Sunday, 7 June 2009

Langland on the Trinity

To my mind, Langland's Piers Plowman is the masterpiece of Middle English literature (yes, better than Chaucer!). On this Trinity Sunday, I've been re-reading a memorable section: his version of some traditional images for the Trinity.

First, God as a hand (my slightly modernised version):

The Father was first as a fist with one finger folding,
Til him loved and list to unloose his finger
And proffered it forth as with a palm to what place it should.
The palm is purely the hand, and proffereth forth the fingers,
To minister and to make that might of hand knoweth;
And betokeneth truly, tell whoso liketh,
The Holy Ghost of heaven - he is as the palm.
The fingers that free be to fold and to serve
Betoken soothly the Son, that sent was til earth,
That touched and tasted at teaching of the palm...
And as the hand holds hard and all thing fast
Through four fingers and a thumb forth with the palm,
Right so the Father and the Son and Saint Spirit the third
Holds all the wide world within them three -
Both wolken and the wind, water and earth,
Heaven and hell and all that there is in.

Then, as a candle:

For to a torch or a taper the Trinity is likened -
As wax and a wick were twined together,
And then a fire flaming forth out of both.
And as wax and wick and warm fire together
Foster forth a flame and a fair leye
So doth the Sire and the Son and also Spiritus Sanctus
Foster forth among folk love and belief,
That alle kynne Christians cleanseth of sins.
And as thou seest some time suddenly a torch,
The blaze thereof blown out, yet burneth the wick...
So is the Holy Ghost God, and grace without mercy
To alle unkynde creatures that covet to destroy
Lele love or life that Our Lord shaped.
And as glowing gledes gladeth not these workmen
That work and wake in winters' nights,
As doth a kex or a candle that caught hath fire and blazeth,
No more doth Sire nor Son nor Seint Spirit together
Grant no grace nor forgiveness of sins
Til the Holy Ghost begin to glow and to blaze;
So that the Holy Ghost gloweth but as a glede
Til that lele love lie on him and blow.
And then flameth he as fire on Father and on Filius
And melteth their might into mercy - as men may see in winter
Icicles in eaves through heat of the sun
Melt in a minute's while to mist and to water,
So grace of the Holy Ghost the great might of the Trinity
Melteth to mercy - to merciful and to none other.

Read it with the Middle English spelling here.

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