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If I of love can

December 1, 2013

Consider this anonymous lyric from c.1300 AD; it was probably silently read or recited as a form of prayer. (Note that there are many manuscript variations on this poem, and I’ve chosen the one I like best; many of the others replace the “see” in the first line with the far inferior “think”.)

Whan I on the rode see
Faste nayled to the tree
Jhesu my lemman,
I-bounde blak and blody,
And his moder stonde him by
Wepying and Iohan;

His bak wyth scourge i-swongen,
His side depe i-stongen
For synne and love of man:
Wel oghte I synne lete
And neb wyth teres wete,
If I of love can.

Modernized, it’s not quite as beautiful, but is still worthwhile. (I’ve left “lemman” untranslated (it means something like “beloved”) for the sake of the rhyme, and because it’s a valid, if rare, modern English word.)

When I on the rood see
Fast nailed to the tree
Jesus my lemman,
Bound black and bloody,
And his mother standing by
Weeping, and Johann;

His back with scourge struck,
His side deeply stung,
For sin and love of man:
Well ought I leave sin
And face with tears wet,
If I of love can.

I like this poem, and find it quite complex. I’ll admit it’s not lyrically impressive, if by that we mean combining nouns, verbs, and adjectives in striking and unexpected ways, but I still think it achieves some rather impressive linguistic effects.


From the psaltery of Robert de Lindesey, Abbot of Peterborough (1214-20)

Look, for example, at how the poem is made up a single sentence, and not a descriptive one. “When I on the rood see / … / well ought I leave.” It’s a poem about what ought to happen when he looks at the cross–presumably, when he looks at a sculpture or painting of a cross, perhaps in a psalter. This when/ought structure makes the poem infinitely more complex than a simple ekphrastic description. Imaginatively recreating the scene is not enough; the speaker insists on (though does not necessarily accomplish) interior conversion.

Consider, also, the use of parallelism, and its interruption: how the last line of the first stanza jars the ear. The speaker sees: Jesus, bound …; his mother, standing …; and Johann. The first two are in a parallel, of sorts, one getting a past participle and the other a present. But why doesn’t Johann get anything? This is two questions, really: why mention Johann without giving him a participle? And why make the ending of the stanza so abrupt?

Why mention Johann? His presence in the scene stands in for that of the speaker: Jesus, the Christ, can suffer, Mary, the sinless one, can weep, but the sinful Johann, like the speaker, cannot weep; he can only look on stoically. The lack of a Johannine participle suggests that, for the speaker as well as for Johann, seeing doesn’t count as doing anything. Something more–weeping–is required.

Why the abrupt ending? The first stanza ends not because the description of the scene has been completed, but because the speaker can’t keep his eyes off the violence done to the suffering Christ; his eye moves immediately from Johann back to Jesus on the cross, and he describes the same thing over again (his back with scourge struck, his side deeply stung) because nothing he can say seems adequate. The way the first stanza ends reinforces our sense that what the speaker sees on the rood is all that matters.

Another fascinating choice of words: after Christ dies “for love of man,” the rhyme reverses the phrase: “If I of love can.” Prepositions never translate well; the “of” in the final line here means something like “with,” but also something like “from.” Can he look at the crucifixion with love? Can he look from love? Love becomes here almost a physical location from which to look out at the crucifixion; Mary stands there, Johann and the speaker do not, and hence they do not weep–though they know they should.

We often think of the medievals as excessively emotional, crying and weeping and raging at the drop of a hat, like children. And there’s certainly something to that; but that doesn’t mean they are children. This poem doesn’t take the catharsis tears offer for granted; concern that whoever recites it will not be moved to tears is exactly its subject matter. Medievals worry constantly that the emotions they have–especially the emotions they have in response to religion–aren’t strong enough. They worry that though they act emotionally they are dead inside, that the emotions they possess are not authentic. In this, I think, they’re rather like us moderns–though of course, for them, “authenticity” means something very different.

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