Friday, 14 December 2012

Audelay's Lament for Childhood

This is a poem by John Audelay, the fifteenth-century Shropshire priest and poet who wrote one of my favourite medieval Christmas carols.  It's an unusual and touching poem, in which the speaker laments the loss of his childhood innocence.  He goes through the seven deadly sins and describes in turn how children are incapable of each one - they aren't covetous because their treasures are little things like cherry-stones, they aren't slothful because they're always busy and active, they hate even hearing about lechery (this point makes me imagine little boys saying 'yuk!' when they see people kissing; I don't know if that's what Audelay was thinking of...).  Whether all this is quite true or not - it's not exactly my memory of childhood! - it makes a poignant contrast to Audelay's conclusion about himself: 'And I in sin fall, alas, every day in the year!'

This article helpfully puts the poem in contemporary medieval context, but its theme is a universal one - 'shades of the prison-house begin to close about the growing boy'.  Although it's somewhat schematic in its listing of the sins, there's a kind of rawness to it which reminds me of a famous scene in Piers Plowman where the poor wafer-seller Haukyn, representing the average person living in the world, has had it explained to him at length, in endless learned speeches, that humble poverty is the only way to live; he's overwhelmed, and at last he exclaims 'Alas! that I was not dead and buried after I was christened! So hard it is to live and do sin!  Sin pursues us ever'; and he bursts into tears.  Audelay's poem seems close to the same emotion.

The text is from Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977), no.412, p.245, with my translation below.

And God wold graunt me my prayer,
A child ayene I wold I were!

Fore pride in herte he hatis allone,
Worchip ne reuerens kepis he non,
Ne he is wroth with no mon;
In charete is alle his chere.

He wot neuer wat is envy;
He wol vche mon fard wele him by;
He couetis noght vnlaufully —
Fore chere-stons is his tresoure.

In hert he hatis lechori;
To here therof he is sory;
He sleth the syn of glotere,
Nother etis ne drynkis bot fore mystere.

Slouth he putis away algate,
And wol be bese erle and late;
Al wyckidnes thus he doth hate,
The vii dedle synus al in fere.

A gracious lyfe forsothe he has,
To God ne mon doth no trespas,
And I in syn fal, alas,
Euere day in the yere!

My joy, my myrth is fro me clene;
I turne to care, turment, and tene;
Ded I wold that I had bene
When I was borne, and layd on bere.

Fore better hit were to be vnboren,
Then fore my synus to be forelorne,
Nere grace of God that is beforne,
Almysdede and hole prayere.

Now other cumford se I non
Bot schryue me clene with contricion,
And make here trew satisfaccion,
And do my penans wyle Y am here.

If God would grant me my prayer, a child again I wish I were!

For pride in heart a child entirely hates; he does not care for honour or rank, and is never angry with any man; his bearing is all charity.

He does not know what envy is, he wishes for everyone to do well; he does not covet anything unlawfully, for cherry-stones are his only treasure.

In his heart he hates lechery, and to hear of it he is sorry; he slays the sin of gluttony, and does not eat or drink except out of necessity.

He drives away sloth in every way, and likes to be busy at all times.  Thus he hates all wickedness and all the seven deadly sins together.

Indeed, he has a gracious life, and does no harm to God or man; and I fall into sin, alas, every day of the year!

My joy, my mirth is gone from me; I turn to sorrow, torment and suffering.  I wish I had died when I was born, and been laid on the bier.

For it would be better never to have been born than to be lost because of my sins - were it not for the grace of God which came before, and deeds of alms, and holy prayer.

Now I see no other comfort but to confess myself entirely, with contrition, and make full satisfaction, and do my penance while I am here.

If God would grant me my prayer, a child again I wish I were!

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