Sunday, 15 December 2019

An Advent Carol: O Orient Light

Annunciation (BL Add. 29433, f. 20)

Here's an Advent poem from a collection of carols which was compiled by James Ryman, Franciscan friar of Canterbury, at the very end of the fifteenth century. I've often posted carols from Ryman's extensive collection (his manuscript contains more than 150 carols, all accessible here), and they're suitable for all seasons for the year. Far from being for Christmas alone, medieval carols could be very diverse in their themes, even if you stick, as Ryman does, to sacred rather than secular topics; he does have a good number of Christmas carols, but also includes songs about the Passion, the Virgin Mary, the Trinity, his order's founder St Francis, and general moral themes of death and transience - much more varied than what we would think of as carol fare today. He has carol versions of a number of Latin hymns, such as the Advent hymns Conditor alme siderum and Vox clara, which act as a good example of how these Latin liturgical texts could serve as inspiration for vernacular poetry. And even within his Christmas material, there's considerable variation in tone: some of his carols are light-hearted - the cheeky 'Farewell Advent, Christmas is come!' is a particular highlight - while others are theologically sophisticated ('Behold and see') or poignant and sombre ('Mary hath borne alone').

This one drew my eye for its spirited rhyme scheme - one rhyme per stanza, repeated six times. It's a lively little bit of virtuosity, just for the joy of it. Since the language is pretty straightforward this is in modern spelling; here's a link to the Middle English.

O Christe, rex gentium,
O vita viventium.

O orient light shining most bright,
O son of right, adown thou light [i.e. alight from above]
And by thy might now give us light,
O Christe rex gentium.

O Saviour, most of honour,
Come from thy tower, cease our dolour
Both day and hour waiting succour,
O vita viventium.

O we in pain would, in certain, [i.e. we in pain truly desire]
Thou wouldst refrain, Lord, and restrain
Thine hand again of might and main,
O Christe, rex gentium.

O Jesse root, most sweet and sote, [lovely]
In rind and root most full of bote, [healing]
To us be bote, bound hand and foot,
O vita viventium.

O Assuere, prince without peer,
Come from thy sphere, to us draw near;
Our prayer hear, O Lord most dear,
O Christe, rex gentium.

O corner stone, that makest both one,
Hear our great moan and grant our bone [prayer]
Come down anon, save us each one,
O vita viventium.

O prince of peace, our bond release,
Our woe thou cease, and grant us peace
In bliss endless, that shall not cease,
O Christe, rex gentium.

O king of might and son of right,
O endless light so clear and bright,
Of thee a sight thou us behight, [promised]
O vita viventium.


This poem has no direct source as far as I know. but it seems to be loosely influenced by the O Antiphons, since some of the titles used here for Christ form part of that grouping of texts: Rex Gentium, Oriens, Root of Jesse. The sixth stanza also uses a phrase from the Rex Gentium antiphon, 'cornerstone that makes both one'. The form of the poem, with each verse beginning with an acclamation, 'O...', also echoes the antiphons, though it's an approach Ryman uses quite often elsewhere. In any case, the use of these texts is fairly free; there are several antiphons not alluded to here, they aren't in any particular order, and it took me a while even to spot the connection. There are lots of other things thrown in among them, including other Biblical allusions and a reference to 'Assuere', i.e. the king in the Book of Esther, which medieval Biblical interpreters took to be a story which prefigured the relationship between Mary, God and mankind. An erudite allusion for a carol, you might think, but it crops up pretty often in Ryman's collection!

My favourite verse, I think, is about the Root of Jesse:

O Jesse root, most sweet and sote,
In rind and root most full of bote,
To us be bote, bound hand and foot,
O vita viventium.

Modern interpretations of the O Antiphons seem to struggle a bit with the Root of Jesse image, partly because of hesitation about how it should best be rendered in English (you will sometimes hear instead 'Rod of Jesse' or 'Branch of Jesse' or similar variations, which don't all necessarily evoke 'plant'). I wonder if modern writers find it difficult to imagine a plant which is also a symbol of power, which can 'stand as a sign before the nations' and silence kings, as the antiphon imagines it (him) doing. But medieval poets were much more attuned than we are to religious imagery drawn from nature, including a rich and complex iconography of trees, flowers, and plants, and they were utterly familiar with the idea that plants could be healing, that the natural world was medicine to mankind and thus an analogy for Christ's redemptive work.

And so it is in this verse. 'Sweet and sote' is one of those alliterative doublets medieval English poets were very fond of, both in the Anglo-Saxon period and long after (another example which occurs in the third verse here, 'might and main', is still in use today). As is often the case, the meaning of the two words is almost synonymous; both words here basically mean 'sweet', though the first refers more to flavour and the second to fragrance. The Root of Jesse is imagined as a plant which both tastes and smells delectable, giving forth its sweetness like a breath of air. But it's also a plant which can heal, bringing 'bote'. 'Bote' is a very common word in Middle English religious writing, and it has a broad range of meaning, which Ryman is playing with in these lines, to do with remedy, redemption, and repair. In the first case, 'in rind and root most full of bote', it's the healing power of a plant, as if the Root of Jesse is a health-giving herb from which you can chop up the bark and root and make medicine. In the second case, 'to us be bote', it shifts towards the meaning 'redemption, amends', for those who are 'bound hand and foot' in the captivity of sin. The verse is fully alive to the botanical reality of the word but also to the other metaphorical possibilities it offers, all the different kinds of 'salvation' it can encompass.


The singing of the O Antiphons begins (according to medieval English practice) on 16 December, running up to Christmas Eve. I've written quite a lot here about medieval poems inspired by, translating, or meditating on these rich texts, and Ryman's poem is one more to add to the collection. If you'd like to read some others, here's a Middle English poem based on the antiphons which is roughly contemporary with Ryman, from the late fifteenth century, and two carols of a similar date, based on two of the antiphons. And then there's the much longer, more intricate, more sophisticated meditation on these texts by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet; for an introduction to that glorious poem start here, and work your way back through the series. I promise, there's nothing better you could be reading in the run-up to Christmas...

4 comments:

rhess said...

Wonderful post - thank you. Appreciated the information on medieval comfort with natural world religious imagery, which in contemporary American Christianity can seem odd. In my CD collection I have twelve recordings of the gorgeous Elizabeth Poston setting of "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree," a poem from the late 18th century. I confess when I first discovered this carol years ago, I thought, "Huh?" There are no direct biblical allusions to Christ being an apple tree. Your post has helped!

Anonymous said...

The meaning of the word 'bote' in the context of the Root of Jesse made me think of the founder of Boot's the chemists - Jesse Boot.
[He also endowed the Nottingham University] the connection would be obvious to anyone who came from Nottingham.

ĐɆ₳₦ said...

Ms. Clerk of Oxford,
Pardon my uninvited intrusion from across the pond. I hope this Christmas season finds you and yours quite well and inspired. I simply had to drop in to say 'Hello'. You did not know I existed a mere 30 seconds ago, but imagine my surprise as I posted my latest entry in my new weblog and found your blog in the process! I thought perhaps I was one of the very few modern folks left who knew of and respected the writings of James Ryman. I shall take no more of your valuable time, but I do wish to say how much I've enjoyed perusing your lovely site. I hope you'll grant me permission to add you to my current non-existent blogroll...then it shall exist. Have a very Merry Christmas!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you! I'm delighted to find anyone else who likes (or has even heard of!) James Ryman, so I'm very glad you came across my blog. I hope you've had a lovely Christmas season!