In a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin, Irena Backus notes Martin Luther’s generic versatility in the composition of poetry (pp. 331-2, unfortunately not available in the preview). He was capable of satirical extremes that make many modern readers uncomfortable: for instance, a professor he fired from the University of Wittenberg (“for dedicating his first published collection of poems to the Roman Catholic Albrecht of Brandenburg,” 331) attacked him in the poem The Battle of Monks and Whores (Monachopornomachia), to which Luther responded with Martin Luther’s Flux of Dysentery against the Excremental Poet Lemnius (Dysenteria Martini Lutheri in merdipoetam Lemchen), which is actually a quite clever series of turns on the noun merda (Backus translates it as “excrement,” though it is often more uncouth than that) in the mode of Martial (indeed, Martial uses it in 3.17).
But he was also capable of extremely touching sentiment, as in the poem in elegiac couplets that Backus quotes on the death of Luther’s daughter Magdalena, which he composed in 1542.1
Dormio cum sanctis hic Magdalena, Lutheri
Filia et hoc strato tecta quiesco meo.
Filia mortis eram, peccati semine nata,
Sanguine sed vivo, Christe, redempta tuo.
I, Magdalena, sleep here with the saints, Luther’s
daughter, and I rest covered on this my bed.2
I was the daughter of death, born from the seed of sin,
but I live, O Christ, redeemed by your blood.3
Magdalena was Luther’s daughter and death’s daughter–indeed, death’s daughter because Luther’s daughter. Though born first from the seed of sin, she was born again from the blood of Christ, such that, though dead, yet she lives. Thus she, a “saint” like all those who have died in Christ, only “sleeps” (dormio, strato, quiesco), awaiting the resurrection of her body at the Last Day.
- This juxtaposition would have seemed less odd to Luther’s contemporaries than it does to us, in part because they had a much more rigorously defined concept of generic register and allowance was made for the permissibility of writing in different genres according to their own rules.
- Alternative, “covered with this my blanket.” Backus translates as “covered with this thin layer over me.”
- The translation is my own.