Lyke-Wake Dirge

Lyke-Wake Dirge

The "Lyke-Wake Dirge" is a traditional English song that tells a Christian tale (although the ideas and the imagery may be pre-Christian Fact|date=January 2008) of the soul's travel, and the hazards it faces, on its way from earth to Heaven.

The title

The title refers to the watch over the dead between the death and funeral, known as a wake. "Lyke" is an obsolete word meaning a dead body, and is related to the German word "leiche" and the Dutch word "lijk", which have the same meaning. It survives in modern English only in the expression "lych gate", describing the gate at the entrance to a church, where, in former times, bodies were placed before burial, and the fictional undead monster type lich. "Lyke-wake" could also be from the Viking influence on the Yorkshire dialect: the contemporary Swedish word for "wake" is still "likvaka" ("lik" and "vaka" with the same meanings as previously described).

The lyrics

The song is written in an old form of the Yorkshire dialect of British English. It goes:

:"THIS ae nighte, this ae nighte,"
—Refrain: Every nighte and alle,
"Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,"
—Refrain: And Christe receive thy saule. :"When thou from hence away art past
To Whinny-muir thou com'st at last" :"If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Sit thee down and put them on;" :"If hosen and shoon thou ne'er gav'st nane
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane." :"From Whinny-muir when thou may'st pass,
To Brig o' Dread thou com'st at last;"

:"From Brig o' Dread when thou may'st pass,
To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last;" :"If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;" :"If meat or drink thou ne'er gav'st nane,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;" :"This ae nighte, this ae nighte,"
—Every nighte and alle,
"Fire and sleet and candle-lighte,"
—And Christe receive thy saule.

::Note: "ae": one; "hosen": stockings; "shoon": shoes; "whinnes": thorns; "bane": bone; "brig": bridge

The safety and comfort of the soul in faring over the hazards it faces in the afterlife, are in the old ballad made contingent on the dead person's willingness to participate in the sorts of charity mentioned in Matthew 25:31-46. The poem was first collected by John Aubrey in 1686, who also recorded that it was being sung in 1616, but it is believed to be much older.

There would appear to be a lacuna in the version that Aubrey collected. Unlike the preceding and following pairs of stanzas, nothing happens at the Brig o' Dread. Richard Blakeborough, in his "Wit, Character, Folklore, and Customs of the North Riding", fills this apparent gap with verses he says were in use in 1800, and which seem likely to be authentic:

:"If ivver thoo gav o' thy siller an' gowd,
At t' Brig o' Dreead thoo'll finnd foothod,"

:"Bud if siller an' gowd thoo nivver gav nean,"
"Thoo'll doan, doon tum'le towards Hell fleames,"

::Note: "siller": silver; "gowd": gold; "foothod": foothold

In this version, the Brig o' Dread is the decisive ordeal that determines whether the soul's destination is Heaven or Hell.

Fire and fleet

Aubrey's version of the words includes "fire and fleet", rather than "fire and sleet", and this is also how it appears in the "Oxford Book of English Verse". F.W. Moorman, in his book on Yorkshire dialect poetry, explains that "fleet" means "floor" and references the OED, "flet-floor". He also notes that the expression "Aboute the fyre upon flet" appears in the mediaeval story "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and explains that "Fire and fleet and candle-light" are a summary of the comforts of the house, which the dead person still enjoys for "this ae night", and then goes out into the dark and cold."

Versions and performances

The poem has been recorded a number of times as a song. Benjamin Britten set it to music as a part of his "Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings" in 1943, and, in his Cantata on Old English Texts of 1952, Igor Stravinsky uses individual verses as interludes between the longer movements.

A version with a different tune (but with the "fire and fleet" version of the lyrics) was collected by the folk song collector, Hans Fried, from the singing of "an old Scottish lady", Peggy Richards. The Young Tradition used this version for their a cappella recording on their 1965 debut album, using quite a primitive harmonisation, in which two of the vocal parts move in parallel fifths. The folk band Pentangle performed a version on their 1969 album "Basket of Light", using the same tune as The Young Tradition, but elaborating the arrangement. Buffy Sainte-Marie also included this song on her 1967 album "Fire and Fleet and Candlelight". Most later renditions of the song use the Pentangle's melody; these include versions by Steeleye Span and the Mediaeval Baebes.

"Lyke-Wake Dirge" is sometimes considered a ballad, but unlike a ballad it is lyric rather than narrative.

Allusions to the song

The Lyke Wake Walk is a 40-mile walking route across the North York Moors, first popularised in 1955 and named after the Lyke Wake Dirge.

The Lyke Wake Dirge was also invoked in Antonia Forest's 1959 novel "End of Term" and Diana Wynne Jones's novel "Deep Secret", as well as Neil Gaiman's 1999 fantasy "Neverwhere" and Arnold Wesker's 1962 play "Chips With Everything". It is used, with one major modification, by members of the Chantry Guild in Gordon Dickson's 1962 science fiction novel "Necromancer". There, in keeping with their philosophy of universal destruction, the Chantry Guild changes the second refraine from "And Christe receive thy saule" to "Destruction take thee alle."


*John Aubrey, "Remaines of gentilisme and judaisme 1686-87". Reprinted in: John Buchanan-Brown (ed), "Three prose works", Centaur Press, 1972. ISBN 0-900000-21-X
*F. W. Moorman, "Yorkshire dialect poems: (1673-1915) and traditional poems", published for the Yorkshire Dialect Society by Sidgwick and Jackson, 1916.
*Richard Blakeborough, "Wit, Character, Folklore, and Customs of the North Riding of Yorkshire", Henry Frowde: London, 1898.
*Alasdair Clayre, "100 folk songs and new songs", Wolfe Publishing Ltd, 1968. This includes the version collected by Hans Fried.
*Arthur Quiller-Couch (ed.), "The Oxford Book of English Verse", Oxford University Press, 1919
* [
* The Oxford English Dictionary includes "fire and flet (corruptly fleet): 'fire and house-room'; an expression often occurring in wills, etc." and refers to an "old northern song over a dead corps", but also notes the "Fire and sleet" version, with a quotation that sleet "seems to be corrupted from selt, or salt, a quantity of which is frequently placed on the breast of a corpse".

External links

* [ Understanding "Lyke Wake Dirge" by Jeff Duntemann]

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