How much lovelier an old poem may seem if the original spelling, or something approximating to it, is retained. It takes me back to my early years of reading, when the children in books by E. Nesbit (or Enid Blyton) find an ancient manuscript or a treasure map. They know it’s old because all the ‘s’s are ‘f’s.

What mystery is in that idea — what glory in deciphering the words and phrases and finding they are not so far — not so far at all — from what we might say even now.

When you’re young, you tend not to think an awful lot about the meanings of the words. You can like them, thankfully, without analysing them. You can welcome things that are different and odd. So each December, I remember the time we did Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols in the school choir. Both my sister and I sang in it, and we loved it all our lives.

That Britten stuff – it was weird, right? We’d never sung anything like that before. What we usually did was the descant to O Come All Ye Faithful. But the more we sang the Ceremony, the more we got to like it, and its strange words. I don’t recall anybody explaining what they meant – only how we had to sing them.

So in ‘I synge of a mayden’, ‘Goddes moder’ was three syllables, with mother as mudder. (We were not to sing God’s mother, even though we all knew that was what it meant.)

We did not reinvent the words. We just sang them. With relish.

We sang most carols with relish, whatever the words were, which was just as well. Hymns to us were all a kind of mystery with a good tune, and fair game for creative interference. So the repeating phrase from The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came  – ‘most highly favoured lady’  – was invariably rendered as ‘most highly flavoured gravy’. I still can’t hear that carol without thinking of good quality turkey stock thickened with just a little cornflour.

The year after A Ceremony of Carols, I started a degree in English Literature in the University of York. I didn’t go to all the lectures, but I went to all the lectures by one R.T. Jones (Bob Jones) because they were a revelation to me.

He would take just one poem and talk about it for a whole hour very quietly and very carefully. Actually, he didn’t talk. He read slowly from whatever he had written down on the papers in front of him. Little, if any, eye contact with his students. He had an intensely bookish, closed-in manner, as though everything he was sharing was a secret. So you tended to lean forward and listen more carefully.

One of the poems in his series was a medieval lyric from Britten’s Ceremony, and it was ‘I syng of a mayden’. I hadn’t thought of a carol as a poem till this point, or considered the relationship between song lyrics and ‘lyric’ poetry.

This was over 40 years ago, so my memory of what he said is partial. The main thing I took away with me was an understanding of the power of repetition when each repetition is connected to a tiny change. That, and the idea of an experience getting close, and closer, and closest.

I think I had thought (because we sang it at Christmas) that the song was about the birth of Jesus. But it’s not. It’s the annunciation – the point at which Mary – without having sex with mortal man – meets the angel Gabriel, accepts the invitation to be the mother of God, and. becomes quietly and mysteriously with child. Most highly flavoured gravy, in fact.

But I believe this carol is as much about a spiritual change as anything else. Here are the old words, from the Sloane Manuscript in the British Library, thought to date from about 1400.

I syng of a mayden þat is makeles,
kyng of all kynges to here sone che ches.

He cam also stylle þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle, þat fallyt on þe gras.

He cam also stylle to his moderes bowr
as dew in aprille, þat fallyt on þe flour.

He cam also stylle þer his moder lay
as dew in Aprille, þat fallyt on þe spray.

Moder & mayden was neuer non but che –
wel may swych a lady Godes moder be.

So the maiden that is ‘makeless’ is matchless – beyond compare – and a ‘mayden’ means a virgin. If you lost your maidenhead, that meant you had had sex with a man. Here, Mary is a woman with a choice, not meekly bowing her head.

Bob Jones took us through the structure of the piece, the way it’s bookended with couplets about the holy maiden – mudder and mayden, Godes moder – all those ‘m’ sounds and ‘d’ hammering away. Bob was the first person ever that made me aware of the small sounds and their connection with sense.

And then the direction: the way new life approaches and then gets closer, and closer and closer. He comes ‘also stylle’ – very very quietly – first where his mother was, then to his mother’s bower, and finally where his mother lay. Something delicate and beautiful about it all, and increasingly intimate. 

The dew in April (lovely idea in itself) is there three times, but first the dew falls on the grass, then the flower (with all its fertility associations), and finally the spray. It is an insemination, of sorts – but as quiet and innocent as morning dew.

And then suddenly there’s the last couplet which is a triumphant assertion. In the Britten version, it was enormously satisfying. You get to sing ‘was never none but she’ – such a wonderful phrase, with each of its syllables belting out the message, and the music suddenly scored to zoom from very quiet to as maximum forte. There is a YouTube recording of a girls’ choir that sounds very much as we did.

Bob would have pointed out the three monosyllables at the end of the line ‘none but she’. I can remember his mouth making the word ‘syllable’. I can remember realising the syllables had something to do with the intense heart of a poem, whatever that might be.

I have only just noted that Carol Rumens had this lyric as her Guardian poem of the week in 2010. She’s a similar age to me. A Ceremony of Carols must have been doing its round of the English schools when we were both busily being educated. She read the words then and now, she says, as an ‘erotic myth’.

Odd how strong a word ‘erotic’ can seem in the context of this lyric with all its subtlety and sweetness. But that’s newspapers for you. They have allowed someone (I am sure not Carol) to introduce the ghastly subhead: Set to unforgettable music by Benjamin Britten, this strangely erotic Nativity is even better on the page. Heavens above! It’s not a nativity. It’s the arrival of the first thought of a baby.

I found it both pure and intimate, and still do. There seems to me something odd about a baby coming to his mother in an erotic way. Obviously people could argue about this till, as they say, the cows come home.

The cows are on their way right now. The stable is just around the corner. One more ƒleep

By Anonymous 15th Century scribe, digitised by the British Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Last week I bought a climbing rose from Aldi for £1.99.

This was a mistake because the rose bush was almost certainly dead already. I was rooting in the bucket for the best looking specimen and my loved-one was humphing and saying, ‘Come on, come on!’ So I grabbed what I thought was the best-looking specimen.

Later I took the poor thing out of its plastic bag and let the roots unfurl in a pot of rain-barrel water. It looked even deader. I left it there for several days, unable to decide whether (and where) to plant it.

To let you understand, this bush had stalks only, held together with a rubber band. Not one leaf.

Finally I found a fertile, well-drained place and planted the rose. It felt like a funeral.

I mentioned this fact to Geoff Lander. ‘O Rose thou art sick!’ he quipped, and sent me to Benjamin Britten’s setting which is also pretty funereal.

William Blake’s poem is always an earworm for me (no pun intended). Once I think of it again, it goes round and round and round in my head like it always has. It seems to apply to so many things. And so last night in my sleep I found myself dreaming the poem and making a reluctant class write an essay about it. Three hundred words, like the current HappenStance competition. But there was a bit I could not remember: the verb in line five:

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm,

Has [???] thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

In my dream, or half-sleep, I went over and over and over it. ‘Has hidden in thy bed’? ‘Has discovered thy bed’? ‘Has opened thy bed’?

I woke up this morning and it was there on the tip of my tongue. ‘Has found out thy bed’. Of course.

Of course.

‘Found out’ is precisely it. ‘Found out’ because the bed was secret and private. And that’s why the love is ‘dark secret’, and some horrible secret thing is festering here that nobody but the invisible worm knows. A thing that is killing the rose.

It’s one of the most potent poems I know. It fulfills that Don Paterson definition (which doesn’t work for everything) that a poem is a little machine for remembering itself. Look at the adjectives, the way they build to a sort of crescendo: invisible, howling, crimson, dark, secret – and then at the end just ‘life’, no qualifiers. Life.

The poem, one of the Songs of Experience, is both beautiful and horrible. It takes us to that literal moment in the garden when we look closely at a rose, only to find it’s being eaten away in the middle. Or pick up a perfect apple, only to turn it and see one side half-eaten away by wasps and a wasp in the cavity still suckling.

This is nature and fact. In metaphor it’s the same. The most beautiful girl may be being eaten away inside by disease, or by knowledge of what has happened to her, which is in itself a kind of disease. And the invisible worm kills because although he has found her out, everything is secret and contained inside the rose. Until she dies, and the secret with her.

But not all roses die, nor do all secrets die with them. See Clare Best this week in Touching the Core. She quotes St Thomas’s Gospel at the start: ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’ Please also read the rest.

Now back to my rose bush. I’m pretty certain it is completely dead, though conditions at Aldi are to blame, not any form of infection. However, for £3.99 I also bought an apple tree, which will be cross-pollinated by the crab apple I bought for a similar price four years ago.

The crab apple is about to burst into blossom and the new apple sapling is looking fine and dandy. I plan to look after it, in rain and sun. I know the risks. No secrets in this garden.