“I Sing of a Maiden”

“I Sing of a Maiden”
(ca. 15th century)
   The anonymous 15th-century MIDDLE ENGLISH lyric that begins “I sing of a maiden that is makeles” is perhaps the best known of all late medieval lyrics in praise of the Virgin Mary. Two couplets in the poem are borrowed from an inferior 13thcentury lyric that seems to have served as a source for the poet. “I Sing of a Maiden” is found in a manuscript of miscellaneous lyrics, ballads, carols, and Latin poems, both religious and secular. Some have suggested that the collection was the repertoire of a traveling MINSTREL or entertainer. “I Sing of a Maiden” is a deceptively simple poem in its structure and vocabulary, though quite complex in its theology and its imagery. The lyric consists of five four-line stanzas. The prevailing meter is a three-stress line, though some lines have only two metrical feet. The rhyme scheme is abcb in the first and last stanzas, abab in the second through the fourth. This slight variance in rhyme scheme follows the sense of the poem, which has a three-part structure: In the first stanza, the poet introduces his theme. In the middle three he develops it in three parallel stanzas. In the last stanza, he sums up and reinforces his theme.
   The theme of the poem revolves around the term makeles used to define Mary. The word has the double meaning of both “matchless” (that is, without peer) and “mateless” (that is, without a mate—a virgin). This peerless woman,we are told, chose to be the mother of God. The middle three stanzas explore just how this paradox of the virgin mother could occur. The momentous incarnation of God is pictured in the poem through the simple and natural image of the falling of dew:
   He cam also stille
   Ther his moder was
   As dew in Aprille
   That falleth on the gras.
   He cam also stille
   To his moderes bowr
   As dew in Aprille
   That falleth on the flour.
   He cam also stille
   Ther his moder lay
   As dew in Aprille
   That falleth on the spray.
   (Luria and Hoffman 1974, 170, ll. 5–16)
   The “repetition with variation” technique of these stanzas suggests the poet’s familiarity with the BALLAD tradition. The “dew” of these lines has rich symbolic associations in theology and biblical interpretation, being a common symbol of the Holy Spirit, as well as of Christ descending to earth. April, the season of spring, is the time of renewal and rebirth, both spiritually and physically. For April is also associated with love, and God (the “he” of these lines) is seen as approaching Mary gently like a lover, becoming closer and more intimate as the stanzas progress—first he comes to where she is, then to her bower, then specifically to her bed. The flower of the middle stanza is also rich with connotations, since Mary was often symbolized by a flower, a sign of purity. The progressive movement from grass to flower to spray (or branch) is an expansion that possibly suggests the swelling of Mary’s womb.
   In the final stanza, the poet sums up the overall theme of the lyric by stressing again Mary’s matchlessness and matelessness and her unique qualifications (“Was never non but she”) to be the Mother of God. The fresh and vivid imagery and the complex ideas embodied in the poem’s simple lines have made “I Sing of a Maiden” one of the most admired of late medieval poems. Stephen Manning has said that this poem “represents the supreme achievement of the Middle English lyric” (Manning 1960, 12).
   ■ Luria,Maxwell S., and Richard Hoffman.Middle English Lyrics. New York: Norton, 1974.
   ■ Manning, Stephen. “ ‘I Syng of a Mayden,’ ” PMLA 75 (1960): 8–12.
   ■ Oliver, Raymond. Poems Without Names: The English Lyric, 12001500. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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