Friday 5 April 2013

A Springtide Song of the Redemption: 'Somer is comen and winter gon'

Somer is comen & winter gon,
Þis day beginniþ to longe,
& þis foules everichon
Ioye hem wit songe.
So stronge kare me bint,
Al wit ioye þat is funde
In londe,
Al for a child
Þat is so milde
Of honde.

Þat child, þat is so milde & wlong
& eke of grete munde,
Boþe in boskes & in bank
Isout me hauet a-stunde.
Ifunde he hauede me,
For an appel of a tre
He brac þe bond
Þat was so strong
Wit wunde.

Þat child þat was so wilde & wlong
To me a-lute lowe,
Fram me to giwes he was sold
Ne cuþen hey him nout cnowe.
'Do we' sayden he,
'Naile we him opon a tre
A lowe,
Ac arst we sullen
Scumi him
A þrowe.'

Ihesu is þe childes name,
King of al londe;
Of þe king he meden game
& smiten him wit honde
To fonden him, opon a tre
He yeuen him wundes to & þre
Mid honden,
Of bitter drinck
He senden him
A sonde.

Det he nom ho rode-tre,
Þe life of vs alle,
Ne miitte it nowtt oþer be
Bote we scolden walle
& wallen in helle dep
Nere neuere so swet
Wit alle.
Ne miitte us saui
Castle, tur,
Ne halle.

Mayde & moder þar astod,
Marie ful of grace,
And of here eyen heo let blod
Uallen in þe place.
Þe trace ran of here blod,
Changed here fles & blod
& face.
He was to-drawe,
So dur islawe
In chace.

Det he name, þe suete man,
Wel heye opon þe rode;
He wes hure sunnes euerichon
Mid is swete blode.
Mid flode he lute adun
& brac þe yates of þat prisun
Þat stode,
& ches here
Out þat þere
Were gode.

He ros him ene þe þridde day,
& sette him on is trone;
He wule come a domes-day,
To dem us euerich one.
Grone he may & wepen ay,
Þe man þat deiet wit-oute lay
Grante ous, crist,
Wit þin uprist
To gone. Amen.

Carleton Brown, ed., English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century (Oxford, 1932), pp. 108-11.

This is one of the earliest Middle English lyrics, which survives only in the thirteenth-century manuscript British Library, MS Egerton 613. It provides an early example of the 'Christ as knight' motif (of which I gave some more examples the other day), and it does so with a teasing misdirection which delays the identification of the knight until late in the poem: 'I am suffering for love,' the speaker says, 'for the sake of a wonderful knight who came and sought me through woods and forests, and rescued me from captivity' - not revealing until the fourth verse that the knight is Christ. The poem does this partly by playing on the different meanings of the word child, which means 'a young man training to be a knight' (think 'Childe Roland to the dark tower came') as well as the modern sense of the word.

The editor of the book where I found this poem entitles it 'A springtide song of the redemption', which is both a lovely and an apt title, for that is what it is. 'Somer' in the first line encompasses both spring and summer as we would think of it, the whole warm season of the year (the famous 'Sumer is icumen in', with its returning cuckoos, similarly seems more fitted for April than for June). Spring is the time in medieval literature when things start to happen - folk long to go on pilgrimages, the dreamer of Piers Plowman goes wandering in search of wonders, cuckoos sing, birds form parliaments, owls debate with nightingales - the list goes on. And it's not surprising that this convention is found in religious verse too: here's a nice example of an Annunciation poem in springtime mode, and think of the 'dew in April' in this famous lyric...

A translation of the poem (the language is pretty tricky, but I did my best!):

Summer is come and winter gone,
The days begin to grow long,
And the birds every one
Make rejoicing with their song.
So strong a sorrow now me binds,
All for the joy that I find
In land,
All for a child
Who is so mild [merciful, gentle]
Of hand.

That child, who is so kind and noble
And of great power,
Both in bushes and in banks
Has sought me for a time.
He found me,
For an apple of a tree
He broke the bond
That was so strong
By his wounds.

That child who was so wild and bold
For me humbled himself low,
For me to Jews he was sold;
They would not him know. [acknowledge]
'Let us,' said they,
'Nail him upon a tree
In a lowly place,
But first we shall
Shame him
A while.'

Jesu is that child's name,
King of all lands;
Of the king they made game
And smote him with their hands.
To tempt him, upon a tree
They gave him wounds two and three
By hand;
Of bitter drink
They sent him
A taste.

Death he took on rood-tree,
The life of us all;
Nor might it any other way be
Or else we should lament
And suffer in hell so deep
And never cease from labour
Nor could us save
Castle, tower,
Or hall.

Maid and mother there she stood,
Mary full of grace,
And from her eyes she let the blood
Fall down in that place.
The tears ran of her blood,
Changed were her flesh and blood
And face.
He was ill-treated
Like a beast hunted
In the chase.

Death he took, that sweet man,
High there upon the rood;
He washed our sins, every one,
With his sweet blood.
With that flood he bent down
And burst the gates of that prison
Where they stood,
And chose from there
The ones who
Were good.

He rose again on the third day,
And set him on his throne;
He will come on doomsday,
To judge us every one.
Mourn he may and weep ay,
The man who dies without amendment
Grant us, Christ,
By thy uprising
With thee to go. Amen.

'& þis foules everichon...' (BL, Royal 3 D VI, f.116)


Steffen said...

I have a big softspot for elaborate and elegant rhyme-schemes, so this was a joy to read. I would like to read poems in contemporary English constructed in this manner, there's much to be said for such rigid structure.

I also hope that you will record this and put it up on youtube, I'm trying my best to render it in Middle English, but I believe I don't quite have the hang of it yet.

Clerk of Oxford said...

This poem has an interesting structure, because you'd think that the rigidity would lend itself to cliched phrases and thus damage the meaning, but it actually doesn't!

I may try and record it, and if I do I'll add a link.

Chris Monk said...

Really interesting, thank you. Also like your bird images, which are surprisingly executed with accuracy: blue tit and chaffinch.