Posts Tagged ‘Medieval’

Shikibu: The Tale of Genji

October 3, 2019

The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu
Translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker
(Everyman, 1993) [c.1000]
1224 p.

The Tale of Genji
A Reader’s Guide
William J. Puette
(Tuttle, 1983)
196 p.

A thousand years ago, at a time when European high culture had precious few ornaments in its crown, and was slowly emerging from a long time of trial, a woman in the Japanese imperial court wrote this intricate and refined story about the world in which she lived, a world worlds away from anything known in the West at that time, and quite different in tenor from even the high cultural achievements of Western antiquity.

The Tale of Genji has been called “the first novel”, and indeed Murasaki Shikibu’s careful tracing of psychological complexities and social niceties are worthy of Henry James, but it’s not clear that the designation is quite apt. The book lies wholly outside and antecedent to the tradition of the novel. Though it has roots in Japanese literary traditions, it stands apart as a staggeringly ambitious, in both scale and subtlety, attempt at literary realism. It is, I am told, considered a great classic of Japanese literature, and I am not surprised; had we something of comparable vintage and comparable greatness we’d consider it a classic too.

Although it is sweeping in scope, with over 400 characters, at least a few dozen of them having some claim to being central, the story mostly follows Hikaru Genji, “Shining Genji”, a son of the Emperor and a concubine, whose parentage makes him a rather minor member of the imperial court. We follow his many romantic dalliances with ladies in and around the court, his marriages (for this court is determinedly polygamous), and then, as the story progresses, the lives of his children, for whom he does his best to provide, a faithful if distant father. A convenient prècis of much of the story might be this:

It was a difficult world, which refused to give satisfaction. Among his ladies there was none who could be dismissed as completely beneath consideration and none to whom he could give his whole love.

The setting of the story, the Heian court circles, is one of immense delicacy and refinement. Manners are impeccable, conversation is elaborate and polite, voices are hushed. Women remain veiled from sight behind screens. Letters, carefully written and scented with perfumes, are exchanged quietly. I was startled when I realized that most of the social action of the story takes place at night, when all is a play of shadows and light.

This delicacy carries over to the prose, at least in the translation I have read, by Edward Seidensticker. (There are now, I believe, four English translations available.) The voice Seidensticker gives Shikibu is fragile and minimal, smooth, and emotionally stable. I actually found myself turning the pages of the book gently and with unusual care, so as not to ruffle the placid surface, nor disturb the mood with something so rough as a rustling page. As time went on, and I night after night returned to Genji’s tale, I found myself looking forward, with real appreciation, to entering that quiet, carefully managed world again, as though I were entering a poem.

And thoughts of poetry are fitting, for though the story itself is told in prose, the pages are sprinkled with short poems — about 800 of them, I believe — which characters compose for letters or, spontaneously, in conversation. These poems are of a particular type, the tanka, consisting of 31 syllables, and have a literary effect not unlike that of the haiku. Seidensticker in his translation converts these poems into two English lines, confessing that much of the wordplay and poetic resonance is inevitably lost. They are often magnificently oblique, it being a kind of impoliteness, it seems, to come right out and say what one means.

I can perhaps give an impression of the style by providing a short example. This passage begins with Genji entering a room where a woman, Chujo, has been sleeping, whereupon they exchange poems:

Chujo was having a nap in one of the east rooms. She sat up as he came in. A small woman, she brought a sleeve to her face, bright and lively and slightly flushed. Her thick hair, though somewhat tangled from sleep, was very beautiful. She was wearing a singlet of taupe-yellow, dark-gray robes, and saffron trousers, all of them just a little rumpled, and she had slipped off her jacket and train. She now made haste to put herself in order. Beside her was a sprig of heartvine.

‘It is so long since I have had anything to do with it,’ he said, picking it up, ‘that I have even forgotten the name.’

She thought it a somewhat suggestive remark.

‘With heartvine we garland our hair — and you forget!
All overgrown the urn, so long neglected.’

Yes, he had neglected her, and he was sorry.

‘The things of this world mean little to me now,
And yet I find myself reaching to break off heartvine.’

There still seemed to be one lady to whom he was not indifferent.

The rainy Fifth Month was a difficult time.

Suddenly a near-full moon burst through a rift in the clouds. Yugiri chanced to be with him at this beautiful moment. The white of the orange blossoms leaped forward in the moonlight and on a fresh breeze the scent that so brings memories came wafting into the room. But it was only for a moment. The sky darkened even as they awaited, ‘unchanged a thousand years, the voice of the cuckoo.’ The wind rose and almost blew out the eaves lamp, rain pounded on the roof, and the sky was black once more.

‘The voice of rain at the window,’ whispered Genji. It was not a very striking or novel allusion, but perhaps because it came at the right moment Yugiri wished it might have been heard ‘at the lady’s hedge.’

‘I know I am not the first man who has had to live alone,’ said Genji, ‘but I do find myself restless and despondent.’

The two poems set off by line breaks are in the tanka form, but the other poetic fragments (three of them in this section) enclosed in quotation marks are allusions to extra-Genjian poetry, with which Murasaki Shikibu seems to have been intimately familiar, and with which she expected a comparable familiarity in her reader.

*

By almost any measure, The Tale of Genji is a masterpiece. Like many great achievements, it is not easily enjoyed; much is asked of the reader. I have already mentioned the many characters, the mastery of whom is complicated by the fact that the same character is often referred to under several different names or titles; most of the names, in fact, seem not to be proper names at all, but names of flowers, which characters have adopted as monikers. Seidensticker errs in the direction of greater naming consistency than do some translators, and this was a mercy. Even so, I found it difficult to keep track of all Genji’s lady friends, most of whom ended up blurring together in my mind. The great exception to this rule was Murasaki, his concubine and greatest love (but this relationship posed difficulties of another order, for Genji first fell in love with her when she was only ten years old).

Then, too, the story cannot be said to have a superabundance of narrative momentum. Much is revealed by the existence of a scholarly dispute about whether the chapters were composed in order, for although there are narrative threads that span the life of Genji, and a legion of recurring characters, the story is somewhat episodic, each chapter being only loosely tied to its neighbours. There is also a dispute about the story’s ending: intentionally abrupt or unfinished? Without any claim to expertise in literary conventions of the period, I feel confident saying that a modern reader is going to find the ending abrupt in an unfinished kind of way.

Finally, the book’s overall effect seems to me marred by a tremendous disruption in the narrative that happens about 800 pages in. Remember how in Les Miserables there is a narrative gap in which we transition rapidly from young Cosette to adult Cosette, and are introduced to a new set of young revolutionary characters, and so many things have changed that we are tempted to put the book down? The problem here is similar, for we leave behind Genji and focus instead on the romantic escapades of Kaoru, a son of one of Genji’s nephews. Granted, this part of the story has certain resonances with the story of Genji’s own youth — in some sense, it could still be read as being about Genji — but I found it difficult to make the transition, and I confess I didn’t read the last chapters of the book as attentively as the first.

*

Many of the difficulties of the book were ameliorated for me by keeping William Puette’s A Reader’s Guide on my bed-table. He provides a brief introduction to the historical setting, describes the poetic traditions which Genji draws on, provides lists of characters and clues to their relationships, comments on the relative strengths of the English translations (only Seidensticker and Waley, those being the only two available at the time the book was published), and, best of all, he gives chapter-by-chapter summaries of the story. I found the book helpful, a valuable safety net, and am not sure that I would have persevered without it.

It is natural, I think, having finished a novel that competes in scale with War and Peace, to speak well of it; the alternative is to admit that many precious hours of life were wasted. Determined to be unswayed by such thoughts, I will, nonetheless, speak well of The Tale of Genji, and allow its long-standing reputation to justify my praise, rather than the other way around.

Hicks: Norms and Nobility

August 20, 2019

Norms and Nobility
A Treatise on Education
David V. Hicks
(University Press of America, 1983)
167 p.

When one begins reading around in educational literature, one comes, from time to time, upon “classical education”. What is meant varies, or at least appears under different descriptions. Sometimes it means an education focused on appropriation of the Greco-Roman inheritance; sometimes it seems to be used to describe an education emphasizing a mastery of language, and the art and craft of writing and speaking well; sometimes, following the medieval model (and Dorothy Sayers), it refers to an educational programme divided into stages — grammar, logic, rhetoric — suitable for age-stratified progression as students develop.

Hicks, too, is writing about classical education, but he largely avoids these common approaches to the subject. His approach is deeper; he is working on the foundations. For him, classical education is, among other things,

“a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and conscience through myth.”

As this description makes plain, it is an education concerned not only with knowledge — though certainly that — but also with ethics and aesthetics. Entering on this terrain, therefore, we find ourselves enveloped by pre-modern habits of thought, in which a full human rationality involves truth, goodness, and beauty, all three, because this corresponds to our nature, but also because these three are, at the deepest levels, unified.

This pre-modern orientation is indeed a key to Hicks’ project, which draws on the ancients not so much as to subject matter, but as to sensibility and manner. Much of his exposition unfolds as a dialectic between ancient and modern, to the general detriment of the latter, but this method is itself instructive, and indeed illustrative of the kind of education he champions.

*

We do not know how to educate a child unless we have in mind the kind of person we want the child to become. From this modest beginning Hicks draws out several key features of classical education.

One has already been stated: we want the child to develop and flourish fully as a human being, exercising rationality in the fullest and richest sense, and therefore we instruct and discipline her in what is true, and what is lovely, and what is good. It is likewise true that we will address and honour all dimensions of the child’s being: personal, social, and religious. We will not construct an education simply around the future economic value of the student to society; this can be a legitimate consideration, but not an organizing idea. We will not pretend to teach “value free”, as though the child did not possess an inner life and stand in need of moral guidance to live well. We will not claim that religion is a private matter, not susceptible of public, rational inquiry, or a matter of negligible importance, not worthy of public recognition. Instead, we will do our best to cultivate an integrated life in the student, in which each of these dimensions is given due weight and treated with appropriate seriousness.

Since classical education is, therefore, necessarily in the business of teaching virtue, it considers how best to do so. The tradition proposes, broadly speaking, two methods: the philosophical and the rhetorical, logos and mythos. The former is didactic, argumentative, seeks clarity, and draws conclusions; the latter is imaginative, aspirational, and alluring. Both methods are important, and they co-exist in a fruitful dialectical tension. The rhetorical tradition, Hicks argues, is especially important for classical education on account of its reliance on what he calls “the Ideal Type”, an exemplar of virtue, “a metaphorical incarnation of wisdom and truth” — in brief, a hero. In the Ideal Type a student sees a man or woman who is better and wiser than he, but whom he can and should emulate, and, by emulation, become. And not just one man or woman, but many, exemplifying the many varieties of excellence:

“Classical education eventually fills the young person’s head with the sound of voices: the impassioned debate of the great figures of myth and history concerning what is good, beautiful, and excellent in man. Through his imagination, the student participates in this dialectical confabulation, and his thoughts and actions become literally involved with the Ideal Type.”

Most of these exemplars the student will encounter in stories, and the stories in books, but there is, ideally, one example closer to hand: the teacher. Hicks places great personal demands on the teacher: he is to be living in the light of the Ideal Type as well, and is, we hope, further advanced along the path that leads to it. He is not dispassionate, but deeply involved in the very questions with which his students are contending. They wrestle together, and he learns alongside them. Classical learning thus cultivates a kind of friendship between teacher and student, for they are together focused on something of interest and importance to both, yet without undoing their unequal status.

Furthermore, Hicks argues, in one of the book’s most challenging sections, that the relationship of teachers and students in a classical school embodies the dialectical structure of classical education, and indeed the dialectical structure of thought itself. This dialectic is Socratic, and it is dogmatic in the sense that it requires both teachers and students to be committed to certain positions in order to test those commitments against experience. It is precisely the dialectical challenging of commitments that leads to intellectual and moral growth in students. This kind of teaching, and this kind of learning, is intrinsically personal, not analytic or abstract. It teaches students to read, for instance, not just to understand an author’s motivations, or to discover the main outlines of an argument, or to identify a leading theme — though these activities might legitimately form part of the process — but in order to become a better person, wiser, more sensitive, more courageous, or more just. A book is engaged with not at arm’s length, but intimately, as having personal significance.

There is a danger lurking here, of course. We are familiar with the habit of mind that merely “challenges authority” or “sees through things”. If indulged, it will strip-mine students’ souls and leave nothing behind. The point of the dialectic that Hicks advocates, as I understand it, is not to undermine dogma and personal commitment, but to search and find those dogmas worthy of committing oneself to, those founded most firmly in friendship with what is truly good, beautiful, and rational, and then, having found them, to hold to them tenaciously. Absent that transcendental posture, if pursued merely in a revolutionary distemper or out of cynicism, the dialectical method, precisely because of its effectiveness, leads on to disaster.

*

I was struck by Hicks’ stress on the normative, dialectical, personal nature of teaching and learning because I don’t know that I have ever experienced it myself. No, that is not quite true. There are certain books that, as I have read them, I have felt were reading me. Their effect on me has gone deeper than the merely intellectual. I can also think of one or two occasions on which a teacher — not a classroom teacher, mind you, but someone to whom I was disposed as student to teacher — posed a personal, existential challenge to me, exposed me to the penetrating, alluring light of the transcendentals, when I could sense the deep waters beneath my little lifeboat. But I wish this happened more often, and I believe that I do have an habitual analytic approach to what I read, and, for that matter, experience, that places a barrier between myself and the world. Hicks, I think, regards this as a vice, not in itself, but when not joined to a more passionate, rounded engagement with those from whom I could learn. And, quite honestly, I think he has a point.

If I flip it around, putting myself in the role of teacher, I see the value of his position more clearly. What teacher would not want to touch the souls of his students rather than just instruct them? Who would not be grateful to offer his students what he truly believes to be beautiful, good, and true, and to find his students receiving it with gratitude, finding himself a humble instrument in the service of something that falls on teacher and student alike as a benediction? Well, I don’t know that it would be possible to do this kind of thing consistently – the wind blows where it will – but that there could be an educational approach which aims at it, prepares the sails, and waits in readiness I did not suspect.

**

I believe that I have rounded out the main qualities of classical education as Hicks describes it: aiming at full human flourishing along both relational dimensions (personal, social, religious) and transcendental (knowledge, ethics, aesthetics), normative, dogmatic and dialectical, anchored to an Ideal Type. Such was, he argues, the best of the educational practice of the Athenians and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Romans.

**

It is worth asking about how Christian culture appropriated, or failed to appropriate, this tradition. We know from our readings in the history of Catholic education that early Christian thinkers, especially the Church Fathers, were themselves educated in the classical tradition. They didn’t think of it as ‘the classical tradition’; it was just ‘education’, and so they largely adopted it. In fact, Hicks argues that in several important respects the Christian tradition resolved long-standing issues that had dogged classical thinkers.

A principal problem for Greek educators was that the Ideal Type, around which so much of the education orbited, though beautiful and inspiring, lacked a transcendent justification or warrant. It was, in important respects, a merely human work of art, a beautiful dream, a creation of the mind, not something real or given. It was therefore fragile, vulnerable to doubt. Without the Ideal Type, however, the highest thing was merely the realm of the human, all too human, which bred in students a self-centeredness that undermined the development of virtue and fostered uncertainty in teacher and student alike. Hicks argues that though in some ways Christian culture in Europe failed to generate its own convincing heroes – the closest it came, he believes, was the chivalric knight, the legends of saints being too fabulous and simple – it did provide educators with the ultimate Ideal Type: Jesus himself, a real man, not an imaginative creation, having Divine authority, on whom the whole educational project could be focused.

A second problem for classical educators had been the problem of desire: an Ideal Type was all very well, but some positive force was needed to spur students toward it:

“The greatest part of education is instilling in the young the desire to be good: a desire that sharpens and shapes their understanding, that motivates and sustains their curiosity, and that imbues their studies with transcendent value.”

Plato had proposed eros as this positive force, the longing for goodness, truth, and beauty. Christianity agreed that love was the key, but went further by uniting love to faith, uniting knowing the good to doing the good, and, by understanding both as infused virtues, acknowledged both as having a transcendental source and warrant outside the will.

*

If the Christian tradition was not responsible for the loss of the classical tradition, what did happen to it? Modern education in the West springs from different sources; the thread has been cut. What happened?

The story is complicated, but for Hicks the dismantling of the classical tradition began in the early modern period. Descartes inaugurated a passion for clear, distinct ideas, and classical education’s Ideal Type, whose power was rhetorical rather than analytical, could not meet the standard. Modernity preferred a statistical mean to a Golden Mean. Rousseau, of course, was a watershed figure; he attacked directly the Ideal Type: if all men are equal, how can one be better than another? “What need has he of correction, to say nothing of conversion?” If, in a democratic society, each person is to be his own authority, the Ideal vanishes.

The advent of science also undermined classical habits, shifting the aim of education from self-knowledge to power over the world. The moral, aesthetic, personal, and religious aspects of a classical education were hard to align with this project. Indeed, as the sensible methodological limitations of the sciences began to morph into metaphysical blinders the sciences rendered European society increasingly unable to address moral, aesthetic, etc. issues rationally.

By the nineteenth century it was obvious that the sciences provided unprecedented control over nature, but equally obvious that they could not justify how that power should be used. The technological project therefore began to assume the qualities of an ideology: power not allied to reason. Materialists asserted that man is a wholly material being, and that therefore whatever defects he suffers are material and technology can improve them. In this way, technology can create a more perfect and orderly world. A grand social project was launched to do just this, and of course it has brought us many benefits, but things were lost too. The move from prescriptive and transcendent educational goals to immanent and technological severed us from the classical tradition. The power of the sciences does not extend so far as to make normative questions disappear, of course; each new generation of students continues to ask them. Teachers have just lost the means to answer them.

Given the damage that modernity did to what had, for thousands of years, been a consistent educational tradition, why were teachers, in particular, so ready to adopt the modern project as their own? If knowledge is really about power, then education is just a means to enhancing power, and this, on the face of it, is not noble or inspiring. Hicks identifies three reasons. One was simply that teachers, too, were members of society, and felt the allure of the technological project as others did. A second was that revolutions, whatever their ultimate outcome, will draw on a rhetoric of liberation, and Hicks argues that Europeans experienced the overthrow of the Ideal Type as a kind of liberation, a relief of responsibility. Finally, and perhaps paradoxically, a technological ideology gave a new power to the teaching vocation, making it a key enabler of the continued progress of society toward a more rational, comfortable, and free future by technological means.

A good case study of the sea change is the place of mathematics in the curriculum. In classical education mathematics was essential because it moved the mind from lower to higher levels of being, from the contingent and changeable to the necessary and immutable. It was evidence that the mind could know realities beyond the empirical, and it trained the mind to think clearly and systematically about abstractions, which ability was a preparation for the study of philosophy and other high matters. But in modern education the vertical dimension of mathematics has been flattened as the subject has been turned to technological ends, at least for most students. We study math so that we can calculate and build this or that.

Perhaps the clearest difference between classical and modern education can be stated this way: classical education educated for leisure, and modern education educates for work. The classical ideal was to cultivate in the student the ability to think and wonder about high things, to know the good and serve it, to act virtuously in the world, to accept responsibility for governance of himself and his affairs. Modern education, like modern society, has lost the capacity to speak about normative ideals; making a virtue of necessity, it adopts the pretense of ‘value-free’ education. It speaks instead about social utility, economic advantage, and democracy, justifying the educational project itself on largely utilitarian, and wholly immanent, grounds.

*

Given this state of affairs, what place can there be in the modern West for classical education? In a democratic, utilitarian society, classical education is asked to justify itself on democratic and utilitarian grounds:

“Of what value to society is an elite culture anyway? How does culture further the chief ends of modern industrial democracy, ensuring prosperity, security, and equal opportunity for all? … How does culture prepare him for the complications of day-to-day living in a highly bureaucratized, technological society?”

The truth is that the charges against classical education – that it is elitist and impractical – are true. But Hicks, in a neat turning of the tables, argues that it is, precisely for those reasons, what our democratic society needs. Athens, after all, the birthplace of classical education, was also a democracy. In his famous funeral oration, Pericles boasted that an Athenian citizen

“is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.”

In what way is this inconsistent with the modern democratic ideal of self-governance? In fact, Hicks argues, what democracy needs to function effectively and wisely is citizens with elite, aristocratic souls. A society in which classical education were extended to as many students as possible would be one with citizens well-equipped to participate in democratic governance, precisely because they were rounded, thoughtful, conscientious, and articulate.

The sense of this paradoxical proposal becomes clearer if we look at from the other side: what kind of education would be especially apt to produce citizens who cannot govern themselves? Hicks argues that it would be precisely one which stressed rights, for if rights are seen as prior to duties (rather than dependent on them) they produce people who feel entitled to freedoms that they can exercise without need for justification. It is the old story with which we are all too familiar, because this is the kind of education we give, and the kind of political culture we get in consequence.

A second reason why classical education is especially suitable for modern society is that the modern industrial state has created the conditions in which a large proportion of the population has the leisure which, in ancient Athens, was available only to the aristocracy. It would make sense, therefore, for us to educate our citizens as the ancients educated their aristocrats:

Education, therefore, must impress on the citizen a lively sense of the responsibilities attending these privileges; his responsibility to the past, his obligation to govern and discipline himself, to contribute in every way he can to the preservation and development of his society’s purpose and sense of values, his duty to love the law and to carry himself before his compatriots in an exemplary manner, and the opportunity to use his leisure for the realization of his marvellous human potentials.

Those who argue that classical education’s elitism is inconsistent with our society – either from the elitist or populist side – both wrongly see the individual as having value principally in relation to society and the state – whether as custodian or worker – whereas in fact her value is intrinsic, and it is on the basis of that dignity that she merits the fullest, richest, most humane education that we can muster.

*

Another objection comes to mind. Even if we are convinced of the superiority of classical education, surely this whole project is quixotic? The entrenched powers are so formidable as to be invulnerable. It’s just not going to happen.

Hicks sees this objection as sophistical, in the sense of Sophistical:

A Sophist tended to accept the “givens”: an advocacy system that had lost the understanding of justice, a mob opinion no longer sensitive to the demands of truth and beauty. He taught his students simply how to do what had to be done to get along: how, when necessary, to make the weaker argument the stronger.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, therefore, he recommends critique and a refusal to limit the discussion to the terrain where the opponent is most secure. The ‘givens’ are contingent, and vulnerable in the long term.

**

Such is, I believe, a fair summary of the argument, although I have left out much of secondary or tangential interest. In broad outlines, we have a presentation and defence of classical education, and an unflattering contrast with modern education. The positive case is the most valuable; I’ve learned a good deal from it. Like Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word, which is the only other book on classical education known to me that is of comparable depth, the approach is learned and humanistic, in the best sense. More superficial treatments of classical education might lead one to think it’s a matter of curriculum materials or staging (‘first teach them about the world, then how to argue, then how to persuade’), but these two books flesh out the deeper ideas and implications.

Of the case against modern education, I think it sound in its broad outlines. That modernity was a rupture with the classical and medieval traditions is hardly a new idea; that science has metastatized in the meantime from methodology to ontology is likewise a commonplace; that education has become less normative and personal and more technological and practical is touted in the public square by politicians who see it as a virtue. But I am concerned that he has drawn the contrast too sharply. Even granting that we are comparing apples and oranges, and prefer apples, one still must be careful not to compare only the ripe apples to only the rotten oranges. My education was partly in the modern tradition, and although I readily grant that it had defects – what I have been doing in this space for the past decade or more could be reasonably understood as an attempt to remedy those defects – I also believe that it gave me much of real value. I never understood myself to be a mere economic cog in a machine; no particular ideal for emulation was given me, but then school was not the whole of life, and I received that kind of inspiration elsewhere. My children have been in the public schools for a few years, and their experience has been, by and large, reasonably good. Not great – not so great as to keep them there, at any rate – but not terrible either. The truth is that schools founded on the modern principles are probably better than they have a right to be, just as our society at large is. Yes, at a theoretical level modernity has laid waste the intelligibility of beauty, denied itself the transcendental horizon of the good, and boxed itself into an immanent frame, but in practice people are still people, still prone to flourish along Aristotelian lines, still sensitive to the cross-currents of the wind that blows where it will. There is a crack in everything, as the poet said. That’s how the light gets in.

It is also worthwhile, I think, to consider a caution along the lines of ‘Be careful what you wish for’. It may be good and right to call for a normative education that challenges and forms the conscience of students, but if we try to imagine what might happen were it actually tried today, I think we would simply turn our schools into factories for social justice activists, the likely outcome so long as the ethical imperatives are confined, along with the rest of the school’s business, to the social, political plane, and not founded comprehensively on the Tao.

**

All this, believe it or not, in the first 100 pages or so. It is an exceptionally concentrated book, written in a terse, closely argued style. In the latter part of the book, practical matters are addressed. If one were actually to have a school founded on the principles of classical education, what might it look like? Hicks gives a curriculum proposal for grades 7-12, and then adds a number of essays on integration and cohesion of the curriculum across subjects and grade levels, preparation of teachers, and other matters. Were I starting or running a school, these sections would be valuable, but it seems to me that the centre of gravity of the book is found in the earlier, theoretical sections I have outlined here.

Unfortunately the publisher has slapped a steep price on the book, so that only those with deep pockets or generous spouses casting about for gift ideas are likely to get a copy. The publisher would do a good service to issue a new edition at lower cost.

***

[The ‘why’ and ‘what’ of education]
All wanted their instruction to bring man to a knowledge of his abiding self — a knowledge making man both wise and virtuous and enabling him to win insights into the lower levels of being. One fundamental principle guided this endeavour: why one studied, not so much what one studied, determined one’s level of achievement.

[Truth and beauty]
Whenever truth comes to man by way of beauty, it necessarily transforms his character and ennobles his behaviour.

[Rights and duties]
A man without the knowledge of the truth — a man ignorant of his obligations to himself, to his neighbours, and to God, and whose education has not aimed at instilling in him a sense of good and evil and a sense of the holy — has no use for rights. He has no knowledge of how to use them.

[Love and education]
Love is the principle of truth in philosophy and of beauty in art that draws the spirit of man off center to participate imaginatively in the object of beauty or truth. Love provides man with the means for answering the mandates of conscience and for breaking out of his egocentric prison. Unlike self-denial or self-negation, love is a positive force, but it requires an object above the self for which the self is transcended. Once the knowledge of this transcendent object is established, whether by reason, by example, or by faith, love binds a person to this object. This binding is the supreme aim of classical education, the union of knowledge and responsibility tantamount to the formation of the virtuous man; but without eros, even the best pedagogy is helpless to achieve this aim.

[Tocqueville]
Do you want to give a certain elevation to the human mind, and teach it to regard the things of this world with generous feelings, to inspire men with a scorn of mere temporal advantages, to form and nourish strong convictions, and keep alive the spirit of honourable devotedness? Is it your object to refine the habits, embellish the manners, and cultivate the arts, to promote the love of poetry, beauty, and glory? Would you constitute a people fitted to act powerfully upon all other nations, and prepared for those high enterprises which, whatever be their results, will leave a name forever famous in history? If you believe such to be the principle object of society, avoid the government of the democracy.”

Old English miscellanea

June 7, 2019

Minor and Miscellaneous Poems
Anonymous
Translated from Old English by Craig Williamson
(U Penn, 2017) [c.600-c.1200]
Roughly 200 p.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon poetry which has survived has done so between the pages of a small number of codices: the Junius Manuscript, Vercelli Book, and Exeter Book, plus the manuscripts which have preserved Beowulf and a few other large-scale works (including a complete psalter in Old English verse). But beyond these major sources there survive a large variety of smaller poems and fragments — even individual lines of verse. The last few hundred pages of this gargantuan gathering of poems are devoted to these survivors. I had thought that I’d glance over them quickly, but in the event I found them fascinating, a kind of curio museum liable to throw up a fresh surprise at every turn, and took the time to read through them all.

They are “minor” poems in the sense of being short, not — or at least not always — of being uninteresting. They include relatively well-known historical poems like “The Fight at Finnsburg” and “The Battle of Maldon” (both of which, if memory serves, Tolkien wrote on), and “Caedmon’s Hymn”, which might be the earliest Old English verse that we have. There are the two hymns of St Godric (which I knew from the gorgeous musical settings by Anonymous 4), a calendar poem that describes the seasons and the annual cycle of church feasts, a set of metrical charms for use against diseases and cattle thieves, and some pious moral exhortations in “The Rewards of Piety” and “Instructions for Christians”. There is also “The Grave”, a ghastly meditation on death and decay, and a set of versified commentaries on Latin liturgical prayers like the Pater Noster, Gloria, and Credo.

Speaking of the Pater Noster, my favourite of these miscellaneous poems was “Solomon and Saturn”, a dialogue between the two named figures as representatives of the Biblical and pagan worlds, respectively. This is a novel idea for a poem, and it is doubly interesting to find that the pagan is Greco-Roman rather than, as one might expect, Scandinavian or Germanic. But the content of the poem is the main attraction: in one especially delightful section Solomon describes the effects of the Pater Noster on the devil. Each letter of the prayer assaults the powers of evil with righteous violence:

Whoever earnestly chants the word of God,
Sings out the truth of the Savior’s song,
And celebrates its spirit without sin,
Can chase away the fierce foe,
The champion of evil, if you use the power
Of the Pater Noster. P will punish him —
That warrior has a strong staff, a long rod,
A golden goad to strike the grim fiend.
Then A pursues him with mighty power,
Beating him back, and T takes a turn,
Stabbing his tongue, twisting his neck,
Breaking his jaws. E afflicts him,
Always ready to assault the enemy.
R is enraged, the lord of letters,
And grabs the fiend by his unholy hair,
Shakes and shivers him, picks up flint
And shatters his shanks, his spectral shins.
No leech will mend those splintered limbs —
He will never see his knees again.
Then the devil will duck down in the dark,
Cowering under clouds, shivering in shade,
Hatching in his heart some hopeless defense.
He will yearn for his miserable home in hell,
The hardest of prisons, the narrowest of homelands,
When those churchly twins, N and O,
Come sweeping down with sharp whips
To scourge his body, afflict his evil flesh.
Then S will arrive, the prince of angels,
The letter of glory, our Lord and Savior —
It will haul the fiend up by his hostile feet,
Swing him in the air, striking the stone
With his insidious head, cracking his cheeks,
Shattering his mouth, scattering his teeth
Through the throngs of hell. Each fearful fiend
Will curl up tightly, concealed in shadow
As the thane of Satan lies terribly still.
(ll.119-155)

And so on. This, I believe, is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long while.

*

Beyond these complete poems or substantial fragments, we also have a bunch of really short poems. When Williamson claims to have translated the “complete” Old English poems, he is not kidding. An inscription on a ring, a stray riddle, a metrical phrase carved on a stone cross or casket, a poetic line scribbled in the margin of a manuscript — they are gathered up and set down here. These bits have a certain romance about them; they, and only they, have been spared by the gauntlet of time. In some cases it becomes difficult to decide if something qualifies as Old English verse or not, for in later centuries the line between Old and Middle English became blurry, and the distinction between merely rhythmic prose and bona fide metrical verse can be tricky to descry. When in doubt Williamson has chosen to include it, and I’m glad.

**

Sadly, this browse through the Old English Curiosity Shop brings our journey through the whole surviving body of Old English poetry to an end. It has been a strange and rewarding trek for me through what was, mostly, terra incognita (or whatever the Anglo-Saxon phrase would be), and I am reluctant to let it go. Thanks are due to Craig Williamson for undertaking the massive task of single-handedly translating this marvellous, little-known literature.

I am mindful, however, that during the 18 months that I’ve been a hearth-guest of the Anglo-Saxons, a queue of other big, bulky medieval books has formed on my shelf. Unless I am mistaken they seem to hail from Finland, Iceland, Arabia, and Japan. Decisions, decisions…

Aucassin and Nicolette

February 3, 2019

Aucassin and Nicolette
Anonymous
Translated from Old French by F.W. Bourdillon
(Folio Society, 1947) [c.1200]
60 p.

In the annals of medieval love lore you have your Tristans and your Yseults, you have your Lancelots and Guineveres, your Romeos and your Juliets and your Dantes and your Beatrices — and you have Aucassin and Nicolette? I confess that, until I stumbled upon them recently, I’d never heard of this pair. Their love is one for which, naturally, the course does not run smooth, and the basic problem is obvious enough:

Here they sing.

Aucassin was of Beaucaire;
His was the fine castle there;
But on slender Nicolette
Past man’s moving is he set,
Whom his father doth refuse;
Menace did his mother use:

“Out upon thee, foolish boy!
Nicolette is but a toy,
Castaway from Carthagen,
Bought a slave of heathen men.
If for marrying thou be,
Take a wife of high degree!”

“Mother, I will none but her.
Hath she not the gentle air,
Grace of limb, and beauty bright?
I am snared in her delight.
If I love her ’tis but meet,
So passing sweet!”

What follows is a kind of medieval singspiel, in which verse songs alternate with prose narration. This form has been dubbed a chantefable (literally, a sing-say), and the category has been invented specifically for Aucassin and Nicolette, which is our sole surviving medieval example of what was presumably a genre.

It is a delightful creation, plump with good humour and full of energy. It is a celebration of the medieval ideal of “courteous love”, and a fresh, cleansing wind blows through it. Love has captured Aucassin’s heart, and he prefers his beloved to honour, to wealth, to glory — even to the salvation of his soul. In this sense, he is the “foolish boy” his mother decries, but his devotion is so strong that it inspires him to great deeds of another sort, and to heroic virtues of another order. His love, in fact, renders him worthy to be the hero of a medieval romance.

The story is packed with oddities. In one episode Aucassin finds himself at a castle where the king lies in child-bed and the queen rides forth to battle. Joining the fight, he discovers that they fight not with swords, but with crab-apples, cheeses, and mushrooms. In another, Nicolette stumbles in the forest upon a group of rustics enjoying a pastoral picnic, almost as though the Forest of Arden had been transplanted to France.

A number of English translations have been made. I tried out three (by Lang, Mason, and Bourdillon) before settling on the last. All were made about a century ago, and all are afflicted to some degree by maladroit archaisms. Bourdillon seemed to be the least egregious offender, but even his version contains its fair share of “honoured wight”s and “gramercy”s, such that I had liefer die than suffer another. This is a work ripe for a fresh look by an enterprising translator of Old French. But, despite these troubles, I enjoyed the book, and arrived in good spirits at the happy ending:

Towards him to her feet leapt she.
Aucassin, when he did see,
Both his arms to her he holds,
Gently to his bosom folds,
Kisses her on eyes and face.
So they left him the night’s space,
Till the morrow’s morning-tide
Aucassin took her to bride,
Made her Lady of Beaucaire.
Many days they then did fare,
And their pleasure did enjoy.
Now has Aucassin his joy,
Nicolette too the same way.
Here endeth our song-and-say;
I know no further.

The book, which is quite short, is available at the Gutenberg project.

Adams: Mont St Michel and Chartres

December 20, 2018

Mont St Michel and Chartres
Henry Adams
(Penguin Classics, 1986) [1904]
xli + 398 p.

I went to Chartres on my first trip to France. It was a short train ride from Paris; I remember passing through the Versailles train station en route and caring not a whit for it; my heart was set further down that track. It was a slightly overcast day; perhaps I had hoped to see Chartres draped in an overhanging blue mantle, and so was slightly, very slightly, disappointed as I approached. I met the famous English guide, Malcolm Miller, who has been giving tours there for decades. My dominant memories are of a dimmed, vaulting interior and glory all around.

Henry Adams also saw Chartres, and loved it. He made it, along with the great Mont St Michel, the launching point for this extended imaginative engagement with the art and culture, mostly French, of the 12th and 13th centuries. It is not a book of “art history”, though there is a good deal of art and history in it; it is not a book of theology, though it cannot avoid grappling with some. It is instead something less common: a very personal encounter with great artistic achievements, in which Adams makes a serious attempt to feel his way back into the past:

One needs to be eight centuries old to know what this mass of encrusted architecture meant to its builders, and even then one must still learn to feel it. The man who wanders into the twelfth century is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young.

Mont St Michel he values chiefly as an achievement that brought the political, artistic and religious aspirations of its time into a compelling unity:

The whole Mount still kept the grand style; it expressed the unity of Church and State, God and Man, Peace and War, Life and Death, Good and Bad; it solved the whole problem of the universe. The priest and the soldier were both at home here, in 1215 as in 1115 or in 1058; the politician was not outside of it; the sinner was welcome; the poet was made happy in his own spirit, with a sympathy, almost an affection, that suggests a habit of verse in the Abbot as well as in the architect. God reconciles all. The world is an evident, obvious, sacred harmony.

He emphasizes the masculine character of the Mount, presided over by the warrior St Michael and expressing rugged strength in its form. Chartres, on the other hand, expresses the feminine spirit, being the special domain of Our Lady and expressing her tastes. The Virgin of Chartres

was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her Son, Who, at Chartres, is still an Infant under her guardianship. Her taste was infallible; her sentence eternally final. This church was built for her in this spirit of simple-minded, practical, utilitarian faith,—in this singleness of thought, exactly as a little girl sets up a doll-house for her favourite blonde doll. Unless you can go back to your dolls, you are out of place here. If you can go back to them, and get rid for one small hour of the weight of custom, you shall see Chartres in glory.

Chartres, too, by expressing the Virgin’s glory, expressed the ideals of the time, for she was at the center of that society in a manner that transcended the usual social and political divisions. All disputants, on whatever question, were united in honouring her with “good faith, depth of feeling, and intensity of conviction” as the exemplar of human perfection:

The Virgin still remained and remains the most intensely and the most widely and the most personally felt, of all characters, divine or human or imaginary, that ever existed among men.

Adams takes the time to inspect in detail the structure and decorative programme of the church, meditating upon the rose windows, the portals — west, north, and south — and of course the famous twelfth-century stained glass. (When reading these sections it helped greatly to consult a coffee-table book with pictures of the scenes under discussion; there are pictures in this Penguin edition, but of inadequate quality and too few.) It is clear that he thinks Chartres is the greatest architectural achievement of the time — in fact, he goes further and dubs the smaller of its two spires “the most perfect piece of architecture in the world”.

Although the book’s title would lead one to believe that it is focused entirely on these two great buildings, in fact they account for only half the length of the book. Adams moves on, in the same playful and inquisitive spirit, to a consideration of the literature of the time, and to its intellectual and religious life.

Among works of literature he values especially Le Roman de la Rose, Le Chanson de Roland, the songs of Adam de la Halle, and the wonderful collection of legends Les Miracles de la Vierge. Of these, I especially enjoyed his ruminations on the song of Roland, which I myself have written briefly about, but with far less success. Equally excellent is his appreciation of the religious poetry of Adam of St Victor — most of it, again, in honour of the Virgin — which he praises for its simplicity of spirit and technical excellence.

Later chapters of the book set up a contest, within medieval culture, between the intellectual engagement with faith — represented by Abelard and Aquinas — and an emotional, instinctive approach to the sacred — represented by Bernard of Clairvaux and, in a rare voyage outside France, Francis of Assisi. I didn’t find these sections entirely successful, in part because it wasn’t clear to me that Adams really knew what he was talking about. (For instance, while I would never claim to be a gatekeeper to authentic Thomism, I have read a good deal of and about St Thomas, and I could hardly recognize him in Adams’ portrait.)

Indeed, this might be a general criticism to levy against the book as a whole. It is clearly the work of an amateur (and was, in fact, originally published privately in an edition of only 100 copies, to be shared with friends). His oft-repeated, self-depreciating references to his substitution of imagination for expertise — “what we want is not dates but taste” — might be intended to defuse such criticisms. He needn’t have worried overmuch, for he was obviously a man of intelligence and sensitivity, and the lapses in judgment or errors as to fact must be relatively few.

I will, say, however, that I found his prose to have a certain lugubrious quality; the same complaint put me off his other great book some years ago.

Every so often I read a book that I feel I might, under different circumstances, or given more talent, have written, or tried to write, myself. This is such a book for me; not that I think I could have done it nearly so well, but I’d have liked to try.

***

[The evangelical power of Chartres]
Any one can feel it who will only consent to feel like a child. Sitting here any Sunday afternoon, while the voices of the children of the maitrise are chanting in the choir,—your mind held in the grasp of the strong lines and shadows of the architecture; your eyes flooded with the autumn tones of the glass; your ears drowned with the purity of the voices; one sense reacting upon another until sensation reaches the limit of its range,—you, or any other lost soul, could, if you cared to look and listen, feel a sense beyond the human ready to reveal a sense divine that would make that world once more intelligible, and would bring the Virgin to life again, in all the depths of feeling which she shows here,—in lines, vaults, chapels, colours, legends, chants,— more eloquent than the prayer-book, and more beautiful than the autumn sunlight; and any one willing to try could feel it like the child, reading new thought without end into the art he has studied a hundred times; but what is still more convincing, he could, at will, in an instant, shatter the whole art by calling into it a single motive of his own.

[The unity of medieval architecture]
The architects of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took the Church and the universe for truths, and tried to express them in a structure which should be final. Knowing by an enormous experience precisely where the strains were to come, they enlarged their scale to the utmost point of material endurance, lightening the load and distributing the burden until the gutters and gargoyles that seem mere ornament, and the grotesques that seem rude absurdities, all do work either for the arch or for the eye; and every inch of material, up and down, from crypt to vault, from man to God, from the universe to the atom, had its task, giving support where support was needed, or weight where concentration was felt, but always with the condition of showing conspicuously to the eye the great lines which led to unity and the curves which controlled divergence; so that, from the cross on the fleche and the keystone of the vault, down through the ribbed nervures, the columns, the windows, to the foundation of the flying buttresses far beyond the walls, one idea controlled every line.

[The synthesis of Aquinas’ thought]
An economic civilization troubles itself about the universe much as a hive of honey-bees troubles about the ocean, only as a region to be avoided. The hive of Saint Thomas sheltered God and man, mind and matter, the universe and the atom, the one and the multiple, within the walls of an harmonious home.

[The 11th century]
The nineteenth century moved fast and furious, so that one who moved in it felt sometimes giddy, watching it spin; but the eleventh moved faster and more furiously still. The Norman conquest of England was an immense effort, and its consequences were far-reaching, but the first crusade was altogether the most interesting event in European history. Never has the Western world shown anything like the energy and unity with which she then flung herself on the East, and for the moment made the East recoil. Barring her family quarrels, Europe was a unity then, in thought, will, and object. Christianity was the unit. Mont-Saint-Michel and Byzantium were near each other. The Emperor Constantine and the Emperor Charlemagne were figured as allies and friends in the popular legend. The East was the common enemy, always superior in wealth and numbers, frequently in energy, and sometimes in thought and art. The outburst of the first crusade was splendid even in a military sense, but it was great beyond comparison in its reflection in architecture, ornament, poetry, colour, religion, and philosophy. Its men were astonishing, and its women were worth all the rest.

Pearl

August 11, 2018

Pearl
Anonymous
Translated from Middle English by Simon Armitage
(Faber and Faber, 2016) [c.1350]
xviii + 103 p.

It is a wonderful poem: intimate and affecting, and, at the same time, showcasing the most dazzling virtuosity.

It tells the story of a man who has lost his spotless pearl — whom, we soon learn, was his daughter, who died when just two years old. He, in sorrow, falls asleep and, in that sleep, dreams that he sees her, now grown, from across an impassable river. They talk; she comforts and corrects him, teaching him about the soul’s journey beyond this life, and about the heavenly kingdom in which she now dwells. He, eventually overcome at his longing to be with her again, dashes into the river, whereupon he awakens.

It is a heart-breaking poem. His sorrow and his longing are so vividly conveyed. I felt it before I was a father myself; I feel it more now. It is a consoling poem too. The counsel his dream-daughter offers him is not sentimental; it is, as it were, doctrine clear and solid as a pearl. It is an encouraging poem, building to a glorious vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, the abode of the blessed, with twelve gates of pearl. And then that vision, in an instant, dissipates, taken from him by his own wilfulness.

The poem has the elegant and intricate structure of a Bach fugue. Let me try to describe it.

There are 101 stanzas, each of 12 lines, for a total length of 1212 lines — a thematically important number, for the heavenly Jerusalem to which the poem aspires is itself suffused with the number 12. Each stanza follows a strict rhyme scheme.

In addition to the rhymes, each line also follows the alliterative stress patterns of Old English poetry, with three or four stressed, alliterative syllables. Thus we have poetry at the level of each line, with lines linked together by rhyme into stanzas.

But the stanzas too are linked, grouped into sets of 5, with each group having a keyword which appears in the first and last lines of each stanza. And the groups of stanzas are also linked, for the first line of the first stanza in each group links to the keyword of the previous set of stanzas. In this way the groups of stanzas are threaded together to create a kind of poetic daisy chain.

Let me illustrate this daisy chaining with an example from Simon Armitage’s translation. The first set of 5 stanzas uses the keyword “spot”. Thus the first and last lines of the first few stanzas are:

[1] Beautiful pearl that would please a prince
[…]
for that priceless pearl without a spot.

[2] And in that spot where it sprang from me
[…]
my precious pearl without a spot.

[3] Spices must thrive and spread in that spot
[…]
from that precious pearl without a spot.

This continues until stanza 6, which introduces the second group. The first line continues with the keyword of the first group, but the last line gives us the new keyword: “ornament”.

[6] Suddenly my spirit rose from that spot
[…]
weave cloth so exquisite in ornament.

[7] Ornamenting the hills to every side
[…]
outshone by opulent ornament.

And so on. When we reach the last group of stanzas in the poem, we discover that their keyword is “pleasing/pleasure”:

[100] Had I put His pleasure before my own
[…]
or propose to spoil a Prince’s pleasure.

[101] To please the Prince and join Him in peace
[…]
and beautiful pearls, pleasing to him. Amen. Amen.

Casting an eye back up at stanza 1, we see that the first line echoes this same keyword, thereby giving the poem as a whole a circular shape, like a pearl. It is, truly, a most beautifully crafted poem.

I have read other translations, and I have also struggled myself through the Middle English original — which, being written in a dialect spoken outside London, is considerably more challenging for modern readers than, say, Chaucer’s poetry. To my knowledge no translator has been able to retain all of the poetic structure of the original, and Armitage is no exception. He chooses to retain the alliterative stresses and the stanzaic patterns, but to forego the rhyme scheme. He gets the small scale structure and the large, but misses the middle. Thus an example stanza reads as follows:

‘Courteous Queen,’ said that lovely creature,
kneeling on the floor, raising her face,
‘Matchless mother and fairest maiden,
fount from which grace and goodness flows.’
Then from her prayers she stood and paused
and in that place she spoke these words:
‘Sir, many seek grace and are granted it here,
but in this domain there are no usurpers.
All heaven belongs to that holy empress,
and earth and hell are within her dominion.
No one will oust her from her high office
for she is the queen of courtesy.

The keyword here is “courtesy”. You can hear the alliteration. The alliterated sound is usually on stressed syllables, which teaches us to how to read the lines. For example, in the penultimate line we alliterate on ‘h’, stressing ‘her’, ‘her’, and ‘high’, which underlines, I think, the dignity and majesty of Our Lady.

This poem is preserved for us in a single manuscript — Cotton Nero A.x. Incredibly, these original pages, complete with illustrations, can be viewed online.

In the end I enjoyed this rendering of the poem, as I enjoyed also Armitage’s version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is handsomely presented by Faber and Faber, with a single stanza on each page, in a sturdy hardback. Recommended.

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.

Sir Gawain, again

September 4, 2017

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Anonymous
Translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage
(Faber & Faber, 2007) [c.1400]
ix + 114 p.

This is a poem that I love, and, in addition to a Middle English version, I’ve a few different translations in my collection, most notably that of Tolkien. Arguably one doesn’t need, and shouldn’t want, a translation, the original being adequately accessible to any reader willing to put in a little elbow grease, but I heard good things about this translation by Simon Armitage, and sometimes one just doesn’t have any elbow grease ready at hand.

Armitage has retained the basic poetic element of the original: an alliterative line with three (and sometimes four) stresses. When three, the three alliterate, but when four he sometimes opts to include two alliterative pairs. Consider, for example, this short passage taken from one of the hunting episodes:

On the bugles they blew three bellowing notes
to a din of baying and barking, and the dogs
which chased or wandered were chastened by whip. (ll.1141-3)

The first line has three stresses in the pattern aaa, but the second has two pairs in the pattern abba, and the third again has two pairs but in the pattern abab. Occasionally, as I said, he hits all four stresses with the same sound (“trussing and trying all the trammel and tack” (l.1129)), but these are exceptional.

Alliterative poetry is wonderful to read aloud, and I read this aloud to myself as much as I could — or as much as my saintly wife would tolerate in the wee hours while she was trying to sleep. Sometimes the ear picks up the stresses not evident to the eye, as in a line like: “A man quite capable, it occurred to Gawain” (l.848).

A novelty of Armitage’s version is that he has broken the poem up into short segments, almost all of which are short enough to fit on a single page, and has, at the end of each page, interrupted the regular scheme of stresses with a set of four short lines, each having two alliterative stresses, and sometimes rhyming. For example, here is the passage in which Gawain, whose cowardice and unfaithfulness have been unmasked by the Green Knight, gives voice to his regret:

Then he grabbed the girdle and ungathered its knot
and flung it in fury at the man in front.
‘My downfall and undoing, let the devil take it.
Dread of the death-blow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave into greed, and in doing so forgot
the fidelity and kindness which every knight knows.
As I feared, I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed, said Gawain.

‘Such terrible mistakes,
and I shall bear the blame.
But tell me what it takes
to clear my clouded name. (ll.2376-88)

I found that I grew very fond of these little envoi as I read; they provided a punchy variation in the rhythm that kept me interested.

Although I did, for the most part, enjoy reading this translation very much, I found it sometimes lapsed into colloquialisms that I found jarring. Granted, this is not grand, solemn poetry like Beowulf, but still I cringed a little at passages like this one, spoken by the Green Knight as he lays down his shocking challenge to Arthur’s court:

“I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.
So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts?
Who’ll spring from his seat and snatch this weapon? (ll.290-2)

The point is arguable; the Green Knight is a lively, uncouth character who might, I grant, speak in this way, if only to ruffle Arthurian feathers.

Armitage has also translated the same poet’s magnificent poem Pearl, and I’m curious about it. It is one of the most technically virtuosic poems in the English tradition, and I’m wondering how Armitage grapples with those challenges. Perhaps I’ll read it — in a year and a day.

The Song of Roland

June 11, 2017

The Song of Roland
Anonymous
Translated from the Old French by Dorothy Sayers
(Penguin Classics, 1957) [c.1100]
206 p.

The army of Charlemagne, having successfully laid siege to Saragossa, was returning home to France, its rear guarded by Roland and his companions, when, in a narrow mountain pass, they were treacherously set upon by the Islamic forces that had just surrendered to them. The Christians fought valiantly against greatly superior numbers, and went down to a glorious defeat. Their heroic stand became renowned, with the name of their leader unfurled like a banner over the long reconquest of Spain in succeeding centuries. The story was told many times, with many variations, but the present poem, written by an anonymous but accomplished poet, achieved, I gather, something like authoritative status.

We are in the realm of epic poetry. Our poet sings of the bravery and strength of his heroes, of their superhuman powers of endurance and supreme fighting skills. When we see treachery, it is a grand treachery; when we see loyalty, it is a stirring loyalty. We see nothing by half measures. Still, the poet leaves room for some defects of character in his principals. Roland, especially, is portrayed as brave, but confident to a fault, bordering on hubris, and his self-assurance in the face of overwhelming odds leads to his downfall.

Half-measures apply least of all to the violence of the poem, which is plentiful and plain:

Wondrous the battle, and it grows faster yet;
The French fight on with rage and fury fell,
They lop off wrists, hew ribs and spines to shreds,
They cleave the harness through to the living flesh;
On the green ground the blood runs clear and red. (126)

Even the Archbishop, Turpin, is a fighting man, who rides to battle with sword and spear in hand. Here he confronts one of the lesser Islamic leaders, Corsablis:

His golden spurs he strikes into his steed,
And rides against him right valiant for the deed.
He breaks the buckler, he’s split the hauberk’s steel,
Into his breast driven the lance-head deep,
He spits him through, on high his body heaves,
And hurls him dead a spear’s length o’er the lea.
Earthward he looks and sees him at his feet,
But yet to chide him he none the less proceeds:
“Vile infidel, you lied between your teeth!
Charles my good lord to help us will not cease,
Nor have our French the least desire to flee.
These friends of yours stock-still we’re like to leave;
Here’s news for you — you’ll die, and there you’ll be.” (95)

As the Archbishop’s presence testifies, this conflict is explicitly a clash of religions. When the Christians achieve their final victory (as they do), they proceed to smash the mosques (and, for good measure, the synagogues) and force their captives to be baptized — all except the Islamic queen, whom Charlemagne wishes to convert by persuasion. The poem evinces no doubts about the propriety of this course, and certainly no irony. At the same time, the poet seems startlingly ill-informed about the nature of Islam; on numerous occasions he refers to the Muslims as polytheists who worship “Mahound, Apollyon, and Termagant”. Who Termagant might be, I’ve no idea.

Regardless, it is clear that God fights on the side of the Christians. When Roland is beset with troubles, the whole of France is troubled by storms and earthquakes. Charlemagne is granted illuminating dreams that reveal the schemes of his enemies, and the angel Gabriel visits him.

The form of the poem is flexible: it consists of several hundred short sections, or laisses, each of which contains an indefinite number of lines, with the only requirement being that the lines be metrical and that the line endings in each laisse be consonant, having the same dominant vowel (rather than a strict rhyme). This works extremely well, and I found myself greatly enjoying the sound of the poem. Consider, for instance, this culminating passage about the death of Roland:

The County Roland lay down beneath a pine;
To land of Spain he’s turned him as he lies,
And many things begins to call to mind:
All the broad lands he conquered in his time,
And fairest France, and the men of his line,
And Charles his lord, who bred him from a child;
He cannot help but weep for them and sigh.
Yet of himself he is mindful betimes;
He beats his breast and on God’s mercy cries:
“Father most true, in whom there is no lie,
Who didst from death St Lazarus make to rise,
And bring out Daniel safe from the lions’ might,
Save Thou my soul from danger and despite
Of all the sins I did in all my life.”
His right-hand glove he’s tendered unto Christ,
And from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign.
Straightway his head upon his arm declines;
With folded hands he makes an end and dies.
God sent to him His Angle Cherubine,
And great St Michael of Peril-by-the-Tide;
St Gabriel too was with them at his side;
The County’s soul they bear to Paradise. (176)

It is true that I’m not enamoured of some of Sayers’ choices here — in particular her hokey-sounding metrical crutches, like “County” for “Count”, and her penchant for archaisms in a pinch — but basically I like the way the consonant end-stoppings pile up, giving the poem momentum and a certain musicality.

You’ll note from this most recent passage that Roland dies in comparative peace, rather than in battle. Here the poet solves a tricky problem, for his hero has to die, but, as a hero, he can’t simply be killed in combat. In fact, Roland’s death is due to his own over-exertion, he having exploded his veins by blowing too vigorously on his horn.

The blowing of that horn has summoned Charlemagne’s army to return, and, though they arrive too late to save Roland and his companions, they do pursue, overtake, and defeat the retreating Islamic army. In the final act of the poem, the French return to home and the traitor, Ganelon, who betrayed them to the Muslims out of spite toward Roland, stands trial. Thus the poem covers the full arc of Roland’s story.

And we have to put the emphasis on “story”, because the poem apparently bears little resemblance to actual history, even in its broad outlines. It is true that Charlemagne’s army besieged Saragossa in the year 778, but unsuccessfully, and in collaboration with one Islamic faction against another, and it is true that during their return to France, on 15 August of that year, their rear-guard was ambushed and slaughtered, but by Basques, not Muslims, during which ambush Roland, a duke of Brittany, was among the dead. How that rather minor episode in military history grew in the course of time to flower in the legendary battle of Roland against the Saracens is a mystery, though a happy one. The poem teaches us about the relationship of Christians and Muslims a millennium ago, but not much about real historical events of the eighth century.

I greatly enjoyed reading the poem. In my mind, it compares favourably with El Cid, being better structured, and more exciting, and having better characters. I have the feeling that I’d like a tougher, somewhat less mellifluous translation, but I’m not aware of any such.

**

Addendum: Reading in Henry Adams’ Mont St Michel and Chartres, which has a wonderful chapter on The Song of Roland, Adams gives us this appraisal:

No modern opera or play ever approached the popularity of the “Chanson.” None has ever expressed with anything like the same completeness the society that produced it. Chanted by every minstrel,—known by heart, from beginning to end, by every man and woman and child, lay or clerical,—translated into every tongue,—more intensely felt, if possible, in Italy and Spain than in Normandy and England,—perhaps most effective, as a work of art, when sung by the Templars in their great castles in the Holy Land,—it is now best felt at Mont-Saint- Michel, and from the first must have been there at home.

Gloria in profundis Deo

April 2, 2017

In the world of early music, where manuscripts are often bereft of temporal markings, dynamic markings, and even pitch indications, a certain amount of creative interpretation is an inescapable part of any performance. But there’s interpretation and interpretation: sometimes musicians come along with a bold challenge to the received wisdom about how the music of a particular time and place should sound.

Case in point: Graindelavoix give us a version of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame that is frankly bizarre: pitches slide all over the place, the timbre is rough and unpolished, and ornamentation, inspired, it sounds, by Middle Eastern and Arabic singing, pervades all.

This embedded video contains a full performance of the Mass, with propers, but I’m queuing it up to the Gloria, which lasts for about 6 minutes. I’m mostly thrilled by the bass in this ensemble, who is some kind of monster: listen, for example, to the notes he sings at “Jesu Christe” (about 2-1/2 minutes in, and again at about 4 minutes in). Amazing.

I’m honestly not sure if I like what they’re doing — it comes close to being an early-music freak-show — but I do like that they emphasize how little we really know about how this music sounded to those who first wrote and performed it. And I definitely like that bass.

If you don’t know how this Mass usually sounds, here is a fairly typical reading of the same section.