Friday, 23 December 2016

'Every word here is a wonder'

Nativity (Royal MS 17 E VII 2, f.134, 14th century)

I've just written a short piece for the classical music website Corymbus on the medieval carol 'As I lay on Yule's night'. It's a beautiful and poignant lullaby carol, and you can read about it here.

This carol survives in several versions, but the one I discussed comes from a manuscript compiled by a Norfolk friar, John of Grimestone, in 1372. (The manuscript is now Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS. 18.7.21.) It seems to have been John's preaching handbook, in which he collected texts and materials for use in his sermons. His collection includes several tender poems about or addressed to the infant Christ, as well as the one described in my article: this lullaby (Lullay, lullay, little child/Thou who wast so stern and wild), 'Learn to love as I love thee', and 'Lullay, little child, rest thee a throwe'.

Alongside these longer poems, the manuscript also contains numerous miniature verses in English - mostly translations of Latin proverbs or verse tags - of the kind a medieval preacher might slip into a sermon. They are very short, often just couplets, and there are more than two hundred of them in total (here's a list). I find them strangely fascinating, in their extreme brevity and pithiness, so here are a few of my favourites. First, four lines 'on pleasures worth attending to':

To þe flour springende
To þe foul singende
To þe deu fallende
To þe snow meltende

To the flower springing
To the bird singing
To the dew falling
To the snow melting.

Good advice! On the dangers of wasting time (lorn = lost):

For lore of godes I wepe sore
but more for lore of day
Þou godes ben lorn I may han more
Time lorn aȝen comen ne may.

For loss of goods I weep sore
But more for loss of day;
Though goods be lorn I may get more;
Time lorn I never may.

On wisdom:

He is wis þat can ben war or he is wo
He is wis þat louet is frend & is fo
He is wis þat hat inou & þanne seit Ho
He is wis þat dotȝ ay wel an seit ay so

He is wise who can beware before he comes to woe;
He is wise who loves his friend and his foe;
He is wise who has enough and then says ‘Whoa!’
He is wise who does ever well and says ever so.

On study and sin:

Bisiliche ȝef þe to lore
Als þu suldest liuen eueremore
But fle senne in ich a play
As to morwen sulde ben þi ded day

Busily give yourself to lore [learning]
As if you should live evermore;
But flee sin in every play [pleasure]
As if tomorrow were your dying day.

Why you should beware of praise:

To eueri preysing is knit a knot
Þe preysing wer good ne wer þe but
I ne woth neuere wer it may ben founde
Þat with sum but it is ibounde

Within all praise is knit a knot:
Praise would be good, were it not for the 'but';
I know not where it may be found
Where with a ‘but’ it isn't bound.

And so on...

These miniature texts intersect with John's longer poems in interesting ways. The tender approach to children found in the lullaby lyrics is also noticeable in these verses, as in this couplet:

Children ben litel brith & schene & eþe for to fillen
Suetliche pleyȝende fre of ȝifte & eþe for to stillen

Children are little, bright and fair, and easy to satisfy;
Sweetly playing, free with giving, and easy to pacify.

And the poignancy of the lullaby lyrics is there too:

With a sorwe & a clut
Al þis werd comet in & out

With a sorrow and a clout
All this world comes in and out.

A 'clout' is a cloth, a winding-sheet, such as both infants and corpses are wrapped in. The idea here, vividly expressed, is that the beginning and end of life are in many ways very similar. This couplet succinctly encapsulates a poetic conceit explored at much greater length in the lullaby lyrics (especially 'Lullay, little child, rest thee a throwe'): that the crying of a baby, and perhaps also here the pain of childbirth, is a kind of foreshadowing of life's inevitable sorrows. The idea is that a baby, who cries without understanding why it's crying, has cause indeed to cry, because it has been born helpless into a world full of pain. The lullaby lyrics apply this to Christ by having him speak of his painful future and his death, not because it is unique to him, but because it is the common human fate he has chosen to share. The difference is that the baby Christ, the infant Word, knows it and (in these poems) can articulate it, where an ordinary baby has only a wordless cry.

'With a sorrow and a clout / All this world comes in and out.' John of Grimestone's language here finds an echo in the Christmas sermon of a later preacher, Lancelot Andrewes, describing how 'He that cometh here in clouts, He will come in the clouds one day':
We may well begin with Christ in the cratch; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross... To be swaddled thus as a child, doth that offend? What then when ye shall see Him pinioned and bound as a malefactor? To lie in a manger, is that so much? How then, when ye see shall Him hang on the cross? But so, — primo... ne discrepet imum, 'that His beginning and His end may suit well and not disagree', sic oportuit Christum nasci, 'thus ought Christ to be born', and this behoved to be His sign...

Signs are taken for wonders. 'Master, we would fain see a sign,' that is a miracle. And in this sense it is a sign to wonder at. Indeed, every word here is a wonder. An infant, Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word... swaddled; and that a wonder too. 'He,' that (as in the thirty-eighth of Job he saith), "taketh the vast body of the main sea, turns it to and fro, as a little child, and rolls it about with the swaddling bands of darkness' — He to come thus into clouts, himself! 3. But yet, all this is well; all children are so. But in præsepi, that is it, there is the wonder. Children lie not there; He doth. There lieth He, the Lord of glory without glory. Instead of a palace, a poor stable; of a cradle of state, a beast's cratch; no pillow but a lock of hay; no hangings but dust and cobwebs; no attendants, but in medio animalium, as the Fathers read the third of Habakkuk. For if the inn were full, the stable was not empty we may be sure. A sign, this, nay three in one, able to amaze any...

For loquitor signis, 'signs have their speech,' and this is no dumb sign. What saith it then to us? Christ, though as yet He cannot speak as a new-born babe, yet by it He speaks, and out of His crib, as a pulpit, this day preaches to us; and His theme is, Discite a Me, 'Learn of Me, for I am humble,' humble in My birth ye all see. This is the præcipe of the præsepe, as I may call it, the lesson of Christ's cratch.

This is from a sermon preached in 1618. Poetry and preaching can be very close together, as John of Grimestone knew; and Andrewes' words are probably best known today not from his sermon but via Eliot's Gerontion:

Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign”:
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger

In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers.

Þa hyrdas ða spræcon him betweonan, æfter ðæra engla fram-færelde, "Uton gefaran to Bethleem, and geseon þæt word þe geworden is, and God us geswutelode." Eala hu rihtlice hi andetton þone halgan geleafan mid þisum wordum! "On frymðe wæs word, and þæt word wæs mid Gode, and þæt word wæs God". Word bið wisdomes geswutelung, and þæt Word, þæt is se Wisdom, is acenned of ðam Ælmihtigum Fæder, butan anginne; forðan ðe he wæs æfre God of Gode, Wisdom of ðam wisan Fæder. Nis he na geworht, forðan ðe he is God, and na gesceaft; ac se Ælmihtiga Fæder gesceop þurh ðone Wisdom ealle gesceafta, and hi ealle ðurh þone Halgan Gast geliffæste.

The shepherds then spoke amongst themselves, after the departure of the angels: "Let us go to Bethlehem, and see þæt word þe geworden is [the thing which has come to pass], which God has made known to us." O, how rightly they confessed the holy faith with these words! "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." A word is the revealing of wisdom, and the Word, which is the Wisdom, is brought forth from the Almighty Father, without beginning; for he was ever God of God, Wisdom of the Wise Father. He is not created, because he is God, and no created thing; the Almighty God created all created things through that Wisdom, and gave them life through the Holy Ghost.

And this is Ælfric, preaching on the same text as Lancelot Andrewes, six hundred years earlier. Ælfric was a poet too, and a lover of language; and þæt word þe geworden is, Ælfric's version of 'this thing which has come to pass', is literally a 'word within a word', since word is wrapped inside geworden. (I wrote about this at greater length here). 'Every word here is a wonder'!

Nativity from BL Stowe 12, which is (like John of Grimestone) from 14th-century Norfolk