This is a sort of charm, sung by the lower ranks of Roman Catholics, in some parts of the north of England, while watching a dead body, previous to interment. The tune is doleful and monotonous, and, joined to the mysterious import of the words, has a solemn effect. The word sleet, in the chorus, seems to be corrupted from selt, or salt; a quantity of which, in compliance with a popular superstition, is frequently placed on the breast of a corpse.
The mythologic ideas of the dirge are common to various creeds. The Mahometan believes, that, in advancing to the final judgment seat, he must traverse a bar of red-hot iron, stretched across a bottomless gulph. The good works of each true believer, assuming a substantial form, will then interpose betwixt his feet and this “Bridge of Dread;“ but the wicked, having no such protection, must fall headlong into the abyss. — D’HERBELOT, Bibiotheque Orientale.
Passages, similar to this dirge, are also to be found in Lady Culross’s Dream, as quoted in the second Dissertation prefixed by Mr Pinkerton to his Select Scottish Ballads, 2 vols. The dreamer journeys towards heaven, accompanied and assisted by a celestial guide:
Through dreadful dens, which made my heart aghast,
He bare me up when I began to tire.
Sometimes we clamb o’er craggy mountains high.
And sometimes stay’d on uglie braes of sand:
They were so stay that wonder was to see;
But, when I fear’d, he held me by the hand.
Through great deserts we wandered on our way —
Forward we passed on narrow bridge of trie,
O’er waters great, which hediously did roar.
Again, she supposes herself suspended over an infernal gulph:
Ere I was ware, one gripped me at the last,
And held me high above a naming fire.
The fire was great; the heat did pierce me sore;
My faith grew weak.; my grip was very small;
I trembled fast; my fear grew more and more.
A horrible picture of the same kind, dictated probably by the author’s unhappy state of mind, is to be found in Brooke’s Fool of Quality. The dreamer, a ruined female, is suspended over the gulph of perdition by a single hair, which is severed by a demon, who, in the form of her seducer springs upwards from the flames.
The Russian funeral service, without any allegorical imagery, expresses the sentiment of the dirge in language alike simple and noble.
“Hast thou pitied the afflicted, O man? In death shalt thou be pitied. Hast thou consoled the orphan? The orphan will deliver thee. Hast thou clothed the naked? The naked will procure thee protection.”— RICHARDSON’S Anecdotes of Russia.
But the most minute description of the Brig o’ Dread, occurs in the legend of Sir Owain, No. XL. in the MS. Collection of Romances, W. 4.1. Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh; though its position is not the same as in the dirge, which may excite a suspicion that the order of the stanzas in the latter has been transposed. Sir Owain, a Northumbrian knight, after many frightful adventures in St Patrick’s purgatory, at last arrives at the bridge, which, in the legend, is placed betwixt purgatory and paradise:
The fendes han the knight ynome,
To a stinkand water thai ben ycome,
He no seigh never er non swiche;
It stank fouler than ani hounde.
And maui mile it was to the grounde.
And was as swart as piche.
And Owain seigh ther ouer ligge
A swithe strong naru brigge:
The fendes seyd tho;
“Lo! sir knight, sestow this?
“This is the brigge of paradis,
“Here ouer thou must go.
“And we the schul with stones prowe,
“And the winde the schul ouer blow,
“And wirche the full wo;
“Thou no schalt tor all this unduerd,
“Bot gif thou falle a midwerd,
“To our fewes312 mo.
“And when thou art adown yfalle,
“Than schal com our felawes alle,
“And with her hokes the hede;
“We schul the teche a newe play:
“Thou hast served ous mani a day,
“And into helle the lede.”
Owain biheld the brigge smert,
The water ther under blac and swert,
And sore him gan to drede:
For of othing he tok yeme,
Never mot, in sonne beme,
Thicker than the fendes yede.
The brigge was as heigh as a tour,
And as scharpe as a rasour,
And naru it was also;
And the water that ther ran under,
Brend o’ lighting and of thonder,
That thoght him michel wo.
Ther nis no clerk may write with ynke,
No no man no may bithink,
No no maister deuine;
That is ymade forsoth ywis.
Under the brigge of paradis,
Halvendel the pine.
So the dominical ous telle,
That is the pure entrae of helle,
Seine Poule berth witnesse;313
Whoso falleth of the brigge adown,
Of him nis no redempcioun,
Noîther more nor lesse.
The fendes seyd to the knight tho,
“Ouer this brigge might thou nowght go,
“For noneskines nede;
“Fle peril sorwe and wo,
“And to that stede ther thou com fro,
“Wel fair we schul the lede.”
Owain anon be gan bithenche,
Fram hou mani of the fendes wrenche,
God him saved hadde;
He sett his fot opon the brigge,
No feld he no scharpe egge,
No nothing him no drad.
When the fendes yseigh tho,
That he was more than half ygo,
Loude thai gun to crie;
“Alias! alias! that he was born!
“This ich night we have forlorn
“Out of our baylie.”
312 Fewes— Probably contracted for fellows.]
313 The reader will probably search St Paul in vain, for the evidence here referred to.]
The author of the Legend of Sir Owain, though a zealous catholic, has embraced, in the fullest extent, the Talmudic doctrine of an earthly paradise, distinct from the celestial abode of the just, and serving as a place of initiation, preparatory to perfect bliss, and to the beatific vision. — See the Rabbi Menasse ben Israel, in a treatise called Nishmath Chajim, i.e. The Breath of Life.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00