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A Short Analysis of ‘I syng of a mayden’

A summary of the medieval Christmas carol

‘I sing of a maiden’ – or, to render it in its delightful original spelling, ‘I syng of a mayden’ – is one of the oldest surviving Christmas carols written in English. The words to this classic carol are included below, along with some words of explanation and gloss.

I syng of a mayden
That is makeles,
king of alle kinges
to here sone che chees.

He cam also stille
Ther his moder was
As dew in Aprylle,
That fallyt on the gras.

He cam also stille
To his modres bowr
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the flowr.

He cam also stille
Ther his moder lay
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the spray.

Moder & mayden
Was nevere noon but she:
Well may swich a lady
Godes moder be.

‘I sing of a maiden’ goes back quite a few centuries further than many of the more famous Christmas carols, such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Away in a Manger’. It dates from the early fifteenth century, though the words may be even older. As the original spelling of the lyric quoted above makes clear, ‘I syng of a mayden’ is in Middle English rather than modern English. For our money, that’s partly what gives it its charm: the spelling reveals a vernacular medieval-songs-book-illustrationEnglish which thrived before the birth of the printed book, before the ‘Great Vowel Shift’, before the arrival of Chancery Standard. This is a fluid, vibrant, living English meant to be sung during the Christmas season.

A paraphrase or summary of the lyric runs as follows:

I song of a maiden who is matchless; she chose, for her son, the king of all kings. He came, as still as dew in April that falls on the grass, to where his mother was. He came, as still as dew in April that falls on the flower, to his mother’s bower. He came, as still as dew in April that falls on the spray, to where is mother lay. Mother and maiden, there was never one as great as she; well may such a lady be God’s mother.

Put this way, the lyric appears to require little further textual explication or analysis – yet some aspects of the poem have given rise to debate. For instance, ‘makeles’ could mean ‘matchless’ (i.e. peerless), ‘mateless’ (i.e. without a mate), or ‘immaculate’ (without a maculum or spot or blemish, in other words – the Virgin Mary being free from original sin thanks to the Immaculate Conception). Given the final stanza, with its declaration that ‘Was nevere noon but she’ (i.e. ‘there never was no one but she’, in a nice double negative used for emphasis), the reading of ‘makeles’ as ‘matchless’ (i.e. peerless) seems the most likely reading.

Aside from this, the tone and themes of the poem have aroused different readings. Carol Rumens, suggestively, sees the poem as an erotic celebration of the conception of Christ, given the images of new life that abound in the poem, suggesting fertility and flowerings: the flowers, the dew, the spray (though perhaps it’s too early, and unbecoming, to detect a pun on ‘came’). Certainly the poem’s use of nature imagery denote the inevitability of the birth of Christ, as if it is all part of the natural cycle of things.

‘I sing of a maiden’ is a curious little poem that has been around for six centuries and still delights and entertains. It has been set to music on numerous occasions. You can listen to one of them here.

Image: Illustration from German book of medieval songs, via Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on December 22, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A shorter analysis: Thys guy couldn’t spelle for ye bynes.

  2. I hadn’t heard of this carol – once more you have provided a fascinating insight into a gem. And I played the link, actually hearing it sung – how beautiful! Thank you so much – and a very Merry Christmas to you.

  3. sang this song in my high school choir.

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