Monday, 11 November 2013

'The life of man is but a span'

A selection of very short verses on the subject of the brevity of life, more like proverbs than poems, and mostly taken from medieval sermons (via the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, with images from the British Library).

'Quid est homo?'
Man ys dethys vnderlyng
Man is a gest in hys dwellyng
Man is a pylgrym in his pasyng.

('What is man?'
Man is death's underling;
Man is a guest in his living;
Man is a pilgrim in his passing.)

London, University of London MS 657

'The Dialogue with Death', Stowe 39, f. 32

A man is a mirrour of soro & of wo
A man is a somer flour þat sone vill goo
A man is a tre of tenefull tylyng
& a man is a reue of ruful rekynyng

(A man is a mirror of sorrow and of woe;
A man is a summer flower that soon will go;
A man is a tree of troublesome cultivating
And a man is a bailiff of sorrowful reckoning.)

Hereford, Hereford Cathedral Library O.3.5

The Three Living and Three Dead, Yates Thompson 13, f. 123

Hou sort a feste it is þe ioyȝe of al þis werd
Als þe schadwe is of man in þis midel herd
Þat oftentime withdrawith þe blisse withouten ende
& driuet man to helle to ben þer with þe fend

(How short a feast is the joy of all this world,
As the shadow of a man in this middle-earth;
Often it draws him from the bliss without end
And drives him to hell to live with the fiend.)

Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 18.7.21

þe ende of lagthre is woþ
and þe ende of bliz is sorege
for wende fwer þu wende
soreges is tin ende

(The end of laughter is woe
and the end of bliss is sorrow;
For wend wherever thou wend,
Sorrow is thine end.)

Oxford, Magdalen College Lat. 30, f. 103

Werdis ioyȝe is menkt with wo
He is more þan wod þat trostet þerto
Werdis gile is wol michil
Þerfore it is boþe fals an fikil
Þe werd passeteuere mo
& werdly loue dot also

(This world's joy is mixed with woe;
He is more than mad who trusts thereto.
This world's guile is most mickle [very great]
And so it is both false and fickle.
The world passeth evermo [ever more]
And so doth worldly love also.)

Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 18.7.21

This image of 'The Three Living and Three Dead' also contains a verse along the top, voicing the thoughts of first the living and then the dead:

"Ich am afert;
Lo what ich se!
Me thinketh hit beth develes thre."

"Ich wes wel fair.
Such scheltou be.
For godes love be wer by me."

("I am afraid;
Lo, what I see!
It seems to me it's devils three."

"I was very fair;
Such shalt thou be.
For God's love, take heed by me.")

The life of man is but a span,
And cut down in its flower,
We are here to-day, and to-morrow gone,
We are all dead in an hour.

- English folk carol

Well, this is a cheerful post.  The transience of all earthly things is one of the most popular medieval subjects for art and poetry; I have a whole series of posts about such poems here, and the extreme brevity of these little poems appealed to me. The combination today of dreary November, Remembrance Day, and a recent bereavement have had me thinking a lot about death; and it doesn't help that my working week is going to centre on the Old English elegies, heart-breaking laments of much finer quality than these Middle English sermon tags.  As an observance Remembrance Day may be less than a hundred years old, but a thousand years ago (and surely in November) an Anglo-Saxon poet, 'remembering from afar much slaughter', wrote these words:

Se þonne þisne wealsteal wise geþohte
ond þis deorce lif deope geondþenceð,
frod in ferðe, feor oft gemon
wælsleahta worn, ond þas word acwið:
"Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.
Stondeð nu on laste leofre duguþe
weal wundrum heah, wyrmlicum fah.
Eorlas fornoman asca þryþe,
wæpen wælgifru, wyrd seo mære,
ond þas stanhleoþu stormas cnyssað,
hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð,
wintres woma, þonne won cymeð,
nipeð nihtscua, norþan onsendeð
hreo hæglfare hæleþum on andan.
Eall is earfoðlic eorþan rice,
onwendeð wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.
Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð!"
Swa cwæð snottor on mode, gesæt him sundor æt rune.
Til biþ se þe his treowe gehealdeþ, ne sceal næfre his torn to rycene
beorn of his breostum acyþan, nemþe he ær þa bote cunne,
eorl mid elne gefremman. Wel bið þam þe him are seceð,
frofre to fæder on heofonum, þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð.

He who thought wisely on that foundation, [a ruined building]
and deeply considers this dark life,
wise in spirit, remembers often from afar
much slaughter, and speaks these words:

Where is the horse? Where is the young warrior? Where is the treasure-giver?
Where are the seats of feasting? Where are the joys of the hall?
Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior!
Alas, the glory of the prince! How that time has passed away,
grown dark under the cover of night, as if it had never been.
There stands now in the tracks of the dear troop
a wall, wondrously high, decorated with serpents.
The warriors were taken away by the power of spears,
weapons greedy for slaughter, fate the famous;
and storms batter those rocky cliffs,
snow falling fetters the earth,
the tumult of winter. Then dark comes,
night-shadows deepen; from the north there comes
a fierce hailstorm hostile to men.
All is full of hardship in this earthly realm,
the working of fate changes the world under the heavens.
Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting,
here man is fleeting, here kinsman is fleeting,
all the foundation of this world turns to waste.

So spoke the wise man in his mind, where he sat apart in secret thought.
Good is he who keeps his word; the warrior must never make known
his grief too quickly from his breast, unless he already knows how to achieve the remedy,
a man with courage. It is well for the one who seeks mercy,
consolation from the Father in the heavens, where for us all fastness stands.

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