Bede's Death Song: a Modern English Translation, Summary and
Analysis of the Old
English (Anglo-Saxon) Poem
Bede's "Death Song" is one of the best poems of the
fledgling English language now known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon English. Written circa 735 AD, the poem may have been composed by Bede on his
death-bed. It is the most-copied Old English poem, with 45 extant versions. The
poem is also known as "Bede's Lament." It was glossed by a 13th
century scribe known as the Tremulous Hand of Worchester because of the "shaky"
nature of his handwriting.
Was the celebrated scholar known and revered as the Venerable Bede also one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon poets?
The answer appears to be "yes," since Bede was
doctus in nostris carminibus ("learned in our song") according to his most
famous disciple, Saint Cuthbert. Cuthbert's letter on Bede's death, the Epistola
Cuthberti de obitu Bedae, is commonly taken by modern
scholars to indicate that Bede composed the five-line vernacular
Anglo-Saxon poem known as "Bede’s Death Song" (my modern English
translation appears below). However, there is no way to be certain that Bede was
the poem's original author.
Bede's Death Song
a modern English
Michael R. Burch
Facing Death, that inescapable journey,
who can be wiser than he
who reflects, while breath yet remains,
on whether his life brought others happiness, or pains,
since his soul may yet win delight's
or night's way
after his death-day.
The original Anglo-Saxon (Old English) text:
Fore ðæm nedfere nænig wiorðe
ðonc snottora ðon him ðearf siæ
to ymbhycgenne ær his hinionge
hwæt his gastæ godes oððe yfles
æfter deað dæge doemed wiorðe.
Bede (673–735) is known today as Saint Bede, Good Bede and Venerable Bede (Latin: Beda Venerabilis).
One may thus conclude that he was held in extremely high regard by his peers. The name Bede may be related to the Anglo-Saxon word for prayer, bēd. Bede was a
English Benedictine monk of the Northumbrian monastery of Saint
Peter at Monkwearmouth and of its companion monastery
Saint Paul's in Wearmouth-Jarrow. Both monasteries were at the time part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. Bede,
a distinguished scholar, had access to a library which included works by
Eusebius and Orosius, among others. His most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical
History of the English People), has resulted in Bede being called "the Father of English
History." Bede has also been called the "Father of the footnote" because he was
"the first author in any language to rigorously trace his sources, and as a
result he set a precedent of scholarly accuracy for writers across the range of
disciplines." He was also a skilled linguist and translator whose
Latin and Greek writings contributed significantly
to early English Christianity.
Bede is now revered as a saint in certain circles:
"Because, saith he,
thou art a saint, Good Bede,
pray for me ..."
Bede was declared Venerable in 836 and was canonized (declared a saint) in 1899.
He was named a "Doctor of the Church" by Pope Leo XIII because of his work and
piety. Bede is considered to be the patron saint of scholars and historians.
Bede died on Thursday, 26 May 735 (Ascension Day) and was buried at Jarrow.
Cuthbert described Bede's death as follows: "Being well-versed in our native songs, he described to us the dread
departure of the soul from the body by a verse in our own tongue, which
translated means: 'Before setting forth on that inevitable journey, none is
wiser than the man who considers—before his soul departs hence—what good
or evil he has done, and what judgement his soul will receive after its
passing.'" (A History of the English Church and People, translated by Leo Shirley-Price,
Penguin Books, 1955)
Bede also helped establish the foundations of
medieval astronomy and chronology; he is primarily responsible for popularizing
the western BC/AD dating system. George Sarton called the eighth century
"The Age of Bede" because Bede was such an important scientific figure. He wrote major
scientific works such as On the Nature of Things, On Time (which
provided an introduction to the principles of calendars) and On the
Reckoning of Time (which "became the cornerstone of clerical scientific
education during the ninth century"). He also wrote a treatise on grammar and
figures of speech.
"Caedmon's Hymn," the oldest complete poem in the English language, was recorded
by Bede in a Latin translation. You can read the original poem, its history and
a modern English translation by clicking
If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please
feel free to investigate
English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.
The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch. "Wulf and
Eadwacer" may be the oldest extant poem in the English language written by a
female poet. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a modern translation of a truly great
poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar. "How Long the Night" is one of
the very best Anglo Saxon lyric poems.
The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I
Love You" has been translated into English by Michael R. Burch.
Whoso List to Hunt
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Rainer Maria Rilke
Ono no Komachi
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch