A Poor Brother's Hymnal
Thursday, October 25, 2007
  Steadfast Cross
By the time George Herbert was writing in the early seventeenth century, a long history of devotional poetry in English had already developed. A common convention found in Middle English lyrics of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the cross of Christ, commonly referred to in the image of “wood” or a “tree”. A multitude of anonymous lyrics on this theme have survived. Test your linguistic intuition on the following poems and try to decipher them before referring to their modernized versions.

Middle English lyrics Modern English translation

Stedefast crosse, inmong alle other
Thou art a tree mickle of prise;
In braunche and flore swilk another
I ne wot non in wode ne rys.
Swete be the nales,
And swete be the tree,
And sweter be the birden that hanges upon thee!

Senful man, bethink and see
What peine I thole for love of thee.
Night and day to thee I grede,
Hand and fotes on rode isprede.
Nailed I was to the tree,
Ded and biried, man, for thee;
All this I drey for love of man.
But werse me dot, that he ne can
To me turnen onis his eye
Than all the peine that I drye.

Nou goth sonne under wode –
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre –
Me reweth, Marie, thi sonne and the.

Steadfast cross, among all others,
Thou art a tree great of price;
In branch and flower such another
I know not neither in wood nor brush.
Sweet be the nails,
And sweet be the tree,
And sweeter be the burden that hangs upon thee!


Sinful man, think and see
What pain I suffered for love of thee.
Night and day to thee I cried,
Hand and foot on cross outspread.
Nailed I was to the tree,
Dead and buried, man, for thee;
All this I endured for love of man
But worse it does me that he cannot
To me turn even once his eye
Than all the pain that I endured.

Now goes the sun under wood –
I pity, Mary, thy fair face.
Now goes the sun under tree –
I pity, Mary, thy son and thee.

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