Episode 42

I Sing of a Maiden – Anonymous 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses the anonymous poem ‘I Sing of a Maiden’.

Poet

Anonymous

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

I Sing of a Maiden

Anonymous

Modernised version:

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
The King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April,
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April,
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April,
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
Was never none but she –
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

 

Original version:

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

He cam also stylle
to his moderes bowr
as dew in aprille,
þat fallyt on þe flour.

He cam also stylle
þer his moder lay
as dew in Aprille,
þat fallyt on þe spray.

Moder and mayden
was neuer non but che –
wel may swych a lady
Godes moder be.


Podcast transcript

Unusually, we have two versions of today’s poem. I first read you a modernised version, to help you get the gist of it, and then I read the original medieval text, the Middle English version, with the original pronunciation, at least as far as scholars can reconstruct it and I can pronounce it.

We are very lucky to have this poem. It is preserved in just one manuscript, with no author’s name given. The manuscript is dated to about 1400, but it’s possible that the poem itself is quite a bit older than that. There are references to the poem and brief quotes from it, in other manuscripts, so it may well have been a fairly popular piece by the time it was written down.

And the first line gives us a clue to its original function:

I sing of a maiden

So, the first two words, ‘I sing’, tell us that it was set to music. The original tune has been lost. But lots of composers and artists have made up for this since by writing their own musical settings for it, including Gustav Holst, Benjamin Britten and the Mediaeval Babes.

And no, I am not going to try to sing it! I know my limits. I will talk about it as a lyric which is excellent in its own right, but let’s remember it was written to be sung.

So its form is a song. And the second line gives us a clue to the its subject.

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,

So the original Middle English word ‘makeles’, meant ‘unequalled’, ‘unparalleled’, ‘unique’, ‘matchless’, in the sense that no one else could match her. So far, so cliched, because lots of medieval love poetry was about pure maidens who had no equal in the poet’s eyes. But the next two lines make it clear that this was no ordinary matchless maiden:

The King of all kings
For her son she chose.

So clearly the subject is the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was the son of God as well as of Mary. And the reference to the divine birth edges this song towards the category that we would now label Christmas carols, so I thought it would be a nice choice for this, the Christmas 2022 episode of A Mouthful of Air.

So the fact it’s about the Virgin Mary brings out another meaning of the word ‘makeles’ – ‘mateless’, ‘without a mate’, ‘without a partner’, because of course she conceived Jesus with no partner but God.

And it’s not the same word, but it’s also not a huge leap from ‘makeles’ to ‘immaculate’, which meant ‘without sin, without blemish or imperfection’, an adjective that was frequently applied to Mary.

Now, in the New Testament, this subject, the conception of Jesus, is treated rather differently. We get the famous scene of the Annunciation where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she is going to be the mother of the Christ Child, the Saviour of the world. But the poet doesn’t give us that whole story; he or she gives us a song about a maiden, a virgin who was also a mother, which is a paradox since those states were biologically incompatible.

In Biblical version the annunciation is, as you can imagine, an astonishing, overwhelming experience for Mary. It conveys the sense that she’s been honoured and chosen by God from among all women. But this version, it’s almost as if the roles have been reversed – the poet tells us that she has chosen the King of all kings, i.e. Jesus, to be her son:

The King of all kings
For her son she chose.

Now, technically, this is quite orthodox. As the medieval scholar Derek Pearsall put it, ‘The emphasis on Mary’s freedom of choice, at the moment of the annunciation, is theologically strictly proper’ (Introductory note to Chaucer to Spenser: An Anthology,Oxford: OUP, 1999).

Well, theologically, that may be so. But poetically, the effect of the poet’s choice of syntax is to make Mary a much more central, active figure than the passive recipient of God’s grace in the New Testament. And you might think, ‘Well that’s a bit of a fine distinction Mark’, but this is a poem of fine and subtle distinctions that are handled with great skill by the poet.

And let’s face it, this is a delicate subject – the conception of a divine child, the Christ child, by a virgin, via a mysterious process of divine intervention. So how does the poet address this delicate subject? With a simile, a poetic comparison, in which one thing is explicitly said to be like another.

The poet tells us that Jesus arrived inside his mother, ‘as still’ – ‘as quietly, as softly, as unobtrusively’ – as dew in April.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April,
That falls on the grass.

It’s an image that is as natural as it is beautiful and mysterious. It’s also quite likely that the poet took it from a scriptural source, Psalm 72, verse 6:

He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.

But the poet doesn’t just borrow the image, he embroiders and extends it delightfully:

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April,
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April,
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April,
That falls on the spray.

Isn’t this magical? It’s basically the same stanza repeated three times, the repetition giving it the power of incantation. But as well as repetition, we also get subtle and pleasing variation, in the successive images of the grass, the flower and the spray.

And those are all rhyme words, of course, ‘grass’ rhymes with ‘was’ – not so much in modern English, but in Middle English ‘gras’ was a nice full rhyme for ‘was’; ‘flower’ rhymes ‘bower, and ‘lay’ with ‘spray’. And I think it’s safe to say the poet began with the plant images and then went back and found other words to rhyme with them, rather than the other way round.

How do I know that? Because poets often start with the rhyme words and then work backwards to get the rest of the poem to fit. Half of the point of a rhyme word is to end your line – and in this case, your stanza as well – with a word that is significant and striking and will linger in the ear when we hear it, and in the mind’s eye when we read it.

And what the poet has given us here is three beautiful stanzas, all ending in plant words – grass, flower and spray. It’s like three panes of a stained glass window, or three blocks of a sculpted column, with different plant motifs giving a pleasing variety as well as unity.

If we compare these three words, ‘grass’, ‘flower’ and ‘spray’, with their rhyme words – ‘was’, ‘bower’ and ‘lay’, then it’s obvious that the poet didn’t start with ‘was’, ‘bower’ and ‘lay’. Because there’s no theme uniting those three words. There’s no way you would start with ‘was’, ‘bower’ and ‘lay’, and think, ‘fantastic! These three work really well together. Now what can I find to rhyme with them?’

And even if you did, then it would be a pretty startling coincidence if all three of your rhyme words just happened to be the names of different types of plant, would it not?

So what we have here is a poet taking an image of water falling on the grass, probably lifted from Psalm 72, and playing variations on the theme. And the effect is like looking at a stained glass window, or a series of church carvings – simplicity, clarity, and luminosity.

Then after these three stanzas we get to the final one, which is an explicit restatement of the paradox introduced in the first stanza:

Mother and maiden
Was never none but she –
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

So she is both mother and maiden, and because of this, she is unique – ‘was never non but che’, there was never anyone like this except her.

It’s like the answer to a riddle, and we have encountered a few poems like this on the podcast, have we not? But this time it is a divine riddle. A divine mystery, which for the faithful, let us remember, was not a problem to be solved, but an unfathomable certainty.

And again, ‘Godes mother’, the mother of God, was a traditional title of the Virgin Mary, so it was theologically uncontroversial in the medieval catholic context in which this poem was written. But grammatically, of course, it suggests that the mother came before God, that she was older and of greater authority than the God she gives birth to.

And this title, as well as the veneration of Mary per se, was one of the things the Protestant reformers objected to, and it was swept away during the Reformation, a few centuries after this poem was written.

So this poem is a relic of an England that has disappeared; this was a Catholic country, where hymns and prayers to Mary, the Mother of God, were sung in churches full of stained glass and paintings and gold and incense. And it would be easy to romanticise this England, but of course there was also plenty of corruption in the medieval church, which was one reason for the Reformation.

But theology aside, to me, there’s also a simplicity and a kind of innocence about this poem, that faded from English poetry once the Renaissance and the Reformation had done their work, not to mention clever poets like Shakespeare and Donne and Milton and Dryden. By the time we get to the 17th and 18th centuries, England was a different country, we were well on the way to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and you’d risk being laughed at for writing something as simple and apparently artless as this.

At the end of the 18th century, of course, as we have seen in Episodes 32 and 34, Wordsworth and Coleridge made a deliberate attempt to recover what had been lost, by simplifying the language of poetry and getting back to its roots. But by then it was an antiquarian pursuit, driven by Romantic nostalgia. The poem we’re looking at today was the real thing.

And you can hear the gap between the old world and the new one in the difference between the two versions of the poem I’m reading today. The original, or at least my attempt at recreating the original, sounds very strange to our ears. And that’s because of something called the Great Vowel Shift, a radical change in the way English was pronounced, which occurred between about 1400 and 1700.

If you’d like to hear Great Vowel Shift for yourself, then in the transcript for this episode I am including a link to an amazing video by Simon Roper, ‘A London Accent from the 14th to the 21st Centuries’, where he’s recorded himself talking in a series of reconstructed accents, every 50 years from the 1300s up to 2006. So if you focus on the years 1400 – 1700 in particular, you can hear how the sound of English changed fundamentally during that period. And certainly to us today, Middle English looks and sounds almost like a foreign language.

So as a poet, when I when I compare the original version of this poem, with the modernised one I’ve read for you today, I can’t help hearing the gulf between those two worlds – the old medieval world, of miracles and wonders, and the new, rational and sophisticated, post-Reformation England.

So when you hear the two versions of the poem again, listen for that gap, and see if you can catch something of the spirit of that older world in the original version.

OK we are almost at the end of 2022, the first full year of A Mouthful of Air. So I’d like to take a moment to thank you for listening to the show. It really means a lot whenever I hear from listeners, whether that’s a email or a review or a comment, or even a like on Twitter. I make this show to share the poems I love, that’s the point of the show, and it’s a wonderful thing to know you are listening and enjoying the poems.

So as we listen again, I’d like to dedicate this poem to you and to wish you a very merry Christmas.

 


I Sing of a Maiden

Anonymous

Modernised version:

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
The King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April,
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April,
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April,
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
Was never none but she –
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

 

Original version:

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

He cam also stylle
to his moderes bowr
as dew in aprille,
þat fallyt on þe flour.

He cam also stylle
þer his moder lay
as dew in Aprille,
þat fallyt on þe spray.

Moder and mayden
was neuer non but che –
wel may swych a lady
Godes moder be.


‘Anon’

‘I Syng of a Mayden’ (‘I Sing of a Maiden’) is an anonymous medieval text preserved in a manuscript that has been dated to approximately 1400.

Anonymous works are often marked in anthologies with the abbreviation ‘Anon’. Virginia Woolf once wrote, ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman’ and imagined her making ‘the ballads and the folk-songs, crooning them to her children, beguiling her spinning with them, or the length of the winter’s night’. 

Following Woolf’s playful suggestion, if we imagine Anon to be a single person, of whatever gender, we could make a credible case that they are the greatest and most prolific writer in English.  

 


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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