How much lovelier an old poem may seem if the original spelling, or something approximating to it, is retained. It takes me back to my early years of reading, when the children in books by E. Nesbit (or Enid Blyton) find an ancient manuscript or a treasure map. They know it's old because all the 's's are 'f's.
What mystery is in that idea — what glory in deciphering the words and phrases and finding they are not so far — not so far at all — from what we might say even now.
When you're young, you tend not to think an awful lot about the meanings of the words. You can like them, thankfully, without analysing them. You can welcome things that are different and odd. So each December, I remember the time we did Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols in the school choir. Both my sister and I sang in it, and we loved it all our lives.
That Britten stuff – it was weird, right? We'd never sung anything like that before. What we usually did was the descant to O Come All Ye Faithful. But the more we sang the Ceremony, the more we got to like it, and its strange words. I don't recall anybody explaining what they meant – only how we had to sing them.
So in 'I synge of a mayden', 'Goddes moder' was three syllables, with mother as mudder. (We were not to sing God's mother, even though we all knew that was what it meant.)
We did not reinvent the words. We just sang them. With relish.
We sang most carols with relish, whatever the words were, which was just as well. Hymns to us were all a kind of mystery with a good tune, and fair game for creative interference. So the repeating phrase from The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came – 'most highly favoured lady' – was invariably rendered as 'most highly flavoured gravy'. I still can't hear that carol without thinking of good quality turkey stock thickened with just a little cornflour.
The year after A Ceremony of Carols, I started a degree in English Literature in the University of York. I didn't go to all the lectures, but I went to all the lectures by one R.T. Jones (Bob Jones) because they were a revelation to me.
He would take just one poem and talk about it for a whole hour very quietly and very carefully. Actually, he didn't talk. He read slowly from whatever he had written down on the papers in front of him. Little, if any, eye contact with his students. He had an intensely bookish, closed-in manner, as though everything he was sharing was a secret. So you tended to lean forward and listen more carefully.
One of the poems in his series was a medieval lyric from Britten's Ceremony, and it was 'I syng of a mayden'. I hadn't thought of a carol as a poem till this point, or considered the relationship between song lyrics and 'lyric' poetry.
This was over 40 years ago, so my memory of what he said is partial. The main thing I took away with me was an understanding of the power of repetition when each repetition is connected to a tiny change. That, and the idea of an experience getting close, and closer, and closest.
I think I had thought (because we sang it at Christmas) that the song was about the birth of Jesus. But it's not. It's the annunciation – the point at which Mary – without having sex with mortal man – meets the angel Gabriel, accepts the invitation to be the mother of God, and. becomes quietly and mysteriously with child. Most highly flavoured gravy, in fact.
But I believe this carol is as much about a spiritual change as anything else. Here are the old words, from the Sloane Manuscript in the British Library, thought to date from about 1400.
I syng of a mayden þat is makeles,
kyng of all kynges to here sone che ches.
He cam also stylle þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle, þat fallyt on þe gras.
He cam also stylle to his moderes bowr
as dew in aprille, þat fallyt on þe flour.
He cam also stylle þer his moder lay
as dew in Aprille, þat fallyt on þe spray.
Moder & mayden was neuer non but che –
wel may swych a lady Godes moder be.
So the maiden that is 'makeless' is matchless – beyond compare – and a 'mayden' means a virgin. If you lost your maidenhead, that meant you had had sex with a man. Here, Mary is a woman with a choice, not meekly bowing her head.
Bob Jones took us through the structure of the piece, the way it's bookended with couplets about the holy maiden – mudder and mayden, Godes moder – all those 'm' sounds and 'd' hammering away. Bob was the first person ever that made me aware of the small sounds and their connection with sense.
And then the direction: the way new life approaches and then gets closer, and closer and closer. He comes 'also stylle' – very very quietly – first where his mother was, then to his mother's bower, and finally where his mother lay. Something delicate and beautiful about it all, and increasingly intimate.
The dew in April (lovely idea in itself) is there three times, but first the dew falls on the grass, then the flower (with all its fertility associations), and finally the spray. It is an insemination, of sorts – but as quiet and innocent as morning dew.
And then suddenly there's the last couplet which is a triumphant assertion. In the Britten version, it was enormously satisfying. You get to sing 'was never none but she' – such a wonderful phrase, with each of its syllables belting out the message, and the music suddenly scored to zoom from very quiet to as maximum forte. There is a YouTube recording of a girls' choir that sounds very much as we did.
Bob would have pointed out the three monosyllables at the end of the line 'none but she'. I can remember his mouth making the word 'syllable'. I can remember realising the syllables had something to do with the intense heart of a poem, whatever that might be.
I have only just noted that Carol Rumens had this lyric as her Guardian poem of the week in 2010. She's a similar age to me. A Ceremony of Carols must have been doing its round of the English schools when we were both busily being educated. She read the words then and now, she says, as an 'erotic myth'.
Odd how strong a word 'erotic' can seem in the context of this lyric with all its subtlety and sweetness. But that's newspapers for you. They have allowed someone (I am sure not Carol) to introduce the ghastly subhead: Set to unforgettable music by Benjamin Britten, this strangely erotic Nativity is even better on the page. Heavens above! It's not a nativity. It's the arrival of the first thought of a baby.
I found it both pure and intimate, and still do. There seems to me something odd about a baby coming to his mother in an erotic way. Obviously people could argue about this till, as they say, the cows come home.
The cows are on their way right now. The stable is just around the corner. One more ƒleep