“Done Is a Battle on the Dragon Black” by William Dunbar

Harrowing of Hell (French)
“The Harrowing of Hell” (HM 1180, fol. 39v), from a Book of Hours made in France, fourth quarter of 15th century. Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

This early sixteenth-century poem by William Dunbar of Scotland—who served as poet in the court of King James IV and was also an ordained Catholic priest—is an imaginative retelling of the extrabiblical episode known as the Harrowing of Hell, wherein Christ descends to the realm of the dead on the eve of his resurrection to free the souls being held captive there by Satan.

The original poem, in Middle Scots, is reproduced below, followed by my translation into modern English, with the assistance of the Dictionary of the Scots Language. I’ve provided hyperlinks to Scots words that don’t have an obvious English correlative. The Latin refrain translates to “The Lord is risen from the grave.”

Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campioun Chryst confountet hes his force;
The yettis of hell ar brokin with a crak,
The signe triumphall rasit is of the croce,
The divillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis ar borrowit and to the blis can go,
Chryst with his blud our ransonis dois indoce:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

Dungin is the deidly dragon Lucifer,
The crewall serpent with the mortall stang,
The auld kene tegir with his teith on char
Quhilk in a wait hes lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang:
The mercifull lord wald nocht that it wer so,
He maid him for to felye of that fang:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

He for our saik that sufferit to be slane
And lyk a lamb in sacrifice wes dicht,
Is lyk a lyone rissin up agane,
And as a gyane raxit him on hicht:
Sprungin is Aurora radius and bricht,
On loft is gone the glorius Appollo,
The blisfull day depairtit fro the nycht:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

The grit victour agane is rissin on hicht 
That for our querrell to the deth wes woundit;
The sone that wox all paill now schynis bricht,
And, dirknes clerit, our fayth is now refoundit:
The knell of mercy fra the hevin is soundit,
The Cristin ar deliverit of thair wo,
The Jowis and thair errour ar confoundit:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

The fo is chasit, the battell is done ceis,
The presone brokin, the jevellouris fleit and flemit,
The weir is gon, confermit is the peis,
The fetteris lowsit and the dungeoun temit,
The ransoun maid, the presoneris redemit,
The feild is win, ourcummin is the fo,
Dispulit of the tresur that he yemit:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION:

Done is a battle on the dragon black,
Our champion Christ has confounded his force;
The gates of hell are broken with a crack,
The sign triumphal raised (that is, the cross),
The devils tremble with hideous voice,
The souls are redeemed and to the bliss can go,
Christ with his blood our ransom does endorse:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

Beaten is the deadly dragon Lucifer,
The cruel serpent with the mortal sting,
The old sharp tiger with his teeth bared,
Who in wait has lain for us so long,
Thinking to grip us in his claws strong:
The merciful Lord would not that it were so,
He made him for to fail of that prize:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

He who for our sake allowed himself to be slain,
And like a lamb in sacrifice was offered,
Is like a lion risen up again,
And like a giant raised himself on high:
Risen is Aurora radiant and bright,
Aloft is gone the glorious Apollo,
The blissful day departed from the night:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

The great victor again is risen on high
Who on our behalf to the death was wounded;
The son that waxed all pale now shimmers bright,
And, darkness cleared, our faith is now refounded.
The knell of mercy from the heav’n is sounded,
The Christians are delivered from their woe,
The Jews and their error are confounded:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

The foe is chased, the battle is done,
The prison broken, the jailers fled and banished,
The war is gone, confirmèd is the peace,
The fetters loosed and the dungeon emptied,
The ransom made, the prisoners redeemed,
The field is won, overcome is the foe,
Despoiled of the treasure that he held:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

“Done Is a Battle” consists of five stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ABABBCBC, DEDEECEC, and so on. (I wasn’t able to perfectly preserve this scheme in the translation.)

As was common in medieval European literature on the Resurrection, the poem portrays Christ as a heroic warrior who storms the gates of hell, freeing the souls imprisoned there by the Enemy—described here variously as a dragon, a serpent, and a tiger, who guards his stolen possession with ferocity. Carrying a cross as his battle standard and covered with his own blood, Jesus goes down into the beast’s lair to reclaim what is rightfully his.

The opening line is considered one of the finest of any poem: “Done is a battle on the dragon black.” Part of its power comes from the use of a literary device known as anastrophe—the inversion of the usual order of words in a sentence (usually subject-verb or adjective-noun). Dunbar uses it twice: “Done is the battle” instead of “The battle is done,” emphasizing finality rather than the conflict itself, and “dragon black” instead of “black dragon,” which gives more prominence to the creature than its color. “The battle is done on the black dragon” just doesn’t have the same ring. Anastrophe is used all throughout the poem (e.g., “sign triumphal,” “claws strong,” “confirmed is the peace”).

Cosmic and dramatic, the poem highlights the Christus Victor aspect of the atonement—that is, how Christ’s death and resurrection were a triumph over the powers of evil. Integrated into this model is the idea of ransom, redemption, emancipation.

While the Harrowing of Hell refers specifically to the salvation of those saints who died before Christ and were awaiting redemption in Sheol (aka Limbo, or Hades), it is representative of the act that Christ performs for all those who are in him—releasing us from Satan’s hold, bringing us out of the grave, letting us share eternally in the fruits of his victory in heaven. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the central icon of Easter is just such a scene: the risen Christ standing atop the broken-down doors of hell, pulling Adam and Eve and the other Old Testament faithful up from its pit. It’s called the Anastasis, Greek for “resurrection.”

Jesus conquered death by going through it. Stanza 3 describes the glory with which he rose from such a state. He died a sacrificial lamb, meek and lowly, but rose up like a lion—vigorous, strong. From the darkness of night, he rose like day—like Aurora, goddess of the dawn, or Apollo, god of the sun.

(Related post: “Crucifixion, Harrowing, and Transfiguration”)

In the fourth stanza Dunbar uses a play on words that was particularly beloved in Middle English and Scots religious lyrics (and which still works in modern English): sun/Son. The sun/Son went dark at the Crucifixion (Luke 23:45) but reemerged brighter than ever on Easter morning, the dawn of a new day. Mercy sounds like bells from on high, and the world enters its liberation.

I don’t want to ignore the problematic nature of the penultimate line of this stanza: “The Jews and their error are confounded.” Their error was failing to see who Christ truly was and, because of that, calling for his execution. Attributing Jesus’s death to, broad brush, “the Jews” led to centuries of anti-Semitic persecution and violence in Europe. While the religious establishment of Jesus’s day certainly did play a driving role in his death, it’s important to remember that the Roman authorities were also key players; it was a collusion between synagogue and state. Both perceived Jesus as a threat, for different reasons. (And of course there’s a sense in which we all bear culpability, regardless of religious affiliation or time period, because it was for humanity’s sin that Christ went to the cross.) But casting blame is fruitless. Jesus died willingly. When I read old texts that charge all Jews across time and place with the crime of deicide, I can’t help but protest that it was also “the Jews” who stood by Jesus in the end—his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (members of the Sanhedrin!), John the Evangelist, and others—and who were among his closest followers. Not to mention that most of those whom Jesus “harrowed” from hell were Jewish! Across generations they trusted the promise given to them.

I alert you to this line so that if you use the poem in a worship context, you might consider a revision there (or at least a clarification), as the shorthand can cause confusion and breed prejudice. Though it doesn’t exactly honor Dunbar’s intent, I might suggest the following: “The people are delivered from their woe, / Resisters all most truly are confounded.”

Despite the undesirable generalization in line 31, I still believe “Done Is a Battle” is a poem worthy of our attention and engagement. It’s an exciting and culturally contextualized celebration of Christ the Dragon-Slayer, who “descended into hell,” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, to save his people.  

Try reading the Scots aloud! That way you can get a better sense of the musicality. I was surprised by how much of the language I was able to comprehend. Curious of its history, I discovered that most people claim, controversially, that Scots is not actually a separate language, but rather a dialect of English.

For further reading, see The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England by Karl Tamburr (Boydell and Brewer, 2007).

2 thoughts on ““Done Is a Battle on the Dragon Black” by William Dunbar

  1. A beautiful poem! I recited it at my family’s Resurrection Day gathering two years ago (but I changed that line to “the pagans and their error…”) Thanks for sharing it!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s