England's Antiphon

Home - George MacDonald - England's Antiphon

Prev | Next | Contents


In the midst of wars and rumours of wars, the strife of king and barons, and persistent efforts to subdue neighbouring countries, the mere effervescence of the life of the nation, let us think for a moment of that to which the poems I am about to present bear good witness--the true life of the people, growing quietly, slowly, unperceived--the leaven hid in the meal. For what is the true life of a nation? That, I answer, in its modes of thought, its manners and habits, which favours the growth within the individual of that kingdom of heaven for the sake only of which the kingdoms of earth exist. The true life of the people, as distinguished from the nation, is simply the growth in its individuals of those eternal principles of truth, in proportion to whose power in them they take rank in the kingdom of heaven, the only kingdom that can endure, all others being but as the mimicries of children playing at government.

Little as they then knew of the relations of the wonderful story on which their faith was built, to everything human, the same truth was at work then which is now--poor as the recognition of these relations yet is--slowly setting men free. In the hardest winter the roots are still alive in the frozen ground.

In the silence of the monastery, unnatural as that life was, germinated much of this deeper life. As we must not judge of the life of the nation by its kings and mighty men, so we must not judge of the life in the Church by those who are called Rabbi. The very notion of the kingdom of heaven implies a secret growth, secret from no affectation of mystery, but because its goings-on are in the depths of the human nature where it holds communion with the Divine. In the Church, as in society, we often find that that which shows itself uppermost is but the froth, a sign, it may be, of life beneath, but in itself worthless. When the man arises with a servant's heart and a ruler's brain, then is the summer of the Church's content. But whether the men who wrote the following songs moved in some shining orbit of rank, or only knelt in some dim chapel, and walked in some pale cloister, we cannot tell, for they have left no name behind them.

My reader will observe that there is little of theory and much of love in these lyrics. The recognition of a living Master is far more than any notions about him. In the worship of him a thousand truths are working, unknown and yet active, which, embodied in theory, and dissociated from the living mind that was in Christ, will as certainly breed worms as any omer of hoarded manna. Holding the skirt of his garment in one hand, we shall in the other hold the key to all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

I think almost all the earliest religious poetry is about him and his mother. Their longing after his humanity made them idolize his mother. If we forget that only through his humanity can we approach his divinity, we shall soon forget likewise that his mother is blessed among women.

I take the poems from one of the Percy Society publications, edited by Mr. Wright from a manuscript in the British Museum. He adjudges them to the reign of Edward I. Perhaps we may find in them a sign or two that in cultivating our intellect we have in some measure neglected our heart.

But first as to the mode in which I present them to my readers: I have followed these rules:--

  1. Wherever a word differs from the modern word only in spelling, I have, for the sake of readier comprehension, substituted the modern form, with the following exception:--Where the spelling indicates a different pronunciation, necessary for the rhyme or the measure, I retain such part of the older form, marking with an acute accent any vowel now silent which must be sounded.

  2. Where the word used is antique in root, I give the modern synonym in the margin. Antique phrases I explain in foot-notes.

It must be borne in mind that our modern pronunciation can hardly fail in other cases as well to injure the melody of the verses.

The modern reader will often find it difficult to get a rhythm out of some of them. This may arise from any of several causes. In the first place many final e's were then sounded which are now silent; and it is not easy to tell which of them to sound. Again, some words were pronounced as dissyllables which we treat as monosyllables, and others as monosyllables which we treat as dissyllables. I suspect besides, that some of the old writers were content to allow a prolonged syllable to stand for two short ones, a mode not without great beauty when sparingly and judiciously employed. Short supernumerary syllables were likewise allowed considerable freedom to come and go. A good deal must, however, be put down to the carelessness and presumption of the transcribers, who may very well have been incapable of detecting their own blunders. One of these ancient mechanics of literature caused Chaucer endless annoyance with his corruptions, as a humorous little poem, the last in his works, sufficiently indicates. From the same sources no doubt spring as well most of the variations of text in the manuscripts.

The first of the poems is chiefly a conversation between the Lord on the cross and his mother standing at its foot. A few prefatory remarks in explanation of some of its allusions will help my readers to enjoy it.

It was at one time a common belief, and the notion has not yet, I think, altogether vanished, that the dying are held back from repose by the love that is unwilling to yield them up. Hence, in the third stanza, the Lord prays his mother to let him die. In the fifth, he reasons against her overwhelming sorrows on the ground of the deliverance his sufferings will bring to the human race. But she can only feel her own misery.

To understand the seventh and eighth, it is necessary to know that, among other strange things accepted by the early Church, it was believed that the mother of Jesus had no suffering at his birth. This of course rendered her incapable of perfect sympathy with other mothers. It is a lovely invention, then, that he should thus commend mothers to his mother, telling her to judge of the pains of motherhood by those which she now endured. Still he fails to turn aside her thoughts. She is thinking still only of her own and her son's suffering, while he continues bent on making her think of others, until, at last, forth comes her prayer for all women. This seems to me a tenderness grand as exquisite.

The outburst of the chorus of the Faithful in the last stanza but one,--

When he rose, then fell her sorrow,

is as fine as anything I know in the region of the lyric.

"Stand well, mother, under rood;[1] the cross.
Behold thy son with gladé mood;
Blithe mother mayst thou be."
"Son, how should I blithé stand?
I see thy feet, I see thy hand
Nailéd to the hard tree."
"Mother, do way thy wepynde: give over thy weeping.
I tholé death for mankind--
For my guilt thole I none."
"Son, I feel the dede stounde; death-pang.
The sword is at my heart's ground bottom.
That me byhet Simeon."

"Mother, mercy! let me die,
For Adam out of hell buy, for to buy Adam.
And his kin that is forlore."
"Son, what shall me to rede?[2]
My pain paineth me to dede:
Let me die thee before!"
"Mother, thou rue all of thy bairn; rue thou; all is only expletive
Thou wash away the bloody tern; wash thou; tears.
It doth me worse than my ded." hurts me more; death.
"Son, how may I terés werne? turn aside tears.
I see the bloody streamés erne flow.
From thy heart to my fet." feet.
"Mother, now I may thee seye, say to thee.
Better is that I one deye
Than all mankind to hellé go."
"Son, I see thy body byswongen, lashed.
Feet and hands throughout stongen: pierced through and through.
No wonder though me be woe." woe be to me.

"Mother, now I shall thee tell,

If I not die, thou goest to hell:
I thole death for thy sake." endure.
"Son, thou art so meek and mynde, thoughtful.
Ne wyt me not, it is my kind[3]
That I for thee this sorrow make."

"Mother, now thou mayst well leren learn. What sorrow have that children beren, they have; bear.

What sorrow it is with childé gon." to go.

"Sorrow, I wis! I can thee tell!  
But it be the pain of hell
More sorrow wot I none."
"Mother, rue of mother-care, take pity upon.
For now thou wost of mother-fare,
Though thou be clean maiden mon."[4]
"Soné, help at alle need
Allé those that to me grede, cry.
Maiden, wife, and full wymmon." woman with child.

"Mother, may I no longer dwell;
The time is come I shall to hell;

The third day I rise upon."  
"Son, I will with thee founden;
I die, I wis, for thy wounden:
set out, go.
So sorrowful death nes never none." was not never none.

When he rose, then fell her sorrow;

Her bliss sprung the third morrow:  
Blithe mother wert thou tho! then.
Lady, for that ilké bliss, same.
Beseech thy son of sunnés lisse: for sin's release.
Thou be our shield against our foe. Be thou.

Blessed be thou, full of bliss!
Let us never heaven miss,

Through thy sweeté Sonés might!
Loverd, for that ilké blood, Lord,
That thou sheddest on the rood,
Thou bring us into heaven's light. AMEN.

I think my readers will not be sorry to have another of a similar character.

sigh when I sing
For sorrow that I see,

When I with weeping

Behold upon the tree,

And see Jesus the sweet
His heart's blood for-lete yield quite.
For the love of me.
His woundés waxen wete, wet.
They weepen still and mete:[5]
Mary rueth thee. pitieth.

High upon a down, hill.
Where all folk it see may,
A mile from each town,
About the mid-day,
The rood is up arearéd;

His friendés are afearéd,

And clingeth so the clay;[6]

The rood stands in stone,
Mary stands her on,

And saith Welaway!

When I thee behold
With eyen brighté bo, eyes bright both.
And thy body cold--
Thy ble waxeth blo, colour: livid.
Thou hangest all of blood bloody.
So high upon the rood
Between thieves tuo-- two.
Who may sigh more?
Mary weepeth sore,
And sees all this woe.

The nails be too strong,
The smiths are too sly; skilful.
Thou bleedest all too long;
The tree is all too high;
The stones be all wete! wet.
Alas, Jesu, the sweet!
For now friend hast thou none,

But Saint John to-mournynde, mourning greatly.
And Mary wepynde, weeping.
For pain that thee is on.

Oft when I sike sigh.
And makie my moan,
Well ill though me like,
Wonder is it none.[7]
When I see hang high
And bitter pains dreye, dree, endure.
Jesu, my lemmon! love.
His woundés sore smart,
The spear all to his heart
And through his side is gone.

Oft when I syke, sigh.
With care I am through-sought; searched through.
When I wake I wyke; languish.
Of sorrow is all my thought.
Alas! men be wood mad.
That swear by the rood swear by the cross.
And sell him for nought
That bought us out of sin.
He bring us to wynne, may he: bliss.
That hath us dear bought!

I add two stanzas of another of like sort.

Man that is in glory and bliss,

And lieth in shame and sin,  
He is more than unwis unwise.
That thereof will not blynne.
All this world it goeth away,
Me thinketh it nigheth Doomsday;
Now man goes to ground: perishes.
Jesus Christ that tholed ded endured death.
He may our souls to heaven led lead.
Within a little stound.

Jesus, that was mild and free,
Was with spear y-stongen;
He was nailéd to the tree,
stung or pierced.
With scourges y-swongen. lashed.
All for man he tholed shame,
Withouten guilt, withouten blame,
Bothé day and other[8].
Man, full muchel he loved thee,
When he woldé make thee free,
And become thy brother.

The simplicity, the tenderness, the devotion of these lyrics is to me wonderful. Observe their realism, as, for instance, in the words: "The stones beoth al wete;" a realism as far removed from the coarseness of a Rubens as from the irreverence of too many religious teachers, who will repeat and repeat again the most sacred words for the merest logical ends until the tympanum of the moral ear hears without hearing the sounds that ought to be felt as well as held holiest. They bear strongly, too, upon the outcome of feeling in action, although doubtless there was the same tendency then as there is now to regard the observance of church-ordinances as the service of Christ, instead of as a means of gathering strength wherewith to serve him by being in the world as he was in the world.

From a poem of forty-eight stanzas I choose five, partly in order to manifest that, although there is in it an occasional appearance of what we should consider sentimentality, allied in nature to that worship of the Virgin which is more a sort of French gallantry than a feeling of reverence, the sense of duty to the Master keeps pace with the profession of devotedness to him. There is so little continuity of thought in it, that the stanzas might almost be arranged anyhow.

Jesu, thy love be all my thought;
Of other thing ne reck I nought; reckon.
I yearn to have thy will y-wrought,
For thou me hast well dear y-bought.

Jesu, well may mine hearté see

That mild and meek he must be,  
All unthews and lustés flee, bad habits.
That feelen will the bliss of thee. feel.

For sinful folk, sweet Jesus,
Thou lightest from the high house; Poor and low thou wert for us.
Thine heart's love thou sendest us.

Jesu, therefore beseech I thee
Thy sweet love thou grant me;

That I thereto worthy be,  
Make me worthy that art so free.

Jesu, thine help at my ending!
thou that art.
And in that dreadful out-wending, going forth of the spirit.
Send my soul good weryyng,
That I ne dread none evil thing.

I shall next present a short lyric, displaying more of art than this last, giving it now in the old form, and afterwards in a new one, that my reader may see both how it looks in its original dress, and what it means.

Wynter wakeneth al my care,

Nou this leves waxeth bare,  
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare,
When hit cometh in my thoht
sigh; sore.
Of this worldes joie, how hit goth al to noht.
Now hit is, ant now hit nys,
Also hit ner nere y-wys,[9]
That moni mon seith soth hit ys,[10]
Al goth bote Godes wille,
it is not.
Alle we shule deye, thah us like ylle.

Al that gren me graueth grene,[11]
though it pleases us ill.
Nou hit faleweth al by-dene; grows yellow: speedily.
Jhesu, help that hit be sene,
Ant shild us from helle;
For y not whider y shal, ne hou longe her duelle.[12]

I will now give a modern version of it, in which I have spoiled the original of course, but I hope as little as well may be.

Winter wakeneth all my care;
Now the trees are waxing bare;

my sighs my grief declare[13]
When it comes into my thought Of this world's joy, how it goes all to nought.

Now it is, and now 'tis not--
As it ne'er had been, I wot.
Hence many say--it is man's lot:

All goeth but God's will;
We all die, though we like it ill.

Green about me grows the grain;
Now it yelloweth all again:
Jesus, give us help amain,

And shield us from hell;
For when or whither I go I cannot tell

There were no doubt many religious poems in a certain amount of circulation of a different cast from these; some a metrical recounting of portions of the Bible history--a kind unsuited to our ends; others a setting forth of the doctrines and duties then believed and taught. Of the former class is one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon poems we have, that of Caedmon, and there are many specimens to be found in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They could, however, have been of little service to the people, so few of whom could read, or could have procured manuscripts if they had been able to use them. A long and elaborate composition of the latter class was written in the reign of Edward II. by William de Shoreham, vicar of Chart-Sutton in Kent. He probably taught his own verses to the people at his catechisings. The intention was, no doubt, by the aid of measure and rhyme to facilitate the remembrance of the facts and doctrines. It consists of a long poem on the Seven Sacraments; of a shorter, associating the Canonical Hours with the principal events of the close of our Lord's life; of an exposition of the Ten Commandments, followed by a kind of treatise on the Seven Cardinal Sins: the fifth part describes the different joys of the Virgin; the sixth, in praise of the Virgin, is perhaps the most poetic; the last is less easy to characterize. The poem is written in the Kentish dialect, and is difficult.

I shall now turn into modern verse a part of "The Canonical Hours," giving its represented foundation of the various acts of worship in the Romish Church throughout the day, from early in the morning to the last service at night. After every fact concerning our Lord, follows an apostrophe to his mother, which I omit, being compelled to choose.

Father's wisdom lifted high,

Lord of us aright--

God and man taken was,

At matin-time by night.

The disciples that were his,

Anon they him forsook;

Sold to Jews and betrayed,

To torture him took.

At the prime Jesus was led

In presence of Pilate,

Where witnesses, false and fell,

Laughed at him for hate.

In the neck they him smote,

Bound his hands of might;

Spit upon that sweet face

That heaven and earth did light.

"Crucify him! crucify!"

They cried at nine o'clock;

purple cloth they put on him--
To stare at him and mock.

They upon his sweet head

Stuck a thorny crown;

To Calvary his cross he bears.

Pitiful, from the town

Jesus was nailed on the cross

At the noon-tide;

Strong thieves they hanged up,

One on either side.

In his pain, his strong thirst

Quenched they with gall;

So that God's holy Lamb

From sin washed us all.

At the nones Jesus Christ

Felt the hard death;

He to his father "Eloi!" cried,

Gan up yield his breath.

soldier with a sharp spear
Pierced his right side;

The earth shook, the sun grew dim,

The moment that he died.

He was taken off the cross

At even-song's hour;

The strength left and hid in God

Of our Saviour.

Such death he underwent,

Of life the medicine!

Alas! he was laid adown--

The crown of bliss in pine!

At complines, it was borne away

To the burying,

That noble corpse of Jesus Christ,

Hope of life's coming.

Anointed richly it was,

Fulfilled his holy book:

pray, Lord, thy passion
In my mind lock.

Childlike simplicity, realism, and tenderness will be evident in this, as in preceding poems, especially in the choice of adjectives. But indeed the combination of certain words had become conventional; as "The hard tree," "The nails great and strong," and such like.

I know I have spoiled the poem in half-translating it thus; but I have rendered it intelligible to all my readers, have not wandered from the original, and have retained a degree of antiqueness both in the tone and the expression.

Prev | Next | Contents