The Cuckoo song, popularly known by the first line, ‘Sumer is icumen in’, is a medieval English rota. The song dates back to the mid-13th century. The authorship of this song is not clear. According to scholars, it may have been written by W. de Wycombe (and that is who Poem Analysis assumes the author as). Through this song, the writer celebrates the coming of the summer. This composition portrays the essence of summer and depicts the natural landscape of that season.
Sumer is icumen in (Cuckoo Song / Reading rota) W. de Wycombe Summer has arrived, Loudly sing, cuckoo! The seed is growing And the meadow is blooming, And the wood is coming into leaf now, Sing, cuckoo! The ewe is bleating after her lamb, The cow is lowing after her calf; The bullock is prancing, The billy-goat farting, [or "The stag cavorting" Sing merrily, cuckoo! Cuckoo, cuckoo, You sing well, cuckoo, Never stop now. Sing, cuckoo, now; sing, cuckoo; Sing, cuckoo; sing, cuckoo, now!
‘Sumer is acumen in‘ is the incipit of the Summer Canon or the Cuckoo Song that celebrates the summer and its natural beauty.
This Song begins with the cooing of the cuckoo. The speaker requests the bird to sing as the summer is coming. At the end of the spring, nature gets ready to welcome summer. Likewise, the poet also tries to capture the change as well as the images related to summer. Moreover, the speaker refers to the animals such as the lamb, cow, bullock, goat, and last but not least, the cuckoo. The main idea of the poem is about the singing of the cuckoo that justly resonates with the ambiance of summer.
Structure and Form
‘Sumer is icumen in’ is the first line of the rota, the Summer Canon or the Cuckoo Song. This medieval song is in West Country (Wessex) English. A rota or round is a musical composition in which a minimum of three voices sings in a specific manner. Each voice starts to sing at different times. For this reason, different parts of the song coincide but fir in harmony. This type of composition is also known as a perpetual canon or infinite canon and it’s one of the easiest forms of part singing.
However, the Cuckoo song is the oldest known composition featuring six-part polyphony. It is sometimes called the Reading rota as the earliest manuscript of this song was written in mensural notation and found at Reading Abbey. Apart from that, the song consists of four verses with a repetition of the word “Cuckoo” several times.
This song begins with an apostrophe. At the beginning of the song, the speaker calls the Cuckoo to sing loudly as summer has arrived. Thereafter, in the line, “And the meadow is blooming”, the songwriter uses metonymy. In the following line, there is a personification. At the end of each verse, there is a repetition of the phrase, “Sing, cuckoo!” It’s a refrain that is used for the sake of emphasis. In the second verse, the writer uses onomatopoeia for referring to the sounds of different animals. In the following verses, the poet also uses alliteration and palilogy for highlighting his ideas.
Analysis, Verse by Verse
Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
The analysis of ‘Sumer is icumen in’ centers on the Modern English translation of the Middle English lyrics. Bella Millett translated the song into Modern English and the text is available on the Wessex Parallel Web Texts website. Some other critics also translated the Wessex version. There are a few variations. However, the essence of the song remains the same.
This song celebrates the coming of summer. Here, the speaker welcomes the season with a warm and energetic response. Deep down inside the speaker’s heart, there is a desire to hasten the process, the shift from spring to summer. For this reason, the speaker requests the Cuckoo to sing loudly as summer is coming soon. Thereafter, the lyricist refers to the changes that occur during the beginning of summer. These are the growth of seeds into seedlings, flowering in the meadows, and the growth of new leaves on leafless branches. Such a lively depiction justly portrays a landscape of summer. Lastly, the speaker asks the Cuckoo to sing again.
From the first section, it is clear that this song is in the French genre known as the “reverdie”, meaning “re-greening”. The summer is yet to arrive. The speaker is observing the ending phase of the spring. About this beautiful juncture, the poet wrote this song.
The ewe is bleating after her lamb,
The cow is lowing after her calf;
The bullock is prancing,
The billy-goat farting
Sing merrily, cuckoo!
The second verse of ‘Sumer is icumen in’, presents the activity of different animals. The poet especially refers to their sounds. Firstly, the poet points at the ewe or lady lamb which is bleating after her lambs. Thereafter, the cow is lowing after her calf. The speaker also observes the prancing of the bullock and the farting of the billy-goat. At the end of this verse, the speaker again tells the cuckoo to sing merrily as summer is not far ahead.
You sing well, cuckoo,
Never stop now.
The third verse contains a palilogy or a repetition of the same word in the first line. In the second line, the speaker applauds the cuckoo for responding to his request. It has sung well. Henceforth it should never stop singing as in the coming few days summer will be there. This stanza is meant to be sung in unison.
Sing, cuckoo, now; sing, cuckoo;
Sing, cuckoo; sing, cuckoo, now!
In the last verse, there are repetitions of two phrases. The first one is “Sing, cuckoo, now” and the second one is “sing, cuckoo” only. This section is also sung in chorus. The meaning of this section is simple. Here, the speaker repeats his request to convince the bird about his urgency. It seems that the speaker is extremely excited about the summer. Hence, he doesn’t want the cuckoo to sit dull. It should sing to its fullest and mesmerize others with her beautiful songs as well.
Facts about Sumer is icumen in
There are several important facts regarding ‘Sumer is icumen in’. Firstly, the manuscript in which the song was preserved was copied between 1261 and 1264. Henceforth, it is the oldest musical composition ever known.
Moreover, the songwriter provided instructions on how to sing this song in unison. Thereafter, in the Wessex version, there is a phrase, “bucke uertep”. Its meaning is not clear. According to Millet, it means “The billy-goat farting”. Whereas, in Platzer’s version, the meaning appears, “The stag cavorting”. However, it doesn’t affect the overall idea of the poem.
Apart from that, in modern times, this song is sung on several occasions. Likewise, in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the opening ceremony included a performance of this rota. (Compazine 2013).
Like this anonymous song, ‘Sumer is icumen in’, the following poems also present similar themes.
- To Summer by William Blake – This poem presents a personification of the summer and depicts its impact. It’s one of the best William Blake poems.
- The Summer Day by Mary Oliver – This poem is beautiful and thoughtful, about the purpose of life.
- Summer Morn in New Hampshire by Claude McKay – This poem describes how one speaker is unmoved by the brilliance of the day.
- Spring by William Shakespeare – This poem gives a detailed description of spring and the change that occurs at the end.