Parliament of the three ages

There is a lovely alliterative late mediaeval poem in what seems the north Midlands or south Yorkshire tongue: a dream-sequence debate between brave striding Youth and glumly self-serving Middle Age, conducted in a wood, among the streaking shafts of a brilliant May morning. Youth seems to be winning, by Oxford Union rules; until the two speakers are brought short by the intrusion of Old Age. He comes as a death’s head on the both of them. The dreamer wakes, to a homily, in which (of course) we hear:

Vanitas vanitatum & omnia vanitas.
That all vayn & vanytes & vanyte is. …

And gentle auditor (not reader, for the poem was meant to be recited and performed) is left with his instruction:

Ite ostendite vos sacerdotibus.
Go shryve you full stilly & shew yow to prestes.

But that was hardly all. For in the meanwhile we were shewn the Nine Worthies, or we to them; and were touched by the breath of that distant spring — by waggynge of leues, by the mud that dagged the coat of a spaniel, by the buzzing gnats — the glory of this world, and the sweat of our labour. All to one end, at the moment of waking, in the final disclosure of Old Age:

Dethe dynges one my dore, I dare no lengare byde.

The very Catholic Shakespeare, too, came up with such a line, to conclude his song upon “Crabbed Age & Youth”:

Age, I do abhor thee; youth I do adore thee!
O my love! my love is young;
Age I do defy thee: O! sweet shepherd hie thee,
For methinks thou stay’st too long.

Where, in six words of the minstrel, the vision of youth withers.

This is what, I suppose, makes Christianity so grim, to those who are trying to avoid it; or actually to suppress it, as we do these days. There is that death’s head within the Church: the unpretty aspect of the Crucifixion, that needs to be put out of thought and mind, as we troll for fresher scapegoats. Rather, the glib apologists today, as all the happy-faced before them, wish to strip the Corpus from the Cross; to make it, as they say, “the Cross of the Resurrection,” and skip the painful bits. For a mangled body is in such poor taste — the blood might drip on your shoes.

In the olden time, before the Reformation, they never skipped that bit. Instead they kneeled before it, and repeated: “This is my blood.”

Nor made old age attractive, as did not the skilled composer of The Parlement of the Thre Ages, whoever he was. (One version, here.) He would have understood, perfectly I think, what I can only half understand, through what I have seen in the nursing homes — where our own unwanted old are tucked away, and boxed in unvisited despairs, till some cry out for the terminal syringe. Dethe will take each of them, in his turn, whether it should be by nature or by murder; and their children, too, all will come to dying in their course.

I am in the peculiar position of often liking mediaeval verse better than its editors do. I am struck by how often the scholars apologize for their texts, as if the age of the manuscript was its only excuse; how often they seem not to hear the music, nor enter into the imagery — which rises from a silence, not a background noise. Instead, they enumerate the “symbols” from an academic checklist.

Life itself is more vivid to those, who apprehend the transient, chastely; who know to the bones within their fingertips that all the “useless beauty” of this world shall pass; shall be destroyed, and irretrievably lost. And that it must be; must be felt and seen, in the beauty beneath the ineffaceable stillness.