Sunday 29 November 2009

The First Sunday of Advent

Although this is only the first Sunday of Advent, Oxford has all its Christmas events and carol services this week. This is fun, but also a tiny bit of a shame because it means we kind of miss out Advent, my favourite liturgical season. This is how Advent begins for me:

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Ne irascaris Domine, ne ultra memineris iniquitatis: ecce civitas Sancti facta est deserta, Sion deserta facta est: Ierusalem desolata est: domus sanctificationis tuac et gloriae tuae, ubi laudaverunt te patres nostri.

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Peccavimus, et facti sumus tamquam immundus nos, et cecidimus quasi folium universi; et iniquitates nostrae quasi ventus abstulerunt nos: abscondisti faciem tuam a nobis, et allisisti nos in manu iniquitatis nostrae.

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Vide, Domini, afflictionem populi tui, et mitte quem missurus es, emitte Agnum dominatorem terrae, de Petra deserti montem filiae Sion: ut auferat ipse iugum captivatis nostrae.

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Consolamini, consolamini, popule meus: cito veniet salus tua:. quare moerore consumeris, quia innovavit te dolor? Salvabo te, noli timere: ego enim sum Dominus Deus, tuus, Sanctus Israel, Redemptor tuus.

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Academia: A Sob Story

I wish it were possible to be an academic without having to talk to other academics.

You may not know it, but that’s a shocking confession. The model of academic life as a solitary process of research and thought, resulting in a paper or a book which contributes to scholarly debate when other people read it and write about it, is increasingly being replaced by an emphasis on networking, cooperation, dialogue, and talk, talk, talk.

To me, it’s exhausting.

I’m the kind of person who has never really understood the expression "easier said than done". I’m an introvert, who finds talking to other people an effort at the best of times, and talking about myself is a particular nightmare. I can write about myself for ever, but speaking out loud and being required to explain or justify myself verbally on the spot wears me out. Just about everything, for me, is "easier done than said" – the saying requires all kinds of self-evaluation and struggles to choose the right word and the right expression, whereas the doing gives you a finished product, which speaks for itself. The most difficult thing I’ve so far found about being in academia is that you are often required to speak about what you’re doing, as well as just doing it. I know this is entirely reasonable: supervisors need progress reports, scholars want to know what’s going on in their field, the academic community as a whole is supposed to benefit from conference papers and seminars and networking. I understand all this.

That doesn't stop me hating it, though. When I have to explain what I’m doing, I always want to say “let me get on with it, and I’ll show you when I’m done”. Seminars irritate me, because talking is so much less precise than writing – people make up questions just to be polite, whether they care about the answer or not; the speaker has to fudge an answer, whether they have one or not; everyone has to pretend it’s an enlightening scholarly experience rather than a faintly awkward fumble. That’s assuming everyone is of genuine goodwill, of course; most of the time there’s a lot of bitchiness and arrogance and exhibitionism going on as well. People want to show off or to humiliate someone else, to draw attention to their own work and belittle everyone else’s. This is true in informal as well as formal situations among other academics, I’ve found – it’s worse, actually, at a drinks party than at a seminar, because people feel free to look down their noses at each other. Ambition and pride are the academic’s besetting sins.

You would think if there was one corner of the world where it was safe to be an introvert, academia would be it! Apparently not. It does make me glad for the collegiate system, though, because the problem is less pronounced when interacting with people from other disciplines; English students are, I think, particularly ready to show off, and anyway you can’t really show off to people who are experts in another field. Talking to a mathematician or a classicist or a chemist is humbling without being humiliating: I respect their expertise in an area I don’t understand, and they respect mine. I’m not in competition with them the way other English scholars seem to think they are with me.

This is all by way of explaining to myself why I’m not at a seminar right now. I have to go to these events regularly, and I dutifully do so – but I hate them, and usually come back loathing myself and everyone in the world. I went to Evensong instead.

Friday 20 November 2009

The Song of Jonah in the Whale's Belly

I heard this on Radio 3's superb 'Words and Music' this week, and didn't think much about it except that it had some attractive rhymes; then somehow it got stuck in my head, and so I'm going to post it although I have nothing to say about it. I don't even really know why I like it. But I do, and whoever chose it for a programme on the theme of 'Solitude' was a genius.

And happy feastday of St Edmund! Did you know he's the patron saint of wolves? I find this bizarre. Why do wolves even need a patron saint? I wonder who the patron saint of whales is.

Not St David, I guess.


Anyway, here's Michael Drayton:

The Song of Jonah in the Whale's Belly

In grief and anguish of my heart, my voice I did extend,
Unto the Lord, and he therto, a willing eare did lend :
Even from the deep and darkest pit, & the infernall lake,
To me he hath bow'd down his eare, for his great mercies sake.
For thou into the middest, of surging seas so deepe
Hast cast me foorth : whose bottom is, so low & woondrous steep.
Whose mighty wallowing waves, which from the floods do flow,
Have with their power up swallowed me, & overwhelm'd me tho.
Then said I, loe, I am exilde, from presence of thy face,
Yet wil I once againe behold, thy house and dwelling place.
The waters have encompast me, the floods inclosde me round,
The weeds have sore encombred me, which in the seas abound.
Unto the valeyes down I went, beneath the hils which stand,
The earth hath there environ'd me, with force of al the land.
Yet hast thou stil preserved me, from al these dangers here,
And brought my life out of the pit, oh Lord my God so deare.
My soule consuming thus with care, I praied unto the Lord,
And he from out his holie place, heard me with one accord.
Who to vain lieng vanities doth whollie him betake,
Doth erre also, Gods mercie he doth utterly forsake.
But I wil offer unto him the sacrifice of praise,
And pay my vowes, ascribing thanks unto the Lord alwaies.

Michael Drayton (1563-1631), in lovely Elizabethan spelling from here. Read it aloud. It's awesome.

OK, I looked it up. The patron saint of whales is Brendan the Navigator. The illustration on that page shows why...

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Pine Trees and the Sky: Evening

I'd watched the sorrow of the evening sky,
And smelt the sea, and earth, and the warm clover,
And heard the waves, and the seagull's mocking cry.

And in them all was only the old cry,
That song they always sing -- - "The best is over!
You may remember now, and think, and sigh,
O silly lover!"
And I was tired and sick that all was over,
And because I,
For all my thinking, never could recover
One moment of the good hours that were over.
And I was sorry and sick, and wished to die.

Then from the sad west turning wearily,
I saw the pines against the white north sky,
Very beautiful, and still, and bending over
Their sharp black heads against a quiet sky.
And there was peace in them; and I
Was happy, and forgot to play the lover,
And laughed, and did no longer wish to die;
Being glad of you, O pine-trees and the sky!
Rupert Brooke

Sunday 15 November 2009

On 'Medieval Spirituality'

Apart from the occasional excitement about a new movie adaptation of Beowulf - each one less accurate and more cringeworthy than the last! - it's rare to find references to Anglo-Saxon literature anywhere in the mainstream media. As far as the world at large is concerned, Beowulf is the sum total of the poetry produced in these islands between the Roman occupation and the birth of Chaucer. This is sad but understandable - Anglo-Saxon poetry isn't easy - and probably something to be grateful for, when you consider how the media makes a mess of any academic subject it touches (this is why I turn off the Today programme at 8.55, before the 'turning complex subjects into nonsense' segment).

There is one exception to this news blackout of the medieval period, but you only tend to encounter it if you frequent certain Christian circles (both in the CofE and the Catholic Church). That is 'medieval spirituality'.

Now, this kind of 'medieval spirituality' includes the following:

- labyrinths
- Julian of Norwich (that is, 'Mother Julian')
- the Cloud of Unknowing, or bits of it, anyway
- 'Celtic' artwork (it's 'Celtic' even if it's based on Anglo-Saxon designs, because the Celts are more spiritual)

It does not include the following:

- medieval Biblical translation, Biblical poetry, or scriptural art of any kind
- monastic or religious life
- medieval devotion to the Eucharist and the sacrament of confession
- the role of the Church in the political, cultural and social life of the nation
- saints
- devotion to the Virgin Mary

It does not take more than five minutes' acquaintance with English medieval literature to realise that the second list is far more representative of the spirituality of the Middle Ages than the first. If anything from the second list is mentioned, that's 'medieval' in the bad sense - when 'medieval' is synonymous with 'fascist'.

There's nothing wrong with this popular conception of 'medieval spirituality', except that it's inaccurate; academics can't insist on inserting facts into other people's spiritual lives. If people like this kind of thing, that's fine. But it does lead to a limited and decidedly soft-left-friendly view of medieval religion.

This brings me to this morning's Sunday Worship programme on Radio 4. I am fond of this programme: it is sometimes sublime (last week's edition, which interviewed serving soldiers about their faith, was excellent) and always well-meaning. This morning fell into the 'well-meaning' category. It was a celebration of environmental theology, from a gathering of 'the Alliance of Religions and Conservation', so it included pieces of music and readings from numerous religious traditions.

One of these was from the Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Dream of the Rood'. Now, whoever arranged the programme was obviously keen to present the various readings in some kind of appropriate cultural context. An Indian story was chanted, in the original language, to the background of drums; an Arabic story was read in Persian and English at the same time; Psalm 148 was sung in Hebrew.

'The Dream of the Rood' was sung, in a free modern English translation, in the manner of an African spiritual.

See the difference? I want to emphasise that I don't have a problem with this as an idea. It was sung well, and it's nice to hear anyone making use of 'The Dream of the Rood' in a creative way! But the treatment of this poem, as against the other texts used, was striking. The Indian, Arabic and Jewish texts were recognised as coming from distinctive cultural traditions which were preserved in the way they were performed. Anglo-Saxon England? Nowhere to be heard. The other texts were read in their original languages; not a word of the Old English poem was presented. I find it hard to believe that Old English is any more or less accessible to hear than Hebrew or Persian for the average listener.

Would it have killed them to find a vaguely medieval-sounding harp, or something?

I'm sure this bizarre act of cultural appropriation was not intentional. It's an example of our society's ignorance about medieval culture. The same ignorance is at the root of the 'medieval spirituality' industry, which cherry-picks acceptably vague bits and pieces of medieval religion (not the gory bits, just the bits where 'all will be well', and somehow there are hazelnuts involved), packages them up, and sells them on prayer-cards in the backs of churches. It's also a form of cultural cringe, which sees Anglo-Saxon and later medieval England as dark and primitive and not exotic enough. Even when you're using an Anglo-Saxon poem for your diverse and multicultural radio programme, it's not worth trying to convey a sense of Anglo-Saxon context for the words (which is very specific and important for the DOTR, as it happens). Medieval is not one of the cultures in 'multicultural'.

Friday 13 November 2009

Another Rain Poem

A Line-Storm Song
Robert Frost

The line-storm clouds fly tattered and swift.
The road is forlorn all day,
Where a myriad snowy quartz stones lift,
And the hoof-prints vanish away.
The roadside flowers, too wet for the bee,
Expend their bloom in vain.
Come over the hills and far with me,
And be my love in the rain.

The birds have less to say for themselves
In the wood-world's torn despair
Than now these numberless years the elves,
Although they are no less there:
All song of the woods is crushed like some
Wild, easily shattered rose.
Come, be my love in the wet woods, come,
Where the boughs rain when it blows.

There is the gale to urge behind
And bruit our singing down,
And the shallow waters aflutter with wind
From which to gather your gown.
What matter if we go clear to the west,
And come not through dry-shod?
For wilding brooch shall wet your breast
The rain-fresh goldenrod.

Oh, never this whelming east wind swells
But it seems like the sea's return
To the ancient lands where it left the shells
Before the age of the fern;
And it seems like the time when after doubt
Our love came back amain.
Oh, come forth into the storm and rout
And be my love in the rain.

Thursday 12 November 2009

A November Poem

I love Thomas Hardy's novels, and have a more complicated relationship with his poetry - but there are several of his poems I can't help being fond of. This is one of them, and if you could hear the rain dripping from the trees outside my windows at the moment, you would be haunted by it too.

The Division

Rain on the windows, creaking doors,
With blasts that besom the green,
And I am here, and you are there,
And a hundred miles between.

O were it but the weather, dear,
O were it but the miles
That summed up all our severance,
There might be room for smiles.

But that thwart thing betwixt us twain,
Which nothing cleaves or clears,
Is more than distance, dear, or rain,
And longer than the years.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Remembrance Day

O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save.

Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.

Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still,
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay,
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self same way.

Still stands His Cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

These were His servants, in His steps they trod,
Following through death the martyred Son of God:
Victor, He rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk His cup of sacrifice.

O risen Lord, O Shepherd of our dead,
Whose cross has bought them and Whose staff has led,
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to Thy gracious hand.

Sir John S. Arkwright (1872-1954)

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Rupert Brooke

Thursday 5 November 2009


Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house : and the place where thine honour dwelleth.

Monday 2 November 2009

All Souls

This evening I went to Christ Church for the commemoration of All Souls. The cathedral choir (men's voices only) sang Victoria's Requiem and it was the most sublimely beautiful thing I have ever heard in my life.

The cathedral was dark, cavernous, nearly empty. Several people in the congregation quietly wept. It was glorious, and heart-breaking.

Sunday 1 November 2009

The Cloud of Witnesses

On this All Saints Day, I want to write about one of my favourite saints, Edward the Confessor. I meant to write about him a few weeks ago, on his feast-day, October 13th, but flu got in the way (mine, not his).

It's interesting to consider why some Anglo-Saxon kings were canonised and others weren't. Anyone who was killed violently was an obvious candidate to be a martyr, even if they weren't exactly murdered for their faith; certainly, poor Edmund of East Anglia was killed by those nasty pagan Vikings, but Edward the Martyr was only thirteen when he was murdered, supposedly by his stepmother (the mother of Ethelred the Unready) for political reasons, and he had a reputation for bad temper and rash behaviour, so he is not the most obvious candidate for sanctity.

As Ethelred's son, Edward the Confessor was the nephew of Edward the Martyr, but he was more suited by nature for sainthood than his unfortunate teenage uncle. He was pious and charitable, and since he was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, it is not difficult to understand why post-Conquest kings venerated him. The end of his reign, which led directly to the Norman Conquest, was one of the most important moments in English history, but to understand Edward as a man and a saint it is interesting to consider his early life - before he was a saint, or even a king.

Of course this information comes from various sources, some of which are not as reliable as others, but my excuse for repeating it is that sometimes with medieval history it doesn't actually matter if something is true or not; what matters is that it was said, by someone, for some reason.

Edward was born in about 1003 and spent his childhood in a vulnerable, disintegrating country. His father, King Ethelred, dealt with the persistent scourge of Viking attacks in a number of ways, each as ineffective as the last. His efforts ranged from the feeble (attempts to raise armies who never turned up) to the extremely violent (in the year before Edward was born, he ordered that all the Danes living in England should be killed). His son Edmund Ironside, Edward's older brother, did his best to fight against the invaders, but frequently clashed with his father and disobeyed him. In 1013, Edward and his younger brother Alfred fled with their mother to her homeland of Normandy, while the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, assisted by his son Cnut, besieged London. Ethelred was forced to surrender and join his family in exile.

Edward's family had ruled Wessex for hundreds of years; to be forced out of England must have been a massive humiliation. There was some back-and-forth over the next few years; Sweyn died and Ethelred was invited back, but soon died too; Edward Ironside ruled for a couple of months, but was eventually forced to cede power to Cnut. Edward, Alfred and their mother Emma remained in Normandy throughout this time of uncertainty and change; they must have wondered if they would ever return to England.

Emma was said to despise her feeble husband. She was a formidable woman; maybe she thought she could have done a better job than Ethelred. Edward is supposed to have been on bad terms with his mother - perhaps she thought he was as weak as his father. After Ethelred's death, Cnut married Emma. It was a marriage of political advantage to them both (peace with Normandy was in Cnut's interests) but it also seems to have been a loving marriage, and in the history Emma commissioned of her life, she shows much more affection for her children by Cnut than for her sons by Ethelred. Despite their mother's remarriage, Edward and Alfred remained in Normandy. Cnut can't have wanted them around; he was a shrewd ruler - of three kingdoms! - and knew better than to have potential Anglo-Saxon heirs to the throne hanging around, even if they were also his step-sons.

This convoluted situation is par for the course among medieval royalty, but it still strikes me as intriguing. Edward was potentially heir to a country he hadn't even been in since he was a young teenager, and from across the Channel he must have seen his mother actively working against his interests in favour of her son by Cnut. No wonder they weren't on good terms... He lived in exile like this for 30 years. He probably never thought he would be king of England, let alone patron saint of the kings of England!

Cnut died in 1035 and after brief reigns by his two sons, Edward at last became king in 1042. As well as being patron saint of the kings of England, he is the patron of troubled marriages: in 1043 he married the daughter of one of the powerful noblemen Earl Godwin. Godwin had been suspected of involvement in the brutal murder of Edward's younger brother Alfred and the king's marriage with Edith was an attempt at reconciliation. The reconciliation succeeded; the marriage did not. It was perhaps never even consummated, and the couple lived separately. Meanwhile, antipathy between Edward and his mother continued: he seized her property, and she seems to have encouraged rebellion against him. He ruled for over twenty years, and then came 1066, Harold (who was Godwin's son and Edward's brother-in-law) and William, and the Norman Conquest.

Edward's public role made him a saint, but it's his personal life which makes him a sympathetic figure to me. I suppose one oughtn't to romanticise, but it seems such a sad life: decades of exile, a failure of a father, a mother who married his father's enemy, a murdered brother, a disastrous marriage... Anglo-Saxon life was not easy at the best of times, but Edward's sounds so unsettled and lonely. It's just sad. And yet he was a virtuous and holy man, who showed the power of God in his life, and he was admired and venerated, and miracles were worked through him. When I hear sermons about how saints are difficult for us to relate to because they are always happy and glorified (and I heard two such sermons today), I think about Edward the Confessor and that hymn which says of the saints:

Once they were mourning here below,
And wet their couch with tears;
They wrestled hard, as we do now,
With sins and doubts and fears.

Well, I can relate to that.