Tuesday, November 15, 2005

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 --
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre --
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and the.
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:
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).

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.

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 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.

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 goeth sun under wood --
I rue, Marie, thy fair, flushed look.
Now goeth sun under tree --
I rue, Marie, 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.

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?


At 9:45 AM, Blogger Zen Wizard said...

The reflective tense, if that is in fact what it is, might bespeak of an early Romantic (Latin) influence on English.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Thanks for posting this, Jeffery. I read that poem for the first time (in Middle English, thank God, read by a professor who could speak it beautifully) in an undergraduate English course. I've always thought it was lovely.

And I liked your translation.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Zen Wizard, I suppose a Latin influence is possible, though I also wonder about a middle voice native to English. I've looked in some reference books, but found nothing.

Kate Marie, I'm glad that you like it. The more I read the poem, the richer it sounds. I'm tempted to use "Me rueth" just to get the play of similar sounds in "Me rueth" and "Marie, thy...."

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I suppose the Shakespearean "methinks" isn't Middle English, but I wonder whether "Me rueth" might not be a precursor to that construction. Does that expression appear elsewhere in the literature of the time (and slightly later)?


PS: Sorry-- wish I had some actual expertise to offer. Come to think of it, I do know someone who might be of help-- an old classmate of mine from Georgetown. I'll shoot you an email with her contact info.

At 6:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So it's two and half years later. Forgive my tardiness; coincidence led me to this post. Nonetheless, I hope to add one more translation, perhaps licentious, from The Harper Anthology of Poetry, John F. Nims ed., 1981:

Under the wood the sun now goes,
Mary, I'm sad for your cheek's pale rose.
Under the tree the Son goes too;
Mary, I'm sad for your son and you.

I always liked the phrase "your cheek's pale rose", but in looking it up now for this offering, I find it somehow vastly different from my memory. Perhaps it is just the clumsiness of the translation.

At 11:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

BD, thanks for this other translation, and since I don't call roll, there is no tardiness.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 2006 version of the Norton Anthology of Western Literature, on page 1415, they do use "me rueth".

Now goeth sonne under wood,
Me rueth, Mary, thy fair rood;
Now goeth sonne under tree,
Me rueth, Mary, they son and thee.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the information.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read it as such:

Now goes the Son under the cross.(wood)
I pity Mary, your fair face.
Now goes the Son under the ground. (living tree is in the ground)
I pity Mary, your Son and you.

At 3:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for the recent comment. There are certainly puns on "sun" and "son" in this poem, so your interpretation might also work.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:54 AM, Blogger Kould bE aNyone said...

Cool article.

You'll probably like this band as they sing prettily in middle English.

The simplest explanation for seemingly singular variations on a language is that they are as they appear: discrepancies between the style of the author and the popular norm. Same as it ever was.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, 'KEN' (Kould bE aNyone) for the link.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"me reweth" is a Middle English construction that lingered into early Modern English as far as Shakespeare (so yes methinks/methinkth/methinketh is the same construction, but does not translate the way most people assume as "I think" but rather "it seems to me", because "thinks" here means seems, not thinks), and the "-eth" ending does signify third person, and "me" is not objective but dative, ie the translation is something like "to me it makes/creates regret/sadness/pity", or, in modern English, simply "I pity" - but that way of translating, while not incorrect, changes the structure to eliminate the third person element. Speakers of Germanic languages will be familiar with this construction.

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for the lucid explanation.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:59 AM, Blogger Michael R. Burch said...

Here is my translation, for what it's worth ...

Now Goeth Sun Under Wood
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now the sun passes under the wood:
I rue, Mary, thy faceā€”fair, good.
Now the sun passes under the tree:
I rue, Mary, thy son and thee.

At 2:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, MRB, there's always something to learn from a new translation.

Jeffery Hodges

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