Poet's Pick April 12
Anonymous Lyric:
"Steddefast crosse, immong alle oþer"

Selected by Kimberly Johnson
National Poetry Month 2018

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Kimberly Johnson's Poetry Month Pick, April 12, 2018

"Steddefast crosse, immong alle oþer"
 Anonymous Lyric (14th Century)

Steddefast crosse, immong alle oþer
Þow art a tre mykel of prise,
in brawnche and flore swylke a-noþer
I ne wot non in wode no rys.
Swete be þe nalys,
and swete be þe tre,
and sweter be þe birdyn þat hangis vppon the!

[Modernized version]:

Steadfast cross, among all other
thou art a tree mighty of price,
in branch and flower such another
I know of none in wood nor thicket.
Sweet be the nails,
and sweet be the tree,
and sweeter be the [birdyn] that hangs upon thee!]


* Kimberly Johnson Comments:
Palimpsest: the word signifies writing that has been superimposed upon other, earlier writing.  The idea of palimpsesting offers a useful metaphor for this short lyric from the fourteenth century. 

First, some historical layering:

This little devotional poem was set to paper in medieval Oxford—though it might be more accurate to say that it was set to parchment, for the manuscript book in which it can be found collects folios of many thin-skinned pages together, each page scrawled in the sepia tones of iron-gall ink.

The fragile volume folds together a miscellany of writings of various kinds:  contemporary poems, notes on classical writers, and fables and sermons by notable preachers of the day as well as by the compiler, John Sheppey, who was Bishop of Rochester until his death in 1360. 

Sheppey’s book has been digitized by Merton College, where it resides.  The very ink that records the lines of our brief lyric can be seen, at zoomable closeness, here (right-hand column, lines 2-6):  http://image.ox.ac.uk/images/merton/ms248/f167r.jpg

The poem itself has a history as layered as the disparate pages of Sheppey’s book.  It’s actually a translation of a single verse from a much older Latin poem, “Pange linguis”[“Sing, my tongue”], which was written by poet and cleric Venantius Fortunatus (530-609) to honor the presentation of a fragment of the True Cross as a gift from the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II to Frankish Queen Radegunda in 570. This sliver of wood became the originary relic for the Benedictine Abbey of the Holy Cross, which Radegunda founded in Poitiers in the later sixth century.  Though Fortunatus may no longer be a household name, his hymn is still used as part of the Good Friday liturgy:

Crux fidelis,
inter omnes
arbor una nobilis;
nulla talem silva profert,
flore, fronde, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulci clavo,
dulce pondus sustinens!


Faithful cross,
among all
the singlemost noble tree;
no tree produces such
flower, leaf, and seed.
Sweet wood, sweet nails,
Sweet weight hangs upon you!

(To hear Fortunatus’s full hymn sung in resplendently monophonic Gregorian chant-style, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VT0CR-yJC0)

In its medieval English rendering in Sheppey’s pages, the Latin poem performs another palimpsest of sorts, a layering of language in the final line’s “birdyn.”  The original Latin uses the word pondus to describe the weight of the body of Christ, which encourages us to see the tree as carrying a “burden.”  But the medieval poem multiplies the interpretive possibilities of that single word yet further. 

The poem’s metaphor of the cross as a tree suggests that we can understand “birdyn” as “bird”—a reading that gains traction from Christ’s longstanding iconographic association with a wide variety of birds (the dove, the robin, the pelican, the goldfinch, etc.). 

Moreover, in fourteenth-century usage, the word “burden” refers to an oracle or prophetic utterance, as when the Wycliffe translation of Zechariah 12.1 announces “The birthun of the word of the Lord.” This sense of “birdyn” makes available to us a reading of the body of Christ as an embodied oracle, a prophecy in material shape:  the Word made flesh. 

Finally, and self-referentially, at the time of this English poem’s composition, the word “bourden” signified a low song.  And it’s true, of course:  the thematic freight of the poem hangs upon the cross, depending upon that holy encumbrance for both its occasion and its substance. 

In very few lines, this little poem enacts a number of writings and overwritings, layering the jaunty rhythms of a popular song upon the sacred sonorities of an old Latin hymn, layering vernacular English upon clerical Latin, and superimposing a rich multiplicity of meanings, each one theologically weighty, into a single pun. Sweeter be that birdyn for all its layers.

About Kimberly Johnson:
Kimberly Johnson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Uncommon Prayer (Persea Books, 2014), and of book-length translations of Virgil’s Georgics (Penguin Classics, 2009) and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days (Northwestern, 2017).

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