Nou Goth Sonne under Wode
Borrowed from Anniina Jokinen's Middle English Lyrics, this reproduction of Giotto's Crucifixion illustrates a lovely, early Middle English poem, its author forgotten, which reads:
Nou goth sonne under wode --Note the wordplay between "rode," which refers to the Virgin Mary's face but which can also mean "cross," and the words "wode" (wood) and "tre" (tree), both of which can refer either literally to trees or metaphorically to the cross. The University of Toronto's "Representative Poetry Online" gives the poem's composition date as 1240 and states:
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre --
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and the.
The quatrain belongs to the text of Archbishop Edmund's Speculum Ecclesie, composed 1239-40 probably at [the abbey in] Pontigny, France and occurs at a point in the text where the Virgin Mary is given over to St. John at the cross.The date 1240, then, can only be the latest possible date for its composition. Presumably, it dates earlier since, being an anonymous poem, the good archbishop did not himself write it. Interestingly, it first surfaced in France, where Edmund retired, but this shouldn't surprise us since the French Norman kings ruled England, having conquered it in 1066.
The poem as presented online suffers a rather wooden modern English rendering, perhaps by Carleton Brown, who included it in his English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932).
In my Norton Anthology of Poetry (New York / London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983, Third Edition, Shorter), a somewhat less wooden translation appears in a footnote:
Now the sun sets behind the forest.
Mary, I pity your lovely face.
Now sets the sun under the cross.
Mary, I pity your son and you.
Wooden translations have their place in scholarship, I suppose, if they give insight into the original meaning of the words, but we could perhaps strive for something more pleasing to the ear:
Now goes the sun under the wood --
I pity, Mary, thy fair face.
Now goes the sun under the tree --
I pity, Mary, thy son and thee.
This doesn't quite work either, for "look" does not exactly rhyme with "wood," though it approximates the sound. My translation renders the Middle English poem into Early Modern English, which probably sounds archaic to most of you but which sounds modern enough to one like me, raised in the Ozarks at a time when people still offered up spontaneous prayers using King James English -- and got it right.
Now goeth sun under wood --
I rue, Marie, thy fair, flushed look.
Now goeth sun under tree --
I rue, Marie, thy son and thee.
I suppose that I could have rendered "Me reweth" as "Me rueth," but I never heard anyone pray like that, using "me" before the verb. I assume that the Middle English means something like "It rueth me," but that doesn't quite work for me and also doesn't quite work for the poem. Or did the verb in "Me reweth" express a middle voice, something like a reflexive? Yet why then the "-eth" ending, which belongs to the third person singular form?
Any experts out there?