Thursday, December 22, 2005

Ode to Ale

Enough of Hwang! Let's have a drink!

Now, this ain't my own composition -- my drinking song's here -- but an anonymous lyric of the 15th century will do the job just as well:

Jolly Good Ale and Old

I cannot eat but little meat,
My stomach is not good;
But sure I think that I can drink
With him that wears a hood.
Though I go bare, take ye no care,
I nothing am a-cold;
I stuff my skin so full within
Of jolly good ale and old.

Back and side go bare, go bare,
Both foot and hand go cold;
But, belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old.

I love no roast but a nut-brown toast,
And a crab laid in the fire;
A little bread shall do me stead;
Much bread I not desire.
No frost nor snow, no wind, I trow,
Can hurt me if it would,
I am so wrapped and throughly lapped
Of jolly good ale and old.

Back and side go bare, go bare,
Both foot and hand go cold;
But, belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old.

And Tib, my wife, that as her life
Loveth well good ale to seek,
Full oft drinks she till ye may see
The tears run down her cheek.
Then doth she troll to me the bowl,
Even as a maltworm should,
And saith, "Sweetheart, I took my part
Of this jolly good ale and old."

Back and side go bare, go bare,
Both foot and hand go cold;
But, belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old.

Now let them drink till they nod and wink,
Even as good fellows should do;
They shall not miss to have the bliss
Good ale doth bring men to.
And all poor souls that have scoured bowls
Or have them lustily trolled --
God save the lives of them and their wives,
Whether they be young or old.

Back and side go bare, go bare,
Both foot and hand go cold;
But, belly, God send thee good ale enough,
Whether it be new or old.
I could have used this song back in my undergrad daze. I mean days. Well . . . okay, I mean both.

But some notes are needed, by which I mean footnotes -- though the musical notation would be useful, too. (How does one sing this song?)

I'll supply the footnotes, borrowed from page 30 of my Norton Anthology of Poetry (New York / London: Norton & Co., 1983), edited by Alexander W. Allison et al., but in my own informal way.

The lines about drinking with "With him that wears a hood" might raise the specter of the Ku Klux Klan in the mind's eye of Americans, but it actually means that the singer can drink "as much as any friar."

The "nut-brown toast" was "[u]sed as a sop with ale or wine," which reminds me of the spiced toast used for flavoring a drink -- a practice that I noted in my "Toast of the Town" entry some months back.

The "crab laid in the fire" doesn't allude to a seafood delicacy rather at odds with this singer's usual eating habits but to the crab apple, which derives its name from its sour flavor (recall that a sour person is "crabby"). Hence the need to cook it in the fire.

In case anyone needs help with "do me stead," it means "do me service."

The interjection "I trow" means "I trust."

The adverb "throughly" means the same as our modern-day "thoroughly," and the immediately following expression "lapped of" means "swathed in."

The word "troll" (and forget not "trolled") means "pass," which I never would have guessed on my own, but I suppose that it has some connection to a couple of the definitions given by the Free Dictionary for "troll":

(transitive verb): 3. Music: a. To sing in succession the parts of (a round, for example).

(intransitive verb): 4. To roll or spin around.
The image of passing a stein of ale around comes to mind.

Finally, a "maltworm" is a "toper." But what's a "toper"? Back to the Free Dictionary, entry for "toper": a chronic drinker. The word is pronounced with a long "o." Probably, you knew that.

As noted above, this drinking song stems from the 15th century, yet for a lyric from only about a century after Chaucer, it seems remarkably contemporary in its form of English, at least to me. Has it been modernized in its spelling and vocabulary?

Anyway, next time you're drinking an ale, try thinking a while on that unknown man some five hundred years ago who sat down with a brew and wrote this song.

And raise a cup in his honor.


At 8:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good posting! Although I always think of the song by the title "Back and Side," from the refrain.

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.

At 8:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Ian. I knew of Quiller-Couch's attribution of the poem to Stevenson, but I was too lazy to bring it in. Likewise with the "Gammer Gurton's Needle" play, which I had come across but was too unfamiliar with to post on without more reading.

I'm glad that I have good editors to call me on my laziness.

Interestingly, my copy of the seventh edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature lacks the poem entirely.

If you could post a line with the old spelling, I'll Google to see if anything's been posted online.

At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, saves me the trouble of unearthing my Elizabethan lit. collection from storage. (I once cross-referenced the Norton Anthology to text editions, so I had basic information ready to hand.) The site offers:

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:

and so forth; although I think there are some typographical errors. Try

With luck, this link will work. The song appears as "The.ii. Acte. Fyrste a Songe," and "Gammer Gurton's Needle" should turn up the page on Google Advanced Search.

An online search in fact finds dates offered for the play ranging from 1530 (!) to the 1575 I quoted. Some of these clearly come from very obsolete sources; I really should find a modern edition that reviews the evidence.

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm. That next to last phrase should have read "Some of these clearly come from the careless use of very obsolete sources, perhaps just someone's misreading of Quller-Couch; but ...."


Post a Comment

<< Home