Whether sacred, profane – or both – the mystery of this poem remains immediately appealing some 700 years on
This week's poem is among the earliest surviving English love lyrics. "Bird on a Briar" or, in Middle English, "Bryd one Brere", is an enchanting little song, anonymous, of course, but with an extra mystery attached to its provenance. It was written on the back of a papal bull, at least a hundred years after the bull had been issued by Pope Innocent III in 1199. The scribe was probably a monk at the Priory of St James, near Exeter. Whether he transcribed a secular poem on a holy and ancient document as an act of mischief, piety or sheer carelessness, we'll probably never know: we don't even know for certain the poem is secular.
As often with texts from this period, the variant spellings raise another question: was the scribe aiming for a particular effect or set of effects? For "bird" we have "bryd", "brid" and "biryd". As the word changes shape, it seems to mirror the quick, flickering movement of the bird. All the bird-words are more onomatopoeic than the modern English "bird", thanks to the audibility of the "r". The two-syllable "biryd" is a bird-call in itself. Even the elision of "on a" to "one" in the first line sharpens our sense of the bird's singularity and special-ness.
The "bird" is usually taken to represent a young woman. Lines two and three reinforce the metaphor: translated, they read "Blissful bird, take pity on me/ Or dig, love, dig thou for me my grave." Again, a spelling-shift enriches the text for the modern reader: "greyth" contains "grey" and therefore hints at the lover's decline into age, while "greith" suggests more the physical grappling of the spade with the earth. If we pick up a hint of "leaf" from "lef" (love) an autumnal tone appears in the initially bright and lively scene.
The mood soon picks up. "Brihit" means "bright" and, again, a double-syllable adds jauntiness, and an echo of the "biryd" itself. There is such delight and anticipation in this stanza. The alliteration of "hic" and "hende" adds to the effect, and joins the speaker and the object of his love in the verbal dance. Now "bryd one brere" is abbreviated to "brid on brere," as if speeding the thought to its conclusion.
That second stanza culminates in a vision: "She is white of limb, lovely, true/ She is fair and flower of all." Secular and sacred poems were frequently cross-bred in the middle ages, and one possible interpretation of the lyric is that it's a prayer to St Bride or Saint Brighid. The poet is asking pity of a saint rather than a bird, feathered or otherwise The saint fits the description "fair, and flower of all", and might account for the choice of a papal bull as note-paper. A straightforward interpretation of the poem as a prayer seems contradicted by the next stanza and its first line, "Mikt ic hire at wille haven" ("Might I have her at my will… "). On the other hand, perhaps the metaphor continues, and it's the spiritual possession of a divine presence that is alluded to. "Haven" might mean "have" but looks very much like "heaven", after all.
The word "hende" is variously translated. The link above gives "handsome one", while Luminarium favours "handmaid". The handmaid might be a servant, unobtrusively attending to her lord or lady in the great hall, flitting about like the bird on the briar. She might conceivably be the Virgin Mary, the briar itself representing the Crown of Thorns.
The second and third stanzas share the little half-line refrain, "loveli, trewe", differently positioned and changing emphasis. The qualities seem physical in the second stanza, and moral in the third: being lovely and true here are connected with being "Stedefast of love". "Trewe", of course, echoes and embodies the "rewe" of the third line.
There's certainly a note of redemption at the end, though at first it's difficult to get a modern tongue around the line, "Jouye and blisse were were me new". The first "were" is the conditional, "would", and the second means, and I think should be pronounced, "wear". The poet is talking about renewal, and not about the past.
Love song, prayer or a cunning weave of both, "Bryd one Brere" still feels freshly minted. There's the irregular, dancing rhythm, the open-heartedness, and the simplicity of imagery. And, of course, there's the spelling. "Bryd one Brere" sings from the page (the papal bull, to be precise). It belongs to a time when poetry was an oral art. Transcription was a new skill: writing was thought untrustworthy, and made a lot of people hot and bothered, as online publishing does today. Reading the poem in the original spelling, we can see English words and grammar in their infancy, still not quite ready to grow up and settle down. They seem like living organisms at this stage, shape-changing, unsettled, and difficult to catch as birds.
Bird on a Briar
Bryd one brere, brid, brid one brere,
Kynd is come of love, love to crave
Blythful biryd, on me thu rewe
Or greyth, lef, greith thu me my grave.
Hic am so blithe, so bryhit, brid on brere,
Quan I se that hende in halle:
Yhe is whit of lime, loveli, trewe
Yhe is fayr and flur of alle.
Mikte ic hire at wille haven,
Stedefast of love, loveli, trewe,
Of mi sorwe yhe may me saven
Ioye and blisse were were me newe.
Bird on a briar, bird, bird on a briar,
We come from love, and love we crave,
Blissful bird, have pity on me,
Or dig, love, dig for me my grave.
I am so blithe, so bright, bird on briar
When I see that handmaid in the hall:
She is white-limbed, lovely, true,
She is fair, and the flower of all.
Might I have her at my will,
Steadfast of love, lovely, true,
She may save me from my sorrow;
Joy and bliss would wear me new.