Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Time is All Run: An Expectant Carol

Today's Advent carol, which is from the fifteenth century, has an unusual subject: Mary looking forward with joyful expectation, during her pregnancy, to the birth of her child. She imagines herself singing lullabies to the baby and playing with him, and then, later, hearing him teach the Gospel - prophesying a future unknown to her. I don't know of any other carols on this theme, at least not spoken in the voice of the Virgin herself; more common are carols where the infant Christ tells his mother of the death that will befall him, to her surprise and distress (this is a particularly good example of a carol on that theme). This is a more homely, domestic, cheerful kind of scenario - really just a lovely subject all round.

This carol was apparently written to fit the tune of a secular song called "Now must I sing", which has not survived (for the opening, where the narrator wanders alone in the woods and overhears a woman speaking, compare this song of an earlier date). The original secular song might possibly have been about a woman lamenting that she is pregnant, in which case this carol is a nice 'translation' of the theme to a joyful, religious context.

This is in modern spelling with some helpful (I hope) notes; here's the unmodernised version.

Refrain: Nowell, Nowell, Nowell!
Sing we with mirth,
Christ is come well
With us to dwell,
By His most noble birth.

1. Under a tree,
In sporting me
Alone by a wood-side,
I heard a maid
Who sweetly said,
"I am with child this tide."

[As I went out amusing myself, alone near the edge of a wood, under a tree I saw a maiden, who sweetly said, "I am with child at this time."]

2. "Graciously
Conceived have I
The Son of God so sweet;
His gracious will
I put me till,
As mother Him to keep."

["By grace I have conceived the Son of God so sweet; I submitted myself to his gracious will that I should be his mother."]

3. "Both night and day,
I will Him pray,
And hear His laws be taught,
And every dell
His true gospel
In His apostles fraught."

["Both night and day I will beseech him, and hear his laws be taught and every part of his true Gospel entrusted to his disciples."]

4. "This ghostly case
Doth me embrace,
Without despite or mock,
With my darling,
Lullay to sing,
And lovingly Him to rock."

["This holy act tenderly protects me, without shame or mockery, so that I may sing lullabies to my darling and lovingly cradle him."]

5. "Without distress,
In great lightness,
I am both night and day;
This heavenly Fode,
In His childhood,
Shall daily with me play."

["I am without distress, in great lightness (i.e. both lightness of heart and experiencing no discomfort from the 'heaviness' of pregnancy) both night and day. The heavenly infant, in his childhood, shall play with me every day."]

6. "Soon must I sing,
With rejoicing,
For the time is all run,
That I shall child,
All undefiled,
The King of heaven's Son."

["Soon shall I sing with rejoicing, for the time is almost come that I shall give birth, entirely undefiled, to the Son of the King of heaven."]

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell!
Sing we with mirth,

Christ is come well,

With us to dwell,

By His most noble birth.

Pictures from Wickhambreaux, Rochester Cathedral, and Ickham.

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