The Joys of 13th Century Words: The Cuckoo Song

The Cuckoo Song
(13th Century, Anonymous)

Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing, cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is i-cumen in –
Lhude sing, cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wude nu.
Sing, cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth –
Murie sing, cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu.

Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik thu naver nu!

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The 13th-century round known as the Reading Rota or, more informally, The Cuckoo Song, isn’t about the approach of summer, but its arrival. “Sumer is icumen in” is frequently mistranslated, but “icumen” means it has come, as the presence of the cuckoo implies, and it’s here, nu (now). Summer, that is.

The variations between the different modern texts available are small, and mostly connected to the decisions made by later editors confronted by 13th-century orthography. I don’t know why different editors modernise different words: perhaps they’re guided by assumptions about their readers’ understanding. Nevertheless, which version you happen to discover first can make quite a difference to the way you savour the poem. For instance, doesn’t “lhude” sound ruder and louder than the “loude” some editors prefer? And “murie” seems worlds away from “merry”. The old spelling pushes your lips and tongue to a different pronunciation, while charming your eye with an unfamiliar pattern of letters that has nothing in common with he cliches of “Merry Christmas” or “Merrie England”.

Awes, lombs, bullucs and cus are likewise stranger beasts that ewes, lambs, bullocks and cows. A lomb has got to be fatter than a lamb. So it beautifully suits those delinquent teenage lambs of early summer. If “sed” seems a bit colourless compared to “seed”, “med” makes “mead” seem stilted.

Where the translation into modern English is concerned, the word most often disputed is “verteth”. Does the “bucke” turn about and cavort, as some interpreters say, or does he fart (a territorial device not unknown among males of many species). I’d opt for the farting, while letting the other meaning linger, too, for a complete picture of buckish elation. I think this is a line that wants us to hear those animals, just as the whole song wants us to hear the cuckoo it’s addressing.

The verb in “bulluc sterteth” doesn’t seem to perplex translators. I’ve never seen it rendered as anything other than “starts” or “starteth”. Starteth what? Well, of course we can guess. And anyway, the verb works perfectly well intransitively. A bullock, surprised by joy, or its prospect, has started from his grassy drowse. A “cu” chews the cud nearby. What more needs to be said? Well, it’s worth noticing that the Latin word “stertere” means “to snore”. Etymologically, “snore” is kin to “snort”. It’s only guesswork on my part, but I feel this bullock, too, could be voicing his territorial rights – like the buck, but from the other end. He’s snorting. Intransitively, of course.

The last line is interesting. Russians say that the number of times you hear the cuckoo’s call represents the number of years you have left to live. By asking the cuckoo never to stop, the singer may just be wishing that summer could be neverending. But it’s plausible that there was once a similar, English superstition about the cuckoo, an interpretation that would heighten the final plea (“Don’t ever stop, now”) and give it added bittersweet flavour. Life, don’t ever stop.

Have a murie bank holiday. You might hear a cuccu, if you’re luccy. And if the weather’s really awful, sing along with Ezra Pound instead.

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