Saturday, December 27, 2008

God Rest You Merry Gentlemen

On Christmas morning I found myself singing (in the last line of the last verse of God Rest You Merry Gentlemen) "This holy tide of Christmas all other doth deface" but, realising that everyone round me was singing "all other doth efface", I felt rather stupid. Because, after all, Christmas doesn't deface things. (Well, it does but that can't be what the song is talking about). Momentarily, I wondered why I'd made that mistake, and then I put it aside and thought no more about it.

Then, this morning, quite out of the blue and unprompted by me, Robin observed that, oddly, King's had "all other doth deface" in the Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas eve. And I said well, I found myself singing that on Christmas day, so for sure it is not a mistake in the King's version. It must be what is in the Green Carols for Choirs Book I, and that's why it's what we sing when we're not thinking.

Now, God Rest You is not a modern hymn with an author, but a traditional carol dating back to probably the fifteenth century if not earlier, and it exists in a lot of versions, so it's hardly the case that there's a "correct" text for it. But still it is possible to ask whether the traditional words were more likely to be "all other doth deface" or "all other doth efface". And is the variation a traditional divergence resulting from different transmission in oral tradition, or is it an intervention by well-meaning editors trying to make us understand an archaic word?

Wikipedia suggests (rather plausibly) that the more authentic word is "deface". It is true (as the OED confirms) that, besides the meaning that we currently know for it, "deface" was also in use from Chaucer's time in a sense that is equivalent to "efface", what Wikipedia calls the "Middle English" use. The word "efface" also appears not significantly later in written sources, from around the fourteenth century, but seems to be rather more rare and rather more pretentious or esoteric. So I'd think it very likely that the version with "deface" is the earlier one.

So perhaps "efface" is a well-meaning editorial intervention to help us to understand a text that was once in archaic English. It's hard to be sure, from the sources I have to hand, whether "efface" is really a quite modern intervention or whether it's in the earliest written sources already. The New Oxford Book of Carols by Keyte and Parrott (Oxford 1992), which is fairly meticulous about explaining the transmission, is not very helpful here. Its note on page 527 begins "Text I is from William Sandys's Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833; see appendix 4), where it is associated with tune III. This has now become the standard text. Text II is from an early nineteenth century broadside (see The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928, no.12). Text III is a shortened version of I. Both have minor emendations." That's all very well, but their versions I and III have 'efface' in the last line, which makes it not true that version I has become the standard text, since, as Wikipedia correctly notes, in practice Willcocks's text in Carols for Choirs has become the standard text and that has "deface". And their version II doesn't have that line. So according to them "efface" is the word.

Is the substitution of "efface" one of their so-called 'minor emendations'? It looks as though it is, for the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols, which also claims to have Sandys's version (at number 11), definitely has "deface", and reckons that the only corrections it has made are in verse 6 ('whereat this infant lay' instead of 'whereas'). They have also retained "friends of Satan" in verse 4, which is what Sandys had, but the editors of the OCB (that is, Dearmer, VW and Martin Shaw) posit that it's highly likely that originally the word was not 'friends' but 'fiends'.

So, on the whole, looking at what I've found, I reckon Wikipedia is right in suggesting that the substitution of "efface" is one of the New English Hymnal's attempts to interfere with some lovely thirteenth century English that we were all merrily singing well into the 20th Century with no problem. They started the rot in 1986, followed by the New Oxford Book in 1992. I have not found any publication before 1986 that has 'efface' in place of 'deface', and I am deeply unimpressed by the suggestion in the New Oxford Book that this counts as a "minor emendation", when it actually wilfully misrepresents the authentic tradition.

I think I need a second post on this subject perhaps, regarding God rest you, God rest ye, and the grammar of the first line.