Wednesday, April 26, 2017


Regarded by many critics as the finest elegy ever written in the English language, John Milton's Lycidas, composed in 1637 in response to the death of Edward King, a close friend and erstwhile rival of his at Christ's College, Cambridge. King was apparently a very promising young scholar, with a personality that endeared him even to those who competed with him, as did Milton, for a fellowship at the College. King died when his ship, which he was taking to visit his home in Ireland, was wrecked when it struck a rock near the Welsh coast.

Milton followed many of the traditions of elegiac verse, including bestowing a Greek pseudonym upon his subject, a pastoral setting with references to laurels and myrtles (symbols of poetic achievement), metaphorical embodiments of the fateful quality of death (comes the blind Fury / with th' abhorred shears, and slits the thin spun life), and the hope of eventual resurrection and immortality. The irony here, as with Shakespeare's early sonnets, is that we know next to nothing about their actual subjects; the immortality gained here is by the poem's author.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Pilgrim's Progress

Few books have been so widely read, only to plunge later into (relative) obscurity, as has Pilgrim's Progress. On many lists, it's among the ten best-selling books of all time, and has been translated into more than 200 languages -- and yet, today the most popular edition ranks only as twentieth in the amazon-narrowed category "Christian Classics and Allegory." But despite its fading from familiarity, signs of its influence are not hard to find in literature and pop culture; in the broadest sense, much of vast realm of "fantasy" literature -- one in which the narrator enters a "dream" or alternative world, especially one supplied with maps, owe their genesis to Bunyan's book.

The book, despite its relatively scarce passages of detailed description, has from the very beginning attracted illustrators, painters, and (later) filmmakers. The great English poet and artist William Blake is prominent among these, as are Byam Shaw, the Rheads, and Barry Moser. In 1850, a moving panorama of Pigrim's Progress, known as the Bunyan Tableuax or the "Grand Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress" was painted by Joseph Kyle and Edward Harrison May and displayed in New York; an early copy of this panorama survives and is at the Saco Museum in Maine. Many prominent American artists contributed designs for this panorama, among them Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Cropsey, Henry Courtnay Selous, and Daniel Huntington. You can see scenes from this surviving copy here, or watch a video of the entire panorama here. Like films, panoramas were displayed using two reels -- though since the painting is more than eight feet tall, "changing the reel" is quite an undertaking!

Early film producers also seized upon the subject, beginning with a silent version in 1912; an animated version was produced in 1950, and the year after that it was the subject of an opera by the composer Ralph Vaughn-Williams. A 1978 live action version even featured a very young Liam Neeson in the role of "Evangelist" (he appears at 4:28 -- it's his very first film role)! And now, although the story has fallen from fashion. it's safe to say that there will be more versions to come -- CGI anyone?

JUST ADDED: Here's a photo of the board game version in use, and a video of the Moving Panorama.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Rave on, John Donne ...

John Donne's memorial at St. Paul's
If there is any rival at all for Shakespeare as the most gifted, fluid, clever, and yet substantive poet of the English Renaisance, it can be no other that John Donne. In the secular world, his racy, seductive verses positively pulsed with vivid life, and if they had been his only literary remains, his reputation would have stood nearly as high. But it is his sacred verse, sermons, and meditations, all composed after he had turned toward a religious life, that secure his ultimate reputation, and which have leant the language some of its most memorable phrases. "Ask not, for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee!" Death, and its anticipation, were as great a gift to Donne as life had been; he famously posed in his funeral shroud for his own coffin's portrait, and had the lid propped up in his study at old St. Paul's cathedral, where he was Dean. The carved effigy above is based on that same portrait, and had a miraculous second life of its own: When old St. Paul's was destroyed by fire in 1666, his was the only effigy that survived intact, falling into the crypt but remaining upright. It was, of course, installed in the new St. Paul's, where it remains to this day.

Donne's poetry, along with that of his fellow "metaphysical" poets, was for some time neglected, but was salvaged by no less a fellow poet than T.S. Eliot, whose 1921 essay brought them back into high esteem. It was no coincidence that Eliot, like Donne, had had a mid-life conversion to the Anglican faith, one which at once abstracted and heightened both their spiritual dimensions. But Donne, it seems likely, was a more comfortably ribald and lively poet, pre-conversion, than the awkward Eliot ever was; part of the pleasure of his verse lies in contrasting a beautiful piffle such as "The Flea" with the sonorous sentiments of the Holy Sonnets. Along the way, we'll pause to consider "Song (‘Go and catch a falling star’)," "The Sun Rising," "Love's Alchemy," and "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning."

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sweetest Shakespeare ...

The one work of English verse which endures without the help -- if that is what it is -- of educators and culture mavens, and the long list of people who like to prescribe certain works as 'good for you,' is Shakespeare's little book of sonnets.  Had he never written a play, they would still be remembered.  From their first publication to the present, they have been in people's hands, hearts, and mouths, and I would be willing to wager there are few English speakers alive today, in any corner of the globe, who do not know -- perhaps without realizing it -- a line or two of one of them. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Let me not to the marriage of true minds / admit impediments ... Summer's lease hath all too short a date... And the list goes on.

Shakespeare's sonnets were greatly admired even before they were published; as with the informal verses of many other poets of the day, they were circulated in manuscript.  It might be something like the present day, when the poetry or prose of a writer circulates online, via their blogs or those of their friends, before being picked up by a publisher to be "officially" brought out to the public.  It's not even clear whether Shakespeare himself authorized their publication, although the case is better for the sonnets than for the plays. It was, like the early days of the Internet, a wild time for publication, with piracy and bootleg editions rampant.

On a formal level, it is important to distinguish the "Shakespearian" sonnet from its "Petrarchan" precursor (in fact created by Giacomo da Lentini). Both are entirely in iambic pentameter; the  Petrarchan form was made up of an "octave" (two quatrains of four lines) rhyming abba/abba, followed by a closing sestet (cde/cde). The octave was supposed to describe some sort of quandry or problem, which the sestet would, to some degree, answer. It was Spenser, in English, who changed the division of the lines from the octet and sestet to three quatrains and a two-line envoi -- here the three quatrains could develop three takes on a single theme or a series, to which the envoi did not need to offer a clear answer.  And it was this far more elegant division that Shakespeare took up, following it in every one of his sonnets.

The order of the sonnets is uncertain -- neither published version had Shakespeare's explicit sanction -- but there are two broad sequences that readers then and now have discerned: the first are largely addressed to a male friend or lover, urging himself to outwit the passage of time and preserve his beauty by having offspring; the second series seem addressed to a harsh if not cruel "dark lady," a woman who has scorned the poet's attentions.

But these poems only live because we, every time we read them, make them new -- finding meanings suited to our time and place -- and thus our own understandings matter just as much as all of the above. So pick a sonnet -- any sonnet -- and describe what it means to you, and to whom (an envoi is a letter, or an ambassador) you would send it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Shepheards Calendar

The annals of literature are filled with dead forms and genres, but none of them is probably deader than the Pastoral. Once, along with Epic and Tragic verse, it stood among the prime modes of literary composition, but today it seems a strange and distant prospect, one whose very atmosphere -- although curiously unfamiliar -- seems at the same time already stale. And yet, for Edmund Spencer, it was precisely with this genre that he sought to resuscitate the moribund body of English verse, and breathe new life into a national literature.

The formula is simple: to move away from the City and its attendant troubles, back into an imaginary green world, populated with shepherds and shepherdesses, the former playing upon their oaten reeds and singing love calls, the latter wandering about fetchingly, replying with fleeting hints of "no" or "yes" before dashing off to still more distant pastures. As with the poetry of the medieval troubadours or the fleeting lovers on Keats's Grecian vase, love among these figures was generally unconsummated, desire eternally deferred, and the conventions of a progressive plot -- indeed, of any plot at all beyond romance in general -- were as though unknown.

Spencer's model was Virgil's Eclogues; as with many Renaissance writers, having a classical model was the shortest route to respectability. Within that model, though, Spencer took considerable freedoms, treating the bucolic settings as scenes for miniature dramas of his own. Two of his characters -- the fair Rosalind and her suitor Colin Clout (the latter borrowing his name from Skelton's poem) fairly outgrew the page, bestowing their names and histories on many successor characters, including Shakepeare's Rosalind in As You Like It. In other hands, such a poetic cycle might seem a piffle, but Spencer uses them to stake no less a ground than that of English poetry itself. In this, he is aided and abetted by one "E.K." (possibly a disguise for Spencer himself), who situates the verses that follow within both the classical world of Virgil and the vernacular realms of Chaucer.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Skelton in the Closet

The English poet John Skelton is often given the title "Poet Laureate" -- an honorific only previously bestowed upon Chaucer, long before the title became a tedious government sinecure. He is easily one of the most under-appreciated poets in English, and yet for his breathing of life into what had been, before his career, a moribund realm of English poetry, it's my personal belief that he ought to be recognized as one of the greatest of all poets in all the history of those storied isles.

Skelton was known for his signature two-foot lines, sometimes jokingly referred to as "Skeltonics" -- and deservedly so.  It remains a native rhythm of the language, and there are many more recent poets -- rapper Chuck D among them -- whose rhythms trace a similar line.  Compare for instance this stanza from "Vppon a deedmans hed":
Your ugly token
My mind hath broken.
For I have discussed
We are but dust,
And die we must,
From worldly lust.
To this from Public Enemy's "Swindler's Lust":
Back it up
Vultures of culture
A dollar a rhyme
but we barely get a dime
Uh huh check it out!
If you don't own the master
Then the master own you
Who you trust
from Swindler's Lust?
From the back of the bus
Neither one of us
Control the fate of our soul
In Swindler's Lust …
The shortened beat of these lines -- and it's curious to note that "lust" is a rhyme-word in both -- makes for an ideal satirical meter.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

English and Heresy

The traditional tale of the ascendance of English into all its national glory in the wake of Chaucer's great work is -- alas -- far from the whole story. Not only did the substance and structure of English change after his death, but the language itself came under attack from the authorities of both Church and State. With the 1401 act De Hæretico Comburendo ("on the burning of Heretics"), the new King Henry IV, who had grown up hearing Chaucer himself declaim his verse, and whose personal copy of Troylus and Criseyde survives to this day, signed a bill which made the possession of heretical books -- and, by implication, any and all books written in English -- a crime punishable by burning at the stake, a practice heitherto unknown in England. Indeed, the reach of this new law was so broad that, although John Wycliffe, whose advocacy of an English version of the Bible gave his name to its earliest translations, was himself burned at the stake -- even though he had, by that time, been dead for many years; the authorities simply had him exhumed and burned his bones, tossing the ashes in the river Swift (see illustration above).

That Chaucer's own books could be, by this statute, made suspect, is confirmed by the arrest of one John Baron of Agmondesham for the possession of English texts, including a "boke of the Tales of Caunterburie," in 1464. But it was not only him; in the early years of the fifteenth century, nearly a hundred people across Britain were burned at the stake as "relapsed" heretics (it was a two-strikes-you're-out system). Many were women who had taken up the cause of the English scriptures, only to be arrested and forced to confess, among them Hawisa Moone and Margery Baxter. The Lollards believed that women, too, could be preachers of the Gospel, another strike against them in the eyes of the Church. But there were also men of strong views, including a Buckimghamshire blacksmith who swore he could "make as good a sacrament with my tongs upon my anvil as any priest upon his altar." The blacksmith was among those executed.

The ban on any translation of the Bible into English was extended by the Constitutions of Archbishop Arundel, and lasted until Henry VIII finally permitted -- indeed commanded -- the use of the English Bible in 1539. Ironically, much of the New Testament in this volume was based on the translation of William Tyndale -- a man burnt at the stake on orders from Henry himself. And despite the hope that the availability of Scripture would ease the tensions of the theological debate, they continued unabated; in 1542 Parliament passed a statute attempting to restrict who could read, and who could interpret, the English Bible -- and women (except noblewomen) were specifically excluded.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Old Haunts of Margery Kempe

Just yesterday evening, I had the delight of visiting St. Margaret's church in King's Lynn, where some six centuries past, Margery Kempe worshipped. It looks much the the same now as it must have then, although some of the gothic arches are leaning a bit, like the Tower of Pisa, and the sanctuary is now dominated by a nineteenth-century baptismal font and altarpiece. It seemed to me as though I could still her her loud crying, as well as the shusshing of her neighbors in the adjoining pews, echoing in these ancient stones. Margery is a bit of a tourist draw these days -- there's an exhibit of her life at the nearby town museum, and the church itself has a small plaque and a page on its website that recounts her life. From there, I was reminded that William Sawtre, the very first accused Lollard to have been burned at the stake under Henry IV's statute, was once vicar there.

I was guided about King's Lynn by a friend who lives in the neighboring town of Downham Market; one can see that it was once an active merchant port, with many narrow cobbled streets that lead to the waterfront. I was also able to see, though not go inside, the Guildhall, where John Kempe would have had a seat at the dais, and which sponsored many medieval mystery plays (which Margery notes that she attended). Part of the Hall is now an arts centre, where contemporary plays are put on. The rest of the modern town has an area of relatively posh shops (the coast of Norfolk being popular with affluent families), but there's also a fair share of poverty; the industrial revolution largely passed King's Lynn by, and for many folk in the region, farming is still the principal employment.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich

That Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich -- two of the earliest known women writers in English, in a century where the vast majority of women knew nothing of books -- should have met one another is perhaps to be expected.  What is more remarkable, though, are the differences between them; Julian was an "anchoress," a sequestered woman who lived a holy life without ever leaving her monastic cell; Margery was a woman of the world, much more like the Wife of Bath, with children as well as a husband who took a rather dim view of her suddenly professing, in the middle way of life, her desire for a celibate life and self-made religious vows. Margery herself, as it happened, was illiterate -- but for a woman of means who could hire men both to read books to her, and to take down her own experiences, this was no obstacle.

Margery's experience was not unlike that of many contemporary women from the middle, and sometimes upper, classes.  Like Mechthild of Magdeburg, Christina Mirabilis, Hadewijch of Antwerp, and Catherine of Siena -- all of whose lives she had heard read aloud to her -- Margery wanted to do more with her life than simply to be called "Madame" and be first in line at the offertory.  She'd had her children, tried her hand at business, and was ready for something entirely new.  In her Book, which survives only in one copy, she described how, when her confessor would not hear her about a matter of great anxiety, she suffered a sort of breakdown, trying to injure herself until restrained, and eventually falling into a weeks-long stupor (note that in her Book, she never uses her name, but only calls herself "this creature"):
And, whan sche had long ben labowrd in thes and many other temptacyons that men wend sche schuld nevyr a skapyd ne levyd, than on a tym, as sche lay aloone and hir kepars wer fro hir, owyr mercyful Lord Crist Jhesu, evyr to be trostyd, worshypd be hys name, nevyr forsakyng hys servawnt in tyme of nede, aperyd to hys creatur, whych had forsakyn hym, in lyknesse of a man, most semly, most bewtyuows, and most amyable that evyr mygth be seen wyth mannys eye, clad in a mantyl of purpyl sylke, syttyng upon hir beddys syde, lokyng upon hir wyth so blyssyd a chere that sche was strengthyd in alle hir spyritys, seyd to hir thes wordys: "Dowtyr, why hast thow forsakyn me, and I forsoke nevyr the?" And anoon, as he had seyd thes wordys, sche saw veryly how the eyr openyd as brygth as ony levyn, and he stey up into the eyr, not rygth hastyli and qwykly, but fayr and esly that sche mygth wel beholdyn hym in the eyr tyl it was closyd ageyn. And anoon the creature was stabelyd in hir wyttys and in hir reson as wel as evyr sche was beforn, and preyd hir husbond as so soon as he cam to hir that sche mygth have the keys of the botery to takyn hir mete and drynke as sche had don beforn.
Having recovered her "wyttys," and recalling her great vision of Christ, she soon informed her husband that she would no longer lie "in comown"with him, and asking his permission to take up a lay religious life.  After much cajoling, he relented, and Margery soon took to wearing a habit of her own designing, all of white.  In church, she would suddenly burst out weeping, to the great annoyance of her fellow parishioners -- but as she explained, it was only out of sympathy for Christ's great mercy.

We'll read of her many travels this week, including a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as well as a perilous time when she went to see Archibiship Arundel -- the very man who had promulgated the banning of the Bible in English! -- to seek his permission to carry on her religious life. He might very easily have had her arrested, as were many other religious women who identified as "Lollards" -- some of whom were burnt at the stake.  Instead, for reasons divine or otherwise, he granted her request.

Perhaps it was natural for Margery to seek spiritual sisters -- but, though in the Netherlands the Beguine movement welcomed lay women, there was no such lay order in England.  So she went to see Julian, and the two spoke "privily" (privately); no record is known of what they discussed.

Julian, who had at a young age been beset by visions, which she called "showings," never spoke or allowed any writings about them to circulate during her lifetime.  Two versions of her Shewings are extant, one a good deal longer than the other, which suggests some possible revision later in her life.  She espoused a number of novel ideas, including that of Jesus as Mother, and was perhaps best known for her lines, echoed by the great poet T.S. Eliot in "Little Gidding" (I give the original first, and then Eliot's paraphrase):
After this the Lord browte to my mynd the longyng that I had to Hym aforn. And I saw that nothyng letted me but synne, and so I beheld generally in us al. And methowte, if synne had not a ben, we should al a ben clene and like to our Lord as He made us. And thus, in my foly, aforn this tyme, often I wondrid whiby the gret forseyng wysdam of God the begynyng of synne was not lettid. For than, thowte me, al shuld a be wele. This steryng was mikel to forsakyn, and nevertheless mornyng and sorow I made therefor without reason and discretion. But Jesus, that in this vision enformid me of all that me nedyth, answerid by this word, and seyd: Synne is behovabil, but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol: 
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well 
By the purification of the motive 
In the ground of our beseeching.

And yet, lovely as those lines -- and Julian's Showings -- are, it's hard to imagine what kind of life would be available to women today who, based on visions of a personal relationship with Christ, wished to lead a life as public religious figures. The film Household Saints -- extra points to anyone who watches it and writes a response -- suggests one possibility; but are there others?  The folk trio of Bock, Muir, and Trickett set the anchoress's words to music in their "Julian of Norwich," and Nick Cave wrote a song about "Christina the Astonishing" -- so perhaps these figures still speak to us today.  Do they to you?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The House of Fame

Chaucer's House of Fame is one of his major "dream poems," and many critics feel it's his finest. Although unfinished, it has all the best elements of his work: a vast, cosmic setting, a wry take on the conventions of allegory, and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Other poets were lofted to the skies by eagles, but only Chaucer's eagle complains about how heavy he is (and this would seem to accord with the portraits we have).

Many of the classical and continental poets admired by Chaucer used the dream-poem, with its personalized allegory of the order of things, as a vehicle for theological or ethical argument; some of the best-known were Cicero's Dream of Scipio Africanus, Alain de L'Isle's Plaint of Nature, and The Romance of the Rose (an English translation of which appears to have been Chaucer's first major work as a poet). Even Dante's Divine Comedy, with its most serious of settings, takes many of its cues from this tradition.

In the House of Fame, we see an explanation for the "fickleness" of Fame, both eternal (the names in stone) and ephemeral (the names carved in ice). We also get a treatise on acoustics, by way of explaining how the sounds of human chatter reach to the heavens, where the blind goddess Fame heralds them with one sort of trumpet -- or another.

But perhaps the most intriguing part of the poem, and the one that speaks most to us today, is the final section, describing the Domus Dedali (house of Daedalus). Here, trapped in a vast wicker rotating chamber, rumor-mongers of all stripes, repeat, distort, mangle, and contend with language. It sounds a lot like the Internet to me!

Some order is promised at the end, when a "man of great authority" -- imagined by some to have been meant to have been Dante himself -- steps forward -- but this, alas, turns out to be the last line of the poem. Unless some forgotten fragment turns up, the world will never know what this man might have said, or done.

NB: You can skip the latter portion of Book I (lines 140-496) which rehearses the story of the Æneid.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Wife of Bath

Of all of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, the "sely" Wife of Bath -- Alisoun, by name -- has been, from the very start, the most vivid and memorable. Her passion, her "wandering by the way," and her battles with each of the five husbands she had "at chirche door" are the stuff of legend.

And, as with other Canterbury pilgrims, the variants in Chaucer's manuscript reveal rich and complex possibilities that are lost in a standardized text or translation.  For instance, the Wife of Bath's Prologue famously begins:

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right y-nough for me ...

Except that, in many manuscripts, it doesn't. In the Corpus Christi manuscript -- one of the oldest and finest known -- it runs this way:

Experiment though noon Auctoritee
Were in this world, is ryght ynough for me ...             (folio 100r)

What difference does that make?  An enormous one, both then and now, as the renowned British author Jeanette Winterson has noted:
I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ – the compass of what they know – while men write wide and bold – the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?
So, if you were editing the text of the Wife of Bath's Prologue, which word would you choose?  And why?
NB: If you like, you can look up the words experiment and experience in the Middle English Dictionary, which will show you how those words were used in Chaucer's day.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

Yet although it is now more than 600 years old, Chaucer's poetry is strikingly modern, some might even say postmodern. Chaucer plays around with unreliable narrators -- one might say that CT has 29 of these -- and even inserts himself into the narrative (Chaucer's offering, the sing-songy "Tale of Sir Thopas," is rejected by the Knight, who swears that his "drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord" ('your filthy rhyming isn't worth a shit'). Part of the fun in reading Chacuer, of course, is discovering that bathroom humor, pathos, pride, and human stupidity are all at least 600 years old!

It should also be noted that, work of genius though it is, the Canterbury Tales are also incomplete. Chaucer's plan called for two tales from each pilgrim on the road to and back from Canterbury, whereas in the version that he left us, we never actually arrive at Canterbury, and not all of the pilgrims even get one tale, let alone two. Early readers often filled the gaps with tales of their own, including one version -- the "Tale of Beryn" -- in which they actually do reach Canterbury. The exact order of the tales is also unclear, although they are generally organized into seven Fragments, within which the order of tales and characters is at least somewhat consistent from manuscript to manuscript.

We'll start with what's now known widely as the "General Prologue" -- a preface to the Tales as a whole which Chaucer probably composed after some, but far from all, of the tales we know now were completed.  It offers a description of the visage (face), character, and "array" (clothing and equipment) that every pilgrim presented, and as a snapshot of late Medieval England, it's without peer.  Few of the pilgrims get off easy; aside from the Knight (and there's some debate about him), only the Parson and the Plowman -- and perhaps the Clerk -- get off without some harsh words and ironic comments on how they each fall short of the ideal for their class.  You'll notice, too, that by far the largest single block of pilgrims are "clerici" -- that is, religious : the Monk, the Friar, the Prioress (with a second nun and a priest), the Sumnour, the Pardoner, and the Clerk -- such that nearly 1/3 of a group of pilgrims, or any random group on the street, would be in religious orders or jobs!  Today, when the worldwide number of what the Vatican calls "members of the consecrated life" is only about 950,000 -- barely one hundredth of one percent of the present world population of seven billion -- times have certainly changed, and dramatically.  Of all the various clerical occupations, only that of the "Clerk" -- a sort of graduate student -- represents a significant class today; there are 20.2 million college students in the United States today, about 6% of our current population.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Beowulf II

The second section of Beowulf has much in common with the first -- it is framed by feasts, features a fight with a monster, and has a fortuitous finale. One may, rightly, wonder at the internal repetition of the narrative pattern, and so it makes sense to ask what's different the second time around.

We're told that Grendel 'nursed a hard greivance,' though its nature is somewhat vague -- it seems to have to do with a sense the that building of Heorot and the sounds of feasts within offended Grendel, as it was previously part of his domain (though one might point out, that from the point of view of monstrous appetites, it was rather like someone building a McDonald's next door to one's house). But unlike Grendel, Grendel's mother has a very specific grievance that the Saxons and we today can all instantly recognize: revenge for the death of her son.

But there are other, perhaps less-obvious points of comparison: Grendel's mother lacks a name (though in a poetic form averse to proper names, it may not be a handicap), and her visit to Heorot is quite differently framed; despite its ferocity it is fringed with fear: "the hell-dam was in panic; desperate to get out / in mortal terror the moment she was found." She had come, it seems, not so much for revenge as to retrieve her son's arm, which had been hung as a humiliating war-trophy from the cross-beam.

Hrothgar, belatedly, tells that he has heard tales of "two such creatures," and gives Beowulf directions to the mere (!) -- one wonders why he didn't say something about it sooner. And, though the response of the hero is no less bold than before, the battle is quite a different one: it takes place unseen by comrades, and Beowulf comes disturbingly close to defeat. His eventual victory comes by using like against like; only a weapon from the age of giants can slay a giant. His faithful comrades go home, believing he has lost, and he has to go after them to announce his victory, perhaps a foreshadowing of the faithlessness his retainers will show at his final battle with the dragon. All in all, it's a bleaker, lonelier episode, one that all the rich rewards offered at the second feast, it seems, can scarcely recompense for. Even for the boast-loving Saxons, there is a sense of hubris.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Beowulf I

Could Seamus Heaney be right? Might Beowulf be, in some sense, a postcolonial text intrinsically allied with the Irish literary tradition?  At first glance, the idea seems far-fetched. And yet ...

If we think in terms of postcolonial theory, of poco as a way of reading as much as a body of texts, then there are of course quite a few texts which in their narrative and structure embody the questions of a colonized people struggling to step forth from under domination by a foreign power. Shakespeare's The Tempest is a common text here, as it was in part inspired by the shipwreck of a small colonial flotilla, and the character of Caliban has been seen by many writers and critics as the embodiment of the subjugated or subaltern colonial subject. This view underlies many recent iterations of the Tempest story, such as Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête (A Tempest, 1968), which offers both a radical adaptation and response to Shakespeare's text.

The comparable figure in Beowulf, of course, is Grendel. Like Caliban, Grendel is the lone offspring of a powerful mother, an original inhabitant of the land on which the Shield-Danes built their hall of Heorot. The poem introduces Grendel's hatred of the Danes with the fact that their house was built upon his land. And, although the nominal hero here is the very man who slays Grendel and then his mother, there is room enough for a more sympathetic reading, as was demonstrated by John Gardner in his 1971 novel Grendel. And, with the enormous influence of Seamus Heaney's Irish-ized translation of Beowulf, the position of Ireland as England first colony has been re-framed in implicitly political terms. No less a figure than Professor Seth Lerer, in his essay “On fagne flor: The Postcolonial Beowulf, from Heorot to Heaney,” has taken up this question. Critics may counter, again, that such readings somehow distort the original sense and intent of the poem, but as with any literary text, we need to approach such claims with caution. Any search for the meaning and intent behind Beowulf is beset with difficulties, as it is already a palimpsest of multiple purposes, a warrior poem from a pagan era inscribed within a Christian polemic and rediscovered within the context of linguistic antiquarianism. By whom, and for whom, is such a text today? The postcolonial perspective may well be the answer for our times; the popularity of Heaney's translation will certainly keep this aspect of the poem in readers' minds.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Dream of the Rood

The land now known as England was originally inhabited by an unknown culture of people, sometimes referred to as "Megalithic" people (a reference to the standing stones they left at, among other places, Stonehenge).  These people were displaced by Celtic tribes, who in their turn were pushed back to the peripheries of the island by three Germanic tribes -- the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes -- who arrived in the fifth century to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman colonizers.  We know little of their culture, though, and nothing of their literature, until the moment when they were converted to Christianity -- and literacy -- a couple of centuries later, and some of the earliest texts we know are those used by missionaries to help persuade the Anglo-Saxons of the superiority of Christian belief. In fact, the very oldest written text -- The Dream of the Rood -- survives in part as a runic inscription on a stone cross (shown here).  The Dream is a proselytizing poem -- a poem that sought to convert its readers actively. The main speaker of the poem, in fact, is the Cross itself, which explains why it had to allow Christ to be crucified upon it -- a vital "backstory" for the Saxons, who considered crucifixion to be be the equivalent of "fraecodes gealga" -- the thieves' gallows. The cross, in contrast, represents itself as a faithful thegn (vassal) who only did as his Lord commanded, and was rewarded by having a mini-resurrection of his own, uplifted into the light of heaven, where it was covered with gold and rich gems, a hero's reward.

This mixture of Christian and pagan elements, as we will see, marks Beowulf as well, though there the source is a thoroughly pagan poem, interpolated and redacted by the poet -- who still knew the craft of alliterative verse as well as his (or her) ancestors -- into a Christian epic.  But we can also see the pure flight of Saxon verse in religious lyrics, most famously the hymn ascribed to Caedmon by the Venerable Bede.  Bede gave the poem only in Latin, but some nameless monks in his monastery added the Saxon original, and its fame traveled far and wide in the dominion of the Angles and Saxons.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Welcome to English 205

Gold coin of Coenwulf, King of Mercia
Welcome to the blog for our section of ENGL 205, British Literature to 1700, Fall 2016. As with any survey course, this one is selective; had we but worlds enough, and time, we could perhaps read a representative selection of literature from this thousand-year stretch, but alas we have only one semester.  So, we shall have to survey the shifting sands of the English canon as best we can -- paying homage alike to well-established monuments and the odd, forgotten Ozymandius – as well as investigating the strange and diverse forces through which canons themselves take shape.  We will begin by looking at the history of English as an academic field, and the cultural histories that have brought the “canon wars” to their current, uneasy truce.  We will read a wide variety of primary texts – poetry, drama, and fiction – from the full chronological range from Beowulf through 1800, along with selected commentaries and supplemental visual materials.  Weekly response essays of one page each will be the basis for our class discussions; there will also be two formal literary essays, a midterm and final on selected texts or themes.

Our textbook will the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ninth Edition, Volume I.