During the restoration and rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral in London late in the seventh century AD, a sumptuously dressed corpse bearing a crown and sceptre is unearthed in the bowels of the church; the body and clothes untouched by decay despite being undisturbed for as long as living memory knows. The Bishop of London, Erkenwald, is called back from his travels to investigate. By the force of prayer, the dead body is encouraged to speak and tell its story – a life of goodness and justice as a travelling judge in the years before Christ, and now eternity in Limbo, unable to reach Heaven unbaptised. The tears of Erkenwald fall on the face of the corpse, and Erkenwald baptises the soul, which can now move upwards, and the body disintegrates.
This short poem was included in the Penguin Classics book featuring The Owl and the Nightingale, translated by Brian Stone, which I started reading last year.
A novel story and an enjoyable read in medieval alliterative verse, telling of three miracles : the body uncorrupted by the turn of centuries, the dead speaking, and the tears of St. Erkenwald releasing the soul. And yet the meaning as well, a powerful and good man, highly praised in life by all, buried with riches and stateliness, but his soul remained trapped in Limbo until it could be freed by a single tear and the words of baptism could set it free to join in the eternal banquet of Heaven.
“as the words went forth, from his watering eyes
the tears trickled down and touched the tomb.
One fell on the face and the fair body sighed
Then said most solemnly “Our Saviour be praised” ….
“For the sentence you spoke, and the sprinkling of water,
the bright brook of your tears brought about my baptism….
“For with the words and the water that wash away pain
A gleaming light flashed low in the abyss
So that my spirit sprang swiftly with unstinted joy
To the feast where all faithful feed in fine solemnity” page 42
Unlike some other medieval poetry, the alliterative wording in this translation does not feel forced or artificial, in some cases barely impinging on my reading or story telling.
Personal rating: 7/10
Other reading: Here I should confess some failures and perhaps admit a change of direction. In recent weeks I have started and dropped two more classic works, The Tale of Heike (Japanese) and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Chinese). Both are epics which I just could not get any traction with, the latter being over 1200 pages. They also contain hundreds of characters of which I had a lot of difficulty keeping track. I also recognize my own bias towards English literature and impatience to move forward in that arena. This is not to say these were not worthy reads, simply that right now, they are not tempting me to persevere with them.