Sunday 30 March 2014

'March Music'

I'm going to sneak this poem in before March is over, although since it draws on 'Vexilla Regis' it's really more appropriate for later in Lent than Mid-Lent Sunday. Nonetheless - this is 'March Music', by Evelyn Underhill.

Impleta sunt, quae concinit
David fideli carmine,
Dicendo nationibus
Regnavit a ligno Deus.

All down the windy woods, along the throbbing hedge,
And in the starting sedge,
Yea, in all choirs and places where they sing,
I hear its growing cadences that ring;
Noblest of the processionals of earth,
The great Vexilla Regis of the spring:
And topping the soft hill
With sudden joy of emerald fluttering,
Against the sky's bright edge
I see the mighty banners of the King.

Yet not unheralded
The hosts of life to victory are led:
Lo! near at hand
His little band
Of harbingers a subtle music make;
Tight scrolls crisp-rolled
Pricking from out the mould
Along the margins of the dusky brake.
Come, put your ear
To the brown earth, and hear
The glad green shout
With which each baby leaf thrusts out
Toward the clear:
Leaps to achieve its part
In the symphonic poem that breaks from Nature's heart.

Exultant, sacred mirth
That waits upon the vernal ecstasy
Of birth!
Why does she joy?
To what supreme employ
Destines the budding spray?
Does she,
As some proud mother, see
Entangled in her children's downy hair
Meshed glories that declare
An unguessed empery
Of life to be?
The catkins tasselled grey,
In heavenly gold,
The wonder of the thorn —
Are these the earnests of a distant morn
That shall the woodland dress
With a dread fruitfulness?

Ah, yes!
As in old time
Joy was august, sublime,
And priests could then afford
To dance before the Lord,
Plaiting the patterns sweet
With swift enraptured feet
That worshipped in the ways of metric loveliness,
Then at the altar made their sacrifice complete:
So does the vernal play
Perpetually invite
The deep interior sight
Unto the shrine
Which makes all growth divine.
So does the flowery mist
That lies upon the ground
Prepare a Victim's way;
And every forest sound
Proclaim a Eucharist.

Lo! on those eager branches shall be hung
That Life of which the woods have ever sung;
Making themselves soft harps for the hand o' the rain
To whisper of his pain,
And, 'neath the poignant bowing of the wind
Subdued to move,
Crying to all mankind
The secret of the sacrament of love.
Yea! from a Tree
God shall shine out at thee;
For this doth Nature grow,
To this the kingly banners forward go.

I encountered the poem in this book of Underhill's poetry, which is worth exploring; particularly relevant to this poem are 'The Tree' and 'Primavera'. And this also seems like a good opportunity to link to a Middle English translation of 'Vexilla Regis', by William Herebert, which I posted some time ago.

The pictures in this post of budding spring trees were taken yesterday by the Thames at Bablock Hythe.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Angelus ad virginem / Gabriel from heaven's king

Gabriel, fram evene king
Sent to the maide swete,
Broute hire blisful tiding,
And faire he gan hire greten:
"Heil be thu, ful of grace arith,
For Godes Sone, this evene lith,
For mannes loven
Wile man bicomen
And taken
Fles of thee, maiden brith,
Manken fre for to maken
Of senne and devles mith."

Mildeliche im gan andsweren
The milde maiden thanne:
"Wichewise sold ichs beren
Child withhuten manne?"
Thangle seide, "Ne dred te nout;
Thurw tholigast sal ben iwrout
This ilche thing
Warof tiding
Ichs bringe.
Al manken wrth ibout
Thur thi swete chiltinge,
And hut of pine ibrout."

Wan the maiden understud
And thangles wordes herde,
Mildeliche with milde mud
To thangle hie andswerde:
"Hur Lordes theumaiden iwis
Ics am, that her aboven is.
Anenttis me
Fulfurthed be
Thi sawe,
That ics, sithen his wil is,
Maiden withhuten lawe
Of moder have the blis."

Thangle wente awei mid than
Al hut of hire sithte;
Hire wombe arise gan
Thurw tholigastes mithe.
In hire was Crist biloken anon:
Suth God, soth man ine fleas and bon,
And of hir fleas
Iboren was
At time,
Warthurw us kam God won.
He bout us hut of pine
And let im for us slon.

Maiden moder makeles,
Of milche ful ibunden,
Bid for hus im that thee ches,
At wam thu grace funde,
That he forgive hus senne and wrake,
And clene of evri gelt us make;
And evne blis
Wan hure time is
To sterven
Hus give for thine sake
Him so her for to serven
That he us to him take.

This is a thirteenth-century English version of a Latin song about the Annunciation, 'Angelus ad virginem'; it can be sung to the same tune as the Latin, and the manuscript (BL Arundel 248) has the music, followed by the Latin, then the English text:

'Angelus ad virginem' is one of the catchiest surviving medieval songs. It's mentioned by Chaucer in the Miller's Tale, where young Nicholas, the naughty clerk of Oxford (not my namesake, of course!), plays 'Angelus ad virginem' to entertain himself, 'so sweetly that the chamber rang'. It has been observed that Chaucer may have intended a sly parallel between the adulterous Nicholas, who sneaks into bed with his landlord's wife when the other man is away, and the angel subintrans in conclave 'secretly entering the chamber' - but perhaps the less said about that the better... The Latin song sounds like this:

And the English like this:

Here's a modernised version of the English:

Gabriel, from heaven's king
Sent to the maid sweet,
Brought her blissful tidings,
And fair he did her greet:
"Hail be thou, full of grace aright,
For God's Son, this heaven's light,
For man's love
Will man become
And take
Flesh of thee, maiden bright,
Mankind free for to make
From sin and devil's might."

Gently him did answer
The gentle maiden then:
"In what way can I bear
A child without a man?"
The angel said, "Fear thee naught;
Through the Holy Ghost shall be wrought
This same thing
Of which tiding
I bring.
All mankind will be bought [redeemed]
Through thy sweet childing,
And out of torment brought."

When the maiden understood
And the angel's words heard,
Gently with a gentle mind
To the angel she answered:
"Our Lord's serving maiden iwis [indeed]
I am, who here above is.
Concerning me
Fulfilled shall be
Thy saw, [your words]
That I, since his will it is,
A maiden, without law, [i.e. outside the law of nature]
Of mother will have the bliss."

The angel went away with than [that]
All out of her sight;
Her womb to arise began
Through the Holy Ghost's might.
In her was Christ enclosed anon:
True God, true man in flesh and bone,
And of her flesh
Born he was
In time,
Whereby to us came God wone. [to dwell]
He bought us out of pain
And was for us slain.

Maiden mother makeless, [matchless]
Of mercy full abounding,
Pray for us to him who thee ches, [chose]
With whom thou grace found,
That he forgive us sin and wrake, [injury]
And clean of every guilt us make;
And heaven's bliss
When our time is
To sterve [die];
Grant us for thy sake
Him so here for to serve
That he us to him take.

The English is modelled on the Latin but is not a straight translation (that might have put too much strain on what is already a demanding rhyme-scheme). Some differences include the language used to describe the Virgin: sweet, maiden bright, milde ('gentle'), and the triply alliterating maiden mother makeless in the last verse are all without parallel in the Latin, and they lend a tender and affectionate tone to the whole poem. I'm particularly fond of the angel's phrase 'thy sweet childing', i.e. child-bearing; as often in Middle English religious verse, the words light, sweet, fair and blissful feature heavily. It's the English poet's idea to have Mary say, as her acceptance of the angel's message, that 'a maiden will have the bliss of motherhood' - a nice touch. In the fourth verse, where the Latin turns with startling swiftness from birth to death, from Christ's entry into Mary's womb to his Crucifixion, the English keeps the focus on the moment of the Incarnation: 'In her was Christ enclosed anon: / True God, true man in flesh and bone, / And of her flesh / Born he was / In time, / Whereby to us came God wone'. Only the very last word of the verse introduces the idea that he was 'slain'. The rhyme in the final verse between makeles and ches recalls another family of Middle English Annunciation lyrics, 'I sing of a maiden' and 'Nu these fules singet'; makeless is a a useful word in this context, a kind of serendipitous holy pun, because it means both 'without equal' and 'without a mate', i.e. a virgin.

The angel and the Virgin, on either side of a window in the painted chancel at Chalgrove, Oxfordshire

Here's the Latin text:

Angelus ad virginem
Sub intrans in conclave,
Virginis formidinum
Demulcens inquit "Ave,
Ave regina virginum,
Coeli terraeque dominum
Et paries
Salutem hominum.
Tu porta coeli facta
Medella criminum."

"Quomodo conciperem,
quae virum non cognovi?
Qualiter infringerem,
quae firma mente vovi?"
"Spiritus sancti gratia
Perficiet haec omnia;
Ne timaes,
Sed gaudeas,
Quod castimonia
Manebit in te pura
Dei potentia."

Ad haec virgo nobilis
Respondens inquit ei,
"Ancilla sum humilis
Omnipotentis Dei.
Tibi coelesti nuntio,
Tanta secreti conscio,
Et cupiens
Factum quod audio,
Parata sum parere
Dei consilio."

Angelus disparuit
Et statim puellaris
Uterus intumuit
Vi partus salutaris.
Qui, circumdatus utero
Novem mensium numero,
Hinc exiit
Et iniit
Affigens humero
Crucem, qua dedit ictum
Hosti mortifero.

Eia Mater Domini,
Quae pacem reddidisti
Angelis et homini,
Cum Christum genuisti;
Tuem exora filium
Ut se nobis propitium
Et deleat
Praestans auxilium
Vita frui beata
Post hoc exsilium.

Monday 24 March 2014

Three Thoughts: The Gate of Heaven

For those of you new to this blog (hello!), 'Three Thoughts' is a series in which I collect, without comment, three texts or extracts linked by a single word or phrase. In this case it's the 'gate of heaven', which comes ultimately from the story in Genesis 28:10-17.


John Donne, from a sermon preached on 29th February, 1628.

And those that sleep in Jesus Christ (saith the Apostle) will God bring with him; not only fetch them out of the dust when he comes, but bring them with him, that is, declare that they have been in his hands ever since they departed out of this world. They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven. And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.


Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, I.31.

You never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it. And so perfectly hate the abominable corruption of men in despising it, that you had rather suffer the flames of Hell than willingly be guilty of their error. There is so much blindness and ingratitude and damned folly in it. The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. It is more to man since he is fallen than it was before. It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven. When Jacob waked out of his dream, he said "God is here, and I wist it not. How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and the Gate of Heaven."


Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, My Diaries; Being a Personal Narrative of Events, 1888-1914 (New York, 1932), p. 229, describing a visit from William Morris in May 1896.

We had a long discussion whether the love of beauty was natural or acquired. 'As for me,' he said, 'I have it naturally, for neither my father nor my mother nor any of my relations had the least idea of it. I remember as a boy going into Canterbury Cathedral and thinking that the gates of Heaven had been opened to me--also when I first saw an illuminated manuscript. These first pleasures, which I discovered for myself, were stronger than anything else I have had in life.'

Canterbury Cathedral, from the Quire

Sunday 9 March 2014

Packing for the Next Life

A pilgrim prepares for his journey (BL Harley 4399, f.24v)

This is a poem by the Franciscan friar William Herebert (d.1333), with something of a Lenten tone. It's based on an Anglo-Norman verse sermon by Nicholas Bozon which begins 'Pus ke homme deit morir'. I've posted various poems by Herebert before - all come from the manuscript (British Library, Additional 46919) where he wrote down his own poems and translations alongside his sermons and an assortment of other texts. This poem is headed 'Byseth ȝou in þys ylke lyf / Of lyflode in þat oþer lyf', 'Equip yourself in this present life / With means of living in that other life.'

Sethþe mon shal henne wende
And nede deȝen at þen ende
And wonyen he not whare,
God ys þat he trusse hys pak,
And tymliche pute hys stor in sak,
Þat not when henne vare.

Euch mon þenche uor to spede
Þat he ne lese þe grete mede
Þat God ous dythte ȝare.

Þys lyf nys bote sorewe away,
Ounneþe ys mon gladuol o day
Vor sorewe and tene and kare;
Mon wyth sorewe is uurst ybore,
And eft wyth sorewe rend and tore,
Ȝyf he ryth þencþ of hys ware.

What ys lordshype and heynesse,
What helpth katel and rychesse?
Gold and seluer awey shal uare.
Þy gost shal wonye þou ne wost nout where,
Þy body worth wounde in grete oþer here;
Of oþer þyng þou worst al bare.

Byþench, mon, ȝerne on euche wyse
Er þou be brouht to þylke asyse,
On what þou shalt truste þare.
What god þou hauest, mon, here ydon
Prest þer þou shalt ounderuon
Elles euer þou worst in kare.

Be mon ȝong oþer be he old,
Non so strong ne wel ytold
Þat hennes ne mot fare.
Deth is hud, mon, in þy gloue,
Wyth derne dunt þat shal he proue
And smyte þou nost whare.

Touore þe deth ys betere o dede
Þen after tene, and more of mede
And more quencheth kare.
Be monnes wyttes hym byreued,
Hys eȝen blynd, hys eren deued,
Þe cofres beth al bare.

Be þe gost urom body reued,
Þe bernes sone shulle ben sheued,
Ne shal me noþyng spare.
Be þe body wyth greth byweued,
Þe soule sone shal be leued,
Alas, of frendes bare.

That is:

Since each man shall from hence wend
And must needs die, at the end,
And dwell he knows not where,
Good it is that he truss his pack,
And in good time put his store in sack,
Knowing not when he shall from hence fare.

Let each man think so to speed [act]
That he lose not the great meed [reward]
Which God prepares for us there.

This life is nothing but sorrow alway;
Hardly is man glad one day
For sorrow and pain and care;
Man with sorrow is first born,
And ever with sorrow is rent and torn,
If he thinks truly of his wares.

What is lordship and highness,
What helpeth goods and richness?
Gold and silver away shall fare.
Thy soul shall dwell thou knowest not where,
Thy body be wound in earth or hair [i.e. haircloth, shroud];
Of all other things thou shalt be bare.

Consider, man, earnestly in every way
Before thou be brought to that estate,
To what thou shalt trust there.
What good that thou hast, man, here done
Swiftly there thou shalt receive,
Or else ever thou shalt suffer care.

Be a man young or be he old,
There is none so strong or well ytold [considered]
Who shall not from hence fare.
Death is hid, man, in thy glove,
With secret strike he shall that prove
And smite thou knowest not where.

Before thy death better is one deed
Than ten thereafter, and more of meed
And more quencheth care.
When a man's wits are from him bereft, [taken]
His eyes blind, his ears made deaf,
His coffers are all bare.

When the soul is from the body taken,
The barns shall soon be emptied,
Nor shall anything be spared.
When the body is in earth laid,
The soul soon shall be left,
Alas, of friends bare.

The opening of this poem (and 'Tu rex gloriae') in BL Add. 46919, f. 208v

Friday 7 March 2014

The World's Friendliest Vikings

With the British Museum exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend opening this week, Viking-fever is at its height. Naturally I'm enjoying this: I love Vikings and I love it when other people are excited about them. As a literary scholar, I tend more towards the 'legend' than the 'life' side of the equation, though with the Vikings it's sometimes hard to separate the two. Marking the opening of the exhibition, there have been various articles floating around on the perennial question, much loved by journalists, 'Were the Vikings bloodthirsty warriors or peaceful, misunderstood traders?" This BBC article gives a fair summary of some examples, and quotes some more nuanced views. It's a question I don't personally find that interesting, because the answer, of course, is that the Vikings were both, or rather that they were lots of different things; it's that complexity which makes them so fascinating. The truth is always more complicated and more interesting, and the question 'how do we interpret the Vikings?' usually tells us much more about us, the people doing the interpreting, than it does about the Vikings.

However, the question of whether the Vikings have been given an unfairly bad rap goes pretty far back in English history - at least as far as the eleventh century, and probably beyond. To a large extent the Vikings created their own legend, and it was Scandinavian settlers who engaged in the earliest kinds of 'Viking rehabilitation' in England, with the stories they told about themselves and their ancestors (Cnut, arguably the most successful Viking king of all, was a master at this, and see further my posts on later legends surrounding Edmund of East Anglia, Siward, Earl of Northumbria, and Svein Forkbeard). Today I thought I'd talk a little about a medieval English poem which poses that popular question 'Vikings: raiders or traders?' and comes up with an emphatic answer: 'traders!' Good, hard-working, family-minded traders, no less, who came to England, settled down peacefully, and brought nothing but harmony and prosperity. This is the story of Havelok.

This poem (known, logically enough, as Havelok) is a Middle English verse romance written at the end of the thirteenth century, although stories about Havelok are first recorded a good 150 years earlier. This is the plot of the poem Havelok, in five sentences:

1) Havelok is the son of the King of Denmark, but his father dies when he's a child and he and his sisters are left in the care of a man who wants to seize the throne; this villain kills Havelok's sisters and gives Havelok to a fisherman to be drowned.
2) The fisherman (whose name is Grim) can't bring himself to do it, so he saves the boy's life and flees Denmark, with his wife and family, and settles in England, in Lincolnshire.
3) Havelok grows up in England, and gets a job as a kitchen-boy in Lincoln, but he impresses everyone by his incredible strength and comes to the attention of the current ruler of England, who is also a villain who has usurped the throne from the rightful heir, a girl named Goldeburu.
4) The English usurper forces Goldeburu to marry Havelok to humiliate her and get her out of the way, but they fall in love and Goldeboru, learning Havelok is actually a king's son, urges him to return to Denmark and win back his rightful inheritance.
5) He does so, and then comes back to England and fights to regain Goldeboru's kingdom, and they rule England and Denmark together in a state of perfect peace and harmony for sixty years.

The poem is 3000 lines long, so I've skipped over some of the finer plot points, but that's essentially it (the whole poem can be found here). So what we have is the story of a Viking-Age Danish prince who settles in England, marries an English princess, and then conquers both countries to restore the rightful line of inheritance. Medieval English romances are not short on displaced kings, but they're not usually Danish; it's certainly odd to have a romance about a Danish king who ends up ruling England (Anglo-Saxon England, as is clear from the names of the English characters). The best way to understand this oddness is by exploring how the poem is interested in questions of identity, in migration and settlement, and, yes, in 'what the Vikings did for us', us being in this case the people of Lincolnshire. The story of Havelok is also in part the story of the foundation of the town of Grimsby, which was founded, according to the poem, by Havelok's foster-father, the fisherman Grim. When Grim flees with the young Havelok from Denmark to England, we're told precisely where they land:

In Humber Grim bigan to lende,
In Lindeseye, rith at the north ende.
Ther sat his ship upon the sond;
But Grim it drou up to the lond;
And there he made a litel cote
To him and to hise flote.
Bigan he there for to erthe,
A litel hus to maken of erthe,
So that he wel thore were
Of here herboru herborwed there.
And for that Grim that place aute,
The stede of Grim the name laute,
So that Grimesbi it calleth alle
That theroffe speken alle;
And so shulen men callen it ay,
Bitwene this and Domesday.

[In the Humber Grim came to land, in Lindsey [i.e. northern Lincolnshire], right at the north end. There his ship rested on the sand, but Grim drew it up to the land, and there made a little dwelling-place for himself and his family. He began to live there and made a little house out of earth, so that they were well sheltered in their shelter there. And because Grim owned that place, it took its name from him, so that everyone who speaks of it calls it 'Grimsby' - and so shall it be called always, between now and Doomsday.]

And so it is still. This is a brilliant detail, partly because it's essentially correct - more accurate than most etymologising in medieval literature, anyway. The town 'Grimsby' almost certainly did get its name from a Scandinavian settler called Grim, although I suppose we can't be sure whether he brought an exiled Danish prince with him... This foundation myth was a real and lasting source of pride in Grimsby; it's recorded on the town's medieval seal, which depicts Grim, Havelok and Goldeburu:

(image from here)

Grim is the one in the middle, with Havelok and Goldeboru on each side of him - which shows you which of them medieval Grimsby thought was most important! Grim looks very fierce here, with sword and shield, although in the poem he never does more than save Havelok's life and run a fishing business; it might be that the version of the legend in Grimsby was different from the Middle English poem, and gave Grim a more prominent role. In the seventeenth century an antiquarian recorded several versions of the story still being told by inhabitants of Grimsby, including one in which Grim first finds the child Havelok drifting in a boat in the Humber (think Scyld Scefing at the beginning of Beowulf). But beyond Grimsby, the Havelok story seems to have been widely known in Lincolnshire; the chronicler Robert Mannyng tells us that in the fourteenth century you could go to Lincoln castle and see the huge rock which Havelok, with his extraordinary strength, threw to win a stone-casting competition, as well as the chapel where Havelok and Goldeburu were married.

The poet of Havelok, writing in Lincolnshire, was aware that Danish settlement was part of the history of the area, and was inclined to find it a source of pride. The story of Havelok might be distantly based on a legend about Óláfr Cuarán, but the English poet wouldn't have known this; more likely he was familiar with stories about Viking violence as told by contemporary chroniclers, and this is the context in which he's telling his story of Havelok and Grim, our Danish heroes. (It might be helpful to note at this point that the word 'Viking' didn't exist in Middle English; 'Dane' to a medieval English writer would have conveyed much of our modern popular idea of Vikings, minus the horned helmets.) Sometimes these stories seem to be influencing the poem's presentation of its Danes: for instance, one of the Danish characters is given the name of the notorious Viking invader Ubbe, son of Ragnar Lothbrok, well known in English chronicles and hagiography as one of the killers of St Edmund of East Anglia. The name's so rare that this seems unlikely to be a coincidence, but the poem's Ubbe is helpful and law-abiding, a respectable merchant who aids Havelok in regaining the Danish throne. It's as if the poet decided he was going to present an alternative version of the chronicle stories of Viking aggression: his Danish protagonists, especially the ones who come to England, are industrious, honest and virtuous. And Havelok's the best of them all. He is by a long way simply the nicest hero of medieval romance - completely lacking in guile or courtly manners, but with a wide-eyed innocence about him which is delightful, and often very funny (especially if you imagine him as a story-descendant of fearsome Vikings). I've quoted this description of him before, but it's particularly interesting to read with his Danishness in mind:

Of alle men was he mest meke,
Lauhwinde ay and blithe of speke;
Evere he was glad and blithe -
His sorwe he couthe ful wel mithe.
It ne was non so litel knave
For to leyken ne for to plawe,
That he ne wolde with him pleye.
The children that yeden in the weie
Of him he deden al here wille,
And with him leykeden here fille.
Him loveden alle, stille and bolde,
Knictes, children, yunge and holde -
Alle him loveden that him sowen,
Bothen heye men and lowe.
Of him ful wide the word sprong,
Hw he was mikel, hw he was strong,
Hw fayr man God him havede maked...
Als he was heie, als he was long,
He was bothe stark and strong -
In Engelond non hise per
Of strengthe that evere kam him ner.
Als he was strong, so was he softe;
They a man him misdede ofte,
Neveremore he him misseyde,
Ne hond on him with yvele leyde.

[He was the meekest of men, always laughing and merry in speech; he was always glad and merry, and ever able to conceal his sorrows. There was no child so little that he was not ready to play with him - the children who met him in the road, he would let them have their own way with him, and play with him as much as they wanted. Everyone loved him: shy and bold, knights, children, young and old - everyone loved him who saw him, both high and low. His reputation spread far and wide: how he was tall and strong, and how fair a man God had made him... Just as he was tall, as he was big, he was also strong and powerful: in England there was no one his equal in strength. As he was strong, so was he gentle: even if a man mistreated him again and again, Havelok never insulted him, or laid a hand upon him.]

After Havelok is exiled from his kingdom he makes no fuss about having to work for his living: famine forces him to leave Grimsby and get a job as a kitchen-boy in Lincoln, but he just goes and does it, cheerful as ever. When he is compelled to marry the imprisoned English princess Goldeboru, his innocent question is "What will I do with a wife?" - but he does as he's told, and marries her. At that point in the story we get an extraordinary scene with him and Goldeboru in bed together, where Denmark and destiny are calling to them through their dreams:

On the nith als Goldeboru lay,
Sory and sorwful was she ay,
For she wende she were biswike,
That she were yeven unkyndelike.
O nith saw she therinne a lith,
A swithe fayr, a swithe bryth -
Al so brith, all so shir
So it were a blase of fir.
She lokede noth and ek south,
And saw it comen ut of his mouth
That lay bi hire in the bed.
No ferlike thou she were adred!
Thouthe she, "What may this bimene?
He beth heyman yet, als I wene:
He beth heyman er he be ded!"
On hise shuldre, of gold red
She saw a swithe noble croiz;
Of an angel she herde a voyz:
"Goldeboru, lat thi sorwe be!
For Havelok, that haveth spuset thee,
He, kinges sone and kinges eyr,
That bikenneth that croiz so fayr
It bikenneth more - that he shal
Denemark haven and Englond al.
He shal ben king strong and stark,
Of Engelond and Denemark -
That shal thu wit thin eyne seen,
And tho shalt quen and levedi ben!"

Thanne she havede herd the stevene
Of the angel uth of hevene,
She was so fele sithes blithe
That she ne mithe hire joie mythe,
But Havelok sone anon she kiste,
And he slep and nouth ne wiste
Hwat that aungel havede seyd.
Of his slep anon he brayd,
And seide, "Lemman, slepes thou?
A selkuth drem dremede me now -
Herkne now what me haveth met.
Me thouthe I was in Denemark set,
But on on the moste hil
That evere yete cam I til.
It was so hey that I wel mouthe
Al the werd se, als me thouthe.
Als I sat upon that lowe
I bigan Denemark for to awe,
The borwes and the castles stronge;
And mine armes weren so longe
That I fadmede al at ones,
Denemark with mine longe bones;
And thanne I wolde mine armes drawe
Til me and hom for to have,
Al that evere in Denemark liveden
On mine armes faste clyveden;
And the stronge castles alle
On knes bigunnen for to falle -
The keyes fellen at mine fet.
Another drem dremede me ek:
That ich fley over the salte se
Til Engeland, and al with me
That evere was in Denemark lyves
But bondemen and here wives;
And that ich com til Engelond -
Al closede it intil min hond,
And, Goldeborw, I gaf thee.
Deus! lemman, what may this be?"

Sho answerede and seyde sone:
"Jesu Crist, that made mone,
Thine dremes turne to joye . . .
That wite thu that sittes in trone!
Ne non strong, king ne caysere
So thou shalt be, fo thou shalt bere
In Engelond corune yet.
Denemark shal knele to thi fet;
Alle the castles that aren therinne
Shaltou, lemman, ful wel winne.
I woth so wel so ich it sowe,
To thee shole comen heye and lowe,
And alle that in Denemark wone -
Em and brother, fader and sone,
Erl and baroun, dreng and thayn,
Knightes and burgeys and sweyn -
And mad king heyelike and wel.
Denemark shal be thin evere ilc del -
Have thou nouth theroffe douthe,
Nouth the worth of one nouthe;
Theroffe withinne the firste yer
Shalt thou ben king of evere il del.
But do now als I wile rathe:
Nim in wit lithe to Denemark bathe,
And do thou nouth on frest this fare -
Lith and selthe felawes are.
For shal ich nevere blithe be
Til I with eyen Denemark se,
For ich woth that al the lond
Shalt thou haven in thin hond.

[During the night, as Goldeboru lay awake, she was sad and sorrowful, for she thought she had been betrayed and married to someone who was not her equal. In the night she saw a light in the chamber, very fair, very bright – just as bright and just as clear as if it were a blaze of fire. She looked to the north and the south, and saw it coming out of the mouth of the man who lay beside her in the bed. No wonder if she was afraid! She thought, “What can this mean? He is a nobleman, I’m sure of it – he’ll be a nobleman before he dies!” On his shoulder, in red gold, she saw a very beautiful cross, and she heard the voice of an angel: “Goldeboru, let thy sorrow be! For Havelok, who has married you, is a king’s son and king’s heir; this is shown by that fair cross. It shows more: that he shall possess Denmark, and all England too. He shall be king, strong and powerful, of England and Denmark – and you shall see it with your eyes, and you shall be queen and lady!”

When she had heard the voice of the angel out of heaven, she was so happy that she could not conceal her joy; at once she kissed Havelok, as he slept on and knew nothing of what the angel had said. Then suddenly he started up from his sleep and said, “Darling, are you asleep? I’ve just had a marvellous dream; listen now to what I’ve been dreaming. It seemed to me that I was in Denmark, and sitting on the largest hill I’ve ever seen. It was so high that I could see over the whole world, it seemed to me. As I sat on that mound, I began to possess Denmark, the towns and the strong castles; and my arms were so long that all at once I embraced Denmark with my long limbs; and then I wanted to draw them in my arms towards me and have them in my keeping. I held fast in my arms all who ever lived in Denmark, and all the strong castles began to fall on their knees; the keys fell at my feet. And I dreamed another dream: that I flew across the salt sea to England, and with me all who had ever lived in Denmark, except bondsmen and their wives, and that I came to England, with it all enclosed within my hand – and, Goldboru, I gave to you. God, darling, what does this mean?”

She answered and said at once, “Jesu Christ, who made the moon, turn your dreams to joy! [Some lines missing] There shall be no king or emperor as powerful as you, for you shall bear a crown in England yet! Denmark shall kneel at your feet; all the castles that are in the country you, darling, shall certainly win. I know as well as if I saw it, that to you shall come high and low, and all who live in Denmark, uncle and brother, father and son, earl and baron, freeman and thane, knights and citizens and attendants – and you shall be made king, nobly and well. Denmark shall be yours in every part; have no doubt of it, not as much as a nut! Within one year you shall be king of every part of it. But do now as I advise you: let us both quickly go to Denmark, and do not postpone this journey – speed and success are good friends! [This is a proverb]. For I shall never be happy until I see Denmark with my own eyes; for I know that all that country you shall have in your hand."]

For reasons best known to himself, the poet has chosen to present this scene of angelic visions, prophetic dreams, and invasion-planning as a gentle and loving moment - full of tenderness not just between husband and wife, but between the king and the land and people of Denmark. Not only does the future king embrace his land, encompassing it with those same strong arms which have won him his wife, and clasping it within his hand; he also brings the people of Denmark with him to England as a love-gift to Goldeboru. It's a kind of dream-world migration, completely peaceful and fruitful and lacking in violence.

To make a long story short, Havelok and Goldeboru go to Denmark and regain his inheritance, and then return to England with an army to win Goldeboru's. This is the point at which the poet demonstrates just how alert he is to the possible interpretations of a Danish army coming to invade England (even though Havelok is fighting on his wife's behalf, and thus upholding the proper order of the native English succession). The villain who has usurped the English throne gives a speech appealing to his followers to fight back against this foreign threat:

Hwan he wore come, sket was the erl yare
Ageynes Denshe men to fare,
And seyde, "Lythes nw alle samen!
Have ich gadred you for no gamen,
But ich wile seyen you forthi.
Lokes hware here at Grimesbi
Hise uten laddes here comen,
And haves nu the priorie numen,
Al that evere mithen he finde,
He brenne kirkes and prestes binde;
He strangleth monkes and nunnes bothe -
Wat wile ye, frend, her-offe rede?
Yif he regne thusgate longe,
He moun us alle overgange,
He moun us alle quic henge or slo,
Or thral maken and do ful wo
Or elles reve us ure lives
And ure children and ure wives.

[When Havelok had come, the earl was quickly eager to fight against the Danish men, and said, "Everyone now listen to me! I haven't gathered you together for sport - I'll tell you why. Look how here at Grimsby his foreigners have arrived, and have captured the priory and everything else they can find! He burns churches and ties up priests, he strangles monks and nuns; friends, what do you think we should do? If he carries on in this way much longer he'll destroy us all, he'll hang us alive or kill us, or make us slaves and cause terrible harm, or else rob us of our lives, and our children and our wives too!]

Can't trust those Vikings, can you? Except that of course Havelok isn't doing any of those things, not strangling nuns or anything like it; he actually later goes on to found a priory in Grimsby in memory of Grim, because that's just how virtuous he is. (The real priory in Grimsby was founded in the twelfth century and dedicated to the Norwegian king St Olaf - another reminder of how popular saintly Vikings were in the area!) Havelok and his Danish friends do fight hard - this poet loves a fight scene - but it's in the cause of justice, every time.

When Havelok has won the kingdom back for Goldeboru, he rewards all his Danish followers, marries Grim's daughters to English earls (nicely reinforcing the Anglo-Danish bond), and sends Ubbe off to rule Denmark on his behalf:

Hwan he wore parted alle samen,
Havelok bilefte wit joye and gamen
In Engelond and was ther-inne
Sixti winter king with winne,
And Goldeboru Quen, that I wene
So mikel love was hem bitwene
That al the werd spak of hem two;
He lovede hir and she him so
That neyther owe mithe be
Fro other, ne no joye se
But if he were togidere bothe.
Nevere yete no weren he wrothe
For here love was ay newe -
Nevere yete wordes ne grewe
Bitwene hem hwar of ne lathe
Mithe rise ne no wrathe.
He geten children hem bitwene
Sones and doughtres rith fivetene,
Hwar-of the sones were kinges alle,
So wolde God it sholde bifalle,
And the douhtres alle quenes.

[When they had all parted from each other, Havelok stayed behind with happiness and pleasure in England, and was king there for sixty years, with joy, and Goldeboru was queen. I believe there was such great love between them that all the world spoke of those two: he loved her, and she him, so much that neither would be parted from the other, nor enjoy anything unless they were both together. They were never angry with each other, for their love was ever new; there never grew up angry words or resentment between them. They had children together, fifteen sons and daughters in all; and all the sons were kings, and all the daughters queens, as it pleased God it should be.]

Happy ever after, with England ruled by a Danish king. Havelok is a wonderful poem, tremendous fun to read but also very interesting and still (despite some good work in recent years) too much underrated by scholars. It's about many other things as well as Danish settlement in England, but it makes for particularly good reading when thinking about the Vikings' impact on England - if nothing else, as a reminder that people have been thinking about it for a long time.

A Prayer of Thomas Aquinas in Middle English

This is a translation of a prayer by Thomas Aquinas ('Concede mihi, misericors Deus'), attributed to Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, and said to have been written when she was eleven years old. The text is from British Library, Additional MS. 17012, via this book.

The prayer of Saynt Thomas of Aquyne, translatyd oute of latyn ynto Englyshe, by the moste exselent Prynces, Mary, doughter to the moste hygh and myghty Prynce and Prynces kyng Henry the viii. and Quene Kateryn hys wyfe. In the yere of oure lorde god M.cccccxxvii: And the xi. yere of here age.

O mercyfull God, graunte me to couyt wyth an ardent mynde, those thingys whiche may please the, to serche them wysely, to know them truly, and to fulfyll them perfytely, to the laude and glory of thy name. Order my lyuyng, that I may do that whiche thou requirest of me, and geue me grace that I may know yt and haue wyll and powre to do it, and that I may obtayne those thingis, whiche be moste conuenient for my sowle. Good Lorde, make my way sure and streight to the, that I fayle not betwene prosperite and aduersyte, but that in prosperous thingis I may geue the thankys, and in aduersite be pacient: soo that I be not lyfte wyth the oon, nor oppressid with thother: and that I may reioyse yn nothing but in this whiche movith me to the, nor be sory for nothing but for those whiche drawith me frome the: Desiring to please nobody, nor fering to displese anny besidis the. Lorde, let all worldly thingis be vile to me, for the: and that all thi thingis be dere to me. And thou, good Lorde, moost speciall above them all. Let me be wery withe that Joye whiche is withoute the, and let me desire nothing besidis the. Let the labor delite me whiche is for the, and let all the rest wery me whiche is not in the. Make me to lyfte my harte oftyntymys to the: and when I fall, make me to think and be sory with a stedfast purpose of amendement. My God, make me humble withoute faynyng, mery withoute lyghtnes, Sade withoute mystruste. Sobir withoute dulnes: Fearing withoute dysparacion: Gentill withoute doblenes : Trusting in the withoute presumpcyon: Telling my neybors fawtis withoute mokking: Obedyent withoute arguyng: Pacient withoute grutching: And pure without corrupcion. My most louyng Lorde and God, geue me a waking hart, that no curyous thought withdrawe me frome the. Let it be so strong, that no unworthy affeccion drawe me bakwarde: So stable, that no tribulacion breke it: And so free, that no electyon by vyolence make anny chalenge to it. My Lorde God, graunt me wytt, to know the: Dilygence, to seke the: Wisedome, to finde the: Conuersacion, to please the: Contynuance, to loke for the: and fynally Hope, to enbrace the : by thi penaunce here to be ponysshid, and in oure wey to use thi benefittis by thy grace. And in heuyn, through thi glory, to haue delyte in thy Joies and rewardys. Amen.

[The prayer of Saint Thomas of Aquinas, translated out of Latin into English, by the most excellent Princess Mary, daughter to the most high and mighty Prince and Princess King Henry the Eighth and Queen Katherine his wife, in the year of our Lord God 1527 and the 11th year of her age.

O merciful God, grant me to covet with an ardent mind those things which may please thee, to explore them wisely, to know them truly, and to fulfill them perfectly, to the laud and glory of thy name. Order my life that I may do that which thou requirest of me, and give me grace that I may know it and have will and power to do it, and that I may obtain those things which are best for my soul. Good Lord, make my way sure and straight to thee, that I fail not between prosperity and adversity, but that in prosperous things I may give thee thanks, and in adversity be patient: so that I be not lifted up with the one, nor oppressed with the other: and that I may rejoice in nothing but that which moveth me to thee, nor be sorrowful for anything but that which draweth me from thee: desiring to please nobody, nor fearing to displease any besides thee. Lord, let all worldly things be vile to me, for thee, and all thy things be dear to me; and thou, good Lord, most especially above them all. Let me be weary with that joy which is without thee, and let me desire nothing besides thee. Let the labour delight me which is for thee, and let all the rest weary me which is not in thee. Make me to lift my heart often to thee: and when I fall, make me to think and be sorry with a steadfast purpose of amendment. My God, make me humble without feigning; merry without lightness; serious without lack of faith; sober without dullness; fearful without despair; courteous without duplicity; trusting in thee without presumption; telling my neighbour's faults without mocking; obedient without arguing; patient without grumbling; and pure without corruption. My most loving Lord and God, give me a waking heart, that no curious thought may withdraw me from thee. Let it be so strong, that no unworthy affection may draw me backward; so stable, that no tribulation may break it; and so free, that no choice by violence may make any challenge to it. My Lord God, grant me wit to know thee: diligence to seek thee: wisdom to find thee: conversation, to please thee: perseverance, to look for thee: and finally hope, to embrace thee: by thy penance here to be punished, and in our way to use thy benefits by thy grace. And in heaven, through thy glory, to have delight in thy joys and rewards. Amen.]

Not bad for an eleven-year-old! In Women's Books of Hours in Medieval England, Charity Scott-Stokes notes in reference to this prayer that "There is likely to have been a strong Dominican influence at the court of Henry VIII during the years of his marriage to Mary's devout Spanish mother, Katherine of Aragon. The princess's education may well have been entrusted to a member of the order" - hence, perhaps, this choice of prayer. If it surprises you to find the young daughter of the staunchly Catholic Katherine of Aragon being taught not only to read Latin but to translate it into the vernacular (and very elegantly too) - well, you may have been watching too much television, and imbibed some misleading ideas about illiterate medieval Catholic women. Here's a corrective.

Thomas Aquinas, in a 14th-century English MS (BL Harley 916, f. 1)

Thursday 6 March 2014

'A noise of great good coming into earth'

Last weekend I took a stroll in Addison's Walk, in the grounds of Magdalen College in Oxford, where a few years ago the above plaque was installed, bearing this poem by C. S. Lewis:

'What the Bird Said Early in the Year'

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick! – the gates are drawn apart.

What could be more appropriate to contemplate in Magdalen on a sunny day in early spring? One appealing thing which makes this poem so apt for its setting is that Addison's Walk is circular - so it does indeed always bring you back to the place you started from, like the cycle of the year. (Well, unless you double back on yourself. But who would wilfully spoil such a perfect metaphor?)

The other version of Lewis' poem suggests that in writing this he was actually thinking of a period slightly later in the spring than March. Magdalen, where they sing madrigals at dawn on May Morning, has always seemed to me nearly synonymous with May, and in May its grounds are covered in flowers (this is what they look like in April); so perhaps this should be thought of as a Maytime poem. At the moment it's still very early in the year; the trees are mostly bare, and the fritillaries for which Magdalen's gardens are famous are still lurking underground, but there are snowdrops, daffodils and crocuses in plenty.

After a winter of rain the rivers are full, and at the moment are sounding louder and looking browner than usual. The Cherwell is generally a very placid river, not giving to roaring; but it's proved itself a formidable force this winter, and is still swollen beyond its usual banks.

This spring a poem by Lewis has been in my mind; not 'What the bird said early in the year', but this, the conclusion of his narrative poem Dymer, published in 1926:

A leap--a cry--flurry of steel and claw,
Then silence. As before, the morning light
And the same brute crouched yonder; and he saw
Under its feet, broken and bent and white,
The ruined limbs of Dymer, killed outright
All in a moment, all his story done.
...But that same moment came the rising sun;

And thirty miles to westward, the grey cloud
Flushed into answering pink, long shadows streamed
From every hill, and the low-hanging shroud
Of mist along the valleys broke and steamed
Gold-flecked to heaven. Far off the armour gleamed
Like glass upon the dead man's back. But now
The sentinel ran forward, hand to brow.

And staring. For between him and the sun
He saw that country clothed with dancing flowers
Where flower had never grown; and one by one
The splintered woods, as if from April showers,
Were softening into green. In the leafy towers
Rose the cool, sudden chattering on the tongues
Of happy birds with morning in their lungs.

The wave of flowers came breaking round his feet,
Crocus and bluebell, primrose, daffodil
Shivering with moisture: and the air grew sweet
Within his nostrils, changing heart and will,
Making him laugh. He looked, and Dymer still
Lay dead among the flowers and pinned beneath
The brute: but as he looked he held his breath;

For when he had gazed hard with steady eyes
Upon the brute, behold, no brute was there,
But someone towering large against the skies,
A wing'd and sworded shape, whose foam-like hair
Lay white about its shoulders, and the air
That came from it was burning hot. The whole
Pure body rimmed with life, as a full bowl.

And from the distant corner of day's birth
He heard clear trumpets blowing and bells ring,
A noise of great good coming into earth
And such a music as the dumb would sing
If Balder had led back the blameless spring
With victory, with the voice of charging spears,
And in white lands long-lost Saturnian years.

'If Balder had led back the blameless spring / With victory'. The epithet describes Baldr, not the spring, but they're one and the same - he is the blameless god, innocent and beautiful, whose unmerited death is perhaps the most devastating moment in Norse mythology. Killed by the malice of Loki, Baldr is confined in the underworld ruled by the goddess Hel. His grieving mother, Frigg, extracts a promise from Hel that she will release Baldr if all things in the world, alive or dead, will weep for him, 'as all things weep when they come from frost into warmth' (as the Prose Edda puts it). All creatures weep to bring the much-loved god back from the underworld - except one, Loki in disguise, and so Baldr must remain with Hel. There he stays until Ragnarök, the end of the gods, when the world is destroyed after endless winter, fire, and water. But the world will be reborn, and then Baldr will come back to dwell on the green and fertile plains of the new-born earth. Later interpretations have seen Baldr as a Christ-figure, a solar god, and god of the spring - as he is here for Lewis.

There are parallels here with Lewis' description of the miraculous spring which accompanies Aslan's return to Narnia in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It was Baldr, we learn from Surprised by Joy, who gave Lewis one of his early experiences of Joy:

The third glimpse came through poetry. I had become fond of Longfellow's Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, like a voice from far more different regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner's Drapa and read:

I heard a voice that cried
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead---

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.
In the poem quoted here, Baldr is 'God of the summer sun, fairest of all the Gods'. Lewis recreates his moment of Joy for the children and the reader in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when they (and we) first hear the name of Aslan:

And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning – either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
Some pages later:
"Oh, yes! Tell us about Aslan!" said several voices at once; for once again that strange feeling - like the first signs of spring, like good news, had come over them.

"Who is Aslan?" asked Susan.

"Aslan?" said Mr Beaver. "Why, don't you know? He's the King. He's the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father's time. But the word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment... He'll put all to rights, as it says in an old rhyme in these parts:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

'The beginning of summer... like the first signs of spring, like good news.' This 'old rhyme' echoes, I think, the description of the world reborn after Ragnarök in the Norse poem Völuspá: 'böls mun alls batna, / Baldr mun koma', 'all harms will be healed / Baldr will come'. A very old rhyme indeed!

After Narnia's fimbulvetr spring comes with a great rushing thaw, as when all creation weeps for Baldr:

Now they were steadily racing on again. And soon Edmund noticed that the snow which splashed against them as they rushed through it was much wetter than it had been all last night. At the same time he noticed that he was feeling much less cold. It was also becoming foggy. In fact every minute it grew foggier and warmer. And the sledge was not running nearly as well as it had been running up till now. At first he thought this was because the reindeer were tired, but soon he saw that that couldn't be the real reason. The sledge jerked, and skidded, and kept on jolting as if it had struck against stones. And however the dwarf whipped the poor reindeer the sledge went slower and slower. There also seemed to be a curious noise all round them, but the noise of their driving and jolting and the dwarf's shouting at the reindeer prevented Edmund from hearing what it was, until suddenly the sledge stuck so fast that it wouldn't go on at all. When that happened there was a moment's silence. And in that silence Edmund could at last listen to the other noise properly. A strange, sweet, rustling, chattering noise - and yet not so strange, for he'd heard it before - if only he could remember where! Then all at once he did remember. It was the noise of running water. All round them though out of sight, there were streams, chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over. And much nearer there was a drip-drip-drip from the branches of all the trees. And then, as he looked at one tree he saw a great load of snow slide off it and for the first time since he had entered Narnia he saw the dark green of a fir tree. But he hadn't time to listen or watch any longer, for the Witch said:

"Don't sit staring, fool! Get out and help."

And of course Edmund had to obey. He stepped out into the snow - but it was really only slush by now - and began helping the dwarf to get the sledge out of the muddy hole it had got into. They got it out in the end, and by being very cruel to the reindeer the dwarf managed to get it on the move again, and they drove a little further. And now the snow was really melting in earnest and patches of green grass were beginning to appear in every direction. Unless you have looked at a world of snow as long as Edmund had been looking at it, you will hardly be able to imagine what a relief those green patches were after the endless white...

Every moment the patches of green grew bigger and the patches of snow grew smaller. Every moment more and more of the trees shook off their robes of snow. Soon, wherever you looked, instead of white shapes you saw the dark green of firs or the black prickly branches of bare oaks and beeches and elms. Then the mist turned from white to gold and presently cleared away altogether. Shafts of delicious sunlight struck down on to the forest floor and overhead you could see a blue sky between the tree tops.

Soon there were more wonderful things happening. Coming suddenly round a corner into a glade of silver birch trees Edmund saw the ground covered in all directions with little yellow flowers - celandines. The noise of water grew louder. Presently they actually crossed a stream. Beyond it they found snowdrops growing.

"Mind your own business!" said the dwarf when he saw that Edmund had turned his head to look at them; and he gave the rope a vicious jerk.

But of course this didn't prevent Edmund from seeing. Only five minutes later he noticed a dozen crocuses growing round the foot of an old tree - gold and purple and white. Then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of the water. Close beside the path they were following a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds' music, and wherever Edmund's eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.

"Faster! Faster!" said the Witch.

There was no trace of the fog now. The sky became bluer and bluer, and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the faces of the travellers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path.

"This is no thaw," said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. "This is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan's doing."

"If either of you mention that name again," said the Witch, "he shall instantly be killed."

While the dwarf and the White Witch were saying this, miles away the Beavers and the children were walking on hour after hour into what seemed a delicious dream. Long ago they had left the coats behind them. And by now they had even stopped saying to one another, "Look! there's a kingfisher," or "I say, bluebells!" or "What was that lovely smell?" or "Just listen to that thrush!" They walked on in silence drinking it all in, passing through patches of warm sunlight into cool, green thickets and out again into wide mossy glades where tall elms raised the leafy roof far overhead, and then into dense masses of flowering currant and among hawthorn bushes where the sweet smell was almost overpowering.

They had been just as surprised as Edmund when they saw the winter vanishing and the whole wood passing in a few hours or so from January to May. They hadn't even known for certain (as the Witch did) that this was what would happen when Aslan came to Narnia. But they all knew that it was her spells which had produced the endless winter; and therefore they all knew when this magic spring began that something had gone wrong, and badly wrong, with the Witch's schemes. And after the thaw had been going on for some time they all realized that the Witch would no longer be able to use her sledge. After that they didn't hurry so much and they allowed themselves more rests and longer ones. They were pretty tired by now of course; but not what I'd call bitterly tired - only slow and feeling very dreamy and quiet inside as one does when one is coming to the end of a long day in the open. Susan had a slight blister on one heel.

They had left the course of the big river some time ago; for one had to turn a little to the right (that meant a little to the south) to reach the place of the Stone Table. Even if this had not been their way they couldn't have kept to the river valley once the thaw began, for with all that melting snow the river was soon in flood - a wonderful, roaring, thundering yellow flood - and their path would have been under water.

What these pictures can't show you, of course, is the sound: the sound of the river, of the bells, of the birds, 'a strange, sweet, rustling, chattering noise', 'a noise of great good coming into earth'.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

'þu eart dust and to duste gewendst': Ælfric, Ash Wednesday and 'The Seafarer'

Words for the distribution of ashes, in the 11th-century Canterbury Benedictional (BL Harley 2892, f.37)

In a homily included among his Lives of Saints, Ælfric describes for us what Ash Wednesday looked like in England at the end of the tenth century:

On þone wodnes dæg wide geond eorðan
sacerdas bletsiað swa swa hit geset ís
clæne axan on cyrcan and þa siððan lecgað
uppa manna hæfda þæt hi habban on gemynde
þæt hi of eorðan comon and eft to duste gewendað
swa swa se ælmihtiga god to adame cwæð
siððan he agylt hæfde ongean godes bebod:
'On geswincum þu leofast and on swate þu etst
þinne hlaf on eorðan oðþæt þu eft gewende
to þære ylcan eorðan þe þu of come
forðan þe þu eart dust and to duste gewendst.'
Nis þis na gesæd be manna sawlum
ac be manna lichaman þe formolsniað to duste
and eft sceolan on domes dæg ðurh ures drihtnes mihte
ealle of eorðan arisan þe æfre cuce wæron
swa swa ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan
þe ær þurh wyntres cyle wurdon adydde.

On that Wednesday, throughout the world,
as it is appointed, priests bless
clean ashes in church, and then lay them
on people's heads, so that they may remember
that they came from earth and will return again to dust,
just as Almighty God said to Adam,
after he had sinned against God's command:
'In labour you shall live and in sweat you shall eat
your bread upon the earth, until you return again
to the same earth from which you came,
for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.'
This is not said about the souls of mankind,
but about their bodies, which moulder to dust,
and shall again on Judgement Day, through the power of our Lord,
rise from the earth, all who ever lived,
just as all trees quicken again in the season of spring
which were deadened by the winter's chill.

The rest of the sermon can be read here. It's tempting to suggest that an Anglo-Saxon listener would hardly need reminding that 'þu eart dust and to duste gewendst': it is, in one form or another, the theme of much of the best poetry in Old English. The greatest Old English poem ends with a funeral, Beowulf burned to ashes on his funeral-pyre, and his treasure mouldering in the barrow; we are never allowed to forget that even the most heroic will end up like Byrhtnoth, the valiant Essex nobleman who in death becomes, in The Battle of Maldon's brutal half-line, god on greote: 'a good man in the dirt'.

But there's something else going on in Ælfric's lines too. The comparison he draws in the last two lines quoted above depends on the fact that in Old English 'Lent' meant spring generally, as well as a particular church season - the word is probably related to the 'lengthening' of the days. So Ælfric can say that souls revive as trees quicken with life on lenctenes timan, in the season of spring/Lent. In Old English poetry the quickening effect of spring is most powerfully evoked in The Seafarer, where it inspires the speaker's restless spirit:

Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað, woruld onetteð;
ealle þa gemoniað modes fusne
sefan to siþe, þam þe swa þenceð
on flodwegas feor gewitan.
Swylce geac monað geomran reorde,
singeð sumeres weard, sorge beodeð
bitter in breosthord. þæt se beorn ne wat,
esteadig secg, hwæt þa sume dreogað
þe þa wræclastas widost lecgað.
Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,
min modsefa mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide,
eorþan sceatas, cymeð eft to me
gifre ond grædig, gielleð anfloga,
hweteð on hwælweg hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu. Forþon me hatran sind
dryhtnes dreamas þonne þis deade lif,
læne on londe.

The woods take on blossoms, towns become fair,
fields grow beautiful, the world hastens on;
all these things urge on the eager mind,
the spirit to the journey, in one who thinks to travel
far on the paths of the sea.
The cuckoo too gives warning with mournful voice,
summer's watchman sings, foretells sorrow,
bitter in the heart. Of this that man knows nothing,
the warrior blessed with wealth, what some endure
who furthest tread the paths of exile.
And so now my spirit roams beyond the confines of the heart,
my spirit over the sea-flood;
it wanders wide over the whale's home,
the expanse of the earth, and comes back to me
eager and greedy; the lone flier cries,
incites the heart to the whale's way, irresistible,
across the ocean's floods. And so to me
the joys of the Lord are warmer than this dead life,
lent on land.

In this short extract, less than twenty lines out of a 125-line poem, there's material for a hundred sermons. As the trees blossom and the world onetteð, 'hastens, speeds up' - 'quickens' is an appealing translation - the spirit itches to be abroad, pressed on by a sense of time passing and the world in motion. The tone of these lines is urgent and forceful: the voice of the cuckoo warns, impels, incites (hweteð) the spirit onward (because 'so priketh hem Nature in hir corages', to mix medieval spring poems), and the wandering mind, like a flying sea-bird, roams unchecked through the wide expanse of the earth.

The Seafarer gives voice to the thoughts of a sailor, a pilgrim of a kind, who renounces the comforts and pleasures of life on land for the hardships of a sea-journey. He begins by describing past journeys he has endured, cold, lonely, and comfortless, but when the spring comes he is nonetheless impelled to set forth again: he puts out into the deep, seeks the 'land of strangers' across the whale's way (hwælweg). He is voluntarily going into exile, into the wilderness; the sea may be the whale's home (hwæles eþel), but it's not his. Over the course of the poem it becomes clear that his journey is the life of the penitent Christian, who forsakes the pleasures of earth in hope of the joys of heaven. What he leaves behind, earthly comfort and human companionship, might seem to be happiness but it is not, as many a medieval poet will tell you, lasting or safe: it is 'þis deade lif, læne on londe'. A common word in Old English poetry, læne means 'temporary, transitory', but more literally 'lent' - a loan, which must be paid.

Blessing for the beginning of Lent in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional MS. 49598, f.41r)