A hard sound out of the north’s corner,

Something like a hunter’s horn, fiercest of anything,

The loudest noise you ever heard,

The sturdiest blast ever blown,

Ringing across the fields, rattling teeth.

Even the ground staggered, taken aback—

And me, well, I almost lost my mind

But then stayed put, foolish or fearless.


I turned my eye northward again,

Seeing a sight that made the heart sink:

One of the ugliest armies to ever set out.

You’d have been scared too if you’d’ve seen it—

So grim, so many of them, so grisly.

Before them all, quaking, an evil queen

With a crown of graven gold on her head.

She was the vilest thing ever conjured up:

Her hair, her flesh, her skin tone.

As bare as my fingernail up top and down below,

Covered with linen in between—

No face more chilling to see.

Tall and skinny, godawful to look at:

A glance from that woman would kill

The strongest man on earth.

Eyes like fire raging deep in a furnace

Sunk in their sockets under dark brows.

Thin cheeks, drooping lips,

And a mouth full of teeth, long fangs,

The end of her nose heading down to her waist,

Her skin just-hammered lead.

In her right hand a fearsome weapon,

A blade polished bright, dripping blood;

Her left hand pretty much a griffin’s claw

With talons for piercing and killing.

She raised her sword, showed off her tools

And I fainted, scared witless.


If Reassurance hadn’t turned up to lift my spirits,

I’d have breathed my last at the sight of Lady Death.

He bowed low and began to explain it all,

Saying, “Stay calm, wait a while,

Sit here and see some extraordinary things.

That lass over there is Death, ready to strike:

See how Pride runs ahead of her, leading the army,

Countless cruel soldiers hot on her heels,

Envy and Anger, ready for war,

Mourning and Moaning, his mate Mischief,

Grief and Disease and Sick-of-This—

Everyone who hates their life joins her crew.

When she notches an arrow and prepares to strike,

Nothing on earth can stop her.”


I risked another glimpse at that figure whose look could kill:

She stepped barefoot on the summer-brown grasses

And as she walked she crushed the living stems to dust.

The trees trembled, alarmed, tipped to the ground,

Leaves drifted down and lost their green,

Birds, flapping as they might, couldn’t fly

And the fishes in the river failed to swim.

…In a nooke of the north there was a noyse hard

As itt had beene a horne, the highest of others,

With the biggest bere that euer bearne wist,

And the burlyest blast that euer blowne was;

The rattlinge rout rune ouer the ffeelds;

The ground gogled for greeffe of that grim dame.

I went nere out of my witt for wayling care,

Yett I bode on the bent and boldlye looked;

Once againe into the north, mine eye then I cast;

I saw there a sight was sorrowfull to behold,

One of the vglyest osts that on the earth gone;

There was no man of this sight but hee was affrayd,

Soe grislye and great and grim to behold.

And a quedfull queene came quakinge before,

With a carued crowne on her head all of pure gold,

And shee the ffoulest ffreake that formed was euer,

Both of hide and hew and heare alsoe.

Shee was naked as my nayle, both aboue and belowe;

She was lapped about in linenn breeches;

A more fearffull face no freake might behold,

For shee was long and leane and lodlye to see;

There was noe man on the mold soe mightye of strenght,

But a looke of that lady and his liffe passed.

Her eyes farden as the fyer that in the furnace burnes;

They were hollow in her head with full heauye browes;

Her cheekes were leane with lipps full side,

With a maruelous mouth full of long tushes;

And the nebb of her nose to her navell hanged,

And her lere like the lead that latelye was beaten.

Shee bare in her right hand an vnrid weapon,

A bright burnisht blade, all bloody beronen;

And the left hand like the legg of a grype,

With the talents that were tachinge and teenfull enoughe.

With that shee burnisht vp her brand and bradd out her geere,

And I for feare of that freake ffell in a swond;

Had not Sir Comfort come and my care stinted,

I had beene slaine with that sight of that sorrowfull ladye.

Then he lowted to me low and learned me well,

Sayd: “Be thou not abashed by abyde there a while;

Here may thou sitt and see selcouthes ffull manye.

Yonder damsell is Death that dresseth her to smyte;

Loe, Pryde passeth before and the price beareth,

Many sorrowfull souldiers following her fast after,

Both Enuye and Anger in their yerne weeds,

Morninge and Mone, Sir Misheefe, his ffere,

Sorrow and Sicknesse and Siking-in-hart —

All that were lothinge of their liffe were lent to her court.

When shee draweth vp her darts and dresseth her to smite,

There is no goome vnder God may garr her to stint.”

Then I blushed to that bearne that balefullye looked:

She stepped forth barefooted on the bents browne;

The greene grasse in her gate shee grindeth all to powder;

Trees tremble for ffeare and tipen to the ground;

Leaues lighten downe lowe and leauen their might;

Fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,

And the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme…

Translator's Note

This is an extract from Death and Liffe, a fifteenth-century Middle English alliterative poem whose author is unknown. It exists in a unique copy found today in London, British Library, MS Additional 27879, known as the Percy Folio. The poem is a medieval dream vision, an allegorical debate between Life and Death, each arguing for their own supremacy. 

Once read, this description of Death personified as a woman at the head of a gruesome army is never forgotten: a female figure represented not as fertile and winsome but powerful and utterly uncompromising, even as the narrating voice is repulsed by her physical form. The poem from which this extract is taken ends with a Christian promise of eternal life, but what is most memorable is the poet’s imaginative audacity in animating Death, looking full in the face of what we usually hide from our minds. 

My translation takes Lady Death not only from Middle English to Modern English but also transposes her in register and style. If rendered too closely, Middle English alliterative verse in translation can sound archaic and stiff: my poem aspires to be immediate and informal in tone. The unrhymed inductive metre of the original finds its rhythms not by a predictable beat but through unpredictable patterns of word stress, cued by alliteration and shaped by distinctive metrical rules. My unrhymed, end-stopped lines do not recreate these particular rhythms, but find their own strong phrasings, compressing and concentrating the language of the original.

I am conscious that this portrait cannot be made into a lyric: it is part of a narrative and the perceptions of the narrator are the point of this passage. To be close to Lady Death is to lose the will to live.

Jenni Nuttall


In the Classroom