The Signs and Sounds of Death

After the sounds of old age come the sounds and signs of death.  These derive from medical lists of symptoms given in Hippocrates and Galen (see Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (1968), pp. 79–82).  Some medieval poets, whether for mnemonic, rhetorical or other purposes, transformed them into verse.  In the early fourteenth-century Fascisculus Morum (a handbook for preachers written by a Franciscan friar), three Latin couplets listing the signs of death attributed (apocryphally) to St Jerome are cited, as well as a Middle English poem beginning ‘When the hede quakyth / And the lyppis blakyth’ which gives eight different signs of death before a brief conclusion.  Other versions, medical and moral, are recorded by R H Robbins, ‘Signs of Death in Middle English’, Mediaeval Studies, 32 (1970), 282–98.

My favourite example (DIMEV 6383) comes from Cambridge, Trinity College 43 (B.1.45).  This lyric was added by a slightly later hand to a manuscript copied perhaps around 1290 by a Dominican friar from West Norfolk, perhaps for an Augustinian nunnery.  Scroll down for text and Modern English translation of the first seven lines.  Here the signs of death are no longer merely medical or general, a list of signs to be observed in others.  Instead they are internalised.

A first-person speaker lists the ways in which his body will register his imminent death in a long temporal subordinate clause.  This might lead us to expect an outcome, a result that will occur after all of these changes.  But instead of an outcome we have an exclamation: it’s all too late when the bier has arrived at the gate to take the speaker’s corpse for burial.  What is it too late for, asks the poem. Too late to repent, too late to ready one’s soul for death, or too late even to articulate that death is here?

Wane mine eyhen misten & mine heren sissen,
& mi nose koldet & mine tunge foldet
& mi rude slaket & mine lippes blaken
& mi muth grennet & mi spotel rennet
& min her riset & min herte griset
& mine honden bivien & mine fet stivien,
al to late, al to late, wanne the bere ys ate gate.

When my eyes blur & my ears buzz
& my nose cools & my speech fails
& my face droops & my lips blacken
& my mouth gapes & my spittle dribbles
& my hair stands & my heart shudders
& my hands tremble & my feet stiffen,
all to late, all to late, when the bier
is at the gate.

This lyric, of all the signs of death poems, shows rather than tells.   The rhyming of the pairs of verbs, in combination with the polysyndeton (the repeated use of the same conjunction in swift succession), all in one breath, hurries the poem along towards the inevitable.  The repeated syntax (conjunction + pronoun + noun + verb), and hence the repeated metrical pattern, adds to the sense of an inescapable process.

In the second part of the lyric we reach the expected then which answers the initial when (text and translation below).  This section (which also circulated separately) describes what will happen to the body after death, a journey from bed to floor to shroud to bier to grave.  This time the sense of inexorability is enhanced by anadiplosis (the repetition of the last word or phrase from the previous clause at the beginning of the next clause).

Thanne I schal flutte from bedde to flore,
From flore to here, from here to bere,
From bere to putte, and the putt for-dut.
Thanne lyd min hus uppe min nose:
Of al this world ne gyffe Ihic a pese.

[Then I shall go from bed to floor, from floor to shroud, from shroud to bier,
from bier to grave, and the grave will be closed.  Then my house will lie upon
my nose: for all this world I will not give a jot.]

Text from English Lyrics of the XIIIth Lyrics, ed. Carleton Brown (1932), modernised.
Modern English translation my own.

2 thoughts on “The Signs and Sounds of Death

  1. Thank you very much for this information. Anadiplosis seems particularly powerful to me. Would it be correct to say that it occurs in these lines from the Lyke Wake Dirge?

    “This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
    Every nighte and alle”

  2. Thank you Gerard. What an extraordinary lyric the Lyke Wake Dirge is! The allegories (‘the Brig o Dread’ etc) are very evocative. I think the purposeful repetition of night in the second line you quote does have an effect rather like anadiplosis. Whatever we might call it (many of the definitions I’ve read about do vary in their strictness and in their exemplification, so I am trying to sidestep issues of ‘correctness’), these early poets instinctively create small-scale rhetorical schemes (in the sense of purposefully patterned syntactical structures), whether or not they have any knowledge of classical rhetoric. Carol Rumens has written a post about the Dirge which you might find interesting: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/feb/16/lyke-wake-dirge-poem-week

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