Monday 31 October 2011

"All mirrors are magic mirrors"

I've been reading George MacDonald's 1858 novel Phantastes (subtitled 'A Fairy Romance for Men and Women') which was a great influence on the teenage C. S. Lewis, and which I would recommend with all my heart. It's so full of beautiful passages that it's difficult to quote anything in particular without wanting to quote everything; but here are two passages I especially like. This, from near the end of the novel:

The moon came gliding up with all the past in her wan face. She changed my couch into a ghostly pallor, and threw all the earth below as to the bottom of a pale sea of dreams. But she could not make me sad. I knew now, that it is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another; yea, that, where two love, it is the loving of each other, and not the being loved by each other, that originates and perfects and assures their blessedness. I knew that love gives to him that loveth, power over any soul beloved, even if that soul know him not, bringing him inwardly close to that spirit; a power that cannot be but for good; for in proportion as selfishness intrudes, the love ceases, and the power which springs therefrom dies. Yet all love will, one day, meet with its return. All true love will, one day, behold its own image in the eyes of the beloved, and be humbly glad. This is possible in the realms of lofty Death.

And this dreamlike reflection on reflections:

At length, in a nook of the river, gloomy with the weight of overhanging foliage, and still and deep as a soul in which the torrent eddies of pain have hollowed a great gulf, and then, subsiding in violence, have left it full of a motionless, fathomless sorrow--I saw a little boat lying. So still was the water here, that the boat needed no fastening. It lay as if some one had just stepped ashore, and would in a moment return. But as there were no signs of presence, and no track through the thick bushes; and, moreover, as I was in Fairy Land where one does very much as he pleases, I forced my way to the brink, stepped into the boat, pushed it, with the help of the tree-branches, out into the stream, lay down in the bottom, and let my boat and me float whither the stream would carry us. I seemed to lose myself in the great flow of sky above me unbroken in its infinitude, except when now and then, coming nearer the shore at a bend in the river, a tree would sweep its mighty head silently above mine, and glide away back into the past, never more to fling its shadow over me. I fell asleep in this cradle, in which mother Nature was rocking her weary child; and while I slept, the sun slept not, but went round his arched way. When I awoke, he slept in the waters, and I went on my silent path beneath a round silvery moon. And a pale moon looked up from the floor of the great blue cave that lay in the abysmal silence beneath.

Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality?--not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier? Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still. Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself. All mirrors are magic mirrors. The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass. (And this reminds me, while I write, of a strange story which I read in the fairy palace, and of which I will try to make a feeble memorial in its place.) In whatever way it may be accounted for, of one thing we may be sure, that this feeling is no cheat; for there is no cheating in nature and the simple unsought feelings of the soul. There must be a truth involved in it, though we may but in part lay hold of the meaning. Even the memories of past pain are beautiful; and past delights, though beheld only through clefts in the grey clouds of sorrow, are lovely as Fairy Land. But how have I wandered into the deeper fairyland of the soul, while as yet I only float towards the fairy palace of Fairy Land! The moon, which is the lovelier memory or reflex of the down-gone sun, the joyous day seen in the faint mirror of the brooding night, had rapt me away.

A Medieval Love Poem: Fortune's Wheel

A late 15th-century poem which, like this one, comes from the Findern manuscript.

A! mercy, Fortune, have pitee on me,
And thinke that thu hast done gretely amisse
To parte asondre them whiche ought to be
Alwey in on. Why hast thu doo thus?
Have I offended thee? I? Nay! iwisse.
Then turne thy whele and be my frende again,
And sende me joy where I am nowe in pain.

And thinke what sorowe is the departing
Of two trewe hertes loving feithfully,
For parting is the most soroughfull thinge,
To mine entent, that ever yet knewe I.
Therfore I pray to thee right hertely
To turne thy whele and be my frende again,
And sende me joy where I am nowe in pain.

For, till we mete, I dare well say, for trouth,
That I shall never be in ease of herte.
Wherfore I pray you to have of me sume routh,
And release me of all my paines smerte,
Now, sith thu woste it is nat my deserte.
Then turne thy whele and be my frende again,
And sende me joy where I am nowe in pain.


Ah, mercy, Fortune, have pity on me,
And think that thou hast done greatly amiss
To part asunder them which ought to be
Always one. Why hast thou done thus?
Have I offended thee? I? Nay! iwisse.
Then turn thy wheel and be my friend again,
And send me joy where I am now in pain.

And think what sorrow is the parting
Of two true hearts loving faithfully,
For parting is the most sorrowful thing,
In my opinion, that ever yet knew I.
Therefore I pray to thee right heartily
To turn thy wheel and be my friend again,
And send me joy where I am now in pain.

For, till we meet, I dare well say, for truth,
That I shall never be in ease of heart.
Wherefore I pray you to have of me some ruth,
And release me of my pains so smart,
Now, since thou know'st it is not my desert.
Then turn thy wheel and be my friend again,
And send me joy where I am now in pain.

Saturday 29 October 2011

A Month Since Michaelmas

These are some pictures I took a month ago, on Michaelmas day, at Canterbury. I was there for Evensong, but not because it was Michaelmas - because it was the 1000th anniversary of the day the city fell to the Vikings. I had forgotten that day fell on Michaelmas (even though it's right there in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry, so I should have remembered), though Michaelmas is, of course, a rather important feast in Oxford terms, the day for which the autumn term is named.

The cathedral was all in gold. There's a particular time of year when Evensong falls exactly at the right time - so that you go inside in late afternoon sunshine and come out to find the sun has just set. All the hours of the day (in the monastic sense) mark stages, and while Evensong is always beautiful - and in one way, always the same - it's different when the whole service takes place in complete winter darkness or in bright, unchanging summer sunlight. That evening was like that; it gets dark just too early now, and certainly will be too late after tomorrow when the clocks go back. The perfect time must be the last week in September.

This was the west window, towards the end of the service, when (for the part which commemorated the Viking siege) the clergy and congregation processed out of the choir and into the nave. This window confronted us as we came through the door, the grand golden steps down to the nave spread out before us.

As the choir left the nave, they sang 'Rorate caeli' - a glorious touch, considering the occasion. It was such a stroke of genius that I wanted to congratulate someone for it, but wouldn't have known whom to praise. 'The holy cities are a wilderness' - the writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle himself couldn't have chosen a more fitting lament. 'Þær man mihte ða geseon yrmðe þær man oft ær geseah blisse on þære earman byrig þanon com ærest Cristendom 7 blis for Gode 7 for worulde' ('there wretchedness might be seen where bliss had often been seen before, in that wretched town from where there first came to us Christianity and joy before God and before the world') might almost be the Anglo-Saxon version of the passage from Isaiah on which 'Rorate caeli' is based. 'Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned with fire...'

The chant continued as the choir disappeared into the darkness of the church, echoing to the last distant note.

Particularly memorable to me was the moment at the beginning of the service, when I chose, almost at random, a rather obscure seat some way from the choir (a poor strategical choice, made on impulse; despite the impression one might justly get from how often I post about Canterbury Cathedral, I find the people a little intimidating). So it was entirely by chance that I found I was sitting in a dazzling shaft of sunlight, the last light of the setting sun, coming through this window high in the west side of the south porch:

The sun was so bright it almost blinded me (this picture was taken afterwards, when it had subsided a little). It was a real 'gleam of glory'. And the saint who shone so startlingly on me, on that Michaelmas day?

St Michael, of course.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Lady, by one light only We look from Alfred's eyes

I've been meaning to post this for a while, and the anniversary of the death of Alfred the Great is as good a day as any. It's from the prologue to G. K. Chesterton's 'Ballad of the White Horse', his poem about Alfred's battles against the Danes - about order triumphing over chaos.

I feel that as a fan of the Vikings, I can't quite endorse the idea of calling them "green devils out of the sea, with sea-plants trailing heavily and tracks of opal slime"; but otherwise this is awesome. It also contains some beautiful and heartfelt love poetry, addressed to his wife.

You can read the whole thing here.

Gored on the Norman gonfalon
The Golden Dragon died:
We shall not wake with ballad strings
The good time of the smaller things,
We shall not see the holy kings
Ride down by Severn side.

Stiff, strange, and quaintly coloured
As the broidery of Bayeux
The England of that dawn remains,
And this of Alfred and the Danes
Seems like the tales a whole tribe feigns
Too English to be true.

Of a good king on an island
That ruled once on a time;
And as he walked by an apple tree
There came green devils out of the sea
With sea-plants trailing heavily
And tracks of opal slime.

Yet Alfred is no fairy tale;
His days as our days ran,
He also looked forth for an hour
On peopled plains and skies that lower,
From those few windows in the tower
That is the head of a man.

But who shall look from Alfred's hood
Or breathe his breath alive?
His century like a small dark cloud
Drifts far; it is an eyeless crowd,
Where the tortured trumpets scream aloud
And the dense arrows drive.

Lady, by one light only
We look from Alfred's eyes,
We know he saw athwart the wreck
The sign that hangs about your neck,
Where One more than Melchizedek
Is dead and never dies.

Therefore I bring these rhymes to you
Who brought the cross to me,
Since on you flaming without flaw
I saw the sign that Guthrum saw
When he let break his ships of awe,
And laid peace on the sea.

Do you remember when we went
Under a dragon moon,
And 'mid volcanic tints of night
Walked where they fought the unknown fight
And saw black trees on the battle-height,
Black thorn on Ethandune?

And I thought, "I will go with you,
As man with God has gone,
And wander with a wandering star,
The wandering heart of things that are,
The fiery cross of love and war
That like yourself, goes on."

O go you onward; where you are
Shall honour and laughter be,
Past purpled forest and pearled foam,
God's winged pavilion free to roam,
Your face, that is a wandering home,
A flying home for me.

Ride through the silent earthquake lands,
Wide as a waste is wide,
Across these days like deserts, when
Pride and a little scratching pen
Have dried and split the hearts of men,
Heart of the heroes, ride.

Up through an empty house of stars,
Being what heart you are,
Up the inhuman steeps of space
As on a staircase go in grace,
Carrying the firelight on your face
Beyond the loneliest star.

Take these; in memory of the hour
We strayed a space from home
And saw the smoke-hued hamlets, quaint
With Westland king and Westland saint,
And watched the western glory faint
Along the road to Frome.

Pictures of Oxfordshire and Berkshire taken from the hill of the Uffington White Horse, last September.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

A medieval phrase for happiness

This post arose from an entry in the Middle English Dictionary under the word foul, which means 'bird' - the origin of Modern English 'fowl', but with a wider range of meaning which includes every kind of bird. The entry, available online here, gives a list of quotations illustrating the proverbial phrase as fain as foul of dai 'as glad as a bird of the day'. Sometimes a dictionary entry can be as good as a poem, and so it is with this. Here are the quotations, slightly expanded and with translations.

Cristene men ogen ben so fagen so fueles arn quan he it sen dagen.

Christians ought to be as happy as birds are when they see the day dawn.
(from the Middle English translation of Genesis and Exodus)

Gladder icham... Þan þe fouel whan hit ginneþ dawe.

I am gladder than the bird when the day begins to dawn.
(from the romance Bevis of Hamtoun)

And thus with joye and hope wel to fare
Arcite anoon un to his in is fare
As fayn as fowel is of the brighte sonne.

And thus full of joy and hope for success,
Arcite quickly returns home,
As glad as the bird is of the bright sun.

(from the Canterbury Tales, the Knight's Tale)

Þenne was I as fayn as foul on feir morwen,
Gladdore þen þe gleomon is of his grete ȝiftes

Then was I as happy as a bird on a bright morning,
Gladder than a minstrel is in his great rewards.

(from Piers Plowman A, 11.109-110)

He seith nat ones nay,
But was as glad ther of as fowel of day.

He did not once say no,
But was as glad of it as a bird of the day.

(from the Canterbury Tales, the Shipman's Tale)

They were as glad of his comyng
As fowel is fayn, whan that the sonne vp riseth.

They were as glad of his coming as a bird is happy when the sun rises.
 (from the Canterbury Tales, the Shipman's Tale)

Was ther nevere fowel so fayn of May
As I shal been, whan that she cometh in Troye
That cause is of my torment and my joie.

There was never bird so glad of May 
As I shall be when she comes to Troy
Who is the cause of my torment and my joy.
(from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde)

Thi son wham we abide and seke als foghil the day.

Thy Son, whom we await and seek as the bird does the day.
(from The Mirror of Man's Salvation, from c.1500)

Browning's Memorabilia

I just saw the film 'Midnight in Paris', in which a modern-day American writer finds himself slipping back in time to the 1920s and meeting the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein etc. It's a wonderful film about art and nostalgia and it reminded me of this poem by Robert Browning, who would feature pretty heavily in any Golden Age nostalgia of my own.

It's supposedly based on a real encounter Browning had with a man who had met Shelley. My own equivalent moment came when I met someone who had been tutored by C. S. Lewis; "my starting moved your laughter", indeed.


Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at —
My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
’Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather —
Well, I forget the rest.

Friday 21 October 2011

On Transience, III: This world fareth as a fantasy

This is an awesome poem about making sense of the world - about the pettiness of human disputes, and the vastness of the world; about how fleeting are both happiness and sorrow; about the role of reason and the limits of theology; and some other things as well. It was written probably towards the end of the fourteenth century, and preserved in a huge, lavishly-decorated manuscript of English verse and prose from the West Midlands, known as the Vernon Manuscript (or as Bodl. MS. (Vernon) Eng. Poet. a.1 (3938), if you prefer). Without this manuscript, our knowledge of English literature would be immeasurably poorer.

Verse 7 is my favourite (and was the most fun to translate!). But it's all wonderful.

1. I wolde witen of sum wys wiht
Witterly what þis world were:
Hit fareþ as a foules fliht,
Now is hit henne, now is hit here,
Ne be we neuer so muche of miht,
Now be we on benche, nou be we on bere;
And be we neuer so war and wiht,
Now be we sek, now beo we fere,
Now is on proud wiþ-outen peere,
Now is þe selue I-set not by;
And whos wol alle þing hertly here,
Þis world fareþ as a Fantasy.

I wish to know from a wise man, truly, what this world is. It passes as a bird's flight; now it is hence, now is it here. Be we never so great in strength, now are we on the hall-bench, now on the bier; and be we never so watchful and wise, now are we sick, now are we well. Now is there one who is proud without peer; now the same one is of no account. And whoso will all things truly know, hear: this world passes like a dream.

2. Þe sonnes cours, we may wel kenne,
Aryseþ Est and geþ doun west;
Þe Ryuers in-to þe see þei renne,
And hit is neuer þe more al-mest;
Wyndes Rosscheþ her and henne,
In snouȝ and reyn is non arest;
Whon þis wol stunte, ho wot or whenne,
But only god on grounde grest?
Þe eorþe in on is euer prest,
Now bi-dropped, now al druyȝe;
But vche gome glit forþ as a gest,
Þis world fareþ as a Fantasye.

The sun's course, we may well know, rises in the east and sets in the west; the rivers run into the sea, and yet it never grows any greater. Winds rush hither and thither, of snow and rain there is no end; how this will stop, who knows, or when? Only God, the greatest in the world. The earth is ever alike beset, now drenched, now dry; but every man glides away like a guest. This world passes like a dream.

[For this verse, cf. Ecclesiastes i.5-7: The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full: unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.]

3. Kunredes come, & kunredes gon,
As Ioyneþ generacions;
But alle hee passeþ euerichon,
For al heor preparacions;
Sum are for-ȝete clene as bon
A-mong alle maner nacions;
So schul men þenken vs no-þing on
Þat nou han þe ocupacions;
And alle þeos disputacions
Idelyche all vs ocupye,
For crist makeþ þe creacions,
And þis world fareþ as a fantasye.

Families come, and families go, as generations pass; but all go by, every one, for all their preparations. Some are forgotten, clean as a bone, among every nation; so shall men think not of us, who have this place now, and of these disputations which pointlessly obsess us. For Christ made all created things, and this world passes as a dream.

[Again, cf. Ecclesiastes i.4: One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.]

4. Whuch is Mon, ho wot, and what,
Wheþer þat he be ouȝt or nouht?
Of Erþe & Eyr groweþ vp a gnat,
And so doþ Mon whon al his souht;
Þauȝ mon be waxen gret and fat,
Mon melteþ a-wey so deþ a mouht.
Monnes miht nis worþ a Mat,
But nuyȝeþ him-self and turneþ to nouȝt.
Ho wot, saue he þat al haþ wrouȝt,
Wher mon bi-comeþ whon he schal dye?
Ho knoweþ bi dede ouȝt bote bi þouȝt?
For þis world fareþ as a fantasye.

Of what nature is man, who knows? and what? is he anything, or nothing? From earth and air grows up a gnat - and so does man, in truth; though he grows strong and fat, man melts away like a moth. A man's might is not worth a thing; he vexes himself and turns all to nought. Who knows - save He who all hath wrought - what becomes of man, when he must die? Who knows anything by experience, except by thought? For this world passes as a dream.

5. Dyeþ mon, and beestes dye,
And al is on Ocasion;
And alle o deþ, hos boþe drye,
And han on Incarnacion;
Saue þat men beoþ more sleyȝe,
Al is o comparison.
Ho wot ȝif monnes soule styȝe,
And bestes soules synkeþ doun?
Who knoweþ Beestes entencioun,
On heor creatour how þei crie,
Saue only god þat knoweþ heore soun?
For þis world fareþ as a fantasye.

Men die, and beasts die, and all have one condition; and all share one death and one birth. Except that men are more cunning, there is no distinction. Who knows if the souls of men ascend, and the souls of beasts sink down? Who knows the thoughts of animals, how they cry out to their creator - except God alone, who knows their voices? For this world passes as a dream.

6. Vche secte hopeþ to be saue,
Baldely bi heore bi-leeue;
And vchon vppon God heo craue—
Whi schulde God wiþ hem him greue?
Vchon trouweþ þat oþur Raue,
But alle heo cheoseþ God for cheue,
And hope in God vchone þei haue,
And bi heore wit heore worching preue.
Þus mony maters men don meue,
Sechen heor wittes hou and why;
But Godes Merci vs alle bi-heue,
For þis world fareþ as a fantasy.

Each sect boldly expects to be saved because of their faith, and each one cries out to God. Why should God trouble himself with them? Each one believes the others are mad, but all choose God as their Lord, and all have hope in God, and justify their actions by their clever reasoning. In this way men debate many topics, and search their wits to understand how and why - but God's mercy is necessary for us all, for this world passes as a dream.

7. For þus men stumble & sere heore witte,
And meueþ maters mony and fele;
Summe leeueþ on him, sum leueþ on hit,
As children leorneþ for to spele.
But non seoþ non þat a-bit,
Whon stilly deþ wol on hym stele.
For he þat hext in heuene sit,
He is þe help and hope of hele;
For wo is ende of worldes wele,—
Vche lyf loke wher þat I lye—
Þis world is fals, fikel and frele,
And fareþ but as a fantasye.

For thus men stumble and shatter their wits, and debate many and various matters; some believe in this, some in that, like children just learning to speak. But no one clings to anything that will last when silent death steals upon him. For He that sits highest in heaven, he is the help and hope of health; woe is the end of worldly wealth - tell me that I tell a lie! This world is false and fickle and frail, and passes like a dream.

8. Whar-to wilne we forte knowe
Þe poyntes of Godes priuete?
More þen him lustes forte schowe,
We schulde not knowe in no degre;
And Idel bost is forte blowe
A Mayster of diuinite.
Þenk we lyue in eorþe her lowe,
And God an heiȝ in Mageste;
Of Material Mortualite
Medle we & of no more Maistrie.
Þe more we trace þe Trinite,
Þe more we falle in fantasye.

Why do we seek to know the intricacies of God's secrets? We should not know more than it pleases him to show; a Master of Divinity only brags an idle boast. Remember that we live low upon the earth, and God dwells on high in majesty; we share in the mortality of material things, and have no mastery. The more we trace out the Trinity, the more we fall into fantasy.

9. But leue we vre disputisoun,
And leeue on him þat al haþ wrouȝt;
We mowe no[t] preue bi no resoun
Hou he was born þat al vs bouȝt;
But hol in vre entencioun,
Worschipe we him in herte & þouȝt,
For he may turne kuyndes vpsedoun,
Þat alle kuyndes made of nouȝt.
When al vr bokes ben forþ brouht,
And al vr craft of clergye,
And al vr wittes ben þorw-out souȝt,
ȝit we fareþ as a fantasye.

But let us leave our disputes and believe in Him who made all things; we cannot prove by any reason how He who saved us all was born. But wholly in our minds let us worship him in heart and thought - for He who made all out of nothing can turn all things upside down. When our books are brought forth, and all our clerkly knowledge, and all our wits are searched all through - we yet pass as a dream.

10. Of fantasye is al vr fare,
Olde & ȝonge and alle I-fere;
But make we murie & sle care,
And worschipe we god whil we ben here;
Spende vr good and luytel spare,
And vche mon cheries oþures cheere.
Þenk hou we comen hider al bare,—
Vr wey wendyng is in a were—
Prey we þe prince þat haþ no pere,
Tac vs hol to his Merci
And kepe vr Concience clere,
For þis world is but fantasy.

All our life is a dream, old and young and all together; but make we merry and put by care, and worship we God while we are here; spend our wealth and spare little, and let each man encourage another to be cheerful. Let us think how we came here with nothing, and where we go is a mystery; let us pray to the Prince without peer, entrust ourselves to His mercy, and keep our conscience pure - for this world is only a dream.

11. Bi ensaumple men may se,
A gret treo grouweþ out of þe grounde;
No þing a-bated þe eorþe wol be
Þauȝ hit be huge, gret, and rounde.
Riht þer wol Rooten þe selue tre,
Whon elde haþ maad his kuynde aswounde;
Þauȝ þer weore rote suche þre,
Þe eorþe wol not encrece a pounde.
Þus waxeþ & wanieþ Mon, hors, & hounde,
From nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe;
And her we stunteþ but a stounde,
For þis world is but fantasye.

By this example you may understand: a great tree grows out of the ground, but the earth is in no way diminished though the tree be huge, tall and round. The tree will still be rooted there when old age has brought down his kindred; though there were three such trees rooted there, the earth will not be enlarged by any degree. Thus man, horse and hound wax and wane, from nothing to nothing, from hence we go; and here we stay but for a short time, for this world is but a dream.

Monday 17 October 2011

But the white fire of moonlight, And a white dream of you

This is a poem called 'Finding', by Rupert Brooke. A fair number of his poems have the speaker addressing a sleeping lover, sometimes scornfully, sometimes with reverence; I wouldn't like to speculate on why! But this is a very lovely example, full of shadows and moonlight.

From the candles and dumb shadows,
And the house where love had died,
I stole to the vast moonlight
And the whispering life outside.
But I found no lips of comfort,
No home in the moon's light
(I, little and lone and frightened
In the unfriendly night),
And no meaning in the voices. . . .
Far over the lands and through
The dark, beyond the ocean,
I willed to think of YOU!
For I knew, had you been with me
I'd have known the words of night,
Found peace of heart, gone gladly
In comfort of that light.

Oh! the wind with soft beguiling
Would have stolen my thought away;
And the night, subtly smiling,
Came by the silver way;
And the moon came down and danced to me,
And her robe was white and flying;
And trees bent their heads to me
Mysteriously crying;
And dead voices wept around me;
And dead soft fingers thrilled;
And the little gods whispered. . . .
But ever
Desperately I willed;
Till all grew soft and far
And silent . . .
And suddenly
I found you white and radiant,
Sleeping quietly,
Far out through the tides of darkness.
And I there in that great light
Was alone no more, nor fearful;
For there, in the homely night,
Was no thought else that mattered,
And nothing else was true,
But the white fire of moonlight,
And a white dream of you.

Saturday 15 October 2011

The Battle of Hastings, the Hermit King, and Loyalty unto Death

14 October is the date of the Battle of Hastings, so here is an unusual account of that momentous event. It's from a medieval Old Norse text called 'Hemings þáttr', the story of the adventures of a probably fictional man named Heming. Heming starts off in Norway, but his combative attitude to King Harald Hardrada makes it advisable for him to leave the country, and he goes to England. He lives at the court of Edward the Confessor, but his real loyalty is reserved for Harold Godwinson, and at the time of the Norwegian invasion and Norman Conquest he is fighting at the side of the English Harold. The latter part of his story, telling of the events of 1066, is founded on decent historical sources but elaborated with a great deal of clearly fictional conversations, dream visions, portentous omens, dramatic encounters, etc. It's not in any way reliable as a historical source but it's a very interesting text all the same; I especially like the author's taste for pithy dialogue, which is illustrated to good effect in this extract.

So we take up the story where Harold Godwinson has just defeated the Norwegians (and his own brother Tostig) at the battle of Stamford Bridge, and now he has heard that William of Normandy is intending to invade England.

This is my translation from the Old Norse.

King Harold heard this, and gathered his men around him. His army was very badly wounded. The king bid them leave the country if they thought they were not strong enough to follow him, but all said that they would stay with him. The king said, "Give me up if you will not follow me loyally," but they said they would never part from him.

He mustered his forces to meet William, and a hard battle began. That was nineteen days after the day when Harald Sigurdson [i.e. Harald Hardrada] fell. There was a great slaughter among the Englishmen, because many in the battle were not strong enough to be there. They fought all day, and in the evening King Harold Godwinson fell. But Heming and Helgi and Waltheof drew up their men in a 'swine's snout' formation, and no one could break through it.
Then William said, "I will give you a truce, Waltheof, if you will swear loyalty to me, and you will have your inheritance and your earldom."

Waltheof said, "No oaths will I swear to you, but I will promise loyalty to you, if you do this."

"On those terms, we can make peace," said William.

Waltheof asked, "What options will these others, Helgi and Heming, be given, if they make peace with you?"

William replied, "Helgi shall have his inheritance and earldom. He must swear loyalty to me, and advise me about those matters in which he is better-informed than I. And Heming shall stay with me, and if he is loyal to me, I shall value him more than any other man."

Waltheof asked them, "What do you two plan to do?"

Helgi replied, "Heming shall decide."

Heming replied, "I know that to you Englishmen it will seem best to put an end to this strife, but to me it seems no joy to go on living after this battle. But I will not keep you in danger any longer than you wish, although I think that for Waltheof this peace will prove brief."

Waltheof replied, "Better that we be overthrown than that we trust no one! No more men will lose their lives for my sake."

They gave up the fighting, and made peace. Then William was accepted as king, and rode away from there to London. Waltheof asked for leave to go home, and received it; he rode away with twelve men.

The king watched him go, and said, "It is unwise to allow a man to ride away free who refuses to swear any oaths to us. Ride after him and kill him." They did so. Waltheof dismounted, and forbade his men to defend him. He went to a church and was killed there, and there he was buried; and men believe he is a saint.

[Helgi is a totally fictional character said in this text to be the Earl of Gloucester, but Waltheof was a real person; he almost certainly did not fight at Hastings, but he did lead rebellions against the Normans a few years later and was executed for treason. In this text he appears as an honourable English warrior, treacherously killed by King William. After his execution he was indeed venerated as a martyr - 'men believe he is a saint' - although only at Crowland Abbey.]

The Survival of Harold Godwinson

On the night after Harold Godwinson fell, an old cottager and his wife went to the battlefield to strip the bodies of the slain and get riches for themselves. They saw a great pile of bodies, and noticed a bright light above it. They discussed it, and said that there must be a holy man among the slain. They began to clear away the bodies where they had seen the light, and they saw the arm of a man sticking out of the heap of corpses. There was a large gold ring on it. The cottager took hold of the arm and asked whether the man was alive. He answered, "I'm alive."

The cottager said, "Get the corpses off him - I think it's the king."

They pulled the man up and asked if he could be healed. The king said, "I think I could be healed, but I don't think you two could do it."

The old woman said, "We'll try."

They picked him up and laid him in their cart, and went home with him.

They keep him in secret, and lie to King William's men when they come looking for Harold's body, by saying that the bloody trail leading to their house (!) is caused by the old woman, who has gone mad and killed their horse. The king's men believe them, and go back and tell William that Harold is dead and his body can't be found. Then the old woman goes to Heming, and tells him that Harold is still alive.
The next day Heming came to the king and there was a very joyful meeting. They talked all that day. Heming asked the king to go through the whole country and gather an army. "You'll soon win the land back from William."

The king said, "I see that might be done; but then many men would be forced to break their oaths [to William], and I do not want so much evil to happen because of me. I will follow the example of King Olaf Tryggvason [king of Norway], who after he was defeated at Wendland would not go back to his kingdom, but went out to Greece, and served God there while he lived. I will have a hermit's cell built for me now in Canterbury, where I will be able to see King William in the church as often as possible. And I will live only on the food you bring me."

This Heming agreed to. The king gave the peasants ample money, and then he went into his hermit's cell. He was there for three years, and no one knew who he was, except Heming and the priest who heard his confessions. Then one day when Heming came to see Harold, he told him he had contracted an illness which would be his death.

And one day when King William was sitting at table, they heard bells ringing throughout the town. The king asked why they were ringing so beautifully. Heming answered, "I think a monk has died - the one named Harold."

"Which Harold is that?" asked the king.

"Godwinson," said Heming.

"Who has been looking after him?" asked the king.

Heming replied, "I have."

"If that is true," said the king, "it will be your death! But we wish to see his body."

He went to the cell where the body lay. It had been stripped bare, but they all recognised King Harold. The body was beautiful and fair to look on, and they noticed a sweet smell, so that all who were there understood that he was truly a holy man.

The king asked Heming what he was prepared to do to save his life. Heming asked, "What are you asking for?"

The king said, "That you swear this to me: that you will be as true to me, all your life, as you have been to King Harold, and that you will follow me as you followed him."

Heming said, "I would rather die with him than live with you. I might have betrayed you long ago, if I had wished to!"

"It is true," said the king, "that if you were killed, there would be one less valiant man in England. I will now make you an offer: you will be the foremost baron in England, you will be in my own bodyguard, and you will be the leader of them all. If you do not want that, I will give you three pounds every year in reward for your service, and you can live anywhere you like in England."

Heming thanked the king for his offer, and said, "I will accept to stay in England, but from henceforth I have no desire to own any goods. This I will ask from you: that you promise to give me this very cell, and here I will live the rest of my days."

The king was silent for a long time, and then he said, "Because this request is made with a pure heart, it will be granted."

Then King William had King Harold's body clothed in a king's shroud, and his body carried out as honourably as possible. He was interred with the greatest honours. Shortly afterwards, Heming went into this cell, and served God there until the days of his old age; and at last his sight failed, and he died in that hermitage. And now there is no more to tell of Heming.

I love this ending - so much better than what really happened. I'm a sucker for legends about Harold's survival after Hastings, and the idea of him spending the rest of his life as a hermit in Canterbury is just amazing. (In this alternative reality, we could imagine him living in Canterbury at the same time as the Bayeux Tapestry was being made there.)

Thursday 13 October 2011

'Echo' and other Poems

I'm a little bit obsessed at the moment with this setting of Christina Rossetti's poem 'Echo' (and not just because the combination of Rossetti and Julia Margaret Cameron happens to be a marriage of my current two Favourite Things):

Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.

O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

There are settings of other Rossetti poems by the same composer on youtube which are equally lovely ('My heart is like a singing bird' and 'Remember me' are my favourites), and also this and this and this by Emily Bronte. Beautiful settings and superb videos; check them out!

Tuesday 11 October 2011

So deep within mine heart

This poem comes from a late fifteenth century manuscript (the Findern MS.) which is somewhat unusual in medieval terms because it is generally thought to have been owned, read and probably written by women. There aren't a lot of female medieval poets, but this might be the work of one of them. Despite the pitiful subject, the rhyme scheme keeps things fairly bright; it would make a good song.

Of remembraunce
Withoute ending,
Doth me penaunce
And grete grevaunce,
For your partinge.

So depe ye be
Gravene, parde,
Within mine hert,
That afore me
Ever I you see
In thought covert.

Though I ne plain
My woful pain,
But bere it still;
It were in vain
To say again
Fortune's will.

(The continuance of memory, without end, does me pain and great grief because of your absence. By God! so deeply are you engraved within my heart that I see you ever before me, in secret thought - though I do not lament my sorrowful woe, but bear it still: it is vain to speak against Fortune’s will.)

(The obligatory miserable-looking female is 'Elgiva', by Joanna Boyce (1831-1861). Apparently the subject is this Anglo-Saxon queen, which just seems strange to me; but it's a beautiful picture.)

Monday 10 October 2011

Some Stained Glass; St Edward

Just because.

These are all from the parish church of Islip in Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Edward the Confessor.

This time last year I was posting a series of nine facts about Edward the Confessor, in the lead-up to his feast day on October 13th.

But this post from nearly two years ago best explains why he interests me. Weak, rejected, bad-tempered and lonely, there was still enough of holiness about him to make him the last of England's monarchs to be called a saint. If I may repeat myself:

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, 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.

Perhaps bizarrely, I'm writing a novel about his years in exile. It's a little hard to imagine why anyone would ever read such a book (let alone write one...), but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Thomas Traherne

The poet and spiritual writer Thomas Traherne is often commemorated on 10 October (he is known to have died some time between 27th September and 10th October, 1674), and that seems as good an excuse as any to post some extracts from my college's very own mystic.

(He's our only mystic. So far. Though we do have a couple of great hymn-writers.)

These are all from his Centuries of Meditations, which C. S. Lewis called "almost the most beautiful book in English." I've posted some of them before. The pictures are from Credenhill near Hereford, where Traherne was parish priest, a very peaceful and beautiful place.

As nothing is more easy than to think, so nothing is more difficult than to think well.

That violence wherewith sometimes a man doteth upon one creature, is but a little spark of that love, even towards all, which lurketh in his nature. We are made to love, both to satisfy the necessity of our active nature, and to answer the beauties in every creature. By Love our Souls are married and solder'd to the creatures and it is our Duty like God to be united to them all. We must love them infinitely, but in God, and for God and God in them: namely all His excellencies manifested in them.

When we dote upon the perfections and beauties of some one creature, we do not love that too much, but other things too little. Never was anything in this world loved too much, but many things have been loved in a false way; and all in too short a measure...

O what a treasure is every sand when truly understood! Who can love anything that God made too much? What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!

We could easily show that the idea of Heaven and Earth in the Soul of Man, is more precious with God than the things themselves and more excellent in nature... What would Heaven and Earth be worth, were there no spectator, no enjoyer? As much therefore as the end is better than the means, the thought of the World whereby it is enjoyed is better than the World. So is the idea of it in the Soul of Man, better than the World in the esteem of God: it being the end of the World, without which Heaven and Earth would be in vain...

The sun in your eye is as much to you as the sun in the heavens. For by this the other is enjoyed. It would shine on all rivers, trees, and beasts in vain to you could you not think upon it. The sun in your understanding illuminates your soul, the sun in the heavens enlightens the hemisphere. The world within you is an offering returned, which is infinitely more acceptable to God Almighty, since it came from Him, that it might return unto Him. Wherein the mystery is great. For God hath made you able to create worlds in your own mind which are more precious unto Him than those which He created; and to give and offer up the world unto Him, which is very delightful in flowing from Him, but much more in returning to Him.

Sunday 9 October 2011

The prayer oft mixed with tears

This is a hymn by Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871), whose better-known hymn is 'Just as I am'. This seems to have once been very popular, though I've never myself heard it sung in a church (unlike 'Just as I am'!). Charlotte Elliot was an invalid, and if this account is to be believed, struggled with a feeling that her physical weakness made her useless in the service of God. I'm sure the popularity of this hymn, and certainly of her more famous one, stems from how honestly she confronts this struggle, not denying exactly how difficult it is to say "Thy will be done." It almost comes through gritted teeth.

My God, my Father, while I stray
Far from my home, on life's rough way,
O teach me from my heart to say,
Thy will be done!

Though dark my path, and sad my lot,
Let me be still and murmur not,
Or breathe the prayer divinely taught,
Thy will be done!

What though in lonely grief I sigh
For friends beloved, no longer nigh,
Submissive still would I reply,
Thy will be done!

If Thou shoulds't call me to resign
What most I prize, it ne'er was mine:
I only yield thee what is thine;
Thy will be done!

Let but my fainting heart be blest
With thy sweet Spirit for its guest,
My God, to thee I leave the rest;
Thy will be done!

Renew my will from day to day;
Blend it with thine, and take away
All that now makes it hard to say,
Thy will be done!

Then, when on earth I breathe no more
The prayer oft mixed with tears before,
I'll sing upon a happier shore,
Thy will be done!

Saturday 8 October 2011

Each man's holiest hour, And all the lit confusion of our days

This is Rudyard Kipling's sonnet 'Chartres Windows', with pictures of windows from Doddington, Kent. They might not be Chartres (I've never been) but they're pretty good.

Colour fulfils where Music has no power:
By each man's light the unjudging glass betrays
All men's surrender, each man's holiest hour
And all the lit confusion of our days-
Purfled with iron, traced in dusk and fire,
Challenging ordered Time who, at the last,
Shall bring it, grozed and leaded and wedged fast,
To the cold stone that curbs or crowns desire.
Yet on the pavement that all feet have trod-
Even as the Spirit, in her deeps and heights,
Turns only, and that voiceless, to her God-
There falls no tincture from those anguished lights.
And Heaven's one light, behind them, striking through
Blazons what each man dreamed no other knew.

(purfled is a strange word. Apparently it means 'decorated with an ornamental border'.)

Thursday 6 October 2011

The longing of a heart pent up forlorn

Here's a nice cheerful poem for National Poetry Day.

E la Sua Volontade è nostra pace. - Dante
Sol con questi pensier, con altre chiome. - Petrarca

Youth gone, and beauty gone if ever there
Dwelt beauty in so poor a face as this;
Youth gone and beauty, what remains of bliss?
I will not bind fresh roses in my hair,
To shame a cheek at best but little fair,--
Leave youth his roses, who can bear a thorn,--
I will not seek for blossoms anywhere,
Except such common flowers as blow with corn.
Youth gone and beauty gone, what doth remain?
The longing of a heart pent up forlorn,
A silent heart whose silence loves and longs;
The silence of a heart which sang its songs
While youth and beauty made a summer morn,
Silence of love that cannot sing again.

I've left this almost to the last of the 'Monna Innominata', not because it's the final sonnet in the sequence (though it is) but because it cuts a little close to the bone for me. But it's a good poem, if a little excessively... something; and the quotation from Dante means "And His will is our peace".

Tuesday 4 October 2011

A Medieval St Francis

One of the earliest English depictions of St Francis of Assisi (whose feast day is today): a mid-thirteenth-century wall-painting from the church at Doddington, Kent.

Doddington also has this decorative painting around the other side of the window:

And a figure who is apparently supposed to be Henry III (1207-1272), although why on earth anyone would want a painting of Henry III right next to the altar, I don't know. The paintings were executed in his reign, but that still seems an odd reason to depict him in a church. I can't think of any parallels - it's like the medieval equivalent of the modern practice of hanging a portrait of the Queen in a village hall, and that can't have been at all common.

However, if this church was up-to-date enough to have a picture of St Francis within thirty years of his death, perhaps they were rather cutting-edge by thirteenth-century standards. When the Franciscan order arrived in England in 1224, their first base was at Canterbury - where their chapel survives - and Doddington (near Sittingbourne) is not far off the main road from Canterbury to London; perhaps some of those Franciscans who dispersed throughout England "as thick as motes in a sun-beam" (in Chaucer's words) passed through Doddington, and inspired someone to decorate the church with the latest saint.

The church at Doddington bears an unusual dedication to the Beheading of John the Baptist. I went there on that feast-day (August 29) this year - by accident. Funny how that works.

Monday 3 October 2011

Just a picture

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

I spent this sunny day in a churchyard, with a book.

(Not the churchyard in this picture, though - Holywell Cemetery in Oxford, just about the only churchyard where Gray's Elegy doesn't seem appropriate. Not many of the people buried there lived lives of decent obscurity!)

Sunday 2 October 2011

Fixed is the doom

Fixed is the doom; and to the last of years
Teacher and taught, friend, lover, parent, child,
Each walks, though near, yet separate; each beholds
His dear ones shine beyond him like the stars.
We also, love, forever dwell apart;
With cries approach, with cries behold the gulph,
The Unvaulted; as two great eagles that do wheel in air
Above a mountain, and with screams confer,
Far heard athwart the cedars.
Yet the years
Shall bring us ever nearer; day by day
Endearing, week by week, till death at last
Dissolve that long divorce. By faith we love,
Not knowledge; and by faith, though far removed,
Dwell as in perfect nearness, heart to heart.
We but excuse
Those things we merely are; and to our souls
A brave deception cherish.
So from unhappy war a man returns
Unfearing, or the seaman from the deep;
So from cool night and woodlands to a feast
May someone enter, and still breathe of dews,
And in her eyes still wear the dusky night.