Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

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…

Horace: Odes

May 27, 2019

Odes
Quintus Horatius Flaccus
(Wordsworth Classics, 1997) [23-13 BC]
lvii + 282 p.

Horace is one of the authors whom I’ve most looked forward to reading during the Roman reading project in which I’m engaged. I have known him only by reputation; to my knowledge, before taking up this volume I’d never read a line of his poetry.

The Odes are his most famous poems, admired for their graceful artistry. Horace was the master of the polished miniature; the elegant turn of phrase; the marriage of form and content; the personal touch. There are four books, published between 23 and 13 BC, comprising about 100 poems altogether.

Each ode is, as a rule (occasionally broken), addressed to a particular individual: to a friend returned from war, or to a friend who has fallen in love with his servant-girl, or to someone writing a book, or mourning a death, or to an unfaithful beauty. One is addressed to a lute. The subject matter is as wide as the heavens: love, friendship, the vanity of riches and power, the fleetingness of life, the virtues of wine. The tone is largely whimsical and tender, poetry on a small, domestic scale, but not a hint of rusticity. Horace professes a love for the countryside, but his own personality, it seems, was gently urbane.

This is personal poetry, then, far from the high style of epic, akin in some ways to Catullus, but more guarded, using meticulous poetic construction to put a little distance between the finished poem and the poet.

*

Let’s look at a few examples. This volume of Horace that I have been reading is an anthology in which the work of many different translators are combined. Therefore where I quote lines I shall indicate in brackets the name and date of the translator.

A recurring theme is the small ambition of Horace the poet, who is content with a simple, domestic sphere, and whose style is not fit for great matters like war and affairs of state:

Small wits, small themes! I know my humble place,
Nor would the Muse of my unwarlike lyre
Suffer my verse with ineffectual fire
Your fame or Caesar’s to disgrace.
(I, 6) [Edward Marsh; 1941]

*

And as for Caesar — you in your great prose
Will tell his battles better, and display
Proud kings with necks enchained, his vanquished foes,
Led captive down the Sacred Way.

Me the sage Muse assigns an apter part,
To praise your fair Licymnia’s radiant eyes,
Her thrilling voice that lifts you to the skies,
The treasure of her faithful heart;

How all she does becomes her, the swift play
Of parrying wit, the dance of frolic grace
When with the bright-robed girls she takes her place
To hymn Diana’s festal day.
(II, 12) [Edward Marsh; 1941]

Yet this modesty is a subterfuge of sorts, for he does occasionally turn his pen to Caesar’s advantage:

Come then, auspicious prince, and bring
To thy long gloomy country light,
For in thy countenance the spring
Shines forth to cheer thy people’s sight;
Then hasten thy return for, thou away,
Nor lustre has the sun, nor joy the day.
(IV, 5) [Philip Francis; 1746]

This was consistent with his social position; though the son of a freedman, and so not part of the Roman aristocratic circles, his talent earned him a place among the powerful in Roman society. His special artistic patron was Maecenas, Augustus’ adviser and confidant.

In any case, it is equally clear that his quaint subject matter is but a vehicle to greatness of another sort:

Restrain your tears and cease your cries,
Nor grace with fading flowers my hearse;
I without funeral elegies
Shall live forever in my verse.
(II, 20) [Dr Johnson; 1726]

This poetic conceit — that the poet’s immortality, or that of his subject, is assured because of the poetry itself — is familiar from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I wonder (but do not know) if Shakespeare inherited it from Horace.

The shortness of life is another theme that comes up again and again. It ought to spur us, says Horace, to live each day with determination to wring from it all that it can yield:

Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune’s power;
Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –
Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with’ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.
(I, 9) [Dryden; 1685]

Or, again, in an ode addressed to Virgil, he argues that the brevity of life should encourage us not to take ourselves too seriously, but to enjoy levity and folly:

Then leave delays, and gain’s desire,
And mindful of black funeral fire,
Short folly mix with counsels best:
‘Tis sweet sometimes to be in jest.
(IV, 12) [Sir Thomas Hawkins; 1625)

All of this, of course, under the shadow of death, which loomed over all:

One end awaits us all. Our fate
Is fixed. The ferry-boat is sent
To carry all men, soon or late,
To their perpetual banishment.
(II, 3) [John Gielgud; 1951]

*

The indifferent earth, an equal friend,
As willingly opens her wide womb
For beggar’s grave as prince’s tomb.
(II, 18) [Thomas Hawkins; 1625]

**

I enjoyed these poems a good deal. Reading poetry in translation — especially non-narrative poetry — is something of a fool’s game. I cannot name a single poem which has achieved eminence or widespread admiration in the English speaking world that was not originally written in English. Translations, however talented the translator, somehow fail to really take wing. Yet there are wonderfully talented poets in this volume, Dryden and Milton being the most eminent. The reader, if innocent of the original tongue, is unsure whether whatever elegance or artistry they perceive in the translation is a reflection of something present in the original, or not. As such, it is difficult to form any precise view of, in this case, Horace the poet from reading the poems.

Why bother then? In part, I think, because of the personal tone of the poetry, which comes through quite clearly despite the mediating voices. There is a man behind the lines whom we can, in some measure, get to know, whether that man is Horace himself or his artful public persona. The point is that there is a “character” there, who speaks to us across the centuries with a startlingly immediate voice.

Another reason would be simply to appreciate, in some measure, a poet whose influence over subsequent European poetry, and English poetry specifically, has been great. If the translations in this volume are representative (and they are consistent with what I found in the even more extensive collection Horace in English), an interest in re-expressing Horace’s poetry in English forms began in roughly the sixteenth century and has extended up to the present. This is not the same thing, of course, as saying that an interest in Horace began then; educated readers before the twentieth century could, and did, read him in the original, and he has been considered one of the great poets of our tradition since antiquity. Wikipedia has a nice potted history of his reception in European cultures.

*

[Complicated love]
No sooner hast thou, with false vows,
Provoked the powers above;
But thou art fairer than before
And we are more in love.
Thus Heaven and Earth seem to declare
They pardon falsehood in the fair.
(II, 8) [Sir Charles Sedley; 1701]

[The glory of the past]
Time sensibly all things impairs;
Our fathers have been worse than theirs;
And we than ours; next age will see
A race more profligate than we,
With all the pains we take, have skill enough to be.
(III, 6) [Wentworth Dillon; 1684]

[Against riches]
We barbarously call those bless’d
Who are of largest tenements possess’d,
Whilst swelling coffers break their owner’s rest.
More truly happy those, who can
Govern the little empire, man.
(IV, 9) [George Stepney; 1689]

Virgil: Georgics

April 25, 2019

Georgics
Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
(FSG, 2005) [c.29 BC]
xx + 202 p.

Virgil wrote the Georgics a few years after his Eclogues and the two sets of poems share common ground, especially an admiration for rural life. Whereas the Eclogues were structured around rustic characters, the Georgics are much more interested in the nuts and bolts — or, I suppose it would be better to say, the grapes and olives — of farm life, and could be fairly described as outright didactic poems. I was reminded, more than once, of Cato the Elder’s “De agricultura”, not on account of the form, of course, for Virgil is infinitely more elegant, but of the subject matter.

There are four poems, or, it may be better to say, four divisions of one poem. The first is about agriculture: the sowing of crops, anticipation of storms, harvesting. The second is concerned with tree husbandry: types of trees, planting of trees, types of soil, grafting, and harvesting of fruit. The third transitions to the care and breeding of farm animals, both the nobler kind (horses and cows) and the more ignoble (goats, sheep), with an extended section on plague and diseases that can beset herds and flocks. The fourth, and for me the most enjoyable, is about bee-keeping.

We all know Virgil as the author of Aeneid. I must say that few things seem more unlikely than that he, our great epic poet, should, apart from that monumental achievement, be known for writing humble farm poems. It is as though a scriptwriter for a television nature program should then write “Hamlet”. Yet it is apparently so. Probably I am underselling Virgil’s accomplishments in these earlier poems, which I expect are exquisite in the Latin, and in which there is more going on than mere exposition, but, nonetheless, the contrast between this and that is striking.

Further to that point: my handy little Student’s Guide to Classics argues that the Georgics are actually comparable to the Aeneid in their exploration of “optimism about man’s ability to create order and pessimism about the disorder caused by his passions and appetites”. I would concur, at least, with the judgment that the creation of order is a major preoccupation of the poems. I’m unconvinced that the poems are especially focused on “passions and appetites” as sources of disorder; to my mind, they represent disorder as inherent in the natural world, from which order must be wrested.

A feature of these poems that particularly attracted my attention was the interplay in them of the quotidian and the sacred. Virgil may be describing something quite concrete and ordinary, like pruning a vine, but an attending god is rarely far off. Throughout the poems, tales from Greek and Roman mythology are interwoven with technical descriptions of farm management. The effect of this is, of course, to elevate the dignity of the farmer’s work, presided over so attentively by the gods, and also to convert the poems themselves into a celebration of Roman greatness in and through the primary Roman virtues, which since at least the time of Cincinnatus had been rooted in rural exemplars.

The presence of gods and heroes in these poems is especially striking in the fourth Georgic, which contains a long section relating the tale of Aristaeus (the Roman god of bee-keeping) and Proteus, during the course of which Proteus tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was here, in what is a very beautiful interlude, that I heard for the first time in these Georgics the voice of Virgil the epic poet. For all I know, it may have been on the strength of this very section that Virgil was chosen by Augustus to write the Aeneid.

Speaking of Augustus, he is everywhere in these poems. They open and close with references to him, whom Virgil portrays as the great patron of peace, and numerous deferential and laudatory remarks are made about him throughout. Thus the poems have a political dimension that sometimes feels merely sycophantic — emperors will be praised, after all — but sometimes seems more. The fourth Georgic, again, is interesting from this angle: in it, the bees are governed not by a queen but by a king, which makes me wonder whether we are to read this paean to the virtues of the hive as an allegory of the Roman empire? Or could it simply be that Augustan-age melittology was wayward in certain respects?

*

Virgil’s principal influences in these poems are Hesiod and Lucretius, both admired for their careful descriptions of natural phenomena. The Georgics have been read regularly between Virgil’s time and ours, albeit much less widely than has Aeneid. The first English translation was John Dryden’s, in 1697, and the poems enjoyed a heyday (or maybe a hay-day) of popularity in the eighteenth-century, with over 20 English translations published in that century alone. They inspired a modest echo in an English tradition of agricultural poetry, now dead, and were an influence on agrarian political and social movements at around the time of the American founding. The Wikipedia page is quite good at tracing the influence they have had.

It would have been nice to read Dryden’s translation, but for years I’ve had this David Ferry translation on my shelves and I decided the time was ripe to finally take it down. Ferry has rendered the poems into iambic pentameter, giving them a stately feel, and, like the Latin original, does not bother with rhymes. His English, however, is a good deal more verbose than the Latin (which in this edition is printed on the facing page), often running to at least 50% more lines. But this, I believe, is common in translations from Latin, and not counted a fault. I found Ferry quite good, in general, and excellent in the fourth poem, where his lines took on an aptly honey-golden sheen.

Virgil: Eclogues

March 25, 2019

Eclogues
Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
[c.40 BC] Second reading.

When I first read Virgil’s Eclogues, more than a decade ago, I confess that I was disappointed by them. I had expected more from the great poet of the Latin golden age than these, apparently, slight and inconsequential poems about shepherds and rustics. Now, revisiting them, it would be fair to say that I appreciate them more, but still an exaggeration to say they stir enthusiasm in my breast. It would be fair to say that I am still having trouble hearing the music in this Muse.

*

There are ten Eclogues, none very long, and, as advertised, they are mostly about shepherds and rustics. Half are dialogues (I, III, V, VII, IX); in a few, the characters play games of poetic one-upmanship, composing songs on cue. Others relate the joys or woes, often romantic, of their characters.

I am told that there are political subtexts to some of the poems; all were written during the reign of Octavian/Augustus, one of whose initiatives was the confiscation of lands in order that he could bestow them on the many soldiers he wished to retire from service. In many of the poems this ill treatment — from the shepherds’ perspective — is discernible in the background. This is the case, for instance, in the first eclogue. However, the overall impression is not a political one, at least if the poems are taken at face value.

Virgil was to become most famous for the Aeneid, and though it would be tendentious to argue without firmer grounds that that great epic was already gestating in his imagination, he does at one point himself suggest that his first instincts as a poet were not for the pastoral:

I first transferred to Rome Sicilian strains;
Nor blushed the Doric Muse to dwell on Mantuan plains.
But when I tried her tender voice, too young,
And fighting kings and bloody battles sung,
Apollo checked my pride, and bade me feed
My fattening flocks, nor dare beyond the reed.
(VI, 1-6)

Whether this, in itself, tells us anything about the quality of this bucolic poetry is doubtful, but I found it interesting.

The most famous of the Eclogues is the fourth, which celebrates the birth of a boy who brings a miraculous peace to a world in conflict:

The jarring nations he in peace shall bind,
And with paternal virtues rule mankind.
Unbidden earth shall wreathing ivy bring,
And fragrant herbs, (the promises of spring,)
As her first offerings to her infant king.

These marvels Virgil partly adapted from a Sibylline prophecy, and they were widely interpreted by Christian readers as making reference to the birth of Christ (though I know of none who thought that Virgil so intended them). The frequently beautiful imagery of this poem reminds a Christian reader of Isaiah’s prophecies:

The goats with strutting dugs shall homeward speed,
And lowing herds secure from lions feed.
His cradle shall with rising flowers be crowned:
The serpent’s brood shall die; the sacred ground
Shall weeds and poisonous plants refuse to bear;
Each common bush shall Syrian roses wear.

*

My better experience on this reading of the Eclogues is at least partly attributable to my choosing the Dryden translation, rather than (as before) the Guy Lee translation (from Penguin Classics). True, Virgil wrote in dactylic hexameter, whereas Dryden wrote in iambic pentameter, but if the goal was to match one high poetic style with another, Dryden succeeded. Lee’s Alexandrine verse (basically iambic hexameter) lacks the punch. Let’s compare a randomly chosen passage in the two translations. Here are the opening lines of the Eclogue VIII as rendered by Dryden:

The mournful muse of two despairing swains,
The love rejected, and the lovers’ pains;
To which the savage lynxes listening stood,
The rivers stood on heaps, and stopped the running flood;
The hungry herd the needful food refuse—
Of two despairing swains, I sing the mournful muse.

And here is Lee:

Muse of the shepherds Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Rivals, at whom the heifer marvelling forgot
Her pasture, by whose singing lynxes were enthralled
And running rivers, altering their courses, stilled,
We’ll tell of Damon’s and Alphesiboeus’ Muse.

To give Lee his due: he is much more careful to follow Virgil’s lead, taking fewer liberties. His five lines match Virgil’s five, whereas Dryden takes six, and still neglects to tell us the names of the two swains. But I still prefer Dryden’s stout eloquence over Lee’s sprawling lines.

*

Virgil inherited the tradition of pastoral poetry principally from the Greek Theocritus, even to the point of basing several of these poems on Theocritic originals. He cannot, therefore, be said, with complete accuracy, to be the “fount” of pastoral poetry in the West, but his reputation in the West so far outstrips that of his predecessor that we may, de facto, take these Eclogues as the spring from which sprang, in time, the Forest of Arden, the passionate Marlovian shepherd, and Beethoven’s sixth symphony. It is a rich heritage indeed, in which

Our woods, with juniper and chestnuts crowned,
With falling fruits and berries paint the ground;
And lavish Nature laughs, and strows her stores around.

The Exeter Book

January 28, 2019

The Exeter Book
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(U Penn, 2017)
300 p.

The Exeter Book is one of four principal surviving sources for Old English poetry, and, of those four, it is the largest. It is a tenth-century codex that has been part of the Exeter Cathedral library since 1072. It is the sole source for almost all of its contents.

The collections of Anglo-Saxon verse I’ve looked at previously — the Junius Manuscript and the Vercelli Book — consisted of, respectively, four and six poems. The Exeter Book, by contrast, contains about three dozen poems, most of them fewer than 150 lines long, and it also contains about 100 verse riddles. This makes it a very interesting and surprising collection, but also makes it rather hard to summarize. Instead, I will write briefly about a few of the poems that particularly attracted my attention.

*

The Book begins with one of the longest poems: a triptych called Christ, the parts of which are a set of meditations on Advent and the Nativity, the Ascension, and the Last Judgment. They are thematically linked, but are not necessarily — and, in fact, probably not — all the work of one poet.

The Advent poems are partly based on the O Antiphons. Here, as an example, is the beginning of the poem based on the antiphon O Oriens:

O Radiance of dawn, brightest of angels,
Messenger of morning, righteous and rising,
Bright light of truth, splendor of sun,
Brilliant beyond stars, imbuing middle-earth
With the grace of growth in all seasons —
You are the illumination and enlightenment
Of all time and the world’s endless turning,
You are the God begotten of God,
Separate and Self, Son of the Father,
Gift and blessing of high heaven,
A child born who has always been
Before beginning, beyond ending…
(V, 1-12)

That, even in translation, is a strong, dense meditation on Christ as the light of the world. (For readers unfamiliar with Anglo-Saxon verse, you should be listening in this poetry for patterns of stressed syllables and alliteration in each line.)

Other of the Advent poems are in honour of Our Lady, such as the one which begins in this way:

O glorious maiden of middle-earth,
Purest of women, most precious queen,
How wisely and justly do all speech-bearers
Praise your name and bless your birthing
With joy in their hearts, delighting and saying
That you are the blessed bride of God,
Lord of the sky, Ruler of heaven.
The attendants of Christ, servants of God,
Proclaim and sing that with your virtue,
You are the Lady of the glorious hosts,
Hallowed in heaven by his primacy and power,
And Lady under heaven of all earthly hosts,
Even those dwelling in hell.
(IX, 1-13)

For me, this is fine devotional poetry, and I intend to revisit these Advent poems again during the Advent season.

The middle section of Christ describes the Ascension, but briefly. The bulk of the poem, apart from bridge sections which link it backward to the nativity poem and forward to the last judgement, is devoted to a charming plan I’ve never encountered before: the “seven leaps” of Christ. The “leaps” in question are (1) from heaven to the womb, (2) out of the womb, (3) onto the cross, (4) from the cross to the tomb, (5) the descent into hell, (6) out of the tomb, and (7) the ascent into heaven. It’s a delightful poem.

The final section of Christ is a stirring depiction of the judgment of the damned and the blessed, written with strong imaginative power.

**

Juliana is one of the few saints’ lives in The Exeter Book. St Juliana of Nicomedia was one of the martyrs of the early Church; she suffered under Diocletian. The poem is probably the work of Cynewulf, one of the few Anglo-Saxon poets whose name has come down to us.

The poem relates how St Juliana refused to marry a pagan and was, as a result, abused and imprisoned. She was visited in prison by a demon who, disguised as an angel, tempted her to compromise, and much of the poem is devoted to their dialogue. It is wonderfully done. The demon is marvellously suave and persuasive, which is already excellent, but, better still, Juliana sees through him immediately. Indeed, she is so feisty that her first response is to leap and throttle him! (One imagines, here, and with gratification, a correspondingly vigorous response were she confronted with one of our oily churchmen!) In any case, in what follows “the radiant maiden” forces the “hell-sprite, man’s fierce foe” to reveal himself and confess his evil intentions before she sends him back to hell:

Then the maiden released that soul-slayer
After his time of torment in the dark abyss.
The dread demon was a bearer of bad news,
Bound to tell the revolting truth
To a host of torturers, the tribe of hell.
That was not a good journey for him.
(561-6)

I would rank Juliana with the best of the saints’ lives known to me. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

**

The Exeter Book also contains a number of poems which scholars call “elegies” on account of their generally meditative tone and non-narrative subject matter. Later English poetry would make this type of poem more familiar to us; it is poetry that tries to capture a mood or feeling.

A good example is The Wanderer, written from the point of view of a man exiled from his home. It conveys a powerful sense of sadness and longing for what cannot be had again. The poet, bereft of home, sees that ultimately everyone shares his fate:

The wise warrior knows how ghostly it will be
When all this world’s wealth is a wasteland,
As middle-earth is now in many places —
Wall fragments stand, blasted by winds,
Covered by frost — ruined hallways in snow.
Wine-halls decay, lords lie dead,
Deprived of joys — the proud troop
Has fallen by the wall. War took some
On a long death-road; a bird bore one
Over the deep sea; the gray wolf shared
One with death; a sad-faced earl
Hid one in an earth-hole, a bleak barrow.
So the Maker of men laid waste to the world,
Until the old works of giants stood idle
And empty of the hall-joys of men.
(78-92)

Other poems of this kind in The Exeter Book include “The Seafarer”, “The Wife’s Lament”, and “The Ruin”. This is a side of Old English poetry that I have not encountered before.

**

One of the most unusual and intriguing poems in this collection is “The Rhyming Poem”. It is unusual because — it rhymes! This in addition to maintaining the usual requirements of Anglo-Saxon verse, of course. It is, as one can imagine, one of the most difficult poems to render into modern English, and Craig Williamson, so able and fluent in general, confesses his inability to do the original justice. I reluctantly agree with him. For example:

The will is weak, desire droops and curls,
No-faith follows, the heart heaves
Its last, its least — all harrows, all hallows.
Joy fades, lordships fall. Sin spreads
Its wide net, shame serves, pleasure pains.
Thus the world winds down. Hope drowns.
(55-60)

The original’s rhyming couplets are entirely missing, though he has managed to give us some internal rhymes. The style has become compressed and gnomic, though it is hard to know if this is a feature of the original poem or just an artifact of the effort to cram in all the poetry.

In any case, it is good to know that there is at least one rhyming poem in the Old English corpus.

**

Finally, I will say a few words about the dozens of riddles. Riddling is a poetic pastime that, unfortunately, has not had a distinguished career in subsequent English poetry. Tolkien gave us some rhyming riddles in The Hobbit, and I’ve little doubt he did so inspired by these Anglo-Saxon exemplars.

Here is one example, to give the flavour of the thing:

Head down, nosing — I belly the ground.
Hard snuffle and grub, I bite and furrow —
Drawn by the dark enemy of forests,
Driven by a bent lord who hounds my trail,
Who lifts and lowers me, rams me down,
Pushes on plain, and sows seed.
I am a ground-skulker, born of wood,
Bound by wizards, brought on wheel.
My ways are weird: as I walk, one flank
Of my trail is gathering green; the other
Is bright black. Through my back and belly,
A sharp sword thrusts; through me head,
A dagger is stuck like a tooth: what I slash
Falls in a curve of slaughter to one side
If my driving lord slaves well.
(Riddle 19)

Solutions to the riddles are not given in the Book, though in his notes Williamson solves them, or at least describes the solutions that have been proposed. (Some of the riddles, like the one above, are easy to solve, but some have never been solved conclusively.)

A few of the riddles rely on double-entendres for their misdirection. An example is Riddle 25.

I must say that in general I found the riddles to be great fun, but I was only able to solve a handful of them on my own.

**

As I said at the top, there is far too much in The Exeter Book for a blog post to handle. Reading through all these poems has been rewarding for me. Typically I would close my day by sitting down and reading one or two, more than once wishing that I had a scop to sing them to me! Those interested in learning more could profitably consult the Wikipedia page, which includes links to individual pages for roughly half of the poems.

Next in this collection of Old English poetry is Williamson’s translation of Beowulf. I’m looking forward to it.

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

September 21, 2018

On the Nature of Things
T. Lucretius Carus
Translated from the Latin by Ronald Melville
(Oxford, 1997) [c.55 BC]
xxxviii + 275 p. Second reading.

\; \; \; \;  \; \;  \; My purpose is
With the sweet voice of Pierian song
To expound my doctrine and as it were to touch it
With the delicious honey of the Muses;
So in this way perchance my poetry
Can hold your mind, while you attempt to grasp
The nature of the world, and understand
The great design and pattern of its making.”
(I, 943-50)

Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is one of the great epic poems of the ancient world, and, as is claimed in this volume’s introduction, “perhaps the greatest didactic poem ever written in any language”. It is a work plump with fascinating scientific theories, and one with interesting and influential philosophical ideas also; it is, arguably, the latter that account for much of its continuing appeal.

We know little about the author, and the securest dating of the poem derives from a reference to it in a letter of Cicero; it was probably first published in around 55 BC.

The poem consists of about 7400 lines of Latin hexameter, and is divided into six books. The overall argument of the poem is to present and defend the natural philosophy of the Epicurean philosophical school.

Lucretius’ basic metaphysical principles and atomistic physics are described in the first two books; the middle books are devoted to the human person, soul and body; and the final two treat the development of human societies before culminating in an ambitious (if, alas, mostly wrong) naturalistic account of dramatic natural phenomena like lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, and disease.

Lucretius is famous for his spirited and resourceful defence of atomism. The idea is not original with him — that honour is usually bestowed upon the Greek Democritus, of course — but he presents it seasoned “with the delicious honey of the Muses”, a sweetener intended to help the medicine go down. For him, atoms are small, indivisible, infinite in number, eternal, and indestructible. From these characteristics he derives two overarching metaphysical principles which govern all that follows. The first is that atoms do not come into being:

“We start then from her [nature’s] first great principle
That nothing ever by divine power comes from nothing.”
(I, 148-9)

and the second is that they do not pass out of being:

\; \; \; \;  \; \;  \; nature
Resolves all things back into their elements
And never reduces anything to nothing.”
(I, 215-7)

Thus the picture he presents us with is that of a world composed of an infinite number (though a finite variety) of indestructible material bits in motion. These bits, he argues (against Aristotle), are surrounded by a void. The existence of this void he rather deftly deduces from the fact of translational motion, for if there were no void it would be impossible for atoms to move from one place to another, their being impeded by the presence of other atoms. And these two categories, atoms and the void, exhaust his ontology:

“…apart from void and matter no third substance
Can remain to be numbered in the sum of things,
Neither one that falls within the range of senses
Nor one that mind can grasp by reasoning.”
(I, 445-7)

Thus for Lucretius, as for his intellectual descendants, such things as mathematical objects, moral principles, and immaterial souls have no reality.

Atoms move about, bumping into one another and combining in new ways to make new things. He uses a nice metaphor to describe this process, one particularly apt for use by a poet writing poetry:

“Moreover in my verse it matters much
How letters are arranged and linked with others.
The same denote sky, sea, land, rivers, sun,
The same denote crops, trees, and animals,
And, if not all, by far the greater part
Are alike; but the position decides the meaning.
So with real things, when the combination of their atoms,
Their motions, order, forms, shapes, and positions
Are changed, the thing itself must change.”
(II, 1013-21)

Because he believes that the number of atoms is infinite, and that this process has been taking place for infinite time, he does not shrink from the conclusion that our world itself came to be out of just such chance encounters:

“The seeds of things
In random and spontaneous collision
In countless ways clashed, heedless, purposeless, in vain
Until at last such particles combined
As suddenly united could become
The origins always of mighty things,
Of earth, sky, sea, and breeds of living creatures.”
(II, 1058-62)

Thus, step by haphazard step, the world around us has taken shape. Perhaps the most famous section of the poem, in Book V, is that in which he traces for us the slow development of the world from its origins to the establishment of early civilizations: the production of animals, the origins of speech, the discovery of fire, the origin of religion (which he, oddly, considering his other principles, attributes to apparently genuine visions of the gods), the beginnings of metallurgy and agriculture, the advent of music, and the building of cities. The atomic theory he puts to use in a variety of creative ways: to explain sense perception, and the laws of optics, for instance. It is interesting that this broadly evolutionary view of history does not include any conception of the evolution of life; for Lucretius, animal species are distinct and unchanging (V, c.920).

By the same reasoning which leads us to view our world in this way, we conclude that other worlds, too, have and will come to be. Moreover, turning the coin over, they will eventually fall apart again, just as our world one day will:

“So death rightly comes, when by constant flow
All things are thinned, and all things, struck from without
By an increasing hail of blows, succumb;
Since at the end great age finds food to fail,
And without ceasing bodies from outside
Beating on things subdue them and destroy them.
So shall the ramparts of the mighty world
Themselves be stormed and into crumbling ruin
Collapse.”
(II, 1139-47)

The naturalness with which his minimalist ontology — atoms and the void alone — leads to this final, whimpering destruction of all that the we know and love accounts for his dousing it with “the delicious honey of the Muses”, even if, perhaps, we doubt that we could be wholly convinced to part with our inheritance even for so sweet-seeming a mess of pottage.

As with many of his modern descendants Lucretius’ forthrightness about the ultimate fate of everything is paired with a strange lacuna. He is quite explicit that his ultimate purpose in writing this poem — his moral purpose — is to provide peace of mind, to teach his reader the art of “being undisturbed”. He aims at this in part by providing naturalistic explanations for unusual and frightening natural phenomena, so as to free the minds of his readers from the anxiety induced when they are experienced as signs of divine displeasure,

“Proceeding to set free the minds of men
Bound by the tight knots of religion.”
(IV, 7-8)

And Lucretius, following “the first who dared / Raise mortal eyes against” religion — namely, Epicurus, the hero of his tale — understands that a central part of achieving this peace of mind must be coming to peace with death. He therefore argues at length, in Book III, that the Epicurean universe in which only atoms and the void exist is necessarily one in which:

“… we may be certain that in death
There is nothing to fear, that he who does not exist
Cannot feel pain”
(III, 866-8)

There is a dignity in this paradoxical conviction that the way to avoid losing all is to definitively lose all, that the creature’s fear can be overcome by its accepting its total self-destruction, fear and all. Perhaps we are impressed by the vision of a philosopher who attends quietly to truth even as the world around him is consumed in a great conflagration. We may feel the persuasive power of Lucretius’ belief that

“True piety is for a man to have the power
To contemplate the world with quiet mind.”
(V, 1199-1200)

If we do feel that persuasive power, we ought to honour it, on the likelihood that there is some good in it. And Lucretius puts our good will to the test when he yields no quarter to those who, though not fearing death, wish nonetheless to extend their lives for as long as possible, for what difference, he argues, could longevity possibly make?

“Live though you may through all ages that you wish,
No less that eternal death will still await,
And no less long a time will be no more
He who today from light his exit made
Than he who perished months and years ago.”
(III, 1090-4)

Perhaps we respond to this detachment by doubling-down on our admiration: here is a man who truly wears his metaphysical hairshirt with Roman fortitude. Or perhaps we doubt that a philosophy that can so readily relativize the value of life is worth our uncritical adherence. The shelter, after all, which the Epicurean seeks from the metaphysical black hole that devours his world is his own interior life: his untroubled mind, his calmness in the face of disorder, his contemplation of truth. Yet do these things survive the destruction that lays all else to waste? Not in the long run — Lucretius tells us that much — but in the short? Now? It is here, I think, that the armour is pierced most effectively. The Epicurean moral universe, like our less systematic but substantially similar reigning view today, is underpinned by the presumed reality of human freedom, which imparts to all the Epicurean virtues a nobility and even a reality they cannot otherwise possess. There is no virtue in patience if one is not free to be impatient — indeed, there is no virtue of patience if there are only atoms and the void. Likewise for courage, and for prudence, and for all the virtues, and for the very notion of virtue as a moral quality, and for moral qualities tout court. Take his mandorla of freedom from him and you take all; yet his own principles do just that.

Famously, Epicurus, and Lucretius after him, tries to save human freedom in his system by introducing “the swerve” — an apparently random motion which atoms make from time to time to prevent the universe’s being deterministic:

“While atoms move by their own weight straight down
Through the empty void, at quite uncertain times
And uncertain places they swerve slightly from their course.”
(II, 217-9)

But this was feeble, being both arbitrary and inadequate to the purpose.

We therefore find, I think, that the Epicurean materialist metaphysics, like the modern one, consumes the metaphysician, leaving no-one to live out his moral ideal. We are left only with random motion and ultimate dissolution. And this, I think, even by Epicurean standards would be a counsel of despair.

**

I enjoyed re-reading this poem, which I first read at least 20 years ago. In the Roman reading project in which I am presently engaged it was my first sustained dose of Roman philosophy — just Greek philosophy at second hand, admittedly, but who among us can do better? — and I found a good deal to engage with. It is true that the very notion of a great poem about natural science seems slightly quixotic, rather like singing a Mass in honour of, say, Charles Darwin. But one soon forgets this genre-busting aspect, and falls into enjoyment of the poem on its own terms.

The translation of Ronald Melville I found good apart from the title (“On the Nature of the Universe”), which might well be a more fitting translation of De Rerum Natura on some grounds, but to which I nonetheless prefer the traditional English title (“On the Nature of Things”). I do harbour a regret that I didn’t splurge for Anthony Esolen’s translation, not least because I expect his commentary would have been superior to that found in this Oxford edition. But this, admittedly, is speculation, and I suppose that, in a Lucretian spirit, I could moderate my regret by meditating on the Epicurean counsel that, whatever translation I chose, “eternal death will still await”.

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.

Catullus: Poems

April 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serraillier: Robin and his Merry Men

July 24, 2017

Robin and his Merry Men
Ballads of Robin Hood
Ian Serraillier
(Oxford, 1969)
60 p.

I came to this book almost wholly ignorant of the Robin Hood stories, my main exposure until now having been pretty much limited to that old animated film. I usually have thought of these stories as the poor English cousins to the (originally French) tales about Arthur and the Round Table. Even if true — and I don’t know if it is true — it can, naturally, still be enjoyable to spend time with one’s poor cousins from time to time.

This book relates a set of stories, tied together by an overall arc, about Robin Hood’s dealings with Sir Richard of Lee, a woebegone knight whom Robin helps at a crucial juncture, an act of generosity which Sir Richard is, eventually, able to reciprocate.

Serraillier, to his credit and my delight, tells the story in verse. If you believe (as I fondly do) that tales of Robin Hood ought rightly to be told in song, around a fire, and under a greenwood, then this will satisfy, for it is admirably suited to the purpose. In a series of abcb quatrains (with occasional sallies at sestets), beginning with

Come, gather round and listen awhile
To a tale of the good greenwood
And a courteous yeoman, a brave outlaw
Whose name was Robin Hood.

and bounding, through field and forest, to the concluding

Meanwhile in the musty cheerless court
King Edward’s hopes grew chill.
He waited, waited … And for all I know,
He may be waiting still.

it works splendidly. The poetry is simpler than other examples of Serraillier’s verse that I’ve enjoyed, and I read sections of it, with only occasional difficulties, to my older kids (5yo and 7yo, at the time). The words are complemented by a set of illustrations; while fine, they did not particularly appeal to me.

The bad guys in the poem are the Sheriff of Nottingham (naturally) and the rich, including the bishops, archbishops, and abbots. This aspect took some explaining to the kids, who didn’t understand why a bishop should be behaving so badly, and why Robin Hood, with all the courtesy in the world, should be trying to take his money. This, combined with the forthright piety of the poem — for Robin is devoted to Our Lady, and his men express a sturdy reverence for Our Lord — took some time to untangle. But if those complications can be overcome this is a book easy to recommend. I believe it is presently out of print, but it was not too difficult to track down a reasonably priced second-hand copy.

If anyone knows of a particularly good source for further tales of Robin Hood and would like to recommend it, please do so!

Serraillier: The Ballad of St Simeon

February 23, 2017

The Ballad of St Simeonserraillier-st-simeon
Ian Serraillier
Illustrated by Simon Stern
(F. Watts, 1970)
28 p.

The subject of this poem is St Simeon Stylites, who, because “his ways were lonely and he loved God”, leaves ordinary life behind and, of all things, lives atop a pole for most of his life. He suffers exposure to the elements, and the jeers of those below, but he offers counsel to humble souls as well, and when a fearsome dragon threatens the city it is St Simeon whose prayers save the day.

In this large-format edition the poem is illustrated by Simon Stern. The drawings are charming and a bit amateurish, and clearly pitched at young children. Not so the poem itself, I dare say, which seems to me addressed to fairly accomplished readers:

Years Simeon stood, sat, slept
on his pole, communed with God and wept
for the sin-smudged city. Some, not many,
brought him their troubles and he offered
prayers for them but could do no miracle.
How he suffered!
The seasons steam-rollered him. In summer
the flaming sun made him boil
and the pole pain bubble and pop, and
when winter was a turmoil
of flying icicles, in spite of his mother-knitted clothes,
his goose skin hugged his skeleton. So cold was it
that chilblains marbled and the people’s oaths
froze on the air (thawing out in Spring
with a bang).

There are rhymes here, both at line ends and internally, but the rhythm is irregular and a bit tricky, and the poem doesn’t condescend. Somewhat to my surprise, therefore, my 5 year-old son loves it, and has had me read it to him numerous times over the past few weeks. Does that mean I’ve succeeded in finding its music?

As far as the subject matter goes, it’s a good story, and it is well told. Sometimes modern authors treating saints’ lives are tempted to skirt the religious elements, especially when there’s something as distracting as a dragon in the tale, but Serraillier doesn’t do this, and in fact the poem contains Biblical allusions that will render it partly unintelligible to readers without a decent religious formation. A similarly demanding poem, and a poem demanding in a similar way, would probably not be published today in this format. Let us raise a glass, once again, to oldish books.