Alfred, Lord Tennyson | Poetry Foundation
Death, Dying, and the Culture of the Macabre in the …
This lyric displays the key reason for thinking about death in the Middle Ages: the salvation of the soul. An individual who went through life without paying heed to his impending death would likewise not keep in mind the care of his soul. Death functioned not just as a terrifying adversary who would inevitably conquer you, but as an agent of God who potentially brought you to union with Christ. Those who took proper care of their souls would find the utmost reward at the end and enjoy the blisses Heaven offered. Those who remained careless and sinful would suffer pains in Purgatory, or, if they neglected to repent, would endure eternal suffering in Hell.
Judgment Day represented not the end of time as the end of the relevance of time. Eternity was not so much far in the future, as constantly the present. The bodies of the dead were each resurrected, and would be judged by God according to their deeds in life, then consigned to bliss in Heaven or damnation in Hell. An illustration from the Grandes Heures de Rohan shows the resurrection of the dead, who are assisted in climbing out of their graves by angels. To the left, Eve greets Adam. God sits enthroned as Judge, a conflation of Christ the redeemer, with crown of thorns and bleeding side, and God the Father, the orb in his hand representing his dominion over created things. The fully clad man at the bottom right contrasts with the naked figures of the resurrected dead; his despairing expression and downward gaze are juxtaposed with the heavenward glances of the more hopeful figures. Harthan (p. 84), supposes that this figure could represent those people still alive at the time of the Last Judgment. The illustration is from Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. lat. 9471, fol. 154r, and is reproduced in Harthan, p. 83.
Souls were dispersed to eternal bliss with God or eternal suffering in Hell at the Last Judgment. While the official designation of "saved" or "damned" was not given until Doomsday, medieval writings always depicted departed ones as "already there," as if, for the dead, eternity was always now. Dante, when he travels to Hell in the Inferno, sees departed contemporary Brunetto Latini being punished in Canto 15. Likewise, the anonymous narrator of the Middle English Pearl sees his infant daughter already among the 144,000 virgins in the New Jerusalem, despite John of Patmos' assertion that it would only be built after the Apocalypse. An illustration from the manuscript of Pearl, showing the dreamer bidding farewell to his Pearl Maiden. The river of mortality separates them. Even in the damaged illustration, it is possible to see through their outstretched hands the grief of separation by Death.
Literary Analysis: Using Elements of Literature - Welcome
This kind of a poem has the desired effect upon the dreamer: he wakes up in a cold sweat and gets himself to confession quickly before the fiends fetch him away hot-foot (quickly). What is important to note is that the effect that the dream has upon the dreamer is the effect that the poem should have had upon the audience; the Body and Soul debate material was not just there to entertain, but to put everyone in mind of making a good end.
The Three Living and the Three Dead
Three young kings go on a hunting expedition, revelling in the glories of youth and wealth. In the woods they come across three corpses in various stages of decomposition. Recoiling in horror, the kings are even more surprised when the corpses address them directly. The dead remind the kings of the transitoriness of earthly things and remind the kings that they will, despite their rich apparel and fine living, inevitably become rotted corpses as well. The dead function as a mirror image to the three fine men, and the message is inevitably the same: "What you are, so once were we; what we are, so shall you be" (Tristram, p. 162). The encounter encourages a change of heart in the hunters, who, perceiving themselves now hunted by death, resolve to focus more on their spiritual welfare. This transformation is clearly expressed by the words of the Second Living King from a French version of the poem: "I desire, / . . . to amend my life: / I have over-indulged my whims / And my heart is eager / To do, as much as my soul submits / To God the King of Pity" (Binsky, p. 136).
The story of the Three Living and the Three Dead is told in over sixty literary sources across Europe. The motif also survives in numerous manuscript illuminations, and, most interestingly, in over fifty wall-paintings from after the period of the Black Death. This would suggest that there is some attempt at the motif reaching a lay-audience, who would learn from the story the same lesson learned by the three kings. While the core of the story remains the same, the variations are numerous; the three kings become three representatives of different social classes or they represent the three ages of man: Youth, Middle Age, and Eld. Inevitably the images that survive demonstrate a mirror-effect, where the three dead directly oppose the three living, and to a certain extent mimic the living either in posture or attire. The only English version that survives is a poem by John Audelay, in which the three dead are the deceased fathers of the living, come to remind them of the harsh realities of death. See poem 54 in The Poems of John Audelay.
For further discussions, see Binsky, pp. 134-40 and Tristram, pp. 162-67. See also Matsuda, p. 74n144, for further references to the motif.
Dying the good death was the ideal situation for any Christian; a prolonged sickness, or advancing old age, would give an individual ample time to consider one's sins, confess to a priest, repent, perform penance, and achieve salvation. Numerous deathbed scenes in medieval writings recount a dying person's crucial last moments -- whether he would turn to God and repent or whether he would be caught up with more worldly concerns such as the distribution of his wealth. In an illustration from a British Library manuscript (London, British Library Additional 37049, fol. 38v, reproduced in Hogg, p. 54), a dying man is shown at the moment of death. To the right, Death strikes him a terrible blow, reminiscent of the wound on Christ's side inflicted by Longinus. The priest by his bedside has evidently heard his confession, as Christ announces from above that he will have mercy.
The Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying, was a didactic treatise that gained popularity in the vernacular in the fifteenth century. In a woodcut from a German Ars Moriendi (reproduced in Bayard, p. 51) shows the dead man, his widow beside him, surrounded by saints who pray for his soul. Above, the image of Christ on the Cross looms over the scene. Below him are fiends to tempt him. One of the angels has received his tiny, naked soul. This common depiction of the soul emphasizes the fragility of the human moral condition, as the soul appears helpless before the angels and demons that fight for it.
Middle English Lyrics
Lyrics such as these detail the medieval fixation upon the physical reality of bodily decay after death; however, what is important to note is that both poems emphasize the relative unimportance of the World when one is dead. Here, the world can be understood as those material things that distract one from the spiritual goal of attaining salvation. Both poets point out that the physical distractions of the world remain irrelevant when our very last physical possession -- our body -- is in the process of decaying. [Both poems and glosses adapted from Luria and Hoffman, ed. Middle English Lyrics.]
Luria and Hoffman, #232: