Sunday, January 22, 2006

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,
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!"
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 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.
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."
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.

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?

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13 Comments:

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Ephrem said...

Dear Horace Jeffrey,

What a beautiful post!

About "jerdins"--I have no idea. But I thought I'd let you know about my blog devoted to the study of Christian hymns.

Peace and good.

 
At 2:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kathleen "Ephrem" Pluth, thanks for your comment. I hadn't thought that this post would be particularly appealing for anyone other than me.

I had a quick look at your blog, which I found interesting. I've always loved well-written hymns, so I'll try to take a closer look soon.

By the way, I go by "Jeffery" (and note the odd spelling of my name).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:58 PM, Anonymous steph said...

Of course I'm clueless but inventing possibilities, my guess is that it might be a corruption of virgins combined with jeunes in order to legitimise a neoligism which realises some fancy illiteration.....

 
At 10:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hmmm ... "illiteration." Nice coinage, Steph.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:53 AM, Anonymous steph said...

Whoops! It was about 3am....and I'm an ignorant infantile illiterate (who can alliterate).

 
At 9:40 PM, Anonymous John Tinnes said...

Just wanted to say that Lee Ed Tyler is a name that I won't forget. In 10 years on line, defending my New Testament Research, no one made the kind of impression on me that Ed did.
I am sure that he thought that I was an Ego Manic when we first started to debate the N.T. and my teaching that there simply is no water baptism command from Jesus for the church, and so all the arguements are silly.
Ed was honest and admitted that some of his arguements weren't all that good, and came to realize through his own research of the word baptism, as used in the secular writings of that day,
that most see the word baptism and assume water, when water is rarely the object of baptism in those cases. IOW, the Gospels have Oceans of water where the word baptism is used, but rarely does baptism after that have anything to do with a watery one.
He is one of the most honest men that I have ever had the priv. of meeting. Glad to see that you feel the same way. I am not a "religious" Person, and don't see the N.T. as religous at all, in fact the word "religon/religious" is used in he neg. except by James who headed the Jerusalem church (Judaizers)
Blessings John Tinnes

 
At 4:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, John, for the note about Ed. He's always been what the moral philosophers call "supererogatory" in his helpfulness -- he goes beyond what is expected.

Your name looks familiar, too. Do you post on Crosstalk or Synoptic Gospels?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:07 AM, Anonymous Jim Tonrey said...

I just finished listening to the Kinston Trio's "The Last Month of the Year" and MarY Mild is a beautiful and haunting song. Haunting because you don't know what Jesus did but you understand that the adults are not happy. The liner notes referenced the ballad "The Bitter Withy" which led me to this site.

The entire CD is the best Xmas album ever. I grew up with the album and never forgot these songs. I tried for many years to find a used album but in 1999 EMI-Capitol Music Special Markets produced this as "Collectors Coice MUSIC". If you think the poem "The Bitter Withy" is good, the other songs and their origins may be found to be just as interesting. All the best & Happy Xmas.

 
At 10:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jim, I'm glad that this post was helpful. And thanks for the advice about the Kingston Trio CD.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:24 AM, Blogger Voila Megan said...

'Jerdins' is noted as meaning 'fellows' in my Fith Edition Norton Anthology, and that seems to make sense :)

 
At 3:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Voila Megan, for the information.

By the way, I see that you like fashion, so you might check out this site by a 'follower' of my blog.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across a modern slang term "jerden" which was defined for me as someone quarrelsome or hard to please, and supposedly derived from the work jerk. There also seemed to be some connotations that a jerden would be a snob. I don't see how this could be the same word as jerdin in the song, but it sure fits perfectly to the context!

Donna

 
At 3:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Donna. I wonder if "jerden" really stems from "jerk." The "d" wouldn't likely come from "k."

Things are still a mystery . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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