A New Dial

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An almanack from 1625, in the Bagford Collection, contains the song "A New Dial," which was probably already quite old when the almanack was printed - from the Oxford Book of Carols, 1928

Chorus:
|: In those twelve days let us be glad :|
For God of His power hath all things made.

What are they that are but one?
What are they that are but one?

We have one God alone
In heaven above sits on His throne:

What are they which are by two?
Two testaments, the old and new,
We do acknowledge to be true:

What are they which are but three?
Three persons in the Trinity
Which make one God in unity:

What are they which are but four
Four sweet Evangelists there are,
Christ's birth, life, death which do declare:

What are they which are but five?
Five senses, like five kings, maintain
In every man a several reign:

What are they which are but six?
Six days to labor is not wrong,
For God himself did work so long:

What are they which are but seven?
Seven liberal arts hath God sent down
With divine skill man's soul to crown:

What are they which are but eight?
Eight Beatitudes are there given
Use them right and go to heaven:

What are they which are but nine?
Nine Muses, like the heaven's nine spheres,
With sacred tunes entice our ears:

What are they which are but ten?
Ten statutes God to Moses gave
Which, kept or broke, do spill or save:

What are they which are but eleven?
Eleven thousand virgins did partake
And suffered death for Jesus' sake:

What are they which are but twelve?
Twelve are attending on God's son;
Twelve make our creed. The Dial's done:


Green Grow the Rushes, O appears descended from this "New Dial" in many respects.

Verse 1 refers to God, rather transparently.

Verse 2 refers here to the Old and New Testaments. "Lily white" may refer to purity; at any rate, holly and ivy are usually male and female symbols in pagan lore, so "lily-white boys" as holly & ivy seems unlikely.

Verse 3 does appear to mean the Trinity.

Verse 4 are the Evangelists in both songs.

Verse 5 may have been "senses" and become "symbols."

Verse 6 refers in the new dial to the 6 days of Creation in the Book of Genesis; the reference to "work" may have become "walkers."

Here is where things get interesting:

Verse 7 here refers to the liberal arts of the 13th century scholastics: the "trivium:" grammar, rhetoric and dialectic, and the "quadrivium:" arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Owing to the celestial imagery in this verse, it could have become "seven stars in the sky."

Verse 8 is the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, which could have become "April Rainers" by way of the Book of Isaiah, ch.45, verse 8, "You heavens above, rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness grow with it; I, the LORD, have created it (NIV translation)." This passage appears in the medieval "Liber Usualis" the main source of gregorian chant in monastic services, also well-known to the medieval scholastics, and to scholars of the Renaissance. See William Dunbar's 16th century poem of the same name: "Rorate Coeli Desuper."

Similarly, Verse 9 refers to the nine Muses of ancient Greece, also by way of Christian scholastics: Calliope (epic song), Clio (history), Euterpe (lyric song), Thalia (comedy) Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dancing), Erato (erotic poetry), Polymnia (sacred songs) and Urania (astronomy). The "nine bright shiners" probably came from the reference to the sun, moon and seven planets known in the 17th century, referred to in this verse.

Verse eleven refers to St. Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins. There are several credible origins for this legend: one is an inscription to two women: "Ursula et Undecimilla, virgines" misread by later readers. Another is that there were Ursula and eleven virgin martyrs, the "MM" being read later on as thousands.

Verse twelve refers to the twelve apostles and the twelve articles of the creed. The song as a whole refers to the twelve days of Christmas.

The two songs do seem quite closely related. It is tempting to speculate that the "New Dial" was composed to aid in the instruction of young students, and later included in an almanack for the same purpose. It then passed to the folk tradition, and became the counting song, "Green Grow the Rushes, O" a song which I have also heard at Christmas time. - Carl Olson

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