A limerick a week #12

The Mytheltoe Bough aka A Game of Bride and Seek

It’s a good few years since I first heard of the legend of Lovell’s bride, the sad tale of a young Christmas bride who hid herself rather too well in a game of hide and seek at her wedding party. By the time her body was found many years later (trapped in an old chest that had locked when she closed its lid on herself) her smouldering, youthful good looks had been transformed to a countenance of mouldering decay. Poor Lovell; poor bride!

mistletoe_bough
Lovell’s bride had an impressive chest …

The fateful events of the legend probably didn’t happen, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of grand houses in England claiming to be the home of the tragedy. It also became a sort of Victorian urban myth thanks largely to a popular song written in the 1830s – The Mistletoe Bough by Thomas Bayly and Sir Henry Bishop. Its words articulate the grievous events in a way described by some as: “stately, delicate and positively creepy” or as “brilliantly gruesome” (by Jon Boden, the former Bellowhead frontman) and by others, very simply, as “gothic folk”.

The song itself is thought to be based on an earlier poem, Ginevra, by Samuel Rogers, telling a similar tale that befell a young Italian bride:

There then had she found a grave!
Within that chest had she concealed herself,
Fluttering with joy, the happiest of the happy;
When a spring-lock, that lay in ambush there,
Fastened her down for ever!

(Although Rogers’ poem places the events in Modena, Italy, his notes attribute the tale to an English legend).

A slightly later poem, The Bride of Modena by John Heneage Jesse, recounts the story in more accessible verse (and varies the spelling of the bride’s name):

‘Twas in Genevra’s bridal hour,
When, flying from her lover’s kiss,
She sought that lone, deserted tower,
To cheat him of a moment’s bliss;
And, smiling as her fancy lent
A thought of his embarrassment,
She hid herself in that old chest.

In both poems, Francesco, a lovelorn groom from Modena, is broken by grief on the loss of Genivra/Genevra his childhood sweetheart, and, in the latter retelling, he rushes to war to find, in Jesse’s words: “the glorious death he sought”. Meanwhile, in the song that Rogers’ poem spawned, instead of hurrying to war, the groom is allowed to grow old and can be seen in his dotage to “weep for his fairy bride”.

It says a lot about the Victorian sense of humour that it became something of a Christmas tradition to include The Mistletoe Bough in what must have been a less-than-jolly seasonal sing-song; indeed, in some instances the story would be acted out to accompany the song.

And it wasn’t just the Victorians. There is a number of contemporary interpretations of the song to be found on the internet as well as some older theatrical versions (including a restored 1904 film held by the British Film Institute) and, as particularly canny readers will know, a few years ago it was one of Jon Boden’s A Folk Song A Day entries for December. So, with the anniversary of that in mind, here is this week’s limerick …

‘Twas a game, and you thought that you’d hide
In a chest, so you clambered inside,
But it trapped you in there
‘Til you ran out of air
And became Lovell’s young mummified bride
.

Did Lovell’s bride enjoy being trapped in an old oak chest? Of corpse she didn’t!

Postscript: You can see and hear Bellowhead’s version of the song here  and you can also catch another Christmas favourite of mine on the same video, Thea Gilmore singing “That’ll be Christmas!“).

… and the words to the song itself:

The mistletoe hung in the castle hall;
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall.
The Baron’s retainers were blithe and gay
Keeping their Christmas holiday.

The Baron beheld with a father’s pride
His beautiful child, young Lovell’s bride,
And she with her bright eyes seemed to be
The star of the goodly company.

Oh, the mistletoe bough!
Oh, the mistletoe bough!

“I’m weary of dancing now”, she cried,
“Here tarry a moment, I’ll hide, I’ll hide,
And Lovell be sure thou’rt the first to trace
The clue to my secret hiding place”.

And away she ran and her friends began
Each tower to search – each nook to scan,
And Lovell he cried, “Where dost thou hide?
I’m lonely without you, my own dear bride”.

Oh, the mistletoe bough!
Oh, the mistletoe bough!

They searched that night and they searched the next day,
They searched all around ‘till a week went away.
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly but found her not.

And as years went by their grief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past.
When Lovell appeared all the children cried:
“See the old man weep for his fairy bride”.

Oh, the mistletoe bough!
Oh, the mistletoe bough!

At length an old chest that had long lain hid
Was found in an attic, they raised the lid.
A skeleton form lay mouldering there,
In the bridal wreath of our lady so fair.

Oh sad was her fate for in sport and jest
She hid from her love in an old oak chest
It closed with a spring, and her bridal bloom
Lay withering there, in a living tomb.

Oh, the mistletoe bough!
Oh, the mistletoe bough!

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LanterneRouge

😎 - Former scientist, now graduated to a life of leisure. - Family man (which may surprise the family; it certainly surprises him). - Likes cycling and old-fashioned B&W film photography. - Dislikes greasy-pole-climbing 'yes men'. - Thinks Thea Gilmore should be much better known than she is. - Values decency over achievement.

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