I Have a Yong Suster (Anonymous Medieval English Riddle-Poem, circa 1430)
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
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 As
she did 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 sweetheart
Withoute longinge. Without longing.
How sholde any cherye How should any cherry
Be withoute stoon? Be without a stone?
And how sholde any dove And how should any dove
Be withoute boon? Be without a bone?
How sholde any brere How should any briar
Be withoute rinde? Be without a skin?
How sholde I love my lemman
And how should I love my lover
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,
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: That is a wickedly funny ending! Another way to phrase it
would be: "When a maiden has what she wants / she loses her desire!" There are
quite a number of different versions of this poem, by various translators known
and unknown. This is my favorite version of the poem, which has been called a
popular song and a folk song by various experts. If the original music still
exists, I am not aware of it. 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 poem, the briar becomes "without branch or leaf" and
the speaker is instructed to love "without grief." But that weakens the wickedly
funny 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 preserved that
haunting quality in my translation. A similar haunting poem from the same
approximate 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