Saturday 7 April 2012

Quis est iste qui uenit de Edom?

My favourite poetry about Holy Saturday is Langland's vivid, dramatic envisioning of the Harrowing of Hell in Piers Plowman, which I posted about at length two years ago. The sudden appearance of light in all-enveloping darkness; rumours of a great event, and the devils in hell scurrying around in fear and confusion; then a loud voice crying "Dukes of this dim place, undo these gates, that Christ may come in, the King's Son of Heaven!"; "and with that breath hell broke", "Lucifer could not look, the light so blinded him; and those that Our Lord loved, into his light he latched."

It's wonderful beyond words - some of the best poetry ever written in the English language. Christ triumphantly declares his right to possess those he loves, 'his brothers by blood and baptism', and tells Satan:

Now beginneth thy guile against thee to turn
And my grace to grow ay greater and wider.
The bitterness that thou hast brewed, now taste it thyself
Thou that art doctor of death, drink what thou madest!
For I that am lord of life, love is my drink,
And for that drink today, I died upon earth.

The ancient metaphor of the 'drink of death' plays in Langland's mind all through his depictions of the Passion; it comes up much earlier in the poem, in six lines which have the germ of all the later glorious scene buried within them:

The sun for sorrow thereof lost sight for a time
About midday, when most light is, and meal-time of saints -
Feddest Thou with Thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness:
Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem mugnam.
And the light that leapt out of Thee, Lucifer it blente, [blinded]
And blew all Thy blessed into the bliss of Paradise!

The image of light bursting suddenly into darkness, the irresistible swift movement by which the redeemed are swept into heaven, and the blood of Christ as ever-flowing food ('meal-time of saints' - how I love that!) are all here. It's redolent of the drama of the Easter Vigil liturgy, which is all about light appearing in darkness. But as I head off to the Vigil now, I want to post another Middle English poem which feeds on the same images and creates a similar dramatic moment, a dialogue with the victor Christ.

It's William Herebert's best-known (or at least, his most anthologised) poem, a poetic translation of Isaiah 63, which was traditionally taken as prophesying the resurrection of Christ. Angels address Christ coming from his battle, bloodied but unbowed - a doughty knight and champion who has trodden the winepress. 'Lordling', perhaps the most memorable single word in this poem, means 'young lord'.

Quis est iste qui uenit de Edom?

Questio angelorum:
What ys he, þys lordling, þat cometh vrom þe vyht,
Wyth blodrede wede so grysliche ydyht,
So vayre ycoyntised, so semlich in syht,
So styflyche yongeþ, so douhti a knyht?

Responsio Christi:
Ich hyt am, Ich hyt am, þat ne speke bote ryht,
Chaunpyoun to helen monkunde in vyht.

Questio angelorum:
Why, þenne, ys þy shroud red wyth blod al ymeind,
Ase troddares in wrynge wyth most al byspreynd?

Responsio Christi:
Þe wrynge ich habbe ytrodded, al mysulf on,
And of al monkunde ne was non oþer won.
Ich hem habbe ytrodded in wreþe and in grome,
And al my wede ys byspreynd wyth here blod ysome,
And al my robe yuuled to here grete shome.
Þe day of þylke wreche leueth in my þouht;
Þe yer of medes yeldyng ne uoryet ich nouht.
Ich loked al aboute som helpynge mon,
Ich souhte al þe route bote help nas þer non.
Hyt was myn oune strengþe þat þys bote wrouhte,
Myn owe douhtynesse þat help þer me brouhte.
Ich habbe ytrodded þe volk in wrethe and in grome,
Adreynt al wyth shennesse, ydrawe doun wyth shome.

Ista sunt uerba Iudeorum penitenciam agencium:
On Godes mylsfolnesse ich wole byþenche me,
And heryen hym in alle þyng þat he ȝeldeth me.

The angels ask,
What is he, this lordling, that cometh from the fight,
With blood-red clothes so terribly dight?
So fair a countenance, so beautiful a sight,
So fearsomely armed, so doughty a knight?

Christ answers,
I it is, I it is, who nothing speak but right,
Champion to save mankind in the deadly fight.

The angels ask,
But why is thy garment bloody, dipped in red
Like spattered robes of men who the winepress tread?

Christ answers,
The winepress I have trodden, myself alone;
This not one of all mankind has ever done.
I have trodden it in wrath and rage
And all my garment is bespattered with their blood
And my robe torn to their great shame.
That day of vengeance lives in my thought;
The year of meed-giving forget I not.
I looked all about for someone to help me;
I sought through all the crowd, but help was there none.
It was my own strength which this remedy wrought
My own strength there which help to me brought.
I have trodden the people in wrath and in rage,
Drowned all with destruction, drawn down with shame.

These are the words of the penitent Jews:

On the mercy of God I will bethink me,
And praise him in everything, because he redeemed me.


Priscilla said...

Catching up on a few entries--I love those images in Piers Plowman!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Me too! Just wonderful.