Friday, April 18, 2014

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

Sumer Is Icumen In

— Anonymous

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu;                      
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wode nu;
Sing cuccu!

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

Cuccu, cuccu, wel
Singes thu, cuccu;
Na swike thu naver nu;

Sing cuccu, nu,
Sing cuccu,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!

OK, here's my own translation, mostly phonetic and not at all scholarly:

Summer is a-coming in,
Loud sing cuckoo;
Groweth seed and bloweth mead
And springeth the wood now.
Sing cuckoo!

Ewe bleateth after lamb,
Cow after calf coo,
Bullock starteth, buck farteth,
Merry sing cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well
Sings thou, cuckoo;
Nor stop thou never now;

Sing cuckoo, now,
Sing cuckoo,
Sung cuckoo, sing cuckoo, now!

I was trying to show how to read and make sense of the medieval English in which this was written, so I kept as close as I could to those sounds — though some words, like the one for "cow", needed a greater change.

The link on the title, above, leads you to Wikipedia. There you'll find a slightly different original version (mine is the version I first encountered, as a child) and a more scholarly translation, into modern language — where we discover that the cow does not so much coo as call, and the "buck" is a goat. We also learn that it was written in the middle of the 13th Century, in Wessex, England, and was a type of song known as a rota, or round, to be sung in four parts.

I've labelled it anonymous, as no-one knows for sure, but some researchers think it may possibly have been written by the medieval monk and composer, William of Wycombe.

I've loved it a long time, just as words on paper. I was lucky enough to be brought up on poetry, and it was in one of my books; but I didn't realise until now that it was really a song. It is also known as The Cuckoo Song, and you can hear it sung on YouTube.

Australia is well into autumn now, but for all of you in the Northern Hemisphere, Summer is indeed coming in, heralded by Spring — a very welcome Spring, I gather, after a severe Winter. And above all, this little ditty is joyful. I chose it most of all for the joy. Some of you may well be familiar with it already. For those who weren't, now that you know what it means and (roughly) how to say it, I hope you too enjoy!

PS Steve King, in the comments below, reminds me of Ezra Pound's naughty parody, which is apt in all sorts of ways.


  1. I remember this one well. It seemed so strange when I first encountered it back in the day, but the rhythm and music are irresistible, even across the centuries of dialectic evolution. And it gave rise to Pound's artful parody, which still manages to entertain me whenever I see it. Thanks, Rosemary.

    1. Oh yes, I'd forgotten the Pound. Lovely fun! Will link to it too, above.

  2. I am very grateful for your translation, kiddo. Smiles. I love the urge to sing cuckoo, and do so loudly at every opportunity. This was a fun trip back to medieval times. Thanks so much for the look back.

  3. Fun! Admittedly, it took the song on you tube to warm me up completely, but now the chorus keeps going through my head. Thanks, Rosemary.

  4. I grew up singing this--and sometimes forget it was poetry!


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