Thursday 20 November 2008

Eadmund se eadiga

This is a tough day for me, loyalties-wise. On this day in 870, Edmund, King of East Anglia, was killed after refusing to submit to the Danish army who were ravaging his kingdom. Though I blithely say 'killed', I should mention that the (St Sebastian-influenced, but nonetheless widely accepted) story says he was tied to a tree, beaten, shot through with arrows like a hedgehog, and then beheaded. Before long he began to be revered as a martyr (that's what happens when you're killed by something called 'the Great Heathen Army') and got Bury St Edmunds named after him. His death became one of the defining images of Viking aggression, even among (later, Christian) Norse writers.

So today is rather a sad day for those of us who like both Old Norse and Old English, because a lot of the time Vikings wrote really good poetry and fantastic sagas, but then sometimes they also brutally murdered people.

Ælfric's Life of St Edmund is one of the texts most English students at Oxford study for the Old English Mods paper; it functions as a nice typical saint's life for beginners to read, and as a bonus features not only the aforementioned hedgehog parallel, but also Edmund's severed head calling out "here! here!" to the people looking for it. This story is consequently one of the things everyone knows, even non-medievalists. But it's not those colourful details I like best: my favourite part is the little dialogue when Edmund is deciding how to answer the Viking messenger who has come to tell him to submit to Ingvar. He consults with a bishop, who's frightened and says maybe he should just give in. This is how Ælfric describes Edmund's response:

Þa suwode se cynincg and beseah to þære eorþan, and cwæþ þa æt nextan cynelice him to,"Eala þu bisceop, to bysmore synd getawode þas earman landleoda, and me nu leofre wære þæt ic on feohte feolle wið þam þe min folc moste heora eardes brucan."

That is:

Then the king became very quiet and looked at the ground, and at last said to him in a kingly manner: "Alas, bishop, the poor people of this land are shamefully mistreated, and it would now be preferable to me to fall in battle so that my people might continue to enjoy their land."
I love that moment of contemplation - "suwode... and beseah to þære eorþan" - and Ælfric's understated, near-tautological "cynelice". Edmund's concern for his people's welfare is one of his distinctive saintly attributes (he's particularly kind to widows, it says elsewhere). And here's why it's necessary:
And se bisceop cwæþ, "Eala þu leofa cyning, þin folc lið ofslagen, and þu næfst þone fultum þæt þu feohtan mæge, and þas flotmen cumað, and þe cucenne gebindað butan þu mid fleame þinum feore gebeorge, oððe þu þe swa gebeorge þæt þu buge to him." Þa cwæð Eadmund cyning swa swa he ful cene wæs, "þæs ic gewilnige and gewisce mid mode, þæt ic ana ne belife æfter minum leofum þegnum þe on heora bedde wurdon, mid bearnum and wifum, færlice ofslægene fram þysum flotmannum. Næs me næfre gewunelic þæt ic worhte fleames, ac ic wolde swiðor sweltan gif ic þorfte for minum agenum earde, and se ælmihtiga God wat þæt ic nelle abugan fram his biggengum æfre, ne fram his soþan lufe, swelte ic, lybbe ic."

And the bishop said, "Alas, dear king, your people lie slain, and you do not have sufficient forces with which you can fight, and these seamen will come and bind you alive unless you preserve your life by flight, or save yourself by yielding to him."

Then said Edmund the king, very bravely: "This I desire and wish in my mind, that I should not survive alone after my dear thanes, who have been suddenly slain in their beds by these seamen, with their children and their wives. It has never been my custom to flee; I would rather die, if necessary, for my own land; and almighty God knows that I will never turn aside from His worship, nor from His true love, whether I die or live."

Sunday 16 November 2008

Joys of Oxford, 2: Youth

This city is full of young people, with all that means. But Keith Douglas (Merton, 1938) said it better than me, in a poem that's a joy in itself:


At home as in no other city, here
summer holds her breath in a dark street
the trees nocturnally scented, lovers like moths
go by silently on the footpaths
and spirits of the young wait,
cannot be expelled, multiply each year.
In the meadows, walks, over the walls
the sunlight, far-travelled, tired and content,
warms the recollections of old men, touching
the hand of the scholar on his book, marching
through quadrangles and arches, at last spent
it leans through the stained windows and falls.

This then is the city of young men, of beginning,
ideas, trials, pardonable follies,
the lightness, seriousness and sorrow of youth.
And the city of the old, looking for truth,
browsing for years, the mind's seven bellies
filled, become legendary figures, seeming
stones of the city, her venerable towers;
dignified, clothed by erudition and time.
For them it is not a city but an existence;
outside which everything is a pretence:
within, the leisurely immortals dream,
venerated and spared by the ominous hours.

Saturday 8 November 2008

Joys of Oxford, 1: Beauty

This is an easy one. Yesterday, from a bedroom window, I watched a pink-and-orange sunset warm the hulking mass of the Rad Cam until it was a soft blur of light, and I was reminded again of how this city overflows with visual beauty: the dark wood of medieval dining halls, lit by candles and the glitter of cutlery; stately chapels, with stained-glass windows and vaulted ceilings and patterned floors; yellow stone, winding alleys, towers and turrets... Well, you know all that; you can imagine.

But it's not just the aesthetic loveliness which is endearing. Lots of places are beautiful - even my hometown has its moments, though they are few! This place values beauty, cherishes it, encourages it in every form - in music, in art, in literature, in academic skill and debate and conversation, in social intercourse. Everyone is here to learn to be a better version of themselves, and to discover how to do what they do more skilfully. In a world that is often ugly, and a society where it's unfashionable to excel - you might hurt someone's feelings - I find that too cheering for words.

Joys of Oxford: Introduction

Thomas Traherne (Brasenose College, 1657) writes of his time at Oxford in Centuries of Meditations thus:

Having been at the University, and received there the taste and tincture of another education, I saw that there were things in this world of which I never dreamed; glorious secrets, and glorious persons past imagination.

There are some things about Oxford which annoy me very much, and I've learnt during my time here that it's a name which arouses strong feelings both inside and outside the University. Some people get delightfully excited when they hear it: "oh, Oxford! You mean Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and Brideshead Revisited and Alice in Wonderland, and punting, and High Table, and Dorothy L. Sayers, and Inspector Morse, and those funny gowns!" I like that, because secretly when I say the name of this city I do mean all those things and more, and I'm still just as excited as any tourist can be when I think of them.

But some people are hostile: they think of snobbery, the Bullingdon Club, spiteful dons, ivory towers, privileged public schoolboys, High Table, and those stupid gowns. Those images are lurking behind almost any depiction of Oxford in the contemporary media, especially when journalists want to put the boot into certain politicians, and I do see where they get it from - there's no denying there's some truth in it, even today. I was at a (now former) women's college as an undergraduate, and the reaction of some members of the University to that name was enough to show me that snobbery is alive and well here.

But for all that, I think this is a city and a university like no other, and I love it. I didn't come here from a typical Oxford background, and in many ways I was hopelessly underprepared for life here, academically and socially. And yet, like Thomas Traherne, I've found here "things of which I never dreamed; glorious secrets, and glorious persons past imagination". I want to share some of those glorious secrets in this blog.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Some pretty pictures

I don't spend all my time going round taking pictures in Christ Church Meadow, except that yes, that is kind of what I do. This is Magdalen Tower, from the path near Merton which some people call 'Dead Man's Walk' - a fact not to be thought about too much when the night is falling like this!Christ Church itself, of course:

The English Faculty is one of the ugliest buildings in Oxford - it's of the 'concrete block' school of architecture (not to mention that most of the rooms in it, apart from the library, are underground). On the way there from the centre of town you're still entertained by one or two lovely things, though, such as this tree which I suspect belongs to New College - or at least those are their towers in the background.

Just one more:

Lincoln College, at its best time of year.

Tuesday 4 November 2008


The autumn sunshine didn't last long, and November is currently reminding me of a different Hopkins poem, 'Inversnaid':

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet!

The best thing about wet and wildness in Oxford is that Christ Church meadow is deserted - other people not appreciating walks in the pouring rain as much as I do. I take any chance I can get to walk in the rain, though I don't tend to tell people this, because they think it's a little crazy. The river's now fuller than in this picture and the fallen leaves are considerably more damp, but nothing beats a walk with rain dripping from the trees, freshness in the air, bells in the distance, and not another person in sight.

This is 4th week of term, but '5th week blues' have hit early. That's the other kind of blue we have here, apart from the sporting kind - it's a technical expression describing that point in term where you can't believe a whole month has already gone by, but it's still a bit too early for the end to be in sight. This might be an undergraduate thing; I suppose post-grads, with our longer terms, should have a different expression, or suffer a different process, or something. Anyway, it's one of the things I've carried over from being an undergrad, and my current thoughts are therefore along these lines:

- where did the past four weeks go?
- I've achieved nothing in that time
- November = nearly Christmas = academic decision-time about next year. Eek.

Never mind. Since 'Oxford Christmas' comes in 8th week - that's when the carol services and Christmas dinners are - the beginning of November is kind of 'Oxford Advent', and Advent is an excellent season in its own right. As we sing during real Advent:

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant justum
"Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness."

A different kind of rain.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

My last post was in February, and now it's October, and Oxford looks like this. Charles in 'Brideshead Revisited' says (in melancholy mood) that it's typical of Oxford to start the new year in the autumn, and he's quite right. After Trinity term, with its sunny frivolity and fun, messing around on punts and in parks, you get down to the serious work again when the leaves are falling - the leaves of books and of trees being perhaps just too neatly linked to avoid comparison. I suppose we'll work our way round to Trinity again, as we always do, but for the moment study begins (well, begun - it is second week now, after all) surrounded by external reminders of the transience of all earthly things.

Nothing more appropriate than some Hopkins:

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves, líke the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Áh! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Friday 22 February 2008

The Clerk

Because I'm a medievalist, and a graduate student at Oxford, I have a postcard on my wall of the portrait of the Clerk from the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. Under a picture of the Clerk sitting uncomfortably on his skinny horse, book in hand and eyes heaven-ward, it quotes the last line of his description in the General Prologue: "And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche". That's a nice and pithy line for a postcard; it's the kind of thing most people would like to believe about themselves, especially people who can half-legitimately identify themselves as "a clerk of Oxenford". The rest of the little pen-portrait of the clerk is more difficult to sell to tourists:

For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of aristotle and his philosophie,
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente,
And bisily gan for the soules preye
Of hem that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye.
Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede,
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence;
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.

['He would rather have at his bed's head twenty books, covered in black or red, of Aristotle and his philosophy, than rich robes, or fiddles, or gay psalteries. But even though he was a philosopher, he had but little gold in his coffers: all that he could obtain from his patrons he spent on books and learning, and diligently prayed for the souls of those who gave the money he needed for his education. Of study he took the greatest care and heed; he did not speak one word more than was needful, and that was spoken properly and with reverence, briefly, swiftly, and full of deep meaning. His speech was full of moral virtue, and gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.']

Does this describe me? To be honest, I rather like spending money on clothes, I have no objection to music, and I don't buy many books (that's what libraries are for). Speaking only as needful? I would hope so, although students of English literature aren't known for being taciturn. At a guess, I don't think most Oxford 'clerks' would identify with much of that description. But I like it very much, all the same; and I do learn and teach very gladly indeed.

I don't think the Clerk would have written a blog; he'd have had better things to do with his time, like telling faintly unpleasant stories about patient women. However, he might have thought it worth keeping a record of his activities as a scholar for future benefit - but he'd keep it 'short and quick'.