Monday, 31 December 2012

Twelve Days of Carols, 6: Be Merry, and the Old Year

Be merry, be merry,
I pray you every one.


A principal point of charity
It is so merry for to be
In Him that is but one.
Be merry.

He that is but one in bliss
To us hath sent his Son, iwis,
To save us from our foes.
Be merry.

Mary, for your Son's sake,
Save them all that merry make
And the longest hold it on.
Be merry.

For they who make merry here
And gladness, and in very good cheer,
To bliss then may they come!
Be merry.

Be merry, be merry,
I pray you every one.



I can't decide if this carol, from a fifteenth-century manuscript which belonged to a Cambridge undergraduate called William Hampshire, is a piece of cheerful nonsense or something more subtle about spiritual joy and a moral duty to be glad and grateful. Either way, it's a good carol for New Year's Eve, when everyone is merry for no reason at all except the movement of the clock.

For some reason I have an innate aversion to New Year celebrations; it makes me anxious somehow, as if by celebrating the passage of time so extravagantly you're tempting fate for the year to come. I don't know why this should be. I'm the kind of person who is constantly aware of time, measured in hours and seasons and centuries, and every day throughout the year marks an anniversary or a memory or a feast, and that doesn't worry me at all - in fact I like it. But something about saying goodbye to a year you know, and welcoming a year you don't know, triggers the superstitious side of me to worry about what this year will bring. A year is a long time; the distance between January 2013 and January 2014 seems much more impossible to bridge than the five centuries which separate me from William Hampshire and his carol.

I can't begin to imagine where I might be then. It's always easier to think about the past than about the future, but contemplating this past year doesn't bring much pleasure; there have been some very happy moments, but the overall impression is one of failure. I won't rehearse the details, since there's no reason they should be of interest to anyone but myself - but what a catalogue of weakness and stupidity! Silly mistakes, interspersed with illness and bouts of depression, professional failure, and increasing isolation and loneliness. Is there much chance 2013 will be better? I honestly don't see how. In church on Christmas Eve, while everyone was singing merrily and mindlessly about God's promises of love for mankind - promises to which their happy faces bore witness but which, for me, have become meaningless words - I looked round at all the families, busy and successful, the only people that church has a place for, and all I could do was hide in a dark corner and cry. 'What is the matter is I, I say; why should such a one be here?' Those are the people God loves and wants, as experience and my fellow-Christians are constantly reminding me - useful people, who can achieve things, and who don't muddy the waters with fear and doubt and self-awareness.

So the birth of a new year is only something to celebrate in that it means this year is over. I have things to be grateful for, chiefly my wonderful family, but nothing good of my own making; what can I make that's worthwhile, for myself or anyone else? I can see how the spark of hope and creativity I was born with gets less and less every year, as I become more and more aware of how ill-equipped I am to make anything of it, and of how little anyone wants it in any case. This is a huge, ugly, shallow world, and I am shy, awkward and weak; whatever I produce, many hundreds of people can do more effectively, or rather, more noisily, which is the same thing. To be successful in this world (even in academia, and in the church, as I have learned this year in particular), the only way is to be loud and confident and forthright, self-promoting, certain even when you don't know the facts, ready to fudge the truth if it doesn't fit into a Tweet. What place is there for me in such a world? Academia wants people who can 'be dynamic leaders in the field' and make money; the church wants people who can win arguments. I can't do either. Confidence is everything, and I have none; nor do I have that mysterious power by which people make themselves likeable or lovable to other human beings - and what on earth can you do without that? All I have is the fact that when I love something - or someone - I want to study it and understand it as far as my mind can carry me, and then I want to share my love and my knowledge with other people; but when people don't want either love or knowledge from me, I'm stuck.

So, that's my state of mind this Old Year's Day; be merry, indeed...


The Old Year's gone away
To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
In every cot and hall--
A guest to every heart's desire,
And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
Are things identified;
But time once torn away
No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
Left the Old Year lost to all.


- John Clare

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Twelve Days of Carols, 5: The Jolly Shepherd


Can I not sing but 'Hoy,'
When the jolly shepherd made so much joy?

1. The shepherd upon a hill he sat;
He had on him his tabard and his hat,
His tar-box, his pipe, and his flagat; [bundle]
His name was called Jolly, Jolly Wat,
For he was a good shepherd's boy.
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.

2. The shepherd upon a hill he laid;
His dog to his belt was tied.
He had not slept but a little braid, [a short while]
When 'Gloria in excelsis' was to him said.
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.

3. The shepherd on a hill he stood;
Round about him his sheep they yode; [went]
He put his hand under his hood,
He saw a star as red as blood.
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.

4. 'Now farewell, Mall, and also Will! [his sheep]
For my love go ye all still [behave yourselves]
Unto I come again you til,
And evermore, Will, ring well thy bell.'
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.

5. 'Now must I go where Crist was born;
Farewell! I come again tomorn.
Dog, keep well my sheep from the corn,
And warn well Warroke when I blow my horn!'
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.

6. The shepherd said anon right,
'I will go see yon wondrous sight,
Of which the angel singeth in the height,
And the star that shineth so bright.'
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.

7. When Wat to Bethlehem come was,
He sweated, he had gone faster than a pace;
He found Jesu in a simple place,
Between an ox and an ass.
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.

8. 'Jesu, I offer to thee here my pipe,
My skirt, my tar-box, and my scrip;
Home to my fellows now will I skip,
And also look unto my sheep.'
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.

9. 'Now farewell, mine own herdsman Wat!'
'Yea, by God, lady, even so I hat; [am called]
Lull well Jesu in thy lap,
And farewell, Joseph, with thy round cape!'
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.

10. 'Now may I well both hop and sing,
For I have been at Christ's bearing;
Home to my fellows now will I fling.
Christ of heaven to his bliss us bring!'
With hoy!
For with his pipe he made so much joy.


This is a sixteenth-century carol from the commonplace book which belonged to the London grocer Richard Hill (now Balliol College, Oxford, MS. 354).  I love how similar the refrain ('Can I not sing...') is to George Herbert's line from 'Christmas': "The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?"  It's a kind of trickledown effect: the angels sing to the shepherds, the shepherds sing, and then we sing carols about their singing...

See also: The visit of the shepherds from an Old English translation of the Gospels.

And the unmodernised carol:

Can I not syng but hoy,
Whan the joly sheperd made so mych joy?

1. The sheperd upon a hill he satt;
He had on hym his tabard and his hat,
Hys tarbox, hys pype, and hys flagat;
Hys name was called Joly, Joly Wat,
For he was a gud herdes boy.
Vith hoy!
For in hys pype he made so mych joy.

2. The sheperd upon a hill was layd;
Hys doge to hys gyrdyll was taid;
He had not slept but a lytill broyd,
But 'Gloria in excelcis' was to hym sayd.
Vith hoy!
For in hys pype he made so mych joy.

3. The sheperd on a hill he stode;
Rownd abowt hym his shepe they yode;
He put hys hond under hys hode;
He saw a star as rede as blod.
Vith hoy!
For in hys pype he made so myche joy.

4. 'Now farewell, Mall, and also Will;
For my love go ye all styll
Unto I cum agayn you till,
And evermore, Will, ryng well thy bell.'
Vith hoy!
For in hys pype he made so mych joy.

5. 'Now must I go ther Cryst was born;
Farewell, I cum agayn tomorn.
Dog, kepe well my shep fro the corn,
And warn well, warroke, when I blow my horn.'
Vith hoy!
For in hys pype he made so mych joy.

6. The shepard sayd anon right,
'I will go se yon farly syght,
Whereas the angell syngeth on hight,
And the star that shynyth so bryght.'
Vith hoy!
For in hys pype he made so mych joy.

7. Whan Wat to Bedlem cum was,
He swet, he had gone faster than a pace.
He fownd Jesu in a sympyll place,
Betwen an ox and an asse.
Vith hoy!
For in hys pype he made so mych joy.

8. 'Jhesu, I offer to the here my pype,
My skyrte, my tarbox, and my scrype;
Home to my fellowes now will I skype,
And also loke unto my shepe.'
Vith hoy!
For in hys pype he made so mych joy.

9. 'Now farewell, myne owne herdesman Wat.'
'Ye, for God, lady, even so I hat.
Lull well Jhesu in thy lape,
And farewell, Joseph, wyth thy rownd cape.'
Vith hoy!
For in hys pype he made so mych joy.

10. 'Now may I well both hope and syng,
For I have bene a Crystes beryng.
Home to my felowes now wyll I flyng.
Cryst of hevyn to his blis us bryng!'
Vith hoy!
For in hys pype he made so mych joy.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Twelve Days of Carols, 4: Thomas Becket


I pra you, seris, al in fere,
Worchip Seynt Thomas, this holé marter.

1. For on a Tewsday, Thomas was borne,
And on a Tuysday, he was prest schorne,
And on a Tuysday, his lyve was lorne,
And sofyrd martyrdam with myld chere.
I pra you, seris, al in fere,
Worchip Seynt Thomas, this holé marter.

2. Fore Holé Cherche ryght ale hit was —
Ellis we had then songyn “alas!” —
And the child that unborne was
Schul have boght his lyve ful dere.
I pra you, seris, al in fere,
Worchip Seynt Thomas, this holé marter.

3. Ther prestis were thral, he mad hem fre,
That no clerke hongid schuld be,
Bot eretyk, or fore traytré,
Yif oné seche case fal ther were.
I pra you, seris, al in fere,
Worchip Seynt Thomas, this holé marter.

4. Then no child criston schuld be,
Ne clerke take ordere in no degré,
Ne mayde mared in no cuntré,
Without trebeut in the kyng dangere.
I pra you, seris, al in fere,
Worchip Seynt Thomas, this holé marter.

5. Thus Holé Cherche he mad fre;
Fore fyfté poyntis he dyed, treuly;
In heven worchipt mot he be,
And fader and moder him gete and bere!
I pra you, seris, al in fere,
Worchip Seynt Thomas, this holé marter.

This is a carol from the manuscript of John Audelay's poems.  Of the English carols in honour of Thomas Becket, this is still my favourite and this one is also more intricate than Audelay's (and still has its music), but this is still interesting.  Here's a translation:

I pray you, sirs, all together, honour Saint Thomas, this holy martyr.

1. For on a Tuesday Thomas was born, and on a Tuesday he was ordained as a priest, and on a Tuesday, his life was lost, and he suffered martyrdom with a gentle spirit.

2. It was all for the sake of Holy Church; else we would all have sung 'alas', and the child then unborn would have paid sorely for it!

3. Wherever priests were in prison, he freed them, so that no cleric should be hanged, but only heretics or traitors, if any such there were.

4. At that time no child could be christened, and no cleric ordained, nor maiden married in any place, without paying tribute under the king's jurisdiction.

5. Thus he made Holy Church free; he died for the sake of fifty points.  May he be honoured in heaven, and the father and mother who conceived and bore him!


The 'fifty points' were a list of legislative points to which St Thomas refused to give his assent, since he saw them as giving the king too much control over the church.  Richard Greene notes that the importance of these 'fifty (or fifty-two) points' was long remembered, and became a subject of contention again at the time of the Reformation.  He recounts a story about William Umpton, who was imprisoned in the Tower in 1532 because when someone mentioned to him that Thomas Becket had died for 52 points concerning the commonwealth, Umpton replied the "52 points were a dance called Robin Hood" (i.e. nonsense).  The other man asked him if he would compare Robin Hood with St Thomas, to which Umpton replied asking why St Thomas was a saint and not Robin Hood?  And for this he was accused of heresy...

Friday, 28 December 2012

Twelve Days of Carols, 3: 'Come kiss thy mother, dear'



In honour of Christ's birth
Sing we all with joy and mirth.


In this time of Christmas,
Betwixt an ox and an ass,
A maiden delivered was
Of Christ, her dear Son dear.

The husband of Mary,
Saint Joseph, stood her by
And said he was ready
To serve her if need were.

When she did her dear Son see,
She set him on her knee
And sang, 'Hither, to me -
Come kiss thy mother, dear.'

On her lap she him laid,
And with her breast he played,
And ever sang the maid,
'Come kiss thy mother, dear.'

With lips touching his
His mouth oft she did kiss
And said, 'Sweetheart mine,
I pray you, make good cheer!'

To this child let us pray
That born was on this day
Of Mary, the mild may,
To grant us all good cheer.


This is a carol from the middle of the sixteenth century, from an early printed book called 'Christmas carolles newly imprinted'. It doesn't have any music in the book, nor do I know if it's been set by any modern composer, so here's a roughly contemporary piece on the same subject, Richard Pygott's 'Quid petis, O fili':




And the unmodernised carol:

In the honour of Christes byrth
Syng we al with joye and myrthe.


In thys tyme of Chrystmas,
Bytwyxte an oxe and an asse,
A mayden delyuered was
Of Christ, her dere Son dere.

The husbande of Mary,
[Saint] Joseph, stoode her by
And sayde he was ready
To serue her if nede were.

When she her deare Sonne se,
She set him on her kne
And song, 'Hydder to me -
Cum basse thy mother, deare.’

On her lap she him layde,
And with her pappe he playde,
And euer sang the mayde,
‘Come basse thy mother, dere.’

With lyppes collyng [his]
His mouth ofte she dyd kysse
And sayd, ‘Sweetehert myne,
I pray you, make good chere.’

To thys chylde let vs pray
That borne was on this day
Of Mary, the mylde may,
To graunt vs all good chere.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

In Tenebris III: 'The world was a welter of futile doing'

William Walcot, London in Winter


Just to have something that isn't about Christmas... This completes the sequence of Thomas Hardy poems beginning with In Tenebris I and II.  All three are deeply moving poems (II, in particular, just breaks my heart), which is why it's taken me more than a year to post all of them, but this one does at least have glimpses of happiness amid the gloom, three vignettes of joy or peace, swiftly and skilfully conjured up.  And as a bonus, this poem also shows Hardy's alliterative skill at its best.


In Tenebris III

"Heu mihi, quia incolatus meus prolongatus est! Habitavi cum habitantibus Cedar; multum incola fuit anima mea." - Ps. cxix
["Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar! My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace." - Psalm 120:5-6]

There have been times when I well might have passed and the ending have come--
Points in my path when the dark might have stolen on me, artless, unrueing,
Ere I had learnt that the world was a welter of futile doing:
Such had been times when I well might have passed, and the ending have come!

Say, on the noon when the half-sunny hours told that April was nigh,
And I upgathered and cast forth the snow from the crocus-border,
Fashioned and furbished the soil into a summer-seeming order,
Glowing in gladsome faith that I quickened the year thereby.

Or on that loneliest of eves when afar and benighted we stood,
She who upheld me and I, in the midmost of Egdon together,
Confident I in her watching and ward through the blackening heather,
Deeming her matchless in might and with measureless scope endued.

Or on that winter-wild night when, reclined by the chimney-nook quoin,
Slowly a drowse overgat me, the smallest and feeblest of folk there,
Weak from my baptism of pain; when at times and anon I awoke there--
Heard of a world wheeling on, with no listing or longing to join.

Even then! while unweeting that vision could vex or that knowledge could numb,
That sweets to the mouth in the belly are bitter, and tart, and untoward,
Then, on some dim-coloured scene should my briefly raised curtain have lowered,
Then might the Voice that is law have said "Cease!" and the ending have come.

Twelve Days of Carols, 2: The Sun of Grace


All the merrier is that place,
The sun of grace him shineth in.


1. The sun of grace him shineth in
On a day when it was morrow,
When our Lord God born was,
Without sin or sorrow.

2. The sun of grace him shineth in
On a day when it was Prime,
When our Lord God born was,
So well he knew his time.

3. The sun of grace him shineth in
On a day when it was Undern.
When our Lord God born was,
And to the heart stungen. [pierced]

4. The sun of grace him shineth in
On a day when it was None,
When our Lord God born was,
And on the rood done. [put to death]




This carol immediately appealed to me when I first saw it, mostly because the refrain is so pretty.  It's somewhat difficult to parse, but the general idea is clear enough, so for once let's not worry about the grammar.  The carol is from the manuscript Sloane 2593, home of many now-famous carols including 'Adam lay ibounden', 'Lullay myn lykyng', 'I syng of a mayden', etc.  It has something of the folk-song about it, making use of the repetition you find in counting songs and game songs.  There are plenty of such songs from the Middle Ages on both secular and sacred subjects; this carol probably fits in best somewhere between the 'Seven Joys of Mary' songs and 'Tomorrow shall be my dancing day', which also tell the story of Christ's life from birth to death in an incremental, repetition-with-variation kind of way.

The frame for the counting in this case is provided by the canonical hours for the morning from Matins ('morrow') to midday - nicely aligning the 'sun of grace' with the sun rising through the day.  In the modernised version above I've swapped round the last two verses from the original (which you can see below) because I think it makes more sense that way: the last line means 'died on the cross', and so really should come before 'pierced to the heart'.  It's not clear whether 'non' means noon (the sixth hour) or None (the ninth hour), and 'undern' can refer either to Tierce (the third hour) or midday/noon.  But again, you get the general idea.



Al the meryere is that place,
The sunne of grace hym schynit in.

1. The sunne of grace hym schynit in
In on day quan it was mor[we],
Quan our Lord God born was,
Withoute wem or sorwe.

2. The sunne of grace hym schynit in
On a day quan it was pryme,
Quan our Lord God born was,
So wel he knew his tyme.

3. The sunne of grace hym schynit in,
On a day quan it was non,
Quan our Lord God born was,
And on the rode don.

4. The sunne of grace hym schynit in,
On a day quan it was undy[rn].
Quan our Lord God born was,
And to the herte stongyn.


I was writing this post yesterday when I came across George Herbert's poem 'Christmas', the first part of which I posted yesterday. This is the second part:

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n His beams sing, and my music shine.


'A willing shiner' is such an odd, and yet lovely way to describe the 'sun of grace'!  I think 'outsing the daylight hours' must also be in part a reference to the canonical hours our medieval poet made the basis for his carol, which makes this a particularly serendipitous discovery.  At the end of Herbert's poem there is a fusion of sound and light: the sun sings, and the poet's music shines.  Sometimes a single word can highlight a thought like a laser-beam, like a shaft of sunlight, and today's word is shine - appearing four times in Herbert's last six lines, and the key word of the carol.  I wonder what it means.


The pictures in this post are from the church of St Mary the Virgin at the tiny village of Lydden, near Dover in Kent. I stopped at the church, unplanned, on the way somewhere else, one winter's day early last January, when the frost-nipped sun of grace was shining in as gladly as one could desire.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

George Herbert, 'Christmas'

All after pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray,
I took up in the next inn I could find.

There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, ready there
To be all passengers' most sweet relief?

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging then a rack or grave.

Twelve Days of Carols, 1: Welcome, Yule

It may be Boxing Day, but I haven't begun to exhaust the supply of carols I had wanted to post this year - and so I think I'll post a carol for each of the twelve days of Christmas. I missed the first day because this bright idea only occurred to me about half an hour ago, but we'll keep going until Epiphany day and that will give us twelve in all...

And so, this is the fifteenth-century carol 'Welcum, Yole', which bids welcome to each of the twelve days of Christmas:

Welcum, Yole, in glod aray,
In worchip of the holeday!


Welcum be thou, Heven Kyng,
Welcum, ibore in hon mornyng,
Welcum, to thee now wil we syng;
Welcum, Yole, forever and ay!

Welcum be thou, Mare myld,
Welcum be thou and thi child,
Welcum, fro the fynd thou us schilde;
Welcum, Yole, forever and ay!

Welcum be ye, Steven and Jone,
Welcum, childern everechone,
Wellcum, Thomas marter, alle on;
Welcum, Yole, forever and ay!

Welcum be thou, good New Yere,
Welcum, the xii days efere,
Welcum be ye all that bene here;
Welcum, Yole, forever and ay!

Welcum be ye, lord and lady,
Welcum be ye, al this cumpane,
Fore Yolis love, now makis mere!
Welcum, Yole, forever and ay!


This carol survives in the sole manuscript which preserves the carols of John Audelay (Bodleian MS. Douce 302), and so might be by him, though it's not really in his style. It serves as an introduction to a series of carols for each of the feast-days after Christmas - Stephen, John, the Holy Innocents, Thomas Becket, and the Circumcision of Christ. Audelay seems to have been a methodical fellow! You can read all the carols here.

This is Parry's setting of 'Welcum, Yole', sung with irresistable glee:




A modernised version of the text:

Welcome, Yule, in glad array,
In honour of the holy day!

Welcome be thou, Heavenly King,
Welcome, born in one morning,
Welcome, to thee now will we sing;
Welcome, Yule, forever and ay!

Welcome be thou, Mary mild,
Welcome be thou and thy child,
Welcome, from the fiend thou us shield;
Welcome, Yule, forever and ay!

Welcome be ye, Steven and John,
Welcome, children every one,
Welcome, Thomas martyr alone;
Welcome, Yule, forever and ay!

Welcome be thou, good New Year,
Welcome, the twelve days in fere, [all together]
Welcome be ye all that be here;
Welcome, Yule, forever and ay!

Welcome be ye, lord and lady,
Welcome be ye, all this company,
For Yule's love, now make merry!
Welcome, Yule, forever and ay!

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

On Christmas-Day

On Christmas-Day
Thomas Traherne

Shall Dumpish Melancholy spoil my Joys
While Angels sing
And Mortals ring
My Lord and Saviour's Praise?
Awake from Sloth, for that alone destroys;
'Tis Sin defiles, 'tis Sloth puts out thy Joys.
See how they run from place to place,
And seek for Ornaments of Grace;
Their Houses deckt with sprightly Green,
In Winter makes a Summer seen;
They Bays and Holly bring
As if 'twere Spring!

Shake off thy Sloth, my drouzy Soul, awake;
With Angels sing
Unto thy King,
And pleasant Musick make;
Thy Lute, thy Harp, or else thy Heart-strings take,
And with thy Musick let thy Sense awake.
See how each one the other calls
To fix his Ivy on the walls,
Transplanted there it seems to grow
As if it rooted were below:
Thus He, who is thy King,
Makes Winter, Spring.

Shall Houses clad in Summer-Liveries
His Praises sing
And laud thy King,
And wilt not thou arise?
Forsake thy Bed, and grow (my Soul) more wise,
Attire thy self in cheerful Liveries:
Let pleasant Branches still be seen
Adorning thee, both quick and green;
And, which with Glory better suits,
Be laden all the Year with Fruits;
Inserted into Him,
For ever spring.

'Tis He that Life and Spirit doth infuse:
Let ev'ry thing
The Praises sing
Of Christ the King of Jews;
Who makes things green, and with a Spring infuse
A Season which to see it doth not use:
Old Winter's Frost and hoary hair,
With Garland's crowned, Bays doth wear;
The nipping Frost of Wrath being gone,
To Him the Manger made a Throne,
Due Praises let us sing,
Winter and Spring.

See how, their Bodies clad with finer Clothes,
They now begin
His Praise to sing
Who purchas'd their Repose:
Whereby their inward Joy they do disclose;
Their Dress alludes to better Works than those:
His gayer Weeds and finer Band,
New Suit and Hat, into his hand
The Plow-man takes; his neatest Shoes,
And warmer Gloves, he means to use:
And shall not I, my King,
Thy Praises sing?

See how their Breath doth smoke, and how they haste
His Praise to sing
With Cherubim;
They scarce a Break-fast taste;
But through the Streets, lest precious Time should waste,
When Service doth begin, to Church they haste.
And shall not I, Lord, come to Thee,
The Beauty of thy Temple see?
Thy Name with Joy I will confess,
Clad in my Saviour's Righteousness;
‘Mong all thy Servants sing
To Thee my King.

'Twas thou that gav'st us Cause for fine Attires;
Ev'n thou, O King,
As in the Spring,
Dost warm us with thy fires
Of Love: Thy Blood hath bought us new Desires
Thy Righteousness doth clothe with new Attires.
Made fresh and fine let me appear
This Day divine, to close the Year;
Among the rest let me be seen
A living Branch and always green,
Think it a pleasant thing
Thy Praise to sing.

At break of Day, O how the Bells did ring!
To thee, my King,
The Bells did ring;
To thee the Angels sing:
Thy Goodness did produce this other Spring,
For this it is they make the Bells to ring:
The sounding Bells do through the Air
Proclaim thy Welcome far and near;
While I alone with Thee inherit
All these Joys, beyond my Merit.
Who would not always sing
To such a King?

I all these Joys, above my Merit, see
By Thee, my King,
To whom I sing,
Entire convey'd to me.
My Treasure, Lord, thou mak'st thy Peeple be
That I with pleasure might thy Servants see.
Ev'n in their rude external ways
They do set forth my Savior's Praise,
And minister a Light to me;
While I by them do hear to Thee
Praises, my Lord and King,
Whole Churches ring.

Hark how remoter Parishes do sound!
Far off they ring
For thee, my King,
Ev'n round about the Town:
The Churches scatter'd over all the Ground
Serve for thy Praise, who art with Glory crown'd.
This City is an Engine great
That makes my Pleasure more complete;
The Sword, the Mace, the Magistrate,
To honor Thee attend in State;
The whole Assembly sings;
The Minster rings.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Good day, Sir Christmas!

Good day, good day,
My lord Sir Christemas, good day!

Good day, Sir Christemas, our king,
For every man, both old and young,
Is glad and blithe for your coming;
Good day!

God's son so great of might
From heaven to earth down is alight
And born is of a maid so bright;
Good day!

Heaven and earth and also hell,
And all that ever in them dwell,
Of your coming they are full snelle; [glad, excited]
Good day!

Of your coming the clerks find:
Ye come to save all mankind
And of their sorrows them unbind;
Good day!

All manner of mirths we will make
And solace to our hearts take,
My noble lord, for your sake;
Good day!


To me this carol just pure joy from beginning to end, one of the merriest of all medieval carols! It comes from the 'Selden carol-book' (now part of Bodleian Library MS. Arch. Selden B. 26); here's a picture of the page with this carol and its music.

This collection of carols was put together in the fifteenth century, probably at the cathedral priory at Worcester, "a house where there was much carolling", according to Richard Greene.  I love his description of merry times at Worcester in the Middle Ages:

William More, last prior of Worcester, gave a Christmas feast every year to officials of the city; among the most frequent items of expense in the years 1518 to 1532 are malmsey and other wines, minstrels and other entertainers, and singers of carols. It is plain that all of these are regarded as regular components of a large holiday dinner for which a whole ox was bought...

Those who would put churchmen and popular merry song into separate worlds are advised to look further into these good times at Worcester Priory, not to mention the entertainments paid for through many decades at Selby Abbey in Yorkshire, Winchester College, and Magdalen College, Oxford, and through almost three centuries at Durham Priory. Fountains Abbey appears to have been both hospitable and generous to entertainers, distinguishing in its accounting among minstrels, fools, players, and ‘fabulatores’, or story-tellers.
Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977), p.xl.

Worcester's accounts of expenses at Christmas suggest that manuscripts like the Selden carol-book were added to when the monks learned new carols from visitors.  Greene notes that in 1518 a scribe called Richard was paid for writing down new carols - rewarded with an unusually large sum of money, overtime rates for working on Christmas Day!

This is the carol in unmodernised form:

Go day, go day,
My lord Syre Christemas, go day!

Go day, Syre Christemas, our kyng,
For every man, both olde & yynge,
Ys glad & blithe of your comynge;
Go day!

Godys sone so moche of myght
Fram heven to erthe doun is lyght
And borne ys of a mayde so bryght;
Good day!

Heven & erthe & also helle,
And alle that ever in hem dwelle,
Of your comynge they beth ful snelle;
Good day!

Of your comynge this clerkys fynde:
Ye come to save al mankynde
And of her balys hem unbynde;
Good day!

Alle maner of merthes we wole make
And solas to oure hertys take,
My semely lorde, for your sake;
Good day!


I can't resist including some images of medieval merriment, from the British Library's Queen Mary Psalter.  What might you have at a medieval Christmas celebration?  Well, feasting:




Musicians:




Dancing:



Games:



This is the game of bob-cherry!

Dancing monks and nuns:




And some more unusual musicians, perhaps?:






See also: Farewell, Advent, Christmas is come!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Mary and Gabriel


Mary and Gabriel

Young Mary, loitering once her garden way,
Felt a warm splendour grow in the April day,
As wine that blushes water through. And soon,
Out of the gold air of the afternoon,
One knelt before her: hair he had, or fire,
Bound back above his ears with golden wire,
Baring the eager marble of his face.
Not man's nor woman's was the immortal grace
Rounding the limbs beneath that robe of white,
And lighting the proud eyes with changeless light,
Incurious. Calm as his wings, and fair,
That presence filled the garden.
She stood there,
Saying, "What would you, Sir?" He told his word,
"Blessed art thou of women!" Half she heard,
Hands folded and face bowed, half long had known,
The message of that clear and holy tone,
That fluttered hot sweet sobs about her heart;
Such serene tidings moved such human smart.
Her breath came quick as little flakes of snow.
Her hands crept up her breast. She did but know
It was not hers. She felt a trembling stir
Within her body, a will too strong for her
That held and filled and mastered all. With eyes
Closed, and a thousand soft short broken sighs,
She gave submission; fearful, meek, and glad...

She wished to speak. Under her breasts she had
Such multitudinous burnings, to and fro,
And throbs not understood; she did not know
If they were hurt or joy for her; but only
That she was grown strange to herself, half lonely,
All wonderful, filled full of pains to come
And thoughts she dare not think, swift thoughts and dumb,
Human, and quaint, her own, yet very far,
Divine, dear, terrible, familiar...
Her heart was faint for telling; to relate
Her limbs' sweet treachery, her strange high estate,
Over and over, whispering, half revealing,
Weeping; and so find kindness to her healing.
'Twixt tears and laughter, panic hurrying her,
She raised her eyes to that fair messenger.
He knelt unmoved, immortal; with his eyes
Gazing beyond her, calm to the calm skies;
Radiant, untroubled in his wisdom, kind.
His sheaf of lilies stirred not in the wind.
How should she, pitiful with mortality,
Try the wide peace of that felicity
With ripples of her perplexed shaken heart,
And hints of human ecstasy, human smart,
And whispers of the lonely weight she bore,
And how her womb within was hers no more
And at length hers? Being tired, she bowed her head;
And said, "So be it!" The great wings were spread
Showering glory on the fields, and fire.
The whole air, singing, bore him up, and higher,
Unswerving, unreluctant. Soon he shone
A gold speck in the gold skies; then was gone.

The air was colder, and grey. She stood alone.


Rupert Brooke


The painting is Waterhouse's 'The Annunciation', and though I always think of Waterhouse as such a Victorian painter, the picture is actually later than the poem; the painting dates to 1914, the poem to Autumn 1912, when Brooke was 25 years old.

I find this poem interesting, because as far as I know it's Rupert Brooke's only poem on an explicitly Christian subject (there are, however, several about his scepticism towards religion). I've spent some time this Advent with Edwin Muir's poem 'The Angel and the Girl', written in the late 1940s.  Muir's wonderful poem was inspired by seeing a depiction of the Annunciation in Rome, which he described thus:
An angel and a young girl, their bodies inclined towards each other, their knees bent as if they were overcome by love, 'tutto tremante', gazed upon each other like Dante's pair; and that representation of a human love so intense that it could not reach farther seemed the perfect earthly symbol of the love that passes understanding.
The gaze in Muir's poem is an expression of communing love, powerful, but mutual; Brooke imagines something a little less comfortable.  Even so, I like Brooke's description of how Mary's body becomes strange to her, both a sensation of joy and a sudden, exhausting loneliness; it seems to approach nearer to an understanding of a woman's experience of pregnancy than one might expect from a young man!  But it's also true that it's characteristic of Brooke's attitude to the human body in all his poetry - it's always something strange about it, and it is at the same time ugly and beautiful.  As for the angel, impassive and unapproachable, 'radiant, untroubled in his wisdom, kind', this is a Gabriel exactly like the girls of Brooke's love poems; it especially reminds me of 'Dining-Room Tea', with the sudden glimpse of the lover 'august, immortal, white,/ Holy and strange'.

This both amuses and intrigues me; I wonder if it's inevitable that poets imagine this scene in reference to their own experience of human love...

Friday, 21 December 2012

O Oriens, O Earendel: Tolkien and the Daystar

Christ within a star, from a medieval English Psalter (Harley 1688)


This is an extract from an anonymous Old English poetic version of the O antiphons, known as the 'Advent lyrics' or as Christ I, written some time before the tenth century; this is 'O Oriens', addressed to the Daystar.

Eala earendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended,
ond soðfæsta sunnan leoma,
torht ofer tunglas, þu tida gehwane
of sylfum þe symle inlihtes!
Swa þu, god of gode gearo acenned,
sunu soþan fæder, swegles in wuldre
butan anginne æfre wære,
swa þec nu for þearfum þin agen geweorc
bideð þurh byldo, þæt þu þa beorhtan us
sunnan onsende, ond þe sylf cyme
þæt ðu inleohte þa þe longe ær,
þrosme beþeahte ond in þeostrum her,
sæton sinneahtes; synnum bifealdne
deorc deaþes sceadu dreogan sceoldan.
Nu we hyhtfulle hælo gelyfað
þurh þæt word godes weorodum brungen,
þe on frymðe wæs fæder ælmihtigum
efenece mid god, ond nu eft gewearð
flæsc firena leas, þæt seo fæmne gebær
geomrum to geoce. God wæs mid us
gesewen butan synnum; somod eardedon
mihtig meotudes bearn ond se monnes sunu
geþwære on þeode. We þæs þonc magon
secgan sigedryhtne symle bi gewyrhtum,
þæs þe he hine sylfne us sendan wolde.



O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.


O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.


Here's my translation of the Old English; I tried to make it a little bit poetic as well as accurate.

O Earendel, brightest of angels,
sent to mankind over middle-earth,
righteous sun's radiance,
splendid above all stars! Of thine own self
thou ever enlightenest every age.
As thou, God born of God long ago,
Son of the true Father, eternally existed
without beginning in the glory of heaven,
so thine own creation cry with confidence
to thee now for their needs, that thou send
that bright sun to us, and come thyself
to lighten those who long have lived,
surrounded by shadows and darkness, here
in everlasting night; who, shrouded by sins,
have had to endure death's dark shadow.

Now, hope-filled, we look for healing,
brought to the world's people through the word of God,
who was in the beginning with the almighty Father
equally eternal with God, and now became
flesh, free of failings, born of the virgin,
a support to the sorrowful. God was with us,
seen without sin; together dwelt
the mighty Measurer's child and the son of man,
at peace among the people. We may ever address
our thanks to the lord of victory for his deeds,
because he chose to send himself to us.


J. R. R. Tolkien came across this poem as an undergraduate at Oxford, around 1913, and it gave him the name 'Earendel' which he came to use in his own mythology ('middle-earth' is there too, as you can see).  Later in his life he wrote of how encountering the first few lines of this poem produced "a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words."  He explained his understanding of the name's appearance in this poem:

I was struck by the great beauty of this word (or name), entirely coherent with the normal style of A[nglo]-S[axon], but euphonic to a peculiar degree in that pleasing but not 'delectable' language. Also its form strongly suggests that it is in origin a proper name and not a common noun. This is borne out by the obviously related forms in other Germanic languages; from which amid the confusions and debasements of late traditions it at least seems certain that it belonged to astronomical-myth, and was the name of a star or star-group. To my mind the A-S uses seem plainly to indicate that it was a star presaging the dawn (at any rate in the English tradition): that is what we now call Venus: the morning-star as it may be seen rising brilliantly in the dawn, before the actual rising of the Sun. That is at any rate how I took it. Before 1914 I wrote a 'poem' upon Earendel who launched his ship like a bright spark from the havens of the Sun. I adopted him into my mythology - in which he became a prime figure as a mariner, and eventually as a herald star, and a sign of hope to men.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Two Carols about Roses

Heaven and earth in little space (BL Stowe 16, f. 120)

Following on from my post the other day about the root of Jesse, let's have some more medieval flower carols. These two are both fairly well-known, having been set to music by a number of modern composers, and they're both beautiful.

First, 'There is no rose':

There is no rose of swich vertu
As is the rose that bare Jhesu.


There is no rose of swich vertu
As is the rose that bare Jhesu.
Alleluia.

For in this rose conteynyd was
Heven and erthe in lytyl space,
Res miranda.

Be that rose we may weel see
That he is God in personys three,
Pari forma.

The aungelys sungyn the shepherdes to
'Gloria in excelcis Deo.'
Gaudeamus.

Leve we all this wordly merthe,
And folwe we this joyful berthe;
Transeamus.

This is a carol from the first half of the fifteenth century. The principal manuscript is now almost unreadable in places, so transcriptions vary; the above is Richard Greene's version, from A Selection of English Carols (Oxford, 1962), p. 107. That manuscript is actually a roll (Cambridge, Trinity College O.3.58) - three pieces of vellum stitched together to form a strip six feet long. It contains thirteen carols, including one celebrating Henry V's victory at Agincourt in 1415; there's a list of them all here. You can hear a number of the carols in this video of the group Alamire recording the carols for a recent album.

'There is no rose' is one of the best-known medieval carols, but I had sung and heard it many times before appreciating some of its key features: first, that some of the Latin phrases ('res miranda' and 'pari forma') come from the Sequence for Christmas, 'Laetabundus', and secondly, that the virtue of the rose/Mary in the first line is not just 'goodness, purity', as I had always assumed, but a particular kind of power, the special healing power of a plant. (Think of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales: 'Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour...') The Middle English Dictionary entry for vertu makes interesting reading in conjunction with this carol; the sense here blends several of the word's potential meanings, 'the quickening power of a flower or root; the life-sustaining force within a plant; the vegetative power of nature', 'divine power, divine might', and 'moral excellence, goodness'. 'There is no rose of such power' would really be a better translation.

Mary is often connected with the rose; medieval English examples include 'Blessed Mary, mother virginal' (where Mary is called 'red rose of Jericho') and 'Now shrinketh rose and lily-flower' (where she is imagined as a healer with sweet-smelling herbs), and for a non-English example there's always 'Es ist ein Ros entsprungen'. The particular appeal of the metaphor in this carol, I think, is encapsulated in the verse 'in this rose contained was / heaven and earth in little space'; it conjures up an image of the closely-packed petals of a rosebud, which contains so much in so tiny a space, so perfectly arranged.

There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bore Jesu.


There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bore Jesu.
Alleluia.

For in this rose contained was
Heaven and earth in little space;
A marvellous thing!

By that rose we may truly see
That he is God in persons three,
Equal in form.

The angels sang to the shepherds
'Glory to God in the highest';
Let us rejoice!

Let us leave all this worldly mirth,
And follow this joyful birth;
Let us go!

This is the music which appears in the manuscript:



And settings by some modern composers, John Joubert:



Benjamin Britten:



And I came across this on Youtube, by Z. Randall Stroope:



Our second 'rose' carol is 'Of a rose, a lovely rose':

Of a rose, a lovely rose, 
Of a rose is al myn song.

Lestenyt, lordynges, both elde and yinge,
How this rose began to sprynge;
Swych a rose to myn lykynge
         In al this word ne knowe I non.

The Aungil came fro hevene tour,
To grete Marye with gret honour,
And seyde sche xuld bere the flour
         That xulde breke the fyndes bond.

The flour sprong in heye Bedlem,
That is bothe bryht and schen:
The rose is Mary hevene qwyn,
         Out of here bosum the blosme sprong.

The ferste braunche is ful of myht,
That sprang on Cyrstemesse nyht,
The sterre schon over Bedlem bryht
         That is bothe brod and long.

The secunde braunche sprong to helle,
The fendys power doun to felle:
Therein myht non sowle dwelle;
         Blyssid be the time the rose sprong!

The thredde braunche is good and swote,
It sprang to hevene crop and rote,
Therein to dwellyn and ben our bote;
         Every day it schewit in prystes hond.

Prey we to here with gret honour,
Che that bar the blyssid flowr,
Che be our helpe and our socour
         And schyd us fro the fyndes bond.

This is John Rutter's setting:



A modernised version:

Of a rose, a lovely rose,
Of a rose is all my song.

Listen, lords, both old and young,
How this rose began to spring;
Such a rose to my lykynge [delight]
In all this world never knew I none.

The angel came from heaven's tower,
To greet Mary with great honour,
And said she would bear the flower
That would break the fiend's bonds.

The flower sprung in high Bethlem,
It is both bright and shen: [fair]
The rose is Mary, heavenly queen,
Out of her bosom the blossom sprung.

The first branch is full of might,
It sprung on Christmas night,
The star shone over Bethlem bright
Which is both broad and long.

The second branch sprung to hell,
The fiend's power down to fell:
Therein could no soul dwell; [no soul had to remain there]
Blessed be the time the rose sprung!

The third branch is good and sweet,
It sprang to heaven, crop and root,
Therein to dwell and be our bote; [redemption]
Every day it appears in the priest's hand.

Pray we to her with great honour,
She who bore the blessed flower,
May she be our help and our succour
And shield us from the fiend's bonds.

This is a fifteenth-century carol which survives in a number of manuscripts with slightly differing versions; some have verses which go up to five 'branches', representing the Five Joys of Mary. This version is from a collection of carols, Bodleian Library MS. Eng. poet. e. 1. The bote of the penultimate verse means 'redemption, remedy' but, when offered by a plant, also has overtones of healing, medicine, and cure - of vertu.

Virgin and Child (BL Royal 1 D I, f. 272)

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The O Antiphons as Medieval Carols: O Root of Jesse, O Key of David


O radix Jesse supplices
Te nos inuocamus;
Veni vt nos liberes
Quem iam expectamus.

O radix Jesse supplices
Te nos inuocamus;
Veni vt nos liberes
Quem iam expectamus.


O of Jesse thow holy rote,
That to thi pepill arte syker merke,
We calle to the; be thow oure bote,
In the that we gronde all owre werke.

Thy laude ys exalted by lordes and kynges;
No man to prayse the may suffice;
Off the spryngith vertu and all gode thynges;
Come and delyuere vs fro owre malice.

Off the may no malice growe,
That thou thyselue arte pure godenesse;
In the be rotedde what we showe,
And graunte ows blisse after owre decesse.


O clavis Dauid inclita
Dans viam in portis,
O clavis Dauid inclita,
Dans viam in portis,
Educ nos de carcere,
Educ nos de carcere
Et de vmbra mortis.


O Dauid, thow nobell key,
Cepter of the howse of Israell,
Thow opyn the gate and geff vs way,
Thou open the gate and geff vs way,
And saue vs fro owre fendys felle.

We be in prison; vn vs haue mynde,
And lose vs fro the bonde of synne,
For that thou losest no man may bynde,
For that thou losest no man may bynde,
And that thou losest no man may bynde.

Lord, bowe thyn yere; to the we calle;
Delyuere thou vs fro wyckednesse,
And bryng vs to thy joyfull halle,
And bryng vs to thy joyfull halle
Where euer ys lyff withowten desstresse.

Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), p. 1.

These two Middle English carols date to the late 15th century, and represent two of the Advent O Antiphons: 'O radix Jesse' and 'O clavis David'. In the church generally, these antiphons are used on the 19th and 20th December respectively; in medieval English usage, one day ahead, they belonged to the 18th and 19th.

Like 'Marvel not, Joseph', these carols are from the Ritson Manuscript (British Library Additional MS. 5665). Both are accompanied by music set for two and three voices, attributed in the manuscript to Richard Smert (who was rector of Plymtree, near Exeter, from 1435-1477) and John Trouluffe. Of the two, 'O clavis David' sticks more closely to the original text, though neither is a straightforward translation: if you compare the Latin refrains with the antiphons (below) you'll see how both have been adapted to fit the rhyming form of a carol burden. 'O radix Jesse' is particularly interesting, because it plays with the plant imagery of the 'root', asking Christ to help us 'root' and 'ground' our works in him, talking of how all good things 'spring' from him, and nothing bad can 'grow' from that root. It talks of Christ as the source of vertu, a Middle English word which means 'power' more than 'virtue' in the sense of goodness; here it refers to the life-giving power of a plant, its healing sap, and thus the quickening force which runs through all the natural world. (Compare 'There is no rose of such virtue'.) It's life in the fullest and most powerful sense - in this context, the force of life springing from the stem of Jesse, in which the carol prays that we may be rooted and with which we may be infused.

Modernised versions of the two carols:

O root of Jesse, humbly
we pray to thee;
Come and deliver us
who now wait for thee.
(repeat)


O of Jesse thou holy root,
Who to thy people art a sure token,
We call to thee; be thou our bote, ['healing and redemption']
That we may ground all our works in thee.

Thy laud is exalted by lords and kings;
No man to praise thee may suffice;
Of thee springeth vertu and all good things;
Come and deliver us from our malice. [this means both 'suffering' and 'sin' - all 'bad things' generally]

Of thee may no malice grow,
Since thou thyself art pure goodness;
May what we bring forth be rooted in thee,
And grant us bliss after our decease.


O glorious key of David,
giving entrance through the gates;
O glorious key of David,
giving entrance through the gates;
Bring us out of prison
Bring us out of prison
and of the shadow of death.


O David, thou noble key,
Sceptre of the house of Israel,
Open thou the gate and show us the way,
Open thou the gate and show us the way,
And save us from our enemies fell.

We are in prison; to us give mind,
And loose us from the bond of sin,
For what thou loosest no man may bind,
For what thou loosest no man may bind,
And that thou loosest no man may bind.
[this last line is an error in copying; Richard Greene suggests the correct reading may be ‘And what thou bindest may no man twynne’, i.e. separate]

Lord, bow thine ear; to thee we call;
Deliver thou us from wickedness,
And bring us to thy joyful hall,
And bring us to thy joyful hall,
Where ever is life without distress.

For comparison, here are the Latin antiphons:



O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

(O Root of Jesse, who stands as a sign for the peoples;
before whom kings will shut their mouths,
to whom the nations will make their prayer;
come to deliver us, do not delay.)



O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

(O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
who opens, and no one can shut;
shuts, and no one can open:
come, and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.)

The O Antiphons still capture the imagination today, just as they did for the people who wrote and sang these carols in medieval England. They're perhaps the most evocative of all the many forms of countdown to Christmas which the church and the secular world have given us, full of meaning and richness. My favourite piece of evidence for the importance of these antiphons in medieval monasteries is this (which I got from here via this blog):

The right of intoning one of the O Antiphons was jealously limited by immemorial custom to certain higher officers in the community and each of these great functionaries had his own appropriate antiphon. In most monasteries, the antiphon O Sapientia (O Wisdom) was reserved to the Abbot and O Adonai to the Prior. Some antiphons were intoned by the obedientiary or functionary most closely associated with the theme of the antiphon: O Radix Jesse was reserved to the gardener, O Clavis David to the cellarer whose duty it was to keep things under lock and key, and O Rex Gentium to the infirmarian, since the antiphon contained the clause, "Come and save (or heal) man whom you have formed out of clay."

This splendid combination of the earthly and the heavenly illustrates, to me, just how much wit, creativity and sheer life there was in medieval religion, at its best - something these carols also bring out.

Besides being two of the O antiphons, these carols have a further link because they invoke two of the ancestors of Christ, Jesse and David. If you look at a Tree of Jesse, an invention of medieval art, you will always see Jesse and his son David together; I wonder if that link was why these two antiphons were translated, and not the others (though there may of course have been carol versions of those which don't survive). Here are my two favourite medieval Jesses and Davids - first from Canterbury Cathedral (restored):



And from Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire:


Jesse is sleeping at the bottom of the window, and to one side is David with his harp:


Dorchester's window is a unique 14th-century composition which combines carved stone and stained glass; here's a picture of the whole thing.

You might think that the complexities of Biblical genealogy would have principally a learned appeal, but it was not only the monks of Canterbury and Dorchester Abbey who took pleasure in tracing the tree of Jesse - there's also a mystery play on the subject, from the East Anglian 'N-town' cycle. This play is a series of dramatic monologues in which each of the ancestors of Christ, accompanied by Old Testament prophets, steps forward in turn to give a short speech about themselves. Here are Jesse and David's:

JESSE: A blessed branch shall spring of me
Which shall be sweeter than balm's breath.
Out of that branch in Nazareth
A flower shall bloom of me, Jesse Root,
The which by grace shall destroy death
And bring mankind to bliss most sweet.

DAVID: I am David of Jesse's Root,
The valiant king by natural succession.
And of my blood shall spring our bote
As God himself hath made promission: [has promised]
Of regal life shall come such foyson [grace]
That a clean maid a mother shall be,
Against the Devil's false illusion,
With royal power to make man free.

The whole thing is here.

In previous years I've never given much thought to the idea of the 'root of Jesse'; my inclination in Advent is always to turn to metaphors of light in darkness, the rising sun, the daystar. But throughout this year flowers and roots and the life-force that drives them have been clustering together in my thoughts, from George Herbert's 'Flowers that glide' and the daffodils of Iffley to Lammas flush and the treacle balm at Binsey. It's interesting to compare the traditional imagery of the Root of Jesse, the healing plant 'sweeter than balm's breath', with Langland's description in Piers Plowman (Passus I, 148-58) of the incarnation as love overflowing from heaven like a plant overburdened with sap:

For Truthe telleth that love is triacle of hevene:
May no synne be on hym seene that that spice useth.
And alle his werkes he wroughte with love as hym liste,
And lered it Moyses for the leveste thyng and moost lik to hevene,
And also the plante of pees, moost precious of vertues:
For hevene myghte nat holden it, so was it hevy of hymself,
Til it hadde of the erthe eten his fille.
And whan it hadde of this fold flessh and blood taken,
Was nevere leef upon lynde lighter therafter,
And portatif and persaunt as the point of a nedle,
That myghte noon armure it lette ne none heighe walles.

[''For Truth tells that love is the treacle (healing balm) of heaven: no sin may be seen on him who uses that medicine. And he wrought all his works with love, as it pleased him, and he taught it to Moses as the dearest thing and the thing most like to heaven. And, too, the plant of peace, most precious of vertues, for heaven could not hold it, it was so heavy with its own sap, until it had eaten its fill of the earth; and when it had taken flesh and blood from this earth, there was never leaf upon a linden-tree lighter than it was, weightless and piercing as the point of a needle, so that no armour could stop it, nor no high walls.']

That sap is love, life, healing and uncontainable. "Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the Just; let the earth be opened, and bud forth a Saviour".

Tree of Jesse, from Nackington, Kent

Monday, 17 December 2012

'There's nothing like the sun'

There's nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning's storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March's sun,
Like April's, or July's, or June's, or May's,
Or January's, or February's, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said -
Or, if I could live long enough, should say -
'There's nothing like the sun that shines today.'
There's nothing like the sun till we are dead.

- Edward Thomas



I forgot to post this in November, but it's still good for this time of year.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

'Marvel not, Joseph'

One of the most popular and most appealing genres of traditional carol is the "doubting Joseph" songs, which deal with the subject of St Joseph's puzzlement and distress at Mary's miraculous pregnancy, and his enlightenment by an angel. The source of the story is ultimately Biblical (Matthew 1:18-25), but it was much elaborated and enhanced in legend from the early days of the apocryphal gospels to the Middle Ages and beyond. Carols and ballads on this theme have been collected from folk tradition in England and North America - the most famous is The Cherry Tree Carol, in its many variant forms, but in the past I've also posted about two other traditional songs on this theme, 'Righteous Joseph' and 'Joseph being an aged man'. Today I want to post another carol on the same subject, 'Marvel not, Joseph', which survives not from folk tradition but from a medieval manuscript source; it makes a nice contrast to those other songs, as well as illustrating just how popular this subject has been throughout literary history. You can understand why - poor Joseph's predicament does capture the imagination!



"Mervele noght, Josep, on Mary mylde;
Forsake hyr not tho she be with childe.
Mervele noght, Josep, on Mary mylde;
Forsake hyr not tho she be with childe."

1. "I, Josep, wonder how hit may be,
I, Josep, wonder how hit may be,
That Mary wex gret when Y and she
Ever have levyd in chastite;
Iff she be with chylde, hit ys not by me."
"Mervell not, Joseph,
Mervell not, Joseph.

2. The holy gost, with mercifull disstens,
In here hathe entryd wythowte offens,
God and man conceyved by hys presens,
An[d] she virgyn pure wythowte violens.
Mervelle not, Joseph."

3. "What the angell of God to me dothe say,
I, Joseph, muste and wille umble obay,
Ellys prively y wolde have stole away,
But now wille y serve here tille that Y day."
"Mervelle not, Josep.

4. Josep, thow shalt here mayde and moder fynde,
Here Sone redemptor of alle mankynde,
Thy forefaderes of paynes to unbynde;
Therefor muse not this mater in thy mynde.
Mervelle not."

Text from Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977), no.259, p.163 (slightly altered). The first and last lines of each verse are repeated, as in verse 1.

This carol survives, with its music, in the Ritson Manuscript (British Library MS. Additional 5665), a manuscript of English and Latin carols, songs and motets which was compiled between c.1475-1510 at a religious house somewhere in Devon, possibly at Exeter Cathedral. I think my favourite thing about this carol is that the angel, in explaining what has happened, keeps saying 'Marvel not, Joseph' (instead of the Gospel's 'do not be afraid'), as if a miraculous pregnancy were a perfectly comprehensible, matter-of-fact occurrence, nothing to be surprised about. Yet what could be more marvellous than this miracle? There's a little bit of playful irony in that which is just lovely. And I like how the whole story - Joseph is puzzled, the angel explains, Joseph accepts the explanation, the angel responds - is all told through dialogue; they have a verse each in turn, and the refrain winds their speeches together with that wonderful phrase, 'Marvel not'. Some of the early versions of this story in English appear in medieval drama, in the mystery plays, and there is something inherently dramatic about it; it forms a counterpart to the many carols about the Annunciation, in which dialogue also plays such a crucial role.

A translation:

Marvel not, Joseph, at Mary mild;
Forsake her not, though she be with child.

1. "I, Joseph, wonder how this may be,
That Mary is pregnant when I and she
Have ever lived in chastity;
If she be with child, it is not by me."
"Marvel not, Joseph.

2. The Holy Ghost, with merciful descent,
In her hath entered without offence, [injury]
God and man are conceived by His presence,
And she is a virgin pure without violation."
Marvel not, Joseph."

3. "What the angel of God to me doth say,
I, Joseph, must and will humbly obey,
Else I would privily have stolen away;
But now will I serve her till I die."
"Marvel not, Joseph.

4. Joseph, thou shalt her maid and mother find,
Her Son, redeemer of all mankind,
Thy forefathers from pain to unbind;
Therefore muse not this matter in thy mind.
Marvel not, Joseph."

Here's a performance sung in something closer to modern pronunciation.

The marriage of Mary and Joseph (BL King's 6, f. 27)

Friday, 14 December 2012

Audelay's Lament for Childhood

This is a poem by John Audelay, the fifteenth-century Shropshire priest and poet who wrote one of my favourite medieval Christmas carols.  It's an unusual and touching poem, in which the speaker laments the loss of his childhood innocence.  He goes through the seven deadly sins and describes in turn how children are incapable of each one - they aren't covetous because their treasures are little things like cherry-stones, they aren't slothful because they're always busy and active, they hate even hearing about lechery (this point makes me imagine little boys saying 'yuk!' when they see people kissing; I don't know if that's what Audelay was thinking of...).  Whether all this is quite true or not - it's not exactly my memory of childhood! - it makes a poignant contrast to Audelay's conclusion about himself: 'And I in sin fall, alas, every day in the year!'

This article helpfully puts the poem in contemporary medieval context, but its theme is a universal one - 'shades of the prison-house begin to close about the growing boy'.  Although it's somewhat schematic in its listing of the sins, there's a kind of rawness to it which reminds me of a famous scene in Piers Plowman where the poor wafer-seller Haukyn, representing the average person living in the world, has had it explained to him at length, in endless learned speeches, that humble poverty is the only way to live; he's overwhelmed, and at last he exclaims 'Alas! that I was not dead and buried after I was christened! So hard it is to live and do sin!  Sin pursues us ever'; and he bursts into tears.  Audelay's poem seems close to the same emotion.

The text is from Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977), no.412, p.245, with my translation below.


And God wold graunt me my prayer,
A child ayene I wold I were!

Fore pride in herte he hatis allone,
Worchip ne reuerens kepis he non,
Ne he is wroth with no mon;
In charete is alle his chere.

He wot neuer wat is envy;
He wol vche mon fard wele him by;
He couetis noght vnlaufully —
Fore chere-stons is his tresoure.

In hert he hatis lechori;
To here therof he is sory;
He sleth the syn of glotere,
Nother etis ne drynkis bot fore mystere.

Slouth he putis away algate,
And wol be bese erle and late;
Al wyckidnes thus he doth hate,
The vii dedle synus al in fere.

A gracious lyfe forsothe he has,
To God ne mon doth no trespas,
And I in syn fal, alas,
Euere day in the yere!

My joy, my myrth is fro me clene;
I turne to care, turment, and tene;
Ded I wold that I had bene
When I was borne, and layd on bere.

Fore better hit were to be vnboren,
Then fore my synus to be forelorne,
Nere grace of God that is beforne,
Almysdede and hole prayere.

Now other cumford se I non
Bot schryue me clene with contricion,
And make here trew satisfaccion,
And do my penans wyle Y am here.



If God would grant me my prayer, a child again I wish I were!

For pride in heart a child entirely hates; he does not care for honour or rank, and is never angry with any man; his bearing is all charity.

He does not know what envy is, he wishes for everyone to do well; he does not covet anything unlawfully, for cherry-stones are his only treasure.

In his heart he hates lechery, and to hear of it he is sorry; he slays the sin of gluttony, and does not eat or drink except out of necessity.

He drives away sloth in every way, and likes to be busy at all times.  Thus he hates all wickedness and all the seven deadly sins together.

Indeed, he has a gracious life, and does no harm to God or man; and I fall into sin, alas, every day of the year!

My joy, my mirth is gone from me; I turn to sorrow, torment and suffering.  I wish I had died when I was born, and been laid on the bier.

For it would be better never to have been born than to be lost because of my sins - were it not for the grace of God which came before, and deeds of alms, and holy prayer.

Now I see no other comfort but to confess myself entirely, with contrition, and make full satisfaction, and do my penance while I am here.

If God would grant me my prayer, a child again I wish I were!