In which your blogger loses herself in a twilight world of philological machinations.
On this Sunday’s “The Newsroom” one of the characters quoted Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”:
Gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may,
Old time is still a flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.
I am, by nature, driven by curiosity, and I started to wonder about that innocuous little ye between Gather and rosebuds.
Sure, the second ye is easily understood as an archaic form of you, but that first ye teases with a certain ambiguity. It could mean you, in the same way that the carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” uses it in the issuance of an instruction to the listener: O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem. On the other hand, it could be a remnant of a long-lost letter…
The thorn character, þ, no longer finds a home in the English alphabet but, when it did, it was pronounced like the th in the. The shape of the letter itself was corrupted over time, until it came to resemble a lower-case y (partly because sets of English typeface came with a y but not a þ). That’s what you’re seeing in faux-Elizabethan store signs such as “Ye Olde Muffler and Lube Shacke”.
(As an aside, there’s an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” in which Sheldon berates the organizers of a ‘Ren Fair’ for thinking they can stick “Ye Olde” in front of everything to make it seem authentic. He pronounces it ye. I can’t help but feel that the ‘real’ Sheldon would pronounce it the, leading to one of the other characters commenting that he meant ye, thus earning a diatribe from Sheldon on the history of thorn. And don’t get me started on Leslie Winkle’s claim that string theory has nothing to say about black holes. Anyway…)
All of this – well, perhaps not the parenthetical “Big Bang” ramblings – means that the poem could have been intended to talk of þe rosebuds, was printed as ye rosebuds, and is correctly pronounced as the rosebuds.
Over at Take Our Word for It they take the ‘you’ approach: “[It] is quite correct that sometimes ‘ye’ is shorthand for ‘the’, but that is not the case here.” They opt for ye as a reflection of the imperative mood of the verb (having discounted the possibility of its being the “ethical dative”, meaning “for yourselves”).
Travelanguist takes the opposite view (on this page, which talks about thorn and other lost letters quite extensively, and on this page about stress patterns and meter): “[T]his brings us back to the first line of Herrick’s poem… [which] is pronounced, for reasons just explained, “Gather the rosebuds while ye may”…”
(That first linked page on the Travelanguist site also explains how the loss of both thorn, þ, and edh, ð, means we can no longer distinguish the pronunciation of north and northern from their written forms, as we could from norþ and norðern. Incidentally, if you’re reading this in a public space, look up now and see if anyone’s been watching you sticking your tongue in and out as you subconsciously mouth all these th words.)
To conclude our story, we need to look at early printings of the poem. It appears in “Hesperides: or, the Works, Both Humane and Divine, of Robert Herricks Esq.” published in London in 1648. Despite my best efforts I’ve been unable to find an online image of that printing of the poem, however…
Christie’s sold a copy of the book for just under $10,000 in 2001, and their online catalogue contains the following image (click for a full-size version):
Since you, dear reader, are youthful, keen-eyed, perspicacious (and, frankly, downright attractive, if I may be so bold), you’ll have noticed that every instance of the uses the modern spelling: at the Crown and Marygold, The wound, all the while, and so on. So, it’s not unreasonable to think that had our poet intended to use the rosebuds that’s precisely how it would have appeared in 1648.
Here’s a link to the text of that same page from an 1823 edition by W & C Tait, printed in Edinburgh, courtesy of Google books. The spellings remain unchanged from the original. And here’s our poem in that same edition:
The suggestion is that in the 1648 edition, which uses the in preference to ye, our poem starts, Gather ye rosebuds…, and it does so because Herrick did, indeed, mean ye rather than þe.
Furthermore, the Gutenberg Project version of Hesperides is taken from an 1898 Lawrence & Bullen edition, which includes as a footnote to the poem, “Printed in Witts Recreations, 1654, with the variants: “Gather your Rosebuds” in 1.1…”
This was only six years after the original printing, and would seem to be an unlikely variant if the original were not printed ye.
So, on the balance of the available evidence I’d say that Herrick intended his ye to be ye and not þe. I prefer the imperative interpretation (Hey, you! Gather…) rather than the possessive (Gather your…), not least because in other poems Herrick himself uses both ye and your in a single line: That ye could your thoughts remove, for example.
I suppose the only way to be absolutely sure of the 1648 version is to look at a physical copy. There’s one in the British Library. Even then, there’s no absolute guarantee that the printer didn’t misinterpret Herrick’s original manuscript.
Besides, I have other rosebuds to gather, and Old Time is still a-flying. So, to sidestep the confusion, perhaps it’s best that we close here and simply return to the source, De Rosis Nascentibus, from Ausonius’s Epigramata de Diversis Rebus:
Collige, virgo, rosas, dum flos novus et nova pubes et memor esto aevum sic properare tuum.
There are 2 comments for this post.
There are no trackbacks on this entry.