(1557) This short poem is a translation from Seneca's Thyestes (lines 391-403). Like some of Sir Thomas Wyatt's other political laments, it is a declaration that life at the centers of political power—here described as "the slipper top / Of court's estates" (ll. 1-2)—is far too uncertain. Its joys are "brackish" (l. 4), meaning that even at its best, the courtly life offers pleasures that only partially mitigate the dangers. Indeed, to ingest them may be poisonous. Instead, says the speaker, he wishes to live apart, in quiet and peace, and to die an old man in relative anonymity. The alternative is to live always in the grip of death (l. 8), meeting an unwelcome and unforseen end (l. 10). The final line of the poem uses alliteration ("Doth die," "dazed," "dreadful") to emphasize the frightening picture. The manners of the two deaths (lines 6-7 and 10, respectively), when compared, make the point most dramatically: Better to die old, happy, and anonymous than young and (implicitly) an easy target.
As is the case with so many of Wyatt's poems, an autobiographical reading is hard to avoid. His career at the court of Henry VIII was fraught with danger and conflict. This also shows how important the work of translation was in the new poetics Wyatt introduced into England. It is of a piece with several of Wyatt's other poems that also express mistrust of the court and its values, particularly "Who List His Wealth and Ease Retain," and the epistolary satires including "Mine Own John Poins."
See also court culture.
Muir, Kenneth. Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1963. Rebholz, R. A., ed. Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems. New Haven, and Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1978.
STANZA From the Italian for "room" or "stopping place," a stanza is a group of verse lines, usually set off in print by space between the stanzas. The structure of any given stanza is determined by its rhyme scheme, meter, and/or number of lines; poems will generally maintain the same stanza structure throughout. Standard English stanza forms include the couplet (two lines ending in the same rhyme), heroic couplet (iambic pentameter meter, same rhyme), tercet (three lines with the same rhyme), quatrain (four lines), ballad (a quatrain with an abab or abcb rhyme), heroic quatrain (iambic pentameter, abab), rhyme royal (iambic pentameter, ababbcc), and Spenserian (based on The Faerie Queene, eight lines of iambic pentameter plus one of iambic hexameter). Sir Thomas Wyatt is credited with introducing several Italian stanzaic forms, such as terza rima and ottava rima, into English practice. Stanza is often used interchangeably with strophe.
Addison, Catherine. "Little Boxes: The Effects of the Stanza on Poetic Narrative." Style 37, no. 2 (2003): 124-143. Solopova, Elizabeth. "Layout, Punctuation, and Stanza Patterns in the English Verse." In Studies in the Harley Manuscript: The Scribes, Contents, and Social Contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253, edited by Susanna Fein, 377-389. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, 2000.
Carol E. Harding st. erkenwald Anonymous (1380-1420)
This 352-line poem relates the discovery of a rosy-cheeked, fresh-faced, talking corpse buried in the foundation of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The poem begins with a brief account of how all the ancient heathen temples of London were destroyed and then rebuilt as early Christian churches under the direction of Augustine of Canterbury in the late sixth century. After this short history, the poem jumps forward in time by 100 years. The bishop of London, Saint Erken-wald, is continuing the work of his predecessor and has ordered a foundation dug for St. Paul's Cathedral. The workers dig so deep that they unearth an elaborately carved, marble sarcophagus, ringed by illegible, gilded, runic letters. Word of the discovery quickly spreads, and Londoners gather around the workmen as they pry the lid off the casket. Inside they find the perfectly preserved body of man who is dressed like a king, wearing a crown, and holding a scepter. No record is found of his rule, however, and the city buzzes with speculation about just who the unusual stranger might have been while he was alive. London's bishop, Erkenwald, is visiting an abbey in a neighboring town as these events unfold, but as soon as he hears what is going on, he immediately returns to London on horseback.
Erkenwald does not go straight to see the body when he arrives in the city, however. He shuts himself in a room in his palace instead and spends the night weeping and praying for guidance. The Holy Spirit responds to his pleas, and Erkenwald, dressed in his priestly robes, sings High Mass as dawn breaks. Only after he has finished leading mass does Erkenwald approach the tomb. One of the other church officials explains that even after seven days of scouring the city records, they are still not able to identify the man lying before them. The church official marvels at how such an obviously important figure could slip so completely out of public memory. Bishop Erkenwald reminds him that what men find remarkable pales in comparison to the wonders of Christ; then he turns his attention to the tomb. He lifts up the corpse's eyelids and commands him, in the name of Christ, to identify himself. The body begins to speak, saying it must obey the will of God. The dead man explains that he is neither a king nor a noble, but a judge. He says he was always even-handed in the administration of the law and that his temperance healed a bitter feud between the king of his time and the king's brother. When the judge died, the people of the city expressed their gratitude by burying him with a crown, robe, and scepter.
Bishop Erkenwald then presses him for details about his perfectly preserved body and clothes. He wonders aloud if the man has been embalmed, but the talking corpse explains that God alone is responsible for his uncorrupted state. Erkenwald then asks about the man's soul. The body groans and concedes that despite his unusual postmortem appearance, his soul suffers in Hell. Although God allowed the man's body and clothes to sustain a perfected material state because of his righteousness in life, the judge lived before Christ and so was denied baptism and final salvation after death. Erkenwald is moved to tears by the man's plight and prays aloud, wishing God would provide an opportunity for him to baptize the "virtuous heathen." As the bishop bows over the body in sympathy, a tear falls on the dead man's face. Suddenly the body sighs with happiness and explains that the prayer and tears have baptized him as a Christian and that his soul has just ascended to Heaven. The body has just enough time to thank and bless Erkenwald before his corpse blackens and crumbles to dust. The assembled give thanks to God, and the poem ends with the local church bells all ringing in harmony.
St. Erkenwald does not fit into a single stylistic category. The story is too focused on a single event to fully function as a hagiography, but it does mimic the genre. The poem also displays many of the attributes of a legend. The author probably drew his inspiration from assorted versions of the Trajan legend, some of which date from as far back as the eighth century. These tales all recount the same basic story, in which the soul of the just, non-Christian Roman emperor Trajan is saved after death by the prayers of Pope Gregory the Great. The Trajan story gained popularity in the 14th century, and versions from this period are most famously present in the works of Dante Alighieri and William Langland.
St. Erkenwald is written in alliterative verse. This poetic form is characteristic of works that belong to the alliterative revival movement of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. St. Erkenwald is composed in a dialect common to the Northwest Midlands at a time when the alliterative verse form was closely identified with this area. The dialect in which the poem is written has fueled speculation about the identity of its unknown author. one significant theory names the Gawain-poet as the author of St. Erkenwald. Based on marginal notations (glosses), anagrams, and acrostics in some of the poems that appear to spell out a surname, some critics have attempted to attribute authorship of all five poems to a poet whose last name was some variation of "Massey." However, this attribution has never been conclusively proven. other theories attempt to link the poet to the court of Richard II or infer clerical training.
The poem's meaning is also contested. Some critics read St. Erkenwald as an affirmation of the necessity of ecclesiastical intercession in personal salvation. Even though the non-Christian judge was extraordinarily virtuous while he was alive, he lived before Christ and so was never baptized as a Christian. The righteous actions of the dead man while he was alive on earth prove insufficient to save him from the damnation of Hell after death. Bishop Erkenwald represents the power and authority of the church, and it is his tear that ultimately baptizes the body and saves the man's soul. Thus, Erkenwald (representing the Catholic Church) is the poem's central protagonist. other critics however, deemphasize the role of the bishop and focus on the good works of the judge. They suggest that he is largely responsible for his own salvation, since his just actions are directly responsible for his miraculous preservation. Despite the difference in critical opinion, most agree that St. Erkenwald is admirable for its dramatic narration. See also alliteration.
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