Saturday 2 November 2019


The ossuary at St Leonard's, Hythe

All Souls, and a rainy November day in the season of remembrance. The three-day season of Hallowtide - Hallowe'en, All Saints, All Souls - is medieval in origin, as a time for remembering the dead both known and unknown. Medieval literature is rich in serious, profound meditations on mortality, on death, on transience, and in the later Middle Ages, particularly, the iconography and art of death abound; if you need a memento mori, go to medieval art. Sometimes this art pops up into view around Hallowe'en, when you might see, for instance, images of grinning skulls and 'The Three Living and the Three Dead' offered as seasonal fare on social media. It's useful to remember, however, that in the Middle Ages this interest in death was not really confined to any one season of the year - not even Hallowtide, though certainly it was important then. A few years ago I posted some medieval prayers, in poetry and prose, 'for all Christian souls'; but though appropriate for All Souls they weren't specifically intended for today's commemoration, and could be prayed at any time of the year. In the Middle Ages almost every day was a saint's feast, a day to remember the glorious dead; prayer for the dead was a Christian duty all year round, especially but certainly not only on All Souls' Day; and the whole point of a memento mori is that it reminds you that at any moment you are close to death - not just at Hallowtide.

In a strange way, which no one could have predicted at the beginning of the last century, the cusp of October and November has now become a more intensive season of remembrance, in England at least, than it has been at any time since the Middle Ages. Over the past few decades Hallowe'en has become more popular here than ever before, and has become much more universally linked with death and ghosts than it seems once to have been (i.e. rather than with love-divination and a bit of licensed lawlessness, as it is in much pre-20th century English folklore). It's only in the past century that All Souls' Day, hunted almost to extinction after the Reformation, has experienced a resurgence in the Anglican church, while Catholics are again able to mark it publicly. And most of all, the still relatively new institution of Remembrance Day on November 11, only a century old this year, means that requiems and services of commemoration are to be found all over the country in the first two weeks of November - and everywhere the splash of the red poppy, ancient symbol of death, new descendant of old beliefs about flowers born of blood shed in battle. In many churches All Saints/All Souls and Remembrance Day are kept on two subsequent weekends, more because of practicalities of when services can be held than because anyone has intended to create a fortnight-long season of remembrance - but the effect is that we think more about death at this time of year, and for longer, than our medieval forebears did.

But let me offer one short extract from a Middle English poem, from exactly this time of year, which chimes with the mood of this sombre season. It's from the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I'm often thinking about at the end of October and beginning of November. That's partly because this is a time when I'm sometimes teaching it, and partly because it offers several memorable passages about the changing of the seasons and the relationship between the natural world and the human experience of time. So at New Year, in spring, and in autumn, its poetry comes to mind.

If you don't know the poem, a plot summary can be found here. It opens at Christmas and New Year, when the Green Knight erupts into King Arthur's court and issues a challenge to the knights: to strike him with his axe, and then accept another blow in return after a year and a day. Young Gawain, Arthur's nephew, best and brightest of the knights of Camelot, takes up the challenge out of loyalty to his uncle and king; but he doesn't quite know what he's undertaken, and a year and a day is a long time to think about it. As the intervening period passes between the challenge and its return, the poet gives us a brief description of the swiftly-turning year, closing with autumn:

Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne,
Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde,
And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere;
Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst,
And þus ȝirnez þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony,
And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez,
no fage,
Til Meȝelmas mone
Watz cumen wyth wynter wage;
Þen þenkkez Gawan ful sone
Of his anious uyage.

[Wrathful winds from the sky wrestle with the sun
The leaves are loosed from the linden and light on the ground,
And all the grass greys that green was before;
Then all ripens and rots that formerly arose;
And thus runs the year in yesterdays many,
And winter wakes again, as the world asks,
in truth,
Until Michaelmas moon was come
With the first pledge of winter,
Then thinks Gawain all too soon
Of his troubling journey.]

'Michaelmas moon' (a phrase only recorded here) might mean either the full moon closest to Michaelmas, 29 September, or conceivably the month which follows Michaelmas, i.e. October. This is the time of year which brings 'winter wage', the pledge of winter. You might think of that as the first chill in the air in an October dusk, or the first time it seems to be getting dark too early, or the first breath of mist in the morning - anything which says that summer is gone, and the cold is coming. The financial connotations of 'wage' also suggest the idea of accounts to be settled, as they often were at Michaelmas - it was a quarter-day, when rents and bills and salaries would be paid. And so it is for Gawain, who was laughingly told by the Green Knight, last Christmas, that he must come and take his 'wages', the return blow, when Christmas comes again. So he too has an account to settle, to which his anxious thoughts are now beginning to turn. The next stanza takes us from 'Michaelmas moon' to All Saints' Day:

Ȝet quyl Al-hal-day with Arþer he lenges;
And he made a fare on þat fest for þe frekez sake,
With much reuel and ryche of þe Rounde Table.
Knyȝtez ful cortays and comlych ladies
Al for luf of þat lede in longynge þay were,
Bot neuer þe lece ne þe later þay neuened bot merþe:
Mony ioylez for þat ientyle iapez þer maden.
For aftter mete with mournyng he melez to his eme,
And spekez of his passage...

[Yet until All Hallows' Day with Arthur he lingers,
And Arthur made a feast on that day for the knight's sake,
With much revelling and royal splendour of the Round Table.
Courteous knights and comely ladies
Were heart-sore for love of that man,
But nevertheless, not the less did they speak with mirth:
Many, joyless for the noble one's sake, told jokes all the same.
For after the meal, mourning Gawain goes to his uncle,
And speaks of his journey...]

It's time for him to leave the court, to find the Green Knight's castle and meet what awaits him there. The poet seems to be thinking of Hallowtide here partly as the beginning of the Christmas season, as it seems to have been considered, in a general sense, in some other late medieval texts too (There's one for those of you who regret that 'Christmas starts earlier every year!' A Christmas season which runs from 1 November to February 2...) It's exactly six months after May Day, which is conventionally the beginning of summer in medieval literature, and so it makes sense that this should mark the beginning of winter, the dark half of the year.

Most Arthurian knights go on their adventures in May; Gawain is unusual in having to set out in November. But the November setting resonates with the mood of the poem at this point, where All Hallows marks not only the coming of winter, but a shift in tone, a growing darkness. The year has run round swiftly, in less than forty lines of verse - all too fast for Gawain, who would like the time to pass more slowly. Now we're going to follow Gawain out on his journey, through the bleak cold of November and December in 'the wilderness of the Wirral', and by Christmas Eve he'll be at the Green Knight's castle, facing the test he promised to take a year before. All Hallows brings a change of mood for the whole court, even as they celebrate the season - feasting partly in honour of the day, partly in honour of the knight they all love. They feast in defiance of the fear lurking at their hearts, because they are afraid that Gawain, best of them all, is going away to meet what seems like certain death. It's not surprising that the words 'uyage' ('voyage') and 'passage', used to describe Gawain's journey to meet the Green Knight, are terms often used in Middle English as metaphors for death (as you can see from the Middle English Dictionary entries: viage and passage). Gawain's departure is no light-hearted adventure, no pony-ride in May sunshine, but the first realisation of his mortality; and all through the rest of the poem he's haunted by a growing fear of death, so that it even infests his dreams. The shadow of death has come upon them all.

This seems to chime with the feeling of moving into winter at the beginning of November, with spring a very long away ahead. But for all its wintriness, Gawain is a poem of youth, not age. Most of the action is set during Yule and the 'young year', and the court, even King Arthur himself, are all in the first flower of their youth. Gawain is just a boy, talented knight though he is - deeply principled and, as bright young people often are, intolerant of failure in himself and others. And though he faces death, he doesn't die. Unlike those boys, young soldiers too, for the sake of whose memory Hallowtide converged with Remembrance Day, Gawain gets another chance. He learns from his experience, and begins to mature; he comes through winter to another spring, another renewal of life, another opportunity to do better.

God worshipped by the blessed in heaven 

The same poet who wrote so powerfully in Gawain of the fear of death also wrote perhaps the most moving poem of grief in the English language, Pearl. If Gawain has only just begun to think about death, the central figure in Pearl is intimately acquainted with it: he is mourning the loss of his little daughter, his precious pearl, not two years old when she died. Though his faith tells him that a child so young, so innocent, must be safely treasured now in heaven, he can't reconcile himself to her loss. Grieving beside her grave, he falls asleep and dreams of her: not a child now, but a woman dwelling in the New Jerusalem, one of the brides of the Lamb. Gently, patiently, she tries to explain to him where she is, and how she's come there, and why it might be for the best; but her father struggles with it every step of the way, wrestling with his longing for her, and only gradually and partially being brought to understand. However well she explains, child to father, the Christian teachings about death which his reason has already accepted, the two of them barely speak the same language; he is earth-bound, emotional, his mind fogged by grief, and so very far away from her.

Unlike Gawain, this poem is set in August, in harvest, when the richness of summer is just beginning to ripen to decay - perhaps around the time of the Assumption, the ultimate model of a good and holy death. But its consolatory vision is drawn partly from texts used on All Saints' Day, particularly the Book of Revelation. The significant number twelve, the building block of the heavenly Jerusalem, also provides the structural artistry of this intricately constructed poem. The dreamer's final vision of his daughter is amid 'the multitude which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues':

Ryght as the maynful mone con rys
Er thenne the day-glem dryve al doun,
So sodanly on a wonder wyse
I was war of a prosessyoun.
This noble cité of ryche enpryse
Was sodanly ful, wythouten sommoun,
Of such vergynes in the same gyse
That was my blysful anunder croun.
And coronde wern alle of the same fasoun,
Depaynt in perles and wedes qwyte.
In uchones breste was bounden boun
The blysfyl perle with gret delyt.

With gret delyt thay glod in fere
On golden gates that glent as glasse.
Hundreth thowsandes, I wot ther were,
And alle in sute her livrés wasse;
Tor to knaw the gladdest chere.
The Lombe byfore con proudly passe
Wyth hornes seven of red golde cler.
As praysed perles His wedes wasse.
Towarde the throne thay trone a tras.
Thagh thay wern fele, no pres in plyt,
Bot mylde as maydenes seme at mas
So drov thay forth with gret delyt...

The Lombe delyt, non lyste to wene;
Thagh He were hurt and wounde hade,
In His sembelaunt was never sene,
So wern His glentes gloryous glade.
I loked among His meyny schene,
How thay wyth lyf wern laste and lade.
Then saw I ther my lyttel quene
That I wende had standen by me in sclade.
Lorde, much of mirthe was that ho made
Among her feres that was so quyt!
That syght me gart to thenk to wade
For luf longyng in gret delyt.

That is:

As suddenly as the powerful moon rises
Before the gleam of day has all sunk down,
In a marvellous manner
I became aware of a procession.
This noble city of rich renown
Was suddenly full, unsummoned,
Of virgins dressed in the same guise
As my blissful girl in her crown.
Crowned were they all in the same way,
Adorned with pearls and white garments.
On the breast of each was firmly fastened
The blissful pearl, with great delight.

With great delight they glided together
Down golden streets that gleamed like glass.
Hundreds of thousands, I say there were,
And all alike was their livery.
Hard to know which was the happiest face!
The Lamb before them proudly passed
With seven horns of pure red gold.
Like precious pearls were his garments.
Towards the throne they made their way;
Though they were many, there was no crowding,
But gently as girls go as mass,
So they moved on with great delight...

The delight of the Lamb, none could doubt,
Though he was wounded and bore a scar,
It was not visible in his manner,
So gloriously glad were his looks.
I looked among his bright company,
How they were full and laden with life.
Then I saw there my little queen,
Who I thought had been with me in the valley.
Lord, how much mirth she made
Among her friends, all in white!
That sight made me want to wade [across the stream]
For love-longing in great delight.

All this is from the Book of Revelation, and it faithfully evokes all the strange beauty of that heavenly vision, yet it's the homely touches which are most moving here: the simile of the unexpected vision manifesting like the sudden appearance of the full moon in a sunset sky (when it doesn't seem to rise but is just suddenly there); or the sight of his daughter, 'my little queen', among her white-clad companions like a flock of girls at their First Communion, 'mild as maidens seem at mass'. That sight is his consolation, though it doesn't lessen his grief. His reaction to seeing it is to start towards her, longing for her so much that he's not thinking straight; he tries to cross the river that parts them, and that breaks the dream. He's still alive, still mourning, still working to accept that her death is for the best, and still he can't reach her.

That's the strange doubleness of the Hallowtide season - when the dead seem so near to us, and yet so unimaginably far.

The dreamer and his Pearl reach out to each other, the stream between