Poem of the Day: ‘Timor Mortis Conturbat Me’

The Middle Ages produced songs whose lines shifted effortlessly between the vernacular and Latin, almost as if the two were not separate languages at all, but one.

Via Wikimedia Commons
A 19th-century depiction of a graveyard in winter. Via Wikimedia Commons

The refrain of today’s Poem of the Day, “Timor Mortis Conturbat Me,” derives from the Office of the Dead, part of the ancient Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, with its psalms and canticles, its antiphons and responses. This phrase, timor mortis conturbat me, occurs as part of a responsory in the late-night hour of Matins: Peccantem me quotidie, et non poenitentem, timor mortis conturbat me. Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio, miserere mei, Deus, et salva me: “Sinning daily, and not repenting, the fear of death disturbs me. Because there is no redemption in Hell, have mercy on me, O God, and save me.”

It’s a phrase which, in Latin, would have been familiar to any medieval European. Across Europe, the language of the Church — at least the bits and pieces which offered themselves to the general public daily in the Mass and in forms of corporate prayer — coexisted with whatever the vernacular happened to be in a given place, as a parallel mother tongue. From this coexistence of languages bubbled up a medieval folk-song form: the macaronic song.

“Macaronic” here simply refers to a blending of languages, and the Middle Ages produced songs whose lines shifted effortlessly between the vernacular and Latin, almost as if the two were not separate languages at all, but one. The most enduringly famous of these songs is the medieval carol, “In Dulci Jubilo,” which originated in Germany but whose English version remains a favorite of choirs at Christmastime.

There were many such songs and poems — popular song and poetry, not of the court or the university, but of the street. The term “macaronic,” in fact, which was coined fairly late in the game, sometime near the end of the fifteenth century, refers jeeringly to peasant food: dumplings whose ingredients are coarsely mixed together.

Mystery plays incorporated speeches and songs in macaronic verse. Political songs ping-ponged jokily between languages. And in England and Scotland, around the time that the term “macaronic” came into use, an entire corpus of poetry and song sprang up around the phrase which today’s poem repeats: Timor mortis conturbat me, or, The fear of death disturbs me

Poems within this tradition vary widely, but the general idea is that the speaker, whom the fear of death disturbs, comforts himself by contemplating great people who have already died. If everyone’s doing it, the idea goes, maybe it’s not so bad. Even relatively recent poems have conversed with the Timor Mortis tradition.

A 1966 poem, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” by the American poet Kenneth Rexroth (1905–1982), names first all the famous saints and martyrs, Stephen, Lawrence, Sebastian, and so on, before moving on to the names of famous dead poets, to assert its objection not to death, necessarily, but to killing. The point of that poem is that death is bad, especially when visited on people by violence and war. One ought to be disturbed by the fear of it. 

In the Middle Ages, however, the Timor Mortis poem most often took the form of a sermon on the brevity of life and the necessity of living it well, in order to die well. In today’s poem, dating from the 15th century, the speaker is a young soldier, “a musket both fair and gent,” who goes forth knowing that he will die, possibly soon, though he can’t know when or where.

He encounters a bird singing the same refrain, Timor mortis conturbat me, that his own heart has rehearsed and rejected. “From dread of death I am all shent,” meaning put to shame — and why? Because, as the soldier has reminded himself, even Jesus himself has been afraid to die, yet has triumphed. So, he concludes, shall the Christian who lives rightly, fearing only fear itself, also triumph.

Timor Mortis Conturbat Me
by Anonymous

In what estate soever I be,
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

As I went on a merry morning,
I heard a bird both weep and sing,
This was the tenor of her talking:
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

I asked that bird what she meant.
I am a musket both fair and gent;
For dread of death I am all shent:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

When I shall die I know no day;
What country or place I cannot say;
Wherefore this song sing I may:
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

Jesus Christ, when He would die,
To His Father He gan say,
Father, He said, in Trinity,
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

All Christian people, behold and see:
This world is but a vanity
And replete with necessity.
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

Wake I or sleep, eate or drink,
When I on my last end do think,
For greate fear my soul do shrink,
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

God grant us grace Him for to serve,
And be at our end when we sterve,
And from the fiend He us preserve,
    Timor mortis conturbat me. 

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

The New York Sun

© 2023 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use