A Winter’s Tale – Lyke Wake Dirge

Many long years ago someone played a Buffy Sainte-Marie album for me, thinking I would find it interesting and enjoyable. I did enjoy the album. I also became fascinated with the song, The Lyke Wake Dirge,  whose refrain lyrics gave the album it’s title, Fire and Fleet and Candlelight.  To my amazement I found Buffy sang a true dirge, mournful and and appropriately not very tuneful, to an arrangement by Benjamin Britten, a very favorite classical composer. One rarely hears a dirge in this day and age, it being a lament for the dead as part of a funeral service.  Some have found it a fit piece for Halloween but for me it has always conjured up the harsh depths of winter, when the soul and the body are most in need of comfort. Lyke comes from the medieval English word for corpse and wake is the old custom of setting a watch over the dead until the burial. Lyke Wake Dirge becomes A Lament While Setting Watch on the Corpse in modern English. I prefer the old version.

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This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

IMG_7013Later a version was made famous as a song by the group Pentangle in the 1970’s. It is much more musical and ballad-like.  Still is faithful to the original lyrics of the soul’s travel after death. And where is Whinny Muir the poor soul comes to? Muir is am old word  for moor and whin was gorse, a thorny evergreen that grows is thickets, so the soul comes to the bleak, dark, windswept moor covered with scratchy thorny shrubs. A dismal prospect in spite of the beauty of Pentangle’s music. Here we face the first test, Has the soul been charitable? Has he or she given hosen, stockings or leggings in modern English, and shooen, shoes, to the poor?

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir whence thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.


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The second trial is again a question of charity. Has the soul given silver and gold? Lack of charity could lead you to loose your foothold on the narrow Brig (bridge) of Dread and fall into hell fire.

If ever thou gav’st silver and gold,
Every nighte and alle,
At t’ Brig o’ Dread thou’lt find foothold,
And Christe receive thy saule.

But if silver and gold thou never gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
Down thou tumblest to Hell flame,
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread whence thou may’st pass, Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

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Finally the soul arrives, not at heaven or hell, but purgatory. Even here the soul is assured the the fire will be endured if there was charity.  This old tale of the afterlife, while very gloomy and painted with descriptions of dire punishments, actually affords a great deal of hope and charity to the bereaved as well as the soul of the departed. There are many sins but these are not mentioned, only the redemptive power of charity, and the possibility of another chance.

 

If ever thou gav’st meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

It is a perfect meditation for the dark time of year, a form of the winter’s tale, a more modern version of which is Dicken’s story of Scrooge and his redemption. Scrooge, too, experiences three chances to learn the lesson of charity. The dead, the living, charity and redemption wrapped in cold and darkness and offering a spark of hope in the time of the year for looking inward in self-examination. A true winter’s tale as described by Christopher Marlowe in 1589:

“Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night”

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This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule

 

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About angela1313

I am a cat lover, a writer, and an artist who is finally making time to work on my art.
This entry was posted in Music, Ritual, Seasons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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