Nativity (BL Harley 2915, f.28)
Learn to love as I love thee.
In all my limbs thou mayest see
How sore they quake for cold;
For thee I suffer all this woe,
Love me, sweet, and no mo; [no other]
To thee me take and hold.
Jesu, sweet son dear,
In poor bed thou liest now here,
And that grieveth me sore.
For thy cradle is a bier,
Ox and ass are thy fere, [companions]
Weep may I therefore!
Jesu, sweet, be not wroth;
I have neither scrap nor cloth
Thee in for to fold;
I have but a piece of a lappe, [the fold of a cloak]
Therefore lay thy feet to my pap
And keep thee from the cold.
Cold thee taketh, I may well see;
For love of man it must be
For thee to suffer woe;
For better it is thou suffer this
Than man should lose heaven's bliss.
Thou must ransom him thereto.
Since it must be that thou be dead
To save man from the fiend,
Thy sweet will be done.
But let me not stay here too long:
After thy death me underfonge [receive]
To live for evermore. Amen.
One last Christmas poem. This is a version in modern spelling of a fourteenth-century poem (the original can be found here) which imagines a dialogue between Mary and the infant Christ. It comes from a manuscript which belonged to a friar called John of Grimestone (the manuscript is now Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates Lib. 18.7.21; the first three verses also appear in British Library, Harley 7322). His manuscript, which dates to 1372, is a collection of preaching materials, containing a large amount of English verse and including several tender poems about the baby Christ: 'Lullay little child, rest thee a throwe' is especially lovely, as are 'As I lay upon a night' and this lullaby carol. Although it focuses on Christ's death rather than his birth, Grimestone's 'Love me brought' also has some parallels to this poem.
Long-term readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for Middle English lullaby carols, especially ones in which the baby and his mother talk about his future, the suffering both will face before his work on earth is completed. I always feel - perhaps this is excessively literal of me - that these poems are more fitting reading for the weeks after Christmas than for the day itself. They look forward, turning the reader's attention from Christ's birth to his future life, while being careful always to evoke the naturalistic details of their setting in his first newborn days: makeshift cradle, anxious mother, a baby to be fed, wrapped, soothed, sung to. This one is not a lullaby, though the lulling ls of its first line might bring the sound to mind, but the speaker of all except the first verse is Mary; the fact that the verses are all dialogue makes it possible for the reader to take on her voice, to feel and to plead with her. 'Learn to love as I love thee', she, and we, are told.
These poems are sweet and gentle but tinged with sadness, the vulnerability of the child and his mother's fears piercing any sentimentality with a sharp dart of cold realism. Cold is a word which quivers through this poem, and it seems to be the discomfort most troubling baby and mother - not only because they're poor, we might think, and staying in a chilly stable, but perhaps too because it suggests something about the nature of the world this child has come to. In Middle English cold often evokes death, the chill of the clammy grave, and so hints at the death the baby will face for mankind's sake; and it also suggests the coldness of a hard heart, cruelty and lack of love, the very opposite of the warm-hearted tenderness we are supposed to learn from this poem. The months after Christmas are usually colder than December itself, despite the turn of the year at the solstice; there used to be a proverbial saying, 'as the day lengthens, so the cold strengthens'. And so it is here, as the elation of the child's birth turns into contemplation of the sorrow his future will bring. It reminds me of Neale's 'Earth Today Rejoices', a version of a medieval carol which is titled, in some carol-books, 'A January Carol':
Though the cold grows stronger,
Though the world loves night;
Yet the days grow longer,
Christ is born, our Light.
BL Royal 2 A XXII, f. 13v (The 'Westminster Psalter', c.1200)