Lübeck's Dance of Death

Thomas Nugent's translation

This is the translation of the painting in Lübeck that Thomas Nugent published in 1766.

The translation is very loose and towards the end come two participants, the dancing master and the fencing master, who don't appear in Lübeck, and who were added by Nugent without any comments:

I. Death

Ye mortals, up! your glass is out,
Both high and low; for do not doubt,
But tyrant kings, at my command,
Shall take a beggar by the hand.
I'll tune my pipe, as they advance,
And make them partners in a dance.

II. Death to the Pope.

Come, hoary father, you must know,
When death doth call 'tis time to go;
Your robes and triple crown forsake,(1)
Instead of them this coffin take;
This coffin, which is far too small
To hold the least gew-gaw at all.

III. The Pope's answer.

Talk so to me! I greatly wonder,
You think so little of my thunder.
Can't holy water, holy tapers,
Stand me in stead against thy vapours.
Me, who have power to release,
Or bind, those sinners whom I please.(2)
'Twere passing strange, were I to die
Without the keys of heav'n, not I.

IV. Death to the Emperor.

Monarch august, arise, and pay
The debt you owe, nor make delay;
Be quick, I'll not compound for all
Your claims to this terrestrial ball.
Nor shall thy mound, or sword, or power,
Ward off my scythe a single hour.
For Death I am, I'll be obey'd;
None but the wicked are afraid.

V. Emperor's answer.

Ah! ruthless Death! with iron hand
Dost thou, at last, before me stand?
Thou need'st not tell me, fiend, for, oh !
Thy power is absolute, I know;
But when my soul is on the wing,
May mercy save me from thy sting!

VI. Death to the Empress.

Cease, cease, those pearly tears, me fair;
I'll ease your heart, and soothe your care.
See yonder multitude appear,
Behold with them thy lord, thy dear:
You soon must join him hand-in-hand,
And life resign at my command.

VII. The Empress's answer.

Welcome, thou messenger of peace,
Since that's the news, my joys increase.
Vain world, what is thy greatest splendor,
Now I have lost my life's defender?
Then mount, my soul, consider this;
You'll meet your love in realms of bliss.

VIII. Death to the Cardinal.

Why is your eminence aghast?
Seest thou not multitudes go fast
Before thee? Bid the world adieu
With a good grace, and courage too.
How thou wilt fare, when this life's over,
God knows; but here you've liv'd in clover.

IX. The Cardinal's answer.

My hat, which brought me wealth and honour,
I owe to Rome, thanks to the donor.
Wrapt up in those enjoyments nice,
I made the world my paradise.
My utmost wish, St. Peter's chair;(3)
Alas ! I never must come there.

X. Death to the King.

Think, royal sir, on Sirach's words,
The king, to-day beset with lords,
Tomorrow lies a corpse most pale.(4)
What vanity, that man so frail,
Should stile him mighty in his ermine,
Who can't preserve himself from vermin?

XI. King's answer.

How! lift thy hand against a prince!
Thus regal state is mere pretence,
A game at hazard or at chess;
Than living beggar now made less.
Death takes from me my wide domains,
And nothing but a grave remains.

XII. Death to the Bishop.

Thy crozier is of no avail
To thee, who art so very frail;
'Tis but a broken reed at best,
The grave must be the place of rest.
Some friendly hand thy tomb engraves,
"His flock th' unwilling shepherd leaves."

XIII. The Bishop's answer.

My life is no reproach to me;
Immortal here I cannot be;
Death's visit now too well imparts,
This world should not ensnare our hearts.
My watch is out, so welcome sleep:
Beloved flock, my doctrines keep.

XIV. Death to the General

Come, general, come, thou must away
With me to yon dark house of clay.
This march must end thy life's campaign;
If thou hast warr'd, and not in vain,
Against thy lusts, as they arose,
More fierce than 'gainst thy earthly foes,
A crown of glory is reserv'd
For thee, by Christ, whom thou hast serv'd.

XV. The General's answer.

Armies I've march'd through foreign lands;
My men obey'd my strict commands.
Exploits so great my foes have prais'd,
And to the skies my courage rais'd.
But Death, at length, hath taken post,
Arrests my victories, all is lost;
And calls out with insulting brave,
Thy march is ended, well behave.

XVI. Death to the Abbé.

The clock now strikes that summons thee
To bed, strange bed, where all must lie;
Small spot of ground, where you must dance
With me; you think it dire mischance.
Of solitude be not afraid,
For there you'll find your comrades laid.

XVII. The Abbé's answer.

O human hopes, how frail, how vain!
I thought ere long to be a dean:
Promotions, titles, all my view,
my dreams by night and mid-day too.
But hasty death has quite confounded
Those hopes, with which my dreams abounded.

XVIII. Death to the Knight.

Come, gallant sir, your armour leave,
Your sword and buckler; they might save
Your head in battle, but are not
Proof 'gainst my darts, more sure than shot.
Besides, the dance you take with me
Requires a dress more light and free.
Then you'll perform my dance more clever,
Without incumbrance whatsoever.

XIX. The Knight's answer.

Like hero rather than plain knight,
I went to war in armour bright.
No lion fought with greater courage,
A truth my foes must still acknowledge.
I laid my adversary low,
Now ruthless Death will serve me so.

XX. Death to the Carthusian.

Come, brother, thou must shut thy eyes,
Thy breviary and thy homilies.
Come, come, to me, to endless rest.
If there, as here, thou art so blest,
As to be dress'd in white array,
Then Death will be a holy-day.

XXI. The Carthusian's answer.

The strictest vows have me injoin'd
Those rules(5) which I'm obliged to mind;
Now Death says, thou shalt spurn them all,
And shortly quit this earthly ball,
I'm ready to attend his call.
A happy exit sure is this,
If monkish vows be crown'd with bliss.

XXII. Death to the Burgomaster.

Ye citizens, forbear to weep,
Because ye cannot longer keep
Your chief; behold, fair heaven's decree,
From which no mortal man can flee,
Has call'd him from this judgement seat,
Where he appear'd so good and great,
To praise his name for evermore,
The Lord supreme whom all adore.

XXIII The Burgomaster's answer.

My heart has been devoted to
My country, ever just and true;
Promoted all the public good,
To serve my friends did all I could;
Receive me, heav'n, adieu to care,
trust I'll be a freeman there.

XXIV. Death to the Prebendary.

Come, this is no abiding-place,
This sinful world, so void of grace;
Be comforted, if heaven's thy lot;
Ah happy man ! for who would not
Barter this globe, and all therein,
The meanest place in heav'n to win ?

XXV, The prebendary's answer.

What art thou, bauble world now past,
A vale of misery at last?
Thoughtless and vain as mortals are;
In mercy, Lord, our souls prepare;
In pity, God, then set me free,
Since all my hopes are fixt in thee.

XXVI. Death to the Nobleman.

How vain thy boasts of hunting, friend,
Or hawking ! why dost thou pretend
To be a sportsman ? when alas !
With all your skill you cannot pass
my fatal arrow ; far more true
Than any that belong to you:
Then think on this, and yield thy breath,
No sportsmen are so sure as Death.

XXVII. The Nobleman's answer.

Hunting indeed's my fav'rite sport,
I lik'd it better far than court:
The rising sun with blushing face,
Ne'er found me absent from the chace;
The hounds the fallow deer pursue,
But now I am o'ertook by you.

XXVIII. Death to the Physician.

Set down thy bottles quick, my friend,
And think upon thy latter end;
Does not thy body far surpass
In brittleness that polish'd glass ?(6)
One blow the glass in pieces breaks,
A breath of wind thy fabric shakes.
And what remains of both when broke,
But dirt and fragments, atoms, smoke.

XXIX. The Physician's answer.

If vain my art, you may compare
Frail man to glass and brittle ware.
O what's my physic, art or pill,
To heaven's decree, and sacred will!
When death commands we all must go,
"Kings, sons of kings, and doctors too!"

XXX. Death to the Usurer.

Come down my friend, with all your pelf,
I claim the principal myself:
The interest too I'll not abate,
However I incur your hate.
I know thy narrow soul doth cry,
To part with that more than to die;
Yet never miser came this way,
But down his dearest gold must lay.

XXXI. Usurer's answer.

In truth, I own my thought were such,
They ran on usury too much;
But with immensity of store,
The wretch that begs from door to door,
Was ne'er so miserably poor.
Ah were my soul once more to rise,
I'd set my wealth above the skies,
Where Death and all his ghastly train
Should seek for treasure all in vain.

XXXII. Death to the Chaplain.

Rejoice, ye poor, and don't look sad,
Because your chaplain's very bad,
He'll leave his purse to make you glad;
With all his revenues and places,
To cheer your sad dejected faces.

XXXIII. The Chaplain's answer.

I serv'd the altar, th' altar me,
From whence I had an ample fee,
Discharg'd my trust with all the love
That could the breast of sinner move.
My conscience tells I've done my best,
Which makes you, sir, a welcome guest.

XXXIV. Death to the Steward.

Thou lookest sour, what care I ?
I know you cannot from me fly ;
Your office, friend, I value not,
Nor for it care a single jot.
Make haste, man ; nay, don't be untoward,
My message, sir, is for the steward.

XXXV. The Steward's answer.

I tenderly consider'd peasants,
To poor was ever making presents
Of this or that I could afford,
Yet ever just unto my lord.
Then why am I of Death afraid,
Or wish that he had longer stay'd ?

XXXVI. Death to the Churchwarden.

Whatever locks you hold or keys,
They'll never turn back my decrees ;
Nor all the clock-work that you have,
Will keep your body from the grave;
And though I am sometimes a hobbler,
I'm sure to king as well as cobler.

XXXVII. The Churchwarden's answer.

Being appointed by the people,
To keep the clock-work, church and steeple,
I took what care was in my pow'r;
But since I'm come to my last hour,
Transfer me, Death, to heav'n most fair ;
I shan't be out of office there.

XXXVIII. Death to the Tradesman.

Think on Adam's bankruptcy,
Which brought you all in debt to me,(7)
I'm come for my demand to you;
Then pay me instantly my due

XXXIX. The Tradesman's answer.

Creditor-like with haughty air,
And high demands, you at me stare;
But I'm prepar'd, my will is made,
My soul I leave to God, who said,
He'd ne'er desert a sinner, when
He cry'd for mercy to him ; then
My goods I give to my relations,
According to their different stations ;
Satan on all my sins may seize,
You on my body, if you please.

XL. Death to the Recluse.

What folly, man, thus to immure
Thyself in convent ? Lord, why sure,
Man ought with man to have communion,
They seldom thrive without a union ;
No alter'd face or change of features,
I'll make you lye with fellow-creatures.

XLI. The Recluse's answer.

Tho' man I am, I love not man,
For many surely grieve me, when
Instead of Christians they behave
Like brutes, their souls to sin enslave;
Come, wish'd for Death, with all thy terrors,
O Lord, forgive me all my errors.

XLII. Death to the peasant.

Sweating with heat and toil all day,
Peasant, I oft have heard you say,
You'd think yourself at ease and free,
Were I to come and visit thee.

XLIII. The Peasant's answer.

Yes, Death, to thee I made my moan,
To you, kind sir, and you alone;
With labour hard and sweat of brow,
I earn the bread I live on now.(8)
To-day I little thought to see
A friend to ease me, kind as thee.
Then take me, sir, without controul,
And Lord have mercy on my soul.

XLIV. Death to the Young Man.

Ye maids, that lov'd this sprightly youth,
Are disappointed, that's the truth;
Your wishes, fair, were all in vain;
He's mine, and I'll my right maintain.

XLV. The Young Man's answer.

Pray, Mr. Death, I'm young and gay,
The time of life for sport and play;
Indeed, I think you're full too soon,
To stop me in my course at noon;
My pleasing hopes and lofty schemes
Must all dissolve in idle dreams;
No bride to clasp within my arms,
And softly soothe me with her charms.
Grim Death commands, I must obey,
And mingle quick with parent clay.

XLVI. Death to the Maiden.

Come, pretty maid, and dance with me,
I use no compliments, you see;
I say, I hate your complaisance,
So once more come with me and dance;
I've chose you for my partner, miss;
Nay, be not so surpriz'd at this,
I do not always love old age,
You'll make some figure on my stage.

XLVII. The Maiden's answer.

Since I must go, O sisters dear,
Choose you a partner, for fear
This grim-ey'd monster, when I die,
Should like more of our family:
For sure I think it much amiss,
To give to him my virgin kiss.

XLVIII. Death to the Infant:

Thus, tender suckling, I must give
The untimely stroke, no longer live;
Sleep undisturb'd till the last day,
When Christ shall change thy mass of clay,
Like his most glorious body dear,
Give thee a heavenly crown to wear:
Ah ! happy they beyond expression,
Who've paradise for their possession.

XLIX. The Infant's answer.

Crying, indeed, was my first voice,
But now I've cause for to rejoice;
Bear me, ye angels, to my God,
I've 'scap'd both sin, death, hell, and rod.(9)

L. Death to the Dancing-master.

Monsieur, your dance is excellent,
And for to learn I'm fully bent;
You cut so true, with nimble feet
So fine, so gallant, and so neat,
That when we both do dance together,
We'll trip as light as any feather;
I'll force this truth from petit-maîtres,
There's none like me for cutting capers.

LI. The Dancing-master's answer.

Upon my word, I cannot say,
I like to teach at all to-day.
Nay, do not press me, I protest,
I cannot dance so well at best ;
Besides, look here, I've hurt my toe,
Upon it I can hardly go.
Lord, how you press one when refus'd ?
'Deed, brother, I would be excus'd.

LII. Death to the Fencing-master.

Thou art a clever fellow true,
As ever foil or small sword drew;
Let's have fresh tryal of thy skill,
At this, or that, or what you will.
Adzooks, take care, or sure as nuts
I'll whip my sword quite through your guts.
I have done it, faith, there is no doubt,
For see, good friends, they're tumbling out.

LIII. The Fencing-master's answer.

O all is o'er, I lost my breath;
But who the De'el can fence with Death ?

Resources

I have placed Nugent's translations — along with the original German text — beneath the engravings of Ludewig Suhl.

Suhl, part 1Suhl, part 2Suhl, part 3Suhl, part 4Suhl, part 5Suhl, part 6Suhl, part 7Suhl, part 8
Click the little pictures to get into the dance.

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9)

The pope has a triple crown (this trivia is useful when identifying dancers in a dance of death). The three crowns symbolize the papal power over Heaven, Earth and Hell.
Release and bind...: Compare with Jesus' words to Peter the Apostle: "And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).

"To bind" means to make unlawful, and "to loose" means to make lawful. The pope is a successor of Peter the Apostle, so what it means, in effect, is that whatsoever rules the pope maketh up shall receive the Divine rubberstamp of instant approval.

Peter's chair . . .: The pope is Saint Peter's successor.
Sirach 10:10, "The physician cutteth off a long disease; and he that is to day a king to morrow shall die".
Rules . . .: The code of regulations observed by a religious order or congregation: The Franciscan rule (Webster).
Physician with a urine glass from Lübeck's dance of death.
Physician with a urine glass

polish'd glass...: Urine glass. Indispensable part of medical science in the Middle ages. See the picture to the right.

See the page about Adam, Eve and the Original Sin.
Genesis 3:19, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground;".
sin, death, hell, and rod.....: Smart kid! It seems like he's quoting Proverbs 23:13-14, "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell".

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