I syng of a mayden
"I syng of a mayden" (sometimes titled "As Dewe in Aprille") is a Middle English lyric poem or carol of the 15th century celebrating the Annunciation and the Virgin Birth of Jesus. It has been described as one of the most admired short vernacular English poems of the late Middle Ages.
Written by an anonymous hand, the text is now only to be found in the Sloane Manuscript 2593, a collection of medieval lyrics now held in the British Library, although contemporary sources suggest it was well known in its day. Originally intended to be sung, no evidence of the work's musical setting survives, and since its rediscovery and popularisation it has formed the basis for a number of modern choral and vocal works.
The work has been described by Laura Saetveit Miles, a University of Bergen Professor of medieval literature, as "one of the most admired fifteenth-century Middle English lyrics [which] offers, within a deceptively simple form, an extremely delicate and haunting presentation of Mary (the 'mayden / þat is makeles') and her conception of Christ ('here sone')". Primarily, the text celebrates the Annunciation of Mary as described in Luke 1:26, but also widely references concepts from the Old Testament. Michael Steffes of University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point notes that "'I syng of a mayden' is a very quiet and very beautiful meditation on the inward aspects of the Annunciation, on the immediate consequences of Mary's acceptance of Gabriel's message." The concept of the choice of Mary is an important subtlety in the text. Derek Pearsall writes:
- A brain and a subtle ear has gone into the making of this poem...celebrating the mystery of Christ's conception. Dew falling on grass, flower and spray (traditional imagery, deriving from OT texts such as Psalm 72:6) suggests ease, grace and delicacy generally (not progressive stages of insemination). The emphasis on Mary's freedom of choice, at the moment of the annunciation, is theologically strictly proper.
According to Miles, despite a celebratory opening, "Mary's physical stillness as proof of her virginity remains the poet's priority." As a result, the poet repeats the phrase "He cam also stylle" in three of the five verses. "Stylle" had several implications – the stillness of the conception of Mary and of the birth of Jesus Christ.
|Middle English original||English modernisation|
|I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
I sing of a maiden
|He came also stylle
þer his moder was
He came as still
|He cam also stylle
to his moderes bowr
He came as still
|He cam also stylle
þer his moder lay
He came as still
|Moder & mayden
was neuer non but che –
Mother and maiden
The manuscript in which the poem is found, (Sloane 2593, ff.10v-11) is held by the British Library, who date the work to c.1400 and speculate that the lyrics may have belonged to a wandering minstrel; other poems included in the manuscript include "I have a gentil cok", "Adam lay i-bowndyn" and two riddle songs – "A minstrel's begging song" and "I have a yong suster". The Chaucer scholar Joseph Glaser notes that 2593 contains the only surviving copies of several "indispensable" poems. These include the aforementioned poem "Adam lay i-bowndyn", "A Babe is born al of a may", "Benedicamus Domino" and "Lullay, myn lykyng".
In 1836, Thomas Wright suggested that, although his fellow antiquarian Joseph Ritson had dated the manuscript from the reign of Henry V of England (1387–1422), he personally felt that although "its greatest antiquity must be included within the fifteenth century", some lyrics contained within may be of an earlier origin. Wright speculated, on the basis of the dialect of Middle English, that the lyrics probably originated in Warwickshire, and suggested that a number of the songs were intended for use in mystery plays. More recent analysis of the manuscript places the dialect as being of East Anglian original and more specifically Norfolk; two further carol MSS from the county contain duplicates from Sloane 2593. However, "I syng of a mayden" is a unique instance of this lyric.
Although the Sloane Manuscript is the only surviving textual source, the bibliographer and Shakespearean scholar W. W. Greg proposed that the poem's similarity to a much earlier 13th-century poem held at Trinity College, Cambridge (MS. B. 13. 49) was unlikely to be accidental. Alan J. Fletcher, a specialist in Latin liturgical drama and the late Middle Ages, noted in 1978 that a set of contemporary sermons compiled by a writer called Selk (Bodleian MS Barlow 24) quote the final phrases of the poem in such a way to suggest the poem was more widely disseminated and known in its time:
- Mayde, Wyff and Moder whas neure but ye
- Wel may swych a ladye Goddys modyr be.
As most explicitly noted by the first quatrain, the poem was originally intended to be sung. Indeed, as noted by Stephen Medcalf, Emeritus Reader in English at the University of Sussex, the text itself seems to imply melody and verse. However, due to the oral tradition of the time, the original melody of the song was not notated and over the course of time was forgotten.
Since the rediscovery of the text, many composers have set the text to music, amongst them diverse choral or vocal interpretations by Martin Shaw, Patrick Hadley, Roger Quilter, John Gerrish, Gustav Holst, Arnold Bax Peter Warlock, R.R. Terry, Lennox Berkeley, Benjamin Britten ("As Dewe in Aprille" in his Ceremony of Carols), Ronald Corp (1975), Philip Lawson a setting published by Walton Music, John Adams (as the chorus "I Sing of a Maiden" in his opera-oratorio El Niño), and Bob Chilcott (in his "Salisbury Vespers"). The work is also regularly performed by the Mediaeval Baebes. The setting composed by Miklós Rózsa is also included in the 1953 Knights of the Round Table film score.
- Laura Saetveit Miles, The Annunciation as Model of Meditation: Stillness, Speech and Transformation in Middle English Drama and Lyric in Marginalia, Vol. 2 – 2004–2005 Cambridge Yearbook (Cambridge, 2005).
- Michael Steffes, "As dewe in Aprylle": I syng of a mayden and the liturgy', Medium Aevum, Spring 2002.
- Derek Pearsall, Introductory note to Chaucer to Spenser: An Anthology (Oxford: OUP, 1999) ISBN 978-0-631-19839-0, 387.
- For a recent translation, see Richard Utz, "I syng of a Mayden," in: Mother Mary Comes to Me. A Popculture Poetry Anthology, ed. Karen Head and Collin Kelley (Lake Dallas, TX: Madville, 2020).
- Laura Saetveit Miles, The Annunciation as Model of Meditation: Stillness, Speech and Transformation in Middle English Drama and Lyric in Marginalia, Vol. 2 – 2004–2005 Cambridge Yearbook (Cambridge, 2005). Appendix.
- David Breeden, I Sing of a Maiden, Adaptations from Middle English Poetry.
- Medieval lyrics[permanent dead link] at the British Library Online, URL accessed 31 December 2009
- Alan J. Fletcher, "I sing of a maiden": A Fifteenth Century Sermon Reminiscence" in Notes and Queries issue 223, NS 25 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978). 107–8.
- Joseph Glaser, English poetry in modern verse (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2007) ISBN 978-0-87220-879-7, 5.
- Thomas Wright, Songs and carols from a manuscript in the British Museum of the fifteenth century, (London: T. Richards, 1856), 46-47, 79-80, 94-95.
- Thomas Wright, Songs and carols printed from a manuscript in the Sloane collection in the British museum (London: W. Pickering, 1836), vi
- Palti, K.R.; (2008) ‘Synge we now alle and sum’: three Fifteenth-Century collections of communal song: a study of British Library, Sloane MS 2593; Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. e.1; and St John’s College, Cambridge, MS S.54. Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London), 104
- W. W. Greg, "I Sing of a Maiden That Is Makeless" in Modern Philology, October 1909, 1. University of Chicago Press.
- Stephen Medcalf, The Later Middle Ages (London: Methuen & Co., 1981) ISBN 978-0-416-86000-9, 14.
- William Emmett Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader (New York: Haworth Press, 1995) ISBN 978-1-56023-872-0, 43
- David Willcocks, Kings College Choir, Cambridge, Argo RG 240 (Mono) ZRG 5240 (stereo)
- Roger Quilter, An old carol, for voice & piano, Op.25, No.3
- John Gerrish website, eohistory.info, 14 August 2010, retrieved 24 August 2010
- Gustav Holst, "I sing of a maiden", Four Songs for Voice and Violin op. 35 no. 3 (1916-7)
- Lewis Foreman, Bax: a composer and his times, (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007) ISBN 978-1-84383-209-6, 217.
- As Dew in Aprylle, The Choral Music Of Peter Warlock - Volume 4 (Peter Warlock Society, Thames Publishing)
- Richard R. Terry, " I Sing of a Mayden" in Twelve Christmas Carols. (London: J. Curwen & Sons, 1912) 18.
- A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, Christmas Eve, 2008 (PDF), Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 24 December 2008, archived from the original (PDF) on 5 November 2010, retrieved 25 December 2008
- Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols Op. 28 (1942)