Thursday, May 25, 2017

Beda Venerabilis

Today is Ascension Thursday, of course, which takes liturgical precedence unless it is transferred to Sunday (a barbarous practice), but May 25 is the feast of St. Baeda of Northumbria, Doctor of the Church, crown jewel of Anglo-Saxon monasticism. The Venerable Bede (d. 735) lived almost all of his life in and around the monastery at Jarrow, but became one of the most learned men of his century.

One of the surviving Old English poems is a short work known as Bede's Death-Song. There are two extant versions, which just differ by dialect. Wikipedia gives both. Northumbria:

Fore thaem neidfaerae naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra, than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege doemid uueorthae.

Wessex:

For þam nedfere næni wyrþeþ
þances snotera, þonne him þearf sy
to gehicgenne ær his heonengange
hwæt his gaste godes oþþe yfeles
æfter deaþe heonon demed weorþe.

We don't actually know for sure that this is Bede's own poem. We know from Cuthbert that Bede on his deathbed recited a poem in Old English, and Cuthbert, who is writing in Latin, gives us a Latin paraphrase of the meaning, which fits this poem very, very well. We do not know for sure if this is actually Bede's original poem or if it is a later attempt to reconstruct it. What we do know is that (1) the person who came up with it had considerable talent, since for all its brevity, this is a very neatly constructed poem, and (2) if it's a reconstruction it is impressive how the author was able both to fit Cuthbert's Latin paraphrase so well and make it work purely on its own terms as an Old English poem. (If it's by Bede himself, of course, there is no surprise on either point.) Michael Burch's (slightly loose, but nice) translation:

Bede's Death-Song
translated by Michael Burch


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.

[ADDED LATER: A Clerk of Oxford notes that St. Bede died on Ascension Thursday, which I had completely forgotten, so a year in which Bede's Day and Ascension fall together is a year in which our commemoration of death links up to what Bede himself was commemorating on his last day of life. She also notes the third possibility for Bede's Death Song, which I did not consider, namely, that it predates Bede and Bede was quoting it.]

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