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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVI. Transition English Song Collections

§ 4. Spiritual Lullabies

Related to Christmas carols are spiritual lullabies, for the simplest of the three forms of the lullaby is, virtually, a carol, in which, along with other episodes of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the spectacle of Mary singing “lulley” to the Infant is described. The refrain is all that differentiates this carol from others:

  • Lullay, myn lykyng, my dere sone, myn swetyng;
  • Lulley, dere herte, myn owyn dere derlyng.
  • In the second type of lullaby, Mary and the Infant talk to one another. Mary regrets that a child, born to be King of kings, is lying upon hay, and wonders why He was not born in a prince’s hall. The Babe assures her that lords and dukes and princes will come to worship Him. Then Mary would fain know how she herself can best serve Him, and He replies, by rocking Him gently in her arms and shoothing Him to sleep:

  • Ihesu, my son, I pray ye say,
  • As thou art to me dere,
  • How shall I serue ye to thy pay
  • & mak the right good chere?
  • All thy will
  • I wold ffulfill,—
  • Thou knoweste it well in ffay—
  • Both rokke ye still,
  • & daunce the yer till,
  • & synge “by, by; lully, lulley.”
  • Mary, moder, I pray ye,
  • Take me vp on loft,
  • & in thyn arme
  • Thow lappe me warm,
  • & daunce me now full ofte;
  • & yf I wepe
  • & will not slepe,
  • Than syng “by, by; lully, lulley.”
  • The third type is distinguished from this by the melancholy character of the conversation. The Mother tries in vain to assuage the grief of her Child, and, when she fails to do so, inquires the cause of His tears; whereupon He foretells the sufferings that await Him.

    A variant of this type introduces an allegory, in which a maiden weeps beside the couch of a dying knight:

  • Lully, lulley, lull(y), lulley;
  • The fawcon hath born my make away.
  • He bare hym vp, he bare hym down,
  • He bare hym in to an orchard browne.(Ref.)
  • In that orchard there was an halle,
  • That was hangid with purpill & pall.(Ref.)
  • And in that hall there was a bede,
  • Hit was hangid with gold so rede.(Ref.)
  • And yn that bed there lythe a knyght,
  • His wowndis bledyng day and nyght.(Ref.)
  • By that bede side kneleth a may,
  • & she wepeth both nyght & day.(Ref.)
  • All these poems are characterised by a lullaby refrain, and it is the conventional introduction for the poet to describe the scene as one that he himself witnessed “this other night.” The device certainly savours of the French, but I have not yet discovered a French poem of this character. Nor do there seem to be corresponding poems in Latin or German. The metre of most of the songs falters between the Teutonic fourstress alliterative verse and the septenarius; the original type was, probably, English, and later singers tried to conform it to a new metre. Moreover, the word “lulley,” which is the burden of the refrain, supports the theory of English origin, and this supposition is also borne out by the character of the secular lullaby, which has the same lugubrious tone, with its regret that the little Child is ushered into a world of sorrow. This is characteristically Teutonic.

    Merging into the lullaby is the complaint of Mary, of which many examples have survived. The song which blends these two types is one of great beauty. As in other lullabies, the Virgin tries in vain to soothe the Babe to sleep, and, distraught at His grief, enquires its cause. Thereupon, the Child foretells the sufferings that await Him, and each new disclosure calls forth a fresh burst of grief from the afflicted Mother: “Is she to see her only Son slain, and cruel nails driven through the hands and feet that she has wrapped? When Gabriel pronounced her ‘full of grace,’s he told nothing of this.” The medieval world thought long upon the sorrows of Mary, as upon the passion of Christ, and this poem portrays the crushing grief of the Virgin with the naïve fidelity and tenderness characteristic of medieval workmanship.

    The refrain of the poem shows that it was sung as a carol:

  • Now synge we with angelis
  • Gloria in excel(s) is.
  • Conversely, another carol, which is concerned with the events at the cross, has, for its refrain, a complaint of Mary:
  • To see the maydyn wepe her sonnes passion,
  • It entrid my hart full depe with gret compassion.
  • Some of the complaints are monologues; others are dialogues or trialogues. The monologue is usually addressed to Jesus or to the cross, but, sometimes, it has no immediate relation to the passion, and is not directed to any particular hearer. The dialogue is between Mary and Jesus, or Mary and the cross. In the trialogues, Mary, Jesus and John converse. John leads the weeping Mother to the cross, she calls upon Jesus, and He tenderly commits her to the care of the beloved disciple.

    These complaints are based upon Latin hymns and similar writings, upon Stabat Mater, Ante Crucem Virgo Stabat, Crux de te Volo Conqueri, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Meditations of Augustine and the Tractat of Bernard, and, while the English poems display much lyrical excellence, they contribute little to the tradition.

    A similar type of poem is the complaint which the crucified Christ makes to sinful man. This is usually a monologue, though sometimes a dialogue, remorseful man responding to the appeal of Christ, and pleading for mercy.

    Other poems which celebrate the Virgin include prayers—some in the form of carols, aves, poems upon the five joys of Mary, or upon the six branches of the heavenly rose. Some of these songs are translations, in whole or in part, of Latin poems; others seem to be original. They perpetuate the intense ardour of devotion, the mysticism, the warmth and rich colour of the earlier English songs to Mary, and they heighten the effect by a superior melody.