1240) The earliest version of this meditative poem exists in the Anglo-Norman version of the Speculum ecclesiae of St. Edmund of Abingdon, archbishop of Canterbury. With serene yet powerful imagery, the poet paints a picture of Christ's crucifixion. The speaker seems to describe the sun sinking beneath a line of trees on the horizon, then perhaps the cross, finally focusing on the sorrow and pity evoked by the face of Mary.
Like a ballad, the lyric is a quatrain, or set of four lines; some speculate that it may be the refrain of a longer composition. It borrows other techniques from the ballad, including incremental repetition and end-rhyme (though aabb rather than abab). Also, it reverses the traditional ballad meter (trimeter line followed by a tetrameter line rather than the other way around). Easily memorized, the poem circulated widely, surviving in many manuscripts. Probably recited by clerics at the close of the day, the lyric conjures images of nature, but also pity for Mary, the sorrowing mother.
"Now Goth Sonne Under Wod" is unique among 13th-century lyrics in its borrowing of strategies from both genres of religious lyrics—those on the passion of Christ and those on the Virgin. An important commonplace in the lyric is a focus on the beauty of the Virgin and a compassion for her that borders on Mari-olatry, or excessive praise of Mary.
The poem is evocative and somber. The suggestive nature of the verse derives not only from the immediacy of the imagery but also from the poet's skillful use of paronomasia (wordplay). Key secular words become imbued with religious significance: "Now goth sonne under wod," the poem begins. In one possible reading, the sun is sinking beneath the trees. However, the "son" is also sinking beneath the wood ("wod"), or cross—a common use of metonymy. "Wod" also carries an association with madness, a manifestation of excessive grief, which prepares the reader for the next line: "Me reweth, Marye, thy faire rode" (l. 2). "Rode" is a key pun in the poem. It could mean "cross," but it could also mean "face," which signals pity for Mary herself through synecdoche. The polysemous nature of "rode" links Mary to the cross and her dying son.
Line 3 reiterates the image in line one: "Now goth sonne under tree." Through metonymy, again, "tree" may be read not only as a tree in the distance but as "cross" (a conventional poeticism). Line 4 returns to the two figures, mother and son, movingly isolated: "Me reweth, Marye, thy sone and thee."
Among the debates that have surrounded this poem is the nature of Mary's face. Does the speaker pity Mary's face because it has been marred, reddened, by the sun, or is the poem an example of Franciscan piety, where human emotion is shifted from the worldly to the sacred? The latter seems more likely; certainly, though, the tone, voice, and evocative images in this poem make it one that will continue to be anthologized and studied.
See also Middle English lyrics and ballads, Virgin lyrics.
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