Of youngsters haunting vice and ribaldry,
Riot and gambling, stews and public-houses
Where each with harp, guitar, or lute carouses,
Dancing and dicing day and night, and bold
To eat and drink far more than they can hold,
Doing thereby the devil sacrifice
Within that devil’s temple of cursed vice,
Abominable in superfluity,
With oaths so damnable in blasphemy
That it’s a grisly thing to hear them swear.
Our dear Lord’s body they will rend and tear. . . .
It’s of three rioters I have to tell
Who, long before the morning service bell,
Were sitting in a tavern for a drink.
And as they sat, they heard the hand-bell clink
Before a coffin going to the grave;
One of them called the little tavern-knave
And said “Go and find out at once—look spry!—
Whose corpse is in that coffin passing by;
And see you get the name correctly too.”
“Sir,” said the boy, “no need, I promise you;
Two hours before you came here I was told.
He was a friend of yours in days of old,
And suddenly, last night, the man was slain,
Upon his bench, face up, dead drunk again.
There came a privy thief, they call him Death,
Who kills us all round here, and in a breath
He speared him through the heart, he never stirred.
And then Death went his way without a word.
He’s killed a thousand in the present plague,
And, sir, it doesn’t do to be too vague
If you should meet him; you had best be wary.
Be on your guard with such an adversary,
Be primed to meet him everywhere you go,
That’s what my mother said. It’s all I know.”
The publican joined in with, “By St. Mary,
What the child says is right; you’d best be wary,
This very year he killed, in a large village
A mile away, man, woman, serf at tillage,
Page in the household, children—all there were.
Yes, I imagine that he lives round there.
It’s well to be prepared in these alarms,
He might do you dishonor.” “Huh, God’s arms!”
The rioter said, “Is he so fierce to meet?
I’ll search for him, by Jesus, street by street.
God’s blessed bones! I’ll register a vow!
Here, chaps! The three of us together now,
Hold up your hands, like me, and we’ll be brothers
In this affair, and each defend the others,
And we will kill this traitor Death, I say!
Away with him as he has made away
With all our friends. God’s dignity! Tonight!”
They made their bargain, swore with appetite,
These three, to live and die for one another
As brother-born might swear to his born brother.
And up they started in their drunken rage
And made towards this village which the page
And publican had spoken of before.
Many and grisly were the oaths they swore,
Tearing Christ’s blessed body to a shred;
“If we can only catch him, Death is dead!”
When they had gone not fully half a mile,
Just as they were about to cross a stile,
They came upon a very poor old man
Who humbly greeted them and thus began,
“God look to you, my lords, and give you quiet!”
To which the proudest of these men of riot
Gave back the answer, “What, old fool? Give place!
Why are you all wrapped up except your face?
Why live so long? Isn’t it time to die?”
The old, old fellow looked him in the eye
And said, “Because I never yet have found,
Though I have walked to India, searching round
Village and city on my pilgrimage,
One who would change his youth to have my age.
And so my age is mine and must be still
Upon me, for such time as God may will.
“Not even Death, alas, will take my life;
So, like a wretched prisoner at strife
Within himself, I walk alone and wait
About the earth, which is my mother’s gate,
Knock-knocking with my staff from night to noon
And crying, ‘Mother, open to me soon!
Look at me, mother, won’t you let me in?
See how I wither, flesh and blood and skin!
Alas! When will these bones be laid to rest?
Mother, I would exchange—for that were best—
The wardrobe in my chamber,...