Sunday, April 02, 2006

"What is he, this lordling, that cometh in from the fight"

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
(Image from Wikipedia)

Last week in my history of British literature course, I called my students' attention to William Herebert's poem What is he, this lordling, that cometh in from the fight (Quis est iste qui uenit de Edom? Poem 16 in manuscript) because I wanted to illustrate how Medieval Christians in England combined the figure of Christ with the heroic code.

The Anglo-Saxons of the early Middle Ages had expected a heroic Christ, and they got one in such works as The Dream of the Rood, (i.e., "The Vision of the Cross"), which presents Christ as a warrior who fights a battle during his crucifixion. The Dream of the Rood is found in a 10-century manuscript of Old English poems and sermons that popped up in Vercelli, Italy (of all places!). Some passages from The Dream of the Rood are found etched onto the 8th-century Ruthwell Cross, which can today be seen in Dumfries, Scotland.

The Franciscan William Herebert, who died ca. 1333, wrote his Middle English poem What is he, this lordling, that cometh in from the fight at least 300 and perhaps 500 or more years after The Dream of the Rood had been composed, but the intention is the same, to present Christ as a heroic warrior. According to volume one from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (7th edition, 2000):

In his [Herebert's] dramatic lyric printed here, the main speaker is the Christ-knight, returning from the Crucifixion, which is treated as a battle the way it is in Dream of the Rood and in Passus 18 of Piers Plowman. Christ in his bloodstained garments is compared in a famous image from Isaiah 63.2 to one who treads grapes in a winepress. (350)
Although Herebert would have been using Isaiah 63 from the Latin Vulgate, which he adapted to Middle English, we can turn to the Douay Rheims Bible, a Catholic translation from 1582, to see how later Catholics rendered the dialogue in Isaiah 63.1-7 between God, who is returning from battle, and one who queries him about his blood-stained robe (so be alert to change of speakers):
"Who is this that cometh from Edom,
with dyed garments from Bosra,
this beautiful one in his robe,
walking in the greatness of his strength."

"I, that speak justice,
and am a defender to save."

"Why then is thy apparel red,
and thy garments like theirs that tread in the winepress?"

"I have trodden the winepress alone,
and of the Gentiles there is not a man with me:
I have trampled on them in my indignation, and have trodden them down in my wrath,
and their blood is sprinkled upon my garments,
and I have stained all my apparel.
For the day of vengeance is in my heart,
the year of my redemption is come.
I looked about, and there was none to help:
I sought, and there was none to give aid:
and my own arm hath saved for me,
and my indignation itself hath helped me.
And I have trodden down the people in my wrath,
and have made them drunk in my indignation, and have brought down their strength to the earth."

"I will remember the tender mercies of the Lord,
the praise of the Lord for all the things that the Lord hath bestowed upon us...."
I don't specifically recall if Jewish commentary on this passage interprets it in messianic terms, but Christians certainly did. Here, from pages 352-353 of the Norton Anthology, is Herebert's messianic version of Isaiah 63.1-7 (and again be alert to change of speakers):
What is he, this lordling, that cometh in from the fight
With blood-rede wede so grislich ydight,
So faire ycointised, so semelich in sight,
So stiflich he gangeth, so doughty a knight?"

"Ich it am, ich it am, that ne speke but right,
Champioun to helen mankinde in fight."

"Why then is thy shroud rede, with blood al ymeind,
As troddares in wringe with must al bespreind?"

"The wring ich have ytrodded al myself one
And of al mankinde was none other wone.
Ich hem have ytrodded in wrathe and in grame,
And al my wede is bespreined with here blood ysame,
And al my robe yfouled to here grete shame.
The day of th'ilke wreche liveth in my thought;
The yeer of medes yelding ne foryet ich nought.
Ich looked al aboute some helping mon;
Ich soughte al the route, but help nas ther non.
It was mine owne strengthe that this bote wrought,
Mine owne doughtinesse that help ther me brought.
Ich have ytrodded the folk in wrathe and in grame,
Adreint al with shennesse, ydrawe down with shame."

"On Godes milsfulnesse ich wil bethenche me,
And herien him in alle thing that he yeldeth me."
Here's my rough translation, albeit helped by the Norton Anthology's footnotes:
"Who is he, this prince, who comes from the fight
With blood-red garment so terribly arrayed,
So beautifully appareled, so fair to behold,
So boldly he goes, so valiant a knight?"

"I am he, I am he, who speaks only what is right"
Champion to save mankind in battle."

"Why then is thy shroud red, with blood all stained
Like treaders in a winepress, with juice bespattered?"

"The winepress I have trodden all myself alone
And for all mankind there was no other hope.
I have trodden them in wrath and anger,
And all my garment is bespattered with their blood together,
And all my robe soiled to their great shame.
The day of that same vengeance lives in my thought;
The year of paying wages, I never forget at all.
I looked all around for some man to help (me);
I searched all the crowd, but help there was none.
It was my own strength that worked this remedy,
My own valor that brought me help there.
I have trodden the folk in wrath and anger,
All drowned with ignominy, drawn down with shame."

"On God's mercy I will bethink myself
And praise him in every thing that he gives me."
Although this is identified by Norton as a Crucifixion poem, the line "The day of th'ilke wreche" (i.e., "The day of that same vengeance") receives a footnote in Norton that suggests "perhaps Judgment Day."

I think that this footnote is correct. While the poem may be linking the crucified Christ with the endtimes Christ of Judgement Day, the blood described in the poem is the blood not of Christ but of those whom he has trodden down in anger and wrath. Look at Revelation 19.11-16 (and let's stick to the Douay Rheims Bible):
And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called faithful and true, and with justice doth he judge and fight.

And his eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many diadems, and he had a name written, which no man knoweth but himself.

And he was clothed with a garment sprinkled with blood; and his name is called, the Word of God.

And the armies that are in heaven followed him on white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.

And out of his mouth proceedeth a sharp two edged sword; that with it he may strike the nations. And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness of the wrath of God the Almighty.

And he hath on his garment, and on his thigh written: King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
Note the line from Revelation 19.13: "And he was clothed with a garment sprinkled with blood." This line seems to link Revelation 19.11-16 with Isaiah 63.1-7, especially with 63.3. If I recall correctly, my New Testament professor Otto Betz pointed this out to me when I was doing research in Tübingen, Germany back in the early nineties. Interestingly, Betz also made a symbolic connection between the blood-stained garment of Revelation 19.13 and the crucifixion blood of Jesus in the gospel passion stories, but I should check my Bible commentaries when I have more time ... and also try to find out why literary critics have interpreted Herebert's poem as a crucifixion poem.

Incidentally, the messianic figure mounted on a white horse in Revelation 19.11-16 is not one of Dürer's four apocalyptic horsemen.

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