Lai

The lai is a form of French origin, even more ancien than the virelai ancien (which evolved from it). It is not to be confused with the Breton lay,  a quite different form of which Chaucer's Franklin's Tale is an example; or the lay, a term sometimes used for a short historical ballad, such Sir Walter Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel; or with the word lay used simply to mean a song. 

Having ensured your total lack of confusion, let me tell you what the lai actually is. It's like a slimmed-down virelai ancien, with the stanzas not linked by rhyme. Here's one:

Lai of the Cow
The praises I sing
Of that wondrous thing
The cow.
Let the rafters ring!
My Muse shall take wing,
I vow.
Foods our cattle bring
Are fit for a king,
And how!

As white as can be,
The smooth quality
Of silk,
The epitome
Of maternity,
Its milk.
You have to agree
You never will see
Its ilk.

For an honoured guest
Save the very best:
The cream.
While those not so blest
Make do with the rest,
And dream.
So nice to digest,
That when itís suppressed,
Folk scream!
 
You can churn milk, so
It becomes yellow
Butter.
What could beat that? Oh,
Donít scoff in that low
Mutter!
I will not forgo
Such pleasure; Iím no
Nutter.

Or you cheddar it.
Thus you make a bit
Of cheese,
A prerequisite
For one exquisite
Good wheeze:
Letís get the grill lit
And make Welsh rarebit.
Yes please!

Our bovine-sourced feast,
Has it still not ceased?
Good grief!
No, last but not least,
Its flesh when deceased:
The beef.
The worth of this beast
Could not be increased,
In brief.

The syllable count in each triplet of lines is 5, 5, 2, and each triplet rhymes aab. The number of such triplets must be the same in each stanza, and at least two. To assert my virility, I chose to use three. According to the definition I have used, all the triplets within a stanza must use the same rhymes - so in this example the rhyming scheme for each stanza is aabaabaab

However, I have in front of me a poem by Paul Verlaine - it's called Chanson d'Automne - which has lines the right length for a lai, but stanzas that rhyme aabccb. So is it a lai? I don't know, but it's a far better poem than mine, which is the important thing. 

As with many of these old forms, the effort involved in writing one is usually out of all proportion to the worth of the finished poem. But don't let me talk you out of it!

Related forms

The lai is very closely related to the virelai. In fact the virelai is just the same as the lai with a couple of extra rules:

So every virelai is also a lai.

The lai and virelai were ancestors of both the virelai ancien and the virelai nouveau.

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© Bob Newman 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 03/01/2007