Middle-English Poetry and Ecclesiastes: When Turf is Your Tower

There’s an old poem in old English that I have known for years, but I stumbled across it again today while paging through a book; the poem reminds me of a Ecclesiastes 2, and is called “When Turf is Your Tower” …i.e. “when the grass is above you.” It was written probably at the end of the 13th century from what I know, probably in Western England.

It’s only older English, but still needs a bit of translation. Here is my best effort.

When turf is your tower

and dirt is your bower (room)

Your skin and your throat,

worms will then note (which means ‘use’)

What helps you then?

Will all the world’s wenne? (bliss)

The original poem is below:

When the turuf is thy tour

And thy put it thy bour

Thy wel and thy white throte

Shulen wormed to note

What helpet thee thenne

All the worilde wenne?

[Note that the poem ends with the same word (sound) that it begins with…(When/wenne)]

Ecclesiastes 2 says,

I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me.

I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;

I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my labor,

and this was the reward for all my toil.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done

and what I had toiled to achieve,

everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;

nothing was gained under the sun.

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