A summary of a classic medieval poem
English poetry begins with a stag breaking wind. Or, at least, it does if you pick up the wonderful The Oxford Book of English Verse, where the short song, ‘Sumer is icumen in’, begins the book’s chronological selection from eight centuries of English poetry. Dating from the mid-thirteenth century, over a hundred years before Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, ‘Sumer is icumen in’ is therefore one of the earliest examples of English poetry. Here is this wonderful medieval poem along with a short analysis of its meaning and language.
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!
Strictly speaking, the poem is a song – and, even more strictly speaking, the song is a canon, written in square notation on a five-line red stave. The manuscript, Harley 978, in which ‘Sumer is icumen in’ (alternatively known as ‘the Cuckoo Song’) appears also contains medical texts, recipes, and a glossary of herbs – a bit of a medieval Wikipedia, with something for everyone. A modern English translation of the words is given below:
Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now,
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!
In summary, the song is a celebration of the arrival of summer, with the cuckoo’s song heralding the new season. ‘Summer is come’, or ‘Summer has come in’, proclaims that first line (not summer is coming in, as the title is sometimes misinterpreted). The poem (or canon) is traditionally sung from the tower of Magdalen College, Oxford every May Day. The modernised translation given above removes some of the distant magic of the original Middle English – a potent reminder that there was recognisably English poetry before the Ricardian poets – but does help to explain what’s going on in each line.
However, scholars have disagreed over the word ‘uerteþ’ that is attached to the buck (or ‘bucke’) in the original manuscript version. Rendered into modern English as ‘verteth’, this can mean either ‘turns’ or ‘cavorts’ (something bucks are known to do) or ‘farts’ (something bucks are also known to do).
The cavorting could be a sign of fertility and virility (the buck’s in search of a mate), while the farting could also symbolise a buoyant, healthy energy. Given how much farting there is in medieval literature (consider the farting trumpets in Dante and ‘The Miller’s Tale’ of Chaucer, for instance), the idea of a farting buck makes sense.
‘Sumer is icumen in’ is about surviving the winter and making it through the lean period where, in medieval times, food could be scarce and life could be hard. The poem is a joyous celebration of the arrival of summer, and its tropes of the summer season – the bullock stirring (or starting, or even snorting), the cow lowing after its baby calf, and that flatulent (or cavorting) stag – all shout loudly and triumphantly, like the song of the cuckoo, summer is here. Perhaps no further analysis is required.
You can listen to the Hilliard Ensemble performing ‘Sumer is icumen in’ here.
Discover more classic medieval poetry with ‘Man in the Moon‘, this medieval poem about winter, and one of the earliest great medieval poems written in English.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: ‘Sumer is icumen in’ manuscript, Harley 978, courtesy of the British Library, via Wikimedia Commons.