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Letter From America: Sumer Is Icumen In

A centuries-old English song which welcomed in the English summertime fills Ronnie Bray with nostalgic longings.

Lustily we sang in Spring Grove School the Middle English song that welcomed English summertime and had done since 1260. The Middle English was strange to us because our version of English had been baptised with Broad Yorkshire and apart from that most nearly conformed to the degraded language arrived at by lazy Saxons while their Norman masters were busy Frenchifying cooking and engaging in other matters that required them to speak with the peasantry only in the briefest and most terse of terms.

The original version of the song is, as far as is known, on this wise:

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!

Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

The odd character ‘þ’ is gone from English these many years, but is called the ‘thorn. Its relict survives in error in the titles of twee establishments that employ it in the form of ‘Ye’ as in ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe,’ etc.

Its value, however, is not as a ‘y’ but as a soft ‘th,’ as in ‘the,’ and what is written ‘ye’ today must be pronounced ‘the’ to accord with the ancient form rather than pander to elfin pavilions wherein dainty scones, scented teas, clotted cream, strawberry jam, færy cakes and the likes add a tincture of the antique to our unquiet world for genteel folk and their imitators.

The word ‘Pes’ indicates that the two lines under it were to be sung repeatedly as the main verses were being sung in the round by other voices.

We Spring Grovians amended the semi-modernised text we were suffered to sing that ran:

Summer is icumen in,

Lhude sing cuckoo.

Groweth seed, and groweth mead

And springeth wood anew.

Sing cuckoo!

Ewe bleateth after lamb,

Loweth after calf the cowe.

Bullock started, buck departed,

Merry sing cuckoo

Cuckoo, cuckoo,

How well thee sings, cuckoo!

Nor stop you never, now!


Sing cuckoo now.

Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo.

Sing cuckoo now!

Our amendment that amused and displeased our tutors was to sing ‘And Springwood Avenue,’ instead of ‘And springeth wood anew.’ Springwood Avenue formed the short side of a triangular area within which our noble school stood, closing the ends of Bow and Water Streets so that our institution was isolated within those boundaries along with the mean terraced houses that shared the enclosure.

The enclosure was merely figurative since the avenue could be crossed on foot or by horse and cart at its junction with Water Street where, after leaving the termination of Bow street, a traveller or schoolboy on Shank’s pony could perambulate up the Avenue and wander onto the Rifle Fields before disappearing into other less interesting thoroughfares before achieving iron railed Greenhead Parks, in both a large and small variety. The large one had the duckpond and the small one was just wide enough for a serpentine pathway.

The song is joyful if somewhat obscure to townies that thought the small field at the crossing of Trinity Street by Edgerton Road was the countryside. It was called ‘The Meadow,’ and doubtless had been a meadow since Odin stopped his cattle on the banks of the River Colne and built himself a hut from the trees in what had been a forest before he chopped them down to build his home, his cattle pens, sties, and coops for his animals, and burned the rest for firewood to keep the chilling Yorkshire winter from freezing his bones.

The old names remained until the eighteenth century when Huddersfield became a manufacturing town that needed room to spread out, lay down its manufactories, mills, dyeworks, finishing and cropping establishments, so dear to Ned and his lads, and provide accommodation for countryfolk lured from the harshness and poverty of agriculture and husbandry to the harshness and poverty that attended the Industrial Revolution with its men-eating mills and the regimentation and control of the working poor that marked a time that was at once wonderful and terrifying.

All that remained of forest lands by the dawn of the twentieth century was a small but wildly attractive wooded valley through which a small stream trickled, paused to bloom into a sizeable pond in which ‘twas told, a man eating pike as big as one of Thomas Broadbent’s submarine killed all living things in the water and struck fear into the hearts of all living things close by the water, including precocious boys bearing canes equipped with butcher string and bent sewing pins.

The foolhardy swung out over the lake on a rope affixed to a stout branch, but it was known that many a lad had been forced to run home on bleeding stumps after the Jackpike had bitten off his legs as he skimmed too close to the fearless fish and paid the penalty for his intrusion. We all believed this was true because we have great and undying faith in what scares us the most.

In between Gledholt Road and Spring Grove, and that included the area called to this day Spring Wood, there was nary a tree to be seen, unless you counted the ubiquitous elderberry shrubs that established themselves wherever they could find a square foot of earth that was not stamped hard by boyish clumpers.

But despite the lack of trees in Grove and Wood it was a blessing that sumer continued to icumen in and that despite the awfulness of World War Two – the second ‘war to end all wars,’ we still felt to sing about it.

In my present place it is not right to call what we call ‘summer’ summer, because as that other ancient song from Cole Porter has it, "It’s Too Darn Hot!" Even Ella Fitzgerald would be looking for another title if she visited southern Arizona between July and October. "Fever’ wouldn’t cut it. Sorry, Lena.

Even hiding from the merciless heat inside our shaded and air conditioned home I find an almost inexplicable rill of sweet comfort when I think of home and summertime as up comes the music right on cue, "Sumer is icumen in!"

In an instant I am back in school in knee britches, on the tiered benches that rise from hall to balcony with my risible and tumultuous companions under the tutelage of a music teacher who leads us, once more with feeling, into the song that shall ever be my summertime anthem.

No. That is not a tear. I have something in my eye.

© 2010 – Ronnie Bray



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