Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Geoffrey Chaucer, Knight’s Tale, 1387 - 1400 EST.

 Translated from Middle English.

Death of Arcite

Death of Arcite

Theseus rides with two knights to the lists and
takes his place with Ypolita and Emelye. Arcite enters from the
West gate,20under the temple of Mars. At the same moment Palamoun
enters from the east, under the temple of Venus, The two sides
are evenly matched. The cry goes up “Do now your duty, proud
young knights!”

The melee begins with a general charge; spears are
shattered, swords hammer on helms, blood flows, and maces smash
bones. Horses stumble; one knight falls under the hoofs of the horses,
another tries to defend himself with a broken spear, others are
hurt and taken to the stake. They fight all day, with Theseus
ordering breaks for rest. Palamoun and Arcite duel fiercely; their
blood flows freely.

All things must end. Finally Palamoun, wounded by
Emetreus, is dragged down by twenty men and forced to the stake.
When Theseus sees this, he orders the fighting to stop.

In the heavens Venus weeps so much at this frustration
of her will that her tears fall in the lists. Saturn reassures her;
Mars had had his will; now you shall soon be eased.

The trumpets blow and Arcite removes his helmet and rides
through the field, looking for Emelye; and she looks upon him with a
friendly eye (for women follow the favor of Fortune). Suddenly, a
fury sent from hell by Saturn, rises up. Arcite’s horse rears up,
catching him unaware, and he falls violently forward on the pommel
of his saddle; he falls from his horse, his breast-bone broken, blood
running in his face. He is carried out of the lists and cut out
of his armor; he is still conscious, calling for Emelye.

Theseus returns to the city; men say that Arcite will recover and all look to their own wounds. Theseus comforts them all, and no one can call Palamoun’s misadventure cowardly, since he was one man alone captured by so many. Theseus declares both sides have won, and he gives all gifts, holds a feast for three days, and accompanies each departing guest out of town.  Arcite’s breast swells, increasing the pain at his heart. The clotted blood left in his chest corrupts and no medical attention can help. His body cannot expel the poison; the lungs swell, and every muscle is infected. Nei ther vomiting nor laxative can help; everything is broken; Arcite must die.

He sends for Emelye and Palamoun. He says to Emelye
that though he cannot declare all his sorrows to her, he bequeaths
her the service of his spirit. Alas, the sorrows that he feels for
her. He asks her to take him in her arms and tells her that though
he has had strife with Palamoun, there is no one so worthy to be
loved as Palamoun, who loves Emelye. If ever you should be a wife,
Arcite tells her, forget not Palamoun. With that word his speech
fails; the cold begins to grip him and his heart begins to fail.
His last words were “Mercy, Emelye.” His spirit left to go I know
not where.

Emelye shrieks, Palamoun howls, and Theseus carries away the
swooning Emelye. All of Thebes mourns for Arcite. No one  could cheer up Theseus except his old father Egeus, who knew the inevitable changes of the world. He tells Theseus that just as no one has ever died who did not live, so no one lives who will
not die. We are but pilgrims passing through this world.











Adrienne Nater, 2008

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