Mixed-Up Death

One of the ever-present temptations when writing about poetics is the urge to classify and produce taxonomies, to label different types of versification as different traditions, opposite categories, or mutually exclusive praxis. This approach tends to value conformity, whilst it implies that poems that don’t ‘fit’ or ‘behave’ are in some way inadequate or failing. This week’s extract (scroll down for text and translation) is part of an apostrophe to Death written by an anonymous fifteenth-century poet. It’s a good example of the poetic mixture that defies categorisation or allocation to a particular tradition.

These stanzas are from the beginning of what might be the epilogue to The Storie of Asneth (a Middle English translation of a Latin narrative of Joseph and Aseneth). The prologue to Asneth describes the translation’s commissioning by a woman patron. Following these stanzas, the speaker laments the death of a beautiful patroness who may be the commissioner described in the prologue. I like the energy and indignant outrage of the speaker’s exclamations, rhetorical questions, and maledictions.

The speaker’s tirade culminates with the suggestion that whole kingdoms should rise up and put Death to death. But of course this is an impossibility, and a second, wiser speaker reminds him that Adam’s Original Sin has rendered humanity mortal and so Death comes for each of us and cannot himself be killed. This interruption, in which an authority figure signals the speaker to be silent and cautions him about foolish opinions, is very reminiscent of Patience’s silencing of the Dreamer in Piers Plowman Passus 18 and (with roles reversed) of Mum’s interruption of the narrator’s comments about the need for truthtelling in Mum and the Sothsegger (l. 232). What starts off as a fixed-form lyric suddenly becomes more like a moment in a dream-vision narrative in which a narrator is interrupted, momentarily checked and re-educated by another voice.

The stanzaic unit here might be called ‘rhyme royal’, seven-line groupings with the rhyme scheme ababbcc. The frequent enjambment might likewise remind us of Chaucer’s rhyme royal. Yet the length of each individual line is longer than the mostly decasyllabic lines of the verse in this form written by Chaucer, Hoccleve or Lydgate. Likewise, ‘rhyme royal’ might bring with it certain expectations of metrical regularity, but here the long lines are only loosely four-stress, and often (as the poem’s TEAMS editor describes) read more like ‘stanzaic prose’ (i.e. with the rhyme marking units of line and stanza, but little metrical patterning).  Equally unexpected is the frequent alliteration, though this is closer to the more varied patterns of alliterative rhymed stanzaic verse (i.e. the type written in longer stanzas of 12, 13, or 14 lines) than to non-rhyming alliterative long line verse, despite what might be echoes of Piers Plowman and Mum. The poet also adds yet more formal embellishment, with each of the seven stanzas of the epilogue linked together by words rhyming on –ise or –yse (perhaps inspired by repeated rhymes in French forme fixe verse?).

All in all, it is a pretty idiosyncratic mixture, seemingly inspired by reading in several different types of verse.  Whoever wrote this had a magpie’s eye for poetic form and ornamentation and combined them in unexpected ways.  Those poetic influences might help us to hazard a guess about the mysterious identity of poet and patroness (see the recent speculations by Cathy Hume and Heather Reid).

Ha, cruell deeth! contrarious to creatures in kynde,
Ha, deeth dispitous! Who may advertise
Thi mourther, thi malice? Who may have in mende
The myschief that to mankynde thu dost excercise?
Thi rigour, thi rancour, who may devyse?
The matynge of thi miserie no man may endure,
For thi chekkes conclude everi creature.

Thu art to alle creatures hidous to beholde —
Thu pyllour! thu pirate! — cesse of thi prise.
Thi felonye ys multiplied in so many folde
That al the wordle generally of the, deth, agrise.
Stynt of thi malice, for wyth thy malgyse
Lovers ful lykynge and lusty in game
Thu marrest with myschief, and makest hem lame.

Thu tyraunt untemperat, with thi tene and treson,
The solas of soveraignes thu dost silvestrise,
And ladies likynge thu sleest out of seson,
And revest hem here ryalté with thi reprise.
Thyn insaciable malice who may acomplise,
When that loveli ladies thu leyest so lowe
And here bright beauté thu blemshest in a throwe?

For thi malice me semeth reames sholde arise,
To destruye cruell deeth, and do hym of dawe.
But oon wynked on me then: “War!” quod the wyse,
“And cesse of thi sentence, for symple is thi sawe;
For deeth universelly the wordle schal vengyse;
So ys the tyraunt tytled to that victorie,
By Adam the alderman of old auncetrie.”

Ha, cruel death!  Hostile to living creatures, ha, ruthless death!  Who can possibly declare your murder, your malice?  Who can possibly conceive of all of the misfortune that you wield against humanity?  Who can possibly describe your cruelty, your hatred?  No one can endure the checkmating of your misfortune, for your blows/checks make an end of every living thing.

To all living things you are hideous to contemplate — you pillager! You plunderer — leave off your oppression.  Your villainy is spread about in so may ways that all of the world collectively shudders in fear of you, death.  Stop your enmity, for by means of your wicked ways you destroy with misfortune very cheerful lovers who are happily at play and make them maimed.

You unrestrained tyrant, with your ill will and hostility, you banish the happiness of kings and beautiful ladies you slay prematurely, and rob them of their magnificence with your ‘taking back’.  Who can satisfy your insatiable malice, when you so destroy lovely ladies and when you disfigure their fair beauty in an instant?

It seems to me that kingdoms should rise up to destroy cruel death because of your malice, and put him to death.  But someone signalled to me then: “Look out!” said the wise one, “And stop your way of thinking, because your opinion is foolish; for death will vanquish the world without any exception; because the tyraunt is entitled to that victory, because of Adam the forefather of old ancestors.”

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