Friday, 10 April 2020

Good Friday Alone

The Virgin Mary and Christ, in a Book of Hours of c.1510-20 (BL Add MS 35214, f. 27)

Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.

As I went this enders day [the other day]
Alone walking on my play
I heard a lady sing and say
'Woe is me and all alone!
Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.'

To that place I drew me near
Of her song somewhat to hear.
There sat a lady with sorry cheer [a sad countenance]
That sore did sigh and groan,
'Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.

Behold, my son crowned with thorn,
And all his body rent and torn,
Put to death with shame and scorn,
For mankind's sake alone.
Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.'

For sooth it was a wondrous sight
To see her child, how it was dight [arranged, ordained]
For to bring mankind to light
To save us from our fone. [foes]
Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.

Sith it will no better be [since it can be no better]
Pray we to that child so free
That we may him in heaven see
What we shall hence gone. [when we depart from here]
Alone alone alone alone
Sore I sigh and all for one.

For many of us this will be a solitary Good Friday, and so I've been thinking about the place of solitude - aloneness - in medieval imaginings of the story of Christ's Passion. This is a carol from the 16th century, an example of a very widespread poetic tradition giving voice to Mary's grief for her son, which takes the word alone as its refrain and keynote. The text is from a printed book of c.1550, and I've modernised the spelling from the carol as edited in Greene's Early English Carols. When I first read this poem, I was reminded of a similar carol, a few decades older, which also makes use of the moving refrain 'alone' - but this is a carol set at an earlier moment in Mary's life, when her son is still an infant. There her baby, as she ('alone') tries to soothe his crying, tells her the real reason why he is weeping so bitterly:

'Mother,' he said, 'how should I sleep?
How should I leave my moan?
I have more cause to sob and weep,
Since I shall die alone.'

She is horrified at this declaration, as anyone would be. He explains to her that it is necessary, since he - and he 'alone' - must save mankind by his death, but she already sees the grief and loneliness it will mean for her:

'Dear son,' she said, 'since thou hast take
Of me both flesh and bone,
If it may be, me not forsake
In care and woe alone...

'Dear son,' she said unto him tho [then]
'When thou from me art gone,
Then shall I live in care and woe
Without comfort alone.'

He cannot tell her she will not grieve or have to bear solitude, but his comfort is to promise her that he will, in the end, ease her loneliness:

'Mother,' he said, 'take thou no thought,
For me make thou no moan;
When I have bought that I have wrought, [when I have redeemed what I created]
Thou shalt not be alone.'

This kind of interaction, where Mary begs her son not to die and leave her alone and grieving, is also a frequent part of poetic dialogues in the 'Stabat Mater' tradition. Many medieval poets devoted attention to imagining Mary's feelings at these different moments of grief: when as a young mother she begins to understand what her child's future will hold, when she sees her son dying in front of her eyes, when she holds his body in her arms. There are countless examples of poems in this tradition, and many of them are absolutely heartbreaking. Even if you don't have much sympathy with this emotive style of devotion, it's hard not to be moved by these poems; they are powerful expressions of grief and love which will resonate - as they are designed to - with every reader's own personal experiences of loss. Mary's grief is unique, but also universal. Hers is a parent's grief, and every time I hear the strange canard that, because infant mortality was high in the Middle Ages, medieval people didn't really love their children or grieve for them when they died, I think of these heart-wrenching poems; they are born of, and absolutely depend on, a widespread cultural acceptance that the loss of a child is one of the most devastating experiences a person can imagine. But these poems aren't only meant for parents, but for everyone, and they aim to draw on wells of tears springing from many other kinds of love and grief. They expect the audience to recognise and respond to it with strong emotion, weeping as Mary weeps.

The 'Alone' carol is probably meant to evoke a Pietà image, Mary holding Christ's body in her arms, and the characteristic feature of that artistic and literary tradition (as distinct from, for instance, Deposition and Entombment scenes where Mary holds her son's body) is that it's only the two of them. She is alone with him, and yet he's not there - she only has his dead body to cradle, a particularly painful kind of solitude. In the first carol the speaker is also 'alone' when they witness Mary's lament, and so her solitude echoes their own. Such poems are often framed as an encounter with Mary, where the speaker of the poem - as here - comes across her unexpectedly, or sees her suddenly appear to them in a vision. We never learn much about the speaker (they're not much more a pair of eyes and ears through which the reader is able to see and hear) but we are told that they are, very often, 'alone' - here wandering out for a solitary ramble, and in other poems lying awake at night, 'alone in my longing'. It's at such moments that these poems might be designed to be read and meditated upon; in solitude, the reader has time to reflect and to feel, to open their heart to what they read, and perhaps even to encounter some kind of mystical or visionary experience.

Alone in quarantine: Christ enters the desert for his 'karenine', his forty-day fast (BL Yates Thompson MS. 13, f. 111)

A focus on aloneness is also appropriate when attempting to consider Christ's own suffering at the Passion, in which there are several key moments where he is, humanly speaking, completely alone. I wrote in my last post about Christ's entry into what was in the Middle Ages called 'quarantine', his solitary forty days in the desert, and the story of his death has more such moments: the Agony in the Garden, the silence of the tomb. In medieval liturgy, the ritual reenactment of those days used a variety of means to powerfully evoke those experiences of isolation and desolation - the gradually enveloping darkness of the Tenebrae service, the stark exposure of the stripped altar and the empty tabernacle, the extensive use of silence both within and around the liturgy of the day. (There's some evidence that in early medieval England the last three days of Holy Week were known as 'the silent days', swigdagas.) Even when experienced collectively, these practices cut off the individual worshipper from those around them, alone in a silent and perhaps invisible crowd.

In extra-liturgical devotional practice, the believer might also be encouraged to go with Christ into that aloneness, to - paradoxically, in a way - share his solitude. One early English example occurs in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, a vision of the Passion story narrated by the cross, in which Christ is imagined alone in the tomb, 'weary after the great battle': reste he ðær mæte weorode, 'he rested there, with little company' (that's the understated Anglo-Saxon way of saying 'completely alone'). The same words are then, significantly, repeated of the person who is having this vision, lying awake while others are sleeping; the dreamer says the vision appeared þær ic ana wæs / mæte werede, 'where I was, alone, with little company'. In that aloneness, the dreamer comes so close to Christ that the same words describe them both.

Alone and not alone: the Agony in the Garden, with Christ accompanied in the darkness by faces keeping watch (BL Yates Thompson MS. 13, f. 118v)

But though solitude may offer a way to communicate with the divine, it may also heighten and intensify human grief. In another Anglo-Saxon poem, the focus is instead on Mary Magdalene and the other women among Christ's followers who went to the tomb early on Easter morning, and found it empty. The poem speaks of their anxiety about their Lord being left alone; the word, ana, is repeated twice within a few lines. 'They thought that he would have to lie in the grave / alone on that Easter night.' There's something so poignant about that attribution to them of the very natural desire to be with the body of the person they are mourning - even in death, they don't want him to be alone. It was a key part of medieval meditative practice to enter into these Biblical experiences of grief in the most naturalistic way possible, by drawing on your own knowledge or fear of how it feels to lose someone you love, or not to be able to mourn them as you would wish. An even more powerful expression of this idea is offered by St Anselm, in his prayer to Mary Magdalene, where he imagines with extraordinary sensitivity the depth of her grief at not being able to find the body of Jesus when she went to the tomb to anoint him:

More than all this, what can I say, how can I find words to tell, about the burning love with which you sought him, weeping at the sepulchre, and wept for him in your seeking? How he came, who can say how or with what kindness, to comfort you, and made you burn with love still more; how he hid from you when you wanted to see him, and showed himself when you did not think to see him; how he was there all the time you sought him, and how he sought you when, seeking him, you wept.

But you, most holy Lord, why do you ask her why she weeps? Surely you can see; her heart, the dear life of her soul, is cruelly slain. O love to be wondered at; O evil to be shuddered at; you hung on the wood, pierced by iron nails, stretched out like a thief for the mockery of wicked men; and yet, "Woman," you say, "why are you weeping?" She had not been able to prevent them from killing you, but at least she longed to keep your body for a while with ointments lest it decay. No longer able to speak with you living, at least she could mourn for you dead. So, near to death and hating her own life, she repeats in broken tones the words of life which she had heard from the living. And now, besides all this, even the body which she was glad, in a way, to have kept, she believes to have gone. And can you ask her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" Had she not reason to weep? For she had seen with her own eyes -- if she could bear to look -- what cruel men cruelly did to you; and now all that was left of you from their hands she thinks she has lost. All hope of you has fled, for now she has not even your lifeless body to remind her of you. And someone asks, "Who are you looking for? Why are you weeping?" You, her sole joy, should be the last thus to increase her sorrow. But you know it all well, and thus you wish it to be, for only in such broken words and sighs can she convey a cause of grief as great as hers...

But now, good Lord, gentle Master, look upon your faithful servant and disciple, so lately redeemed by your blood, and see how she burns with anxiety, desiring you, searching all round, questioning, and what she longs for is nowhere found. Nothing she sees can satisfy her, since you whom alone she would behold, she sees not. What then? How long will my Lord leave his beloved to suffer thus? Have you put off compassion now you have put on incorruption? Did you let go of goodness when you laid hold of immortality?

Mary Magdalene was famous for her tears (which is why her name became our word maudlin), and Anselm dwells on them at length in his prayer, with the intention of evoking answering tears in himself and in the reader. These tears of grief will turn to tears of joy, and yet Anselm explores how closely mingled the two must be, must have been:

For love's sake he cannot bear her grief for long or go on hiding himself. For the sweetness of love he shows himself who would not for the bitterness of tears. The Lord calls his servant by the name she has often heard and the servant knows the voice of her own Lord. I think, or rather I am sure, that she responded to the gentle tone with which he was accustomed to call, "Mary." What joy filled that voice, so gentle and full of love. He could not have put it more simply and clearly: "I know who you are and what you want; behold me; do not weep, behold me; I am he whom you seek." At once the tears are changed; I do not believe that they stopped at once, but where once they were wrung from a heart broken and self-tormenting they flow now from a heart exulting.

The Burial of Christ (BL Harley MS. 2915, f. 173v)

Such prayers as this were the beginning of the devotional tradition which sought to approach God through human emotion, and which culminated in such poems as the 'Alone' carol. That song falls into the genre known as Planctus Mariae, 'the lament of Mary', and planctus of all kinds is a very popular form in medieval literature (compleint is the usual Middle English term). One purpose of planctus as a literary genre, whether the one lamenting is Mary or Dido, is that it gives space and voice to sorrow, to the kinds of emotion we all feel, but can't often express except through poetry, through other people's words. On this particular Good Friday, when grief is all around us, it is perhaps more important than ever to make space for those emotions, to acknowledge and find words for them. In the 'Alone' carol the grief is attached to one particular story - Christ's Passion - but much of its expression is taken from the wider tradition of compleint, which encompasses many other kinds of love and sorrow. Its refrain, 'Sore I sigh and all for one', very clearly echoes the language of secular love-songs; it could conceivably have been borrowed from an existing love-song, as was a common practice. Compare the similar phrasing found in the 16th-century manuscript below: 'Alone I live, alone, and sore I sigh for one'. In medieval love poems, too, it's conventional (as you might expect!) to lament loneliness, to pine for the absent and to long for reunion. Here's an example comparable to our 'Alone' carol by the 15th-century poet Charles d'Orleans, which begins:

Alone am y and wille to be alone;
Alone, withouten plesere or gladnes,
Alone in care, to sighe and grone,
Alone, to wayle the deth of my maystres,
Alone, which sorow will me neuyr cesse.
Alone, I curse the liif I do endure.
Alone this fayntith me my gret distres,
Alone I lyve, an ofcast creature.

[Alone am I, and want to be alone;
Alone, without pleasure or gladness,
Alone in sorrow, to sigh and groan,
Alone, to bewail the death of my mistress,
Alone, the sorrow which will never cease for me.
Alone, I curse the life I endure,
Alone, my great distress makes me faint,
Alone I live, an outcast creature.]

Each stanza continues in this way; read the whole thing here.


The transference of language like this between religious verse and secular love-poetry apparently did not seem as odd in the Middle Ages as it might to us today; it could in fact be a source of inspiration for religious poets and preachers, as they sought to articulate the experience of love wherever it might be found - with the belief that ultimately, truly and most completely, it will always be found in Christ. Looking for other comparable 'alone' poems, I came across a 14th-century sermon for Good Friday, which incorporates several short lyrics or couplets in English within the predominantly Latin text. The focus of the sermon is a quotation from the Song of Songs which was immensely popular in medieval devotional writing: amore langueo, 'I languish for love'. (This is also the refrain of two of the finest Middle English lyrics: one spoken by Christ, 'In a valley of restless mind', and the other by Mary, 'In a tabernacle of a tower, as I stood musing on the moon'). Here these words of love - from a book of course full of erotic desire - are interpreted as if they are Christ's, and as if they describe his actions on Good Friday. First, the author explains the paradoxical nature of Good Friday ('a doubtful day of feast and fast', he might have said!):

Dearly beloved, I think I can rightly say that this is a blissful day and a sorrowful day. It is a blissful day because on it occurred one of the greatest joys that ever happened to the human race, for mankind was led out of servitude, and he who was a slave became free. That this day was blessed among all that ever have been is proven by blessed Gregory when he says, 'What would we have gained by Christ's birth if he had not redeemed us?' as if to say, nothing. Since such great joy came to mankind on this day, we can say with the Psalmist, 'This is the day the Lord has made,' etc. Likewise, this is a sorrowful day because one of the most pitiful and sorrowful things that have ever happened occurred on it, for today, he who was innocent and without stain of sin was unreasonably and falsely killed and ended his life in pain like a lamb; and thus is fulfilled what he himself said through the prophet in a psalm: 'My life has ended in pain,' etc.

(This translation is from Siegfried Wenzel, Macaronic Sermons: Bilingualism and Preaching in Late-Medieval England (Ann Arbor, 1994); the bolded phrases mark words which in the original appear in English, while the rest is in Latin.) The preacher then goes on to expound his text, and to explore what it might mean to say that Christ 'languishes for love'.

Dearly beloved, you should understand that not every love is a languishing love, but only intense love is said to be languishing, that is, when someone loves something so much that he thinks of nothing else beside it, nor has any taste or delight except for it alone. Such love did Christ have for us, as he clearly shows today. Hence we must in return have the same love for him. Speaking of such languishing love, it seems to me that I find seven clear signs by which we can recognize a man who languishes in love. They are:

He lesus is myth and waxit wan
He syket as a sorful man
Alone he drawes fro compenye
And euer he herkenes one ys drurie.
Louelyche he spekis to hys herte
For hym he suffrus peynis smert
Thorow tokenys of 3yftes 3yuynge
He schewet in hert loue-murnyng.

[He loses his strength and grows pale;
He sighs as a sorrowful man;
Alone he draws from company,
And he always listens for his beloved.
Lovingly he speaks to his heart,
For whom he suffers pains smart.
Through tokens of gifts given,
He shows in heart love-mourning.]

These are the seven signs by which we can tell a person who languishes from love, and all of them were on this day found in Christ.

He goes on to explain, one by one, how each of these features of the pining human lover could be seen in Christ on the day of his Passion. 'Alone he draws from company' is a characteristic of the lover (like Charles d'Orleans) but in the story of Good Friday, it's literally true of Christ:

The third sign of languishing love is that he who languishes for love withdraws from company, for there can be no companionship for him except that of his beloved. In this way Christ was alone, for no one remained with him, even 'his disciples abandoned him and fled.' At that time they did not yet fully believe in him, for they did not expect him to rise from the dead, all except the Blessed Virgin, in whom the Church's faith stood alive during those three days.

This offers a more positive reading of Christ 'alone' on Good Friday. In one sense his solitude is an abandonment, a painful isolation - but it's also an act of love, undertaken for the good of others. In this analogy 'his beloved' is all mankind; he withdraws from the company of his closest friends as an act of self-sacrifice, putting aside his particular love for his friends for the love of humanity in general. I wonder if there has ever been a Good Friday in the six centuries since this sermon was written when that interpretation of his aloneness has hit so close to home.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. Thank you very much.

Mariangel said...


Posts from your blog and Bach's Matthew's Passion have become my Good Friday tradition.

And your blog and Haendel's Messiah my Christmas Eve tradition.

Thank you for the light, beauty and comfort!

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more with the comment above. This was a beautiful meditation for Good Friday. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

Busyantine said...

Our history and its consolation is not lost when such moving reflections can be given to us. Thank you and a happy Easter.

Harmony said...

Thank you.