Timor mortis conturbat me

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Timor mortis conturbat me is a Latin phrase commonly found in late medieval Scottish and English poetry, translating to "fear of death disturbs me". The phrase comes from a responsory of the Catholic Office of the Dead, in the third Nocturn of Matins:[1]

Peccantem me quotidie, et non poenitentem, timor mortis conturbat me. Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio, miserere mei, Deus, et salva me.
"Sinning daily, and not repenting, the fear of death disturbs me. For there is no redemption in Hell, have mercy on me, o God, and save me."

Medieval poetry

Since the phrase "timor mortis conturbat me" was popular in medieval literature, and was frequently repeated in poetry, there are numerous poems that are conventionally titled timor mortis conturbat me because they contain the phrase.[citation needed]

In terms of genre, poetry in this tradition frequently appears in the form of a meditation, or a sermon that employs exempla. In some cases, the poetry also took the form of a list (e.g. a list of different famous people appears within the poem). Although the list is not technically a form of genre, it is a common medieval literary convention.

Several themes appear in timor mortis poetry which are also frequently found in other medieval poems on the subject of death. A common theme is death's triumph over people no matter how great or powerful a person was in life. Another common theme is the uncertainty of when one's life will end. Poets invariably pointed out that there is no guarantee that a person will live from one moment to the next, and that death could strike suddenly and without warning. This naturally led to the theme of the immediate need for penance and good works. It was stressed that a person should not delay in seeking penance or doing good works, lest they should perish and suffer eternally in Hell for it.

William Dunbar's Lament for the Makars, written around the end of the 15th century, employs the phrase at the last line of each verse. As its title indicates, the poem refers back to the titular medieval Scottish poets.

He hes done petuously devour,
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bery, and Gower, all thre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The gude Syr Hew of Eglintoun,
And eik Heryot, and Wyntoun,
He hes tane out of this cuntre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.[2]

In Chapter III of The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, [1922], the Red Foliot recites a dirge for the fallen in combat King Gorice. As in William Dunbar's Lament for the Makars, the phrase Timor mortis conturbat me completes each stanza of the dirge; it is noted that Eddison was a scholar of medieval poetry.

The phrase is a refrain in Kenneth Rexroth's 1966 poem Thou Shalt Not Kill.

What became of Jim Oppenheim?
Lola Ridge alone in an
Icy furnished room? Orrick Johns,
Hopping into the surf on his
One leg? Elinor Wylie
Who leaped like Kierkegaard?
Sara Teasdale, where is she?
Timor mortis conturbat me.[3]

Jack Vance parodies this convention in his novel The Palace of Love (1967). Writing through his character Navarth the Mad Poet, he relates a poem in which the stanzas end in such examples as Tim R. Mortiss degurgled me, Tim R. Mortiss disturgled me, Tim R. Mortiss occurgled me, etc.

See also


  1. Greene, Richard L. (April 1933). "A Middle English "Timor Mortis" Poem". The Modern Language Review. Modern Humanities Research Association. 28 (2): 234–238. doi:10.2307/3714976. ISSN 0026-7937. Retrieved 2008-11-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "RPO -- William Dunbar : Lament For The Makers". Retrieved 2008-11-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Thou Shalt Not Kill by Kenneth Rexroth : Poetry Foundation". Retrieved 2008-11-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  • Patterson, Frank Allen (1911). The Middle English Penitential Lyric.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Brown, Carleton; Carleton Fairchild Brown (1916). A Register of Middle English Religious & Didactic Verse.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links