The Cherry Tree Carol


RT never knows when the reconstruction bug will bite, as it did last night while he was (perhaps not so innocently) browsing one of his poetry anthologies. He ran across “The Cherry Tree Carol,” a piece that he had never read before, and knowing how old ballads can have strong roots in mythology and religion, made his way through the beautiful poem.

Well, all kinds of flags started popping up about the poem’s origins, which RT will share after presenting the poem, making this an exercise in interpretation, not reconstruction…but in any event, here is the carol:





The Cherry Tree Carol


54A.1  JOSEPH was an old man,

and an old man was he,

When he wedded Mary,

in the land of Galilee.


54A.2  Joseph and Mary walked

through an orchard good,

Where was cherries and berries,

so red as any blood.


54A.3  Joseph and Mary walked

through an orchard green,

Where was berries and cherries,

as thick as might be seen.


54A.4  O then bespoke Mary,

so meek and so mild:

‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,

for I am with child.’


54A.5  O then bespoke Joseph,

with words most unkind:

‘Let him pluck thee a cherry

that brought thee with child.’


54A.6  O then bespoke the babe,

within his mother’s womb:

‘Bow down then the tallest tree,

for my mother to have some.’


54A.7  Then bowed down the highest tree

unto his mother’s hand;

Then she cried, See, Joseph,

I have cherries at command.


54A.8  O then bespake Joseph:

‘I have done Mary wrong;

But cheer up, my dearest,

and be not cast down.’


54A.9  Then Mary plucked a cherry,

as red as the blood,

Then Mary went home

with her heavy load.


54A.10   Then Mary took her babe,

and sat him on her knee,

Saying, My dear son, tell me

what this world will be.


54A.11  ‘O I shall be as dead, mother,

as the stones in the wall;

O the stones in the streets, mother,

shall mourn for me all.


54A.12   ‘Upon Easter-day, mother,

my uprising shall be;

O the sun and the moon, mother,

shall both rise with me.’

–British Ballad, Anonymous, 15th century or earlier

Things to note about the poem:

1) The story’s source is ultimately the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, an infancy gospel that dates to the 7th century (though details have been modified to fit medieval England).

2) There is a major break in style and theme after stanza 9; up until this point, the poem focuses relentlessly on the cherry tree and the characters of Joseph and Mary. After this point, Jesus has been born and tells Mary about his future.  The imagery in this second half of the poem focuses on stones. Perhaps most telling of all, the relentless rhyming around the word “cherry”  in the third line of each stanza disappears. We appear to have a second, and probably later, source for the poem’s last three stanzas.

3) How did the first part of the poem end? RT suspects that in the oldest version of this story, Mary was impregnated when she ate the cherry pro-offered by the tree, making the tree Joseph’s direct rival; his palpable anger would have been unleashed against the father of the child, perhaps by cutting down the tree. Certainly the cherry’s blood-red clot of color is suggestive of pregnancy and the incident brings to mind the eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden.

4) Jesus’s speech from the womb in Stanza 6, reminiscent of Deirdre’s birth story, is probably a later addition, from the same source as the poem’s end; the stanza’s third line lacks a rhyme with cherry (or offers the weak “tree”–why doesn’t the poet use “cherry”?)

5) Could one of the story’s oldest roots have reported the origin of cherries as being blood shed by the tree when it was cut down?

6) The second, later source’s reference to stones is inspired; they suggest the cherry stone while adding a powerful contrast to the orchard. The final image of Jesus rising with the sun and moon is also powerful. This editor was a gifted poet in his (or her) own right.


Related RT Posts: 1) The Nativity; 2) The Magi.

Drawing: Cherries (variety Lambert), 1894; National Agricultural Library (part of USDA). User, Jo Jan. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

  1. May 14, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    wonderful poem

    • May 16, 2013 at 4:26 pm

      xws: without doubt, a powerful poem…thx for your enthusiasm! RT

  2. May 15, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    Very informative and insightful analysis.

    There must have been loads of improving folksongs based on apocryphal gospels in English (let alone other European languages); I particularly remember one on Jesus’ childhood (which you must know) where he vindictively causes children who literally wouldn’t play ball with him to drown:

    ‘The Bitter Withy’ is in fact a brilliant corrective to those Victorian notions of Jesus as meek and mild who asked that children be freely allowed to approach (‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’).

    • May 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      CG: i will definitely check out your link & TBW. Thx for the comment & link! RT

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