Friday, December 23, 2005

Ode to Ale Revisited

Yesterday, I posted an anonymous drinking song from the 15th century and openly wondered about its 'modern' appearance in my Norton Anthology, asking if the text had "been modernized in its spelling and vocabulary."

I felt pretty sure about the former but unsure about the latter.

Pose a question on the internet, and someone will answer it sooner or later. Yesterday's answer came sooner than expected.

Ian Myles Slater, who seems to be something of a Renaissance Man online -- do a Google of his name, and you'll find that he has a wide range of interests -- posted a useful comment:

Quiller-Couch's "Oxford Book of English Verse" (1919) confidently attributed the poem to a William Stevenson (1530?-1575). Norman Ault was less certain in the anthology "Elizabethan Lyrics" (1940), which gives an old-spelling text (page 41). The fifth edition of "The Norton Anthology of English Literature" (which I have at hand) treats it simply as Anonymous (pages 994-995).

In any case, it appeared in the pioneering play "Gammer Gurton's Needle" (by "Mr. S., Master of Art," which is where the speculation about authorship seems to come in). It may be indefinitely older. But the language of that 1575 text is certainly VERY post-Chaucerian.
In a later comment, Slater provided access to an online copy of Gammer Gurton's Needle, which presents the text of the song in its second act (The. ii. Acte. Fyrste a Songe.) as follows:

Backe and syde go bare, go bare, booth foote and hande go colde:
But Bellye god sende thee good ale ynoughe, whether it be newe or olde.

I Can not eate but lytle meate, my stomacke is not good:
But sure I thmke that I can drynke with him that weares a hood.
Thoughe I go baretake ye no care, I am nothinge a colde:
I stuffe my skyn so full within, of ioly good Ale and olde.

Backe and syde go bare go bare, booth foote and hand go colde:
But belly god send the good ale inoughe whether it be new or olde.

I loue no rost but a nut browne toste and a Crab layde in the fyre,
A lytle bread shall do me stead much breade I not desyre:
No froste nor snow, no wnde I trowe can hurte mee if I wolde,
I am so wrapt, and throwly lapt of ioly good ale and olde.

Backe and syde go bare go bare, booth foote and hand go colde:
But belly god send the good ale inoughe whether it be new or olde.

And Tyb my wyfe that as her lyfe loueth well good ale to seeke,
Full ofte drynkes shee tyll ye may see the teares run downe her cheekes:
Then dooth she trowle to mee the bowl eeuen as a mault worme shuld,
And sayth sweete hart I tooke my part of this ioly good ale and olde.

Backe and syde go bare go bare, booth foote and hand go colde:
But belly god send the good ale inoughe whether it be new or olde.

Now let them drynke tyll they nod and winke, euen as good felowes shoulde doe
They shall not mysse to haue the blisse, good ale doth bringe men to:
And all poore soules that haue scowred boules or haue them lustely trolde,
God saue the lyues of them and theyr wyues whether they be yonge or olde.

Backe and syde go bare go bare, booth foote and hand go colde:
But belly god send the good ale inoughe whether it be new or olde.
If you happen to check the text, you'll see that immediately following this song, two characters appear:
"Enter: Diccon. Hodge."
Hodge? That's close enough to my family name to warrant a raised cup . . . (glance at clock) . . . but perhaps not at 5:15 in the morning. Somebody in a different time zone will have to handle that honor.

But back to the issue at hand. It seems that by my post yesterday, I have happened upon a mystery concerning not just the poem's form but also its authorship.

Life, though, is short, and art is long, so I may never personally follow up the mystery of this poem, whether it be Late Medieval or Early Modern.

I do want to note, however, that the title given in my Norton Anthology, "Jolly Good Ale and Old," does not appear in the play "Gammer Gurton's Needle," which simply calls it a "Song." Slater knows it as "Back and Side" -- though perhaps merely as an idiosyncratic means of filing it away in his mind.

Choosing a title, by the way, does a lot to set the song's tone. The Norton title suggests good old times drinking, devil take the consequences! Slater's title lends itself to moral musings on the evil consequences of riotous living. The play's reference to it simply as "Song" leaves the meaning up to our own inclinations, be they righteous or riotous.

As for me, being of two minds about it, I'd limit myself to an if-by-whiskey speech.

What's an if-by-whiskey speech? Ah, you're not from the South, are you? Well for those of you still curious, here from the "November 2004 Archives" of Wordcraft is the explanation . . . and, even better, the prime example:

if-by-whiskey speech – southern US regionalism: a speech coming down emphatically on both sides on an issue

From the days when any good southern politician had a speech of this sort at the ready, concerning his views on spiritus ferminti. Several such passages are of record, of which this is the best. Supposedly from a Mississippi legislator in 1958.

"You have asked me how I feel about whiskey; well, Brother, here's how I stand.

If by whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean that evil drink that topples Christian men and women from the pinnacles of righteous and gracious living into the bottomless pits of degradation, shame, despair, helplessness, and hopelessness, then, my friend, I am opposed to it with every fiber of my being.

However, if by whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the elixir of life, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer, the stimulating sip that puts a little spring in the step of an elderly gentleman on a frosty morning; if you mean that drink that enables man to magnify his joy, and to forget life's great tragedies and heartbreaks and sorrow; if you mean that drink the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars each year, that provides tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitifully aged and infirm, to build the finest highways, hospitals, universities, and community colleges in this nation, then my friend, I am absolutely, unequivocally in favor of it.

This is my position, and as always, I refuse to be compromised on matters of principle."
I wholeheartedly concur.


At 4:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given the editorial and mutable nature of most such titles, I try to remember older poetry by first lines and refrains, which usually are indexed.

"Back and Side Go Bare" is in fact the title provided in some anthologies. One which I have at hand is "From Beowulf to Thomas Hardy," edited by Robert Shafer (1924). (My family tends to keep old textbooks....).

Judging from my Fifth Edition, the older editions of the "Norton Anthology of English Literature" seem to have titled it "Back and Side Go Bare, Go Bare." I first encountered it in the Second Edition (longer ago than I like to remember). I am dismayed it find it has been dropped from recent versions.

By the way, the date I gave for Norman Ault's "Elizabethan Lyrics from the Original Texts" should have been 1949, not 1940.

At 10:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, thanks for the additional information.

I, too, have some older Norton Anthologies. Back in the late 70s, I read through volumes 1 and 2 of the Norton Anthology for British literature and for American literature in preparation for the GRE. I did pretty well on the test, but I've forgotten a lot and don't remember if this poem appeared in my copy of volume 1. Perhaps I'll check.


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