A rota is a type of round, which in turn is a kind of partsong. To perform the round, one singer begins the song, and a second starts singing the beginning again just as the first got to the point marked with the red cross in the first figure below. The length between the start and the cross corresponds to the modern notion of a bar, and the main verse comprises six phrases spread over twelve such bars. In addition, there are two lines marked "Pes", two bars each, that are meant to be sung together repeatedly underneath the main verse. These instructions are included (in Latin) in the manuscript itself:
"Hanc rota cantare possum quatuor socii. A paucio/ribus autem quam a tribus uel saltem duobus non debet/ dici preter eos qui dicunt pedem. Canitur autem sic. Tacen/tibus ceteris unus inchoat cum hiis qui tenent pedem. Et cum uenerit/ ad primam notam post crucem, inchoat alius, et sic de ceteris./ Singuli de uero repausent ad pausacionis scriptas et/non alibi, spacio unius longe note."
(Four companions can sing this round. But it should not be sung by fewer than three, or at the very least, two in addition to those who sing the pes. This is how it is sung. While all the others are silent, one person begins at the same time as those who sing the ground. And when he comes to the first note after the cross [which marks the end of the first two bars], another singer is to begin, and thus for the others. Each shall observe the written rests for the space of one long note [triplet], but not elsewhere.)
The celebration of summer in "Sumer Is Icumen In" is similar to that of spring in the French poetic genre known as the reverdie (lit. "re-greening"). However, there are grounds for doubting such a straightforward and naïve an interpretation. The language used lacks all of the conventional springtime-renewal words of a reverdie (such as "green", "new", "begin", or "wax") except for springþ, and elements of the text, especially the cuckoo and the farmyard noises, are susceptible of double meanings. "It is the wrong bird, the wrong season, and the wrong language for a reverdie, unless an ironic meaning is intended" (Roscow 1999, 188, 190, 193).
The translation of "bucke uerteþ" is uncertain. Some translate the former word as "buck-goat" and the latter as "turns" or "cavorts," but the current critical consensus is that the line is the stag or goat "farts" (Millett 2003c; Wulstan 2000, 8).
In the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.) whistles the melody just before he meets Robin Hood. The song is also played in several episodes of the 1950's television show also named The Adventures of Robin Hood. Sometimes the song features prominently in the episode: for example, in the episode Carlotta, Little John (Archie Duncan) sings it to his beloved, and in The Betrothal, Sir Richard of the Lea's son plays it on the flute and his betrothed sings it. Other times it is heard in the background while nobles are having party or even sung while the merry men are doing chores.
Sumer is Icumen in,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blows the mead,
And springs the wood anew;
Ewe bleats harshly after lamb,
Cows after calves make moo;
Bullock stamps and deer champs,
Now shrilly sing, cuckoo!
Wild bird are you;
Be never still, cuckoo!
This piece was parodied as "Ancient Music" by the American poet Ezra Pound (Lustra, 1916):
Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.
The song is also parodied by P. D. Q. Bach as "Summer is a cumin seed" for the penultimate movement of his Grand Oratorio The Seasonings.
Vernon Duke gently parodied and paid homage to the round with his song "Summer is A-Comin' In," with the verse making reference to "a troubadour / Way back in 1226." Each refrain of the song begins with the phrase "Summer is icumen in / Lhude sing cucu." The song has been recorded by Charlotte Rae (twice) and Nat King Cole, among others.
The song is also referenced in "Carpe Diem," by The Fugs on their 1965 debut album, The Fugs First Album.
Sing, cuckoo sing,
Death is a-comin in,
Sing, cuckoo sing.
death is a-comin in.
^While Middle English sumer literally translates as "summer", Crystal (2004, 108) translates "spring". Millett (2003c) notes that the Middle English word "sumer" "extends over a longer period than the modern one".
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Fischer, Andreas (1994). "'Sumer is icumen in': The Seasons of the Year in Middle English and Early Modern English". In Studies in Early Modern English, edited by Dieter Kastovsky, 79–95. Berlin and New York: Mouton De Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-014127-2.
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Taylor, Andrew, and A. E. Coates (1998). "The Dates of the Reading Calendar and the Summer Canon". Notes and Queries 243:22–24.
Toguchi, Kōsaku. (1978). "'Sumer is icumen in' et la caccia: Autour du problème des relations entre le 'Summer canon' et la caccia arsnovistique du trecento". In La musica al tempo del Boccaccio e i suoi rapporti con la letteratura, edited by Agostino Ziino, 435–46. L'ars nova italiana del Trecento 4. Certaldo: Centro di Studi sull'Ars Nova Italiana del Trecento.