Clover’s Poetry Corner: The Cuckoo Song

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by Clover Carroll

cuckoo_songThis jolly medieval poem, written in the mid-thirteenth century (1250) by an anonymous author, celebrates the arrival of summer as are we all this month. Written in Middle English, it is believed to be the oldest extant English lyric, and is the first entry in the Oxford Book of English Verse. Not only does it open a window into the medieval mind and language, but it was written with its own lilting tune in the form of a canon or round, which is considered to be the oldest piece of six-part polyphonic music in existence. A lyric was originally a poem meant to be sung, like this one, but has come to mean any short poem, often divided into stanzas, that directly express the poet’s own thoughts and sentiments (Oxford English Dictionary). The song is part of a manuscript from Reading Abbey, in Berkshire County, England, that is now held in the British Library. For a picture of the handwritten manuscript, visit www.soton.ac.uk/~wpwt/harl978/sumerms.htm.

Summer is a joyful and welcoming season, especially in an era when there was no artificial light or heat to be had. The poet creates a mood of hope and hilarity as s/he looks forward to abundant food, longer periods of light, and warm temperatures. S/he cites many specific signs of innocence and rebirth, such as sprouting seeds, blooming meadows, and seemingly dead tree branches springing to life again. Newborn lambs and calves are frolicking in the fields as their mothers low and bleat after them, while bulls and stags are frisking and mating (farting was seen as a sign of virility). The poet’s combined sense of wonder and frivolity are summed up in the song of the cuckoo, not only a harbinger of spring but also a symbol of crazy, uninhibited behavior and promiscuous sex. A “cuckold” was medieval slang for a man whose wife had been unfaithful, stemming from the cuckoo bird’s habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other species. The last line of the poem translates roughly, “don’t ever stop”—singing, that is.

So in fact this is a song about a song—that of the cuckoo, whose call is echoed in the structure of the canon. If you’ve heard a cuckoo clock, then you’ve heard an extremely fair likeness of the common cuckoo’s call. Extensive alliteration, assonance, and a rollicking rhythm contribute to the musicality of the poem. The repetition of the ‘l’ sound in bleateth, lamb, and low’th is euphonious, as is the ‘b’ in bullock and bucke. Most striking is the raucous ‘c’ sound repeated throughout the poem, in cumen, cuckoo, cow, calfe, bullock, bucke, and even swike. In middle English pronunciation, the ‘u’ sound in loude would have rhymed with the oo in cuckoo, woode, cow (cu) and now (nu). A very musical compendium, indeed! This poem is dear to my heart, capturing as it does the carefree lifestyle of summer, and inviting us to sing, dance, and be merry along with the birds, animals, and indeed, all of nature. Isn’t it astonishing how much we have in common with these English monks and farmers from six centuries ago?

I hope you will take a moment to visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWWEHAswpFI and hear the Lumina Vocal Ensemble perform this gay summer greeting.