Friday, 12 October 2012

When broom bears apples and hemlock bears honey

This is a poem or song from a fifteenth-century manuscript of songs and carols, which includes among many others this carol of the Virgin Mary, and the Annunciation carol 'Tidings true'. Today's poem is on a very conventional theme, the untrustworthiness and instability of the world, but this is a particularly neat expression of the idea. The rhetorical impossibilia are my favourite bit, promising that true rest can be found in this world only 'when broom bears apples and hemlock bears honey'.

Wold God that men might sene
Hertes whan they bene,
For thinges that bene untrew.
If it be as I wene,
Thing that semeth grene
Is ofte faded of hew.

Will is tak for reson;
Trew love is full geson;
No man sett be shame.
Trost is full of treson;
Eche man oderes cheson;
No man him seilfe will blame.

This warlde is variabell;
Nothing therein is stable,
Asay now who so will.
Sin it is so mutable,
How shuld me be stable?
It may not be thorow skill.

Whan brome will appelles bere,
And humloke hony in fere,
Than seke rest in lond.
With men is no pees;
Ne rest in hart is, no lese,
With few be see and sond.

Sithen there is no rest,
I hold it for the best,
God to be our frend,
He that is our Lord,
Deliver us out with his word,
And graunt us a good ende!

A rough translation:

Would to God that men could see
Hearts as they really be,
As things that are untrue;
For if it be as I ween, [believe]
Things that seem green [i.e. fresh]
Are often faded in hue.

Self-will is mistaken for reason;
True love is very scarce;
No one cares for shame.
Trust is full of treason;
Every man accuses someone else,
But no one himself will blame.

This world is variable,
Nothing therein is stable;
Let anyone test it who will.
Since it is so mutable,
How can anyone be stable? [secure]
Reason says this cannot be.

When a broom-bush bears apples,
And hemlock bears honey,
Then look for rest in this world.
Among men is no peace;
Rest in heart belongs to few,
Truly, by sea or by shore.

Since there is no rest,
I hold it for the best
To take God as our friend.
May he who is our Lord
Deliver us by his word,
And grant us a good end.

God resting (BL Egerton 1894)