01 April 2019

Whan That Aprille Day 2019

A lyric for the annual celebration of ancient, archaic, and "dead" languages (the Middle English is in roman type and my "translation" is interleaved in italics):

I have a young suster
I have a young sister
Fer beyonden the see;
Far beyond the sea;
Many be the drowries
Many are the love-tokens
That she sente me.
That she sent me.

She sente me the cherye
She sent me a cherry
Withouten ony ston,
Without any stone (pit),
And so she ded the dove
And so she did the dove
Withouten ony bon.
Without any bone.

Sche sente me the brer
She sent me a briar
Withouten ony rinde;
Without any bark;
Sche bad me love my lemman
She bade me love my sweetheart
Withoute longing.
Without longing.

How shuld ony cherye
How could any cherry
Be withoute ston?
Be without a stone (pit)?
And how shuld ony dove
How could any dove
Ben withoute bon?
Be without bones?

How shuld ony brer
How could any briar
Ben withoute rinde?
Be without bark?
How shuld I love min lemman
How could I love my sweetheart
Without longing?
Without longing?

Whan the cherye was a flour,
When the cherry was a flower,
Than hadde it non ston;
Then had it no stone (pit);
Whan the dove was an ey,
When the dove was an egg,
Than hadde it non bon.
Then had it no bones.

Whan the brer was onbred,
When the briar was a sprout,
Than hadde it non rind;
Then had it no bark;
Whan the maiden hath that she loveth,
When the maiden has what she loves,
She is without longing.
She is without longing.

I was taught a version of this riddle song back when schoolchildren had music lessons; it's interesting to see how long it's been around in a very similar form – our fruit was also a cherry (still referred to as one of the stone fruits, that is, fruit with a pit or kernel in the center), but I think the boneless bird in our version was a chicken (I'm sure some clever or misguided child would these days offer "chicken tenders" as an answer). In the song I learned, it was the lover who was asking us the riddles; here it is, perhaps oddly, the lover's sister, who is for some reason far beyond the sea – is she at home, or is he? Is he a soldier, a pilgrim, a knight? Is she a pilgrim? I think we can rule out "nun in a convent" though . . . maybe not; after all, as Chaucer's Prioress tells us, Amor Vincit Omnia, or Love Conquers All. The mysterious love-tokens are explained, but not why this young woman is sending them to her brother; perhaps the clue is in the final lines: When the maiden hath that she loveth, / She is without longing: in other words, your sweetheart also wants you, so go ahead and . . . you know. In the springtime tradition of carpe diem poems, grab the cherry blossom before it falls, the dove (the traditional symbol of faithful love) before it hatches and flies away, the briar before it gets large and thorny, and the lover while he or she is willing.

I'm pretty pleased that I also worked two Latin tags into this! I took this lyric from the Norton Critical Edition of Middle English Lyrics, edited by Richard L Hoffman and Maxwell S Luria. The translation they give for rind is unborn, but this version offers bark, which I think makes more sense.

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