Death, although I take delight

in singing and coquettishness,

I know exactly what I am

and how my life lasts less and less!

Yet he who sees the threat before

it strikes—can best defend himself.

Death, of fish and fowl both,

you take so much there’s nothing left

but minnows. Let some other be

your bad example—fools abound

who, when putting out to sea,

overload their ships and drown.

 

Hateful, brutal, evil Death,

you thief, you’re always plundering

the things whose loss we grieve the most!

No one, even duke or king,

could ever find a willing host

to harbor you for just one night.

Against you there is no defense,

no sanctuary where we might

protect ourselves, except the rite

of true confession and the Mass.

You serve us uncooked meat and foul—

we’d rather starve than break our fast.

 

Death, you take us at your whim.

Before their fathers, children go—

the grain decays before the grass,

the youngest man is the most old,

and Youth itself is only ash.

In fresh new lambskin, rotten guts

for those who cut and carve the roast.

We shouldn’t judge by shell or husk

which hazelnut is worth the most.

Why let the doctor poke and prod

when living is a lethal dose?

There is no medicine but God.



Original ↓

Mors, comment que je me deduise

En chanter et en maniere herluise,

Je voi bien et sai qui je sui

Et comment me vie amenuise !

Mais qui voit le peril ains qu’il muise,

C’est chiex qui miex prent garde en lui.

Mors, a le roy et a le glui,

A[s] tant pris de gent c’au jour d’ui

N’i a reines fors que menuise !

Chastions nous donc par autrui —

C’on doit pour fol tenir chelui

Qui tant carche le nef qu’il puise.

 

Mors anieuse et felenesse,

Ies de cheus embler larenesse

Dont il cuide que plus anuit !

Si qu’il n’est ne rois ne contesse

Qui puis truist oste ni ostesse

Qui le herbegast une nuit.

Encontre toi n’a nul refuit.

Or n’i a dont autre reduit

Fors confesse, sermon et messe,

Car tu assies ains c’on ait cuit

Le gent d’un morsel mal enduit —

Tout sans proier et sans promesse.

 

Mors, de chascun prendre ies astiex —

Devant le pere muert li fiex,

Li grains pourist ains que li paille,

Li plus jones est li plus viex,

De ionesche n’est fors bresiex.

En jone cuir pourrie entraille,

A cel qui se viande taille.

On ne doit pas selonc l’escaille

Jugier li quels noiaus vaut miex.

On cuide que fisique viaille

Mais c’est tout trufe et devinaille !

Nus n’est fisiciens fors Dieux.

Translator's Note

“The Verse of Death” (“Li ver de la Mort”) is little-known even inside academic circles, perhaps because it is neither sexy nor particularly scatological. Instead, it’s a rhetorical exercise in apostrophe, or speech that personifies an abstract concept by addressing it directly as though it could listen and answer. In this case, Death.

Like many medieval vernacular poems, “Death” weaves together proverbs and commonplaces that today’s readers, imbued with the modernist passion for innovation, may well disdain as “cliché.” For thirteenth-century audiences, what mattered wasn’t what a poem said. It was how. The cadences afforded by octosyllabic meter, the repetition and variation of rhyme over the course of each twelve-line stanza, would have offered readers and listeners a distinct aural/oral pleasure, even—perhaps especially—when tempered by the austerity of the subject matter.

I have tried to recreate some of that pleasure in English, using rhyme when it came naturally and assonance when it did not. The rhyming is strongest in the final stanza of the English; like the repeated end-rhyme in the French, the rhyme of “prod” with “God” provides the pleasure of the click as the poem locks into place at the end of the last line. 

As for “cliché,” its meaning may be fixed, but its musical possibilities are endless. My translation not only replaces French topoi with English ready-made phrases, such as “take us at your whim,” it also adds alliteration, so that me vie amenuise is rendered as “my life lasts less and less” and a le roi et a le glui is transformed to “fish and fowl both.” Not coincidentally, alliteration tends to be a key feature of the Middle English lyric verse that was being composed by Adam’s contemporaries and successors across the Channel. (Think of “Sumer is icumen in,” “Foweles in the frith,” “Bryde one brere,” or even the late fourteenth-century “I syng of a mayden.”) I hope that by using medieval English poetics as a bridge, my translation will provide a means whereby medieval Romance-language poetry can still be enjoyed—even during our post-post-modern era—on something like its own aesthetic terms.

P.S.

The last line of my translation should in no way be taken as promoting anti-vaccine sentiment. Adam de la Halle, writing in a time and place where most people were ignorant of even basic forms of germ theory, could not have foreseen the advances in medicine that would occur over the course of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Translating his work today, I’d like to add the following:

Please decide to trust your doc
and take the recommended dose.
Why wait until you’re diagnosed?
Roll up your sleeve and get the shot!

 

Source text of the original Old French is from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français, 25566, f. 67vb-68ra.


Samantha Pious

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In the Classroom

Apostrophic DiversionDeath is often personified in literature, as it is here through the rhetorical exercise of apostrophe, “speech that personifies an abstract concept by addressing it directly as though it could listen and answer,” as Samantha Pious writes in her Translator’s Note. Write Death’s response to the address and particular concerns described in this poem. Write this response either in the same style as Pious’s translation of Adam de la Halle’s poem or in another form. How might the specific version of Death, as characterized in this particular poem, respond? How might another version of Death from another work of literature respond?
Bonus points if you draw or create another visual representation of the characterization of Death you envision.

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