A Disputation Between the Body and the Worms

This is one primary text I am using that doesn’t contain an explicit mention of sorrow or melancholy. I am mainly interested in it because of its associations with earth and the extended descriptions of decomposition it contains. I am interested in these things because the first is intimately tied together with melancholy in the medieval period, and the second provides a compliment to issues of metabolism that other sources I’ve read have discussed at length (Denson, Conner). Digestion of the human by the non-human is used to conjure up a memento mori, an “I was once like you” that is more personal because the reader is seeing the Body go through this process in real time. Even if the Body is not melancholy, the poem encourages melancholy reading by guiding the reader through someone else’s process of contemplation on mortality and suggesting that everyone should do something similar while alive. I would like to suggest, and perhaps go on to argue, that the melancholy of this poem is there, but it lies in the way it wants to be read and the emotions it wants to evoke.

Like the wound man (via Orlemanski), the Body while exceptional in her beauty and grotesqueness is not specific, her beauty is taken for granted by the poem and only gets three lines of description (and her decomposing body gets none, until the worms describe it). While I think her gender could prevent her from being a figure of the everyman, I’m not sure that it does. It seems as though the narrator of this poem is able to identify with her just fine, despite the (presumed) gender gap that exists between them.

This poem is very concerned with the mechanics by which the worms ingest the body, and melancholy is intricately tied to digestion. If you eat the wrong thing, your mood can shift and you can become unbalanced and/or melancholic. The worms are obviously delighted at their meal, but they do say that if they could smell or taste, they would never eat the Body, because she is disgusting. There is no opportunity for distinction, and yet the Body is what they choose: they are following a certain kind of taste (preference) that is presented as natural. This sequence not only unbalances the setting of the human above the non-human, by suggesting that human dominion over animals is limited to the time they are alive (and further reduced because humans are plagued with fleas, mice, and stomach illness for their whole lives), it also presents an intricate picture of digestion that is reframed as cleaning. The Body’s flesh is “nothing but clay”, suggesting that this cleaning is also a metabolizing process where the worms turn her into earth– at least, until the last Judgement, when she’ll be reconstituted.

The worms are clearly not affected by their food, and the Body doesn’t seem to be melancholy, nor does the speaker when he wakes up. So why am I interested in this poem? I think it provides a particular medieval example of a similar phenomenon to what Daniels identifies in Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and an example of Middle English poetic affect in a similar way to On Husbondrie. Obviously it is a case of religious meditation on death, but I think one of the things that makes this poem so compelling is its atmosphere of loss and temporariness, which is underscored by these very vivid descriptions of decay and digestion. We don’t get interiority from the speaker, but we get a ton of matter. Additionally, the speaker is escaping a plague, which is 1) probably a pretty bad situation for him and 2) a disease thought to be caused by an imbalance of melancholic humors, like leprosy.

I should link Karl Steel’s post on this poem here, especially this observation: “if the body is ordered, neatly bounded, suitable, for example, for political metaphors (the “head” of state, and so on), flesh here represents the disorganized, pullulating remainder”. The Body is flesh that has to un-associate herself with mere flesh, at the same time as she is linguistically an organized whole, putting her at odds with her name. This post comes to the same observation that I have, that the body in the tomb functions as a sample body for the reader to learn about and thereby observe their own. However, the narrator interacts with Body specifically as a woman’s body, with all the attendant sexualization that contains.

If the Body is both a figure aware of itself and distinct from an essential soul, if it is between things, then what kind of emotions is it allowed to have? Similarly, if the worms are an (animal) unit positioned as a central figure, what emotions can they feel? I think maybe this is the wrong question. Both of these figures tell us what they are feeling, kind of, but they don’t show us. Rather, the atmosphere of this poem is one oriented towards sorrow, and I think although its overt message is one of holy sorrow and contemplation, it also has a deeper current of despair.