Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Candlemas Carol: 'The queen of bliss and of beauty'

The Presentation in the Temple in a 15th-century English Book of Hours (BL Harley 2915, f. 35)

February 2 is Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification, so here's a medieval Candlemas carol.

Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

Behold what life that we run in,
Frail to fall and ever like to sin
Through our enemy's enticing;
Therefore we sing and cry to thee:
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

Come hither, Lady, fairest flower,
And keep us, Lady, from dolour;
Defend us, Lady, and be our succour,
For we cease not to call to thee:
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

Turn our life, Lady, to God's lust, [pleasure]
Sin to flee and fleshly lust,
For, after him, in thee we trust
To keep us from adversity.
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

This holy day of Purification
To the temple thou bare our salvation,
Jesu Christ, thine own sweet Son,
To whom therefore now sing we:
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

Farewell, Christmas fair and free!
Farewell, New Year's Day with thee!
Farewell, the holy Epiphany!
And to Mary now sing we:
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.

This is an exceptionally elegant and delicate carol - I particularly like verse 2, with each interjected 'Lady'. Candlemas is a feast with several avenues of rich imagery for a poet or a preacher to explore, and unlike, say, Ælfric, who concentrates on the themes of offering and of light ('though some people cannot sing, they can nevertheless bear the light in their hands; for on this day was the true Light, Christ, borne to the temple...'), this poem focuses on the role of Mary, 'Lady, fairest flower', 'queen of bliss' (a title also associated with Candlemas in the medieval carol 'Welcome, Yule'). The imploring refrain 'Revertere' comes from the Song of Songs, 6:13: 'Return, return, O Shulamite; return, return, that we may look upon thee' (revertere, revertere, Sulamitis, revertere, revertere, ut intueamur te). This is a text used on the Feast of the Assumption, but it feels appropriate for Candlemas too: the appeal 'return, turn back' conjures up an image of the lady in movement - as, at the Assumption, moving towards heaven - and Candlemas is a processional kind of feast, about coming to the temple, and generally celebrated with a liturgical procession. (I posted a description of an English liturgical procession at Candlemas, from the tenth century, here.)

The theme 'revertere' also resonates with the idea that at Candlemas we cast a final look back towards Christmas, as we at last bid it farewell. This poem is very different in spirit from the cheery Candlemas carol I posted earlier in January, where Christmas says 'good day!', but it too addresses Christmas, the New Year, the Epiphany, and directs our thoughts back to them: 'turn back, that we may look upon thee' one more time. But there's a glance forward too, I think: the collocation 'bliss and beauty' connotes spring, which is just beginning to peep out in February as the first snowdrops appear. The feast of Candlemas is the equivalent of pagan festivals of early spring such as Imbolc; it appeals to the same human longing for light, for just a hint of returning life, in the dark time of the year.

The Presentation in a C14th English Book of Hours (BL Egerton 2781, f. 85v)

This carol survives in Bodleian Library MS. Eng. poet. e. I, a fifteenth-century manuscript of English poems and carols which also contains versions of 'This endris night', 'Of a rose, a lovely rose', 'Now is the twelfth day icome', 'Sing we Yule til Candlemas', 'In Bethlehem that fair city', and 'Under a tree, in sporting me'. And that's just (some of) the Christmas carols; see the full list here.

This is the text as edited in Richard Greene, A Selection of English Carols (Oxford, 1962), p. 95.

Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

Behold what lyfe that we ryne ine,
Frayl to fale and ever lyke to syne
Thorow owr enmys entysyng;
Therfor we syng and cry to the:
Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

Come hyder, Lady, fayryst floure,
And kepe us, Lady, from doloure;
Defend us, Lady, and be owr socoure,
For we cease not to cal to the:
Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

Torne owr lyfe, Lady, to Goddys luste,
Syne to fle and fleschly luste,
For aftur hym in the we trust
To kep us frome adversyte.
Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

Thys holy day of Puryfycacyon
To the temple thou bare owr salvacyon,
Jhesu Cryst, thin own swet Sone,
To whome therfor now syng we:
Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

Farwell, Crystmas fayer and fre!
Farwell, Newers Day with the!
Farwell, the holy Epyphane!
And to Mary now syng we:
Revertere, revertere,
The quene of blysse and of beaute.

The remains of a medieval wall-painting of the Presentation (Chalgrove, Oxfordshire)

One or two more depictions of the Presentation which I particularly like - here the child clings to his mother:


These scenes usually contain Joseph with his offering of birds, but in keeping with the liturgical celebration of the feast, one of the figures is also often shown holding a candle, as in this 14th-century Breviary (made in Norwich):


And, very clearly, in this beautiful scene from an early 13th-century English Psalter:

 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To resume and extend the recent discussions in the 'Comments' to other posts (including the immediately preceding one), I see that Frederick Holweck, writing of "Candlemas" in the Catholic Encyclopedia in 1908, says, "In the Middle Ages it had an octave in the larger number of dioceses; also today the religious orders whose special object is the veneration of the Mother of God (Carmelites, Servites) and many dioceses (Loreto, the Province of Siena, etc.) celebrate the octave."

So, I suppose this carol may well also have been a 'carol of the octave', upon each day of which one can say in a certain real sense 'on this day'.

This year, it also so happens that the Sunday of such an octave coincides with the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany.

I am left wondering about Christmas decorations and both the octave and the cases such as this year when the moveable Sundays associated with Lent and Easter, such as Septuagesima, begin fairly late, not 'crossing' so much of 'Christmastide' as they sometimes do. Maybe these are factors in old traditional variations as to when to take down the greenery.

An Old Mertonian