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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 sung at one time, and that the music has since been lost. If so, people may have danced to the song, as country folk would later dance to chanted songs, hand-claps and foot-stompings at hoe-downs.

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 called Anglo-Saxon English because 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. 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 AD)
Modern English translation 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
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 also the dove
Withouten any boon.                              Without any bone.

She sente me the brere                           She sent me the briar
Withouten any rinde;                              Without any 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!

TRANSLATOR'S NOTES
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 this poem, by various translators, both known and unknown. This is my favorite version of the poem, which has been deemed a popular song and a folk song by various experts. 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. If the original music still exists, I am not aware of it. The different versions of the poem/folksong could be explained by different minstrels "tinkering" with the lyrics, or by people who danced to the song remembering it imperfectly. In any case, I believe the oldest extant copy of the poem can be found in the British Library, in the Sloane Manuscript, reference number 2593.

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 ballads.

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 others.


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