A summary of a medieval winter poem
‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’ is one of the earliest surviving winter poems in English literature. Below we offer the poem in its original Middle English spelling, followed by a modern English paraphrase designed to help summarise the poem, and then a few words analysing this fine lyric.
Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare;
Ofte I sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.
Nou hit is, and nou hit nys,
Al so hit ner nere, ywys;
That moni mon seith, soth hit ys:
Al goth bote Godes wille:
Alle we shule deye, thah us like ylle.
Al that gren me graueth grene,
Nou hit faleweth albydene:
Jesu, help that hit be sene
Ant shild us from helle!
For y not whider y shal, ne hou longe her duelle.
This poem was written a long time ago, so a brief paraphrase into modern English might be useful:
Winter awakens all my sorrow, now these leaves grow bare; often I sigh and mourn sorely when I come to think of this world’s joy, and how it all goes to nothing. Now it is, now it is not [i.e. now you see it, now you don’t]; as though it had never been, truly. Many men say this, and it is so: everything goes except God’s will, and we shall all die, though we don’t like it [like it ill]. All that green [i.e. grass] which grows green, now it fades altogether: Jesus, help this to be seen [i.e. understood], and shield us from hell! For I don’t know where I shall go, nor how long I shall dwell here.
How old is ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’? It’s hard to pin anything approaching a precise date on it, as with so many medieval lyrics. Theodore Silverstein’s English Lyrics Before 1500 places it ‘before 1340’, so several decades (at least) before Geoffrey Chaucer began writing. Edward Bliss Reed, in a 1928 article for Modern Language Notes, dates the poem to around 1310 and records that the poem is thought to have been composed in Leominster, Herefordshire. In short, it’s a very early poem written in recognisable English (though Middle English rather than modern).
How should we analyse ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’? It’s a poem about the brevity of life – a memento mori among other things – reminding the reader (or the listener, if it was designed to be sung before an audience) that s/he will die, and to reflect upon where s/he is bound after death. (Note that the poem mentions hell; it does not mention heaven.) Reed drew attention to the relatively easy language of the lyric, but noted that the clear exception is the first line of the final stanza: ‘Al that gren me graueth grene’. The line has been interpreted in numerous ways, but probably the simplest way to read it is ‘all that grass which I see growing green’ (or words to that effect, at least: the anonymous poet’s repetition of ‘green’ with two subtly different meanings cannot be adequately paraphrased). In analysing this line, Reed drew a comparison between ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’ and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a number of which talk about the way winter confounds the beauty of summer in order to draw attention to the transience of life.
‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’ was included in The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918 by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in the early twentieth century, though it has been dropped from subsequent editions of this (nevertheless superb) anthology. We think this is a shame. It’s a fine lyric which still carries a powerful emotive punch – like the best medieval lyrics.
Image: From Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry by the Limbourg brothers, early 15th century; Wikimedia Commons.