Saturday, 8 September 2018

'Who walk in this world, like unto the sea'

The Nativity of the Virgin (BL Harley 7026, f. 17; England, c.1400)

8 September is 'Latter Lady Day', the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, the second of the two Marian feasts to fall in the harvest season. One of the hymns sung on this day is 'Ave maris stella', so here's a simple but rather sweet poem/prayer inspired by that hymn; it comes from a 15th-century manuscript which was probably made in a Carthusian monastery in Yorkshire or northern Lincolnshire. Since the language is fairly straightforward this is in modern spelling; a proper edition can be found here.

Hail sea-star, God's Mother holy,
Pray thou thy sweet Son, save us from folly,
That walk in this world like unto the sea,
Ebbing and flowing, full of vanity.
For to all wretches that will forsake their sin,
Thou shines as a star them ready to win [rescue],
And evermore ready for us to pray
To get us forgiveness withouten delay
Of all sins our and great trespass
That we have done, both more and less.
Now sweet Lady, both meek and mild,
And mother of God, maiden undefiled,
Crowned above all angels Queen of Heaven,
Blessed art thou therefore evermore to neven [name, call upon].
Thou pray thy Son to give us grace our life to mend,
And his burning love into us send.
Think on, good Lady, thus for us to pray,
That we with thee may dwell for ever and aye. Amen.

In the last couplet, 'Think on, good Lady, for us to pray' means 'remember us in your prayers', but if you wanted to read it with a Yorkshire twang (given the provenance of the manuscript) I wouldn't like to discourage you ;)

The image of this world as a sea, 'ebbing and flowing' in its instability and changeableness, is a very ancient and widespread one, and yet somehow never loses its power, for all its ubiquity. Here's an image of the poem in the manuscript, with an illustration of a drowning man praying to Mary, who kneels before Christ - whether literally or figuratively drowning in the waters of this world, it's to Mary that he calls.

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