This is an exquisitely sad nativity song, a lullaby addressed to the baby Christ, but full of compassion and pain and regret for the suffering that the child will later undergo. It's from the same manuscript as this lullaby and is on roughly the same subject, but this is a much finer treatment (they both come from a book belonging to the friar John Grimestone, who may or may not be the author). Today's lullaby is also very close in style and theme to this poem in the same metre, which is not addressed to Christ but to an ordinary baby - that anonymous poem laments the sorrows of the world and the human condition, while this focuses on the sorrows of Christ. In both cases the central image is of the crying child, innocent and ignorant, who weeps for no reason - and yet has a reason to weep, though he doesn't know it, because of the world he has been born into.
This poem is almost too sad to post at Christmas, really, but today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, whose own sad, strange lullaby still exerts a strong power; and Christmas is not all jollity - as John Donne said, in a sermon he preached on Christmas Day 1626:
The whole life of Christ was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for, to his tenderness then, the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after; and the manger as uneasy at first, as his cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.
This poem perfectly illustrates that idea.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, child, rest thee a throwe,
From heighe hider art thou sent wyth us to wonen lowe;
Poure and litel art thou made, uncouth and unknowe,
Pyne and wo to suffren heer for thyng that nas thyn owe.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, sorwe mythe thou make;
Thou are sent into this world, as thou were forsake.
[Lullay, lullay, little child, rest you a while; from on high you are sent hither to dwell with us below. Poor and little are you made, unrecognised and unknown, to suffer pain and woe for a crime that was not your own. Lullay, lullay, little child, sorrow you might well make; you are sent into this world like one who has been forsaken.]
Lullay, lullay, litel grome, kyng of alle thyng,
What I thenke of thy myschief me listeth wel litel synge;
But caren I may for sorwe, if love were in myn herte,
For swiche peynes as thou shalt dreyen were nevere non so smerte.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, wel myghte thou crie,
For-than thy body is bleik and blak, soon after shal ben drye.
[Lullay, lullay, little boy, king of all things! When I think of your sad situation I hardly feel like singing; but I may lament, for sorrow, if love be in my heart, because such sharp pains as you will suffer have never been known. Lullay, lullay, little child, well might you cry! Your body then will grow pale and white, and then it shall grow dry.]
Child, it is a wepyng dale that thou art comen in;
Thy poure cloutes it proven wel, thy bed made in the bynne;
Cold and hunger thou most thoeln, as thou were geten in synne,
And after deyen on the tree for love of all mankynne.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, no wonder thogh thou care,
Thou art comen amonges hem that thy deeth shullen yare.
[Child, it is a weeping world that you have come into! Your poor rags prove this well, and your bed in the manger. Cold and hunger must you suffer, like one begotten in sin, and afterwards die upon the cross for the love of all mankind. Lullay, lullay, little child, no wonder that you cry; you are come among those who shall cause your death.]
Lullay, lullay, litel child, for sorwe myghte thou grete;
The anguissh that thou suffren shalt shal don the blood to swete;
Naked, bounden shaltow ben, and sithen sore bete,
No thyng free upon thy body of pyne shal ben lete.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, it is al for thy fo,
The harde bond of love-longyng that thee hath bounden so.
[Lullay, lullay, little child, for sorrow you may well cry; the anguish that you shall suffer will make you sweat blood. Naked, bound, you will be, and afterwards sorely beaten; no part of your body shall be left free of pain. Lullay, lullay, little child, it is all for your foe - the hard bond of love-longing that has bound you so.]
Lullay, lullay, litel child, litel child, thyn ore!
It is al for oure owene gilt that thou art peyned sore.
But wolden we yet kynde ben and lyven after thy lore,
And leten synne for thy love, ne keptest thou no more.
Lullay, lullay, litel child, softe sleep and faste,
In sorwe endeth every love but thyn atte laste.
[Lullay, lullay, little child, little child, your mercy! It is all for our guilt that you are sorely suffering. But if we yet acted rightly and lived according to your teaching, and left sin for your love, your suffering would be at an end. Lullay, lullay, little child, softly sleep and fast; in sorrow ends every love but yours, at the last.]