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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 early 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.

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 "Bedes Death Song" (my modern English translation appears below). However, there is no way to be absolutely certain that Bede was the poem's original author.

Bede's Death Song

a modern English translation by 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 m nedfere nnig wiore
onc snottora on him earf si
to ymbhycgenne r his hinionge
hwt his gast godes oe yfles
fter dea dge doemed wiore.

Bede (673735) 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 here: Caedmon's Hymn.

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.

Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Sappho
Mikls Radnti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Rene Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa
Robert Burns
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel

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