? If we paint a house red, does it really matter if there are layers of green and blue underneath? At some point our “sophistication” goes so deep it loses the practicality, and a piece of writing becomes too self absorbed to truly communicate.
Today, a written piece can be printed, read aloud and recorded, saved in a digital file, and various combinations of these formats. Because of this, it can be read, re-read, listened to multiple times, and pondered. In Medieval times, a bard or balladeer might perform a piece only once for a particular audience; anything that wasn’t heard or understood the first time wasn’t going to be heard or understood later. But in spite of the many opportunities we have these days to come back to a text, how often do we really do so? Unless we have some specific reason for deeper study, don’t we usually keep our first impression of a piece and never seek to look any deeper?
If that is true, then perhaps we can learn a lesson from the simple straightforwardness of Middle English literature. Its apparent lack of sophistication is by design, and should not be confused with a lack of merit. These pieces were written with the end in mind, and that end was always communication. If a modern work wishes to communicate, then simplicity might be a welcome means to that end.