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Poetry Guide: Virelay

Virelay is the title applied to more than one fixed form of verse, from the French virer, "to turn or veer". The history and exact character of the virelay are more obscure than those of any other of the old French forms. It is possible that it is connected with the Provençal ley. Historians of poetry have agreed in stating that it is a modification of the medieval lai, but it is curious that no example of the lai is forthcoming, except the following, which was first printed by the Père Mourgues in his Traité de Poésie:

Sur lappui du Monde
Que faut-il quon fonde Despoir?
Cette mer profonde Et debris féconde
Fait voir Calme au matin londe
Et lorage y gronde Le Soir.

But this appears to be, not a complete poem, but a fragment of a virelay, which proceeds by shifting or veering the two rhymes to an extent limited only by the poets ingenuity. This is the Old Virelay (virelai ancien ), of which examples have been rare in recent literature. There is, however, a New Virelay (virelai nouveau ), the newness of which is merely relative, since it was used by Alain Chartier in the 15th century. In French the old and popular verses beginning "Adieu vous dy triste Lyre, C'est trop apprter a rire", form a perfect example of the New Virelay, and in English we have at least one admirable specimen in Mr. Austin Dobson's July:

Good-bye to the Town! good-bye!
Hurrah! for the sea and the sky!

The New Virelay is entirely written on two rhymes, and begins with two lines which are destined to form recurrent refrains throughout the whole course of the poem, and, reversed in order, to close it with a couplet. The virelay is a vaguer and less vertebrate form of verse than the sonnet, the ballad or the villanelle, and is of less importance than these in the history of prosody.