Thursday 3 May 2012

In a tabernacle of a tower

Coronation of the Virgin, BL Harley 2915, f.40

The following poem is (in my view) one of the very best of the many, many Middle English poems in praise of the Virgin Mary. It dates to c.1400, and survives in numerous manuscripts. It describes a vision of Mary which takes place when the speaker is standing gazing at the moon, "in a tabernacle of a tower". Tabernacle in Middle English means 'alcove, niche' (as well as the range of meanings it has today - the MED is helpful as always) and so we might imagine the speaker standing in a curtained alcove in the moonlight, perhaps looking at a statue of Mary, and then all at once ('ful sone') a vision of a crowned lady appears and speaks to him. She describes her great love for mankind, calling herself in turn man's sister, mother and spouse, and promising grace and mercy through her son to those who call on her.

1. In a tabernacle of a toure,
As I stode musyng on the mone,
A crouned quene, most of honoure,
Apered in gostly syght ful sone.
She made compleynt thus by hyr one,
For mannes soule was wrapped in wo,
"I may nat leve mankynde allone,
Quia amore langueo.

2. "I longe for love of man my brother,
I am hys vokete to voyde hys vyce;
I am hys moder — I can none other —
Why shuld I my dere chylde dispyce?
Yef he me wrathe in diverse wyse,
Though flesshes freelté fall me fro,
Yet must me rewe hym tyll he ryse,
Quia amore langueo.

3. "I byd, I byde in grete longyng,
I love, I loke when man woll crave,
I pleyne for pyté of peynyng;
Wolde he aske mercy, he shuld hit have.
Say to me, soule, and I shall save,
Byd me, my chylde, and I shall go;
Thow prayde me never but my son forgave,
Quia amore langueo.

4. "O wreche in the worlde, I loke on thee,
I se thy trespas day by day,
With lechery ageyns my chastité,
With pryde agene my pore aray;
My love abydeth, thyne ys away;
My love thee calleth, thow stelest me fro;
Sewe to me, synner, I thee pray,
Quia amore langueo.

5. "Moder of mercy I was for thee made;
Who nedeth hit but thow allone?
To gete thee grace I am more glade
Than thow to aske hit; why wylt thou noon?
When seyd I nay, tel me, tyll oon?
Forsoth never yet, to frende ne foo;
When thou askest nought, than make I moone,
Quia amore langueo.

6. "I seke thee in wele and wrechednesse,
I seke thee in ryches and poverté;
Thow man beholde where thy moder ys,
Why lovest thou me nat, syth I love thee?
Synful or sory how evere thow be,
So welcome to me there ar no mo;
I am thy suster, ryght trust on me,
Quia amore langueo.

7. "My childe ys outlawed for thy synne,
Mankynde ys bette for hys trespasse;
Yet prykketh myne hert that so ny my kynne
Shuld be dysseased, o sone, allasse!
Thow art hys brother, hys moder I was;
Thow sokyd my pappe, thow lovyd man so;
Thow dyed for hym, myne hert he has,
Quia amore langueo.

8. "Man, leve thy synne than for my sake;
Why shulde I gyf thee that thou nat wolde?
And yet yef thow synne, som prayere take
Or trust in me as I have tolde.
Am nat I thy moder called?
Why shulde I flee thee? I love thee soo,
I am thy frende, I helpe, beholde,
Quia amore langueo.

9. "Now, sone," she sayde, "wylt thou sey nay,
Whan man wolde mende hym of hys mys?
Thow lete me never in veyne yet pray:
Than, synfull man, see thow to thys,
What day thou comest, welcome thow ys,
Thys hundreth yere yef thow were me fro;
I take thee ful fayne, I clyppe, I kysse,
Quia amore langueo.

10. "Now wold I syt and sey nomore,
Leve and loke with grete longyng;
When a man woll calle, I wol restore;
I love to save hym, he ys myne hosprynge;
No wonder yef myne hert on hym hynge,
He was my neyghbore — what may I doo?
For hym had I thys worshippyng,
And therefore Amore langueo.

11. "Why was I crouned and made a quene?
Why was I called of mercy the welle?
Why shuld an erthly woman bene
So hygh in heven above aungelle?
For thee, mankynde, the truthe I telle;
Thou aske me helpe, and I shall do
That I was ordeyned, kepe thee fro helle,
Quia amore langueo.

12. "Nowe, man, have mynde on me forever,
Loke on thy love thus languysshyng;
Late us never fro other dissevere:
Myne helpe ys thyne oune; crepe under my wynge.
Thy syster ys a quene, thy brother ys a kynge,
Thys heritage ys tayled; sone, come therto,
Take me for thy wyfe and lerne to synge,
Quia amore langueo."

LinkThe rose-crowned Virgin in the remains of a medieval wall-painting at Gisleham, Suffolk

1. In a tabernacle of a tower,
As I stood musing on the moon,
A crowned queen, greatest in honour,
Appeared in ghostly sight full soon.
She made lament thus all alone,
Because man's soul was wrapped in woe:
"I cannot leave mankind alone,
Because I languish for love."

2. "I languish for love of man, my brother,
I am his vokete to void his vice; [I am his advocate to annul his sins]
I am his mother — I can do none other —
How could I my dear child despise?
If he offend against me in diverse wise, [in many ways]
Through flesh's frailty fall away from me,
Yet I must pity him until he rise,
Because I languish for love.

3. "I bid, I bide in great longing,
I love, I look for when man will crave, [pray for mercy]
I lament for pity at his suffering;
If he would ask mercy, he should it have.
Speak to me, soul, and I shall save,
Bid me, my child, and I shall go;
Thou never prayed to me but my son forgave,
Because I languish for love.

4. "O wretch in the world, I look on thee,
I see thy trespasses day by day,
With lechery against my chastity,
With pride against my poor array;
My love abides, thine flees away;
My love thee calls, thou stealest away;
Appeal to me, sinner, I thee pray,
Because I languish for love.

5. "Mother of mercy for thee I was made;
Who needeth it but thou alone?
To get thee grace I am more glad
Than thou to ask it; why wilt thou none? [why will you not take it?]
When said I nay, tell me, to anyone?
Forsooth, never yet, to friend or foe;
When thou askest not, than make I moan, [then I lament]
Because I languish for love.

6. "I seek thee in fortune and in wretchedness,
I seek thee in riches and poverty;
Thou, man, behold where thy mother is;
Why lovest thou me not, since I love thee? 
Sinful or sorrowing, however thou may be,
There is no other so welcome to me.
I am thy sister, trust truly in me,
Because I languish for love.

7. "My child is outlawed for thy sin,
Mankind is the better for his trespass [suffering]
Yet it pricks my heart that my close kin
Should be in pain. O Son, alas!
Thou art his brother, his mother I was;
Thou sucked my breast, thou loved man so,
Thou died for him; my heart he has,
Because I languish for love.

8. "Man,  leave thy sin then for my sake.
Why should I give you what you do not want?
And yet if thou sin, these prayers take
And trust in me as I have thee told.
Am not I thy mother called?
Why should I flee thee? I love thee so,
I am thy friend, I help, behold,
Because I languish for love.

9. "Now, Son," she said, "wilt thou say nay,
When man would make amends for his misdeeds?
Thou hast never in vain yet let me pray.
Then, sinful man, look thou to this:
Whatever day thou comest, welcome thou art,
If thou wert away these hundred years!
I receive thee very gladly, I embrace, I kiss,
Because I languish for love.

10. "Now will I sit and say no more,
But leave off and look with great longing.
When a man will call on me, I will him restore;
I love to save him, he is my offspring.
No wonder if my heart to him clings!
He was my neighbour - what else may I do?
For him I received this honour,
And therefore I languish for love.

11. "Why was I crowned and made a queen?
Why was I called of mercy the well?
Why should an earthly woman be
So high in heaven, above any angel?
For thee, mankind - the truth I tell.
Ask for my help, and I shall do
What I was made for: keep thee from hell,
Because I languish for love.

12. "Now, man, have mind on me forever,
Look on thy love thus languishing.
Let us never from each other dissever: [part]
My help is thine own; creep under my wing.
Thy sister is a queen, thy brother is a king,
This inheritance is granted; son, come to it.
Take me for thy wife, and learn to sing,
Because I languish for love.

This poem has many features in common with another exquisite medieval poem, 'In a valley of restless mind'; they have the same refrain, 'Quia amore langueo', which is from the Song of Songs and means 'because I languish for love'. The Song of Songs was extremely popular in the Middle Ages and both these poems are infused with its imagery and language (especially 'In a valley of restless mind', which has Christ inviting the soul into his orchard to dine on milk and honey). They're almost companion poems, in that 'In a valley of restless mind' imagines Christ as a royal suitor, appealing to the listening soul in tender, intimate language as daughter, sister, lover, spouse, and this one has Mary speak in the same tone. One of the most astonishing things about both poems is the sudden shifting of relationship between Mary/Christ and the person they're addressing - one moment Mary is mankind's sister, then mother, then wife; she's speaking to mankind and then the next moment to Christ (in verses 7-9), as if standing between the two and looking from one to another, and sometimes you can't tell (deliberately, I think) which she is actually addressing.

There's also something about the rhythm of both poems which makes it sound insistent, appealing, especially when read aloud. Look at verse 3, for instance:

I byd, I byde in grete longyng,
I love, I loke when man woll crave,
I pleyne for pyté of peynyng;
Wolde he aske mercy, he shuld hit have.
Say to me, soule, and I shall save,
Byd me, my chylde, and I shall go;
Thow prayde me never but my son forgave,
Quia amore langueo.

It's full of urgent energy and yet somehow tender and caressing, producing an effect which is not - as it might have been in the hands of a lesser poet - hectoring, but immensely affectionate and loving. In some ways this poem doesn't say anything very original, but it's done with extraordinary skill - and the opening image, the crowned lady reaching out in the moonlight, is unforgettable.

Fordwich, Kent

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