Thursday 30 April 2009

More Faber

'College Hall'

Still may the spirit of the ancient days
Rest on our feasts, nor self-indulgence strive
Nor languid softness to invade the rule,
Manly, severe, and chaste the hardy school
Wherein our mighty fathers learnt to raise
Their souls to Heaven, and virtue best could thrive.
They, who have felt how oft the hour is past
In idle, worldly talk, would fain recall
The brazen Eagle that in times of yore
Was wont to stand in each monastic hall;
From whence the Word, or some old Father's lore,
Or Latin hymns that spoke of sin and death
Were gravely read; and lowly-listening faith
In silence grew, at feast as well as fast.

Wednesday 29 April 2009

At this moment

The sky is pink and blue. The last sun has faded from the Rad Cam and from the tower of St Mary's. I'm sitting at my desk, reading about King Æthelstan. And all across the city, bells are ringing.

Faber Again

'College Library'

A churchyard with a cloister running round
And quaint old effigies in act of prayer,
And painted banners mouldering strangely there
Where mitred prelates and grave doctors sleep,
Memorials of a consecrated ground!
Such is this antique room, a haunted place
Where dead men's spirits come, and angels keep
Long hours of watch with wings in silence furled.
Early and late have I kept vigil here:
And I have seen the moonlight shadows trace
Dim glories on the missal's blue and gold,
The work of my scholastic sires, that told
Of quiet ages men call dark and drear,
For Faith's soft light is darkness to the world.

A cherub in Lincoln college library, which is housed in a converted 18th-century church on the High St.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

F.W. Faber

Frederick William Faber, author of so many memorable hymns, also wrote several poems about Oxford - a fact I learned as long ago as yesterday, and now intend to share with you. They were included in his 1840 collection The Cherwell Water-Lily and Other Poems; this one is the first of a series of four sonnets.

'College Chapel'

A shady seat by some cool mossy spring,
Where solemn trees close round, and make a gloom,
And faint and earthy smells, as from a tomb,
Unworldly thoughts and quiet wishes bring:
Such hast thou been to me each morn and eve;
Best loved when most thy call did interfere
With schemes of toil or pleasure, that deceive
And cheat young hearts ; for then thou mad'st me feel
The holy Church more nigh, a thing to fear.
Sometimes, all day with books, thoughts proud and wild
Have risen, until I saw the sunbeams steal
Through painted glass at evensong, and weave
Their threefold tints upon the marble near,
Faith, prayer, and love, the spirit of a child.

The photograph is of the chapel of Balliol College, where Faber was an undergraduate for a time.

Monday 27 April 2009

Back to Oxford

I've been sadly neglectful of this blog's title-city - I even posted a poem by a Cambridge man! - but I hope to remedy that now it's nearly May. There are a lot of poems about Oxford in May.

This is not one of them, though.

Duns Scotus' Oxford
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping—folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Elham Valley 3

A few minutes down the road (or down the river) from Patrixbourne is Bekesbourne, home of this pretty little church-on-a-hill:

This church has a Norman doorway too (do you see a theme?) and since it was closed, that was all I saw of it. It stars this peculiar fellow:

Nearby Littlebourne has a beautiful village green and by comparison the church (which is surrounded by modern houses) is... not so beautiful. It's named for St Vincent of Saragossa, though, which is unusual, and it has a recovered medieval wall-painting.

The painting depicts St Christopher, to whom pilgrims would pray before crossing the River Stour on their way to Canterbury. You can see a boat clearly, and perhaps the larger figure is St Christopher carrying Christ on his shoulders? There's something architectural going on in the rest of the picture, and possibly some other more indistinct boats.

By the way, this is the opposite side of Canterbury from the road Chaucer's pilgrims follow. They come in via Harbledown ('where ther stant a litel toun/Whiche that ycleped is Bobbe-up-and-doun,/Under the Blee, in Caunterbury weye'). This is how Harbledown remembers Chaucer for that three-line reference (which comes in the Prologue to the Manciple's Tale, in case you were wondering):

Poor Chaucer, always to be remembered as a fat man on a horse. The Ellesmere manuscript has a lot to answer for.

A Sunday Lyric

I sing of a maiden
That is makeless
King of all kings
To her son she ches
He came all so still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falleth on the grass.
He came all so still
To his mother's bower
As dew in April
That falleth on the flower.
He came all so still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falleth on the spray.
Mother and maiden
Was never none but she
Well may such a lady
God's mother be.

makeless - without a mate/beyond compare
ches - chose

Saturday 25 April 2009

Elham Valley 2

It was raining the day I went to Patrixbourne. As I've mentioned before, I'm a fan of rain (though not a fan on facebook, because that's just weird). It happened to be a good condition in which to see Patrixbourne, too, because the 'bourne' of the name refers to a stream - the Nailbourne, in fact, the same as flows through Bishopsbourne and Bekesbourne, nearby. It's a winterbourne stream (a word which always makes me think of Thomas Hardy's wonderfully-named Giles Winterborne in The Woodlanders), but a very wet day provided an appropriately damp atmosphere.

Unfortunately the weather made it difficult to take many pictures of the outside, which is a shame, because Patrixbourne has some beautiful twelfth-century carving around the doors of the south side of the church. However, it's not quite as much of a shame as it might be, since that carving is somewhat eroded. Continuing the St Thomas Becket theme from yesterday, we have here a bishop identified as him, although goodness knows how! Perhaps just because we're so close to Canterbury here. This is the priest's door:

And this is the south door. Please forgive the smudge of rain on the lens!

I know, I know, bad form. But in my defence, it was raining really hard. Anyway, you can see the Norman decoration around the tympanum; it's beautiful, and as you can see, some of the heads are well-preserved:

This chap has a moustache, I think! Oh, those Normans. So whimsical. In the picture below you can just about make out Christ enthroned, surrounded by angels and griffins and such.

But compare it to a picture of nearby Barfreston (of which more another day) and you can see what it might have looked like:

Barfreston has much more such carving inside and out. However, Patrixbourne has other things to recommend it inside, including a memorable rose window at the east end:

And some sixteenth-century Swiss glass installed by a Victorian patron of the church, most of it unabashedly secular - like this depiction of Pyramus and Thisbe!

Odd thing to find in a church, but no stranger than a medieval man with a moustache, I suppose. One final picture, which will give you an idea of how small and dark the church is inside:

You can't quite blame the rain for that one. But a lovely place, nonetheless.

Friday 24 April 2009

Elham Valley 1

 I spent part of the Easter vacation seeking out medieval joys among the churches of the Elham valley. The week after Easter is the best time to visit churches, in my opinion, because they always smell of lilies.

The Elham valley is part of the North Downs, running some of the way between Canterbury and Folkestone. This makes the following altarpiece, in a side chapel in the church at Elham, particularly appropriate:

It's fifteenth-century, alabaster, and both the side panels shows scenes from the life of St Thomas Becket.

On the left, the dispute between Becket and Henry II (at the council in Northampton in 1164, I believe)...

...and on the right, Becket's murder.

Not many such pieces survive (I should say, not enough!) because so much was destroyed at the Reformation, but this escaped somehow.

Now I think about it, St Thomas Becket would make another excellent candidate for patron saint of England...

Anyway, Elham also has some medieval glass:

John the Baptist, obviously enough, with an inappropriately cute little lamb.

It also has some surprising Oxford glass:

Apparently Merton College was a benefactor, or something.

Another medieval... feature:

This is Elham church from the outside:

And one from the list of 'church joys' - an interesting porch:

Thursday 23 April 2009

Rupert Brooke - more than just 'The Soldier'

Rupert Brooke died on this day in 1915.


Not with vain tears, when we're beyond the sun,

We'll beat on the substantial doors, nor tread
Those dusty high-roads of the aimless dead
Plaintive for Earth; but rather turn and run
Down some close-covered by-way of the air,
Some low sweet alley between wind and wind,
Stoop under faint gleams, thread the shadows, find
Some whispering ghost-forsaken nook, and there

Spend in pure converse our eternal day;
Think each in each, immediately wise;
Learn all we lacked before; hear, know and say
What this tumultuous body now denies;
And feel, who have laid our groping hands away;
And see, no longer blinded by our eyes.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

An Anglo-Saxon Story of St George

Tomorrow is St George's Day. There are alternative claimants for the position of patron saint of England, and with my general preference for Anglo-Saxon saints, I have to admit I would rather see Edmund of East Anglia or Edward the Confessor as my country's patron; they both have prior claim, they were both really rather wonderful, and they definitely existed, too. Their only disadvantage is that their feastdays are in October and November, rather than sunny April. However, St George is what we have.

Ælfric included a life of St George in his Lives of Saints collection, a good three centuries before George became the patron saint of England. There are no dragons in his story; even if dragon-slaying had been part of the George legend in the late tenth century (which it wasn't) Ælfric doesn't generally go in for monsters. His version is a conventional passio, telling how George, a nobleman in Cappadocia, was persecuted for his faith and martyred for refusing to worship idols (Apollo, in fact, as Ælfric tells it). There is one excellent episode in the story, though, which stands out. When George remains unharmed by torture, the emperor thinks it must be magic, so he finds a sorceror who promises to defeat George's magic ('drycræft' - the 'dry' bit is somehow related to 'druid', I believe). Athanasius is the sorceror:

Athanasius ða ardlice genam
ænne mycelne bollan mid bealuwe afylled
and deoflum betæhte ðone drenc ealne
and sealde him drincan ac hit him ne derode

Athanasius then quickly took a large bowl, filled with deadly liquid, and dedicated all that drink to the devils, and gave it to [George] to drink, but it did not harm him.The sorceror tries again:

He genam ða ane cuppan mid cwealm-berum drence
and clypode swyðe to sweartum deoflum
and to ðam fyrmestum deoflum and to ðam ful strangum
and on heora naman begol þone gramlican drenc
sealde ða drincan þam drihtnes halgan
ac him naht ne derode se deofollica wæta

He took a cup filled with death-bearing drink and cried out to the black devils, and to the foremost devils, and to the powerful ones, and in their name he enchanted the terrible drink and gave it to the Lord's holy one to drink; but the devillish liquid did not harm him in the least.

Ælfric really gives those lines the sound of an incantation; it would be interesting to compare them to Old English charms. Is there meant to be a distinction between the black/foremost/powerful devils, or is it merely poetic variation? Either way, it has a resounding rhetorical flourish, and it's not like Ælfric to give the devil the best tunes.

The sorceror ends up converting to Christianity, by the way.

So St George... well, that's a pretty good story. And I'll admit that St George and the Dragon makes for excellent mummers' plays. But just look at these saints:

(Um, not Richard II, obviously).

More Memorials

Some more memorials from Elmsted church. If the window to Arthur Honywood which I wrote about a few days ago is a perfect example of Victorian idealism (and I mean that in the most genuine and admiring way possible) - a young man killed fighting bravely for Queen and Empire - the Honywood below is a paragon of an earlier century:

I like to believe that every word of a tribute like this one is true - because someone wanted it to be true, at least, and that means something. Just because a description is expressed in language which is resonant of its time, just because we might choose different words to praise a well-loved man, doesn't mean that such a memorial is not genuinely felt. "At a time when hospitality and simplicity of manners were giving way to fashion and refinement..." The opposition between 'hospitality' and 'fashion' is interesting. The contrast between 'simplicity' vs. 'refinement' is obvious enough, but that hospitality should be considered an old-fashioned, dying virtue strikes me as interesting.

"Others may have moved in a higher sphere, but no man ever contributed more to the advantage, comfort and happiness of the circle around him". Who wouldn't want such a lovely tribute?

The spelling and the lack of commas are also delightful. 'Experiened' must be a stone-carving example of eye-skip, I assume, caused by the similar shapes of 'c', 'e' and 'd' so close together?

Going back even further in time, this memorial to a daughter of a Honywood tells us a lot about family life in the seventeenth century, something about an ideal of womanhood ("in all hir actions grave and provident..."), and even a little about Early Modern spelling:
"in memory of home"is particularly interesting. But apart from all that, of course, there was a real woman and children and a loving husband, and without this we might not know... I think these things deserve to be read.

Monday 20 April 2009


This joyful little poem has been jangling around my head for the past few weeks:

'Loveliest of Trees'
A.E. Housman (St John's, 1877)

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy years a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

The pictures were all taken on Easter Monday at Mount Ephraim Gardens in Kent. They're not all cherry trees but they are, like everything else in England this month, things in bloom.

Saturday 18 April 2009

Joys of Churches

I love churches. Churches of all kinds, really, but especially little village churches which no one would think to visit, which have no special architectural or historical distinction in the grand sense. The closer you look, the more history you find, and the more it begins to seem important. Every stone speaks the soul of the place where it has stood for centuries, and yet there are always similarities and echoes of other places and other times; each church is individual, local, and at the same time belongs to everywhere.

There's probably a poem which expresses all that rather better, but I don't have one to hand at the moment. Instead, I have photographs. These are the fruits of a recent visit to the church of St James the Great in Elmsted, Kent. It's on the North Downs, between Canterbury and Folkestone. What are the joys of pretty churches?

Firstly, a view over the Downs - sheep and blossom:


Look at those windows! Apparently this three-part east end is typical of Kent churches (I can read guide books, you see) though I don't know if it's usual for it to be quite so mismatched...

What else? Churchyards, of course, have yew trees, hundreds of years old:

And dinky porches with little lamps, diamond windows, flint walls (now that is typical of Kent) and rather wonky wooden beams inside:

So much for the outside. Inside?

Light, stained golden:

The church is full of memorials to the Honywood family. The window below is in memory of Arthur Honywood, who died in 1880, aged 19, in Afghanistan while bearing the Queen's colours. The plaque underneath the window records that "When already badly wounded, he held the colours above his head and called on his men to rally with the words 'What shall we do to save these?'. The next moment the fatal shot came."

History, you see.

Friday 17 April 2009


There comes a time when you just can't put any more pictures of Christ Church Meadow on facebook, lest your friends start to think you're obsessed, and stop reading your witty captions and clever anthropomorphic tags. This distressed me, for it seemed the end of all opportunity to share my photographic self-indulgence. Then I remembered that I had a blog (bear with me, I'm slow; I spend most of my time in the fourteenth century) where no one will see or care how many photos I post. And thus - look, daffodils!:

The Botanical Gardens:

Holywell Cemetery, my second favourite place to take the same photo over and over again (it's right next to the English Faculty! The temptation is just too much for me):

Lastly... well, I like this picture, because it made me think of medieval carvings of Eve and the Tree of Knowledge (note the long hair) - or perhaps it's Yggdrasil...

It would be better if the tree had, like, apples on it or something, or there were some deer around, but never mind.