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Welsh mil 'animal' and the Harley Lyric 'Lenten ys come.'

THE Middle English reverdie |Lenten ys come with love to toune' is a famous celebration of spring: of blossom, daisies, the song of nightingale and thrush, the rose showing her redness, and all nature turning to love. Animals call each other secretly, and even worms underground are wooing.(1)

This joyous song contains a crux.

Wowes these wilde drakes;

Miles murgeth here makes,

As strem that striketh stille.(2) |These wild drakes woo, miles gladden their mates, as a stream that glides silently.' The standard rendering of miles as |animals' (from Welsh mil) has had a mixed reception.

In 1907, miles murgeth was already translated |wild creatures make merry'.(3) This interpretation was greeted coldly by Sisam (|It has been suggested without much probability that miles means "animals" from Welsh mil') and Tolkien (who proposed an emendation meles murge [wi]b |call lovingly to').(4) Later editors react variously. Brown accepts the Chambers-Sidgwick gloss without query; Brook quotes Tolkien's emendation, but plumps for |animal' from Welsh mil in his glossary; Speirs is more cautious (|?"wild creatures" from Welsh "mil" has been suggested'); Davies translates |animals (?) cheer their mates'; Silverstein translates |animals' without query.(5)

Most editors, then, accept a Welsh explanation. It makes sense in the context; it avoids emendation; it accords with the lyric's West Midland provenance. But the Sisams remained unconvinced, since their Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse describes miles as |unexplained'. Further discussion is thus in order.

Welsh mil is a well-established form, like Old Irish mil, Modern Irish miol, Old Cornish mil, and (Middle) Breton mil, all meaning |animal'. These derive from Indo-European *melo-smelo- |small animal' (like English small itself).(6) Old Irish mil, however, refers to large beasts (mil mor |whale', besides mil-chumae |bug', as does Welsh mil.(7)

In Welsh, mil is used of a monster in an early mythological poem in the fourteenth-century Book of Taliesin: gweint mil mawrem/arnaw yd oed canpen/a chat erdygnawt dan von y tauawt/a chat arall yssyd yn y wegilyd |I stabbed a beast, a great jewel, there were a hundred heads upon it, and a stubborn host under the root of its tongue, and another host in the back of its neck.'(8) Mil is also used of normal animals. The Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen (?tenth-century) mentions amongst its heroes Henwas edeinawc, ny allwys mil pedwar troedawc eiroet y ganhymdeith hyd un erw |Henwas the Winged, never a four-footed creature could run abreast of him the length of one acre.'(9) It also refers to the hounds Aned and Aethlem, swift as the wind, ny ellwngwyt eiroet ar mil nys lladwynt |never were they unleashed on a beast they did not kill.'(10) On a quest for Mabon son of Modron, Arthur's men are told by the aged Ouzel of Cilgwri, kenedlaeth vileit yssyd gynt rithwys duw no mi |there is a kind of creature God made before me', the Stag of Rhedynfre, whom they must seek.(11) The protagonists of Manawydan (?eleventh-century) see the buildings of Narberth in Dyfed deserted, heb dyn, heb uilyndunt |without man, without beast within them'.(12)

These quotations indicate that, in the centuries before the Harley Lyrics were composed, Welsh mil meant particularly an animal to hunt (deer, boar, wolf, fox, hare), as well as a domestic one (most obviously, horse or dog. The compounds of mil confirm this sense, especially milgi (Middle Cornish mylgy, Breton milgi, Old Irish milchu) |greyhound; hound', well-attested in early Welsh law. Mil must refer to the varied animals which it hunted, as opposed to gellgi |mastiff, staghound' (gell |bay, yellow'), a more powerful, specialized and expensive dog. Welsh bwystfil (bwyst<Latin bestia) and gwyddfil also mean |wild animal'. Like English deer in its original sense, mil is applied to any quadruped. Unlike Irish miol, it is not used for invertebrates (or birds), although a fifteenth-century poet uses the diminutive milyn for the salmon.(13)

Welsh mil, then, was a word familiar to huntsmen, and thus more likely to enter English than other Celtic forms. Since the Harley poet uses not the Welsh forms milod or milodau, but an English plural form, mil must have been well established in Marcher English. The evidence from Celtic thus vindicates Chambers and Sidgwick, and provides no basis for the scepticism of the Sisams and Tolkien. The poet seems to have in mind not just animals, but wild animals, the shy, elusive creatures of the forest whose love might well be as quiet as strem that striketh stille.(14)

(1) J. A. W. Bennett and Douglas Gray, Middle English Literature (Oxford, 1986), 403-4.

(2) The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, ed. Celia and Kenneth Sisam (Oxford, 1970), 121.

(3) Early English Lyrics, ed. E. K. Chambers and Frank Sidgwick (London, 1907), 8.

(4) Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, ed. Kenneth Sisam (Oxford, 1921), 256; J. R. R. Tolkien, A Middle English Vocabulary (Oxford, 1922), s.v. miles.

(5) English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford, 1932, 276, 278; The Harley Lyrics, ed. G. L. Brook (Manchester, 1948), 80, 108; John Speirs, Medieval English Poetry (London, 1957), 54; Medieval English Lyrics, ed. R. T. Davies (London, 1963), 85; Medieval English Lyrics, ed. Theodore Silverstein (London, 1971), 172.

(6) Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (Caerdydd, 1950- ), 2455.

(7) Joseph Vendryes, Lexique etymologique de l'irlandais ancien: Lettres M N O P (Paris, 1960), M-51; Focloir Gaeilge-Bearla, ed. Niall O Donaill (Baile Atha Cliath, 1977, 863.

(8) The Book of Taliesin, ed. J. G. Evans (Llanbedrog, 1910), 23; cf. Ifor Williams, Lectures on Early Welsh Poetry (Dublin, 1944, 57); Trioedd Ynys Prydein, ed. Rachel Bromwich, 2nd edn (Cardiff, 1978), 207.

(9) The White Book Mabinogion, ed. J. G. Evans (Pwllheli, 1907), col. 463; The Mabinogion, tr. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (London, 1949), 102.

(10) Evans, col. 485; Jones and Jones, 120.

(11) Evans, col. 490; Jones and Jones, 124.

(12) Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi, ed. Ifor Williams (Caerdydd, 1930), 52, and cf. 142; Jones and Jones, 43.

(13) Cywyddau Dafydd ap Gwilym a'i Gyfoeswyr, ed. Ifor Williams and Thomas Roberts, 2nd edn (Caerdydd, 1935), 44; Gwaith Dafydd ap Gwilym, ed. Thomas Parry (Caerdydd, 1952), cxc; J. P. Clancy, Medieval Welsh Lyrics (London, 1965), 163.

(14) On Wales and the Harley Lyrics, cf. D. A. Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry (London, 1977), 315 n. 40; Rachel Bromwich, Aspects of the Poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym (Cardiff, 1986), 99; and A. T. E. Matonis, |The Harley Lyrics: English and Welsh Convergences', Modern Philology, lxxxvi (1988), 1-21.
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Author:Breeze, Andrew
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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