Archive for the 'Books' Category

Appian: The Civil Wars

July 14, 2018

The Civil Wars
Appian of Alexandria
Translated from the Greek by John Carter
(Penguin Classics, 1996) [c.150]
xliii + 436 p.

Lives of the Noble Romans
Gaius Marius, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cato the Younger, Brutus, Antony, Cicero
Plutarch
Translated from the Greek by John Dryden
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.100]

Livy’s surviving history broke off in the 160s BC. At that time the Roman Republic controlled the Italian peninsula, most of Spain, Asia Minor, and Greece, along with the swath of Northern Africa formerly held by Carthage. It was the end of a long period of consistent triumph for Rome. But fortune’s wheel turns, and the next 150 years were a time of tumult, trial, and war, a period, as Appian says,

well worth the attention of any who wish to contemplate limitless human ambition, terrible lust for power, indefatigable patience, and evil in ten thousand shapes. (I, 6)

It resulted finally in the collapse of the Republican government and the emergence of Imperial Rome.

Appian’s history of the Roman civil wars covers the period 133-35 BC in five Books; it is but a part of his more comprehensive history of Rome, but it attracts special attention, despite his defects as a historian, because it is our only surviving ancient source for the period 133-70 BC, years of great interest and import for what happened later.

“The hour calls forth the man” is a proverb (and, if it isn’t, it ought to be). In previous periods of Roman history one could usually focus on one or perhaps two main threads and major figures at any one time, but as the first century BC progressed and the political crises deepened they seemed to summon up a crowd of powerful personalities — in the year 50 BC, for example, a list of important political figures then living (if not all then in power) would include Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Octavius, Marc Antony, Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, and Cato — so that any adequate account has to slow down and descend into the details — which Appian certainly does, devoting about half of his history to the two or three years surrounding the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC. Obviously I can’t do the same in this forum, but I will try to sketch, in rough outline, how things developed as the Republic slowly crumbled.

The faltering Republic was beset by an abandonment of political traditions and breakdown of the rule of law. We can look, for instance, at the careers of the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, who were grandsons of the great general Scipio Africanus. Tiberius became tribune and proposed a number of reforms — specifically to redistribute land from the wealthy to the poor and to extend Roman citizenship more broadly to the conquered peoples of the Italian peninsula — and, when his programme encountered resistance, broke with both longstanding tradition and law by standing for (and winning) a second term as tribune. When Tiberius was opposed by the Senate, he simply sidestepped them — after all, their ratification was only customary, not necessary. And when he was opposed by another tribune during a vote, Tiberius had his opponent forcefully removed from the Forum, in flagrant violation of the long tradition of holding the person of the tribune sacrosanct. Harmless enough, you might think, and in the service of a good cause, perhaps, but the Roman tradition of rotating political offices every year was one of the oldest and most venerable political traditions they had, and the immunity of the tribune from violence or prosecution was quasi-sacred in nature; both had always been understood as safeguards against political tyranny. His younger brother Gaius was even more radical in his political programme and in his conduct: he held the tribunate for three years. Both brothers met violent ends at the hands of mobs, another sign that Rome’s political life was straining.

These trends continued in the career of Marius, who was first consul in 107, but who went on to hold the consulship a record seven times. Marius was a military hero who rose to prominence from an undistinguished background on the strength of his generalship. His greatest military achievement was, perhaps, his reform of Roman military tactics; he abandoned the maniple system Rome had used for centuries in favour of a new, three-line system that ensured that fresh troops would rotate to the front on a regular basis, and he achieved great success in the field. When in 91 the so-called Social War broke out between Rome and the subject peoples of Italy — a war that sounds more genteel than it was — Marius led the effort to put down the rebellion. But then, for complicated reasons, he returned to Rome and allowed his army to pillage the city, taking up residence as something like a military dictator.

He was opposed by Sulla, one of the most intriguing men to enter this history. He too had military success, in battles against Mithridates in the east, but when Marius occupied Rome Sulla returned with the intention of dislodging — and, as it turned out, displacing — him. Comments Appian:

“In this way the episodes of civil strife escalated from rivalry and contentiousness to murder, and from murder to full-scale war; and this was the first army composed of Roman citizens to attack their own country as though it were a hostile power” (I,60)

As it turned out, his job was done for him: Marius died, and Sulla moved in, declaring himself — or having himself declared — dictator. The office of dictator had been an official political role early in Roman history, invoked in periods of crisis, but it had always been understood as being limited in term to about 6 months or a year. Sulla was declared dictator for life. It would be hard to come up with a more radical upending of the Roman political system, but for Sulla it was just the beginning. He published proscription lists of his enemies; they were to be captured and executed, along with anyone who might try to help them escape. Sulla’s was a reign of terror. The paradox is that he was essentially a conservative figure: his radical measures aimed to restore the proper functioning of the Republican system. He saw that system buckling under strain, overtaken by violence and revolution, and he sought unrestricted power to shore it up. He broke the law in order to restore the law. And, in one of the most surprising turns in this or any other history, once he thought he had achieved his goal he relinquished his absolute power, walked away from political life and retired to a quiet country villa. But he had not achieved his goal, for what the next generation took from Sulla were not his objectives, but his methods, and those could be used against the Republic at least as effectively as Sulla had used them for it.

In Sulla’s conflict with Marius for control of Rome, he had been assisted by two able men: Crassus and Pompey, and in the aftermath of Sulla’s rule a rivalry between them brought both to prominence in Rome’s public life. They collaborated to put down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus in 73-71, but were thereafter at one another’s throats, jockeying for political position.

Into this fraught conflict came one Gaius Julius Caesar, a man of relatively humble station (patrician, but poor), who convinced the two that they would be stronger in partnership than in conflict, and that he could help them to achieve together both wealth and power. Thus was born the ‘first triumvirate’ — a rather distinguished title for what Mary Beard opts to call The Gang of Three, and what Varro called The Beast with Three Heads — an alliance that Caesar was to use to propel himself not only to an equal rank with Crassus and Pompey, but to the first rank, and that would effectively bring an end to the Republican government of Rome.

It all happened fairly rapidly. The alliance was formed in 59. Caesar took an army to Gaul where, for ten years, he fought his famous campaign (recounted in his Gallic Wars) that nearly doubled the size of the Roman empire, and brought Romans to Britain for the first time (albeit briefly), bringing Caesar immense wealth and popularity in the process. Crassus led an army to Parthia where, however, he was killed in 53, leaving Caesar and Pompey as the leading men of Rome. And, on the principle that “Three is company, but two is a crowd”, the alliance degenerated into a rivalry once again. In 49 Caesar returned to Italy, crossing the Rubicon with his army in violation of Roman law and setting the spark to inflame civil war. (Parenthetically, I was surprised to learn that historians do not know which river was the Rubicon.) Pompey, taken by surprise, took his army and fled to Greece, there to regroup, and Caesar occupied Rome.

Not resting on his laurels, Caesar pursued Pompey and they met in August 48 at the Battle of Pharsalus, at which Pompey went down to defeat. He fled to Egypt, where he was killed while going ashore by order of Egyptian authorities eager to get into Caesar’s good books. They, along with everyone else, could see the writing on the wall. Caesar was evidently the great man of the age, whom Appian describes as

“a man extremely lucky in everything, gifted with a divine spark, disposed to great deeds, and fittingly compared with Alexander.”

(Indeed, he goes on to compare Caesar and Alexander at some considerable length. [Book II,149-54])

But Caesar’s rule, as we know, was short. There were yet those in Rome who wanted to restore the Republic, and who resented these great men bent on treating Rome as their personal property, and of course Romans had a long-standing horror of kingship. Caesar appeared to them to be a king in all but name. And so it was that in 44 a conspiracy of about 10 men, led by Brutus (thought by some to be Caesar’s biological son, and certainly a man greatly favoured by Caesar) and Cassius, was formed to assassinate him. This assassination, narrated by Appian in Book II, 117, and in more detail by Plutarch in his life of Caesar, is of course well-known to us from Shakespeare’s play.

Following Caesar’s death, the conspirators fled, and much of Appian’s history is occupied with tracing what became of them, as, one by one, they were picked off. Brutus and Cassius met their end in 42, at the Battle of Philippi. Of them, Appian says in tribute:

“They were Romans of the highest nobility and distinction, and of unchallenged virtue, without a single stain…” (IV, 132)

which is slightly odd, because elsewhere he tends toward apologetics on behalf of Imperial Rome, and I would have thought that he would have consequently disapproved of Caesar’s assassins, as Dante did.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, the power vacuum left by Caesar’s death and the departure of the conspirators begged to be filled. The natural man for the part, in his own eyes at least, was Marc Antony, a man who, though given to drunkenness and debauchery, had a proven record of military prowess and had been Caesar’s protege. But when Caesar’s will was read it was discovered that he posthumously adopted as his son and heir his great-nephew, Octavian, then just 19 years old. Naturally this precipitated a rivalry between Antony and Octavian, a rivalry temporarily set aside in 43 by the formation of another alliance of convenience, the so-called ‘second triumvirate’, composed of Antony, Octavian, and Lucius Lepidus, one of history’s most notable third wheels.

This second Gang of Three began another, even more frightful, reign of terror to purge Rome of their enemies. Proscription lists were once again published in the Forum, and Appian devotes a long section (Book IV, 1-51) to stories, both happy and tragic, about what happened to those whose names appeared on these lists: betrayed by their wives, perhaps, or saved by their slaves. Perhaps the most famous name to appear on the list was Cicero’s; he had initially sided with Octavian against Antony, and with the formation of the triumvirate Antony insisted on his execution. He, who was by some reasonable measures the greatest of all the great men swaggering through this episode of history, was captured and killed in December 43.

In subsequent years the uneasy alliance within the triumvirate continued. Appian describes the relationship of Octavian and Antony in these terms:

“Their behaviour constantly swung between suspicion, arising from their desire for power, and trust, arising from their current needs.” (V, 94)

They fought together against Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey, who led an effective naval blockade against Rome that prevented grain reaching the city. Antony went east on campaign where he fell under the spell of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

Appian’s history of these civil wars comes to an end in 35, with the finale of the story yet untold. From other sources we know that, soon enough, open war broke out between the two, and in 30 Antony, seeing that he was beaten, committed suicide, leaving Octavian, at 28 years old, the unchallenged leader of the largest Empire the world had ever known.

It is said that Octavian went to Egypt after Antony’s death, and, like many before him, stood at the tomb of Alexander the Great. He was perhaps the only person in history who could do so without feeling humbled at the comparison. He returned home, and three years later took the name Caesar Augustus, the first unequivocal emperor of Rome.

**

Almost everything about this history has been fascinating. Of course I knew bits and pieces of it, but I had not before seen them all put together, with the gaps filled. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Appian is not a historian with the talents of Livy — how I wish Livy’s account of this period had survived! His account is sometimes disjoint and he makes mistakes of fact — the latter not such a problem in this Oxford edition, which is festooned with copious notes. My main complaint is that he is not good at conveying the character of the people whose actions he describes; they rarely come to life as real historical people. I supplemented my reading, therefore, with a number of Plutarch’s lives, and, for good measure, with Shakespeare’s plays on Caesar and Antony (and Cleopatra). I would recommend the same sensible and rewarding course to others interested in this period of history.

Johnson: Life of Swift

June 29, 2018

Life of Swift
Samuel Johnson
(Bigelow, Smith & Co, 1929) [c.1780]
50 p.

For me the appeal of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets is more Johnson than the poets. That said, Jonathan Swift was a man worthy of this great moralist’s attention. His Life begins with a chronological overview of the main events of Swift’s life and of his principle literary works, and then concludes with an appraisal of his personality and literary merits.

Swift was born in Ireland, and lived most of his life there, with occasional residence in England. He was a late bloomer; his first major literary work (“Dissensions in Athens and Rome”, now mostly forgotten) was not published until he was in his mid-30s. He earned his reputation as a critic and satirist, and became a sort of public figure without ever holding an official public office. Indeed, he entered into the life of a clergyman to earn his daily bread — something that I knew, but had forgotten, and was surprised to learn again. He eventually became the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, a church of the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland, and “much against his will commenced Irishman for life”.

Although he had preferred to be in England than Ireland, he became a friend and champion of the Irish people against the English, putting his wit and his influence to work on their behalf. The famous essay “A Modest Proposal” (which Johnson does not mention) is an example of his method. For this advocacy he was widely admired by the Irish.

Swift’s was a difficult personality. Johnson describes him in this way:

He is querulous and fastidious, arrogant and malignant; he scarcely speaks of himself but with indignant lamentations, or of others but with insolent superiority when he is gay, and with angry contempt when he is gloomy.

And, in another place:

His asperity continually increasing, condemned him to solitude; and his resentment of solitude sharpened his asperity.

He was a man whom few dared to cross, possessed of “a countenance sour and severe, which he seldom softened by any appearance of gaiety”. He was not given to laughter, but of course not entirely without humour; his Saharan-grade dry wit served his satirical talents. He was a religious man but he hid his devotions from the view even of his friends. He had a “dread of hypocrisy. Instead of wishing to seem better, he delighted in seeming worse than he was.” He carried on for many years an ambiguous relationship with a woman much his junior, Esther Johnson, whom some believed he had secretly married — Johnson certainly believed it. Upon his death he was buried beside her in his cathedral.

When we think of Swift, we probably think first of either “A Modest Proposal” or Gulliver’s Travels, the two works on which his fame largely rests. About Gulliver Johnson writes that

it was read by the high and the low, the learned and illiterate. Criticism was for a while lost in wonder; no rules of judgment were applied to a book written in open defiance of truth and regularity.

He does not specify how it was read by the illiterate, but the point is clear: it was a popular success that defied categorization. It is notable that in our time it is often classified as a children’s book, an indication that we still don’t really know what to make of it. In Swift’s poetry Johnson judges that “there is not much upon which the critic can exercise his powers” — perhaps a surprising judgment given that we are here reading from the Lives of the Poets, but so be it. I myself read a volume of Swift’s poetry a few years ago and I agree with Johnson. (Woe betide him who does not!)

For Johnson, Swift is principally admirable for his use of satire in just causes — he “showed that wit, confederated with truth, had such force as authority was unable to resist” — and for the distinctiveness of his literary voice, for

perhaps no writer can easily be found that has borrowed so little, or that, in all his excellences and all his defects, has so well maintained his claim to be considered as original.

**

As I said above, much of the appeal of reading Johnson comes from reading Johnson, whose pen drips aphorisms and pithy judgments as readily as trees drop leaves in an autumn wind. Here is a sampling:

[On criticism of public figures]
Where a wide system of conduct, and the whole of a public character, is laid open to inquiry, the accuser, having the choice of facts, must be very unskilful if he does not prevail.

[On irresolution]
He that knows not whither to go, is in no haste to move.

[On flattery]
He that is much flattered soon learns to flatter himself.

[On peculiar habits]
…singularity, as it implies a contempt of the general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provokes the hostility of ridicule; he, therefore, who indulges peculiar habits, is worse than others, if he be not better.

[On fruit]
Almost everybody eats as much fruit as he can get, without any great inconvenience.

Ratzinger: In the Beginning

June 17, 2018

In the Beginning
A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
(Eerdmans, 1986)
100 p.

Based on four Lenten homilies given in 1981, this book examines the first three chapters of Genesis in the light of both the Church’s enduring teaching and our contemporary situation.

It is a theological study, not a scientific one, but Cardinal Ratzinger does grapple with how the sciences have affected our theological understanding of these foundational texts. He makes a basic point — basic, but nonetheless often forgotten — that the Bible is not a scientific text, and should not be read as one. Scripture itself varies its images of God’s creative action, even giving two distinct creation accounts, so that we are to understand that we should distinguish the content — what is being said — from the form in which it is said. And what is being said is something theological:

Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God’s eternal Reason, which became — in the Word — the power of creation. All of this comes from the same Word of God that we meet in the act of faith.

For Christians, by long established tradition, the Scriptures are read and interpreted with the understanding that they form a unity, a unity founded on Christ: the whole points to him. Applied to the Creation accounts, this means that we should not be surprised to find that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who in that particularity might be thought a kind of local deity, is actually the Creator of all things, the God and father of all, whose salvation is ultimately intended for all — and that this universal fatherhood is precisely what Christ came to make manifest. The creative action of God is mediated by his Son, the Word, by whom and in whom the rational structure of reality is constituted — and this order in things is itself one of the principal truths the creation accounts are meant to teach.

The idea that the world is made according to a rational order Ratzinger finds reinforced by the use of numbers in the creation accounts. There are the 7 days of creation, of course, but also instances of three and four, and the phrase “And God said” occurs ten times, which he (following a tradition?) argues is meant to remind us of the Ten Commandments, suggesting a harmony between the physical and moral orders, as both proceeding from the same source.

But what does it mean to talk about Creation in an age that can give a thorough and persuasive temporal account of how the world came to be the way it is? Is it still reasonable to speak about “Creation”? The Catholic tradition says that it is reasonable, for the good and obvious reason that being does not explain itself. The state of things may be, at some level of explanation, explicable in terms of some underlying order, but that underlying order does not account for itself. Scientific explanations of the physical order, no matter how elaborate and ingenious and praiseworthy, are ultimately incomplete, because powerless to account for the principles operative within that physical order. This is an inescapable conclusion derived from the empirical nature of the sciences. Moreover, there are aspects of the world, such as the moral order, which the sciences are not equipped to investigate.

Cardinal Ratzinger takes a special interest in the passage in Genesis 2 (v.4-9) in which God makes man from the dust of the earth. What does this teach us? It does not explain “how human persons come to be but rather what they are”. He identifies at least three things we should notice: first, a man is not God, he is made and does not make himself, he is contingent and not necessary; second, a man is neither a beast nor a demon (as could be inferred from some other, non-Biblical creation stories), but good, as being the special creation of a good God; and third, all men are equal in dignity and, in their common origin, unified. This unity is underlined and augmented by Christianity, for the Incarnation united our common nature to God himself, thereby further uniting each of us to one another, and in a most exalted sense.

In the story of the Fall, we see that humanity, made good in its essence and oriented to God, also lives under limitations imposed by the nature of good and evil. We have freedom, but must not use that freedom in certain ways. Denial of those limitations — which he argues is “a fundamental part of what constitutes modernity” — means a denial of the reality of things as they actually are. When we live in that way, rejecting creation and not acknowledging that things have natures independent of our will, we live in untruth, which the Scriptures call the realm of death. This same denial — called sin — destroys our relationships with one another, with the world, and with its Creator, a destruction that can ultimately be repaired and restored only by the Creator himself, and this is the meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection: to re-establish relationships. Christ, once again, is at the centre.

*

[Creation and humility]
The fundamental Christian attitude is one of humility, a humility of being, not a merely moralistic one: being as receiving, accepting oneself as created and dependent on love.

[Doing and seeing]
People recognize the good only when they themselves do it. They recognize the evil only when they do not do it.

Brown: Magnus

May 28, 2018

Magnus
George Mackay Brown
(Berlinn, 2018) [1973]
208 p.

Just why it is that the Orkney Islands exercise such an outsized influence on my imagination is hard to say. Maybe it has something to do with their remoteness, dropped in a swath of cold, wild seas, in combination with their proximity, both geographically and culturally, to the familiar terrain of Scotland, which together give them the character of a borderland, not wholly alien, but still distant and mysterious.

George Mackay Brown was a poet and novelist who himself hailed from those islands, and here he novelizes the life of St Magnus Erlendsson, a twelfth-century Earl of Orkney. Magnus is not a conventional saint; he is a powerful man embroiled in a succession dispute in a violent age. There are few scenes of gentleness or cheerful piety; this world is hard and stern. Yet even so, Magnus stands out. In one memorable scene he goes to war in a longship; surrounded by brutal violence on all sides he stands, courageously, reading aloud to the men from the Psalter. But, as Earl, he bears not only his own interests, but also the interests of those who depend upon him for their livelihood, safety, and welfare. This responsibility he cannot escape, and it drives him forward, tragically.

The story is told unconventionally. We never, unless I am mistaken, get very close to Magnus himself. Rather the tale is told by those around him, or those under him: monks, tinkers, farmers. Sometimes the story wanders, following the trials and travels of these other figures in apparent forgetfulness of its main subject. But Magnus is always there, in the background, in fragments of conversation that refer to him, or simply inasmuch as he is responsible for the conditions under which these, his people, live, work, and suffer.

As one might expect from a poet novelist, the writing is superb. Brown is exquisitely sensitive to tone, and he varies it effectively as he switches from scene to scene. For the most part the prose is unadorned, as befits the rough condition of his setting and characters. Here is a passage chosen at random:

Mans the peasant from Revay Hill in Birsay laboured at the rowing bench. His clenched fists made circles. His oar rose and fell. He sweated. His face went from bilgewater to the gulls above the mast, then back again to the swilter and glug of foul water among the bottomboards.

That gives a sense of the style in which much of the book is written, but there are numerous exceptions. The opening chapter is a beautiful description of a bridal party preparing the bride — Magnus’ mother — for her wedding night, a sequence that concludes with a scop composing bridal songs:

Blow out the lamp now. There is a hand at the latch. Now I pray to Christ and the Blessed Immaculate Virgin and to all saints and martyrs that this shape I imagine in my body, this boy, may wear the white coat of innocence always. War to redden it, intrigue to fray it, lust to filthy it, treachery to tear it: these things must be. But I pray that his soul may never be wrapped in the seamless flame of eternal loss. I pray that he may bring his white weave continually, this Magnus, to the waters of grace, and in the hour of his death to the last brightest rinsings of absolution.

A miracle of imaginative fiction is that by it we see the world through the eyes, and with the sensibility, of another, and this whole bridal sequence is an outstanding example of an author allowing us to see and feel how our ancestors saw an intrinsic connection between marriage, sexuality, love, and fertility.

There is another marvellous section in which Magnus prays through the night in a church, meditating at length on the Mass and the nature of sacrifice in religion. It is a beautiful piece of writing in itself, but I recommend it particularly to Catholics, whom I think would appreciate it both aesthetically and spiritually, as I did.

Returning to the tonal variations: at one point the authentic ring of Anglo-Saxon verse can be heard:

I must tell now concerning the jarl Hakon Paul’s son, how he summoned about him an host, and set them in eight war-hungry ships. Then those tryst-men heard a great boast, how that from the meeting in Egil’s Isle but one jarl would fare him home at sunset, and that not Magnus. A death-lust on listening faces about the mast, a weaving of warped words. Sigurd and Sighvat were the blackest mouths in all that hell-parle. Fierce sea stallions trampled the waves.

And, finally, there is one virtuoso example of tonal shift, dramatically placed at the climax of the story, that put me in a state of wondering admiration, not only at how Brown subtly transitioned from medieval to modern times, his setting and characters gradually transforming into something else, creating a literary effect very much like a cinematic dissolve, but also for how his doing so greatly expanded the book’s range and ambition. I’m strongly tempted to write about this in detail, it being, in some real sense, the centrepiece of the novel, but out of consideration for those who might like to read the book and be surprised, I will not.

When I closed the last page of Magnus I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. As it happens, I did not actually do this, but over the intervening weeks it has lingered in my imagination, and I may return to it again before too long.

From the book’s Wikipedia page I have learned that Peter Maxwell Davies adapted this novel into a 1977 opera. I’d like to hear it.

L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time

May 23, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle
(Square Fish, 2007) [1962]
256 p.

I have several friends for whom A Wrinkle in Time was a childhood favourite, one of those books that made a big impression at an impressionable age and lingered long in the memory. Somehow I missed reading it myself until now, when, partly because my memory was jogged by the release of the recent film version, and partly because I’ve been wondering whether our eldest might enjoy it, it burbled to the top of the pot.

The story is about Meg, a girl whose scientist father went on a mysterious work-related journey several years before and never returned. She lives at home with her mother and three brothers, including young Charles Wallace, an articulate four-year old who clearly has unusual intellectual gifts — and maybe other gifts too. We are not surprised to learn, as the story unfolds, that the adventure on which Meg and young Charles Wallace embark, together with a neighbour boy Calvin, is a quest to rescue their father and bring him home.

The nature of this quest takes the story into the realms of science fiction and even fantasy, involving, as it does, visits to alien worlds, all under the chaperonage of a trio of mysterious beings capable of making spacetime “wrinkle up” in such a way as to make intergalactic time travel as easy as kiss my hand.

There is a good deal to like about the book. It has, mostly, I found, through the character of Charles Wallace, a sense of mysterious possibility floating above or behind the specifics of the story. There are some intriguing ideas in L’Engle’s portrayal of other worlds and their inhabitants, if you like that sort of thing (and, in full disclosure, I must admit that I don’t really). There is one particularly arresting visual image of social conformity on an alien world. The concluding chapter of the story, in which it reaches its crisis and resolution, was for me quite moving and effective.

On the other hand, I don’t quite understand why the book has such a strong reputation. The story is slight, and felt to me almost perfunctory. (In fairness, I should note that the book is but the opening gambit of a tetralogy.) Charles Wallace notwithstanding, my overall sense of the prose was that it was thin and lacking personality. The three “Mrs” characters, who are supposed to be the principal bearers of mystery and the otherworldly, just didn’t work for me. Galadriel they are not.

The book has been praised as a superior example of “Christian fiction”, especially, I think, in evangelical circles, where categories like “Christian fiction” are fashionable. It’s not a wholly unwarranted designation. Jesus is mentioned (alongside a catalogue of other great figures, like Michelangelo and Gandhi — a sufficiently ambiguous context that the book has actually been banned in some jurisdictions for syncretic tendencies). Scripture is quoted a few times, by one of the “Mrs” characters who is forever quoting this or that famous saying. At a deeper level, the book’s climactic sequence is at least arguably rooted in the Gospel, and Meg’s main character arc is one in which the virtue she stands most in need of is not courage or justice, but love. It is far from feeling like a self-consciously Christian work of fiction, but more like a work of fiction that exists within and draws upon a living Christian inheritance. That inheritance is less sumptuous now than it was when L’Engle wrote the book, and it’s little surprise that the makers of the recent film version (reportedly) excised all of the Christian references. They may be mild, but evidently not mild enough for some tastes.

Linked links

May 15, 2018
  • This blog was called All Manner of Thing because in the beginning I didn’t know what it would be, but, given how it has turned out, it might have been called Reading My Library. That’s just what our long-time friend Janet Cupo has called her new blog, which I recommend highly.
  • Reading my library sometimes feels that it could be a full-time job (and I am accepting offers from investors who would like to pay me to do it), but what about reading the Vatican Archives, with its 53 linear miles of shelves? A group of researchers are trying to make it easier by using Optical Character Recognition to convert the handwritten manuscripts into searchable text. The Atlantic has a fascinating article on the method and the technical challenges.
  • The special character of Cistercian architecture can also be recognized optically, especially when a talented photographer is at hand. Such is the case with Federico Scarchilli’s collection of photos of Italian Cistercian abbeys. They remind me of a wonderful book, David Heald’s Architecture of Silence, which I cannot recommend highly enough; it is a book that seems to make time stand still.
  • What would it mean to claim that time does stand still — or, put another way, that time is an illusion? This was apparently the view of Kurt Gödel. Ed Feser looks at his reasons, and the possible reasons behind his reasons.
  • Gödel may have been something like an idiot savant, but Gary Paul Morson argues that Dostoyevsky was The Idiot savant in his fascinating essay on the story and backstory of the novel.
  • Dostoyevsky was one of the authors Rene Girard principally relied upon in his early work of literary criticism Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which I’ve had on my shelves for years, as yet unread. (Again, investors welcome.) An excerpt from Cynthia Haven’s forthcoming biography of Girard takes a very interesting look at this book, its argument, and its influence.
  • Another appraisal of a notable book’s argument and influence is Brain Smith’s essay on Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, which turns 35 this year. I am tempted to say that this is my favourite of Percy’s books, though I have read it only once, and should probably revisit it before making such a claim official.
  • I should revisit the Hammerklavier sonata too, which I sometimes claim to dislike because of all the banging, but probably mostly avoid because it is too large and sublime for me to understand. An occasion arises both because of an informative essay, coloured by the purple prose that a piece of such immense sublimity reliably conjures up, and also because my favourite pianist, Murray Perahia, has recently recorded it alongside my children’s favourite sonata.
  • It’s relevant that my children like it, because of course what they like and dislike affects what I get to hear, just as they affect pretty much everything about my life. Michael Chabon, the novelist, writes a touching piece about how good it is that children get in the way of what adults want to do.
  • On the other hand, adults sometimes have to get in the way of what children want to do. Joseph Bottum writes about the special challenges of being a parent when children are surrounded by, and fascinated with, digital screens.
  • Finally, my screen fascination is never so great as when Terrence Malick is on the marquee. It is with happy trepidation that I hear of a forthcoming extended version of The Tree of Life. Rumours have long circulated that Malick compressed the ending of the theatrical release, with mixed results, but this forthcoming extended version is apparently going to extend the central sections of the film, not the ending.
  • I extended the central sections of this post, but not the ending.

Douthat: To Change the Church

May 7, 2018

To Change the Church
Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
Ross Douthat
(Scribner, 2018)
256 p.

My interest in Church politics ranks somewhere below my interest in professional sports, and I last watched a game of professional sports about two years ago. Nonetheless, I have been aware of at least some of the controversies that have been unfolding during these past five years of the pontificate of Pope Francis. My response has been, mostly, to ignore them. For most of history Catholics have not bothered themselves with the minutiae of papal governance, and my basic attitude has been that it will sort itself out in the end, without my contrivance. I owe the Holy Father my prayers and my good will, not my anxious criticism.

This is a defensible position, but, then again, being informed about goings-on in the Church is not a bad thing either, and when the opportunity came up to read Ross Douthat’s new book about Francis’ pontificate, I took it up with curiosity. He gives an overview of the main events thus far, including those that have generated the controversy, sets them in the context of Catholic politics since Vatican II, and speculates on what the likely consequences might be for the future.

Douthat is a broadly conservative writer, but employed as columnist at the New York Times, and so accustomed to rubbing shoulders each day with liberals, and adept at seeing things from their point of view. Something to admire about his book is that, although he has a variety of concerns about what Francis has been doing, his assessment is remarkably even-handed — more even-handed than I would be, quite honestly. He is critical of liberal trends under Francis, but he is critical too of the conservative elements that have resisted them. He does not pretend to know how things will, or should, turn out, but he does raise a number of questions — questions that seem to me to be entirely reasonable.

It is conventional to frame the main disagreements that have roiled Francis’ papacy as being between “liberals” and “conservatives”. I don’t particularly like this language, borrowed from secular politics, but no other terms have gained currency. Generally speaking, it is fair to say that liberals put emphasis on the Church changing to keep up with changing times, while conservatives put emphasis on stability and continuity, and Catholics know that since Vatican II, especially, a conflict between the two sides has played out across many issues, ranging from the Church’s moral teaching to her liturgical practices.

The book begins with an overview of how Church affairs have developed across those fifty years since Vatican II, sketched first from a broadly liberal point of view (“a promising renewal betrayed by the hierarchy”), and then from a broadly conservative (“a temporarily hijacked renewal recovered by John Paul II”). He discusses the dramatic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, not without some pointed criticism (“an implicitly secularizing act, one that undercut the traditional image of the pontiff as a spiritual father”), and then the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis. We learn — which I did not know and am probably not supposed to know — that Bergoglio had been second in voting at the conclave that elected Benedict, and emerged quickly as the favourite at the 2013 conclave.

To Douthat’s way of thinking, the first year of Francis’ papacy was a very promising one, especially against the backdrop of Church history since Vatican II. The Pope brought a new perspective to the papal office, and this was healthy. His pontificate shifted emphasis away from certain hot-button issues (mostly pertaining to the sexual revolution and all its empty promises) toward the Church’s social teaching on solidarity with the poor, economic injustice, and stewardship of the natural world, and the hope was that in so doing he would bridge the divide between liberals and conservatives, reduce the heat on the long-simmering internal controversies, and forge a new Catholic centre. Writes Douthat:

“Part of the promise of his pontificate was that there could be once again in the developed world an orthodox Catholic liberal-left, as in the time of Dorothy Day and Catholic New Dealers and the Christian Democrats of Western Europe. The hope in Francis’s early days was that he would revive a form of Catholic engagement with modern political economy that was populist or anti-plutocratic .. but also orthodox in its theology, countercultural in its attitude toward the sexual revolution, zealous in its commitment to the essentials of the faith.”

But then — alas! — came the Synod on the Family, first in 2014 and then, a second meeting, in 2015, and on those shoals the pontificate struck; its aftermath has, in Douthat’s view, undermined most of that early promise, consumed the good will of both right and left, and ignited a high-stakes debate over Catholicism’s future.

Douthat’s basic reading of Francis’ pontificate, of which the story is the Synod is an important part, is that it is an attempt to make peace with certain aspects of the modern world, and especially with the sexual revolution. I resist that conclusion, but it is Douthat’s view. The Catholic Church has, over the past few decades, as the sexual revolution’s consequences have gradually unfolded, been the principal public institution opposed. This has cost her influence and friends, of course, and there have always been voices within the Church complaining about that, but she has held fast to her teachings in fidelity, she said, to the faith once delivered.

To a conservative, there is nothing particularly troublesome about this state of affairs. Prevailing moral norms vary from time to time, and from place to place, and the Church teaches what she teaches in season and out. Those who have ears will hear. Of course the conflicts between her moral vision and that of whatever culture she finds herself confronting should not be artificially exaggerated, and searching for common ground is good and healthy, but neither should the mere fact of a conflict occasion any serious doubts about her teachings, and certainly it would be foolhardy, in a short-sighted vein, for her to abandon those teachings in order to make herself more appealing. “He who marries the spirit of the age soon makes himself a widower,” said Chesterton; the Church is married to Christ.

And so, in the face of the sexual revolution, with its legacy of broken families, dead children, casual intimacy, and loneliness, the Church would seem to have all the more reason to hold fast in confidence to her teachings, presenting them as winsomely as possible, patiently, against the day when people will, once again, begin to listen. In the meantime, she does her best to treat the wounded and welcome home prodigals. And there might indeed be certain measures she could take to make that treatment more widely available, and make that welcome more fulsome. A variety of reforms, such as a relaxing of the conditions for annulment, have been proposed.

But at the Synod on the Family, an influential group of Cardinals, seemingly but not certainly supported by the Holy Father,

“fastened on the one reform that the Church could not contemplate — at least not without falling into self-contradiction and performing an auto-demolition on its own claim to authority.”

The reform in question was, of course, admitting the divorced and re-married to Holy Communion. This reform seemed (but see below) to contradict Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, a teaching founded directly on the still-shocking words of Christ (in Mark 10 and Matthew 19). This reform, first put forward by Walter Cardinal Kasper (at the invitation of the Pope), was supported by a group hand-picked by the Pope to manage the Synod. But they were opposed by a considerable conservative block; liberalizing language did not garner enough support to qualify for inclusion in the final report. Whereupon the Holy Father ordered its inclusion anyway, and concluded the Synod with a memorable speech berating the opposition.

All of this was remarkable enough. Then came the post-Synodal exhortation Amoris laetitia (which, I confess, I have not read). The many different readings of this document that have proliferated in the meantime testify to its ambiguity. Some claim it is fully consistent with what the Church has always taught about marriage, family, and sacramental life; others say that it introduces a “new paradigm” in Catholic moral theology. Some have claimed to discover, in a footnote — a footnote the Holy Father has claimed not to remember writing — warrant to change the Church’s practice about admitting the re-married to Communion, and several bishops’ conferences have acted on that alleged discovery. These liberal readings of the document follow a pattern familiar from the aftermath of Vatican II: “whatever was novel was taken to control the text’s meaning and implications; whatever was conservative was assumed to be vestigial.” It’s a tactic that seems to have duped the conservative Cardinals now as then.

To these liberalizing changes there has been little resistance from Rome, and some encouragement. Douthat’s interpretation is that, having lost the battle at the Synod, the fall-back position for the liberals has been to decentralize, pushing decisions out to local bodies of bishops, and letting a thousand roses bloom, as it were. (A recent instance.) The problem, of course, is that what is a sin in one diocese can now, apparently, be acceptable in another. This is irrational.

In all of this, my inclination has been to give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt. When the Synod was happening, my hopeful reading of the turmoil was that he was gentle and cunning; perhaps by seeming to give support to Kasper, he was actually giving the most liberal Cardinals enough rope with which to hang themselves — and this may yet prove to be the final result, but not, Douthat has convinced me, during this pontificate. In the meantime, it is hard to understand the Pope’s actions as anything other than favourable to the liberal faction.

As Douthat said in the citation above, this is troubling for two main reasons: it seems to endorse a position at odds with basic Catholic teaching on marriage and sacramental life, teaching founded unusually firmly on the words of Jesus; and it seems to be at odds with clear papal teaching, both remote and proximate, and if the Pope can teach something contrary to his predecessors, then presumably his successors can likewise teach something contrary to him, and papal authority puts itself at risk of becoming transient and partisan. This, too, is irrational. Popes may not contradict one another on matters of faith and morals.

**

It is perhaps worth pausing for a moment, leaving Douthat and his furrowed brow, to think about the main contested issue — that of admitting to Communion those who have divorced and re-married.

The Church’s withholding of Holy Communion from Catholics in this state does not rest, unsupported, in the air, but is a conclusion from premises, and some of those premises are:

1. A valid Christian marriage is indissoluble.
2. A Catholic may be married to not more than one person at any one time.
3. Married spouses can reasonably be presumed to have an ongoing sexual relationship.
4. Adultery is a grave sin.
5. Marriage is a public commitment.
6. A public commitment to commit a sin makes that sin manifest.
7. A Catholic presumably in a state of grave, manifest sin cannot be presumed to be in a state of grace.
8. A Catholic must be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion.

From 1 and 2 we deduce that a Catholic cannot licitly contract a second marriage without an annulment of the first, for in the eyes of the Church, and of God, he remains married to his first spouse; this is just what Christ said, and is the cornerstone of the whole argument. Adding 3 we deduce that a Catholic who contracts a second marriage without an annulment of his first can reasonably be presumed to be committing adultery. With Premise 4 we can reasonably presume that he commits a grave sin. The addition of premises 5 and 6 yields that such a Catholic can reasonably be presumed to be in a state of grave, manifest sin. Therefore, from premise 7, that person cannot presume, and should not be presumed, to be in a state of grace. And therefore, finally (premise 8), that person should not receive Holy Communion.

The peculiar position we now seem to find ourselves in is that there are highly placed churchmen, possibly including the Holy Father himself, who want to change the conclusion of this argument, but do not specify which of the premises they consider to be false. No doubt Premise 1 seems radical, but it is the most securely founded on the words of Jesus; his disciples thought it radical too, but he didn’t see fit to change it on that account. Premises 2-4 and 8 are, similarly, all based on Scripture and are declared in Catholic teaching. Premise 5 is, under normal circumstances, reasonable. Premise 6 is arguably tautological. Likewise Premise 7. The presumption of sexual union (premise 3) is of course not always accurate, and for this reason an exemption from the denial of Communion to re-married Catholics can be, and is, granted in special cases. Otherwise, an attack on any one of these premises is either going to be theologically fraught, frankly unreasonable, or both.

Yet as bad as the denial of any one of these premises would be, the denial of none of them (while denying the conclusion deduced from them) is arguably worse, for it casts doubt on all of them. It’s a difficult position to be in, not knowing which section of the roof might cave in first.

There is some evidence that it is premise 8 that is being challenged most directly. The Pope himself, in that famous, all too easily forgotten footnote, has said that the Eucharist is a “medicine for the sick”. This is true, of course, but can be read in different ways. Some of the Cardinals promoting Kasper’s proposal have taken it to mean that a person could be, objectively and knowingly, committing a serious sin (like adultery), and not to have a serious purpose of amendment (owing to some unspecified range of difficulties), but nonetheless be admitted to Communion. The Church, it is said, should “accompany” that person as he discerns what to do. This is one way to think about Communion, but it has not, heretofore, been the Catholic way.

There is also an unstated premise in the argument above: A marriage should be presumed to be valid. This too seems reasonable (and is affirmed in Canon Law) but there is evidence that Pope Francis denies it, and this might account for the decisions he makes. For if many (or even a large majority) of Catholics are in invalid marriages, those relationships are not indissoluble, and the distinction drawn between the married and re-married ceases to make demographic, and, arguably, pastoral sense. But this cure is worse than the disease, for one trades having a smaller set of adulterers seeking Communion for a larger set of fornicators seeking the same, and without sensibly mitigating the problems of the smaller set (for the re-marriages cannot be presumed to be more valid than the initial marriages). This, quite apart from the legitimate pastoral problems that such a view would create for all (putatively) married Catholics worldwide, for how could one be reasonably confident in the validity of one’s own marriage? I myself do not see a clear path out of these woods along these lines.

**

These considerations make reasonable, to my mind, the dubia which were submitted to Pope Francis after the Synod: several questions posed by a group of Cardinals seeking clarification on the meaning of things written in Amoris laetitia. The Pope, as is his right, declined to answer, which, however, only added to the prevailing confusion, raising afresh the possibility that the Pope actually does not want to speak clearly on these matters, and fosters uncertainty intentionally.

The whole situation has a certain strange quality to it. The papacy is, in its nature, an intrinsically conservative office. The role of the Pope is to be the guardian of Catholic doctrine, preserving it from error and maintaining continuity with the faith once delivered to the apostles. What, then, are we to make of a Pope who, possibly, is not inclined to exercise his office conservatively?

I put the question in that tentative form because the Holy Father has, himself, been quite reticent to speak, and seems more comfortable with ambiguity than clarity on these matters. Those churchmen with whom he has surrounded himself, however, have not been so reticent, and what they have said caused my eyebrows to go up on more than one occasion.

The most common response, for instance, to the conservative concern that the changes proposed by Cardinal Kasper alter Church doctrine — for instance, on the indissolubility of marriage — has been to say that the doctrine remains unchanged and only Church discipline is changing. This is itself an odd reply, as though a dissonance between orthodoxy and orthopraxy could be somehow advantageous, but, anyway, it is presented as a minor matter. This, at least, is the response to conservatives, but to other audiences they sometimes answer differently. Douthat does a good job of gathering up these Jekyll-and-Hyde replies in a passage that is worth quoting at length (and which, in the book, is liberally footnoted):

“Francis’ defenders, when it suited them, … downplayed the stakes when the pope faced some sort of setback or opposition; the rest of the time, they tended to play up the significance of what he was attempting to accomplish…

“The Kaspar proposal is just a change of discipline, not doctrine … but by the way, the church should establish intercommunion with Protestants as soon as possible. Conservatives are wildly overreacting when they interpret Amoris as a kind of surrender to the sexual revolution … but by the way, the church should offer recognition to gay couples and grant last rites to suicides and revisit Humanae Vitae and for heaven’s sake stop obsessing about abortion. It is ludicrous to suggest that Francis was changing doctrine on marriage … but by the way, his casual comments on the death penalty and just war meant that he was developing church teaching on those issues too, and soon any Catholic who favored capital punishment would be out of step with the modern magisterium. It is absurd to suggest that any core Catholic teaching was at stake in the synodal debates … but by the way, Jesus’ strict teaching on marriage probably reflected his mistaken view that the world was about to end, or maybe we just don’t know what Jesus really said, because after all the Gospel writers didn’t have tape recorders. It is ludicrous to draw analogies between the Amoris controversies and the great debates over Arianism or Gnosticism or Lutheranism … but in fact, now that you mention it, some semi-Arian understandings of Jesus, some semi-Gnostic concepts of the human person, some semi-Lutheran understandings of sin and the sacraments, might actually deserve a home in the Catholic Church. It was ridiculous to say that Catholicism’s intellectual integrity and theological consistency were at stake in the remarriage debate … but in fact it’s time for the church to acknowledge that “theology is not Mathematics,” and if necessary “2+2 in theology can make 5.””

It is hard to know what to make of this sort of thing. Maybe it is just human folly run amuck on Vatican precincts, and nothing to worry overmuch about. Catholicism has survived many things, including, in living memory, a silly season that persisted through most of the 1970s and 1980s, and it will survive this too. And it will. But it is dispiriting, all the same, to contemplate the prospect of future decades contending against the zombie of liberal Catholicism that just won’t die.

And it is possible that this struggle could be a long one, for, as Douthat notes,

“The Kasper proposal pertains specifically to the divorced and remarried but there is nothing in the logic that confines it to those cases. Polygamous unions, same-sex unions, even the unmarried — the same reasoning could apply to all.

After all, if a rule rooted in Jesus’ own words, confirmed by dogmatic definitions and explicitly reconfirmed by the previous two popes, linked to Reformation-era martyrdom and bound up with three of the seven sacraments could be so easily rewritten … well, what rule or teaching could not?”

It could be that there’s a good answer to that question, but I don’t see that it’s unreasonable to ask it in good faith.

**

Given the uncertainty in which the Holy Father has implicitly asked us to stew, we might ask what’s to be done in the meantime. Douthat, looking for the hand of providence, argues that maybe something like this had to happen; maybe, as Eliot said, “to be restored / our sickness must grow worse”. Liberal Catholicism had been exiled from the Church’s highest office for a few decades. Conservatives thought they had established a secure interpretation of Vatican II that was beginning to bear fruit, but, at the same time, we all knew that liberals still controlled most Catholic educational and charitable institutions. Many older churchmen, and some younger, were still in thrall to the elusive “Spirit of Vatican II”. Poor catechesis has meant that many, many Catholics have been more formed by the prevailing secular culture than by Catholic culture, and would be more happy than not to see the latter conform to the former. So the stability we thought we were enjoying under Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI was more apparent than real, and now, with a papacy more friendly to liberals, liberals have started to flex their muscles, and the real state of affairs has announced itself. Like it or not, these are the times we live in.

What to do? When, in the summer of 2017, Cardinal Meisner, who had been among the group who submitted the dubia to Pope Francis, died, a remarkable letter was sent by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, to be read at his funeral. In this letter, Benedict said that the Cardinal lived “out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing,” and he noted the Cardinal’s love of the Sacrament of Penance and of Eucharistic Adoration. Perhaps it would not be inappropriate to take from this letter implicit counsel: your anxieties are not unfounded, but trust in God and draw close to him by the means given us. It cannot be the worst course, at any rate.

Eliot: The Idea of a Christian Society

April 22, 2018

The Idea of a Christian Society
T.S. Eliot
(Harcourt Brace, 1949) [1938]
75 p.

Written on the cusp of the outbreak of the Second World War, during a time of tension and unrest, this essay — originally an address — outlines Eliot’s ideas about the potential futures for British society, and for Western societies more generally.

He saw British society as being on an edge between a Christian society, informed by Christian principles, and a pagan one, shaped by one or the other of fascism or communism. Interestingly, he didn’t consider his contemporary society as belonging to either of those broad alternatives, its formerly Christian character having been gradually worn away by subtle pressures, but rather characterized it as a “negative society”, which he described in this way:

“In a negative liberal society you have no agreement as to there being any body of knowledge which any educated person should have acquired at any particular stage: the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation.”

Western commitments to “liberalism” and “democracy” he took as being largely empty, the meaning of the words having degenerated into little more than self-congratulatory labels. (“If anybody ever attacked democracy, I might discover what the word meant.”) The salient point about a negative society, so described, is that it must eventually give way to something else, something with a more positive view of what it stands for.

The more positive social reality favoured by Eliot is the Christian one, by which he means a civic arena governed by Christian principles, even if many citizens are only nominally religious. This is perhaps the most surprising thing about the general thrust of his proposal, especially for those modern Christians dandled on the knee of Kierkegaard or Hauerwas, who, turning lemons to lemonade, have convinced themselves that a small Christian community of devout believers is actually preferable to a broad social consensus comprised mainly of half-hearted religious adherents. Not so, says Eliot:

“A Christian community is one in which there is a unified religious-social code of behaviour. It should not be necessary for the ordinary individual to be wholly conscious of what elements are distinctly religious and Christian, and what are merely social and identified with his religion by no logical implication. I am not requiring that the community should contain more “good Christians” than one would expect to find under favourable conditions. The religious life of the people would be largely a matter of behaviour and conformity…”

His reasons for favouring this arrangement are that it is better for the lukewarm, for it is better to be unthinkingly compliant with Christian principles than with pagan ones, and it is better for the devout, for why favour conditions that make living the Christian life more difficult? His views are rooted in an appreciation for the ways in which habits and subtle social pressures can support or erode religious faith even in the most intentional and dedicated believers:

“For the great majority of the people — and I am not here thinking of social classes, but of intellectual strata — religion must be primarily a matter of behaviour and habit, must be integrated with its social life, with its business and its pleasures; and the specifically religious emotions must be a kind of extension and sanctification of the domestic and social emotions. Even for the most highly developed and conscious individual, living in the world, a consciously Christian direction of thought and feeling can only occur at particular moments during the day and during the week, and these moments themselves recur in consequence of formed habits; to be conscious, without remission, of a Christian and a non-Christian alternative at moments of choice, imposes a very great strain. The mass of the population, in a Christian society, should not be exposed to a way of life in which there is too sharp and frequent a conflict between what is easy for them or what their circumstances dictate and what is Christian, The compulsion to live in such a way that Christian behaviour is only possible in a restricted number of situations, is a very powerful force against Christianity; for behaviour is as potent to affect belief, as belief to affect behaviour.”

A Christian society, then, would be “not a society of saints, but of ordinary men, of men whose Christianity is communal before being individual”, one in which men “may frequently perform un-Christian acts… [but] must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.”

This sort of social consensus could only be realized, Eliot thought, in a society “where the great majority of the sheep belong to one fold”. Thus he argued for an established church, though one in which “the temporal and the spiritual would never be identified”, and in which citizens would favour their membership in the church over their membership in the nation, as reflecting a proper ordering of attachments. How this proper ordering would be established and maintained he does not say.

*

All of this, as I say, may strike a modern Christian, grown accustomed to the oft-repeated dictum that religion ought not to impinge on the social life of the nation, and convinced that sincere faith is superior to nominal lip-service to religion, as topsy-turvy, wrong-headed, or just bad form. And it is true that a close association between the state and the church has risks. But it is possible that the sad state of religion that we observe in Western European societies which have an established church might be anomalies; certainly most cultures historically have considered some cooperation between the sacred and the political authorities to be natural and beneficial. And, even on specifically Christian terms, it seems perverse to claim that fewer Christians are preferable to many, or that Christianity ought to have little influence rather than much. The ambition of the Church is to convert the whole world.

Or, putting it the other way around, wouldn’t it be odd if the secular powers-that-be woke up one morning and announced that, since some non-negligible number of citizens harboured doubts about the goals of liberalism, or acted in ways inconsistent with liberal principles, or just lacked fervency in liberal causes, that they would henceforth relinquish their power and influence and be satisfied with cultivating devout liberals who would stand as a “sign of contradiction” to whatever filled the vacuum it left behind? Obviously this is not going to happen, and with good reason. Liberalism is strong enough and confident enough in itself to give the people what it thinks they need, and — as someone has said — to give it to them good and hard. The Hauerwasian preference for small, devoted communities of Christians might be a prudent tactic in the particular historical moment in which Christianity finds itself, but it can never be the state at which the Church aims. No pun intended.

A weakness of Eliot’s proposal for a Christian society is that he gives no indication of how this society might be brought about given our current conditions and the historical trajectory we are on. Probably he has no notion of how this might happen, and this is understandable. It is also probably fair to say that he underestimated the resilience of liberalism, “negative” or not, which is, despite signs of fragility here and there, still very much with us.

The principal value of this essay, to my mind, is its stress on the important support which religious faith draws from being practiced in community and instantiated in social customs and habits, and also its impolitic insistence that Christianity cannot finally rest content with the status of a private pursuit, but ultimately aims at the salvation of souls — as many as possible — and the consequent transformation of society into its own image.

I was helped in my reflections on this essay by hearing an episode of the Christian Humanist Podcast.

**

“A party with a political philosophy is a revolutionary party.”

“Good prose cannot be written by a people without convictions.”

[Understatement]
When the Christian faith is not only felt, but thought, it has practical results which may be inconvenient.

[The self-destructive telos of liberalism]
That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination. By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

[Education and the arts]
You cannot expect continuity and coherence in literature and the arts, unless you have a certain uniformity of culture, expressed in education by a settled, though not rigid agreement as to what everyone should know to some degree, and a positive distinction–however undemocratic it may sound–between the educated and the uneducated.

Catullus: Poems

April 13, 2018

Poems
Gaius Valerius Catullus
(Modern Library, 1949) [c.60 BC]

Catullus, although he lived in the first century BC, when the Roman Republic was already convulsing in its death throes, is nonetheless considered one of the early Roman poets. At least, in my chronologically-arranged edition of The Latin Poets he comes first, so there can’t have been many distinguished poets before him. His poems are apparently influenced by Greek models; things Greek had been considered exemplary by Romans for several centuries already.

Startling to me is the discovery that Catullus’ poetry survived into the present — what part did survive, at least — in a single manuscript. We have a bit more than 100 poems; my edition includes roughly 50 of them, and these 50 exhaust my familiarity with his work.

Based on this evidence, Catullus was a pleasingly personal poet. He did not write epic after a Homeric model (though he did, at least sometimes, use Homeric metre). My favourite of his poems are about his mistress. It seems he and Lesbia had a rocky relationship, for although there are poems expressing love and devotion, there are also ones like this:

My mistress says, there’s not a man
Of all the many that she knows,
She’d rather wed than me, not one,
Though Jove himself were to propose.

She says so; — but what woman says
To him who fancies he has caught her,
‘Tis only fit it should be writ
In air or in the running water.
(trans: Theodore Martin)

Or this one, translated by our very own Jonathan Swift:

Lesbia for ever on me rails;
To talk on me she never fails:
Yet, hang me, but for all her Art;
I find that I have gain’d her Heart:
My proof is thus: I plainly see
The Case is just the same with me:
I curse her ev’ry hour sincerely;
Yet, hang me, but I love her dearly.

I have no idea how closely this verse adheres to the original or form or metre, or even tone, but I like the bleak humour of it.

Alas, the affair with Lesbia did not turn out well. Note how the conventional poetic flourishes of the first few stanzas are transmuted in the fourth to a cold, hard stare:

Dear comrades who with me would go
Should I to distant India roam,
Where Eastern shores are buffeted
By ocean’s foam.

Parthians, Hyrcani, Arabs mild,
And Sacae you would face with me
And that swart race whose sevenfold Nile
Colours the sea.

Or cross the towering Alps to find
The Britons whom no man could tame,
And Gallic Rhine, memorials now
Of Caesar’s fame.

Prepared are you alike to share
In all that shall be sent by Fate;
So bear a message to my girl,
These words of hate.

Bid her farewell and let her keep
The legion of her paramours
And careless break their strength, to fill
Her idle hours.

Nor think at all of my poor love
Which by her sin lies all forlorn
Like the field blossoms that a plough
Has passed and torn.
(trans: F.A. Wright)

There are also a number of poems about his brother, but they are sad poems, for his brother died. Here is a good example:

By ways remote and distant waters sped,
Brother, to thy sad grave-side am I come,
That I may give the last gifts to the dead,
And vainly parley with thine ashes dumb:
Since she who now bestows and now denies
Hath ta’en thee, hapless brother, from mine eyes.
But lo! these gifts, the heirlooms of past years,
Are made sad things to grace thy coffin shell;
Take them, all drenched with a brother’s tears,
And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell!

I wonder who it is that “now bestows and now denies”; it seems a reference to death itself, but was it common for Romans to give death a feminine character? Perhaps it is a reference to one of the goddesses, and I am simply not catching it. Notice that paradoxical “hail and farewell” in the final line; this is the phrase ave atque vale, which this poem has bequeathed us.

Catullus also worked on a larger scale. “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” is a kind of mini-epic, obviously on a mythological theme and carrying a suitable grand style. Some consider it his masterpiece, though personally I cannot claim to have cared much for it. Another long poem, “The Lock of Berenice”, seems to be treating its subject in a mock heroic style, rather like Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, but it could be that I’m misinterpreting the translated tone.

My own favourite of the longer poems in this volume is “Epithalamium”, a poem celebrating a marriage. It has sometimes been said that in the wake of the sexual revolution our culture has become more “pagan” in sexual matters, but this is a slander on the pagans. No devotee of our reigning sexual orthodoxies could write a poem like this:

And now, ye gates, your wings unfold!
The virgin draweth nigh. Behold
The torches, how upon the air
They shake abroad their gleaming hair!
Come, bride, come forth! no more delay!
The day is hurrying fast away!

Let him first compute the grains
Of the sand on Egypt’s plains,
Or the stars that gem the nights,
Who would count the rare delights,
Which thy spousals yet shall bless,
Joys in number numberless!

Now disport, and stint ye not!
Children be anon begot.
‘Tis not meet so old a stem
Should be left ungraced by them,
To transmit its fame unshorn
Down through ages yet unborn.
(trans: Theodore Martin)

Add another 30 or 40 stanzas in the same spirit and you have a truly splendid celebration of marriage and marital love.

Having come to the end of the poems in this anthology, I’m rather keen to read more of Catullus, and am debating whether I should buy a volume devoted entirely to him. But on the other hand, the next poet in the anthology is Lucretius, whom I’m also keen to read. Decisions, decisions…

The Vercelli Book

April 4, 2018

The Vercelli Book
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.800]
150 p.

Continuing our explorations of Old English poetry we come to the Vercelli Book, one of the four principal surviving sources for this literature. The Book itself, which resides in the northern Italian city of Vercelli, dates to the 10th century, and is an anthology consisting of a half-dozen poems and a collection of prose works, mostly homilies. It is the poetry that has our attention today.

We will look at the poems in the order in which they are presented in my edition; I assume they follow the same order in the original manuscript.

**

The longest poem is Andreas, at about 1700 lines. It tells a legendary tale about how St Andrew the Apostle rescued St Matthew and many others from prison in Mermedonia, the land of the cannibals. This is a legend new to me; it is based on a second-century tale, The Acts of Andrew and Matthew in the City of Anthropophagi, but our Anglo-Saxon poet has taken care to recast Andrew as an Anglo-Saxon warrior, who, though he does not himself wield a weapon, has all of the requisite virtues.

The story begins when St Matthew is captured, blinded, and thrown into prison in a city of flesh-eating madmen, whom the poet describes in grisly detail:

The people of that place, the tribes of terror,
Hungered for unholy food. They ate no bread,
Drank no water, but wolfed down human
Flesh and blood, the corpses of men,
An abominable feast. This was their custom:
They slaughtered strangers who came from afar,
Engorged themselves on their unwelcome guests.
Each foreigner found himself invited to the table,
And the inhabitants ate as many as they were able.
They satisfied their hunger in hideous ways.
First the fierce people would go for the eyes,
Gouging out the beautiful jewels of the head,
Stifling sight with their sharp spear-points.
[21-34]

God calls Andrew to rescue Matthew, and even, incognito, captains the ship which carries Andrew to the terrible city. There is a good deal of unexpected humour during this voyage as God asks Andrew a series of questions, as though he needed to know the answers, and Andrew in turn expresses astonishment at the incredible wisdom of his host. There is in this exchange a rather beautiful capsule expression of the Gospel:

Then Andrew answered the curious captain:
“Dearest of men, how is it possible
That you of all people have never heard
Of the Savior’s power, how the Ruler’s Son
Revealed himself, his grace and glory,
Throughout the world? He gave speech to the dumb,
Hearing to the deaf, sight to the blind.
He gladdened the spirits of the leprous and lame,
Those who were limb-locked, sinew-twisted,
Sick and tormented. He healed the suffering
While here on earth and woke the dead
With a holy word. This man of glory
Manifested his power by means of miracles,
Consecrating wine from water to everyone’s delight.
Likewise from two fish and five loaves,
He fed the multitudes, five thousand strong.
They had come from far, weary and woeful
From their long journey, to enjoy their feast
With pleasant food in the open fields.
Now, my dear friend, you can hear how the Healer,
The Guardian of glory, has offered us his love
Through all of his holy words and works.
His teaching has brought us untold joy.
He has invited us home to the gates of heaven
And the exultation of angels, where we may live
In his fond embrace forever, even after death,
Alive in the dwelling place of the Lord.”
[568-94]

At last Andrew, “God’s adamant warrior”, arrives in Mermedonia. As he disembarks God declares that he will suffer greatly, as Christ did, but that great good will result. A truer prophecy could not have been spoken, for although he succeeds in setting free St Matthew and all the other prisoners, he is himself captured and his bone-house is subjected to all manner of abuse, with even his brain-house bashed and bloodied without mercy. Flowers bloom where his blood splashes on the ground:

Then the holy warrior, the beloved soldier,
Looked back at the long track of his tears,
As his God and Glory-king had commanded,
And saw beautiful, bright groves, blooming
With flowers everywhere his blood had fallen.
His gore had transformed the dead land
Into God’s green grandeur, a garden of light.
[1492-97]

When at last Andrew opens his word-hoard and calls to God for assistance, he is inspired to command water to spring forth from a marble pillar standing nearby. A great flood results, and the people of Mermedonia, seeing the error of their ways, repent, whereupon Andrew stops the flood and restores to life those who had drowned. The Mermedonians build a church and are given a bishop. The poem ends as Andrew departs, leaving them in peace as they sing praise to God:

“There is only one God, our holy Father,
The Lord and Creator of all living things,
Almighty, everlasting. His right and rule,
His promise and power, are glorious and blessed
All over middle-earth. His holy splendor
Makes bright each quickening creature,
Each shining star, each shimmering angel.
We bask in his living light and realize glory
In his holy radiance for ever and ever.
He is the Lord of lords, the King of kings.”
[1770-9]

This is quite a delightful poem, full of lurid incident and imaginative detail. It is, by a good margin, the most macabre story about the Apostles known to me (which is saying something).

*

Among the shorter poems in the Vercelli book is The Fates of the Apostles, a brief (150 line) work relating what happened to each of the twelve Apostles after Christ’s Ascension. At the conclusion of his survey, the poet addresses the reader directly in moving terms:

Now I pray that the person who has read this poem
And finds these words spiritually sustaining
Should humbly pray to this holy host
To grant me aid, shield me from sin,
Support me in my faith, and send me mercy.
I will need kind friends, caring and compassionate,
When I must travel the long, last road
Into that unknown and wondrous land,
Leaving my body behind, a bag of dust,
An armful of earth, a feast for worms.
[104-12]

He then proceeds to pose a riddle which, when solved, will reveal his name. Riddling is a charming tradition in Anglo-Saxon verse, and we’ll see much more of it before we’re through.

*

Next is another short (190 lines), but not simple, poem called Soul and Body, in which two souls return to earth to speak to their decaying bodies.

First comes a damned soul, doomed, it seems, for a certain term to walk the night, and taking the opportunity to unburden itself of the hatred and contempt it bears toward its body:

“You cruel, bloody clod, what have you done?
Why did you torment me, filth of flesh,
Wasting world-rot, food for worms,
Effigy of earth?” [18-21]

If a healthy human being is one in which soul and body are in harmony, this wicked soul is profoundly dissonant. It considers its body to be its great antagonist, and even blames the body for having caused its damnation:

“You tied me to torments
In hell’s dark home, made me a slave,
I lived inside you, encompassed by flesh,
Trapped in my torment, your sinful desires,
Your lusty pleasures. I couldn’t escape.” [37-41]

This soul knows that its body, though now in a state of dissolution, will be reunited to it on the day of Judgment, an event it anticipates with no relish:

“What will you say to God on Doomsday?
You will have to pay for each sin separately,
With each small joint in your hand or limb —
A severe judgment from a stern judge.
But what are we going to do together?
In the end we will endure the multitude of miseries,
The gathering of griefs, you allotted for us earlier.” (108-15)

Notice that even here the soul is dissociated from its own true nature; as far as it is concerned, it is the body that will be judged on the last day! The body, of course, cannot respond to this abuse. It is dead:

A corpse cannot speak.
Its head is split open, its hands torn apart,
Dismembered in the dust. Its jaw is gaping,
Its palate cracked, its throat ripped out,
Its sinews sucked away, its neck gnawed apart,
Its gums shredded into a handful of dust.
Savage worms now ravage its ribs,
Drink down the corpse, thirsty for blood.
Its tongue ripped into ten pieces,
A delightful feast for the little devourers,
So it cannot speak to the soul, trade talk
With the wretched spirit. The name of the worm
is Ravenous Greedy-Mouth, whose hard jaws
Are sharp as needles. It is the first visitor
To desire the grave, crunching through ground.
It rips up the tongue, bores through the teeth,
Eats down through the eyes into the head,
Inviting the other gobblers to a great feast,
When the wretched body has cooled down
That once wore clothes against the cold.
Then it becomes the feast for worms,
Cold carrion, a banquet for maggots.
Wise men should remember this. (l.123-45)

Then, in the poem’s second half, a blessed soul visits its body, its “dearest friend, beloved companion”. Here, too, the soul marks its body’s part in shaping its eternal destiny, but in a happy way:

Alas, my lord, if only
I could lead you away to see the angels
And the splendor of heaven, as you appointed for me
Through your good deeds. You fasted here,
Filling me up with the body of God,
Quenching my thirst with the soul’s drink. (158-63)

This body too is decaying in the grave, but the soul has hope:

I mourn for you here, dearest of men,
For a body turned into a banquet for worms,
But God’s will was always that your share
Should be this hateful home, this loathsome grave.
But I tell you truly: Do not be troubled
By this earthly torment — we will be united again
Gathered together for God’s judgment
On Doomsday. Then we shall enjoy together,
A precious pair, the honor and grace
You appointed for us while we were living,
And we will be exalted as one in heaven. (173-84)

Medieval views of the relationship between soul and body are sometimes caricatured as naively dualistic, with the body seen as a kind of prison from which the soul wishes to escape. There is some warrant for this in the tradition, but, then again, there is warrant for the opposite in the writings of, for example, Thomas Aquinas, who sees human nature as a profound and essential unity of soul and body. It is hazardous to generalize about a thousand years of history. This poem might seem to be playing into the dualistic framework, especially in the first half, which definitely presents the soul and body as being in an antagonistic relationship, with the body being basically evil — even a source of moral evil. But the poem’s second half presents the two as “beloved companions”, meant for one another and destined to be reunited, and this is clearly the view we are meant to favour. Disharmony in our nature is the fruit of sin, and is healed by salvation. Dualism can never really sit comfortably with the dogma of the resurrection of the body.

The poem will reappear later, in the Exeter Book, shorn of its happy soul.

**

The shortest poem in the Vercelli Book is a little fragment, On Human Deceit. At just 50 lines, there is not much to it. The poet considers the many ways in which men sin and harm both themselves and others. It is a fragment, and it reads that way.

**

Listen! I will speak of the best of dreams,
The sweetest vision that crossed my sleep
In the middle of the night when speech-bearers
Lay in silent rest. (1-4)

The Dream of the Rood is only about 160 lines long, but it is a powerful and beautiful poem that has been justly celebrated as one of the masterpieces of Old English poetry, and even of medieval literature as a whole.

In it, the poet has a vision of the cross on which Christ died, and the cross speaks to him, telling its story: how it was cut down, formed into a cross, and made an instrument of torture and execution. And then, one day, it was the Son of God who approached:

The warrior, our young Savior, stripped himself
Before the battle with a keen heart and firm purpose,
Climbed up on the cross, the tree of shame,
Bold in the eyes of many, to redeem mankind.
I trembled when the Hero embraced me
But dared not bow down to earth — I had to stand fast.
A rood was I raised — I raised the mighty King,
Lord of the heavens. I dared not bend down. (l.42-9)

I love the portrayal of Christ here as a warrior, preparing for battle. Scripture is clear that he went to his death willingly, and here the poet transmutes that willingness into positive eagerness. Mounting the cross, Christ died:

I saw the Lord of hosts stretch out his arms
In terrible suffering. Night-shadows slid down,
Covering in darkness the corpse of the Lord,
Which was bathed in radiance. The dark deepened
Under the clouds. All creation wept,
Lamenting the Lord’s death: Christ was on the cross. (56-61)

His friends soon came to take his body down, treating it with the greatest reverence. But the cross, neglected or hated, was taken down and thrown into a pit, covered with earth, until one day, many years later (and making a nice connection with Elene, below), the friends of Christ recovered it, adorning it with jewels. The cross then became a sign of love and hope, a miraculous transformation:

The Son of God suffered on my for awhile —
Now I rise up high in heaven, a tower of glory,
And I can heal any man who holds me in awe.
Long ago I become hateful to man, hardest of woes,
A terrible torturer. Then I was transformed.
Now I offer the true way of life to speech-bearers,
A road for the righteous. The Lord of glory,
The Guardian of heaven, has honored me
Above all trees, just as he also honored
His mother Mary above all women.
(ll.93-103)

At the poem’s conclusion, the cross instructs the poet to convey his story to all, teaching them that Christ will return one day to judge all souls.

Then the poet awakes:

“Now my life’s great hope is to see again
Christ’s cross, that tree of victory,
And honor it more keenly than other men.
The cross is my hope and my protection.”
(ll.134-7)

For me, this is the most touching and beautiful poem in the batch, and by a wide margin. Dream visions are not uncommon in Old English poetry — nor in the later English tradition neither — but this remains, I think, among the best.

**

Elene is the second longest poem in the Vercelli Book, at about 1300 lines. It tells the story of St Helena, mother of Constantine, and her discovery of the True Cross. This story is well-known, but the poet has a few surprises for us.

The poem opens with an account of Constantine’s vision of the cross before the Battle of Milvian Bridge and his subsequent conversion. (The poet says, wrongly, that he was immediately baptized.) He then sends his mother to Jerusalem to search for the long lost cross of the Savior.

From that day on, the story of Christ
And the sign of the Cross, the sacred rood,
Resided in Constantine’s heart, sustaining
His spirit, so that he ordered his mother Helena
To journey abroad with a band of soldiers
To the land of the Jews to seek out the cross,
The tree of glory, the gallows of God,
And see if the holy cross might be hidden
In an unmarked grave in unhallowed ground.

In Jerusalem is a young Jewish man, named Judas, whose family has for generations passed down secret knowledge of the location of the buried cross, keeping this knowledge hidden lest it give aid and comfort to Christians. This section of the poem makes for uncomfortable reading as the poet laboriously berates the Jews for their blindness, ignorance, and foolishness in rejecting Christ and the salvation he brought. It is natural enough that he, a Christian, should think those Jews who rejected Christ to be in error, and, as subsequent developments in the poem make clear, he does not believe that Jews are, as a people, intrinsically inferior to Christians, but he does express his anti-Judaism far more forcefully than we would.

You spit in the face of the Savior and Son,
Who could wash your eyes clean of blindness
With the sacred spittle and heal your hearts,
Saving you from the darkness of devils
And their fiery filth. You condemned to die
The Lord himself who created life
And conquered death — who raised up the patriarchs
From their mouldering graves, their grim fates.
In your blindness you traded light for darkness,
Truth for lies, mercy for malice.
You played deadly games with perjury,
So now you are sentenced to Satan’s realm,
Where no one will hear your unholy words
Or care to comfort your everlasting pain.
You condemned the life-giving power
Of the eternal Light. Now dwell in darkness
For all of your days. You live in delusion
And will die in desperation.
(304-21)

Helena is less scrupulous; she agrees wholeheartedly with the poet, and in a startling passage threatens the Jews of Jerusalem with a fiery conflagration unless they reveal the location of the True Cross. Judas is himself imprisoned for seven days before he relents and agrees to cooperate. A miracle occurs to guide him to the precise spot, and, to Helena’s great joy, three crosses are recovered from an ancient pit, and the cross of Christ is identified by its power to raise a dead man to life.

Then Judas lifted the third cross in joy,
The Redeemer’s rood, the tree of victory,
And the body rose up, intact and inspired
By the breath of life, its own lost soul.
Its limbs were alive, its eyes opened,
Its heart quickened by the power of the cross.
People raised their voices in praise of the Lord,
Honoring the Father and exalting the Son,
Lifting up their voices in a rapture of song:
“Glory be to God, who breathes life into being,
Shaping, sustaining all living creatures
Who celebrate the Creator without end.”
(893-904)

At this point the poet interjects a delightful vignette in which Satan, piping mad, protests this unauthorized theft of one of his souls:

That so-called Savior, Jesus of Nazareth,
Was a misguided boy born in Bethlehem
Of human flesh. He has mocked me, defiled me,
Made my existence an endless misery.
He has robbed me of riches, wasted my wealth,
Stolen my precious stash of souls.
He’s unrestrained. It’s unfair. It’s obscene.
His kingdom spreads like a pernicious plague
While mine is compromised all over creation.
(927-35)

News of the discovery spreads, to great rejoicing throughout the Christian world. Judas is himself baptized and made bishop. Shortly thereafter, at St Helena’s request, a search for the Holy Nails is begun, and another miracle leads to their discovery. One of the nails, in something of an anti-climax, is sent to Rome to be used as a bit for Constantine’s horse.

The poem closes with a charmingly personal passage in which the poet speaks about himself, his sins, his long labours over his poem, and his faith in the power of Christ’s cross.

Now that I have told this sacred story
About the rood, I am old and ready
To follow the final road. My flesh is frail,
My body failing. I have woven these words
Out of study and thought, winnowing them long
Into the night-watch. I too was blind
To the full truth about Christ’s cross
Till my mind was filled with the Lord’s light,
Revealing the depths of divine understanding.
My words and works were stained with sin,
And I was bound in misery, wound in woe,
Before God granted this feeble old man,
Whose mind was missing its careful clarity
Of younger days, a sacred gift, a share of grace.
He opened my heart and soul to the truth,
Easing my body and enlightening my mind,
Unlocking the ancient art of poetry,
Which I have practiced with great joy.
(1231-49)

There follows an acrostic section in which he spells out CYNEWULF, which may be his name, and the poem comes to a close with a vision of the final judgment.

*

The poems of the Vercelli Book, then, are a fairly heterogeneous lot. They are all Christian poems, of course, and the influence of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture is evident in several. There are two saint’s lives, and two take as their centerpiece the crucifix of Christ, but otherwise the poems do not bear a strong resemblance to one another, and neither is it clear that they have been gathered together into one volume for any particular reason. All of the poems have something to recommend them. The greatest treasure is The Dream of the Rood.