Arts of Dying: Literature and Finitude in Medieval England 
by D. Vance Smith.
Chicago, 309 pp., £24, April, 978 0 226 64099 0
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This book​ begins with a paradox: we speak incessantly of death, yet can’t say anything about it because it has no being. A subsidiary paradox has long puzzled medievalists: ‘It is hard to tell, when you read only the poetry of the late 14th century, that the Black Death had ever arrived,’ D. Vance Smith writes. There is nothing in all English literature to parallel Boccaccio’s famous account in the Decameron. Chaucer, who had read Boccaccio and witnessed at least four outbreaks, scarcely mentions the pandemic. The closest he comes is ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, a grisly exemplum about three ‘riotours’ who embark on a quest to kill ‘a privee theef men clepeth Deeth,/That in this contree al the peple sleeth’. Needless to say, the literal-minded scoundrels find what they seek. Plague was simply the Death, the death that ‘hath a thousand slayn this pestilence’. One of Smith’s projects in Arts of Dying is to read the plague back into poems that circumvent it, noting here a casual allusion, there the connotations of a verb. In the 14th-century Pearl, a dream vision dazzling in its formal beauty, the Dreamer mourns his two-year-old daughter, who reappears in heaven as the blissful, all-knowing Pearl Maiden. He never tells us how she died – infant mortality remained high throughout the period. But one stanza is laden with words that evoke the plague-stricken body: spot, clot, moul, bolne, bele. These terms are suggestive, nothing more, for such language cannot be allowed to mar the poem’s celestial aesthetics. The converse of the late medieval obsession with death – the multiplication of transi tombs, chantry chapels, and danses macabres – is this unnerving silence about the Death. Its horror rendered survivors speechless.

The ars moriendi, art of dying, formed a medieval literary genre. Death could come suddenly at any time, so it was important to be prepared. Fifteenth-century tracts instructed the imperilled soul to repent, make a good confession and detach from worldly goods, including wife and children. But the idea of dying as an art points to something even more essential: it is a work to be accomplished, not merely a fate to be endured. Dying can be done well or badly, and the only way to assure salvation is to do it well. By extension, poems are ‘arts of dying’ when they encrypt the dead in undying language, or memorialise the saintly and the powerful in perduring records. Smith distinguishes throughout between the ‘crypt’ and the ‘archive’, taking both metaphorically. The former protects the dead against the depredations of the living. It is marked above all by the ‘secrecy, privacy and enigma’ that give us the term ‘cryptic’. The archive, on the other hand, is ‘public, related to the traces of power and characterised by lucidity and access’. Both commemorate the dead, but differently, with incommensurable poetics.

Few poems are more cryptic than the anonymous early 14th-century ‘Earth upon Earth’, to which Smith devotes an entire chapter:

Earth took of earth earth with woe
Earth other earth to the earth drew
Earth laid earth in earthen trough
Then had earth of earth, earth enough.

All is reduced to the stuff of our mortality, mentioned 12 times in 27 words. But what exactly do they mean? For all its Saxon simplicity, the poem defies paraphrase. It could be about birth, marriage, burial; it could be about the incarnation, crucifixion, ascension. ‘Earth other earth to the earth drew’: a pair of lovers coupling on the grass, or executioners forcing Christ’s body to the ground to nail it to the cross? Does the last line express resignation, despair or deliverance? The poem belongs to a long tradition of riddles that figured in Old English pedagogy, yet it has no answer. Composed in the ancient, four-beat alliterative meter, it alliterates throughout on a single word, its feet thudding like shovels of clay on a grave.

Anglo-Saxon poetry is famously melancholic, dwelling on loss, ruin, exile and the fall of heroes. But Smith passes over the best-known examples and rejects the familiar theory that this poetic corpus, under the shadow of the Norman Conquest, mourns the impending death of the language itself. He concentrates instead on a set of posthumous laments, in which a Soul castigates its buried Body for the sins that led to its present misery. Body is silent now, its tongue decayed in the crypt of its mouth, while the wretched Soul atones for its lifelong silence with disembodied speech. These are strange dialogues, like the sound of one hand clapping. It’s the living who stand to benefit from their message, namely to confess and do penance before time runs out. In a different context, Smith cites the maxim: ‘Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.’ He doesn’t note its source, but the saying is a divine locution to Starets Silouan, a 20th-century monk of Mount Athos. Only by imagining himself worthy of hell at all times, to the point of experiencing its actual torments in his soul and body – yet without despairing of God’s mercy – will the monk attain the humility required for salvation. This posture of self-condemnation undergirds the memento mori tradition, a subset of death-facing literature typified by Hoccleve’s ‘Lerne to Die’. In the Body and Soul poems, as in those terse memorial inscriptions where the dead address the living (‘what I am, you shall be’), death features less as a cryptic enigma than a blatant warning about the wages of sin.

Dying can be terminable or interminable. An unfinished death is the theme of two medieval legends, one based on the other, about the thorny problem of righteous pagans. Dante was not the first to wrestle with the injustice of good men (women never came up) who were sentenced to hell for the mere crime of dying before Christ. Although he declined for the sake of dramatic pathos to save Virgil, he did save several other pagans, including the emperor Trajan. An old legend told how Pope Gregory the Great, by weeping over the just emperor’s damnation, secured the extraordinary favour of bringing him back to life long enough to convert and be saved – though God exacted a heavy toll by consigning the pope to ill health as long as he lived. In Piers Plowman, Langland gives the legend a different spin: his Trajan insists that ‘not the prayers of a pope’ but his ‘pure truth’ saved him, not surprisingly in a poem where faith without works is dead. More problematic is Trajan’s memorable opening line: ‘Ye, baw for bokes!’ Ambivalence about the value of learning shadows Langland’s whole sprawling enterprise, but Trajan makes an odd spokesman for untutored virtue. Not only does he go on to cite multiple books, including the Gospel: as Smith points out, he is also ‘the bibliophobic evil twin of the historical Trajan’, who built the greatest library in the Roman Empire. As late as the sixth century it was still used for public readings of the Aeneid.

Trajan’s legend inspired a uniquely English tale of the same type. In Saint Erkenwald, an alliterative poem that some have ascribed to the author of Pearl, the righteous pagan is a mysterious judge whose perfectly preserved body, clad in his robes of state, is discovered deep in the crypt of St Paul’s during building works. Erkenwald, a seventh-century bishop of London, emulates Pope Gregory’s miracle by awakening the judge and baptising him with his tears. Remarkably, his soul’s salvation is accomplished at the very moment his body crumbles into dust, as a death held in suspension for centuries is completed. But Smith concentrates on an earlier moment in the text. Like a medieval tomb, the judge’s crypt is embellished with ‘bright gold’ letters as inviolate as his body itself. Yet their language is dead beyond recall. Not a single cleric can decipher these ‘runish’ characters – an adjective that evokes the half-magical, pre-Roman script of England. The discovery of the corpse inspires a frantic search through the archives – a scene both poignant and comic – for it seems impossible that no record of such a distinguished man survives. But all is vain. In the late 14th century, when this poem was written, Erkenwald’s tomb stood behind the high altar of St Paul’s, visible from all sides. His vivid memory stands in sharp contrast to the judge’s obscurity, just as the failure of historical memory in the poem plays up the cathedral’s public role as its preserver, with its extensive records and historical inscriptions. More than a place of worship, a cathedral was the beating heart of the body politic, linking the past to present and future.

To reflect publicly on death was also to brood on what medieval writers called the translatio imperii et studii – the transfer of political power and cultural glory from one realm to another. Although that phrase could be used in triumphalist ways, it savours primarily of mourning: where now are the glories of Athens, of Augustan Rome, of Arthur, of Charlemagne? For much of Europe but especially Britain, the operative Old World was Troy, from which its eponymous founder Brutus had sailed long ago. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, another work by the Pearl poet, begins and ends with allusions to the Trojan War. Chaucer set his Troilus and Criseyde in the doomed city, and Lydgate memorialised Chaucer, as well as the distant past, in his massive Troy Book. Knowing Homer only through epitomes, the West followed Virgil in tracing its origins from the losing side. All its peoples sprang from exiles, its new polities arising in the wake of historical catastrophe. At a time when London was unofficially styled New Troy, Lydgate produced an astonishing meditation on death around what Smith calls the ‘exquisite corpse’ of Hector, alluding to the surrealist word game. Expanding on his Latin source (the 13th-century Guido delle Colonne), Lydgate describes the Trojans’ elaborate embalming of their dead hero. Seated like Jeremy Bentham in the middle of a temple, Hector’s corpse preserves a simulacrum of life because of a special ‘liquor’ made to flow continually through his body, using a system of artificial channels extending from a hole in his head down to a pool at his feet. Through this ‘subtylite’ his corpse appears not ‘horrible’ but ‘lifly’.

Smith is surely right to see this grotesque moment as a metonym. ‘The calamity of Hector’s death is like the calamity of the death of a language, or at least of a style’ – Chaucer’s. His reputation stood so high that his 15th-century followers, Hoccleve and Lydgate especially, represented his death at 57 as the death of Poetry itself, of all vernacular eloquence, unless they could preserve it, like Hector’s corpse, with the elixir of their own aureate style. Lydgate has often been accused of pastiche, but his project might be better understood as a kind of chantry chapel in verse, mingling eulogies and elegies for the dead poet with echoes of his style. Hoccleve too maintains that Death in slaying Chaucer did ‘harm irreparable’ to all England. Yet it has no power ‘his name [to] slee’ so long as ‘bookes of his ornat endytyng’ [composition] continue to illumine the land. Modern Chaucerians are often nonplussed to learn that what the next generation admired most was not his comedy, irony or generic range, but his ornate Latinate style. In gilding the vernacular lily still more, 15th-century Chaucerians came perilously close to killing it. Their efforts recall what C.S. Lewis (writing in Latin) once accused Renaissance humanists of doing: destroying Latin as a living language by smothering it in classical affectations, even as they boasted of its revival.

Mourning, in Freud’s formulation, becomes melancholia when its ‘work’ is thwarted and fails to reach closure. Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess offers a classic example. Its depressed protagonist, the Man in Black, transparently signifies the poet’s patron John of Gaunt, whose obsessive mourning for his wife, Blanche, threatened both his mental health and his public life. At the other end of the spectrum, Pearl at least arguably concludes the Dreamer’s work of mourning when he awakens, consoled yet chastened by his vision, and resigns himself to the will of God. But, in literature, closure is always textual as well as psychological. Ending a book is symbolically and sometimes literally coterminous with ending a life. Hence Smith is much concerned with ‘late style’. From that perspective it is instructive to look at closure, or the lack of it, across a writer’s corpus. Chaucer notoriously left many of his works, including the Canterbury Tales, unfinished, while Langland kept revising Piers Plowman as long as he lived. The Pearl poet, on the other hand, achieved elegant closure in Pearl and Sir Gawain with final stanzas that circle back to their opening lines, as well as tightly planned numerological schemes. In the 15th century, Lydgate, Hoccleve and John Audelay all expressed their anxiety about termination by compulsively repeating it, adding new codas to their ostensibly finished works as if just one more flourish would give their books the ‘good end’ the soul requires. Audelay, a blind chantry priest, imagined the text of The Three Dead Kings inscribed on the wall of a church, where it merges with his daily work of praying for souls. Maintaining a permanent memorial for the dead is an almsdeed by which the living can save their own souls.

Arts of Dying went to press in spring 2019 and appeared in April 2020, making it a prescient, disquieting book. Smith covers five hundred years of English literature, from Aelfric in the tenth century to Audelay in the 15th, and his philosophical range is wide, extending from medieval terminist logic and the Oxford Calculators to Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida and Blanchot. He is especially taken with Heidegger’s idea of Sorge, or care, as Sein zum Tode – being-towards-death. Such an orientation builds a bridge between the medieval preoccupation with ars moriendi, the craft of dying, and the existentialist conviction that authentic freedom comes only from living in the face of death. That seems fitting enough in a book that begins by recalling its author’s suicide attempt and explaining how he learned ‘that everything isn’t actually about despair’. Rightly understood, Heideggerian Sorge is not despair but a remedy for it – a kind of courageous, clear-eyed honesty. Humanists can take some additional comfort in recognising that Sorge is also close reading, or can at least grow out of it. Indeed, the ‘constant, scrutinising vigilance’ that we give our texts when we read them well ‘is precisely the kind of care with which one’s whole life must be scrutinised’.

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