"Sumer is icumen in" is a perfect display of St. Augustine's words which were written much earlier, when he says in one of his sermons, "Our summer is the coming of Christ . . . . our summer is when he is revealed." It reminds us that Eastertide is Springtide.
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The Bible sees both man and nature responding to the activity of God. "We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." (Rom. 8:22-23).
But men and nature do not only groan. They also sing praises. "Sing a new song to the LORD, for he has done marvelous deeds. His right hand and holy arm have won the victory," states Psalm 98, which seems to predict the bloody crucifixion of our Lord which ends in the victory of the Resurrection. "Shout with joy, to the LORD, all the earth; break into song, sing praise."
With this Biblical understanding of earth and of man, the Christian liturgy and nature frequently are tied together. In the Northern Hemisphere, the joinder of the liturgical season with the seasons of nature is perhaps nowhere better reflected than in Easter.
Eastertide is intimately tied with Springtide.
Perhaps the notion of Easter as a new birth, a new Spring, is nowhere better evidenced than in the medieval secular song "Sumer is icumen in," which mean "Summer has come in." This poem put to music seems to be of the reverdie genre, a French poetic genre which celebrates spring's arrival, the "re-greening" (reverdie) after winter's coldness. So though this song speaks of "sumer," it really speaks of spring.
The song is a perfect display of St. Augustine's words which were written much earlier, when he says in one of his sermons, "Our summer is the coming of Christ . . . . our summer is when he is revealed."
Indeed, "Sumer is icumen in" was perhaps sung at Eastertide outside the churches on the turf mazes that were so popular at the time. Its link to Easter is further evidenced by the fact that its pes, or repeating base line, borrowed its first five notes from the Regina caeli laetare, a hymn that is sung at the liturgical office of Compline during the Easter season.
"Sumer is icumen in" is the oldest song in the English language. It was written at Reading Abbey in Berkshire, whose last abbot, Blessed Hugh Faringdon (d. 1539), died a martyr, accused of treason for refusing to recant his loyalty to the Pope, and was hung, drawn and quartered in the Forbury before the Abbey's very gateway. Written sometime in the middle of the 13th century, England, the manuscript somehow survived the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, though its last abbot did not.
You need six voices to sing the song: four to sing the four-part round or rota (a round is a song like Row, Row, Row your boat where it is sung by different voices which sing the same melody, but starting in different times, with wonderful effect). The additional two voices are needed to sing the underlying bass, known as the pes.
What is remarkable about this song is that the manuscript which preserves this English song of nature comes with a Latin song of Christ, both of which may be sung with the same melody. In the manuscript, immediately below the English words of the song of nature "Sumer is icumen in" can be found the Latin words of the religious song "Perspice Christicola."
So the voices of nature and the voices of the Church sing separate but common praises to the one God who both created and redeemed the world and all that is in it.
Eastertide is tied to Springtide.
In its middle English, the first few stanzas of this remarkable song are:
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweţ sed and bloweţ med
And springţ ţe wde nu,
Rendered into modern English:
Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
The cuckoo is the prophet of a new spring. Its song is a harbinger, a prophesy, a hopeful "cuckoo" of the re-greening of the world. Springtide is here!
The Latin hymn which is sung to the same melody as this song of Spring, speaks of the great good wrought us by Christ during Eastertide, the liturgical Springtide:
pro vitis vicio
Filio non parcens
exposuit mortis exicio.
Qui captivos semivivos a supplicio
Vite donat et secum coronat
in caeli solio.
The heavenly farmer,
For a fault in the vine,
Spared not the Son,
But exposed him to the destruction of death.
To the captives half-dead from torment,
He gives them life and crowns them with himself
On the throne of heaven.
Springtide is tied to Eastertide. Along with the earth's "Sumer," Christ Jesus, and his victory over sin and death, is icumen in!
Borrowing from Shakespeare's Richard III, we might say that, when sung together, the message of "Sumer is icumen in" and the "Perspice Christicola" is: "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer" by this Son of God!
There are, however, those who do not share in our faith in the crucifixion, death, and rising again of Jesus, the Lord. There are many among us who reject the risen Christ, who deny him entrance into their hearts, and who share not our hope. For them, Christ's victory remains hidden.
In the same sermon that St. Augustine proclaimed Christ as our summer, he also mentioned the bad news. There are those who reject Christ. For them, Springtide is not tied to Eastertide. They have no faith in Christ; hence, they have no hope. In the words of the "Perspice Christicola," they remain "captives half-dead from torment."
"Our winter," says St. Augustine, "is when Christ is hidden." When Christ is hidden, when Springtide is not tied to Eastertide, when grace does not build upon nature or when nature refuses grace, we remain mired in the cold of our sin, selfishness, and solipsism. We remain in our "winter of discontent."
Those from whom Christ is hidden have no grasp on the reverdie joy that comes from certain knowledge that life can be made green again, that what is stained by sin and death, by injustice, can be redeemed. That all is not winter, that Spring--like hope, like the seeds which our farmers sow--rises eternal. They have lost the hope from believing that, in Christ resurrection, "Sumer is icumen in."
This loss of hope, this despair is perhaps nowhere better reflected than in Ezra Pound's poem "Ancient Music," oddly enough a parody of "Sumer is icumen in." We might say that it is likewise a parody of the Gospel.
It is a denial of both Springtide and Eastertide. It is writ by one who is in "winter's discontent," and cannot find his way out:
Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
. . . .
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.
No. Mr. Pound. Our heart grieves for you. You're dead, and we'll let you bury your dead. As for us, we have left the discontent of winter. We will sing "Sumer is icumen in," and "Perspice Christicola" and know that Wintertide is gone, that Eastertide is tied to Springtide, that the world has become green again.
And we will sing to the world, not the goddamm of the cynic, but with that confident herald of spring, the cuckoo, with David the writer of Psalms, with Augustine the preacher of sermons, with the Benedictine monks of Reading, and with all the Christicola--Christ's faithful--the joyful song of the believer.
"We will sing a new song to the Lord, for he has done marvelous deeds. His right hand and holy arm have won the victory."
Surrexit Christus, Alleluia! Jesus Christ is Risen! Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, is icumen in!
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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