Archive for the 'Poetry' Category

Scorn not the least

February 21, 2017

Today is the anniversary of the death of St Robert Southwell, poet, priest, and martyr.

SCORN NOT THE LEAST.

WHERE wards are weak and foes encount’ring strong,
Where mightier do assault than do defend,
The feebler part puts up enforcèd wrong,
And silent sees that speech could not amend.
Yet higher powers must think, though they repine,
When sun is set, the little stars will shine.

While pike doth range the seely tench doth fly,
And crouch in privy creeks with smaller fish ;
Yet pikes are caught when little fish go by,
These fleet afloat while those do fill the dish.
There is a time even for the worm to creep,
And suck the dew while all her foes do sleep.

The merlin cannot ever soar on high,
Nor greedy greyhound still pursue the chase ;
The tender lark will find a time to fly,
And fearful hare to run a quiet race :
He that high growth on cedars did bestow,
Gave also lowly mushrumps leave to grow.

In Aman’s pomp poor Mardocheus wept,
Yet God did turn his fate upon his foe ;
The lazar pined while Dives’ feast was kept,
Yet he to heaven, to Hell did Dives go.
We trample grass, and prize the flowers of May,
Yet grass is green when flowers do fade away.

This poem introduced me to the word “mushrump”, for which I am grateful. Southwell was a contemporary of Shakespeare and Donne, and, by my reckoning, is the second greatest Jesuit poet. He was executed under Elizabeth I on 21 February 1595, for the crime of treason (viz. for being a priest on English soil). Read more about him here.

St Robert Southwell, pray for us.

Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

January 26, 2017

childeChilde Harold’s Pilgrimage
George Gordon Lord Byron
(Oxford, 2008) [1812-18]
188 p.

She walks in beauty, like the night, and my ignorance of the life and poetry of Lord Byron is rather like the night too: dark and comprehensive. Nonetheless I took up this long poem with considerable interest. I’d come across excerpts from it here and there in my readings about Rome, and I thought I’d take a closer look to see what else, if anything, the poem has to say about the Eternal City.

That’s a narrow keyhole through which to approach a fairly wide-ranging poem, which recounts the travels of one Harold, a young and dissolute Englishman, as he rambles across the European continent. He lands first in Spain, makes his way east, stopping in Albania, and Greece, and eventually comes to Italy, where he visits, among other cities, Venice, Florence, and, yes, Rome.

The poem is allegedly based on Byron’s own European travels, which he undertook in the years 1809-11.

Harold is melancholy, undisciplined, and a rake:

Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
(1, II)

In other words, we have here a Byronic hero, such as he is, and the poem, which was the first to bring Byron wide fame, is a notable example of English Romanticism in full flower. (Note that it was published just a few decades after the famous volume by which Wordsworth and Coleridge are said to have inaugurated Romanticism in England.) We find, for instance, the characteristic Romantic sense of the sublimity of Nature:

All heaven and earth are still—though not in sleep,
But breathless, as we grow when feeling most;
And silent, as we stand in thoughts too deep: —
All heaven and earth are still: from the high host
Of stars, to the lulled lake and mountain-coast,
All is concentered in a life intense,
Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost,
But hath a part of being, and a sense
Of that which is of all Creator and defence.
(3, LXXXIX)

I was surprised to find that the anti-hero of the poem, whose brooding self-consciousness and jaundiced eye are supposed to seduce and repel us at once, was not so brooding, and especially not so jaundiced, as I had expected. When he comes to Greece, for instance, he is overwhelmed by the solemnity and glory of what once was, and says:

Where’er we tread, ’tis haunted, holy ground;
No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,
But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,
And all the Muse’s tales seem truly told,
Till the sense aches with gazing to behold
The scenes our earliest dreams have dwelt upon:
Each hill and dale, each deepening glen and wold,
Defies the power which crushed thy temples gone:
Age shakes Athena’s tower, but spares gray Marathon.
(2, LXXXVIII)

and then cries out with sincere admiration:

Yet to the remnants of thy splendour past
Shall pilgrims, pensive, but unwearied, throng:
Long shall the voyager, with th’ Ionian blast,
Hail the bright clime of battle and of song;
Long shall thine annals and immortal tongue
Fill with thy fame the youth of many a shore:
Boast of the aged! lesson of the young!
Which sages venerate and bards adore,
As Pallas and the Muse unveil their awful lore.
(2, XCI)

One has the distinct impression that Harold counts himself among the youth filled with Greece’s fame, himself a pensive pilgrim honouring the remnants of its splendid past.

In fact throughout the poem Harold shows a real desire to admire the great monuments, and to commune with the great tradition on which he has been nurtured. He is no mere tourist, no cynic in such matters. In comparison to twenty-somethings whom I have known, he comes across as positively effusive in his earnest praise:

Italia! too, Italia! looking on thee
Full flashes on the soul the light of ages,
Since the fierce Carthaginian almost won thee,
To the last halo of the chiefs and sages
Who glorify thy consecrated pages;
Thou wert the throne and grave of empires; still,
The fount at which the panting mind assuages
Her thirst of knowledge, quaffing there her fill,
Flows from the eternal source of Rome’s imperial hill.
(3, CX)

I hear in such verse more humility and sincerity than ironic sophistication. I may even say that I found in Harold, at least at such moments, an echo of my own feelings towards the European past, which is my cultural inheritance, and which I have laboured, here and elsewhere, to appropriate. This has been rather gratifying, not only inasmuch as Harold provides me with an eloquent — an, if anything, too eloquent — expression of my own feelings, but also inasmuch as it allows me to imagine myself a Byronic hero, a wholly unlooked-for denouement!

***

As to Harold’s sojourn in Rome, it was indeed the highlight of the poem for me (“O Rome! my country! city of the soul!”), and I cannot resist quoting some of my favourite stanzas. There may be no better image of the spirit of Romanticism than that of Byron — sorry, I meant Harold — standing in the moonlight gazing at the ruins of the Colosseum:

But when the rising moon begins to climb
Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,
And the low night-breeze waves along the air,
The garland-forest, which the grey walls wear,
Like laurels on the bald first Caesar’s head;
When the light shines serene, but doth not glare,
Then in this magic circle raise the dead:
Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread.
(4, CXLIV)

Here he wanders a bit north, into the warren of cobble-stoned streets of Old Rome, emerging into the piazza before the Pantheon:

Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime—
Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,
From Jove to Jesus—spared and blest by time;
Looking tranquillity, while falls or nods
Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods
His way through thorns to ashes—glorious dome!
Shalt thou not last?—Time’s scythe and tyrants’ rods
Shiver upon thee—sanctuary and home
Of art and piety—Pantheon!—pride of Rome!

Relic of nobler days, and noblest arts!
Despoiled yet perfect, with thy circle spreads
A holiness appealing to all hearts—
To art a model; and to him who treads
Rome for the sake of ages, Glory sheds
Her light through thy sole aperture; to those
Who worship, here are altars for their beads;
And they who feel for genius may repose
Their eyes on honoured forms, whose busts around them close.
(4, CXLVI-CXLVII)

Does your heart beat high? Do you feel nobler, even taller? Later he goes across the Tiber to St. Peter’s. Earlier in the poem he had let drop the casual anti-Catholic sentiments of an ordinary Englishman:

But here the Babylonian whore had built
A dome, where flaunts she in such glorious sheen,
That men forget the blood which she hath spilt,
And bow the knee to Pomp that loves to garnish guilt.
(1, XXIX)

but confronted with the glory of San Pietro he seems to forget himself:

But thou, of temples old, or altars new,
Standest alone—with nothing like to thee—
Worthiest of God, the holy and the true,
Since Zion’s desolation, when that he
Forsook his former city, what could be,
Of earthly structures, in his honour piled,
Of a sublimer aspect? Majesty,
Power, Glory, Strength, and Beauty, all are aisled
In this eternal ark of worship undefiled.
(4, CLIV)

As he ponders it, walking beneath its sublime canopy, he senses the challenge it poses to his own soul, and he struggles to rise to it:

Not by its fault—but thine: Our outward sense
Is but of gradual grasp—and as it is
That what we have of feeling most intense
Outstrips our faint expression; e’en so this
Outshining and o’erwhelming edifice
Fools our fond gaze, and greatest of the great
Defies at first our nature’s littleness,
Till, growing with its growth, we thus dilate
Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.
(4, CLVIII)

Who among us, confronted by a great work of art, has not experienced, or at least wanted to experience, such a thing? Even granting that an aesthetic experience is not the highest experience one might hope to have in a holy site, it’s nothing to sneer at.

I suppose I risk giving a lopsided view of the poem. It’s not all Rome, not all Italy. He doesn’t like Spain so much. And much of the poem is brooding, especially on the personal wreckage he left behind in England. But I came to the poem with something particular in mind, and I departed well-satisfied.

**

A word about the technical aspects of the poem. As is evident from the sections I’ve quoted, it is composed in Spenserian stanzas: ababbcbcc in iambic metre. It is a long poem, with nearly 500 such stanzas, split into four cantos of uneven length, and a few interpolations of verse in other metres and rhyme schemes. The poetry is astoundingly accomplished, technically. I haven’t actually tried it, but I imagine I’d have a horrendous time trying to produce even one such stanza of non-doggeral verse. To have the facility to write stanza after stanza, expressing and developing thought along the way, is a remarkable gift.

***

For my own benefit, I here append some other of the stanzas I appreciated most:

[Lament over Greece]
When riseth Lacedaemon’s hardihood,
When Thebes Epaminondas rears again,
When Athens’ children are with hearts endued,
When Grecian mothers shall give birth to men,
Then mayst thou be restored; but not till then.
A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can man its shattered splendour renovate,
Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate?
(2, LXXXIV)

[The natural beauty of Greece]
Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild:
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olives ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honeyed wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The freeborn wanderer of thy mountain air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Mendeli’s marbles glare;
Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.
(2,LXXXVII)

[Rome and Italy]
The commonwealth of kings, the men of Rome!
And even since, and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.
(4, XXVI)

[Praise of Tasso]
Peace to Torquato’s injured shade! ’twas his
In life and death to be the mark where Wrong
Aimed with their poisoned arrows—but to miss.
Oh, victor unsurpassed in modern song!
Each year brings forth its millions; but how long
The tide of generations shall roll on,
And not the whole combined and countless throng
Compose a mind like thine? Though all in one
Condensed their scattered rays, they would not form a sun.
(4, XXXIX)

[Laocoon]
Or, turning to the Vatican, go see
Laocoon’s torture dignifying pain—
A father’s love and mortal’s agony
With an immortal’s patience blending:—Vain
The struggle; vain, against the coiling strain
And gripe, and deepening of the dragon’s grasp,
The old man’s clench; the long envenomed chain
Rivets the living links,—the enormous asp
Enforces pang on pang, and stifles gasp on gasp.
(4, CLX)

Moser: Most Ancient of All Splendours

June 13, 2016

Most Ancient of All Splendoursmoser-ancient
Johann Moser
(Sophia, 1989)
94 p.

I do not read a great deal of poetry, not as much as I should, certainly, and, having never shed my preferences for strict metrical and rhyme schemes, I read very little contemporary poetry. In theory, therefore, I shouldn’t have read Johann Moser’s collection of poems, and, having read it, I shouldn’t have liked it, but I did read it, and I did like it, and sometimes the world is a surprising place.

These poems reveal a poet steeped in history, with wide interests and sympathies. There are poems about Alexander the Great, about the great medieval monastery of St Gall, about Mozart, about Venice, about Gilgamesh, about Galileo, about World War II, about Erasmus, about Solzhenitsyn. There are poems based on musical forms — the caccia, the barcarolle, the berceuse — and there are poems of lament and poems of praise.

There are no poems of rhyme.

Moser is obviously a man of wide education, and an educated reader will be better positioned to understand and appreciate the poems, but they are far from dryly intellectual. On the contrary, a notable qualities of many of these poems is their sensual tangibility, the way they conjure up sights and scents, so that the reader feels present in the past:

Over studded mountains,
\, High-timbered slopes of the Absaroka,
Hear:
\,  Storms of summer, swarthy-throated,
\,  \,  thundering down the valleys.
Hayfields buckle,
\,  Dust whirls on sagebrush hills,
Lightning brindles blackened skies.
And rain:
\,  Rain over grassy tablelands and wooded hollows,
Over white-bouldered rivers
\,  and bottomlands of cottenwood and aspen;
Slender sheaves of rain —
\,  Purple, gold, across the wilderness,
Trailing to bronze-rimmed prairies eastward.
And now,
\,  The glittering pinnacles of cloud and sun;
Glad arroyos splash,
\,  \,  dazzle amid canyons.
Sunlight showers
\,  through tender-dripping forests
And wet bark of giant spruce,
\,  \,  \,  \,  ponderosa —
\,  Fragrant in the valley winds.
Among clusters of gooseberry leaves,
\,  A black bear shrugs his dusky hide;
A puma sniffs the clear, cool air.
And listen:
\,  Birds are singing in the mountains.

— “Wyoming Rain”

That’s a highly irregular meter to deal with, but it certainly reminds me of the rain storms I experienced as a child on the prairies; I can feel the wind and hear the rain as they sweep across the land.

Here is an excerpt from a more metrically regular (and in that respect also more characteristic) poem, about the Battle of Riade between the Franks and the Magyars:

Then, at Riade, we mustered our brave legions,
\,  Mounting high before us the lofty Whalebone Rood
and Holy Lance of Imperial Constantine.
\,  Over us, unsteady heavens of storm and sunlight;
Packed battalions sloshed in river shallows,
\,  Their kirtles soaked and steaming in the morning heat.
The thud, flash of weaponry; shouts, assaults,
\,  Trumpets honking like wild geese within the bracken,
Sword-hilts slippery with blood and rain
\,  As thick carnage clotted marshy rivulets and streams,
And mounted spearmen butted, wallowed in the mud.
\,  Finally, rearing our banners upwards, we invoked
Lord Saba-ôth, Hoarder of Sky’s Kingdom,
\,  From whose stout-thonged, strong-thewed gauntlet
Angelic Mika-El, fierce sparrow-hawk,
\,  Swooped downwards through thunder-driven clouds,
Bearer of Sun’s blazoned baldric,
\,  Golden-armored, Barb of the Sacred Tempest,
Felled before him the heathen host
\,  That fled to craggy tors, the dense holt and hinterland.

— from “Henry the Fowler”

If, like me, you’d not given much thought to the Battle of Riade, or even, like me, never heard of it before, perhaps you find, as I do, that the poem is nonetheless evocative and exciting. It is rare to find modern poetry that can summon religious imagery and language without losing for a moment its muscular power, but Moser does it here. Just as rare is a poet who both knows and loves the long cultural tradition we have inherited — or could inherit, with enough labour, attention, and love.

I see that this volume has been reviewed at The University Bookman by Thomas Molnar, and his review is better than what I have written here. I recommend you now go there.

A publishing event

February 29, 2016

I find it hard to imagine any list of great literary figures of the past century that does not include T.S. Eliot at or near the top. Therefore it seems worth noting, and celebrating, the recent publication of a massive annotated edition of his poetry, in two volumes, from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Volume 1 contains the verse for which he is most admired: Prufrock, The Wasteland, Four Quartets, and so on. In this edition we get about 300 pages of poetry, handsomely and spaciously presented, followed by a whopping 1000 pages of notes. Volume 2 is shorter — a mere 700 pages — and mostly contains his less-known poetry, plus his poetry for children.

Because of complications with publication rights and access to Eliot’s private papers, this is the first time that a full scholarly edition has been put together. It’s a major monument to one of our major writers.

I was able to borrow the first volume from our local library. During Lent I have been slowly working my way through Ash-Wednesday, and enjoying myself greatly.

The University Bookman has a nice review.

A poem for Elizabeth

April 1, 2015

Lines written to a young girl
born before April Fool’s Day

When March went out a lion or a lamb,
And you came in, a lamb or lioness
(For which you were, when in the cot or pram,
I do not know although I partly guess),
They gave you that strong name, with other mercies,
Especially no doubt to suit my verses.

My verses, which were then, as you are, young,
More numerous than now and even worse,
But then were things less glorious to be sung,
And several things more damnable to curse;
And so in rhymes I now find crude and scrappy,
I kicked the pessimists to make them happy.

Thank Heaven you missed, and men need tell you not,
What tosh was talked when you were very small,
When Decadence, which is the French for Rot,
Turned life to an irreverent funeral.
The leaden night of that long peace is dead
And we have seen the daybreak, very red.

England, unbroken of the evil kings,
Whose line is breaking in the breaking snow,
Open your ways to large and laughing things
And the young peace be with you where you go,
And far on that new spire, new sprung in space,
St. Michael of the morning give you grace.

The Spring is with us, whose new-made election
Leaps in the beeches that baptised our Field,
Walks in the woods the ways of resurrection
In a new world washed in the wind and healed;
Young as your ancient name, more strong than death,
Strength of the House of God, Elizabeth.

— G.K. Chesterton, March 1916.

 (Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)

Chesterton to music

June 2, 2014

From time to time I have thought to compile a catalogue of musical settings of Chesterton’s poetry. He wrote scads of poetry — now three fat volumes in the Collected Works — and though most of it is of middling quality, there are some gems within. A number of composers have taken up the challenge.

Here is a list of settings, incomplete but still valuable. From it we learn that composer John Gardner has made an extensive setting, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, of The Ballad of the White Horse, Chesterton’s most ambitious poem; I should dearly love to hear it, but there seem to be no recordings available. Ralph Vaughan Williams paired the poem “O God of Earth and Altar” with the hymn tune KING’S LYNN in the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal [hear it]. The most frequently set among his poems appear to be “The Donkey”, “Wine and Water”, and “The Christ-Child lay on Mary’s lap”.

This last is the poem that has attracted the most eminent composers. It has been set by, among others, Judith Bingham, Will Todd, Gabriel Jackson, and Kenneth Leighton, all of whom, while not exactly household names, are well-known to choral music enthusiasts.

A couple of these settings are available on YouTube; I’ll close this post by linking to them.

Here is Will Todd’s setting of “The Christ-Child”:

And here is Gabriel Jackson’s setting of the same text:

Merry Christmas?

Ovid: Metamorphoses

September 30, 2012

Metamorphoses
Publius Ovidius Naso
(Norton, 2004) [8 A.D.]
Translated from the Latin by Charles Martin
623 p.

Of course I have known that Ovid is counted among the most important Latin poets, and I had planned, in a hazy way, to read him someday. Then, when reading C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, I was surprised to see Lewis remark that the most important sources for understanding the art and literature of the Middle Ages are the Bible, Virgil, and Ovid. At that, I bumped Metamorphoses forward in my reading queue, and at last I have completed it.

The organizing premise of the work is well-known: Ovid recounts stories in which the characters undergo some sort of change — usually, but not always, a literal change of shape. Since such stories were common in the annals of Greek and Latin mythology, the poem serves as an idiosyncratic whirlwind tour of the mythological corpus. Some of these stories were familiar to me — Orpheus and Eurydice, Icarus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Narcissus, Midas — but most were not, and reading them has been a good, if steep, education.

While I wouldn’t describe Ovid as a comic poet, he does have a whimsical, irreverent sense of humour in some of the stories. There are several violent battle scenes reminiscent of Homer, but Ovid’s descriptions of the brutal deaths of the warriors are so extravagantly gory that they become something akin to a spoof. Similarly, there was a well-established technique in the epic tradition, inherited from both Homer and Virgil, of conveying descriptions using elaborate similes. Ovid follows suit, but not infrequently his similes have something peculiar or inappropriate about them. Consider this example, taken from the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Pyramus, thinking that Thisbe has been eaten by a lion, slays himself with his sword. Then:

It was as when a water pipe is ruptured
where the lead has rotted, and it springs a leak:
a column of water goes hissing through the hole
and parts the air with its pulsating thrusts;
splashed with his gore, the tree’s pale fruit grow dark;
blood soaks its roots and surges up to dye
the hanging berries purple with its color.
(IV.172-8)

It’s like a death scene from Monty Python. Similarly, he is sometimes irreverent in his treatment of the gods, as in this passage describing the homely vanity of Mercury:

He left the sky and came down to the earth
without disguise, so great his confidence
in his own beauty, which, though not misplaced,
was aided by the care he took of it,
smoothing his hair, which had been mussed in flight,
arranging his cloak so that it hung just so,
letting its pricey golden border show,
and making sure that the wand in his right hand
(with which he brings sleep on or drives it off)
was freshly shined, and seeing that the wings
were gleaming brightly on his shapely feet.
(II.1008-18)

At other times, however, he is sober in his telling, and he is well able to do justice to a tragic tale. Towards the end of the poem Ovid gives a long speech to Pythagoras in which he discourses on the mutability of all things — the apotheosis of the metamorphosis, so to speak. This, too, is written with dignity and without facetiousness.

Being but a middling Latin scholar, I am ill-equipped to judge the merits of Charles Martin’s translation. I can say that the English reads easily and gracefully, and sometimes rises to the level of eloquence. I have no desire to seek out another version (though I’d be interested to know if I should have such a desire).

[The house of Sleep]
There is a hollow mountain near the land
of the Cimmerians, and deep within
there is a cave where idle Sleep resides,
his special place, forbidden to the Sun
at any hour from the dawn to dusk;
the earth around it breathes out clouds of fog
through dim, crepuscular light.
No wakeful cock
summons Aurora with his crowing song,
no restless watchdog interrupts the stillness,
nor goose, more keenly vigilant than dogs:
no wild and no domesticated beasts,
not even branches, rustling in the wind,
and certainly no agitated clamor
of men in conversation.
Here mute repose
abides, and from the bottom of the cave,
the waters of the sleep-inducing Lethe
flow murmuring across their bed of pebbles.

Outside, in front, the fruitful poppies bloom,
and countless herbs as well, that dewy night
collects and processes, extracting Sleep,
which it distributes to the darkened earth.
Doors are forbidden here, lest hinges creak,
no guardian is found upon the threshold;
but on a dais in the middle of the cave
a downy bed of blackest ebony
is set with a coverlet of muted hue;
upon it lies the god himself, at peace,
his knotted limbs in languorous release;
around him on all sides are empty shapes
of dreams that imitate so many forms,
as many as the fields have ears of wheat,
or trees have leaves, or seashore grains of sand.
(XI.849-80)

[Ovid’s last word]
My work is finished now: no wrath of Jove
nor sword nor fire nor futurity
is capable of laying waste to it.
Let that day come then, when it wishes to,
which only has my body in its power,
and put an end to my uncertain years;
no matter, for in spirit I will be
borne up to soar beyond the distant stars,
immortal in the name I leave behind;
wherever Roman governance extends
over the subject nations of the world,
my words will be upon the people’s lips,
and if there is truth in poets’ prophesies,
then in my fame forever I will live.
(XV.1099-1112)

Seeing Sir Gawain

August 17, 2012

This week, at bedtime, I have been slowly stumbling my way through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, reading it in the original and massively vexing Middle English. It’s a wonderful poem, of course, which I have read a few times before in modernisations, but this time I am trying it unadulterated. It’s like eating a thick steak with large bones in it.

I am delighted to discover today, via the British Library, that the famous original (and sole) manuscript in which Sir Gawain is found, Cotton Nero A.X, has been digitized and made available online. (The same manuscript, of course, also includes the moving and technically super-virtuosic poem Pearl, as well as two other works by the same poet, Patience and Cleanness. They too are available on the same site.)

Simply to look at the pages of this manuscript — a treasure salvaged from the fires of time — is a privilege. Not that one would want to read the poem this way: the script is awkward for us and the letters are faded. The poetry is difficult enough without adding such obstacles. But I’ve tried reading a page or two, and it can be done. The illustrations are wonderful.

(Hat-tip (again): Modern Medieval)

**

Things will be quiet around here for the next week or two.

Chrétien de Troyes: Lancelot

May 8, 2012

Lancelot
Or, The Knight of the Cart

Chrétien de Troyes
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 1997) [c.1180]
241 p.

Because my lady of Champagne
Wants me to start a new
Romance, I’ll gladly begin one,
For I’m completely her servant
In whatever she wants me to do…

So began Chrétien de Troyes, dedicating his poem to the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who, Chrétien tells us, also proposed the subject of the work: the knight Lancelot’s adulterous love affair with Queen Guinevere. Chrétien may indeed have been glad enough to begin the poem, but for whatever reason he was not glad to finish it; the poem was abandoned midstream, after roughly 6000 lines, and was completed by an otherwise unknown cleric named Godfrey of Lagny, who tells us in his brief epilogue that Chrétien himself granted him permission to complete the last 1000 lines or so.

One can speculate as to why Chrétien did not see the project through to completion. He may have been working simultaneously on Yvain, and lost enthusiasm for the one in favour of the other. He may quite possibly have been discouraged by the dishonourable subject matter of Lancelot: as he says, the theme was not of his choosing, and elsewhere (in Cligès, for instance) he goes out of his way to avoid having his hero commit adultery, much less so disloyal an act as adultery with the wife of his king and lord. Lancelot, in Chrétien’s hands, is an ambiguous figure whose knightly prowess is beyond dispute but whose moral character is rightly suspect.

My own opinion, having completed the poem, leans toward the second view: that Chrétien’s heart just wasn’t in it. The poem has little of the sparkle and wit that so enlivened his earlier works, and it seems to lack even the structural cohesion (admittedly rather loose even under the best of circumstances) of his other poems. The basic elements are all here — brave knights, magical rings, pretty damsels, supernatural dangers — but the spark is missing.

Roughly the first half of the poem is concerned with Lancelot’s efforts to find and rescue Queen Guinevere, who has been abducted from Arthur’s court. In the second half, he struggles to defeat her abductor, the villain Meleagant. The subtitle of the poem refers to Lancelot’s early decision, in pursuit of Guinevere, to ride in a “cart”, a mode of transport reserved for criminals and thoroughly inappropriate (one would think) for a knight of the Round Table. Throughout the poem Lancelot endures the opprobrium of others for having stooped so low. The irony — which, in the nature of the case, does not tip over into humour — is that Lancelot is indeed a criminal, guilty of the most unknightly behaviour with the Queen, albeit privately. Thus there is a kind of justice in the disdain heaped upon him.

The poem has been influential in Arthurian lore. The story of Lancelot and Guinevere was quite possibly original with Chrétien, and became a mainstay of later Arthurian tales, and Lancelot himself was, of course, destined to become one of the central Arthurian figures. Evidently some reader have liked the poem more than I, on balance, did.

Scruton on Eliot

January 12, 2012

A few weeks ago, before Christmas, I came across an essay by Roger Scruton called “T.S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor”. It was published in 2008 in one of the journals of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Being an admirer of Eliot, Scruton, and ISI (in descending order) I thought it worth reading. Apparently I was not the only one: it was reprinted this week at Crisis Magazine (albeit with the ‘conservative’ bit, essential though it be, dropped from the title).

If it seems odd to describe a poet as revolutionary as Eliot as a conservative, we have only to remember that he famously described himself as “classical in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”. We know that he was deeply influenced by Dante, and understood his own poetry as being firmly rooted in our literary tradition, not — despite first impressions, perhaps — discontinuous with it. Interestingly, Scruton sees his artistic modernism as an aspect of his cultural conservatism:

Eliot attempted to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. He assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise. Modernism in art was, for Eliot, an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture.

Like Chesterton (for whom, I believe, he harboured a fairly withering scorn), Eliot understood that a tradition gives the thinker and the artist the chance, at least, of greatness, not least by laying down an incontrovertible challenge: here is a history of real achievement, real struggle, real glory, and real failure. It is by submitting to, learning from, and wrestling with such precedents that one becomes strong. An age that is forgetful or scornful of tradition looks, at best, to the future, but the future does not exist, and in practice wrestling with it devolves to wrestling only with one’s own imagination, which is a narrower and more paltry thing than history. Yet it is, paradoxically, precisely in such an age (such as ours) that the value of tradition becomes most evident:

Eliot recognized that it is precisely in modern conditions—conditions of fragmentation, heresy, and unbelief—that the conservative project acquires its sense. Conservatism is itself a modernism, and in this fact lies the secret of its success… Like Burke, Eliot recognized the distinction between a backward-looking nostalgia, which is but another form of modern sentimentality, and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision with which to live in the modern world.

It is a long essay, and there is a great deal more to it than I can readily outline here. Scruton closes his reflections by citing a passage from “Little Gidding”:

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

and he summarizes, in a passage worth quoting in full, the connections between tradition and culture in Eliot’s work:

These lines take us back to the core belief of modern conservatism, which Burke expressed in the following terms: Society, he wrote, is indeed a contract; but not a contract among the living only; rather, it is a partnership between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. And, he argued, only those who listen to the dead are fit custodians of future generations. Eliot’s complex theory of tradition gives sense and form to this idea. For he makes clear that the most important thing that future generations can inherit from us is our culture. Culture is the repository of an experience which is at once local and placeless, present and timeless, the experience of a community as sanctified by time. This we can pass on only if we too inherit it. Therefore, we must listen to the voices of the dead, and capture their meaning in those brief, elusive moments when “History is now and England.” In a religious community, such moments are a part of everyday life. For us, in the modern world, religion and culture are both to be gained through a work of sacrifice. But it is a sacrifice upon which everything depends. Hence, by an extraordinary route, the modernist poet becomes the traditionalist priest: and the stylistic achievement of the first is one with the spiritual achievement of the second.

It’s a fine essay, well worth the time it takes to read.