lai (lay): As a literary form, a short lyric or narrative poem, typically relating a tale of love and adventure, that flourished in medieval France and England and often drew on Celtic folklore. Narrative lais, which began to develop in the latter half of the twelfth century, were usually written and recited in Old French in octosyllabic couplets. Lyric lais had a more varied poetic form and structure, were sung rather than read or recited, and were typically addressed to a lady or to the Virgin Mary.
The Breton lai, a narrative form, drew mainly on Celtic legends, such as Arthurian lore. Fairies or other supernatural agents often played a role, and faithful love — as opposed to courtly love, which sanctioned adultery — was extolled. Marie de France, who wrote in Old French at the English court toward the end of the twelfth century, pioneered the Breton lai.
The fourteenth-century English lay, which imitated the Breton lai with a few changes, came to be called the Breton lay. Over time, as this Anglicized term was applied to any short English verse narrative in the vein of a Breton lai, the meaning of lay expanded. Increasingly, the subject matter for Breton lays ranged beyond Celtic legends to those of other traditions (even the “Oriental”), and the use of the tail-rhyme stanza outpaced octosyllabic couplets. Since the sixteenth century, the English word lay has been still more generally employed to describe any song or comparatively short verse narrative. For instance, in the nineteenth century, it was occasionally used to refer to short historical ballads.
EXAMPLES: Marie de France’s “Le rossignol” (“The Nightingale”), “Le lai des deux amants” (“The Lai of Two Lovers”), and “Chèvrefeuille” (“Honeysuckle”) are Breton lais dating from approximately 1175. Notable fourteenth-century Breton lays include Thomas Chestre’s Lay of Launfal, the anonymous Sir Orfeo, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Franklin’s Tale” (c. 1387). The oldest extant lyric lais were composed by French trouvère Gautier de Dargies in the early thirteenth century. Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and Thomas Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome (1842) are nineteenth-century examples of historical ballads referred to as lays.
An example of a lay from a non-European tradition is Yi Kyu-bo’s The Lay of King Tongmyông (1193), which recounts an ancient Korean legend regarding the birth of Tongmyông and the founding of his kingdom.