Wednesday 6 January 2021

Earendel at Epiphany

For the Feast of the Epiphany, here's a curiosity for you. There are lots of medieval carols about the Epiphany ('Twelfth Day', as it was usually called in the Middle Ages) - I posted two last year, and you'll find more under this tag. This one, however, is a medieval pastiche - a carol written in a version of Middle English, with a bit of Old English thrown in, and published in 1899. 

'Eala Earendel
Engla beorhtast.'

I. They came three Kings who rode apace,
To Bethlem town by God's good grace:
Hail Earendel,
Brightest of Angels!

Pardie! It was a duteous thing,
Wise men to worship childë King:
Godlight be with us,
Hail Earendel!

II. They gave Him gifts of far-brought things,
Of Recells, Myrrh, and Gold of Kings.
Hail Earendel,
Brightest of Angels!

And setten there in strawy tent,
Their mystic signs of Orient:
Godlight be with us,
Hail Earendel!

III. The Gold and Frankincense and Myrrh
For King, for Priest, for digne Martyr.
Hail Earendel,
Brightest of Angels!

Upon the great Good Friday morn
Is't Crown of Gold or Crown of Thorn?
Godlight be with us,
Hail Earendel!

IV. From Calvary's Tree the Priestly hands
Are stretched in blessing o'er the lands:
Hail Earendel,
Brightest of Angels!

In Garden tomb His tired limbs sleep.
Bring Myrrh and Spices, Vigil keep:
Godlight be with us,
Hail Earendel!

V. O hymn we then these Orient Kings,
Who brought for Him their offerings:
Hail Earendel,
Brightest of Angels!

And grant in Holy Mystery
Ourselves His Sacrifice may be.
Godlight be with us,
Hail Earendel!

This poem is by Charles William Stubbs (1845-1912), who at the time it was published was Dean of Ely. The poem was included in his book Bryhtnoth's Prayer and Other Poems, which among other things features a number of poems inspired by medieval topics, especially relating to the Anglo-Saxon history of Ely. One is his 'Carol of King Canute', a Christmas carol based on a short verse which the 12th-century Liber Eliensis claims Cnut composed when visiting the abbey. Another poem on an Ely theme is inspired by the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, whose fallen hero, Byrhtnoth, was buried at Ely. Here's a taste of Stubbs' take on that:

This was his death cry,
Bryhtnoth the Ealdorman,
When to the earth at last
Fell from his failing hand
Sword of the mighty hilt...

Could he no longer then
Fast on his feet stand,
Bryhtnoth the Ealdorman;
Looked he to Heaven's King,
Meter of meeds:
“Thanks be to Thee, God, Ruler of nations,
For all the joy of life
Winsome and wealthful-
Bairns' love and wife's love,
Heart-trust of comrades,
War-weal and hearth’s-gear -
All I have here below
Fared for or gotten.
Now, oh my Maker mild,
Most need have I that Thou
Good speed my ghost:
Yea, that my soul to Thee safely may journey,
Safe to Thy Kingdom, Lord of the angels.”

Died then Earl Bryhtnoth
There by the Panta stream,
Slain in the battle, by
Maldon Blackwater.
Monks of the minster,
Monks of Saint Ætheldryht,
Thanes of the White Christ,
Brought him to Ely
Rowed they the death barge,
Down the long water-street,
Shimmering in moonlight;
Cold blew the night wind,
O'er the wan water: 
Far in the sedge reeds
Boomed the wild bittern;
High on the wall tower
Blickered the beacon.

If you know The Battle of Maldon you'll recognise some echoes of the poem here, but it's much augmented by faux-medieval archaisms in fine Victorian style! Similarly, Stubbs' Epiphany poem makes use of a refrain from a real Old English poem, part of the Advent Lyrics based on the O Antiphons:

Eala earendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended...

O Earendel, brightest of angels,
sent to mankind over middle-earth...

In that poem 'Earendel' is used as a title for Christ, equivalent to the Latin 'O Oriens' ('O Dayspring'), the antiphon sung on the day of the winter solstice. Stubbs, however, accompanies his poem with a note saying that Earendel is 'the mythical name of the Star of Bethlehem'. I couldn't say where he got that idea, but 'Earendel' is used of different kinds of light in Old English and related languages - of a star, but also of the radiance of the sun and the first gleam of the dawn. And engla beorhtast, 'brightest of angels', really means 'brightest of messengers' - which the Star of Bethlehem was, of course. If the idea is that the Star to which the carol appeals is also Christ himself, 'Godlight', it's not so far from the Old English poem.

Stubbs also includes a note on the word 'recells', an Old English word for 'incense', pointing out where you can find it in an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Gospels. Apart from these bits of Anglo-Saxondom, though, much of the poem is written in an imitation of Middle English - 'Pardie!', 'childë King', and so on.

'The Carol of King Canute' was set to music by T. Tertius Noble, who was organist of Ely Cathedral and also Stubbs' son-in-law. (Though it's through Benjamin Britten's setting that it's perhaps better-known.) Noble also set this 'Carol of the Star', in a slightly amended version. And look, it's even on Youtube:

I learn from this wonderful website that after Stubbs became Bishop of Truro, the carol was performed at his cathedral's 'Festival of Lessons and Carols' in 1911 - Truro being the place where services of 'Nine Lessons and Carols' first originated at the end of the 19th century.

That same winter, 1911, the young Tolkien had just finished his first term at Oxford. A year or two later, in the course of his studies, he stumbled across the Old English 'Earendel' poem, and its first lines had a remarkable effect on him:
I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened by sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English.
Tolkien adopted Earendel into his own growing imaginative cosmos, as a mariner 'who launched his ship like a bright spark from the havens of the Sun... a herald star, and a sign of hope to men'. He later called the Old English poem 'rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology'. His sense that there was something 'very remote and strange' about the words eala Earendel, engla beorhtast is one of those instincts no one can explain. Why these lines more than any other? What moved Stubbs to make them the basis of his Epiphany carol? No one really knows what 'Earendel' means, and yet perhaps it draws the imagination all the more for that, as the Star of Bethlehem drew the Magi on their long and weary way. Such is the magic of mystery, of words half-understood - of a glimpse of Godlight.

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