Lullaby: Births, Deaths and Narratives of Hope
3. Cradle Songs and Carols
… lyrics with clear internal textual signatures, either the depiction of a scene in which a singer soothes a baby or the presence of lulling words.(p. 361)
The Middle English verse can be translated in the following way:Lollai, l<ollai>, litel child, whi wepistou so sore?nedis mostou wepe, hit i3arkid° pe 3oreEuer to lib° in sorrow, and sich° and mourne euere,As pin eldren did we pis, whil hi aliues were.Lollai, <lollai>, litel child, child lolai, lullow,In-to vncup world icommen so ertow!(p. 361)3
Despite its child-subject’s anonymity, the song’s allusions to biblical imagery (particularly in later verses which refer to the fox and bird imagery of Matthew and Luke’s gospels (see Palti 2011, p. 362)) demonstrate the intertextual quality of lullabies. Beyond their original cradle-side setting, lullabies became songs complex and robust enough to traverse private and public domains, the latter in performance contexts and Christian religious settings. Thus, the lullaby form is one of “extensive textual mobility”, a characteristic that enabled its widespread use, particularly in the form of the carol (p. 365).Lollai, lollai, little child, why do you weep so bitterly?Necessarily you must weep, it was prepared long ago for youEver to live in sorrow, and sigh and ever mourn,As your elders did before this, while they were alive.Lollai, Lollai, little child, child lollai, lullow,Into an unknown world so you have come.
Thus, “powerfully didactic in its simultaneous expression of parental love and loss”, through the lens of The Nativity image, the ordinary, private, lyrical moment of soothing between mother and child is disrupted and changed, as Vines suggests, into a call to “a devout Christian life” (p. 223). And so, the carol lullaby was born.Unlike other affective devotional texts, which celebrate the joy inherent in Christ’s birth, these lullaby lyrics, I suggest, transform the emotional intimacy of the first interactions between mother and child into a lesson in parental mourning. Mary’s shift from lullaby to lament in many of the Nativity lyrics models the emotional shift that is intended to take place within the reader. Picturing a familiar, loving scene with their own children enables the readers to identify more readily with Mary’s loss and to understand her sacrifice more fully.
The carol begins with the lulling sounds typical of the cradle song. In the opening refrain, the singer addresses an unnamed child—assumed to be Jesus, given the gospel allusions that follow—and proceeds to sing to her “sisters” in what is reminiscent of a performance of lament by the weeping women described by Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (Jer 9:1, pp. 17–18). With her first verse, the singer gathers the women (especially other mothers of young children in and around Bethlehem), appealing to them to collaborate in an act of preservation and resistance against an imminent threat to the life of her child and others. “How may we do for to preserve this day …?” she cries. The next verse describes the raging king Herod and “his men of might”, closely referencing the account of The Massacre of the Infants in Matthew 2:16–18. While the biblical text does not specify that Herod had witnessed the slaughter as the lyrics suggest—it was not uncommon for writers of such carols to incorporate folklore “to fill gaps” left by the gospel authors (Ramalingam 2006)—it does refer to words of Jeremiah who foretold the “wailing and loud lamentation” of another mother, Rachel, who was equally grief-stricken.4 The pleading and protest against the tragedy that the Coventry Carol expresses is punctuated by the comforting words of the refrain. The final verse expresses the singer’s acquiescence: death will come upon her child and she will both resist it and remain inconsolable in her grief. This is Mary’s song; the song of a maternal body; the song of a maternal voice. The tone of triumphant praise that characterises Mary’s first song, the Magnificat, is long forgotten here and, in the context of the Christmas pageant in which the carol was sung, this served as a potent reminder to the gathered audience that in The Nativity, just as in their own experience, death was imminent and devotion to God was necessary.Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,By, by, lully, lullay.
- O sisters too,How may we doFor to preserve this dayThis poor youngling,For whom we do sing,By by, lully lullay?
- Herod, the king,In his raging,Chargèd he hath this dayHis men of might,In his own sight,All young childrén to slay.
- That woe is me,Poor child for thee!And ever morn and day,For they partingNeither say nor singBy by, lully lullay!
In stark contrast to the Coventry Carol, this carol evokes feelings of joy and love, such as that exhibited by the intimate mother–child relation it describes. Again, although the subjects are not explicitly named, the titles bestowed on the child and the biblical reference to angels attending his birth (from Luke 2:13–14) denote its classification as a carol lullaby about Mary and Jesus. As such, its lyrics announce Christ’s Incarnation and encourage the faithful audience or congregation of singers to anticipate the presence and cheerful blessings of God in their own lives.Lullay my liking, my dear son, my sweeting;Lullay my dear heart, mine own dear darling!
- I saw a fair maidenSitten and sing:She lullèd a little child,A sweetè lording:Lullay my liking, my dear son, my sweeting;Lullay my dear heart, mine own dear darling!
- That eternal lord is heThat made allè thing;Of allè lordès he is Lord,Of allè kingès king:
- There was mickle melodyAt that childès birth:Although they were in heaven’s blissThey madè mickle mirth:
- Angels bright they sang that nightAnd saiden to that child‘Blessed be thou, and so be sheThat is both meek and mild’:
- Pray we now to that child,And to his mother dear,God grant them all his blessingThat now maken cheer:
4. Hope and Natality
The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope …(p. 247)
5. The Singing Voice as “Materiality of the Body” in Relation
In this text work—written in table salt across the entire 5.7 × 7.5 m floor of the gallery room—I aimed to express the cyclical experience of the maternal body in relation with her child. While I had done so in my own words and, at times, in the Middle English lyrics of others, it seemed (at least to me) to lack a mystery or mobility that sung lullabies exhibit. Thus, I turned to the medium of the voice.eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play eat play eat play sleep wake scream eat play sleep eat play sleep cry cry cry wake me up eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play sleep in my arms heavy dead eat play sleep shh sleep sleep lullay mine liking my dear son mine sweeting lullay my dear heart mine own dear darling you sleep all night eat play sleep eat play smile at me make me cry sleep eat play sleep sleep sleep long sleep today lucky me eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play sleep day after day eat play sleep chatter eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play sleep crawling now eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play sleep laugh and chatter and crawl and wail eat play sleep wake in dark of night eat sleep rouse me from good sleep obedient instinct eat play eat again ceaseless chatter sleep eat play totter teeter sleep sleep afternoon sleep me too eat play sleep show us make us smile eat play sleep same stuff as yesterday less sleep more chatter eat play sleep wake cry no eating today just crying medicate your hot body lullay my dear heart mine own dear darling you sleep I watch listen to you breathe sleep eat play sleep eat play chatter tell you all the things I know all the things sleep sleep sleep sleep eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play walk like you’ve always done it tire sleep sleep eat play sleep eat play sleep eat play walk run trip bleed scream with no sound I weep Jesus wept I hold hold hold you sleep eat play sleep eat play play play fall in a heap sleep dream of hens gathering chicks under wings
Sung in the voice of a mother (or other) to a child who knows how to hear it, the lullaby is thus intersubjective. It is comprised of at least two subjects and sounds the relation between them. The “grain” of the singing voice operates in what we may here designate as an interval, allied to Arendt’s “time interval between birth and death” (Arendt 1958, p. 97) and Irigaray’s interval of the “sensible transcendental” between two sexuate (and so, irreducible) human subjects (Irigaray 1993, p. 129). Bearing the hopeful, as-yet-unimagined capacity of all and any “beginning” (Keller 2003, p. xv), and active in what Barthes describes as “a double posture, a double production”, “the body in the singing voice” produces both sound and speech that, in the relational context of the interval, is entirely political (Barthes 1985, p. 269). The singing voice operates between the singer and the listener, not in a unidirectional mode by which the ear of the listener works to decipher particular meanings emitted by the singer; rather, the singing voice demands a multiple and intersubjective kind of listening in which, as Barthes explains, “‘I am listening’ also means ‘listen to me’” (p. 269). In this sense, the singing voice asks for the kind of ethical relation that Arendt’s vital narrative and Irigaray’s sexuate belonging demand; the sound of the song reverberates in such a manner as to ensure that both subjects are able to identify themselves through their own difference, while simultaneously enabling the other to do the same. No subject is summarised or curtailed inside such a relation; the voice, as a remainder, proves it.The singing voice, that very specific space in which a tongue encounters a voice and permits those who know how to listen to it to hear what we call its “grain”—the singing voice is not the breath but indeed that materiality of the body emerging from the throat, a site where the phonic metal hardens and takes shape.
The human voice is, as a matter of fact, the privileged (eidetic) site of difference: a site which escapes all science, for there is no science (physiology, history, aesthetics, psychoanalysis) which exhausts the voice: no matter how much you classify and comment on music historically, sociologically, aesthetically, technically, there will always be a remainder, a supplement, a lapse, something non-spoken which designates itself: the voice.(p. 279)
It is the kind of gesture that enables a mother to allow experiences of love and lament to reverberate back to her again and again in the bitter-sweet sound of her own voice; in the singing of a lullaby.Becoming oneself requires as much heroism as being born, and also needs resorting to our breath in order to emerge from the family and sociocultural background which, too often, substitute themselves for the maternal placenta in which we started living. It is a matter of winning an existence of our own again.(p. 42)
6. Lullaby (2016) and Other Works of Contemporary Art
With her, we pray: “Let us hope they continue to do so …” (p. 37).There are some realities which are to be lived without first knowing what they are or how to approach them. The wise, the mystics, lovers and poets behave in this way.
Conflicts of Interest
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This paper draws on my creative, practice-led doctoral research, titled This Is My Body: Re-imagining the mother and the sacred in art and ordinary life, and completed at The University of Melbourne, Australia in 2017. (Pryor 2017) The thesis may be viewed at the University’s online repository: http://hdl.handle.net/11343/197462. Artwork from my continuing art practice may be viewed at my website: www.rebekahpryor.com.
The lullaby, “Lollai, lollai”, appears in the parchment codex of ‘The Kildare Lyrics’ (MS. Harley 913, F. 32R-V), which was once owned by two earls of Oxford, Robert Harley and Edward Harley, and is now held in the collections of the British Library, London. British Library, “Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts: Detailed Record for Harley 913”, http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=18695&CollID=8&NStart=913.
In her presentation of a transcription of the Harley MS 913 lullaby (held in the British Library), Palti references the text Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924).
Matthew 2:18 cf. Jeremiah 31:15.
In outlining her theology of creatio ex profundis (by which, put simply, all things emerge from a divine, deep, endlessly multiple capacity rather than a vast nothingness), theologian Catherine Keller wonders: “What if beginning—this beginning, any beginning, The Beginning—does not lie back, like an origin, but rather opens out? “To begin” derives from the old Teutonic be-ginnan, “to cut open, to open up”, cognate with the Old English ginan, meaning “to gape, to yawn”, as a mouth or an abyss.” (Keller 2003, p. xv) For Keller, a further, critical question follows and provokes a turn to ethics: “Do we—religious or irreligious—just gape a moment, yawn and look away?” (pp. xv–xvi).
Refer to The Holy Bible’s accounts of Hagar’s plea (Genesis 16, 21:8–21), Sarah’s laugh (Genesis 18:12, 21:6–7) and Mary’s song (Luke 1:46–55).
Irigaray is hopeful that this capacity is required if we are to share the world: “Self-affection corresponds to an art of interiority, of internalization, that we have to discover, to invent, to cultivate, and to express: in ourselves and between us. Such an art can lead the way towards our becoming universal and convivial beings, capable of coexistence with all differences. This art is thus the mediation necessary for constructing together a shareable world” (Irigaray 2008, p. 136). She continues to insist on this in To Be Born, when she reminds us of each human life’s ecstatic beginning and first breath: “Through its autonomous breathing and its sexuation, the little human gives birth to itself, it brings into the world a singular living being of which it will have to cultivate life, a life irreducible to any other, towards its achievement for itself and for the world into which it takes place” (Irigaray 2017, p. 5).
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Pryor, R. Lullaby: Births, Deaths and Narratives of Hope. Religions 2020, 11, 138. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11030138
Pryor R. Lullaby: Births, Deaths and Narratives of Hope. Religions. 2020; 11(3):138. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11030138Chicago/Turabian Style
Pryor, Rebekah. 2020. "Lullaby: Births, Deaths and Narratives of Hope" Religions 11, no. 3: 138. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11030138