Thursday, 24 December 2015

Some Carols for Christmas Eve

A monk and nun playing music (BL Royal 2 B VII, f.177)

Advent is gone, Christmas is come;
Be we merry now, all and some!
He is not wise that will be dumb
In ortu Regis omnium.

Farewell, Advent, Christmas is come!
Farewell from us both all and some!

So says James Ryman, friar of Canterbury and carol collector extraordinaire, in a witty fifteenth-century carol celebrating the end of Advent - a welcome moment indeed for friars who had spent the season fasting! Friars, monks and clerics gave us some of the best-loved medieval carols, and they certainly earned their merriment. To obey Ryman's urging, here's a collection of links to a few especially merry medieval carols you might like to read or listen to today.

First, I've just written a guest post for Corymbus on the subject of a fifteenth-century carol which begins:

Nowell sing we now all and some,
For Rex pacificus is come.

In Bethlehem, in that fair city,
A child was born of a maiden free,
That shall a lord and prince be,
A solis ortus cardine.

Read about it here, and listen to this joyous modern setting by Elizabeth Maconchy:

A few years ago I wrote a post about the fifteenth-century carol 'Good day, Sir Christemas!' This year the composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad was commissioned to write a new carol for the BBC Music Magazine and decided to set my translation of the text. Read about it here and here, and listen to the carol here! It's so wonderful that new songs are still being created from these medieval texts - in this case, from a carol enjoyed (probably) by the monks of fifteenth-century Worcester.

Hey, ay, hey, ay,
Make we merry as we may!

Now is Yule come with gentyll cheer; [excellent fun]
In mirth and games he has no peer,
In every land where he comes near
Is mirth and games, I dare well say.

Now is come a messenger
Of your lord, Sir New Year,
Bids us all be merry here
And make us merry as we may.

Therefore every man that is here
Sing a carol in his manner;
If he knows none, we shall him lere [teach]
So that we be merry alway.

This comes from a carol of 1500, threatening dire things to those who refuse to sing carols at Christmas!

Nowel, nowel, nowel,
Nowel, nowel, nowel!

Out of your sleep arise and wake,
For God mankind now hath i-take
All of a maid without any make.
Of all women she beareth the bell...

Now blessed brother, grant us grace,
On doomsday to see thy face,
And in thy court to have a place,
That we may there sing 'nowel'.

From one of the loveliest fifteenth-century carols.

Here's a singing shepherd to encourage us to sing:

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

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.

Puer natus to us was sent,
To bliss us bought, from bale us blent,
And else to woe we had ywent,
Both all and some.

Another carol from the Selden carol book.

And, of course: 'Welcome, Yule!'

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Rex Pacifice, O thou true and thou peaceful one

Christ in glory (BL Cotton Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v, 10th century, Winchester)

The antiphon for 20 December is 'O clavis David', and you can read the beautiful Old English poetic version of that antiphon here; it speaks of Christ as se þe locan healdeð, lif ontyneð, 'he who guards the locks, who opens life', who will 'become for us a source of strength in spirit, and enfold our feeble knowledge in splendour'. But, as I promised in my last post, here's one of the sections of the same poem inspired by a less commonly-used antiphon: this is based on 'O rex pacifice' (lines 214-274 of the Old English poem):

Eala þu soða ond þu sibsuma
ealra cyninga cyning, Crist ælmihtig,
hu þu ær wære eallum geworden
worulde þrymmum mid þinne wuldorfæder
cild acenned þurh his cræft ond meaht!
Nis ænig nu eorl under lyfte,
secg searoþoncol, to þæs swiðe gleaw
þe þæt asecgan mæge sundbuendum,
areccan mid ryhte, hu þe rodera weard
æt frymðe genom him to freobearne.
þæt wæs þara þinga þe her þeoda cynn
gefrugnen mid folcum æt fruman ærest
geworden under wolcnum, þæt witig god,
lifes ordfruma, leoht ond þystro
gedælde dryhtlice, ond him wæs domes geweald,
ond þa wisan abead weoroda ealdor:
"Nu sie geworden forþ a to widan feore
leoht, lixende gefea, lifgendra gehwam
þe in cneorissum cende weorðen."
Ond þa sona gelomp, þa hit swa sceolde,
leoma leohtade leoda mægþum,
torht mid tunglum, æfter þon tida bigong.
Sylfa sette þæt þu sunu wære
efeneardigende mid þinne engan frean
ærþon oht þisses æfre gewurde.
þu eart seo snyttro þe þas sidan gesceaft
mid þi waldende worhtes ealle.

Forþon nis ænig þæs horsc, ne þæs hygecræftig,
þe þin fromcyn mæge fira bearnum
sweotule geseþan. Cum, nu, sigores weard,
meotod moncynnes, ond þine miltse her
arfæst ywe! Us is eallum neod
þæt we þin medrencynn motan cunnan,
ryhtgeryno, nu we areccan ne mægon
þæt fædrencynn fier owihte.
þu þisne middangeard milde geblissa
þurh ðinne hercyme, hælende Crist,
ond þa gyldnan geatu, þe in geardagum
ful longe ær bilocen stodan,
heofona heahfrea, hat ontynan,
ond usic þonne gesece þurh þin sylfes gong
eaðmod to eorþan. Us is þinra arna þearf!
Hafað se awyrgda wulf tostenced,
deor dædscua, dryhten, þin eowde,
wide towrecene, þæt ðu, waldend, ær
blode gebohtes, þæt se bealofulla
hyneð heardlice, ond him on hæft nimeð
ofer usse nioda lust. Forþon we, nergend, þe
biddað geornlice breostgehygdum
þæt þu hrædlice helpe gefremme
wergum wreccan, þæt se wites bona
in helle grund hean gedreose,
ond þin hondgeweorc, hæleþa scyppend,
mote arisan ond on ryht cuman
to þam upcundan æþelan rice,
þonan us ær þurh synlust se swearta gæst
forteah ond fortylde, þæt we, tires wone,
a butan ende sculon ermþu dreogan,
butan þu usic þon ofostlicor, ece dryhten,
æt þam leodsceaþan, lifgende god,
helm alwihta, hreddan wille.

O thou true and thou peaceful one,
king of all kings, almighty Christ,
how you existed before all the world's glory
was made, with your heavenly Father,
conceived as a child through his skill and power!
There is now no man under the sky,
no person clever in thought, so very wise
that he can tell the sea-bound world's dwellers,
rightly relate how the guardian of the heavens
in the beginning took you as his noble son.
That was, of the things which the tribes of men
among peoples here have heard of, the very first
worked beneath the sky: that the wise God,
life's source, light and darkness
divinely parted, and with him was the power.
And the Lord of hosts commanded this:
"Now let there be, from henceforth until eternity,
light, luminous joy to all living things
which will be born in their generations."
And at once it was, when it had to be so:
light lightened the tribes of peoples,
brilliant among the stars, in the course of time.
He himself ordained that you, the Son,
were dwelling as an equal with your solitary Lord
before any of this had ever been done.
You are the wisdom who created
all this wide world with your Ruler.

And so there is none so sharp-witted
nor so skillful in mind that he can
clearly explain to the children of men
your first beginning. Come now, Lord of victories,
Measurer of mankind, and here, steadfast in grace,
manifest your mercy! In us all there is a longing
that we may understand your mother's origins,
the true mystery, since we cannot rightly
any further follow your father's origins.
In mercy gladden this world
by your advent, Saviour Christ,
and the golden gates, which in days gone by
so long stood locked,
order to be opened, heaven's high Lord,
and seek us out by your own coming
humbly to earth. We need your mercy!
The accursed wolf, the beast who walks in darkness,
has destroyed your flock, Lord,
scattered abroad those you, Ruler, once
bought with blood, whom the hate-filled foe
cruelly persecutes and takes into captivity,
against our urgent longing. So we, Saviour,
pray eagerly in the thoughts of our hearts
that you swiftly bring help
to weary exiles, that the tormenting slayer
may be cast low into the depths of hell
and your handiwork, Creator of mankind,
may rise and come by right
to the noble kingdom above,
from which the dark spirit once seduced
and drew us by desire for sin, so that we,
bereft of glory, must for ever endure misery without end,
unless you, with greatest swiftness, everlasting Lord,
from the destroyer of men, living God,
Guardian of all creatures, choose to save us.

God creating the sun, moon and stars (BL Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 3, 11th century, Canterbury)

This follows on from one of the most memorable sections in this remarkable poem: a dialogue between Mary and Joseph, in which they discuss Mary's miraculous pregnancy and its consequences for them both. In that anguished exchange, Joseph describes his fears for Mary, while she worries that she will lose his love; then Mary describes her encounter with the angel, telling how she learned that she would become the mother of God's child. In that section, the opening 'O' is more like a cry of distress than anything else: Mary begins by saying 'Eala Joseph min, Jacobes bearn', 'O my Joseph, son of Jacob...' If you were one of an Anglo-Saxon audience reading or listening to this poem, you would just have seen the most human side of the story of the incarnation: a married couple worrying about how to cope with an unimaginable change in their lives and their relationship.

This moving and personal dialogue is followed by something very different. The story is written now on a cosmic scale; the section based on 'O rex pacifice' addresses Christ as king and ruler, a being born before all the worlds, whose nature is far beyond human understanding. Having just explored Christ's maternal origins (his medrencynn) in the preceding section, this poem now emphasises the impossibility of tracing his paternal origins (his fædrencynn) back through the vastness of time and space. It does what it can, by going back to the beginning of creation and the first command:

Nu sie geworden forþ a to widan feore
leoht, lixende gefea, lifgendra gehwam.

Now let there be, from henceforth until eternity,
light, luminous joy to all living things...

I love how the poet keeps you waiting for the word 'light' here, holding it over to the end of the phrase, and then producing a threefold alliteration on leoht, lixende, lifgendra; it sounds so beautiful spoken aloud. The beginning of light is the beginning of time, æfter þon tida bigong – and further back than that, no one can go. This poem takes pleasure in juxtaposing the limitations of human knowledge against the vastness of God's cræft ond meaht: several times we hear that no one is clever enough – searoþoncol, horsc, or hygecræftig enough – to fully understand this mystery. Here we are sea-dwellers (sundbuend), earth-bound under the sky; but the golden gates which bar the way to the heavens can be opened:

ond þin hondgeweorc, hæleþa scyppend,
mote arisan ond on ryht cuman
to þam upcundan æþelan rice.

and your handiwork, Creator of mankind,
may rise and come by right
to the noble kingdom on high.

God creating the world (BL Royal 1 E VII, f. 1v, 11th century, Canterbury)

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Jerusalem, Vision of Peace

The Virgin and Child (BL Add. 34890, f. 115, 11th century, England)

The last week of Advent is the season of the 'O Antiphons'. These texts, used at Vespers in the days before Christmas, have an enduring attraction, even, it seems, for those who do not usually find liturgical antiphons very interesting. All ways of counting down to Christmas seem to charm us - Advent calendars, Jesse trees, even the increasingly popular misconception, beloved of social media managers, that the 'twelve days of Christmas' refers to a countdown of the days before Christmas (rather than the days after). We get obsessed with marking time, in this darkest and brightest season of the year.

But the O Antiphons are more than a simple countdown. If we count the days through December because we're impatient for Christmas to come, these texts encourage us to explore the source of that impatience, to understand the nature of our own desire. Part of the appeal of the O Antiphons is that they express an urgent longing, and although they are, of course, addressed to Christ, the titles with which they identify him speak more broadly of the kind of things we all desire but can rarely or never find in this world: perfect wisdom, peace, justice, true freedom, light in the darkness, companionship which will never fail us. Whether or not you believe these desires can be fulfilled by the promises of Advent, these songs touch a powerful chord.

Like all human desire, this is fertile ground for poetry. There are multiple surviving medieval poetic responses to the O Antiphons, and in the past I've posted several Middle English poems based on these texts - two poems and two carols. These are interesting, but are far surpassed in quality by the exquisite Anglo-Saxon poetic meditation based on the antiphons, known today as the 'Advent Lyrics' or as Christ I.

This poem survives in the Exeter Book, one of the most important manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon poetry; the manuscript dates to the tenth century, but the poem may be a century or more older. It's the very first poem in the manuscript, and in fact begins mid-sentence because the first leaves of the manuscript are now lost. As it stands, the poem consists of twelve sections, each opening with the Old English equivalent of the antiphons' 'O': Eala. Some of these sections correspond with the seven antiphons which are today the best-known, but the first three (O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse) are missing, and there are several 'extras'. The seven antiphons most widely used have a unity of their own: they are all addressed to Christ, beginning with a title or epithet for him, and taking the form of an appeal directly to him, Come. There were, however, other antiphons used in this season, associated with the O Antiphons but taking a variety of forms: medieval practice was quite diverse on this point, and some are addressed to the Virgin, others to saints (St Thomas the Apostle, the angel Gabriel), while among the antiphons used by the Anglo-Saxon poem, one is a dialogue between Mary and Joseph, another is addressed to the Trinity, another is an exclamation ('O wondrous exchange!') and so on.

The Old English poem is a complex and beautiful composition, theologically and poetically sophisticated, finding a way to unite scriptural imagery with the richness of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. It is, therefore, a joy to translate - though a challenge! In the past I've posted some translations of the sections based on the seven chief antiphons, but I thought this year I might post a few of the 'extra' ones too, just because I wanted to get to grips with translation again. Here are the sections I've posted so far, if you want to catch up (in the order they appear in the poem, which is not the order they appear liturgically):

O rex gentium (lines 1-17)
O clavis David (18-49)
[O Jerusalem (51-70)]
O virgo virginum (71-103)
O Oriens (104-129)
O Emmanuel (130-163)
O Joseph (164-213)

Five more sections follow, and I'll post one of them tomorrow. A translation of the whole poem can be found on this site. Today, I thought I'd post 'O Jerusalem', which, as you can see, appears third in the poem as it stands. The antiphon on which this section is based is: O Hierusalem, civitas Dei summi: leva in circuitu oculos tuos, et vide Dominum tuum, quia iam veniet solvere te a vinculis.

Eala sibbe gesihð, sancta Hierusalem,
cynestola cyst, Cristes burglond,
engla eþelstol, ond þa ane in þe
saule soðfæstra simle gerestað,
wuldrum hremge. Næfre wommes tacn
in þam eardgearde eawed weorþeð,
ac þe firina gehwylc feor abugeð,
wærgðo ond gewinnes. Bist to wuldre full
halgan hyhtes, swa þu gehaten eart.
Sioh nu sylfa þe geond þas sidan gesceaft,
swylce rodores hrof rume geondwlitan
ymb healfa gehwone, hu þec heofones cyning
siðe geseceð, ond sylf cymeð,
nimeð eard in þe, swa hit ær gefyrn
witgan wisfæste wordum sægdon,
cyðdon Cristes gebyrd, cwædon þe to frofre,
burga betlicast. Nu is þæt bearn cymen,
awæcned to wyrpe weorcum Ebrea,
bringeð blisse þe, benda onlyseð
niþum genedde. Nearoþearfe conn,
hu se earma sceal are gebidan.

O vision of peace, holy Jerusalem,
best of royal thrones, Christ's home city,
angels' native dwelling! In you alone
the souls of the righteous rest for eternity,
exulting in glory. Never is a sign of corruption
seen in that dwelling-place,
but every sin stays far away from you,
all evil and strife. You are gloriously full
of holy hope, as your name is.
See now for yourself, across the wide creation,
looking around the spacious roof of the sky
on every side, how the king of the heavens
seeks in quest of you, and comes himself.
He makes his home in you, as it was long ago
foretold in words by wise prophets;
they proclaimed Christ's birth, spoke comfort to you,
best of cities! Now that child is come,
born to relieve the works of the Hebrews,
brings joy to you, unlooses the chains
fastened by evil. The terrible need he knows,
how the wretched one must wait for grace.

God watches over Jerusalem (BL Harley 603, f. 66v, 11th century, Canterbury)

Where other antiphons address Christ, this one watches him. With Jerusalem, it looks from afar and sees him coming, watches him draw closer as he seeks out (geseceð) his city through all the vastness of the heavens. He is coming home, to the city which is called his burglond, eardgeard, the angels' eþelstol - all words which have connotations of 'native dwelling-place'. (The home which is 'an older place than Eden/And a taller town than Rome'.)

The last line here recalls one of the most famous lines of Old English poetry, the opening of The Wanderer, which appears in the same manuscript as this poem:

Oft him anhaga are gebideð,
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,
wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aræd.

Often the solitary one waits for grace,
the mercy of the Lord, although he, sorrowful in heart,
across the ocean's ways must long
stir with his hands the ice-cold sea,
tread the paths of exile. Fate is greatly fixed.

These much-discussed lines are ambiguous, even to their translation: gebideð can mean either 'wait for' or 'experience', and are too has a broad range of meaning, involving 'grace, favour, mercy'. However you interpret are gebidan (and even if, like me, you can't make up your mind), it is an apt characterisation of the season of Advent, a time of waiting for something which has already happened - a coming, or multiple comings, both expected and already experienced. In The Wanderer, the half-line are gebideð opens a poem which movingly traces the difficulty of waiting for comfort, of coping with loss and loneliness and trying to find meaning in the midst of winter. Here, the same words close a poem confident that comfort and joy have come, that winter's fetters will be loosened, that the nearoþearfe, 'pressing, terrible need', will be met.