I was catching up on Criminal Minds on Netflix when I came across references to an old ballad. After a little digging I ran across this on The Poet’s Corner.
In the early 18th century when this was finally recorded, it was already a holdover from earlier times. People in modern western culture tend to forget that it was the church that revived theater after nearly seven centuries of silence for the more structured performing arts. Passion and mystery plays (as in the old mysterion, or miracle as we would put it in regards to the holy sacraments) led the way ultimately to Neflix and Hulu.
I like this poem for a transition point. Elements of morality and truth remain from times when such things were commonly accepted, but the poem stands with some drama and beauty in and of itself, compelling without a pulpit to pound.
Courtesy of the Poet’s Corner, I submit for your approval:
[One of Charles Lamb’s most beautiful and plaintive poems was suggested by this old dialogue. The tune is given in Chappell’s
p. 167. In Carey’s
1738, it is called the ‘Old tune of
Death and the Lady.
‘ The four concluding lines of the present copy of
Death and the Lady
are found inscribed on tomb-stones in village church-yards in every part of England. They are not contained, however, in the broadside with which our reprint has been carefully collated.]
- Fair lady, lay your costly robes aside,
- No longer may you glory in your pride;
- Take leave of all your carnal vain delight,
- I’m come to summon you away this night!
- What bold attempt is this? pray let me know
- From whence you come, and whither I must go?
- Must I, who am a lady, stoop or bow
- To such a pale-faced visage? Who art thou?
- Do you not know me? well! I tell thee, then,
- It’s I that conquer all the sons of men!
- No pitch of honour from my dart is free;
- My name is Death! have you not heard of me?
- Yes! I have heard of thee time after time,
- But being in the glory of my prime,
- I did not think you would have called so soon.
- Why must my morning sun go down at noon?
- Talk not of noon! you may as well be mute;
- This is no time at all for to dispute:
- Your riches, garments, gold, and jewels brave,
- Houses and lands must all new owners have;
- Though thy vain heart to riches was inclined,
- Yet thou must die and leave them all behind.
- My heart is cold; I tremble at the news;
- There’s bags of gold, if thou wilt me excuse,
- And seize on them, and finish thou the strife
- Of those that are aweary of their life.
- Are there not many bound in prison strong,
- In bitter grief of soul have languished long,
- Who could but find the grave a place of rest,
- From all the grief in which they are oppressed?
- Besides, there’s many with a hoary head,
- And palsy joints, by which their joys are fled;
- Release thou them whose sorrows are so great,
- But spare my life to have a longer date.
- Though some by age be full of grief and pain,
- Yet their appointed time they must remain:
- I come to none before their warrant’s sealed,
- And when it is, they must submit and yield.
- I take no bribe, believe me, this is true;
- Prepare yourself to go; I’m come for you.
- Death, be not so severe, let me obtain
- A little longer time to live and reign!
- Fain would I stay if thou my life will spare;
- I have a daughter beautiful and fair,
- I’d live to see her wed whom I adore:
- Grant me but this and I will ask no more.
- This is a slender frivolous excuse;
- I have you fast, and will not let you loose;
- Leave her to Providence, for you must go
- Along with me, whether you will or no;
- I, Death, command the King to leave his crown,
- And at my feet he lays his sceptre down!
- Then if to kings I don’t this favour give,
- But cut them off, can you expect to live
- Beyond the limits of your time and space!
- No! I must send you to another place.
- You learned doctors, now express your skill,
- And let not Death of me obtain his will;
- Prepare your cordials, let me comfort find,
- My gold shall fly like chaff before the wind.
- Forbear to call, their skill will never do,
- They are but mortals here as well as you:
- I give the fatal wound, my dart is sure,
- And far beyond the doctor’s skill to cure.
- How freely can you let your riches fly
- To purchase life, rather than yield to die!
- But while you flourish here with all your store,
- You will not give one penny to the poor;
- Though in God’s name their suit to you they make,
- You would not spare one penny for His sake!
- The Lord beheld wherein you did amiss,
- And calls you hence to give account for this!
- Oh! heavy news! must I no longer stay?
- How shall I stand in the great judgment-day?
- (Down from her eyes the crystal tears did flow:
- She said), None knows what I do undergo:
- Upon my bed of sorrow here I lie;
- My carnal life makes me afraid to die.
- My sins, alas! are many, gross and foul,
- Oh, righteous Lord! have mercy on my soul!
- And though I do deserve thy righteous frown,
- Yet pardon, Lord, and pour a blessing down.
- (Then with a dying sigh her heart did break,
- And did the pleasures of this world forsake.)
- Thus may we see the high and mighty fall,
- For cruel Death shows no respect at all
- To any one of high or low degree
- Great men submit to Death as well as we.
- Though they are gay, their life is but a span –
- A lump of clay – so vile a creature’s man.
- Then happy those whom Christ has made his care,
- Who die in the Lord, and ever blessed are.
- The grave’s the market-place where all men meet,
- Both rich and poor, as well as small and great.
- If life were merchandise that gold could buy,
- The rich would live, the poor alone would die.