Saturday, 3 January 2015

'As do mothers all'

This yonder night I saw a sight,
A star as bright as any day,
And ever among a maiden sung,
'By by, lully, lullay.'

This maiden hight Mary, she was full mild,
She knelt before her own dear child.
She lulled, she lapped,
She rolled, she wrapped,
She wept, without a nay;
She rolled him, she dressed him,
She lissed him, she blessed him,
She sang, "Dear son, lullay."

She said, "Dear son, lie still and sleep!
What cause hast thou so sore to weep?
With sighing, with sobbing,
With crying and with screeching,
All this long day,
And thus waking, with sore weeping,
With many salt tears dropping?
Lie still, dear son, I thee pray."

"Mother," he said, "for man I weep so sore,
And for his love I shall be torn,
With scourging, with threatening,
With bobbing, with beating,
For truth, mother, I say;
And on a cross full high hanging,
And to my heart full sore sticking
A spear on Good Friday."

This maiden answered with heavy cheer, [great sorrow]
"Shalt thou thus suffer, my sweet son dear?
Now I mourn, now I muse,
I all gladness refuse;
I, ever from this day.
My dear son, I thee pray,
This pain thou put away,
If it possible be may."

Like the lullaby I posted the other day, this carol about the infancy of Christ seems like appropriate reading for the days and weeks after Christmas. Much of the power of this poignant little poem lies in its swift-moving rhythm and rhyming verbs, which don't entirely come through in translation, so in the above version I've left some words untranslated: she lissed him means 'she comforted him' and bobbing is 'beating, tormenting'. Here's the unmodernised poem, as edited from the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole 189 (SC 6777) by Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century (Oxford, 1939), pp. 7-8:

Thys yonder ny3th y sawe A sy3te,
A sterre As bry3th As ony daye
& euer A-monge A maydene songe,
'by by, lully, lullaye.'

Thys mayden hy3th mary, she was full mylde,
she knelyde by-fore here oune dere chylde.

She lullyde, She lappyde,
she rullyde, she wrapped,
She weppede wyth-owtyne nay;
She rullyde hym, she dressyde hym,
she lyssyd hym, she blessyd hym,
She sange 'dere sone, lullay'.

She sayde, 'dere sone, ly styll & slepe.
What cause hast þu so sore to wepe,

Wyth sy3hyng, wyth snobbynge,
wyth crying & wyth scrycchynge
All þis londe daye;
And þus wakynge wyth sore wepynge
Wyth many salt terys droppynge?
ly stylle, dere sone, I þe pray.'

'Moder,' he sayde, 'for mane I wepe so sore
& for hys loue I shall be tore

Wyth scorgyng, wyth thretnyng,
wyth bobbyng, wyth betyng
for sothe, moder, I saye;
And one A crosse full hy hanggyng,
And to my herte foll sore styckynge
A spere on good frydaye.'

Thys maydene Aunswerde wyth heuy chere,
'Shalt þy thus sovere, my swete sone dere?
Now y morne, now y muse,
I All gladnes refuse;
I, euer fro thys day.
My dere sone, y þe pray,
thys payne þu put Away,
and yf hyt possybyll be may.'

As a vision of Mary and her baby son, this poem belongs with a group of related poems which also begin 'this yonder (or endris, 'other') night', such as this one I posted last year. But this is perhaps the most insistently heart-tugging example, urgent and restless in tone, and offering no comfort in its final lines. This is not a peaceful scene of a mother lulling her baby to sleep: the piling up of verbs in the first verse suggests her increasingly frantic attempts to find something which will comfort the 'screeching' child (we don't often think of the baby Christ 'screeching'!). Whatever she does the baby won't be soothed, and his mother, too, is weeping - exhausted like many a new mother, we might imagine. When the child speaks he only makes things worse, explaining why he has good cause to weep, and this carol does not end, as some of the poems do, with Christ promising he will make everything right after his death; it closes with his mother's shock and grief at the future foretold for him. (Although the end of the poem may have been lost, of course). In style this carol is reminiscent of 'Suddenly afraid', another poem full of distinctive rhyming verbs and a vision of the Virgin with her son on her lap: but in that poem Christ is dead, and it's his mother who weeps and cannot be comforted.

I posted this poem today partly as an excuse to repost the following carol (of which the unmodernised text can be found here):

Lullay, lullay, la, lullay,
My dear mother, lullay.

As I lay upon a night
Alone in my longing
Methought I saw a wondrous sight:
A maid a child rocking.

The maiden wished without a song
Her child asleep to bring;
The child thought she did him wrong,
And bade his mother sing.

"Sing now, mother," said that child,
"What me shall befall
Hereafter, when I come to age,
As do mothers all.

"Every mother, truly,
Who can her cradle keep
Is wont to lullen lovingly
And sing her child asleep.

"Sweet mother, fair and free,
Since that this is so,
I pray thee that thou lullen me,
And sing somewhat thereto."

"Sweet son," said she,
"Whereof should I sing?
I never yet knew more of thee
Than Gabriel's greeting!

"He greeted me well, upon his knee,
And said, 'Hail, Mary,
Full of grace, God is with thee.
Thou shalt bear Messiah.'

"I wondered greatly in my thought
For man knew I never none.
'Mary,' he said, 'fear thee not:
Trust God of Heaven alone.

'The Holy Ghost shall do all this.'
He said it should be done
That I should bear mankind's bliss,
Thee, my sweet son!

"He said, 'Thou shalt bear a king
In King David's city,
In all Jacob's nation
King there shall he be.'

"He said that Elizabeth
Who barren was before,
A child now conceived hath,
'Therefore believe me the more!'

"I answered blithely,
For his words me pleased,
'Lo, God's servant, here am I,
Be it as thou me said.'

"There, as he said, I thee bore
On a mid-winter night,
In maidenhead, without sorrow,
By grace of God almighty.

"The shepherds that waked in the wold
Heard a wondrous mirth
Of angels there, as they told,
At the time of thy birth.

"Sweet son, certainly,
No more can I say;
But if I could I gladly would,
To do all at thy pay." ['everything that would please you']

"Mother," said that sweet thing,
"To sing I shall thee lere [teach]
What I shall endure of suffering,
And do while I am here.

"When the seven days are done
Right as Abraham wished,
Cut shall I be with a stone
In a very tender place.

"When the twelve days are done,
By leading of a star
Three kings shall seek for me then
With gold, incense, and myrrh.

"The fortieth day, to fulfill the law,
We shall to the temple go;
There Simeon shall pronounce a saw
And shall tell you of woe.

"When I am twelve years of age,
Joseph and thou, mourning,
Shall me find, mother mild,
In the temple teaching.

"Til I be thirty at the least
I never shall from thee sever,
But ever, mother, be at thy behest,
Joseph and thee to serve.

"When the thirty years be spent,
I must begin to fulfill
That for which I am hither sent,
Through my Father's will.

"John Baptist, of merit most,
Shall me baptise by name;
Then my Father and the Holy Ghost
Shall witness what I am.

"I shall be tempted by Satan,
Who fallen is in sin;
Just as he tempted Adam,
But I shall it better withstand.

"Disciples I shall gather
And send them out to preach,
The laws of my Father
In all this world to teach.

"I shall be so simple
And yet so all-knowing
That a great part of the people
Shall want to make me king."

"Sweet son," then said she,
"No sorrow could cause me pain,
If I might live to see the day
When you were made a king!"

"No, no, mother," said that sweet,
"For that came I not,
But to be poor, and ease the woe
To which man has been brought.

"Therefore when two and thirty years be done
And a little more,
Mother, thou shalt make great moan
And see me die so sore.

"The sharp sword of Simeon
Shall pierce into thine heart,
For my great grief and dreadful pain
Sorely thee shall smart.

"Shamefully then I shall die
Hanging on the rood,
For man's ransom shall I pay
Mine own heart's blood."

"Alas! son," said that maid,
"Since this will be so,
How can I live to see the day
That will bring thee such woe?"

"Mother," he said, "take it light,
For I shall live again,
In flesh like yours, through my might,
For else I lived in vain.

"To my Father I shall wend
In human flesh to Heaven;
The Holy Ghost I shall thee send,
With his gifts seven.

"I shall thee take, when the time is,
To me at the last,
To be with me, mother, in bliss:
All this have I cast.

"All this world judge I shall,
At the dead's rising;
Sweet mother, this is all
That I will now sing."

Certainly this sight I saw,
This song I heard sing,
As I lay this Yule's day,
Alone in my longing.

This is less unrelentingly painful than the first carol, simpler in form and language, but in other ways considerably more complex. At 37 verses long, it's hard to believe this was ever sung as a carol; the author got a little carried away with the poetic potential of his subject, I think, but he had good reason to. There are many things I like about this poem: the interplay between mother and child is very naturalistic (she hopes to get him to sleep without having to sing a lullaby, but the child insists, as little children often do!), and Mary's reactions are entirely believable (I like her readiness to tell the story of his birth - a subject on which mothers generally need little encouragement to talk - and her delight that her son will be a king). The entwining of voices is beautifully intricate, as Mary repeats what Gabriel said to her and what she said in reply, partly in direct and partly in indirect speech, as if she really is telling the story of her own experiences and trying to comprehend what has been said to her. And then the child takes over the story, and the parent's role of prophesying a baby's future. He's clearly no more than a few days old - even his circumcision, on the eighth day after his birth, is still in his future - but his knowledge is complete, his mother's incomplete; he teaches her to sing. All the familiar story of Christ's life is recast as the past, present, and future of these two people, who are in many ways an ordinary mother and baby (even if this baby isn't 'screeching'). There is even something ordinary about the act of prophecy, though in this case it comes from the child himself. The act of forecasting a baby's future over its cradle is both literary tradition and a natural human impulse; and although this scene is a vision, lit by a miraculous star, its setting in the unearthly lonely silence of a winter's night reminds me of a later parent, baby, and prophecy:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness...

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself...

(from 'Frost at Midnight')

'Far other lore, and far other scenes' from the medieval poem; but the same impulse, perhaps.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for another wonderful, unfamiliar carol!

I can find "Verbum infans" in St.Bernard's sermons: I wonder how old this imagination of the wonderfully speaking Holy Infant is? (I seem to remember similar things from saints' lives, though nothing specific comes to mind.)

Indeed, "we don't often think of the baby Christ 'screeching'". But, again, St. Bernard imagines him crying. For example, "behold, He comes as an Infant, and without speech, for the voice of the wailing infant arouses compassion, not terror." (I wonder if the late 19th-c. "little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes" has its own early background?)

But this speaking baby Christ arouses almost a terror full of compassion. I wonder how deliberate a recollection - here, imagined as an anticipation! - the last sentence, and especially the last line, is of Christ praying in the garden? (St. Matthew 26:39 includes "si possibile est"...) Mary seems here to pray to the Son as the Son later prays to the Father, so human and Christ-like is she.

And,"knelyde by-fore here oune dere chylde", she is already praying to Him "facie ad faciem" (1 Cor. 13:12). I wonder how much the etymological sense of 'chere' is intended in this situation: the joy of 'face to Face' in these circumstances yet produces a "heuy chere". (Might the author have known and thought of both "Stabat mater speciosa" and "Stabat Mater dolorosa"? "Fac, ut animae donetur / Tui nati visio" must follow compassionately witnessing the Passion.)

An Old Mertonian

Leah Stuttard said...

Endlessly fascinating blog - thank you. A brief comment to say that at 37 verses, this 'carol' is more like a narrative ballad and eminently singable in all its glory, though I guess not many do simply because we have audiences to please and a tendency to imagine boredom comes too quickly.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, you're quite right - and certainly there are very long ballads which can hold audiences spellbound, so perhaps it shouldn't be hard to imagine this being sung!