Monday, 18 February 2013

Thole a little

Louerd, þu clepedest me
an ich nagt ne ansuarede þe
Bute wordes scloe and sclepie:
'þole yet! þole a litel!'
Bute 'yiet' and 'yiet' was endelis,
and 'þole a litel' a long wey is.

This is a haunting little verse from the early fourteenth century, a translation of a passage from St Augustine's Confessions (Book 8, chapter 5):
Non erat quid responderem tibi ueritate conuictus dicenti mihi, 'Surge qui dormis & exurgea mortuis & illuminabit tibi Christus.' Nisi uerba lenta & sompnolenta, 'modo, ecce modo; sine paululum.' Sed 'modo & modo' non habebant modum, & 'sine paululum' in longum ibat.

Nor had I any thing to answer Thee calling to me, 'Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light' [Eph. v.14]. I had nothing to answer but dull and drowsy words, 'Presently, presently', 'wait a little.' But 'presently, presently,' had no present, and my 'little while' went on for a long while.
The Latin passage precedes the English poem in the sole manuscript (Oxford, New College MS. 88), in the form quoted. The wordplay in the Latin is on modo ('presently', in the translation), but in the English poem it's on the word þole. The lazy person tells God 'þole a litel!', meaning 'wait a bit, be patient'; the OED says that 'thole a while' is still an expression in some northern English dialects (though its latest citation is from 1896). But, as the MED entry helps to illustrate, þole also means 'endure, undergo', and so the last line of the poem hints at the sorrow which awaits this dilatory soul, whose lazy response to God to 'wait a while' turns into a never-ending delay.

'Suffer' has a similar double meaning, and so the poem might be translated:

Lord, you called me
But I never answered thee
Except with words slow and sleepy:
'Suffer yet, suffer a little!'
But 'yet' and 'yet' was endless,
And 'suffer a little' a long way is.

Once this poem is stuck in your head, it will never leave; it's not a bad reminder not to put things off!

Two images illustrating Accidia (Sloth) in BL Royal 6 E VI, f. 37v

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the foolish virgins' belated answer ...

Clerk of Oxford said...

It does, doesn't it!

Steffen said...

Thanks for yet another lovely blogpost. I really enjoyed the selection of texts here, and I was reminded of a sonnet by Lope de Vega Carpio (1562-1613):

Qué tengo yo que mi amistad procuras?
Qué interés se e sigue, Jesús mío,
que a mi puerta, cubierto de rocío,
pasas las noches del invierno escuras?

Oh cuánto fueron mis entranas duras
pues no te abrí! Qué extrano desvarío
si de mi ingratitud el hielo frío
secó las llagas de tus plantas puras!

Cuántas veces el ángel me decía:
"Alma, asómate agora a la ventana,
verás con cuanto amor llamar porfía!"

Y cuántas, hermosura soberana: "Manana te abriremos" - repondía,
para lomismo responder manana!

Or in the English translation by J. M. Cohen, from the Penguin Book of Spanish Verse:

What have I that you sue for my friendship?
What interest bring you, dear Jesus,
to spend the dark winter nights
at my door, covered in dew?

Oh how hard was my heart that I did not
open to you! What strange madness was it if
the cold frost of my ingratitude chapped the wounds on your pure feet?

How many times did the angel say to me:
"Now, soul, look out of your window,
and you will see how lovingly he persists in knocking!"

And how many times, oh supreme beauty,
did I reply: "I will open tomorrow",
only to make the same reply upon the morrow!


A different rendition can be found in Geoffrey Hill's sonnet cycle Lachrimae, published in his collection Tenebrae.


Heliopause said...

Thank you! For the poem, and also for the word "thole" with its multiple meanings. Would that be connected to the word "dule" in the Scottish ballad "Edward, Edward", where the mother insists that "some other dule ye dree-oh"?

Clerk of Oxford said...

Interesting question! I wasn't sure, so I looked it up. 'dule' is a form of 'dole' ('sorrow'), but although it looks so much like 'thole' they have no etymological relationship - 'dole' is from the French 'doel' and 'thole' has an unconnected Germanic root. So there you go. Thanks for prompting me to explore another little bit of linguistic trivia!

Heliopause said...

Thank you for chasing up the possibility!