St Michael, with bright wings (BL Royal MS 18 D II, f. 161v)
Today is Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael and All Angels - a beautiful feast at perhaps the loveliest time of the year. In honour of the day I want to post a medieval English poem which I stumbled across for the first time recently. It's not strictly for Michaelmas (it's set in the spring) but by the time you reach the end of it you'll understand why I'm posting it today.
For reasons which may become obvious, this poem reminds me a little of the 14th-century masterpiece Pearl, a glowing jewel of a poem, a meditation on love, grief, and loss which attempts to render in the intricate beauty of its words something of the surpassing beauty of heaven. This poem is nowhere near as ambitious or accomplished, but like Pearl it begins with the loss of something precious, couched in metaphorical terms which seem to hint at a deeper grief. The precise circumstances are kept obscure from us, and are more powerful for not being openly expressed. Within the first few stanzas of this poem the speaker meets, falls in love with, and loses a beautiful bird. By the time he meets her again, if we are even vaguely familiar with medieval love-poetry, we probably think we know what we are dealing with here: the bird is a woman, he's her lover, and he's going to try and woo her back again. But when he does begin to woo her, he does so in a way that confounds our expectations - and from there the poem becomes something stranger, richer, and more beautiful.
The poem comes from a 15th-century manuscript which was probably written in the West Midlands. You can view images of the manuscript here, and read a list of the poems it contains here. Some of the poems in the manuscript are relatively well-known - it contains, for instance, 'The Boar's Head Carol'! - but according to DIMEV this one has only been edited once. You can read that edition online here to get the Middle English text, but I've given the poem below in modernised spelling, with some glosses. The opening lines, which are so conventional and idiomatic as to be difficult to translate literally, just mean something like 'Good lords and ladies, splendidly-dressed women, and all who listen to my story...'
Lovely lordinges, ladies lyke,
Wives and maidens ryallyke,
So worthy under wede,
And all who listen to my talking,
God grant them his dear blessing,
And heaven to their mead. [as their reward]
By a forest as I did ride,
I saw a bird by a wood-side,
Bright she was of blee. [complexion]
Her wings were of colours rich,
As an angel methought her like,
Full semely it was to see. [very beautiful to look on]
The bird was gone; my joy was still,
For woe, alas! myself I spill. [destroy]
To Christ I make my moan, [lament]
For a love that was so new,
That so bright was of hue,
From me was she gone.
A blissful song that bird did sing
And I abode for love talking,
To wit of whence she were. [to find out where she came from]
And as soon as she saw me,
She took her flight for to flee
To a holt so hoar. [a wood which is 'hoary' white, probably with blossom]
Forth I walked in that forest,
By a river east and west,
Under a holt side, [beside a grove of trees]
Till I come under a lovely tree,
That semely one I did see [I saw that beautiful one]
Under a busk abide. [stopping by a wood]
That lovely bird on boughs bare,
She sang a song with sighing sore
Upon a hazel tree,
With words mild and hende, [gentle and courteous]
To that bird did I wend,
Of bale her bote to be. [to be her relief from sorrow]
When that I to her come,
By the wings I her nome, [took, caught]
And stroked her full soft,
With words mild and still, [gentle and quiet]
I asked the bird of her will [what she wanted]
Fele times and oft. [again and again]
Up to this point, the allegory seems straightforward enough. The clues are all telling us that the bird is a beautiful woman, and this is a love scene. The word 'bird' in Middle English is frequently used as a poetic term for a lady; to call a woman a 'bird' today (at least in Britain) is not exactly polite, but in Middle English its connotations were quite different - burd meaning 'lady, noblewoman' was actually in origin a separate word, nothing to do with feathered birds but with high birth and noble lineage. By the time this poem was written the two words had already become very similar in form and spelling, and poets play on the similarity between the two: if you can compliment a woman (whether it's your lover, or the Virgin Mary) by calling her a dove or a lark or a falcon, you can certainly call her a 'bird', most politely, in both senses of the word. Most of the phrases the speaker uses to describe this 'bird' are also terms often used in Middle English poetry to describe women, such as 'bright of blee', 'that semely one', etc. And he also says she seems to him like an angel. That, too, is a conventional term of praise for a woman - but keep it in mind...
The language in this last stanza is distinctly euphemistic, full of romantic and sexual connotations: we seem to be witnessing a seduction, and in another poem that's exactly what this would be. He's found her and caught her, is stroking her softly, and now he wants, in a conventionally euphemistic phrase, of bale her bote to be, that is, (put it in air quotes in your mind) 'to relieve her sorrow'. What you might expect next in such a poem is for the bird/woman to put up some resistance, and then either give in or make her escape, having shamed her would-be seducer. Here, too, she does protest:
The bird answered and said, 'Do way! [Leave off]
Me likes not of thy play, [your play is displeasing to me]
Nor talking of thy tales.
I am known under this tree,
Just as I came, let me flee,
By downs and by dales.
For wont I was to be in cage, [I was accustomed once to live in a cage]
And with my feres to play and rage, [and to play and sport with my companions]
With game and with glee, [merriment]
Now I fly with my feather-hame, [plumage]
As wild fowl and nothing tame, [as a wild bird, not a bit tame]
By dear God, woe is me!'
Now things start to get surprising. Her lament is not what you might expect: you might predict this bird will demand her freedom, telling the man she's happier without him, and doesn't want to be caught. A wild bird, 'nothing tame', seems an image of freedom and liberty - but this bird feels differently. For this bird, her freedom is a burden; it's loneliness, separation from her friends back in the cage where they were happy and carefree together. She's not a wild bird but a lost bird, and she wants to return to her home.
And our speaker (whoever he is) begins to offer her that home:
'Nay, dear bird, let be thy care. [cease your sorrow]
If thou wouldst gladly with me fare, [go]
And believe in my talking,
Of thy ruth I would aruwe, [I would have pity on your sorrow]
Thy cage shall be made anew;
Thou shalt have thy lykynge.' [pleasure]
The bird answered with words free,
'Whereof should my cage be,
If I thee love would?'
'The floor should be of argentum, [silver]
Clean silver all and some, [entirely of pure silver]
That true love might behold.
The walls shall be of galmeowne, [?jasmine]
Frankincense and lymesone, [?tortoise-shell]
The savour that is so sweet. [the scent of which is so sweet]
The posts shall be of cypress,
The first tree that Jesu chose,
Of bale to be our bote. [to relieve us from sorrow]
This is an allusion to the tradition that the cross was made in part from the wood of the cypress-tree. The phrase used here for Christ's act of redemption, the turning of sorrow into joy, is 'of bale to be our bote' - the same conventional phrase which a few stanzas earlier seemed to have clearly romantic connotations. Here it's been transformed, transmuted, from romantic to divine love, without anything to signal the slippage from one world to another. We started off by hearing a description of a pretty bird-cage for a treasured pet, but this is becoming something else: this is a description of heaven.
The towers shall be of ivory,
Clean carved by and by, [perfectly carved all about]
The door of whale's bone;
The cowpuls all of galyngalle, [?corbels of ginger-root]
The beams all of rich coral,
Royally begone; [adorned]
The dosers all of camaca, [tapestries of rich fabric]
The benches all of taffeta,
The cushions all of velvet;
The windows all of jasper stone,
The pillars of coral every one,
With joy joyned in gete. [beautifully joined at the top]
The roof thereof shall be blue,
And diaper-cloth with azure hue,
Comely for the nonce; [very beautiful indeed]
Pinnacles all of aurum, [turrets of gold]
Clean gold all and some,
Full of precious stones.
The crest blue and white as rice,
The pinnacle shall go all by vysse, [?be made as it ought to be]
Within and without,
With Veni Creator Spiritus,
And Gloria in excelsis
With angels' song all about.
Five wheels therein shall be,
In the middle shall be the Trinity,
Which peer has none,
And the four thereabout,
To Jesu Christ for to lowte, [bow]
Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
The perch shall be of carbuncle stone,
To rest you on, my joly lemone, [my merry darling]
So semely is to my sight; [so beautiful in my sight]
The nightingale, the throstlecock, [song-thrush]
The popinjay, the joly laverok, [the parrot, the merry skylark]
Shall sing to you day and night.
The popinjay, your lady free,
In your cage with you to be,
You to honour and queen.
The throstlecock Gabriel,
Who greeted Our Lady well,
With Ave, gratia plena.
The nightingale with benedicite [a blessing]
In your cage with you to be,
For the fiend's rout; [to drive away the devil]
The laverok shall sing high,
With Gloria tibi Domine,
And bless the cage all about.
This cage is made without weme, [flaw]
For the love of one woman,
Mary, who is so free. [noble]
The man who better cage make can
Take this bird to his lemman, [to be his beloved]
That is the Trinity.
God, that is full of might,
And suffered for us pain's plight,
For his orders ten, [ten orders of angels and human beings]
Save and keep this company
From shame and eke from villainy,
Ad vitam etemam. Amen. [to eternal life]
Angels encircling Christ, Mary and St Peter (from a manuscript of Dante's Paradiso)
It was these last stanzas which attracted me to this poem. The idea of heaven as a gilded birdcage is an odd one, and perhaps not immediately appealing (we'll get to that), though the description of the riches of the heavenly cage is at least useful in providing lots of Middle English vocabulary for jewels and spices and architectural features. Some of my glosses are the MED's conjectures, because the words aren't recorded anywhere else, and some are just guesses - but the general sense of splendour and luxury and beauty is clear, if not especially original. (And Pearl does it better...)
But once we are inside the birdcage, and the birds have been transfigured into angels, that's a remarkable moment. 'The throstlecock Gabriel'! The whole poem is worth it for that one line - for the startling idea of Gabriel's Ave, gratia plena, the greeting which in medieval thought was perhaps the most important utterance in human history, as the chirp of a thrush's song. The skylark singing Gloria, the nightingale with its holy benedicite as a guard against evil, and Mary, who seems to be both the lady who treasures this beautiful cage and the popinjay (the parrot) who sings within it. Heaven as a cage of singing birds: what an idea.
Birds and cages (from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves)
Songbirds and angels: the visible and the invisible, the tiny and the mighty, the familiar and the utterly strange. In some ways they could not be more different, but to yoke them together as this poem does encourages us to consider how they might be akin. Medieval ideas of angels are not generally sentimental; these are beings of cosmic power, especially the archangels: Michael the warrior, Gabriel the great ambassador from the heavenly regions, Raphael the guide and healer. But fundamentally they are creatures of joy, messengers of a mighty gladness. They are an assurance that the cosmic forces of the universe, fearsome as they may be in their power, are on the side of good, and of human happiness; in their different ways, they are all instruments helping to bring about the triumph of right over wrong, light over darkness, joy over sorrow. In medieval poetry about the Resurrection, angels do not only sing but laugh at the moment of Christ's triumph over death, because this is a victory of ultimate joy - the divine comedy. Songbirds, you might imagine, offer the same message in miniature. In Middle English birdsong is proverbially joyful: a happy person might be said to be 'as glad as a bird on a bright morning', and in religious poetry the dawn chorus may be imagined as a joyous herald of the coming of the eternal day. Perhaps birdsong and angels' song are thought of as notes in the same melody: the singing of larks and thrushes, which we can hear, is a contribution to what we cannot, the angels' endless song of joy.
Though I've never encountered anything exactly like this equation of birds and angels elsewhere in medieval poetry, bird imagery for Mary, too, is not surprising; any kind of rare or beautiful bird seems to have been thought fitting for her. Thus John Lydgate in his Ballad in Commendation of Our Lady:
O trusty turtle[-dove], trewest of al trewe,
O curteyse columbe, replete of al mekenesse,
O nightingale with thy notes newe,
O popinjay, plumed with al clennesse,
O laverok of love, singing with swetnesse.
Or indeed in Pearl:
Now for synglerty o hyr dousour
We calle hyr Fenyx of Arraby
That freles flewe of hyr fasor.
(Because of her unique sweetness
We call her Phoenix of Arabia,
Who flawless flew from her creator...)
And in one of James Ryman's carols about the Assumption, Christ invites his mother into heaven by saying: 'Come, my myelde dove, into thy cage, / With joye and blis replete whiche is...'
Saints surrounded by birdcages (from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves)
Still, the idea of heaven as a birdcage needs a little unpacking. It wasn't an image I'd come across before, and I expect I won't be alone among modern readers in finding it a bit strange at first glance. The immediate connotations seem to be of restriction and imprisonment - at the very best, the dwelling of some pampered pet. The mind jumps to brightly-coloured budgies and canaries singing in a Victorian drawing-room! It would be very different if the bird was promised a beautiful nest - that would seem homely and comfortable, not constraining. But that image wouldn't work as well for what the poet is doing. A nest is something a bird might construct for itself, while a cage is a gift from someone else, a more powerful being, a guardian and provider, who fashions it as an act of care - surely a better analogy for the relationship between the soul and God. This birdcage, made of gold and silver and precious stones, with towers of ivory and cushions of the richest fabric, is absolutely a constructed thing: designed and built of the finest, most priceless materials, because every beautiful detail is a token of the maker's love.
In any case, medieval readers clearly did not have difficulty associating positive connotations with a birdcage. As I learned from a fascinating chapter in this book, the birdcage is used in medieval iconography in some very complex ways, including as a metaphor for various aspects of well-ordered religious life: an image, for instance, of the monastic vocation, where one might choose to live within an enclosed space in order to pursue contemplation and meditation - and, of course, to sing the praise of God by day and night. Or the birdcage could be used as a metaphor for the well-trained monastic memory, where information is organised in the mind like doves in a dovecote, each piece of information in its own mental 'pigeonhole'. Not so far a step, then, to think of heaven as another kind of birdcage.
Once we have ended in this heavenly birdcage, of course we have to go back and reconsider our reading of the opening of the poem. The little lost bird is not, it seems, a wooed woman at all, but a soul - perhaps the speaker's own soul, which he loves and loses sight of, chases and seeks to win back to its heavenly home. Or is the speaker Christ himself, promising the soul her rest in heaven? The image of the soul as a bird is an ancient one, of course - and now we understand why, when the speaker first saw this bird-soul, he thought her 'like an angel'. So she is, not in any loose romantic cliché but in the most literal sense, the sense of the psalm: 'thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with majesty and honour'. If the angels are birds, so is this anxious, restless, lonely bird a creature who belongs among the angels: her true home is in their glorious palace-cage, joining in their song of praise.
St Michael with golden wings (Haddon Hall, Derbyshire)
In medieval art, you do fairly often see angels depicted with colourful birds' wings. In this 15th-century Book of Hours, St Michael with his bright wings is triumphing over one winged creature (the dragon) while keeping company with two others in the margin - a peacock and a butterfly:
And on birdsong as one of the delights of heaven, compare the homilist John Mirk describing St Matthew preaching about paradise:
[Matthew] prechet hom þe ioye of paradyse, and sayde how þat þere was euer day and neuer nyght, ther was euerlastyng youþe and neuer eld, algates helþe and neuer sekenes, song and myrþe wythout sese, roses and flowres wythout welewyng, popynjayes and bryddes euermore syngyng, loue, and rest, and all maner lykyng.
[Matthew] preached to them about the joy of paradise, and said how there was ever day and never night, there was everlasting youth and never age, always health and never sickness, song and mirth without ceasing, roses and flowers without withering, popinjays and birds evermore singing, love, and rest, and all manner of delight.