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The line translates approximately to "Summer has come in" or "Summer has arrived". The song is written in the Wessex dialect of Middle English. Although the composer's identity is unknown today, it may have been W. de Wycombe. The manuscript in which it is preserved was copied between 1261 and 1264.
It is sometimes called the Reading Rota because the earliest known copy of the composition, a manuscript written in mensural notation, was found at Reading Abbey; it was probably not drafted there, however. The British Library now retains this manuscript. A copy of the manuscript in stone relief is displayed on the wall of the ruined chapter house of Reading Abbey.
A rota is a type of round, which in turn is a kind of part song. To perform the round, one singer begins the song, and a second starts singing the beginning again just as the first got to the point marked with the red cross in the first figure below. The length between the start and the cross corresponds to the modern notion of a bar, and the main verse comprises six phrases spread over twelve such bars. In addition, there are two lines marked "Pes", two bars each, that are meant to be sung together repeatedly underneath the main verse. These instructions are included (in Latin) in the manuscript itself:
Hanc rotam cantare possunt quatuor socii. A paucio/ribus autem quam a tribus uel saltem duobus non debet/ dici preter eos qui dicunt pedem. Canitur autem sic. Tacen/tibus ceteris unus inchoat cum hiis qui tenent pedem. Et cum uenerit/ ad primam notam post crucem, inchoat alius, et sic de ceteris./ Singuli de uero repausent ad pausaciones scriptas et/non alibi, spacio unius longe note.
Four companions can sing this round. But it should not be sung by fewer than three, or at the very least, two in addition to those who sing the pes. This is how it is sung. While all the others are silent, one person begins at the same time as those who sing the ground. And when he comes to the first note after the cross [which marks the end of the first two bars], another singer is to begin, and thus for the others. Each shall observe the written rests for the space of one long note [triplet], but not elsewhere.
The celebration of summer in "Sumer is icumen in" is similar to that of spring in the French poetic genre known as the reverdie (lit. "re-greening"). However, there are reasons to doubt such a straightforward and naïve interpretation. The language used lacks all of the conventional springtime-renewal words of a reverdie (such as "green", "new", "begin", or "wax") except for springþ, and elements of the text, especially the cuckoo and the farmyard noises, potentially possess double meanings. "It is the wrong bird, the wrong season, and the wrong language for a reverdie, unless an ironic meaning is intended".
The translation of "bucke uerteþ" is uncertain. Some (such as Millett 2003d, in the version given above) translate the former word as "buck-goat" and the latter as "passes wind" (with reconstructed OE spelling feortan.) Platzer, on the other hand, views the latter, more vulgar, gloss as informed by "prejudices against mediæval culture" and suspects that those preferring it "may have had an axe to grind".
Erickson derided "linguistic Galahads" for promoting more decent translations, suggesting:
Editorial prudishness has kept that fine little Middle English poem, the Cuckoo Song, out of many a school-book, all because the old poet was familiar with English barn-yards and meadows and in his poem recalled those sights and sounds. He knew that bullocks and bucks feel so good in the springtime that they can hardly contain themselves, and he set down what he saw and heard, leaving it to squeamish editors to distort one of his innocent folk-words into a meaning that he would not recognise. One suspects that scholarly ingenuity has been overworked [...] to save the children of England from indecency.
Similarly, Arthur K. Moore states:
The older anthologists sometimes made ludicrous attempts to gloss 'buck uerteth' in a way tolerable to Victorian sensibilities. Most recent editors have recognized what every farm boy knows--that quadrupeds disport themselves in the spring precisely as the poet has said. To the fourteenth century, the idea was probably inoffensive.
According to Platzer, "this traditional reading is not as secure as the number of editors that have championed it might imply". The evolution of verteþ could not have originated in the unattested Old Englishfeortan, in part because there is a gap of between 100 and 120 years between the first unambiguous usage of that word and its postulated use in Sumer is icumen in. Given that the poem was likely composed in Reading, with Leominster as a second possibility, a quantitative analysis was performed using the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediæval English; out of nine lexemes originally beginning with the letter F, six demonstrably retained that letter in Reading (the other three were unattested), while four retained it in Leominster (four unattested, with fetch evolving into vetch). The Middle English Dictionary records a personal name Walterus Fartere from the calendar of the close rolls of 1234, and another name Johannes le Fartere from the Leicestershire lay subsidy rolls of 1327. This also implies the existence of a word farten or ferten in Middle English, both with an initial letter F.
Christian version in Latin
Beneath the Middle English lyrics in the manuscript, there is also a set of Latin lyrics which consider the sacrifice of the Crucifixion of Jesus:
pro vitis vicio
Filio non parcens
exposuit mortis exicio
Qui captivos semiuiuos a supplicio
Vite donat et secum coronat
in celi solio
The heavenly farmer,
owing to a defect in the vine,
not sparing the Son,
exposed him to the destruction of death.
To the captives half-dead from torment,
He gives them life and crowns them with himself
on the throne of heaven.
A second recording, made by the Winchester Music Club, followed in 1929. Released on Columbia (England) D40119 (matrix number WAX4245-2), this twelve-inch 78rpm record was made to illustrate the second in a series of five lectures by Sir George Dyson, for the International Educational Society, and is titled Lecture 61. The Progress Of Music. No. 1 Rota (Canon): Summer Is A Coming In (Part 4).)
For similar purposes, E. H. Fellowes conducted the St. George's Singers in a recording issued c. 1930 on Columbia (US) 5715, a ten-inch 78rpm disc, part of the eight-disc album M-221, the Columbia History of Music by Ear and Eye, Volume One, Period 1: To the Opening of the Seventeenth Century.
The London Madrigal Group, conducted by T.B. Lawrence, recorded the work on 10 January 1936. This recording was issued later that year on Victrola 4316 (matrix numbers OEA2911 and OEA2913), a ten-inch 78rpm disc.
In the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, Little John (Alan Hale Sr.) is whistling the melody of the song just before he first meets Robin Hood played by Errol Flynn. According to Lisa Colton, "Although it appears only this once, in that fleeting moment the tune serves to introduce the character through performance: the melody was presumably sufficiently recognisable to be representative of medieval English music, but perhaps, more importantly, the fact that Little John is whistling the song emphasizes his peasant status...In Robin Hood, Little John's performance of 'Sumer is icumen in' locates him socially as a contented, lower class male, a symbol of the romanticized ideal of the medieval peasant".
Sumer is Icumen in,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blows the mead,
And springs the wood anew;
Ewe bleats harshly after lamb,
Cows after calves make moo;
Bullock stamps and deer champs,
Now shrilly sing, cuckoo!
Wild bird are you;
Be never still, cuckoo!
In the children's television programme Bagpuss, the mice sing a song called "The Mouse Organ Song: We Will Fix It", to a tune adapted from "Sumer is icumen in".
This piece was parodied as "Ancient Music" by the American poet Ezra Pound (Lustra, 1916):
Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.
The song is also parodied by "P. D. Q. Bach" (Peter Schickele) as "Summer is a cumin seed" for the penultimate movement of his Grand Oratorio The Seasonings.
Plumber is icumen in;
Bludie big tu-du.
Bloweth lampe, and showeth dampe,
And dripth the wud thru.
Bludie hel, boo-hoo!
Thaweth drain, and runneth bath;
Saw saweth, and scrueth scru;
Bull-kuk squirteth, leake spurteth;
Wurry springeth up anew,
Tom Pugh, Tom Pugh, well plumbes thu, Tom Pugh;
Better job I naver nu.
Therefore will I cease boo-hoo,
Woorie not, but cry pooh-pooh,
Murie sing pooh-pooh, pooh-pooh,
Notes and references
^While Middle English sumer is related to Modern English "summer", Crystal (2004, 108) states it means "spring". Millett notes that the Middle English word "sumer" "extends over a longer period than the modern one".
^"1000 Years of Popular Music kicks off with 'Summer is icumen in', which is the original summer anthem and could be heard blasting from many a tavern and castle during the balmy middle months of 1260."
Wulstan, David. (2000). "'Sumer is icumen in': A Perpetual Puzzle-Canon?". Plainsong and Medieval Music 9, no. 1 (April): 1-17.
Bukofzer, Manfred F. (1944) "'Sumer is icumen in': A Revision". University of California Publications in Music 2: 79-114.
Colton, Lisa (2014). "Sumer is icumen in". Grove Music Online (1 July, revision) (accessed 26 November 2014)
Duffin, Ross W. (1988) "The Sumer Canon: A New Revision". Speculum 63:1-21.
Falck, Robert. (1972). "Rondellus, Canon, and Related Types before 1300". Journal of the American Musicological Society 25, no. 1 (Spring): 38-57.
Fischer, Andreas (1994). "'Sumer is icumen in': The Seasons of the Year in Middle English and Early Modern English". In Studies in Early Modern English, edited by Dieter Kastovsky, 79-95. Berlin and New York: Mouton De Gruyter. ISBN3-11-014127-2.
Greentree, Rosemary (2001). The Middle English Lyric and Short Poem. Annotated Bibliographies of Old and Middle English Literature 7. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. ISBN0-85991-621-9.
Sanders, Ernest H. (2001). "Sumer is icumen in". Grove Music Online (20 January, bibliography updated 28 August 2002) (accessed 26 November 2014).
Schofield, B. (1948). "The Provenance and Date of 'Sumer is icumen in'". The Music Review 9:81-86.
Taylor, Andrew, and A. E. Coates (1998). "The Dates of the Reading Calendar and the Summer Canon". Notes and Queries 243:22-24.
Toguchi, K?saku. (1978). "'Sumer is icumen in' et la caccia: Autour du problème des relations entre le 'Summer canon' et la caccia arsnovistique du trecento". In La musica al tempo del Boccaccio e i suoi rapporti con la letteratura, edited by Agostino Ziino, 435-446. L'ars nova italiana del Trecento 4. Certaldo: Centro di Studi sull'Ars Nova Italiana del Trecento.