Thursday, March 06, 2014


The Doorless House

Yesterday, on Ash Wednesday, Eric Thomson sent me an email quoting lines 1-14 of "The Grave," from MS Bodley 343, f. 170a, followed by a translation into modern English:
Ðe wes bold gebyld,    er þu iboren were,
ðe wes molde imynt,    er ðu of moder come.
Ac hit nes no idiht,    ne þeo deopnes imeten,
nes ȝyt iloced,    hu long hit þe were.
Nu me þe bringæð,    þer ðu beon scealt,        5
nu me sceæl þe meten    and þa molde seoðða.
Ne bið no þin hus    healice itinbred;
hit bið unheh and lah,    þonne þu list þerinne:
ðe helewaȝes beoð laȝe,    sid-wages unheȝe,
þe rof bið ibyld    þire broste ful neh        10
swa þu scealt on molde    wunien ful calde.
Dimme and deorcæ.    Þet den fulæt on honde
dureleas is þet hus    and dearc hit is wiðinnen.
eðær þu bist feste bidytt    and dæð hefð þa cæȝe.

An abode was built for you before you were born; the soil was dug for you before you came out of your mother. But it was not prepared, nor was the depth measured, nor was it established yet how long it may be for you. Now you are brought where you must be, now you must be measured and then the soil. Now your house is not built high; it is short and low when you lie in it: the end-walls are low, the side-walls not high, the roof is built very near to your breast so that you will remain in the earth very cold. Dim and dark, the den will quickly become foul. Doorless is the house and it is dark inside, where you are shut fast and death has the key.
The translation of lines 7-14 is similar to that by Seth Lerer in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 26.

Here is another version of lines 1-14, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882):
For thee was a house built
Ere thou wast born,
For thee was a mould meant
Ere thou of mother camest.
But it is not made ready,
Nor its depth measured,
Nor is it seen
How long it shall be.
Now I bring thee
Where thou shall be;
Now I shall measure thee,
And the mould afterwards.

Thy house is not
Highly timbered,
It is unhigh and low;
When thou art therein,
The heel-ways are low,
The sideways unhigh.
The roof is built
Thy breast full nigh,
So thou shalt in mould
Dwell full cold,
Dimly and dark.

Doorless is that house,
And dark it is within;
There thou art fast detained
And Death hath the key.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) uses the same image of a doorless house in this quatrain:
Doom is the House without the Door —
'Tis entered from the Sun —
And then the Ladder's thrown away,
Because Escape — is done —

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