The Lai is a tough poetry type to nail down the ins and outs of, as it’s been branded mostly obsolete since the 16th century and is now only interesting to poetry ubernerds (cough cough). The Lai is an Old French form originating in the 13th century. The oldest lais are attributed to Marie de France and her contes or short romantic tales. The first confusion comes in with the term lai, as some think that there’s the lai, a specific old form, the lay, which is just a word previously used for a narrative poem, and the Breton lay. The confusion comes because they are technically the exact same thing but from different periods. The Lai is also spelled Lay in English, and was as early as the 12th c. medieval writers used the term to simply mean song, sometimes purely instrumental song. By the early 13th century, it came to refer to long streams of verses of irregular form. Gradually the structure started to systematize until the 14th century when most lais fit into a standardized form-12 stanzas (double strophes sometimes called double versicles), each having formally identicle halves and in a pattern not used in the preceding stanza, with the first and last stanza being related or identical in form and music. The standardization is attributed in great part to Guillaume de Machaut who wrote an inordinate amount of song and poetry. The Breton Lay was applied in 14th c. England to poems set in Brittany, an example of which is Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Franklin’s Tale” and it was at this point that the two types of lai branched off from each other: the lai lyrique, and the Lai Breton. It was as an evolution from the lai that the Virelai was born which some confuse for a Lai by another name, which shares its form with the 13th c. Italian lauda and Spanish Cantiga. And it was Theodore de Banville in “Petite Traite de Poesie Francias” in 1872 that went so far as to define the two types of Virelai, the Virelai Ancien and the Virelai Nouveau. (phew!) If you know more and want to add to or clear up this scholarly cluster, message us.
If there is a defining feature of the lai it’s its irregularity and flexibility. Each poet put his or her own spin on the lai as it is by definition a flexible form.
- The lais of Gautier de Dargies, the oldest lyric lais so far found, had nonuniform stanzas of 6-16 or more lines of 4-8 syllables, with one or two rhymes maintained
- Guillaume’s Lais were typically 12 stanzas, “the last of which shared the melody and poetic form of the first; each stanza used double or quadruple versicles (stanzas).” (brittanica)
- Theodore de Banville in “Petite Traite de Poesie Francias” in 1872 tried to settle matters by defining the lai “as a poem in which each stanza is a combination fo 3-line groups, two longer lines followed by a shorter one, with the longer lines sharing one rhyme sound and the shorter lines another (aabaabaab ccdccdccd etc)”
However, except for Banville who admittedly only based his definition on two poems, agree to this:
- 12 stanzas, considered double strophes (also called double versicles which is a term my inner 12 year old finds hilarious for some reason), each having formally identical halves
- each stanza’s form has to be distinct from the form of the other stanzas
- except for the 1st and 12th stanza which are to be identical in form
- commonly used are octosyllabic couplets
- Green, Roland, et al. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Fourth Edition.
- Apel, Will. Harvard Dictionary of Music, 4th Edition. Harvard University Press, 2003