I Have a Yong Suster: Original Medieval/Middle English Lyrics
I Have a Young Sister: Modern English Translation, Summary and Analysis
"I Have a Yong Suster" is a wickedly funny riddle-poem with a great punch line.
The original Medieval English lyrics, which probably date to around the first
half of the fifteenth century AD, appear on the left. My modern English
translation appears to the right. There is a brief summary and analysis of the poem in my
translator's notes, which follow the poem. It is quite possible that this poem
was a song for which the original music has been lost. If so, people
may have danced to it, as country folk would later dance to chanted songs, hand-claps
and foot-stompings at hoe-downs.
There is more information about dating the poem later on this page.
There is some dispute about whether "young sister" is the correct translation.
"Song suster" has been proposed as meaning a sweetheart. But in Medieval English
the primary meaning of "suster" was a female sibling. I have gone with the more
common definition, not pretending to know what the original poet intended.
The literary world has had a hard time classifying the poem. I have heard it
called a riddle, a riddle-poem, a riddle-song, a riddle-chant, a kenning, a
paradox, an enigma, a popular song, a folksong, a courtship ballad, and a Middle
English secular lyric.
As you can see below, the ancient poem actually
reads quite well today, for the most part, with the biggest differences being
spellings, word order, and German-style word endings. Old English is also called
Anglo-Saxon English. The Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes that
invaded England, became settlers, then "donated" their language to the people
they conquered. The name of the island, England, derives from "Angle-land" or
"land of the Angles." By the
time this poem was written down, the language was somewhere "in between" ancient
German and modern English, and it is therefore called Middle English as well as
Medieval English.―Michael R. Burch, translator
I Have a Yong Suster (Anonymous Medieval English Riddle-Poem, circa 1430
Modern English loose translation/interpretation by
Michael R. Burch
I have a yong suster I have a young sister
Fer biyonde the see; Far beyond the sea;
Manye be the druries Many are the keepsakes
druries = dowries, mementos, keepsakes, tokens
That she sente me. That she sent me.
She sente me the cherye She sent me the cherry
Withouten any stoon,
Without any stone;
And so she dide the dove And
likewise the dove
Withouten any boon. Without any bone.
She sente me the brere She sent me the briar
Withouten any rinde; Without any skin;
rinde = rind, bark, skin
She bad me love my lemman She bade me love my lover
lemman = sweetheart, lover
Withoute longinge. Without longing.
How sholde any cherye
But how can any cherry
Be withoute stoon? Be without stone?
And how sholde any dove And how
can any dove
Be withoute boon? Be without bone?
How sholde any brere How
can any briar
Be withoute rinde? Be without skin?
How sholde I love my lemman And
can one love
Withoute longinge? Without longing?
Whan the cherye was a flowr, When the cherry was a flower,
Thanne hadde it no stoon; Then it had no stone;
Whan the dove was an ey, When the dove was an egg,
Thanne hadde it no boon. Then it had no bone.
Whan the brere was unbred, When the briar was unborn,
unbred = not yet bred, unborn
Thanne hadde it no rinde; Then it had no skin;
Whan the maiden hath that she loveth, And when a maiden has her mate,
She is withoute longinge. She is without longing!
by Michael R. Burch
That is a wickedly funny ending! Another way to phrase it
would be: "When a maiden finally has the man she wants / she loses her desire!" There are
quite a number of different versions of the poem. This is my favorite version. If the experts are correct, the
poem could have been written by minstrels to be performed as they wandered from
village to village, perhaps being fed in return for providing entertainment. The different versions of the poem/song could
be explained by different minstrels "tinkering" with the lyrics, or by people
who danced to the song remembering it imperfectly.
DATING THE POEM
The oldest extant copy of the poem can
be found in the British Library, in the Sloane Manuscript, reference number
2593. This is a collection of songs and carols dating to the fifteenth century.
The date most commonly associated with the poem is 1430 AD. I believe this is
probably because the poem is considered to be antecedent to "The Devil's Nine
Questions," which has been dated to around 1450.
One interpretation of the poem is erotic, but another possibility is that an
older sister is communicating with her younger sister about the lack of passion
in her marriage.
In one version of the "I Have a Yong Suster," the briar becomes "without branch or leaf" and
the speaker is instructed to love "without grief." But that weakens the ending, in my opinion. In his excellent and informative book An
Outline of English Literature, Pat Rogers called the poem a "haunting
riddle-chant," and I agree about its haunting nature. I hope I have preserved that
haunting quality in my translation. A similar haunting poem from the same
era is the mysterious "Corpus Christi Carol," which begins "Lully, lulley, lully, lulley, / The falcon hath born my mak away." (With "mak" meaning
"mate.") ― Michael R. Burch
THE POEM AND SONG IN POPULAR CULTURE
"I Have a Yong Suster" may be related to the "Cherry-Tree Carol," which appears
in the famous Child Ballads (number 54), a collection of early English
The poem apparently influenced nineteenth-century nursery rhymes and songs with
titles like "Perrie, Merrie, Dixie, Dominie," "I Have Four Sisters Beyond the
Sea," "I Had Four Brothers Over the Sea," and "My True Love Lives Far from Me,"
in which an overseas sweetheart sends enigmatic gifts.
The popular song "I Gave My Love a Cherry" or "The Cherry Song" is quite
obviously related to "I Have a Yong Suster" and shares very similar lyrics and
structure, but with the maiden being replaced by a baby with "no crying" because
it's sleeping by the end of the lullaby. Burl Ives recorded "The Cherry Song" as
"The Riddle Song" in 1941. "The Cherry Song" has since been recorded with
various titles by Joan Baez, Sam Cooke, Duane Eddy (instrumental), Tennessee
Ernie Ford, Ronnie Hawkins (an especially tender and lovely performance), Sonny
James, Grandpa Jones, Peggy Lennon of the Lennon Sisters, Pete Seeger and Doc
Watson, among others. The song was also featured in the movie Animal House,
when a toga-wearing Bluto (John Belushi) finds a guitarist (singer-songwriter
Stephen Bishop) serenading a rapt group of female co-eds on a staircase. Bluto
grabs the guitar, smashes it to pieces, then mumbles "Sorry." (But then the
endlessly annoying Bishop did tend to go "On and On," if you'll pardon the pun.)
"The Riddle Song" was also featured on an episode of The Simpsons in
which Homer serenaded Marge with a line from the song: "I gave my love a
chicken, it had no bones. Mmm … chicken!" Josh White also performed the song in
the 1949 movie The Waking Hills. All the performances mentioned can be
found free on YouTube.
The popular song "The Twelfth of Never" was based on "The Cherry Song" with
lyrics like "I'll love you till the poets run out of rhyme." The song was first
recorded by Johnny Mathis and reached #9 in the US. It was covered by Cliff
Richard and reached #8 in the UK. It was then covered by Donny Osmond and
reached #1 in the UK and #8 in the US. "The Twelfth of Never" has been covered
by Elvis Presley, Olivia-Newton John, Nina Simone, Barry Gibb, Cher, Tammy
Wynette, Dolly Parton, Jeff Buckley, Oliver, The Chi-Lites, Andy Williams, Slim
Whitman, Glen Campbell, Roger Miller, Johnny Nash and Barry Manilow, among