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The Poetic Art of Death and Life.

The Poetic Art of Death and Life.

The often exaggerated degree of corruption of the unique, seventeenth-century manuscript of Death and Life has resulted in scholarly neglect of the poem’s artfulness. Explores in detail how the poet achieves an organic relevance of the abstractions personified in the total structure of the poem by skillfully exploiting the motifs of the dream vision, May scene, and debate, and by literalizing pivotal metaphors -e.g., the imagery of holes (as wounds in Christ’s heart that release Everlasting Life, who chases Death into hell’s hole at the Harrowing), and bowing (fatal bows to Death, as opposed to the bows to Life that are a prelude to ascent into eternal life, modeled on Christ’s descent and triumphal ascent). Argues that Lady Life alters over the course of the poem to suggest both the natural world and eternal salvation, just as the dreamer’s life continues until death, but may then pass into eternity. The three-fold pattern of life, death, afterlife is enacted in the literal sequence of events and in the debate itself, which moves from life to the pivotal moment of Death’s outrageous boast to have conquered Christ, then to the true account of Christ’s victory. Structurally, the 458-line poem is divided by three moments or pauses (lines 115, 228, 345) where Death seems impotent and Life ascendant. The controlling image of the Crucifixion, as translated into a structural device of the cross, appears to be reflected in the poem’s design, with the horizontal opposition of the contrasting abstractions intersected by a vertical movement created by Life’s cry upward, Countenance’s descent, the Harrowing of Hell, and the ascent to heaven. Identifies a group of poems composed of Death and Life, the Four Leaves of the Truelove, Summer Sunday, and De tribus regibus mortuis, which feature a prologue in which an adventure is narrated in the first person, an expansion of the prologue to demonstrate the moral enacted in the ensuing adventure, a theme relating to death or transience, and an adventure that dramatizes a theme by means of progression through time.


YLS 2 (1988): 103-23.


Fein, Susanna.