Thursday 30 June 2011

O my heart's heart

I just love this poem, which is from Christina Rossetti's 'Monna Innominata'. Maybe the best Christian love poem ever written? I can't think of a better.

Amor che a nullo amato amar perdona. - Dante
Amor m'addusse in sì gioiosa spene. - Petrarca

O my heart's heart, and you who are to me
More than myself myself, God be with you,
Keep you in strong obedience leal and true
To Him whose noble service setteth free,
Give you all good we see or can foresee,
Make your joys many and your sorrows few,
Bless you in what you bear and what you do,
Yea, perfect you as He would have you be.
So much for you; but what for me, dear friend?
To love you without stint and all I can
Today, tomorrow, world without an end;
To love you much and yet to love you more,
As Jordan at his flood sweeps either shore;
Since woman is the helpmeet made for man.

Cute Vikings

I love this kind of thing: a new children's book involving Vikings. I discovered it by accident, and it looks very cool.

Cute little Vikings are, though a contradiction in terms, always awesome. Case in point:

That may or may not be a picture of my own Playmobil Vikings re-enacting the fight between Thor and the Midgard serpent. With a gummy worm.

My ultimate aim is to be able to recreate my entire thesis through the medium of Playmobil. Since they already make castles, dragons and Viking ships, I'm well on my way; when they introduce a range of Playmobil monasteries, I think this goal will finally be achievable.

But seriously, the book looks good; plus, the little Viking is called Knut, and I think we all know that's the best Viking name...

ETA: this is probably also the place to post this link which very much amused me a while ago. Because all that stuff is true and yes, Knut really was just that awesome.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

That sweet city with her dreaming spires

I have recently become addicted to evening walks around Oxford. June has been less than exciting here, weather-wise - at least, it's always seemed to be raining when I wanted it not to be. But the evenings have been long and quiet and golden.

The title of this post is from Matthew Arnold's Thrysis, a lament for his Oxford friend Arthur Hugh Clough. The famous lines are:

'And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty's heightening,
Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!'

I've never particularly got on with Matthew Arnold, but Thrysis is nice in that rather laboured 'Victorian pastoral' way. (I love all kinds of Victorian literature except self-conscious classicism... Housman, I'm looking at you.) But I'm susceptible to nostalgia this week, and that might explain it.

Wherever you go in Oxford you see the same towers. Most of these pictures were taken from Christ Church meadow, but this one was from the path that runs along the Isis, the other side of Folly Bridge:

And this is Magdalen, of course:

And this, the moon above All Souls:

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Random Viking Story: Talking Heads and Blood-Stained Hair

In place of all the poetry I've posted recently, here's a dose of Viking bravado, from Jómsvíkinga saga. Members of the legendary Jomsviking brotherhood have been captured after a battle, and now, going to their deaths, want to show off how brave they are:

'The fifth one was brought forward and Thorkell asked him what he thought about dying. He said: 'I would forget the laws of the Jomsvikings if I was afraid of my death or spoke words of fear. No one can escape death.' Thorkell cut off his head. They thought then to pose the same question to each one of them before he was killed to see whether these men were as brave as they were reputed to be. They thought it a sufficient proof if none of them spoke words of fear.

A sixth man was led forward and a stick was twisted in his hair. Thorkell put the same question to him. He said he thought it was best to die with a good reputation, 'but you, Thorkell, shall live with shame'. Thorkell cut off his head.

Then the seventh one was led forward and Thorkell asked him as usual. 'I’m very content to die.' [he said.] 'But deal me out a speedy blow. I have here a dagger. We Jomsvikings have often discussed whether a man was conscious of anything after he had lost his head if it was cut off speedily. Let's do it this way: I'll hold the dagger up if I am conscious of anything; otherwise it will fall down.' Thorkell struck him and his head flew off, but the dagger fell down.

Then a young man was led forward whose long hair was as golden as silk. Thorkell posed his usual question. He said, 'I have had the best part of my life; and I am not interested in living longer than those who have just fallen… Let [the executioner] hold the hair away from the head and pull the head sharply so that the hair doesn't get blood-stained.' A man came forward, took hold of the hair and twisted it round his hands. Thorkell made a blow with a sword. At that very moment [the Jomsviking] pulled his head away sharply so that the blow fell on the man who was holding the hair and cut off both his arms at the elbows. [The Jomsviking] sprang up and said: 'Whose hands are in my hair?'

Earl Hakon [leader of the other side] said: ‘Things are turning out very badly – kill him and all those who are left without delay. These men are much too difficult for us to handle.’

Earl Eirikr said: 'We want to know who they are first. What is your name, young man?'

He said: 'I am known as Sveinn.'

The earl asked: 'Who is your father?'

He said: 'I am reported to be Bui’s son.'

The earl asked: 'How old are you?'

He replied: 'If I survive this year then I shall be eighteen.'

Earl Eirikr said: 'You shall survive it,' and made him a member of his own following.'

Three Thoughts: On Loving and Loving God More


Richard Lovelace (1649):

Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkinde,
That from the Nunnerie
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet minde,
To Warre and Armes I flie.

True; a new Mistresse now I serve,
The first Foe in the Field;
And with a sterner Faith embrace
A Sword, a Horse, a Shield.

Yet this Inconstancy is such,
As thou too shalt adore;
I could not love thee (Deare) so much,
Lov'd I not Honour more.

And C. S. Lewis on this poem, from The Four Loves (1960):

There are women to whom the plea would be meaningless. Honour would be just one of those silly things that Men talk about; a verbal excuse for, therefore an aggravation of, the offence against "love's law" which the poet is about to commit. Lovelace can use it with confidence because his lady is a Cavalier lady who already admits, as he does, the claims of Honour. He does not need to "hate" her, to set his face against her, because he and she acknowledge the same law. They have agreed and understood each other on this matter long before. The task of converting her to a belief in Honour is not now, now, when the decision is upon them to be undertaken. It is this prior agreement which is so necessary when a far greater claim than that of Honour is at stake. It is too late, when the crisis comes, to begin telling a wife or husband or mother or friend, that your love all along had a secret reservation - "under God" or "so far as a higher Love permits". They ought to have been warned; not, to be sure, explicitly, but by the implication of a thousand talks, by the principle revealed in a hundred decisions upon small matters. Indeed, a real disagreement on this issue should make itself felt early enough to prevent a marriage or a Friendship from existing at all. The best love of either sort is not blind. Oliver Elton, speaking of Carlyle and Mill, said that they differed about justice, and that such a difference was naturally fatal "to any friendship worthy of the name". If "All" - quite seriously all - "for love" is implicit in the Beloved's attitude, his or her love is not worth having. It is not related in the right way to Love Himself.


Thomas Traherne (c.1636-1674):

Suppose a curious and fair woman. Some have seen the beauties of Heaven in such a person. It is a vain thing to say they loved too much. I dare say there are ten thousand beauties in that creature which they have not seen: they loved it not too much, but upon false causes. Nor so much upon false ones, as only upon some little ones. They love a creature for sparkling eyes and curled hair, lily breasts and ruddy cheeks which they should love moreover for being God's Image, Queen of the Universe, beloved by Angels, redeemed by Jesus Christ, an heiress of Heaven, and temple of the Holy Ghost: a mine and fountain of all virtues, a treasury of graces, and a child of God. But these excellencies are unknown. They love her perhaps, but do not love God more: nor men as much: nor Heaven and Earth at all. And so, being defective to other things, perish by a seeming excess to that.

We should be all Life and Mettle and Vigour and Love to everything; and that would poise us. I dare confidently say that every person in the whole world ought to be beloved as much as this: And she, if there be any cause of difference, more than she is. But God being beloved infinitely more, will be infinitely more our joy, and our heart will be more with Him, so that no man can be in danger by loving others too much, that loveth God as he ought.
Centuries of Meditations, 2:68.


A sonnet from Christina Rossetti's sequence 'Monna Innominata' (1881):

Or puoi la quantitate
Comprender de l'amor che a te mi scalda. - Dante
Non vo' che da tal nodo mi scioglia. - Petrarca

Trust me, I have not earn'd your dear rebuke,
I love, as you would have me, God the most;
Would lose not Him, but you, must one be lost,
Nor with Lot's wife cast back a faithless look
Unready to forego what I forsook;
This say I, having counted up the cost,
This, though I be the feeblest of God's host,
The sorriest sheep Christ shepherds with His crook.
Yet while I love my God the most, I deem
That I can never love you overmuch;
I love Him more, so let me love you too;
Yea, as I apprehend it, love is such
I cannot love you if I love not Him,
I cannot love Him if I love not you.

Monday 27 June 2011

Three Thoughts: On the Consolations of Nature

First, Pride and Prejudice, chapter 27:

Before they were separated by the conclusion of the play, she had the unexpected happiness of an invitation to accompany her uncle and aunt in a tour of pleasure which they proposed taking in the summer.

"We have not quite determined how far it shall carry us," said Mrs. Gardiner, "but perhaps to the Lakes."

No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. "My dear, dear aunt," she rapturously cried, "what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend!"

Edward Thomas:


What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph --
'Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.' Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied. But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening while it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through the window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.

And Rupert Brooke:

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.'
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 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!

Sunday 26 June 2011

A June Poem: Adlestrop

There were some 'high cloudlets' in the sky this morning, and I thought of this poem.


Yes, I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

My own glimpse of Oxfordshire in summer from a train, last week

Saturday 25 June 2011

Not wholly dejected

This blog has been rather depressing recently; melancholy, at best, and whiny, at worst. From now on I'm resolved to cheer up. So let's start with this poem which I only posted last month, but which is so lovely that I can't resist posting it again.

Fear not, dear friend, but freely live your days
Though lesser lives should suffer. Such am I,
A lesser life, that what is his of sky
Gladly would give for you, and what of praise.
Step, without trouble, down the sunlit ways.
We that have touched your raiment are made whole
From all the selfish cankers of man's soul,
And we would see you happy, dear, or die.
Therefore be brave, and therefore, dear, be free;
Try all things resolutely, till the best,
Out of all lesser betters, you shall find;
And we, who have learned greatness from you, we,
Your lovers, with a still, contented mind,
See you well anchored in some port of rest.

The 'sunlit ways' of Christ Church Meadow

This poem embodies for me what C. S. Lewis called 'Appreciative love':
Need-love cries to God from our poverty; Gift-love longs to serve, or even to suffer for, God; Appreciative love says: "We give thanks to thee for thy great glory."

Need-love says of a woman "I cannot live without her"; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection - if possible, wealth. Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist even if not for him, will not be wholly dejected by losing her, would rather have it so than never to have seen her at all.

The Chilterns

Dear, silly Rupert Brooke! I think this is one of his best poems, though.

Your hands, my dear, adorable,
Your lips of tenderness
--Oh, I've loved you faithfully and well,
Three years, or a bit less.
It wasn't a success.

Thank God, that's done! and I'll take the road,
Quit of my youth and you,
The Roman road to Wendover
By Tring and Lilley Hoo,
As a free man may do.

For youth goes over, the joys that fly,
The tears that follow fast;
And the dirtiest things we do must lie
Forgotten at the last;
Even love goes past.

What's left behind I shall not find,
The splendor and the pain;
The splash of sun, the shouting wind,
And the brave sting of rain,
I may not meet again.

But the years, that take the best away,
Give something in the end;
And a better friend than love have they,
For none to mar or mend,
That have themselves to friend.

I shall desire and I shall find
The best of my desires;
The autumn road, the mellow wind
That soothes the darkening shires.
And laughter, and inn-fires.

White mist about the black hedgerows,
The slumbering Midland plain,
The silence where the clover grows,
And the dead leaves in the lane,
Certainly, these remain.

And I shall find some girl perhaps,
And a better one than you,
With eyes as wise, but kindlier,
With lips as soft, but true.
And I daresay she will do.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Love - what is love?

More Stevenson.

Love - what is love? A great and aching heart;
Wrung hands; and silence; and a long despair.
Life - what is life? Upon a moorland bare
To see love coming and see love depart.

Sundays the pillars are/On which heav’ns palace arched lies


George Herbert (of course)

O Day most calm, most bright,
The fruit of this, the next worlds bud,
Th’ indorsement of supreme delight,
Writ by a friend, and with his bloud;
The couch of time; cares balm and bay:
The week were dark, but for thy light:
Thy torch doth show the way.

The other dayes and thou
Make up one man; whose face thou art,
Knocking at heaven with thy brow:
The worky-daies are the back-part;
The burden of the week lies there,
Making the whole to stoup and bow,
Till thy release appeare.

Man had straight forward gone
To endlesse death: but thou dost pull
And turn us round to look on one,
Whom, if we were not very dull,
We could not choose but look on still;
Since there is no place so alone,
The which he doth not fill.

Sundaies the pillars are,
On which heav’ns palace arched lies:
The other dayes fill up the spare
And hollow room with vanities.
They are the fruitfull beds and borders
In Gods rich garden: that is bare,
Which parts their ranks and orders.

The Sundaies of mans life,
Thredded together on times string,
Make bracelets to adorn the wife
Of the eternall glorious King.
On Sunday heavens gate stands ope:
Blessings are plentifull and rife,
More plentifull then hope.

This day my Saviour rose,
And did inclose this light for his:
That, as each beast his manger knows,
Man might not of his fodder misse.
Christ hath took in this piece of ground,
And made a garden there for those
Who want herbs for their wound.

The rest of our Creation
Our great Redeemer did remove
With the same shake, which at his passion
Did th’ earth and all things with it move.
As Sampson bore the doores away,
Christs hands, though nail’d, wrought our salvation,
And did unhinge that day.

The brightnesse of that day
We sullied by our foul offence:
Wherefore that robe we cast away,
Having a new at his expence,
Whose drops of bloud paid the full price,
That was requir’d to make us gay,
And fit for Paradise.

Thou art a day of mirth:
And where the Week-dayes trail on ground,
Thy flight is higher, as thy birth.
O let me take thee at the bound,
Leaping with thee from sev’n to sev’n,
Till that we both, being toss’d from earth,
Flie hand in hand to heav’n!

Saturday 18 June 2011

Three Thoughts: On Parting and Meeting Again

A Farewell

by Coventry Patmore, he of the 'Angel in the House'.Link
With all my will, but much against my heart,
We two now part.
My Very Dear,
Our solace is, the sad road lies so clear.
It needs no art,
With faint, averted feet
And many a tear,
In our opposèd paths to persevere.
Go thou to East, I West.
We will not say
There's any hope, it is so far away.
But, O, my Best,
When the one darling of our widowhead,
The nursling Grief,
Is dead,
And no dews blur our eyes
To see the peach-bloom come in evening skies,
Perchance we may,
Where now this night is day,
And even through faith of still averted feet,
Making full circle of our banishment,
Amazèd meet;
The bitter journey to the bourne so sweet
Seasoning the termless feast of our content
With tears of recognition never dry.

Along the same lines, perhaps two generations later:

The Wayfarers
Rupert Brooke

Is it the hour? We leave this resting-place
Made fair by one another for a while.
Now, for a god-speed, one last mad embrace;
The long road then, unlit by your faint smile.
Ah! the long road! and you so far away!
Oh, I'll remember! but . . . each crawling day
Will pale a little your scarlet lips, each mile
Dull the dear pain of your remembered face.

. . . Do you think there's a far border town, somewhere,
The desert's edge, last of the lands we know,
Some gaunt eventual limit of our light,
In which I'll find you waiting; and we'll go
Together, hand in hand again, out there,
Into the waste we know not, into the night?

And the third, I think, would have to be this: Goscelin and Eva.

For the means of grace and for the hope of glory

The 'General Thanksgiving' from the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Thursday 16 June 2011

A Summer Poem: 'This close-companioned inarticulate hour'

Silent Noon

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, --
The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky: --
So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (set to music by Vaughan Williams)

Wednesday 15 June 2011

And, Goldeboru, I gave it thee

Here's a bit more from Havelok the Dane, because I was thinking about it today, and it's just so lovely. Basically the story is that Havelok is the heir to the kingdom of Denmark but his throne has been usurped by his guardian; the usurper ordered Havelok's death but the man who was supposed to kill him smuggled him away to England and brought him up there. So far, so fairy-tale; after his Snow White moment of being saved from death, Havelok has his Cinderella moment working in the kitchen of an aristocratic household in Lincoln. The wonderful thing about Havelok, which makes it so much more endearing to me than your standard chivalric knight-in-disguise story, is that the hero is not really in disguise at all: he doesn't play at being a kitchen-boy, he really is a kitchen-boy, though he knows all along that he's a king's son. He embraces poverty and labour as his real life, whole-heartedly and because he believes that a man ought to work for his living; and so cheerfully, uncomplaining, he accepts the position in which he finds himself, works with all his might, and makes everyone love him because he's gentle, humble, kind and merry - "lauhwinde ay and blithe of speke; evere he was glad and blithe".

Anyway, to cut a long story short, his unusual strength and height comes to the attention of the regent of England, another usurper who has deprived the proper heir, the late king's young daughter Goldburu, of her rights. This usurper promised the dying king he would marry Goldburu to the 'highest man in England' - i.e. of the highest status - but when he sees that Havelok is so very tall he sees a way to make mock of his promise by marrying Goldburu to the tallest man in England instead.

(You may like to think of this classic Viking joke attributed to Cnut, a similar 'highest' pun)

So he bullies poor Havelok into agreeing to the marriage (although Havelok's first reaction to the question "Master, wilt thou a wife?" is "What should I do with a wife?" because he has no means of supporting her) and Goldburu too, who believes she's marrying a rough peasant, but resigns herself to it as a woman's lot ("She thought, it was God's will:/ God, that makes to grow the corn, /Formed her woman to be born"). So they're married and Havelok, not knowing what else to do, takes her back to his foster family in Grimsby, who welcome her very warmly.

And at night, she sees the signs of Havelok's true identity - his cross-shaped birthmark, and the stream of light which pours from his mouth as he sleeps - and he has an absolutely beautiful dream of his own destiny. This is where we pick up the story... I'm going to post this extract in mostly-modern spelling but you can read it in Middle English here.

In the night as Goldeboru lay,
Sorry and sorrowful was she ay,
For she wende she were biswike, [thought she had been betrayed]
That she were yeven unkyndelike. [in that she was unequally yoked in marriage]
In night saw she therein a light,
A swithe fair, a swithe bright - [swithe = very]
All so bright, all so shir [shining]
As it were a blaze of fire.
She looked north and ek south,
And saw it came out of his mouth
That lay by her in the bed.
No ferlike though she were adred! [no wonder that she was afraid! - well, indeed]
Thought she, "What may this mean?
He beth heyman yet, as I ween: [he will be a nobleman, I believe]
He beth heyman ere he be dead!"
On his shoulder, of gold red
She saw a swithe noble cross;
Of an angel she heard a voice:

"Goldeboru, let thy sorrow be!
For Havelok, that haveth spoused thee,
He, king's son and king's heir,
That bikenneth that cross so fair. [the cross so fair betokens this]
It bikenneth more - that he shall
Denmark have and England all.
He shall be king strong and stark,
Of England and Denmark -
That shalt thou with thine eyen see,
And thou shalt queen and lady be!"

When she had heard the stevene [voice]
Of the angel out of heaven,
She was so fele sithes blith [so very happy]
That she ne might her joy mythe, [conceal]
But Havelok soon anon she kissed,
And he slept and nothing wiste
What that angel had said.

From his sleep anon he brayd, [woke]
And said, "Lemman, sleepest thou?
A selkuth dream dreamed me now - [a marvellous dream]
Hearken now what me haveth met.
Me thought I was in Denmark set,
But on on the most hill [highest hill]
That ever yet came I til.
It was so high that I well might
All the world see, as me thought.
As I sat upon that lowe [hill]
I began Denmark for to awe, [possess]
The boroughs and the castles strong;
And mine arms were so long
That I fathomed all at once
Denmark with mine long bones;
And then I would mine arms draw
To me, and them for to have
All that ever in Denmark liveden [lived]
On mine arms fast clyveden; [clasped]
And the strong castles all
On knees began for to fall -
The keys fell at mine feet.

Another dream dreamed me ek:
That I flew over the salt sea
To England, and all with me
That ever was in Denmark lyves [ever lived in Denmark]
But bondemen and their wives;
And that I came to England -
All closed it within mine hand,
And, Goldeboru, I gave it thee.
Deus! lemman, what may this be?"

So wonderful! His puzzlement makes the whole tender dream all the lovelier, to me: what a beautiful image, the king embracing his land and people in his arms, and then presenting them, all enclosed in his hand, to his queen; and then asking, "darling, what does it mean?"

It all ends well: in due time they both get their kingdoms back, have fifteen children, and live happily ever after. Just so you know.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Three Thoughts: On 'Occasional Mercies'

'Occasional mercies' is John Donne's term for what a non-believer would call coincidences - moments of grace which come out of nowhere; reminders of mercy in a passing word or something suddenly heard or seen; flashes of heaven.

Here are his examples:

The air is not so full of motes, of atoms, as the Church is of mercies; and as we can suck in no part of air, but we take in those motes, those atoms; so here in the congregation we cannot suck in a word from the preacher, we cannot speak, we cannot sigh a prayer to God, but that whole breath and air is made of mercy. But we call not upon you from this text, to consider God's ordinary mercy, that which he exhibits to all in the ministry of his Church, nor his miraculous mercy, his extraordinary deliverances of states and churches; but we call upon particular consciences, by occasion of this text, to call to mind God's occasional mercies to them; such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a natural man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies.
A man wakes at midnight full of unclean thoughts, and he hears a passing Bell; this is an occasional mercy, if he call that his own knell, and consider how unfit he was to be called out of the world then, how unready to receive that voice, "Fool, this night they shall fetch away thy soul." The adulterer, whose eye waits for the twilight, goes forth, and casts his eyes upon forbidden houses, and would enter, and sees a Lord have mercy upon us upon the door; this is an occasional mercy, if this bring him to know that they who lie sick of the plague within, pass through a furnace, but by God's grace, to heaven; and he without, carries his own furnace to hell, his lustful loins to everlasting perdition.

What an occasional mercy had Balaam when his ass catechised him! What an occasional mercy had one thief when the other catechized him so, Art not thou afraid, being under the same condemnation? What an occasional mercy had all they that saw that when the devil himself fought for the name of Jesus, and wounded the sons of Sceva for exorcising in the name of Jesus, with that indignation, with that increpation, Jesus we know, and Paul we know, but who are ye?

I've posted about some of my own occasional mercies before: this moment in Norway was one, this discovery another. One came on St Margaret's day last week. Francis Thompson saw the Kingdom of God in similar chance moments:

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places;–
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry;– and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry;– clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

And so did G. K. Chesterton (who died on this day in 1936), in the words of King Alfred's vision of the Virgin Mary in the Ballad of the White Horse:

"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.

"And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart."

Monday 13 June 2011

'A happy day at Whitsuntide'

Speaking of Whitsuntide revelries, here's a pleasant poem by William Barnes (1801-1886), the dialect poet and (I have just learned) Anglo-Saxon linguistic purist, in that he favoured the use of Old English words over French-derived ones. He's best known, to me at least, as the author of 'Linden Lea', which was set to music so beautifully by Vaughan Williams. Barnes wrote in the Dorset dialect, and you will notice that he shares some linguistic features with yesterday's West Country man, William Herebert, though he lived nearly six hundred years later.

The Castle Ruins

A happy day at Whitsuntide,
As soon ’s the zun begun to vall,
We all stroll’d up the steep hill-zide
To Meldon, gret an’ small;
Out where the Castle wall stood high
A-mwoldren to the zunny sky.

An’ there wi’ Jenny took a stroll
Her youngest sister, Poll, so gay,
Bezide John Hind, ah! merry soul,
An’ mid her wedlock fay;
An’ at our zides did play an’ run
My little maid an’ smaller son.

Above the baten mwold upsprung
The driven doust, a-spreaden light,
An’ on the new-leav’d thorn, a-hung,
Wer wool a-quiv’ren white;
An’ corn, a-sheenen bright, did bow,
On slopen Meldon’s zunny brow.

There, down the roofless wall did glow
The zun upon the grassy vloor,
An’ weakly-wandren winds did blow,
Unhinder’d by a door;
An’ smokeless now avore the zun
Did stan’ the ivy-girded tun.

My bwoy did watch the daws’ bright wings
A-flappen vrom their ivy bow’rs;
My wife did watch my maid’s light springs,
Out here an’ there vor flow’rs;
And John did zee noo tow’rs, the place
Vor him had only Polly’s face.

An’ there, of all that pried about
The walls, I overlook’d em best,
An’ what o’ that? Why, I made out
Noo mwore than all the rest:
That there wer woonce the nest of zome
That wer a-gone avore we come.

When woonce above the tun the smoke
Did wreathy blue among the trees,
An’ down below, the liven vo’k
Did tweil as brisk as bees:
Or zit wi’ weary knees, the while
The sky wer lightless to their tweil.

Whitsun Week

The court of King Arthur (BL Royal 20 D IV f. 1)

The week following Pentecost is a lost holiday. From the Middle Ages until the early 20th century the period around Whitsun was the principal summer holiday of the year - especially Whit-Monday, i.e. today. It was the time for fairs, Morris dancing, games, ale-drinking, school and church processions, weddings, wandering into the countryside, and generally having a good time. Sadly the decision to fix the Spring Bank Holiday to the last Monday in May has pretty much destroyed all sense of the season - even the name 'Whitsun' (the English name for the feast since at least the eleventh century) is increasingly forgotten.

So, like me, you are probably doing nothing to mark this day. But here are some of the things you could once have been doing (from this site):

In medieval Western Europe, Pentecost was a period of great festivity, and was considered a day of more importance than can be easily explained by the incidents connected with it, recorded in the gospel, or by any later Christian legends attached to it. It was one of the great festivals of the kings and great chieftains in the medieval romances. It was that especially on which King Arthur is represented as holding his most splendid court. The sixth chapter of the Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory, tells us how, "Then King Arthur removed into Wales, and 'let crie a great feast that it should be holden at Pentecost, after the coronation of him at the citie of Carlion.'" And chapter one hundred and eighteen adds, 'So King Arthur had ever a custome, that at the high feast of Pentecost especially, afore al other high feasts in the yeare, he would not goe that day to meat until he had heard or seene some great adventure or mervaile. And for that custom all manner of strange adventures came before King Arthur at that feast afore all other feasts.'

It was in Arthur's grand cour pleniere at the feast of Pentecost, that the fatal mantle was brought which threw disgrace on so many of the fair ladies of his court. More substantial monarchs than Arthur held Pentecost as one of the grand festivals of the year; and it was always looked upon as the special season of chivalrous adventure of tilt and tournament. In the romance of Bevis of Hampton, Pentecost, or, as it is there termed, Whitsuntide, appears again as the season of festivities:

In somer at Whitsontyde,
Whan knightes most on horsebacke ride,
A tours let they make on a daye,
Steedes and palfraye for to assaye,
Whiche horse that best may ren.

... Whitsuntide still is, and always has been, one of the most popularly festive periods of the year. It was commonly celebrated in all parts of the country by what was termed the Whitsun-ale, and it was the great time for the morris-dancers. In Douce's time, that is, sixty or seventy years ago [before 1869], a Whitsun-ale was conducted in the following manner:

'Two persons are chosen, previously to the meeting, to be lord and lady of the ale, who dress as suitably as they can to the characters they assume. A large empty barn, or some such building, is provided for the lord's hall, and fitted up with seats to accommodate the company. Here they assemble to dance and regale in the best manner their circumstances and the place will afford; and each young fellow treats his girl with a riband or favour. The lord and lady honour the hall with their presence, attended by the steward, sword-bearer, purse-bearer, and mace-bearer, with their several badges or ensigns of office. They have likewise a train-bearer or page, and a fool or jester, drest in a party-coloured jacket, whose ribaldry and gesticulation contribute not a little to the entertainment of some part of the company. The lord's music, consisting of a pipe and tabor, is employed to conduct the dance.'

These festivities were carried on in a much more splendid manner in former times, and they were considered of so much importance, that the expenses were defrayed by the parish, and charged in the churchwardens' accounts. Those of St. Mary's, at Reading, as quoted in Coates's History of that town, contain various entries on this subject, among which we have, in 1557: 'Item payed to the morrys daunsers and the mynstrelles, mete and drink at Whytsontide, iijs. iiijd.' The churchwardens' accounts at Brentford, in the county of Middlesex, also contain many curious entries relating to the annual Whitsun-ales in the seventeenth century; and we learn from them, as quoted by Lysons, that in 1621 there was 'Paid to her that was lady at Whitsontide, by consent, 5s.' Various games were indulged in on these occasions, some of them peculiar to the season, and archery especially was much practised. The money gained from these games seems to have been considered as belonging properly to the parish, and it is usually accounted for in the church-wardens' books, among the receipts, as so much profit for the advantage of the parish, and of the poor...

Ale was so prevalent a drink amongst us in old times, as to become a part of the name of various festal meetings, as Leet-ale, Lamb-ale, Bride-ale, and, as we see, Whitsun-ale. It was the custom of our simple ancestors to have parochial meetings every Whitsuntide, under the auspices of the churchwardens, usually in some barn near the church, all agreeing to be good friends for once in the year, and spend the day in a sober joy. The squire and lady came with their piper and taborer; the young danced or played at bowls; the old looked on, sipping their ale from time to time. It was a kind of pic-nic, for each parishioner brought what victuals he could spare. The ale, which had been brewed pretty strong for the occasion, was sold by the churchwardens, and from its profits a fund arose for the repair of the church. In latter days, the festival degenerated, as has been the case with most of such old observances; but in the old times there was a reverence about it which kept it pure. Shakespeare gives us some idea of this when he adverts to the song in Pericles:

'It hath been sung at festivals,
On ember eves, and holy ales.'
And further, from here:

Whit walks (or simply ‘Whits’), in which church congregations processed through the streets in their best clothes, were popular, and payments of ‘Whitsun farthings’ were often made to churches for repairs. Parishes also held Whitsun Church Ales across Whitsuntide from Whit Monday to Whit Wednesday, to raise money for charity. Whitsun was a popular holiday because of the likelihood of good weather (good weather on the day promises a good harvest), and these festivities tended to be organized affairs. Church Ales became a focus for parades, fairs, markets, circuses, cricket matches, regattas, displays of archery practice, and country sports such as wrestling, climbing the greasy pole, and even sack races and donkey derbies, and of course Morris dancing: Shakespeare mentions Whitsun Morris dancing in Henry V (II.iv.25). Miracle and Mystery Plays were performed, as at Chester (again mentioned by Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale, IV.iv.134)...

Milk and cream were seasonal fare for Whitsun feasts, as were gooseberries and cheesecakes, and regional food was celebrated, from squab pie in Cornwall to mutton pie in Oxford, to local cakes. As at Easter, it was good luck to wear new clothes at Whitsun, which added to the festivity and colour and general extravagance.

From medieval knights to Shakespeare's Morris dancers and Manchester mill-workers, Whitsuntide is a season hallowed by many centuries of happy holiday. Do something fun today; it's your ancient right.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Veni Creator Spiritus: Various Translations

For Whitsun (aka Pentecost, but let's be medieval here), here's the hymn 'Veni Creator Spiritus', as translated by various English poets over the course of six centuries. This is one of the most popular of the Church's hymns and there's a plethora of translations (which is rather appropriate, considering what happened at Pentecost...). It was probably written in the 9th century by Rabanus Maurus, and it sounds like this:

Here's the Latin (for ease of comparison between the translations, I've numbered the verses):

1. Veni, Creator Spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita,
imple superna gratia
quae tu creasti pectora.

2. Qui diceris Paraclitus,
altissimi donum Dei,
fons vivus, ignis, caritas,
et spiritalis unctio.

3. Tu, septiformis munere,
digitus paternae dexterae,
Tu rite promissum Patris,
sermone ditans guttura.

4. Accende lumen sensibus:
infunde amorem cordibus:
infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti.

5. Hostem repellas longius,
pacemque dones protinus:
ductore sic te praevio
vitemus omne noxium.

6. Per te sciamus da Patrem,
noscamus atque Filium;
Teque utriusque Spiritum
credamus omni tempore.

7. Deo Patri sit gloria,
et Filio, qui a mortuis
surrexit, ac Paraclito,
in saeculorum saecula.

Now a Middle English version by William Herebert (d.1333), Francisan friar and translator of many Latin hymns into English verse (I've previously posted about his translations of hymns for Epiphany and Palm Sunday).

1. Com, Shuppere, Holy Gost, ofsech oure þouhtes;
Vul wyth grace of heuene heortes þat þou wrouhtest.

2. Þou, þat art cleped uorspekere and ȝyft vrom God ysend,
Welle of lyf, vur, charite, and gostlych oynement,

3. Þou ȝyfst þe seuene ȝyftes, þou vinger of Godes honde,
Þou makest tonge of vlesȝe speke leodene of uche londe.

4. Tend lyht in oure wyttes, in oure heortes loue,
Þer oure body is leoþewok ȝyf strengþe vrom aboue.

5. Shyld ous vrom þe veonde, and ȝyf ous gryth anon,
Þat wœ wyten ous vrom sunne þorou þe lodesmon.

6. Of þe Uader and þé Sone þou ȝyf ous knoulechinge,
To leue þat of boþe þou euer boe Louinge.

7. Wœle to þe Uader and to þe Sone, þat vrom deth aros,
And also to þe Holy Gost ay boe worshipe and los.

It may help in reading this if you know that all those words beginning v- are spelled in Standard English with f-, i.e. vrom = from, veonde = fiend, vinger = finger, etc. This is still a feature of the West Country dialect (Herebert was from Hereford).

I think my favourite detail of Herebert's translation is his use of the word 'shuppere' to translate 'creator'; this is a descendant of the usual word in Old English for 'creator', 'scyppend' (it's related to Modern English 'to shape'). 'Shuppere' may already have seemed an archaic choice in Herebert's time (the OED's last citation of the word is from c.1275) and the word 'creator' was probably available to him (the first citation is from c.1300). But perhaps it didn't feel like a translation to simply borrow the Latin word which was in his source-text...

Note that he translates 'Paraclete' as 'For-speaker', literally the 'advocate'; and instead of 'peace' he uses the word 'grith', a word with connotations of a truce or the kind of safe-conduct offered by a king.

Now for some later translations. Here's one I particularly like, by Bishop John Cosin, from 1627:

1. Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

Thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light
the dullness of our blinded sight.

Anoint and cheer our soiled face
with the abundance of thy grace.
Keep far from foes, give peace at home:
where thou art guide, no ill can come.

Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee, of both, to be but One,
that through the ages all along,
this may be our endless song:

Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is often sung to an adapted form of the Gregorian chant, as beautifully here:

From another strand of 17th-century poetic fashion, here's John Dryden's rather more ornate version, from 1693:

Creator Spirit, by Whose aid
The world’s foundations first were laid,
Come, visit every pious mind;
Come, pour Thy joys on human kind;
From sin, and sorrow set us free;
And make Thy temples worthy Thee.

O Source of uncreated Light,
The Father’s promised Paraclete!
Thrice holy Fount, thrice holy Fire,
Our hearts with heav’nly love inspire;
Come, and Thy sacred unction bring
To sanctify us, while we sing!

Plenteous of grace, descend from high,
Thou strength of His almighty hand,
Whose pow’r does Heav’n and earth command:
Proceeding Spirit, our Defense,
Who dost the gift of tongues dispense,
And crown’st Thy gift with eloquence!

Refine and purge our earthly parts;
But, oh, inflame and fire our hearts!
Our frailties help, our vice control;
Submit the senses to the soul;
And when rebellious they are grown,
Then, lay Thy hand, and hold them down.

Create all new; our wills control,
Subdue the rebel in our soul;
Make us eternal truths receive,
And practice all that we believe;
Give us Thyself, that we may see
The Father and the Son by Thee.

Immortal honor, endless fame,
Attend th’almighty Father’s Name:
The Savior Son be glorified,
Who for lost man’s redemption died:
And equal adoration be,
Eternal Paraclete, to Thee.

Skipping another few centuries, Edward Caswall's 19th-century version:

1. Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
Vouchsafe within our souls to rest;
Come with Thy grace and heavenly aid
And fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

2. To Thee, the Comforter, we cry,
To Thee, the Gift of God Most High,
The Fount of life, the Fire of love,
The soul's Anointing from above.

3. The sevenfold gifts of grace are Thine,
O Finger of the Hand Divine;
True promise of the Father Thou,
Who dost the tongue with speech endow.

4. Thy light to every thought impart
And shed Thy love in every heart;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

5. Drive far away our wily Foe
And Thine abiding peace bestow;
If Thou be our protecting Guide,
No evil can our steps betide.

6. Make Thou to us the Father known,
Teach us the eternal Son to won
And Thee, whose name we ever bless,
Of both the Spirit, to confess.

7. Praise we the Father and the Son
And Holy Spirit, with them One;
And may the Son on us bestow
The gifts that from the Spirit flow!

And finally, a translation by Robert Bridges, from 1899:

1. Come, O Creator Spirit, come,
and make within our heart thy home;
to us thy grace celestial give,
who of thy breathing move and live.

2. O Comforter, that name is thine,
of God most high the gift divine;
the well of life, the fire of love,
our souls' anointing from above.

3. Thou dost appear in sevenfold dower
the sign of God's almighty power;
the Father's promise, making rich
with saving truth our earthly speech.

4. Our senses with thy light inflame,
our hearts to heavenly love reclaim;
our bodies' poor infirmity
with strength perpetual fortify.

5. Our mortal foes afar repel,
grant us henceforth in peace to dwell;
and so to us, with thee for guide,
no ill shall come, no harm betide.

6. May we by thee the Father learn,
and know the Son, and thee discern,
who art of both; and thus adore
in perfect faith for evermore.

As a bonus, here's the choir of Peterborough Cathedral singing the hymn, in Cosin's translation, from 1934:

Saturday 11 June 2011

A Happily-Married Medieval Couple

From the Middle English romance Havelok the Dane (ll.2963-74):

Havelok bilefte with joye and gamen
In Engelond and was therinne
Sixty winter king with winne,
And Goldeboru queen, that I wene
So mikel love was them bitwene
That all the werd spak of hem two;
He lovede hir and she him so
That neither other might be
Fro other ne no joye see
But-yif he were togidere bothe;
Nevere yete no weren he wrothe
For here love was ay newe.

Easier spelling, at the expense of the rhythm:

Havelok remained with joy and celebration
In England, and was therein
Sixty winter king with winne [joy],
And Goldeboru the queen; and I ween
So great a love was them between
That all the world spake of those two:
He loved her and she him so
That neither of them might ever be
Away from the other, nor any joy see
But if they were together both;
They were never at odds, nor were they wroth
For their love was ever new.

Friday 10 June 2011

St Margaret, St Waltheof, and the Bear

I may have mentioned once or twice that I'm very fond of St Margaret of Scotland. June 10th was the traditional date of her feast until the reform of the Roman Calendar in 1969, and I'm just in time to mark it. I thought for a little while about how to do this, but ended up doing just what I wanted to do all along: reposting these stories about Margaret and her husband King Malcolm.

Now and then she helped herself to something or other out of the King's private property, it mattered not what it was, to give to a poor person; and this pious plundering the King always took pleasantly and in good part. It was his custom to offer certain coins of gold upon Maundy Thursday and at High Mass, some of which coins the Queen often devoutly pillaged, and bestowed on the beggar who was petitioning her for help. Although the King was fully aware of the theft, he generally pretended to know nothing of it, and felt much amused by it. Now and then he caught the Queen in the very act, with the money in her hand, and laughingly threatened that he would have her arrested, tried, and found guilty.


Although [Malcolm] could not read, he would turn over and examine books which she used either for her devotions or her study; and whenever he heard her say that she was fonder of one of them than the others, this one he too used to look at with special affection, kissing it, and often taking it into his hands. Sometimes he sent for a worker in precious metals, whom he commanded to ornament that volume with gold and gems, and when the work was finished, the king himself used to carry the volume to the queen as a kind proof of his devotion.

Why, no, I am not endlessly attracted by stories of people who lead their spouses to holiness; why do you ask?

Here's a fun fact related to what I'm currently working on (look away now if you don't enjoy pointless chatter about medieval genealogy): Margaret's son David married Matilda, the daughter of Waltheof. Since I have been doing little but think about Waltheof lately, this fact never ceases to entertain me. It's fun to work out the implications. First of all, it meant that the children of David and Matilda had two saints among their four grandparents (both Margaret and Waltheof were dead by the time of their children's marriage, which took place in 1114). That's pretty cool, even before you factor in Edward the Confessor and the various saints of Wessex among Margaret's ancestors, and the fact that one of Matilda's sons by her first marriage became a saint too.

Secondly: Waltheof was executed for treason by William the Conqueror. But his son-in-law David had a sister, Edith, who married the son of William; she was responsible for bringing the bloodline of the Anglo-Saxon kings back into the Norman line.

Thirdly: the only other place in England, apart from Crowland, where Waltheof was venerated as a saint was at Romsey Abbey in Hampshire (we know this because Anselm didn't approve of it, and wrote to the nuns telling them to cut it out). Margaret's sister was a nun at Romsey. So was Margaret's daughter Edith, for a bit (although, controversial...). Coincidence? I don't know.

Fourthly (I saved the best to last): because of this marriage, the present Queen is theoretically the direct descendant of a polar bear. Yes, really. Waltheof's grandfather claimed to be the son of a bear and a human woman (he had furry ears to prove it). Through the marriage of Waltheof's daughter, he (and the bear) became an ancestor of the kings of Scotland, from whom the current royal family are descended. I wonder if anyone's told the Queen this?

Shall hopes untried elate, or ruined vex

Another Robert Louis Stevenson gem, entitled 'I am like one that for long...'

I am like one that for long days had sate,
With seaward eyes set keen against the gale,
On some lone foreland, watching sail by sail,
The portbound ships for one ship that was late;
And sail by sail, his heart burned up with joy,
And cruelly was quenched, until at last
One ship, the looked-for pennant at its mast,
Bore gaily, and dropt safely past the buoy;
And lo! the loved one was not there - was dead.
Then would he watch no more; no more the sea
With myriad vessels, sail by sail, perplex
His eyes and mock his longing. Weary head,
Take now thy rest; eyes, close; for no more me
Shall hopes untried elate, or ruined vex.

For thus on love I waited; thus for love
Strained all my senses eagerly and long;
Thus for her coming ever trimmed my song;
Till in the far skies coloured as a dove,
A bird gold-coloured flickered far and fled
Over the pathless waterwaste for me;
And with spread hands I watched the bright bird flee
And waited, till before me she dropped dead.
O golden bird in these dove-coloured skies
How long I sought, how long with wearied eyes I sought,
O bird, the promise of thy flight!
And now the morn has dawned, the morn has died,
The day has come and gone; and once more night
About my lone life settles, wild and wide.

Picture: Sunset on the port of Harwich, from the sea.

Thursday 2 June 2011

A Church Romance

Today is Thomas Hardy's birthday, and so here's perhaps my favourite of his poems.  (Although that title might go to this poem instead).  It's supposed to be the story of how his parents met; 'Mellstock' is the fictional name Hardy gave to Stinsford, Dorset, where his heart is buried.

A Church Romance

(Mellstock, circa 1835)

She turned in the high pew, until her sight
Swept the west gallery, and caught its row
Of music-men with viol, book, and bow
Against the sinking sad tower-window light.

She turned again; and in her pride's despite
One strenuous viol's inspirer seemed to throw
A message from his string to her below,
Which said: "I claim thee as my own forthright!"

Thus their hearts' bond began, in due time signed.
And long years thence, when Age had scared Romance,
At some old attitude of his or glance
That gallery-scene would break upon her mind,
With him as minstrel, ardent, young, and trim,
Bowing "New Sabbath" or "Mount Ephraim."

'New Sabbath' and 'Mount Ephraim' are both hymn-tunes of the 'West Gallery' type, as sung and played by the village choirs in Hardy's novels. From what I can see from those links, they both have a rather jaunty bravura quality, appropriate to this ardent young minstrel, and this moment of flirtation in a country church.

(N.B. I observe that Mount Ephraim is in Hymns Ancient and Modern, as the tune to No.531, 'For all thy saints, O Lord').

Pictures: some sinking sad tower-window light at Goodnestone, Kent, late one April afternoon.