A Nonsense Carol

Yet more nonsense in this post.  But in my defence, looking at parody is a good way of finding out about literary form (and we all  need cheering up after the fifteenth-century misery…).  As Eric Stanley writes in a very good article on parody in Middle English, ‘for literary parody established literary forms are needed’ (Poetica, 27 (1988)).  Today’s lyric (scroll down for a text, somewhat modernised, and a translation) is a Tudor nonsense carol, surviving in a collection in the Huntington Library in a compilation of mid-sixteenth-century printed texts.  We don’t know its exact date or who printed it.  But it is an ingenious parody of the late medieval carol.  It also features a monkey…

A marginal monkey from BL MS Harley 4379

This sixteenth-century carol parodies the sort of very popular medieval carols collected together in Richard Leighton Greene’s anthology of Early English Carols (in which you can also find the text of this carol).  Medieval carols were not just sung about Christmas themes, but were first dance-songs, and then songs for singing about all sorts of religious and secular subjects.  As Greene defines them, the carol form is always stanzaic and always begins with a burden which is repeated between each stanza.  They often have a slightly mysterious, enigmatic, abbreviated quality (as Lucy Allen’s lovely post on two hawk-related carols illustrates).  It’s these qualities which invite parody.

There is some obvious nonsense of content in the lyric, the cow escapes and it is the rope that runs home.  Much of it sounds rather like children’s nursery rhymes.  Some stanzas give you three lines which sound as if they are building towards some coherent narrative which will culminate in the fourth line, but the fourth line is in fact a random question or comment.  Some feature statements by an ‘I’ and addresses to a ‘you’, echoing many of the features of love-song carols.

Some stanzas produce their nonsense by seeming to be assemblages of lines from other carols, a crazy imaginary mash-up of carols-which-don’t-exist.  I’ve typed it up without punctuation to try to give a sense of how fragmentary it is.  The author very cleverly draws on his audience’s sense of what sort of syntax appears in each line of the stanza — an address to your love in line one, a nature reference in the second line, concessive clauses which go nowhere, a proverbial or exclamatory fragment in the last line.  All of it produces some very entertaining monkey business…

My harte of golde as true as stele
As I me lened to a bough
In fayth but yf ye love me well
Lorde so Robyn lough

[My heart of gold as true as steel / As I leaned upon a bough /
Indeed unless you love me well / Lord how Robin laughed]

My lady went to Caunterbury
The saynt to be her bothe
She met with Cate of Malmesbery
Why wepyst thou in an apple rote
My hart etc

[My lady went to Canterbury / The saint to be her cure /
She met with Kate from Malmesbury / Why do you cry in an apple-tree trunk?]

Nyne myle to Mychelmas
Our dame began to brew
Mychell set his mare to gras
Lord so fast it snew
My hart etc

[Nine miles from Michaelmas / Our dame began to brew /
Michael put his horse out to graze / Lord how heavily it snowed.]

For you love I brake my glasse
Your gowne is furred with blew
The devyll is dede: for there I was
I-wys it is full trew
My hart etc

[For you my dear I break my glass / Your gown is furred with blue /
The devil is dead: for I was there and / Indeed it is completely true]

And yf ye slepe, the cocke wyll crow
True hart thynke what I say
Jack Napes wyll make a mow
Loke who dare say hym nay
My hart etc

[And if you sleep, the cock will crow / True heart listen to what I say /
Jack Napes* will pull a face / Look out whoever says he won’t]
(* ‘Jack Napes’ is a name for a monkey, also the nickname of William
de la Pole, duke of Suffolk)

I pray you, have me now in mynde
I tell you of the mater
He blew his horne agaynst the wynde
The crow gothe to the water
My hart etc

[I pray that you now think about me / I’ll tell you about this subject /
He blew his horn into the wind / The crow goes to the water]

Yet I tell you mekyll more
The cat lyeth in the cradell
I pray you, kepe true hart in store
A peny for a ladell
My hart etc

[Yet I can tell you a great deal more / The cat lies in the cradle /
I pray you keep your true heart a secret / A penny for a ladle]

I swere by Saynt Katheryn of Kent
The gose gothe to the grene
All our dogges tayle is brent
It is not as I wene
My hart etc

[I swear by Saint Katherine of Kent / The goose goes to the green /
All our dog’s tail is burned / It’s not how I thought it would be]

‘Tyrlery lorpyn’ the laverocke songe
So meryly pypes the sparow
The cow brake lose, the rope ran home
Syr God gyve yow good morow
My hart etc

[“Tireli lorpin” the male lark sang / So merrily pipes the sparrow /
The cow broke lose, the rope ran home / Sir may God give you a good tomorrow]

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