Middle English Incarnation and Crucifixion Lyrics

The section contains a selection of short religious lyrics – some of them only 4 lines long.

The first one is the only one whose author is known – he was the Franciscan William Herebert. “What is he, this lordling, that cometh from the fight” is in fact a pretty close translation of Isiaah 63:1 – 7 . The lordling is Jesus, whose garment is stained red with pressing the grapes in the winepress. The metaphorical image stands both for Christ’s Passion and the punishment that is going to befall sinners on the Judgement Day. The poem ends with a two-line coda in which the poet says he is going to meditate on God’s mercy and grace, although I must admit this is not a particularly merciful God this poem describes.

“Ye That Pasen by the Weye” is a short poem in which Jesus addresses all the passers-by from the cross, asking them to meditate for a little while on his suffering. “Sunset on Calvary” is even shorter, but as the editors point out, it contains some fairly ingenious play on words “sun/son”, The sun is setting “under wode”, which can refer both the sun setting behind the woods and the wooden Cross; this double meaning is emphasized by “Now gooth sunne under tree” in line 3, which again can refer to a regular tree and the tree of the Cross. The 2nd and 4th line begin with the  refrain-like “Me reweth” (I pity), referring to the sympathy the speaker feels towards Mary.

Other poems in the selection also have a sing-song quality, with their lilting rhythms, and some of them explicitly refer to the act of singing, as in “I Sing of a Maiden”. The poem also contains some ingenious punning, calling Mary “makelees”, which in Middle English could mean spotless, matchless and mateless. The conception of Jesus is compared repeatedly to dew in April falling silently on the grass; Jesus coming quietly “to his modres bowr” and where “his modr lay” is a bit risque, since it is similar language to the one used for describing lovers sneaking into the chambers of their mistresses.

“Adam Lay Bound” is an unexpectedly cheerful poem about the Original Sin. Adam lay bound (in limbo or in hell, depending on your theology) for four thousand years that passed between the Fall and the Crucifixion (this seemed to be a prevalent idea in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, down to the famous calculations by Bishop James Ussher). But Adam is quite happy! “Four thousande winter thoughte he not too long”, because in the end his sin brought about the greater good, that is the coming of Messiah. The poem is built around this idea of “felix culpa”, the belief that in the long run even the Original Sin turned out to serve a good purpose.

“The Corpus Christi Carol” also sounds like a medieval ballad. The title is interesting – carols are not necessarily connected only with Christmas, although the word is usually used in the context. Apparently “carol” was also an old English circular dance, so perhaps this is the sense in which the word is used. It begins with the traditional “Lully, lullay” of a lullaby, and then goes on to describe a falcon that bore the speaker’s mate away. The poem describes in the usual ballad-y way how the falcon bore him into “the orchard brown”, than inside a hall hanged with purple and black velvet. In the hall there is a bed, also decorated richly with gold and red. On the bed there is a knight bleeding profusely, and a maiden is kneeling next to the bed, weeping day and knight. This song develops like a scene from a romance, and you could expect the knight to be a victim of some sorcery. However, the meaning of the poem is revealed in the last two lines, where it is written that by the bedside there is stone with the words “Corpus Christi” written on them. This illustrates the point made by the editors in the foreword to this section – there is no point in trying to differentiate between medieval religious and secular poetry, they seep into each other and intersect all the time.


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