The Bitter Withy
I keep encountering old poems that I never knew.
Here's one that I read with astonishment (due to its strangeness) only a few days ago in the Norton Anthology of Poetry (New York / London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983, Third Edition, Shorter, pages 45-46):
As it fell out on a holy day,My ignorance of this poem won't surprise anyone who knows me, but despite my generally recognized ignorance, my not knowing The Bitter Withy ought to be surprising because not only does it exist in the Norton, but it also exists in living memory as a recording by the Kingston Quartet, as we learn from Douglas D. Anderson, who has the website The Hymns and Carols of Christmas and devotes a page to The Bitter Withy, where he notes:
The drops of rain did fall, did fall,
Our Saviour asked leave of His mother, Mary,
If He might go play at ball.
"To play at ball, my own dear Son,
It's time you was going or gone,
But be sure let me hear no complaint of you,
At night when you do come home."
It was upling scorn and downling scorn!
Oh, there He met three jolly jerdins
Oh, there He asked the three jolly jerdins
If they would go play at ball.
"Oh, we are lords' and ladies' sons,
Born in bower or in hall."
"Then at the very last I'll make it appear
That I am above you all."
Our Saviour built a bridge with the beams of the sun,
And over He gone, He gone He;
And after followed the three jolly jerdins,
And drownded they were all three.
It was upling scorn and downling scorn!
The mothers of them did whoop and call,
Crying out: "Mary mild, call home your child,
For ours are drownded all!"
Mary mild, Mary mild called home her Child,
And laid our Saviour across her knee,
And with a whole handful of bitter
withy She gave Him slashes three.
Then He says to His Mother: "Oh, the withy! Oh, the withy!
The bitter withy that causes me to smart, to smart,
Oh, the withy, it shall be the very first tree
That perishes at the heart!"
The Kingston Trio, on their album "The Last Month Of The Year" recorded a song called "Mary Mild" which the liner notes indicate was a version of the ballad "The Bitter Withy," which is found on an Oriental legend known is Europe before the end of the eleventh century. The story, not found in official church writings, tells of Jesus at the age of eleven being chastised by Mary for building a bridge of sunbeams to illustrate his divine power to neighborhood children who refuse to play with a child so humble born. The "bridge of sunbeams" miracle has been traced from Egypt to Ireland, and to the lives of the medieval saints. The song was recorded on June 16, 1960.From the Kingston Trio's album The Last Month of the Year, here's the version of The Bitter Withy titled Mary Mild (Bob Shane/Tom Drake/Miriam Stafford):
As it fell out on a cold winter day, the drops of rain did fall.Since the album with this recording was released in 1960, I would have been a bit young to hear it, though I do recall listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary's Puff the Magic Dragon about three years later.
Our Savior asked leave of his mother, Mary, if He might go play at ball.
"Go up the hill," His mother said, "and there you will find three jolly children.
But let me hear no complaint of You when You come home again."
But the children said, "We are royal sons and we will not play at ball,
For You are but a poor maid's child, born in an oxen stall."
"If you are Lord's and Ladies' sons and you will not play at ball.
I'll build you a bridge of the beams of the sun to play upon us all."
And He built them a bridge of the beams of the sun
and over the pools they played, all three,
And the mothers called, "Mary, call home your child,
their eyes all drowned in tears.
Mary mild (Mary mild, Mary mild),
Mary mild (Mary mild) called home her Child.
And when she asked Him, "Why?" Said He,
"Oh, I built them a bridge of the beams of the sun
so they would play at ball with me.
So they would play with me."
The Kingston version of The Bitter Withy leaves out just enough to make the song inexplicable without knowledge of the original, for the specific reason that the mother's cry -- "their eyes all drowned in tears" -- is missing.
The original version has its mysteries as well, such as the word "jerdin" in "three jolly jerdins."
Anderson has generously posted information provided by Martha Edith Rickert (1871-1938), an American scholar who served as Professor of English at the University of Chicago (1924 to 1938) and worked on Chaucer but who had earlier published Ancient English Christmas Carols, 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1910). Anderson notes that:
1. Rickert asks "Virgins?" But in the next note she states "The word jerdin seems to be unknown. It may have been corrupted from virgins to make alliteration, but the children were apparently boys."Rickert's suggestion of "virgin" seems unlikely to me -- the words are too dissimilar. Perhaps following Rickert's other remark, my Norton suggests "boys" as the meaning, which would fit the poem's mention of going to "play at ball."
I wonder if the Kingston Trio's version, which has "three jolly children" instead of "three jolly jerdins," might point to the solution.
The word "jerdin" sounds to me like a corruption of the word "children."
But perhaps this puzzle has already found a solution. Anybody know?