Bede’s Death Song

‘Fore the enforced-walk       none comes to be
wise to malice       more than him that must

with mindfulness think back,       before his going hence,
on what his breath’s       bad, good, right or evil,
after death-day’s ending,       on judgement comes to be.


Bede’s Death Song has much to recommend it to the reader, not least it’s brevity. At only 5 lines it is a concise, ironic, and subtly chilling memento mori, supposedly the deathbed words of the Venerable Bede (which, if true, would put the 26th of May 735 as the date of composition – extraordinarily specific). The piece was recorded in a letter from Cuthbert (a disciple of his) which describes the death: “Being well-versed in our native songs, he described to us the dread departure of the soul from the body by a verse in our own tongue.” (A History of the English Church and People, translated by Leo Shirley-Price, Penguin Books, 1955)

The poem in the Anglo-Saxon (Northumbrian version) is as follows:

1       Fore ðæm nedfere (5)       nænig wiorðe (4)
2
       ðoncsnottora (4)       ðon him ðearf siæ (5)
3
       to ymbhycgenne (6)       ær his hinionge (6)
4
       hwæt his gastæ (4)       godes oððe yfles (6)
5      
æfter deað dæge (6)       doemed wiorðe. (6)

Something I’ve retained which I haven’t seen in other translations is the mirroring of the first and final line (more apparent in the Northumbrian than the West-Saxon version). The poem opens with a line starting “Fore” (before), and closes with a line starting “æfter” (after); the first and last line both finish with “wiorðe” (“comes to be”); the poem begins before death and ends after it, though it’s the transition from one state to the other (the body of the peom) which is distinctive, with the states themselves (before and after) being mere variations of one another. The poem is about the terror of that transition, rather than terror of death; it is not about the good or bad deeds committed during life, or about the judgement of said deeds after life, but rather the liminal point after one’s actions on the earth have ceased but before the final judgement, when all one do is dwell and obsess over that which can no longer be added to or changed, but which hasn’t yet been completely concluded. The essay is handed in, but not yet marked.

Another point in which I’ve moved away from other translations is in the interpretation of “ðoncsnottora,” the first half of the second line. In other versions I’ve read this is given as “wise” or “wiser in thought” – however, if we compare this withhygesnottor” (“wise in mind”) andgearusnottor” (“very wise”), then surelyðonc” (“A baleful or wicked thought”) “snottora” (“prudent of mind, wise, sagacious”) can be read as “wise in wickedness, aware of evil.” This gives the poem a sense of irony; rather than a didactic piece of instruction (“the wise man is he who reviews the good and evil of his soul before death,” as other translations have it), we have a man on his death-bed telling us that nobody is more aware of evil deeds than the dying man frantically reviewing his life’s actions, in a desperate effort to determine whether the good outweighs the bad before he dies and goes to judgement. The irony here, of course, being that the man on the verge of death is the one man who can’t redeem his actions, so his new-found knowledge of evil deeds is useless to him (“where were you when I needed you!?”).

Alongside these aspects I’ve adhered to my usual practice and attempted to retain both the structure (half-line breaks, an approximation of alliteration and syllabic count) and poeticism as priority; death as “the enforced-walk” has a little more poetry to it than a “mandatory journey,” even if it is less literal, and is certainly less on-the-nose (and less pseudo-Shakespearean) thanDeath, that inescapable journey. I prefer the broader, more ambiguous “breath” to “soul” (forgastæ”) – breath can be read as a metaphor for soul, but can also be read as words, commands, life’s actions, or even life itself (breath also alliterates more nicely with the second half of the line, which I have extended with repetition to fulfill the syllabic requirements).

Other Translations

Leo Shirley-Price, in A History of the English Church and People (referenced above) gave us:

Before setting forth on that inevitable journey, none is wiser than the man who considers—before his soul departs hence—what good or evil he has done, and what judgement his soul will receive after its passing.

In A Literary History of England, edited by Albert C. Baugh (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948) we have:

 

Before the unavoidable journey there, no one becomes
wiser in thought than him who, by need,
ponders, before his going hence,
what good and evil within his soul,
after his day of death, will be judged.

Another, more recent, one by Michael R. Birch:

Facing Death, that inescapable journey,
who can be wiser than he
who reflects, while breath yet remains,
on whether his life brought others happiness (or pains),
since his soul may yet win delight’s (or night’s) way
after his death-day.

Further Reading

References

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Bede’s Death Song

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