Poem of the Week #6 – Though ye suppose all jeopardies are past by John Skelton (1460-1529)

Detail from La danse macabre in the Abbey de La Chaise-Dieu (15th century)
The poem is preceded by the author’s Latin translation (or perhaps the Latin came first and then the English, who knows?), which reads as follows:

Cuncta licet cecidisse putas discrimina rerum,
     Et prius incerta nunc tibi certa manent,
Consiliis usure meis tamen aspice caute,
     Subdola non fallat te dea fraude sua :
Sæpe solet placido mortales fallere vultu,
     Et cute sub placida tabida sæpe dolent ;
Ut quando secura putas et cuncta serena,
     Anguis sub viridi gramine sæpe latet.

Whereas Skelton knew Latin poetry was all too noble for the vulgarity of rhyme, the transfer into his own vernacular accomodated it, and to good effect, for this is a little jewel of a poem, musical as well as profound in in its pathos.

For a man living in 15th century Europe one would have constantly been reminded of death and the fragility of fortune. Though we in our comfort take both life and our needs for granted it can be quite healthy to assume in our minds the gravity of poems such as these, not least because we are ourselves staring into the maw of certain global, potentially cataclysmic, disasters ahead. For all our knowledge and advancement, we are hardly less less likely to be burying our heads in the sand.

I have updated the spelling of the poem but otherwise left the antiquated words be. “Fell” means “skin”. “Lizard” here means “serpent”. That’s about all you need to know for this poem written during the very naissance of the language we speak today. It still reads fantastically easy.

Though ye suppose all jeopardies are past – John Skelton (1460-1529)

Though ye suppose all jeopardies are past,
     And all is done that ye lookéd for before,
Ware yet, I rede you, of Fortune’s double cast,
     For one false point she is wont to keep in store,
     And under the fell oft festered is the sore :
That when ye think all danger for to pass,
Ware of the lizard lieth lurking in the grass.

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