Monday, December 8, 2014

CAROL : down in yon forest

And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? 
Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.

In the Book of Revelation, John describes his vision of
a woman clothed with the sun  
and the moon under her feet, 
and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: 
And she being with child cried, 
travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

This woman is threatened by a terrifying dragon.  She gives birth to a baby boy.  She flees into the wilderness where she's given eagles' wings to escape the flood vomited by the dragon to try to sweep her away.  I don't know any absolute clear historical scriptural referent for this woman, though she is variously (and convincingly) interpreted as Mary, the nation of Israel, or the Church.  By variously, of course,  I mean contentiously, as in "exhibiting an often perverse and wearisome tendency to quarrels." Symbolism seems to have this effect on the zealous.  Sadly. 

Because symbolism is powerful: like fire, giving off smoke and leaking light no matter how tightly you try to contain it.  Poets trying to capture the numinously luminous supra-historical hyper-definition reality of God-come-to-earth will resort to the most potent light-leaking language at their disposal.  That powerful language, written in smoky light, is symbolism.

It is in that light that I read this carol:
Down in yon forest there stands a hall
The bells of paradise I heard them ring
It's covered all over with purple and pall
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything

In that hall there stands a bed
The bells of paradise I heard them ring
It's covered all over with scarlet so red
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything

At the bed side there lies a stone
The bells of paradise I heard them ring
Which the sweet virgin Mary knelt upon
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything

Under that bed there runs a flood
The bells of paradise I heard them ring
The one half runs water and other runs blood
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything

At the bed's foot there grows a thorn
The bells of paradise I heard them ring
Whichever blows blossoms since He was born
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything

Over that bed the moon shines bright
The bells of paradise I heard them ring
Denoting our Saviour was born this night
And I love my Lord Jesus above everything

Another version changes Forest for Valley and includes a useful introduction:

Contentious interpreters may argue that slapping on a Christian refrain to every verse does not a Christian carol make.  (These contention-mongers are the nieces and nephews of the grumpy exegetes who complained a few generations back that the dragon of Revelation, aka Job's crooked serpent, aka the leviathan Isaiah describes is really just a plagiarism from Babylonian mythology.)  Certainly, if you wished, you could trace elements of this haunting carol back to legends of the Fisher King -- but as the intelligent BBC discussion in the link makes clear, it would be premature to simplistically discard this carol as some shallow Christian reworking of pagan symbols.  In the first place, despite its bad press, pagan means only "of the peasantry,"  "of the countryside" -- the stories everyone knows, the symbols that resonate with the common person of the time.  And secondly, the language of symbol is a dynamic language -- that means it's a living and self-defining language, always redefining itself.  The ancient Hebrew poet-prophets would have understood that as well as the medieval and freshly Christian poet-troubadours. 

"Down in Yon Forest" is a folk version of the carol, having trickled down through history, each generation licking at it, changing it and reshaping. It was recovered in Derbyshire by Ralph Vaughan Williams in the early 20th century.  Here is an earlier incarnation, collected and written down by an enterprising Renaissance grocer George Hill.  It's known as the Corpus Christi Carol, but called "The Hern" (or heron) in this recording:

I have no trouble seeing the interlace of countryside images with Christian ideas as something beautiful.  The weaving of the best we had, with the best we have, with the best we hope for -- it makes a particularly beautiful golden braid.  Why insist on seeing the Christian conversion of old stories as plagiarism or corruption or appropriation or opportunistic exploitation?  Don't all who approach the manger try to bring the best they can to lay at the Holy Child's feet?

Of course, all our gifts are incommensurate to the greatest Gift.
Of course, all our symbols are written with muddied water, smoky light.

In any case, there is something hauntingly lovely about this constellation of songs.  And before I begin to sing the songs of jubilation -- the Nowells! the Rejoices! -- I want to acknowledge the regenerative and sacrificial atonement that is the root of all the joy of the original Nativity and which this carol brings freshly and sharply, with mournful awe and uncomprehending gratitude, to my heart and mind.

Because would not a medieval poet,  contemplating the birth in Bethlehem, have found new illumination, satisfyingly dawning within the old old story of the Fisher King who required a pure-in-heart seeker to ask, "Why are you wounded?" before the countryside could be regenerated.  

Doesn't our King of Kings, Fisher of Men, require pure hearts to seek before we can find, to ask so that we can receive what is Given, and thus be reborn and our whole world brought to new life and that more abundantly?

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