Sunday, April 03, 2005

Two old poems, one sexy, one scary

Here's an anonymous poem as Auden published it in his Book of Light Verse:

The Lily and the Rose

The maidens came
When I was in my mother’s bower,
I had all that I would.
      The bailey beareth the bell away;
      The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.
The silver is white, red is the gold;
The robes they lay in fold.
      The bailey beareth the bell away;
      The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.
And through the glass windows shines the sun.
How should I love, and I so young?
      The bailey beareth the bell away;
      The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

Of this poem Hugh Kenner writes (in the out-of-print The Art of Poetry, worth picking up used), "The only aspect of this poem that has been satisfactorily explained is the fact that line 4 means "The bailiff carries off the prize."

This is nearly the same except for the title: "The Bridal Morning" (everything gets back to marriage here). This title is somewhat helpful. The surface meaning of the poem would seem to be: A pretty girl on her wedding morning receives her mother's attendants who pamper and prink her as she thinks about being given away as a prize to a man she doesn't love. The meaning I hear below that is a man imagining sleeping with a procession of girls pretty and fresh as flowers - the rose, then the lily, and then the rose again for good measure - and he's too young to be committed to any particular girl. Partly I'm reading the first line-break as significant - in some versions one sees "The maidens came while I was in my mother's bower" as the first line. This would make it the longest line of the poem, while the line as it stands is emphatically the shortest. Maybe the original had another foot or two in the first line, maybe I'm letting modern English talk too much. Anyway, it's a lovely poem, especially the -'-'--'-'/-'--'||-'-' rhythm of the verse.
The "glass windows" bit seems metrically poor to me, but probably glass was available only to the wealthy and adds to the luxe et volupté fantasy with the discarded robes.

Apparently Peter Warlock set the poem as "The Bayly Berith The Bell Away" - I'll have to try to find a recording.

Another version, without the critical first line, perhaps because it was on posters in the London Underground.

Auden ascribes the following to Anon:

There was a maid came out of Kent,
      Dainty love, dainty love;
There was a maid came out of Kent,
      Dangerous be.
There was a maid came out of Kent,
Fair, proper, small and gent,
As ever upon the ground went,
      For so should it be.

but google says it's from William Wager's The Longer Thou Livest The More Fool Thou Art, whatever that is. I love the startling 4th line.



Blogger Christian said...

Your interpretation is helpful, thank you! I'm singing the soprano solo in Stravinsky's Cantata and Ricercar I is this text....check it out, as all the text is anonymous Old English poetry.

17/10/09 08:39  
Blogger Maarten Das said...

Thanks for this post. I own a copy of the album Songs of Innocence by Andrew Swait (treble), James Bowman (countertenor) and Andrew Plant (piano), and was looking for some explanation to this mysterious and beautiful song, as sung by the amazing Andrew Swait. The CD I spoke of is available from Signum Classics, and highly recommended.

1/1/10 07:41  

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