Mood Imperative: The Cuckoo, the Latin Lyrics, and the "Cuckoo Song"

By Dean, James M. | Philological Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Mood Imperative: The Cuckoo, the Latin Lyrics, and the "Cuckoo Song"


Dean, James M., Philological Quarterly


The twelve-line Middle English rondellus or rota "Sumer is icumen in "--often referred to as the "Cuckoo Song" or the "Summer canon"--is so well known as to be virtually an early British literature institution. (1) In his influential but now out of print Literature of Medieval England, D. W. Robertson introduces this poem by saying, "this is by far the most famous of Middle English songs." Ross Duffin, in his "new revision" of the lyric, observes that "popular enthusiasm for this most famous of medieval compositions has not diminished" since the 1940s, when there was considerable scholarly debate about its date and meanings. (2) "Sumer is icumen in" is frequently anthologized, to be found in the current editions of the Longman, Broadview, and Norton anthologies of British Literature, as well as in well known collections of Middle English poetry. (3) There is general recognition among editors and readers that context is important for this poem (it occurs in a manuscript miscellany) and that the lyric is a song--indeed, a canon, rather than just a poem. A number of editions include a facsimile of the manuscript along with the Middle English text. Some of the lyric's editors include transcriptions of the music into modern notation. (4)

The context for "Sumer is icumen in" includes Latin words for the musical canon that comprise their own lyric sentiment and contrafactum: Christian gaudium for Christ's sacrifice and resurrection. The Latin poem, which begins "Perspice, Christicola," has occasioned scholarly controversy usually focused on the question of priority. Is the English lyric an appendage to the "pious" Latin poem, or is the Latin poem an afterthought, added as "the attempt of a more solemn mind to patch over the profane work of a satiric predecessor"? (5) That gloomy assessment probably represents current wisdom on the Latin lyric. Davies says of the Latin text: "Latin words which accompany it [the Middle English lyric] do not fit the music very well and they are probably a later attempt to adapt the secular work for religious uses." (6) A contrafactum is usually thought of as one kind of text substituted in place of another: "A vocal composition," in Apel's definition, "in which the original text is replaced by a new one, particularly a secular text by a sacred one, or vice versa." (7) Sometimes the secular text contradicts or works against the sacred text in somewhat the way certain "goliardic" texts parody biblical or liturgical texts ("Verbum bonum et suave" becomes "Vinum bonum et suave," to cite the best known example). My argument in this essay is that the Latin text "Perspice, Christicola" functions in tandem with the English text of "Sumer is icumen in" and completes its thematic content. Far from being a merely "pious" substitution for the English lyric, or an inferior afterthought, "Perspice, Christicola" helps explain and justify the joyous spirit of the vernacular poem and the focus on the cuckoo. At the very least, I hope to provide good evidence for why the Latin poem should be included in editions of the Middle English lyric. The Latin is seldom printed together with the English; this is true even for the standard edition, Carleton Brown's English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century, which fails even to acknowledge the existence of the Latin lyric. (8) After a brief excursus on the manuscript contents, I will examine the English lyric, with a focus on the cuckoo's significance, including its song, and then turn to the Latin lyric, with a focus on the metaphor of the vine. I wish to be clear, though, that I intend to privilege neither lyric nor do I wish to assert the priority of one over the other.

Since context is important to my argument, I should say a few words about the manuscript miscellany and the pieces surrounding the "Summer canon," especially because the English and Latin lyrics of "Sumer is icumen in" harmonize in somewhat the way the miscellany texts complement and comment on one another. …

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