Wednesday 29 February 2012

Careers Counselling in the Eleventh Century

One more Anselm anecdote to finish out the month? Why not. This is the story of how St Anselm became a monk.

The devout child who thought God lived in the Alps decided when he reached the age of fifteen that he wanted to be a monk, but the abbot whom he asked to admit him refused to do so, afraid of the anger of Anselm's father. After this disappointment, Anselm experienced some angsty teenage years:

With health of body, youth and worldly well-being smiling upon him, he began little by little to cool in the fervour of his desire for a religious life - so much so that he began to desire to go the way of the world rather than to leave the world for a monastic life. He gradually turned from study, which had formerly been his chief occupation, and began to give himself up to youthful amusements. His love and reverence for his mother held him back to some extent from these paths, but she died and then the ship of his heart had as it were lost its anchor and drifted almost entirely among the waves of the world.

His life with his difficult father then began to resemble the plot of a Charlotte Yonge novel:

[His father had] so keen a hatred against him that he persecuted him as much, or even more, for the things he did well as for those which he did ill. Nor could he soften his father by any degree of humility, but the more humble he showed himself towards his father, the sharper did he feel his father's anger towards him. When he saw that this was becoming more than he could bear, he feared that worse might come of it, and he chose rather to renounce both his patrimony and his country than to bring some disgrace upon either himself or his father by continuing to live with him.

At the age of 23 Anselm left home, crossed the Alps, and travelled around Burgundy and France for a while, before he came at last to Normandy, drawn there by the scholarly fame of Lanfranc, at that time prior of Bec. He became Lanfranc's pupil and 'gave himself up day and night to literary studies' (don't we all), but began to wonder about his former wish to be a monk.

And what then? He turned over in his mind where he could best bring to pass what he desired, and he argued thus with himself: "Well, then, I shall become a monk. But where? If at Cluny or at Bec, all the time I have spent in study will be lost. For at Cluny the severity of the order, and at Bec the outstanding ability of Lanfranc, who is a monk there, will condemn me either to fruitlessness or insignificance. Let me therefore carry out my plan somewhere where I can both display my knowledge and be of service to others."

He often used to playfully to recount these thoughts of his [i.e. to Eadmer, later in life], and he would add, "I was not yet tamed, and there was not yet in me any strong contempt of the world. Hence when I said this, as I thought, out of love for others, I did not see how damnable it was."

His chief desire was to be a monk, but he knew he had other career options, so he hesitated and was unwilling to commit himself. So he turned to Lanfranc:

He came to him and told him that he was undecided between three courses of action, but that he would hold to the one which Lanfranc judged best and reject the other two. He expounded to him the three aims, as follows: "I want," he said, "either to be a monk, or to dwell in a hermitage, or to live on my family estate, ministering so far as I can to the poor, in God's name, if you advise it" - for his father had died by this time and all the inheritance had come to him. "Know then, my lord Lanfranc, that these are the three things between which my will fluctuates; but I beg that you will stablish me in the one which you think best." Lanfranc hesitated to give an opinion and advised rather that the matter should be taken to be heard by the venerable Maurilius, archbishop of Rouen. Anselm acquiesced in this plan, and together with Lanfranc he went to the archbishop... They came to the bishop, explained the reason for their coming, and asked him what he thought about it. Without hesitation the monastic life was extolled beyond the others, and the monastic profession recommended beyond all others. Anselm heard and approved. Then, setting aside all else, he left the world and became a monk at Bec, being then in his twenty-seventh year.

Careers decisions have always been tricky - I wish I had Lanfranc to advise me in mine!

Quotations from Eadmer, Vita Sancti Anselmi (The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury), ed. and trans. R. W. Southern (London, 1962), pp.6-11.

On Time

A medieval sundial on the porch at Barfreston church

One can't help thinking about time on a leap year day. And besides being an extra day in the year, today is also an Ember Day, as the Wednesday of the first week in Lent. I wrote about 'emberings' a while ago, and then I said, among other things:

The OED derives 'ember' in this usage from the Old English ymbren, which comes ultimately from OE. ymbryne, that is ymb 'about, round' + ryne 'course, running'. (Although our cautious lexicographer adds "It seems however not wholly impossible that the word may have been due to popular etymology working upon some Vulgar Lat. corruption of quatuor tempora". Not wholly impossible, no.)...

So the word evokes the turning course of the year, and provides an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, the involvement of God in the needs of the different seasons of the year.

I was reminded of this today not only when looking at the calendar, but when reading the wonderful epilogue to Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum, in which he reflects on the passage of time. Writing in 1135, he looks back to the year 135, and forward to 2135; the last paragraph in particular gives me a kind of breathtaking historical vertigo:

This is the year which holds the writer: the thirty fifth year of the reign of the glorious and invincible Henry [I], king of the English. The sixty-ninth year from the arrival in England, in our time, of the supreme Norman race. The 703rd year from the coming of the English into England. The 2,265th year from the coming of the Britons to settle in the same island. The 5,317th year from the beginning of the world. The year of grace 1135.

This, then, is the year from which the writer of the History wished his age to be reckoned by posterity... this computation will show what point in Time we have reached. Already one millennium has passed since the Lord's incarnation. We are leading our lives, or - to put it more accurately - we are holding back death, in what is the 135th year of the second millennium.

Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year. In those days, of course, Antoninus ruled Rome with his brother Lucius Aurelius, and Pius the Roman was pope. Lucius, who was of British birth, ruled this island, and not long after this time, while those emperors were still in power, he was the first of the British to become a Christian, and through him the whole of Britain was converted to faith in Christ. For this he is worthy of eternal record.

But who were the other people who lived throughout the countries of the world at that time? Let our present kings and dukes, tyrants and princes, church leaders and earls, commanders and governors, magistrates and sheriffs, warlike and strong men - let them tell me: who were in command and held office at that time? And you, admirable Bishop Alexander, to whom I have dedicated our history, tell me what you know of the bishops of that time.

I ask myself: tell me, Henry, author of this History, tell me, who were the archdeacons of that time? What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if - as my soul strongly desires - it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.

If you just read that, inhabitant of the third millennium, he wrote it for you.

Quoted from Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 2002), pp.118-9.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Heaven among the Alps

I'm still reading Eadmer's Life of Anselm, and I'm afraid I'm going to end up posting about every other chapter of it here. It's irresistible! Since my interest is more in Eadmer than in Anselm, and more literary than philosophical, I'm afraid I have nothing intelligent to say about Anselm as a theologian (a subject about which, indeed, Eadmer himself had very little to say); as usual, my eye is caught mostly by trivia. But this is also an exercise in thinking myself back into the daily life of the eleventh century.

Here's a little story which Anselm told Eadmer about his childhood. Anselm was born in Aosta, in the Italian Alps, and this had an influence on the first stirrings of his religious imagination:

Anselm when he was a small boy lent a ready ear to his mother's conversation, so far as his age allowed. And hearing that there is one God in heaven who rules all things and comprehends all things, he - being a boy bred among mountains - imagined that heaven rested on the mountains, that the court of God was there, and that the approach to it was through the mountains.

When he had turned this over often in his mind, it happened one night that he saw a vision, in which he was bidden to climb to the top of the mountain and hasten to the court of the great king, God... He climbed the mountain and came to the royal court, where he found God alone with his steward. For, as he imagined, since it was autumn he had sent his household to collect the harvest. The boy entered and was summoned by the Lord. He approached and sat at his feet. The Lord asked him in a pleasant and friendly way who he was, where he came from and what he wanted. He replied to the question as best he could. Then, at God's command, the whitest of bread was brought to him by the steward, and he refreshed himself with it in God's presence.

The next day therefore, when he recalled to his mind's eye all that he had seen, like a simple and innocent boy he believed that he had been in heaven and that he had been fed with the bread of God, and he asserted as much to others in public. So the boy grew and was loved by all. His ways were upright and made him greatly to be loved. He went to school, he learnt his letters and in a short time made great progress.
Eadmer, Vita Sancti Anselmi (The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury), ed. and trans. R. W. Southern (London, 1962), pp.4-5.

Anselm was born around the year 1033, so we could date this vision to the early 1040s. A child's first imaginings of God are always interesting, and there's something wonderful in the fact that little Anselm associated God with the mountains which surrounded his childhood home (look at them and you can see why). I also like that he felt God was friendly to him ("jocunda affabilitate" are Eadmer's words) - and so began a lifelong quest to understand the nature of God...

ETA: this might sound ridiculous, but if you like St Anselm and you're on facebook I strongly recommend you 'like' this page: Some person with excellent taste posts a beautiful quotation from Anselm every day, and if your facebook newsfeed is anywhere near as silly as mine, it will be the better for it ;)

Monday 27 February 2012

Flowers that glide

George Herbert died on 1 March, 1633, but in some places he is commemorated today, 27 February. 'The Flower' is my favourite poem of his, and it's the perfect poem for this season when the spring flowers are coming tentatively to life.

There are some lovely things in this poem: I'll talk about gliding below but the other one I want to point out is the irresistible idea that the flowers in winter go to visit their 'mother-root', where they 'keep house unknown' - very much like John Donne's tree-sap which in winter 'doth seek the root below', but a more homely, cheerful kind of image.

The Flower

How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

These are thy wonders, Lord of power,
Killing and quickning, bringing down to hell
And up to heaven in an houre;
Making a chiming of a passing-bell,
We say amisse,
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell.

O that I once past changing were;
Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!
Many a spring I shoot up fair,
Offring at heav’n, growing and groaning thither:
Nor doth my flower
Want a spring-showre,
My sinnes and I joining together;

But while I grow to a straight line;
Still upwards bent, as if heav’n were mine own,
Thy anger comes, and I decline:
What frost to that? what pole is not the zone,
Where all things burn,
When thou dost turn,
And the least frown of thine is shown?

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.

These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide:
Which when we once can finde and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.
Who would be more,
Swelling through store,
Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.

'We are but flowers that glide.' glide is one of those impossibly beautiful words where just reading the dictionary list of citations is like reading a piece of found poetry. To take just one or two medieval examples: in the Old English Andreas, a ship moves through the water 'as a bird glides through the heavens'; in Beowulf the sun 'glides' above the earth; a Middle English homily compares the penitent sinners' tears to 'burning embers that glide down their faces'; Havelok's blood pours from his wounds 'like water that glides from the well'...

In Old and Middle English and as late as Herbert's day, glide is associated with any kind of smooth movement - flying through the air, sailing, skating; the progress of the sun and moon across the sky, or of the sun's beams towards the earth; the swift movement of a weapon, running water, the glance of an eye, and things which slip or which, like time and life, just slip away. In a more abstract context, as the Middle English Dictionary shows, it could even be used of the relationship between the Holy Ghost and the other members of the Trinity - where we say the Spirit 'proceeds from the Father and the Son', several ME sources have 'the Ghost which glides from them both', appropriate perhaps because a gliding movement is imperceptible, impossible to track. Ghosts in the literal sense are of course especially associated with gliding: in medieval poetry I can't help thinking of Langland's triumphant assertion that no 'grisly ghost' may glide where the protecting shadow of the cross falls; and there is an unforgettable passage in the romance Sir Amadace where a knight's mysterious ghostly benefactor 'glode away as dew in the sun'.

In Herbert's line the sense of glide is 'pass away', with perhaps the kind of imperceptible 'melting' into death envisaged by John Donne:

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."

I wouldn't exactly associate flowers with this kind of gliding away - I would have thought they wither too quickly - but it comes up several times in the Bible, of which Herbert was surely thinking here: man "cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not' (Job 14:2); "the days of man are but as grass: for he flourisheth as a flower of the field. For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone: and the place thereof shall know it no more" (Psalm 103: 15-16); "all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field; the grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it" (Isaiah 40:6-7). Strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely, there's swift and smooth movement in all these passages. The fleeing shadow, the wind moving over the flower, the spirit of the Lord blowing upon it; any of those verbs might have called gliding to Herbert's mind. Shadows and spirits glide, as we saw above; and death, too, could glide, as in this fourteenth-century poem, another one full of fading flowers:

Ne is no quene so stark ne stour,
Ne no leuedy so bryht in bour
That ded ne shal by glyde.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Scandinavian Food, or, 'Is there anything Vikings can't do?'

This morning I was amused by this story from the BBC: Scandinavian food: Why is it becoming so popular in the UK?:

Swedish food sales in the UK have risen by almost 30% in the past five years, with Norway and Denmark also reporting an increase in exports destined for our dining tables. So why is Scandinavian cuisine getting so popular here?

It began with the warm, creamy, cut-price meatballs designed to fuel flat-pack furniture fans seeking a break from the aisles of Ikea. But over the past few years Scandinavian cuisine has been spreading beyond Britain's retail parks and creeping into supermarkets and restaurants.

The latest figures from government agency Statistics Sweden indicate that Swedish food and drink sales in the UK were worth almost £290m in 2010. Norway measures its performance in weight, with about 127,000 tonnes exported here in 2011, a rise of 18% since 2006.

Last January, food trends agency the Food People tipped Scandinavian food as the "hottest UK culinary trend of 2011".

Why is Scandinavian food so popular? Well, I think we've been through this before; the answer to this question, just as to the question 'why is Danish drama becoming so popular in the UK?' is: Scandinavia is just plain cool. The BBC quotes a restauranteur who hits the nail on the head:

"It's not so different from the UK so it's almost a voyeuristic fascination for people, as if they are looking over their garden fence at neighbours they have never noticed before."
The Scandinavians are just like us, only cooler. Food, clothes, hairstyles, language; the way our northern neighbours do things has fascinated some English people pretty much as long as England has existed. This was true back in 795, when Alcuin was appalled that the people of Northumbria were imitating the hairstyles of the Vikings who were raiding their land; true also during the ninth and tenth century, when Danes and Norwegians settled in northern and eastern England and English people adopted the settlers' fashions in dress and jewellery; and perhaps most true of all in the first half of the eleventh century, when under the Danish king Cnut it was not only politic but highly fashionable to give your children Danish names and listen to stories from Norse mythology.

As for food - I don't know if there's much archaeological evidence to tell us whether the Danes brought a distinctive kind of food to England, but the literary evidence is clear on one point: there was a lot of it! At least, two twelfth-century historians thought so. William of Malmesbury, writing in the 1120s about a period some seventy years before, claims that "since the time of the Danes meals in England were served in the most elaborate fashion",* and Henry of Huntingdon agrees; he says of Harthacnut, son of Cnut and his wife Emma, and king of England between 1040-2:

It is said that his generosity was so great that he ordered royal meals to be served four times a day to all his court, preferring rather that they should be invited and leave scraps of what was set before them, than that they should not be invited and beg for scraps to be given to them, since in our time it is the custom for princes, either from avarice or, as they themselves say, from fastidiousness, to serve food to their men only once a day.
(Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford, 1996), p.371).

There's no saying whether this is true or not (or whether any particularly Danish foods were served at these lavish feasts!) but it is true that Harthacnut himself actually died at a feast, suffering a fit while standing up to drink at a wedding celebration in Lambeth, in 1042. The wedding was uniting the families of two powerful Danish noblemen who lived and held land in England: the bridegroom was Tovi the Proud, patron of Waltham Abbey and its stubborn cross, and the father of the bride was Osgod Clapa (who owned a substantial amount of land in East Anglia, and may have given his name to Clapham). I don't know what food they served, but I bet it was cool.

A little linguistic point: that article talks a fair bit about fish, but it was the last picture of the Othello cake which really made my mouth water. And this leads me to observe that the English word cake comes ultimately from Old Norse, as does the crucial ingredient the egg; and indeed the word for the action which turns one into the other - whisk. Bakers can be especially grateful to the Danes ;)

* William also claims that in the time of King Edgar, the English 'learnt drinking from the Danes'. This is pretty hard to believe; somehow I think the Anglo-Saxons already knew quite a lot about drinking long before the tenth century...

Friday 24 February 2012

St Anselm and the Hare

Eadmer's Life of St Anselm is an inexhaustible fund of stories about the great archbishop - some simply funny, some of great historical interest, many thoroughly admirable. Because it was written by a man who knew Anselm well, spent a great deal of time with him, and loved him very much, it is distinctive among medieval saints' lives in giving the sense of a real human being, living his daily life, interacting with other people, and trying to do right. Eadmer was a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury from his boyhood, and an interesting figure himself for a number of reasons (I've been intending for a while to post about his reminiscences of pre-Conquest Canterbury) - but if I get distracted talking about him I'll never get back to Anselm. So let me just say instead that this story of the hare, touching in its own right, is made irresistible by the fact that (though the form of the story may have been embellished a little) it seems quite possible that this really happened - that Eadmer was really there with Anselm, that day on the road to Hayes, some time in the summer of 1097:

Anselm left the court and, while he was hastening to his manor at Hayes, the boys of his household with their dogs chased a hare which they came upon in the road. As they were pursuing it, it fled between the feet of the horse on which Anselm sat. The horse stood still; and Anselm - knowing that the wretched animal looked to find a place of refuge beneath him, and not wishing to deny it the help it needed - drew his horse by the reins and kept it still. The dogs came round, snuffling about on all sides and restrained against their will, but they could neither make it move from under the horse, nor harm it in any way.

We were astonished at the sight. But Anselm, when he saw some of the horsemen laugh and make merry at the expense of the cornerned animal, burst into tears and said: "You laugh, do you? But there is no laughing, no merry-making, for this unhappy beast. His enemies stand round about him, and in fear of his life he flees to us asking for help. So it is with the soul of man: when it leaves the body, its enemies - the evil spirits which have haunted it along all the crooked ways of vice while it was in the body - stand round without mercy, ready to seize it and hurry it off to everlasting death. Then indeed it looks round everywhere in great alarm, and with inexpressible desire longs for some helping and protecting hand to be held out to it, which might defend it. But the demons on the other hand laugh and rejoice exceedingly if they find that the soul is bereft of every support."

When he had said this, he slackened his rein and set off again along the road, raising his voice and forbidding the dogs to chase the animal any more. Then the hare leapt up unhurt, and swiftly returned to its fields and woods; while we, no longer laughing and not a little uplifted by so affecting a deliverance for the frightened animal, followed the Father along our appointed way.

Vita Sancti Anselmi (The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury), ed. and trans. R. W. Southern (London, 1962), pp.89-90.

Anselm's sympathetic comparison of the hare to the poor hunted sinner is a fairly common idea in medieval literature and art. There's an interesting 15th-century poem, sometimes called 'The Mourning of the Hunted Hare', in which a hare laments its miserable life, constantly hunted and driven from place to place (read it and a translation here). That's why the illustrations in the Maccesfield Psalter, as one of many playful inversions of the natural order, include a hare which is boldly riding out to hunt:

Hares often appear in the edges of manuscripts, in stone carvings and on misericords; there are some beautiful manuscript depictions of medieval hares here. They are wonderful creatures; no wonder Anselm was moved to compassion!

Tuesday 21 February 2012

And thou like adamant

I don't have much heart to blog right now, and I imagine the world will survive without my opinions for a few days. Instead here's John Donne's first Holy Sonnet, an appropriately Lenten poem. Since this is Shrove Tuesday and the day to be shriven, I'll make my confession: I hate Lent. I find it so miserable and not in a positive, growth-through-pain way - more in a 'nothing you do will ever be good enough and so what's the point' way. All talk about it is sounding hollow to my ears at the moment, but for some reason I can just about bear this poem.

Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Canterbury Windows

I've posted before about some of Canterbury Cathedral's modern stained glass; today's post is an assortment of pictures of its other beautiful windows and related shafts of light. Almost all these photos were taken in December, on the eve of the anniversary of the death of St Thomas Becket; it was probably on just such a winter's day, as the light was beginning to fade, that the knights arrived at Canterbury to kill the archbishop.

December is not the best time to take pictures of church windows; high summer makes for more dramatic effects. But winter light has its own pared-down beauty.

This is the south side of the nave:

The dappled light is very pretty here, but it hardly at all reflects what it actually looked like - it was all golden in real life. The photo betrays it.

A Christmas tree, as evidence this was really December.

This, taken from the other direction, is a bit more true to the colour of the stone:

At the other side of the nave, by the pulpit, a reading archbishop and his shadow bask in the light:

One of Canterbury's most famous windows, depicting Thomas Becket:

And here, some pilgrims to his shrine (we could pretend the Clerk of Oxenford is among them):

I think these are pilgrims making offerings at his shrine:

Some miracles being performed (don't ask me exactly what):

I'm always intrigued by this scene, though I can't pretend to know what's going on in it:

Some Biblical scenes - fishing on the Sea of Galilee:

This must be the wedding at Cana:

This wonderful scene is Zacchaeus up the tree - and what a precarious tree it is!:

From the thirteenth-century Jesse window showing the ancestors of Christ, sleeping Jesse himself:

And King David:

Some philosophers:

Light on the altar in St Anselm's chapel:

And that distinctive red light from stained-glass Anselm himself:

A different Christmas tree, and light in glass; this, I think, you would only get in December:

Friday 17 February 2012

Hunger of hopeless things

This poem by Robert Louis Stevenson has the wonderful title 'After Reading Antony and Cleopatra'. I can't say that play in particular has ever filled me with 'objectless desire', but I certainly recognise the feeling; it's somewhat akin to Rupert Brooke's 'longing for dim hills/And faint horizons'.

As when the hunt by holt and field
Drives on with horn and strife,
Hunger of hopeless things pursues
Our spirits throughout life.

The sea's roar fills us aching full
Of objectless desire -
The sea's roar, and the white moon-shine,
And the reddening of the fire.

Who talks to me of reason now?
It would be more delight
To have died in Cleopatra's arms
Than be alive to-night.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Psalm Translations: Like as the hart

Today I'm going to post a few translations of Psalm 41 (42), best known from its opening line: "Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God." Let's start with the Latin version and Palestrina's magnificent setting of some of its verses:

1. Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum: ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.
2. Sitivit anima mea ad Deum fortem vivum: quando veniam et apparebo ante faciem Dei?
3. Fuerunt mihi lacrimæ meæ panes die ac nocte: dum dicitur mihi quotidie, ubi est Deus tuus?
4. Hæc recordatus sum, et effudi in me animam meam: quoniam transibo in locum tabernaculi admirabilis, usque ad domum Dei, in voce exultationis et confessionis, sonus epulantis.
5. Quare tristis es, anima mea, et quare conturbas me? Spera in Deo quoniam confitebor illi, salutare vultus mei.
6. et Deus meus. Ad me ipsum anima mea conturbata est: propterea memor ero tui de terra Iordanis et Hermoniim a monte modico.
7. Abyssus abyssum invocat, in voce cataractarum tuarum omnia: excelsa tua, et fluctus tui super me transierunt.
8. In die mandavit Dominus misericordiam suam, et nocte canticum eius: apud me oratio Deo vitæ meæ.
9. Dicam Deo, susceptor meus es: quare oblitus es mei? et quare contristatus incedo, dum affligit me inimicus?
10. Dum confringuntur ossa mea, exprobraverunt mihi qui tribulant me, dum dicunt mihi per singulos dies: ubi est Deus tuus?
11. Quare tristis es, anima mea, et quare conturbas me? Spera in Deum quoniam adhuc confitebor illi, salutare vultus mei, et Deus meus.

This is the translation most familiar to me, from the Book of Common Prayer:

1. Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks : so longeth my soul after thee, O God.
2. My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God : when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?
3. My tears have been my meat day and night : while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God?
4. Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself : for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God;
5. In the voice of praise and thanksgiving : among such as keep holy-day.
6. Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul : and why art thou so disquieted within me?
7. Put thy trust in God : for I will yet give him thanks for the help of his countenance.
8. My God, my soul is vexed within me : therefore will I remember thee concerning the land of Jordan, and the little hill of Hermon.
9. One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the water-pipes : all thy waves and storms are gone over me.
10. The Lord hath granted his loving-kindness in the day-time : and in the night-season did I sing of him, and made my prayer unto the God of my life.
11. I will say unto the God of my strength, Why hast thou forgotten me : why go I thus heavily, while the enemy oppresseth me?
12. My bones are smitten asunder as with a sword : while mine enemies that trouble me cast me in the teeth;
13. Namely, while they say daily unto me : Where is now thy God?
14. Why art thou so vexed, O my soul : and why art thou so disquieted within me?
15. O put thy trust in God : for I will yet thank him, which is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Beautiful. So that's Miles Coverdale's translation of c.1540; going back about 150 years (to the last decade of the 14th century), here's a Wycliffite translation:

1. As an hert desirith to the wellis of watris; so thou, God, my soule desirith to thee.
2. Mi soule thirstide to God, that [i.e. who] is a quik [i.e. living] welle; whanne schal Y come, and appere bifor the face of God?
3. Mi teeris weren looues [i.e. loaves - translating panes] to me bi dai and nyyt; while it is seid to me ech dai, Where is thi God?
4. I bithouyte of these thingis, and Y schedde out in me my soule; for Y schal passe in to the place of the wondurful tabernacle, til to the hows of God. In the vois of ful out ioiyng and knoulechyng; is the sown [i.e. sound] of the etere.
5. Mi soule, whi art thou sory; and whi disturblist thou me? Hope thou in God, for yit Y schal knouleche to hym; he is the helthe of my cheer,
6. and my God. My soule is disturblid at my silf; therfor, God, Y schal be myndeful of thee fro the lond of Jordan, and fro the litil hil Hermonyim.
7. Depthe clepith depthe in the vois of thi wyndows. Alle thin hiye thingis and thi wawis passiden ouer me.
8 The Lord sente his merci in the dai, and his song in the nyyt.
9 At me is a preier to the God of my liif; Y schal seie to God, Thou art my takere vp. Whi foryetist thou me; and whi go Y sorewful, while the enemy turmentith me?
10 While my boonys ben brokun togidere; myn enemyes, that troblen me, dispiseden me. While thei seien to me, bi alle daies; Where is thi God?
11 Mi soule, whi art thou sori; and whi disturblist thou me? Hope thou in God, for yit Y schal knouleche to hym; he is the helthe of my cheer, and my God.

That phrase in verse 7, 'the vois of thi wyndows', struck me as extremely odd; how can cataractarum possibly be translated as 'windows', I asked myself? So I went to the OED, which is enlightening as always (under 'window', 3b):

windows of heaven n. openings in the firmament through which rain was thought to pour. A literalism from Hebrew 'ărubbōth hashshāmayim, which is rendered in the LXX by καταρράκται τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, in the Vulgate by cataractæ cæli = ‘the floodgates of heaven’ (Douay version); in the early Wycliffite version ‘the goteris of heuene’: cf. cataract n. 1.

And under 'cataract', 1a:

pl. The ‘flood-gates’ of heaven, viewed as keeping back the rain (with reference to Gen. vii. 11, viii. 2, where Hebrew has 'rbt lattices, windows, LXX καταρράκται, Vulgate cataractæ, the former prob., the latter certainly, = flood-gates, sluices; hence also French cataractes du ciel). This, the earliest use in English, is now Obs.

Obsolete - I should say so! But how interesting. So that's the connection between windows and waterspouts.

The other bit of linguistic history which this translation gets us into is medieval words for 'sad' - a nice cheerful subject! The Wycliffite translation perfectly illustrates the semantic change in the word 'sorry' since its Old English beginnings. Old English sarig means 'sorrowful, sad', though the word is actually etymologically unrelated to sorrow but instead belongs with sore (and cognate words from other Germanic languages have a semantic range including painful, sensitive, scabby as well as sad). However, to quote the OED once more:

Already in Old English [sorry was] closely associated with the etymologically unrelated word sorrow n. (and its derivatives), which occupied the same semantic field of distress and suffering... As a result, sorrow n. has exerted semantic and possibly formal influence on the present word. While cognates of sorry adj. and the related words sore n.1 and sore adj.1 denote both physical and mental suffering in early use (and are now largely restricted to aspects of pain), sorrow n. and its cognates primarily express the idea of mental and emotional suffering, and the narrowing of the present word to this branch of meaning has been attributed to its long-standing association with sorrow n.

You can see easily enough how this development would come about, and in the Wycliffite translation sorry evidently means 'sorrowful' - sorry is used to translate tristis and sorrowful to translate contristatus, so the translator obviously saw these words as related. We would not use sorry in this way today, but it's still comprehensible; perhaps more so than Coverdale's 'full of heaviness'.

That's not the case for the word our second medieval translation uses for tristis, which is dreary. This is from the thirteenth-century Surtees Psalter:

1. Als yhernes hert at welles of watres to be,
Swa yhernes mi saule, god, to þe.

2. Thristed mi saule night an dai
To god, quicke welle þat es ai:
When I sal come and schewen in sighte
Bifor þe face ofe god ofe mighte.

3. Mine teres vnto me þai wore
Laues dai and night þarfore,
Whil ilkadai es said to me:
“Whare es þi god? what es he?”

4. Þis haf I mined what mai be,
And I yhet mi saule in me:
When I sal fare in stede of selkouth telde,
Vnto þe hous ofe god to welde,

5. In steuen of gladschip and ofe schrifte—
Dine of etand þat es swifte.

6. Whi, mi saule, dreri ertou?
And whi todroues þou me nou?

7. Hope in god; for yhit sal I to him schriue,
Hele of mi face, and mi god ofe liue.

8. Mi saule todreued es at me;
For þat sal I mine ofe þe
Ofe þe land of Iordan, and Hermon
Ofe þe littel hille on-on.

9. Depnes depnes inkalles hegh,
In steuen of þi takenes slegh;

10. Alle þi heghnes and stremes of þe
Forth þai ferden ouer me.

11. In dai sent lauerd his merci,
And bi night his sange for-þi.

12. At me bede to god of mi life nou.
I sal sai to god: mi fanger ertou;

13. Wharfore, if þi wille be,
Haues þou forgeten me?
And wharfore murned in I go,
Whil þat twinges me þe fo?

14. Whil broken ere mi banes on-an
Vpbraided me þat droue, mi fan,

15. Whil al dai þai sain to me:
"Whare is þi god, whare is he?"

16. Whi, mi saule, driried ertou?
And whi todroues þou me nou?

17. Hope in god, for yhit sal I to him schriue,
Hele of mi face, and mi god of liue.

Now dreary has experienced a drastic semantic shift, somewhat parallel to that undergone by the word moody which I've discussed before (here and here). You presumably know what dreary means today - 'dull, boring, causing sadness or gloom', as one online dictionary has it. This is a considerable weakening of its medieval meaning, as you can see from its etymology:

Old English dréorig gory, bloody, sorrowful, sad, < dréor gore, falling blood, apparently < Old Germanic type *dreuzo-z; in ablaut relation to Old Saxon drôr , Old High German trôr gore, blood ( < *drauzo-z), and to Old Norse dreyri ( < drauzon-) gore, blood, whence dreyrigr gory, bloody. Generally referred to the verbal ablaut stem *dreuz- , Old English dréosan to drop, fall.

In Old and Middle English it can thus mean 'gory, dripping with blood' and 'cruel, hateful, terrifying', as well as 'sad, sorrowful'. From 'sorrowful' it came to mean 'dismal, gloomy' around the middle of the seventeenth century, but didn't really take on the weaker meaning of 'dull, boring' until the end of the nineteenth.

It continued to mean 'sorrowful' well into the nineteenth century; you may be familiar with the hymn 'Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us', written by James Edmeston (1791-1867), which contains the line, "Lone and dreary, faint and weary, through the desert thou didst go". The meaning here is obviously 'sorrowful', although that has not prevented various ignorant preachers (in my hearing) mocking this line for "calling Jesus boring". Modern hymnals often amend the line, usually to something stupid (one example is splendidly demolished here). This is a great shame, not only because it reminds us how idiotic people can be, but also because dreary is a dignified and heroic word and its previous meaning, though now obsolete in everyday speech, shouldn't be airbrushed out of our language. The word appears in Beowulf, for goodness' sake; are we too clever to sing it in church? Congregations understand that language changes; the chapel where I heard the preacher make fun of it still sings Coverdale's psalms (heaviness and all), so you'd think we could cope with dreary.

Anyway, that's my little rant over. Let's close with Philip Sidney's beautiful version of Psalm 42 (note that he also uses sorry):

1. As the chased hart, which brayeth
Seeking some refreshing brook,
So my soul in panting playeth,
Thirsting on my God to look.
My soul thirsts indeed in me
After ever-living Thee;
Ah, when comes my blessed being,
Of Thy face to have a seeing?

2. Day and night my tears out flowing
Have been my ill-feeding food,
With their daily questions throwing,
Where is now thy God so good?
My heart melts rememb'ring so,
How in troops I want to go:
Leading them, His praises singing,
Holy dance to God's house bringing.

3. Why art thou, my soul, so sorry
And in me so much dismayed?
Wait on God, for yet His glory
In my song shall be displayed,
When but with one look of His
He shall me restore to bliss
Ah, my soul itself appalleth,
In such longing thoughts it falleth.

4. For my mind on my God bideth,
Ev'n from Hermon's dwelling led,
From the grounds where Jordan slideth,
And from Mizzar's hilly head.
One deep with noise of his fall
Other deeps of woe doth call:
While my God, with wasting wonders,
On me, wretch, His tempest thunders.

5. All Thy floods on me abounded,
Over me all Thy waves went:
Yet thus still my hope is grounded
That, Thy anger being spent,
I by day Thy love shall taste,
I by night shall singing last,
Praying, prayers still bequeathing,
To my God that gave me breathing.

6. I will say, O Lord, my tower,
Why am I forgot by Thee?
Why should grief my heart devour,
While the foe oppresseth me?
Those vile scoffs of naughty ones
Wound and rent me to the bones,
When foes ask, with foul deriding,
Where hath now your God His biding?

7. Why art thou, my soul, so sorry,
And in me so much dismayed?
Wait on God, for yet His glory
In my song shall be displayed.
Unto Him a song of praise
Still my thankful heart shall raise;
He who helps my case distressed,
Even my God for ever blessed.

As well as Palestrina, other musical settings of words from this psalm include:

Orlando di Lasso's 'Quare tristis es, anima mea?'.
Settings of 'Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele?' by J. S. Bach and Heinrich Schütz
Mendolssohn's 'As the hart pants'
Handel's 'As the hart pants' (only part of which is on youtube, as far as I could see)

And perhaps most famously, Herbert Howells:

P.S. All the above links are worth checking out, but if you do nothing else you absolutely must watch this wonderful little video:

Chaucer on Truth

Some good advice from Chaucer, not a man one generally associates with principled solitude and the flight from ambition...

By the way, 'trouthe' in Middle English can't simply be translated as 'truth' except in the broadest sense: since it encompasses honour and faithfulness as well as honesty (see here the Middle English Dictionary on the subject), perhaps 'integrity' would be the best translation.

Fle fro the pres, and dwelle with sothefastnesse,
Suffise thin owen thing, thei it be smal;
For horde hath hate and climbing tykelnesse,
Pres hath envye, and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee behove schal;
Reule weel thiself, that other folk canst reede;
And trouthe schal delivere, it is no drede.

[Flee the crowd, and dwell with truth; let what you have be sufficient for you, though it be small, for greed breeds hate and ambition instability. The crowd is envious, and prosperity blinds more than anything else. Enjoy no more than is proper for you; govern yourself, if you would govern others, and truth shall set you free, there is no doubt.]

Tempest the nought al croked to redresse,
In trust of hire that tourneth as a bal;
Myche wele stant in litel besynesse;
Bywar therfore to spurne ayeyns an al;
Strive not as doth the crocke with the wal.
Daunte thiself, that dauntest otheres dede;
And trouthe shal delivere, it is no drede.

[Do not distress yourself in righting every wrong, or trusting to Fortune who turns like a spinning ball. Much joy resides in little trouble. Beware therefore of kicking against a spike; do not strive like a pot against a wall. Control yourself, if you would control others' actions; and truth shall set you free, there is no doubt.]

That thee is sent, receyve in buxumnesse;
The wrestling for the worlde axeth a fal.
Here is non home, here nys but wildernesse.
Forth, pylgryme, forth! forth, beste, out of thi stal!
Know thi contre! loke up! thonk God of al!
Hold the heye weye, and lat thi gost the lede;
And trouthe shal delivere, it is no drede.

[Whatever is sent to you, receive it obediently; wrestling for the world is just asking for a fall. Here there is no home, here is nothing but a wilderness; forth, pilgrim, forth! forth, beast, out of your stall! Know your own country, look up! thank God for everything. Keep to the highway, and let your soul lead you; and truth shall set you free, there is no doubt.]

Therfore, thou Vache, leve thine olde wrechednesse;
Unto the world leve now to be thral.
Crie hym mercy, that of hys hie godnesse
Made the of nought, and in especial
Draw unto hym, and pray in general
For the, and eke for other, hevenelyche mede;
And trouthe schal delivere, it is no drede.

[Therefore, Vache, leave your former misery; cease to be a slave to the world. Beg him for mercy who for his great goodness made you out of nothing, and most of all draw towards him, and pray for heavenly reward both for yourself and for others. And truth shall set you free, there is no doubt.]

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Sam Weller's Valentine

From The Pickwick Papers, chapter 33.

As he was sauntering away his spare time, and stopped to look at almost every object that met his gaze, it is by no means surprising that Mr. Weller should have paused before a small stationer's and print-seller's window; but without further explanation it does appear surprising that his eyes should have no sooner rested on certain pictures which were exposed for sale therein, than he gave a sudden start, smote his right leg with great vehemence, and exclaimed, with energy, 'if it hadn't been for this, I should ha' forgot all about it, till it was too late!'

The particular picture on which Sam Weller's eyes were fixed, as he said this, was a highly-coloured representation of a couple of human hearts skewered together with an arrow, cooking before a cheerful fire, while a male and female cannibal in modern attire, the gentleman being clad in a blue coat and white trousers, and the lady in a deep red pelisse with a parasol of the same, were approaching the meal with hungry eyes, up a serpentine gravel path leading thereunto. A decidedly indelicate young gentleman, in a pair of wings and nothing else, was depicted as superintending the cooking; a representation of the spire of the church in Langham Place, London, appeared in the distance; and the whole formed a 'valentine,' of which, as a written inscription in the window testified, there was a large assortment within, which the shopkeeper pledged himself to dispose of, to his countrymen generally, at the reduced rate of one-and-sixpence each.

'I should ha' forgot it; I should certainly ha' forgot it!' said Sam; so saying, he at once stepped into the stationer's shop, and requested to be served with a sheet of the best gilt-edged letter-paper, and a hard-nibbed pen which could be warranted not to splutter. These articles having been promptly supplied, he walked on direct towards Leadenhall Market at a good round pace, very different from his recent lingering one. Looking round him, he there beheld a signboard on which the painter's art had delineated something remotely resembling a cerulean elephant with an aquiline nose in lieu of trunk. Rightly conjecturing that this was the Blue Boar himself, he stepped into the house, and inquired concerning his parent.

'He won't be here this three-quarters of an hour or more,' said the young lady who superintended the domestic arrangements of the Blue Boar.

'Wery good, my dear,' replied Sam. 'Let me have nine-penn'oth o' brandy-and-water luke, and the inkstand, will you, miss?'

The brandy-and-water luke, and the inkstand, having been carried into the little parlour, and the young lady having carefully flattened down the coals to prevent their blazing, and carried away the poker to preclude the possibility of the fire being stirred, without the full privity and concurrence of the Blue Boar being first had and obtained, Sam Weller sat himself down in a box near the stove, and pulled out the sheet of gilt-edged letter-paper, and the hard-nibbed pen. Then looking carefully at the pen to see that there were no hairs in it, and dusting down the table, so that there might be no crumbs of bread under the paper, Sam tucked up the cuffs of his coat, squared his elbows, and composed himself to write.

To ladies and gentlemen who are not in the habit of devoting themselves practically to the science of penmanship, writing a letter is no very easy task; it being always considered necessary in such cases for the writer to recline his head on his left arm, so as to place his eyes as nearly as possible on a level with the paper, and, while glancing sideways at the letters he is constructing, to form with his tongue imaginary characters to correspond. These motions, although unquestionably of the greatest assistance to original composition, retard in some degree the progress of the writer; and Sam had unconsciously been a full hour and a half writing words in small text, smearing out wrong letters with his little finger, and putting in new ones which required going over very often to render them visible through the old blots, when he was roused by the opening of the door and the entrance of his parent.

'Vell, Sammy,' said the father.

'Vell, my Prooshan Blue,' responded the son, laying down his pen. 'What's the last bulletin about mother-in-law?'

'Mrs. Veller passed a very good night, but is uncommon perwerse, and unpleasant this mornin'. Signed upon oath, Tony Veller, Esquire. That's the last vun as was issued, Sammy,' replied Mr. Weller, untying his shawl.

'No better yet?' inquired Sam.

'All the symptoms aggerawated,' replied Mr. Weller, shaking his head. 'But wot's that you're a-doin' of? Pursuit of knowledge under difficulties, Sammy?'

'I've done now,' said Sam, with slight embarrassment; 'I've been a-writin'.'

'So I see,' replied Mr. Weller. 'Not to any young 'ooman, I hope, Sammy?'

'Why, it's no use a-sayin' it ain't,' replied Sam; 'it's a walentine.'

'A what!' exclaimed Mr. Weller, apparently horror-stricken by the word.

'A walentine,' replied Sam.

'Samivel, Samivel,' said Mr. Weller, in reproachful accents, 'I didn't think you'd ha' done it. Arter the warnin' you've had o' your father's wicious propensities; arter all I've said to you upon this here wery subject; arter actiwally seein' and bein' in the company o' your own mother-in-law, vich I should ha' thought wos a moral lesson as no man could never ha' forgotten to his dyin' day! I didn't think you'd ha' done it, Sammy, I didn't think you'd ha' done it!' These reflections were too much for the good old man. He raised Sam's tumbler to his lips and drank off its contents.

'Wot's the matter now?' said Sam.

'Nev'r mind, Sammy,' replied Mr. Weller, 'it'll be a wery agonisin' trial to me at my time of life, but I'm pretty tough, that's vun consolation, as the wery old turkey remarked wen the farmer said he wos afeerd he should be obliged to kill him for the London market.'

'Wot'll be a trial?' inquired Sam.

'To see you married, Sammy--to see you a dilluded wictim, and thinkin' in your innocence that it's all wery capital,' replied Mr. Weller. 'It's a dreadful trial to a father's feelin's, that 'ere, Sammy--'

'Nonsense,' said Sam. 'I ain't a-goin' to get married, don't you fret yourself about that; I know you're a judge of these things. Order in your pipe and I'll read you the letter. There!'

We cannot distinctly say whether it was the prospect of the pipe, or the consolatory reflection that a fatal disposition to get married ran in the family, and couldn't be helped, which calmed Mr. Weller's feelings, and caused his grief to subside. We should be rather disposed to say that the result was attained by combining the two sources of consolation, for he repeated the second in a low tone, very frequently; ringing the bell meanwhile, to order in the first. He then divested himself of his upper coat; and lighting the pipe and placing himself in front of the fire with his back towards it, so that he could feel its full heat, and recline against the mantel-piece at the same time, turned towards Sam, and, with a countenance greatly mollified by the softening influence of tobacco, requested him to 'fire away.'

Sam dipped his pen into the ink to be ready for any corrections, and began with a very theatrical air--


'Stop,' said Mr. Weller, ringing the bell. 'A double glass o' the inwariable, my dear.'

'Very well, Sir,' replied the girl; who with great quickness appeared, vanished, returned, and disappeared.

'They seem to know your ways here,' observed Sam.

'Yes,' replied his father, 'I've been here before, in my time. Go on, Sammy.'

'"Lovely creetur,"' repeated Sam.

''Tain't in poetry, is it?' interposed his father.

'No, no,' replied Sam.

'Wery glad to hear it,' said Mr. Weller. 'Poetry's unnat'ral; no man ever talked poetry 'cept a beadle on boxin'-day, or Warren's blackin', or Rowland's oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. Begin agin, Sammy.'

Mr. Weller resumed his pipe with critical solemnity, and Sam once more commenced, and read as follows:

'"Lovely creetur I feel myself a damned--"'

'That ain't proper,' said Mr. Weller, taking his pipe from his mouth.

'No; it ain't "damned,"' observed Sam, holding the letter up to the light, 'it's "shamed," there's a blot there--"I feel myself ashamed."'

'Wery good,' said Mr. Weller. 'Go on.'

'"Feel myself ashamed, and completely cir--' I forget what this here word is,' said Sam, scratching his head with the pen, in vain attempts to remember.

'Why don't you look at it, then?' inquired Mr. Weller.

'So I am a-lookin' at it,' replied Sam, 'but there's another blot. Here's a "c," and a "i," and a "d."'

'Circumwented, p'raps,' suggested Mr. Weller.

'No, it ain't that,' said Sam, '"circumscribed"; that's it.'

'That ain't as good a word as "circumwented," Sammy,' said Mr. Weller gravely.

'Think not?' said Sam.

'Nothin' like it,' replied his father.

'But don't you think it means more?' inquired Sam.

'Vell p'raps it's a more tenderer word,' said Mr. Weller, after a few moments' reflection. 'Go on, Sammy.'

'"Feel myself ashamed and completely circumscribed in adressin' of you, for you are a nice gal and nothin' but it."'

'That's a wery pretty sentiment,' said the elder Mr. Weller, removing his pipe to make way for the remark.

'Yes, I think it is rayther good,' observed Sam, highly flattered.

'Wot I like in that 'ere style of writin',' said the elder Mr. Weller, 'is, that there ain't no callin' names in it--no Wenuses, nor nothin' o' that kind. Wot's the good o' callin' a young 'ooman a Wenus or a angel, Sammy?'

'Ah! what, indeed?' replied Sam.

'You might jist as well call her a griffin, or a unicorn, or a king's arms at once, which is wery well known to be a collection o' fabulous animals,' added Mr. Weller.

'Just as well,' replied Sam.

'Drive on, Sammy,' said Mr. Weller.

Sam complied with the request, and proceeded as follows; his father continuing to smoke, with a mixed expression of wisdom and complacency, which was particularly edifying.

'"Afore I see you, I thought all women was alike."'

'So they are,' observed the elder Mr. Weller parenthetically.

'"But now,"' continued Sam, '"now I find what a reg'lar soft-headed, inkred'lous turnip I must ha' been; for there ain't nobody like you, though I like you better than nothin' at all." I thought it best to make that rayther strong,' said Sam, looking up.

Mr. Weller nodded approvingly, and Sam resumed.

'"So I take the privilidge of the day, Mary, my dear--as the gen'l'm'n in difficulties did, ven he valked out of a Sunday--to tell you that the first and only time I see you, your likeness was took on my hart in much quicker time and brighter colours than ever a likeness was took by the profeel macheen (wich p'raps you may have heerd on Mary my dear) altho it DOES finish a portrait and put the frame and glass on complete, with a hook at the end to hang it up by, and all in two minutes and a quarter."'

'I am afeerd that werges on the poetical, Sammy,' said Mr. Weller dubiously.

'No, it don't,' replied Sam, reading on very quickly, to avoid contesting the point--

'"Except of me Mary my dear as your walentine and think over what I've said.--My dear Mary I will now conclude." That's all,' said Sam.

'That's rather a sudden pull-up, ain't it, Sammy?' inquired Mr. Weller.

'Not a bit on it,' said Sam; 'she'll vish there wos more, and that's the great art o' letter-writin'.'

'Well,' said Mr. Weller, 'there's somethin' in that; and I wish your mother-in-law 'ud only conduct her conwersation on the same genteel principle. Ain't you a-goin' to sign it?'

'That's the difficulty,' said Sam; 'I don't know what to sign it.'

'Sign it--"Veller",' said the oldest surviving proprietor of that name.

'Won't do,' said Sam. 'Never sign a walentine with your own name.'

'Sign it "Pickwick," then,' said Mr. Weller; 'it's a wery good name, and a easy one to spell.'

'The wery thing,' said Sam. 'I COULD end with a werse; what do you think?'

'I don't like it, Sam,' rejoined Mr. Weller. 'I never know'd a respectable coachman as wrote poetry, 'cept one, as made an affectin' copy o' werses the night afore he was hung for a highway robbery; and he wos only a Cambervell man, so even that's no rule.'

But Sam was not to be dissuaded from the poetical idea that had occurred to him, so he signed the letter--

'Your love-sick

And having folded it, in a very intricate manner, squeezed a downhill direction in one corner: 'To Mary, Housemaid, at Mr. Nupkins's, Mayor's, Ipswich, Suffolk'; and put it into his pocket, wafered, and ready for the general post.

'What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!'

St Valentine's Day makes me sad. Not only for the obvious reasons, that is, not only for myself (I'm not exactly besieged by secret admirers), but for everybody, for the world. I know there are lots of people who are too sensible to pay much attention to Valentine's Day, and I'm sure there are relationships within which it is a healthy and a beautiful thing, in which no one hopes for too much and is disappointed; but for many people - even for people who are happy with themselves and/or in happy relationships - it's a day on which the gulf between hope and reality becomes painful and poignant and impossible to ignore. Everyone wants to be loved, and no one is ever really sure that they are loved enough. The power of that desire for acceptance and reassurance is ripe for exploitation by advertisers and the media, of course; but they don't create the desire, although they feed it. It is an entirely natural longing, though to express it solely in terms of romantic love is a distortion of our ignorant and bewildered modern culture (the medievals, despite what I posted the other day, largely knew better).

It all makes me think of a passage from Thomas Traherne which I've posted here a number of times before:*

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!

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.
Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, 2:66-8.

Last week, in some survey or other, this painting was voted the 'most romantic work of art on display in the UK':

It's Dicksee's 'Romeo and Juliet', and it really is very beautiful (though I still like this Dicksee painting more). Our culture's exaltation of Romeo and Juliet is nonsense, of course; what sane person would want a love like theirs? But we respond to the extravagant adoration and self-sacrifice in their short-lived love, and want to love and be loved as intensely (if not in quite the same way) as they love each other. As Traherne says, everyone deserves to be loved for their own sake, as the children of God, as much as Juliet is for her beauty. "What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!"

Of course the answer for the Christian is that we should know better than to expect that kind of love on earth. Only God can love us that much (or so they say). To put the burden of that hope on another human being, as the modern Valentine's Day encourages us to do, is simply unfair, and to measure it by gifts and romantic words is only setting oneself up for disappointment. All human love, however beautiful, is ultimately imperfect and inadequate; I keep being haunted by the last line of this poem, in which the speaker says to Christ, "in sorrow endeth every love but thine, at the last". Valentine's Day urges us to believe otherwise, even if we know better. And so it makes me sad.

*(a ridiculous number of times, when there's a whole book full of such wonderful passages! You can read it online here.)

Monday 13 February 2012

Some Pictures from St Bartholomew's, Goodnestone

The tiny Norman church of St Bartholomew's, Goodnestone, stands in a field, next to a farm, in the middle of nowhere (or as close as you can get to the middle of nowhere in well-populated Kent).

There are two places in Kent called Goodnestone: one has a picture-perfect estate village, a beautiful and well-used church, a stately home with delightful gardens, and a connection to Jane Austen. This is the other one.

It's near Faversham, in north Kent, on the edge of Graveney Marsh. The advantage of being so far away from everywhere is that the church is largely unchanged since it was built, c.1100; the disadvantage is that it is now disused, though it's cared for by the fine people at the Churches Conservation Trust.

Unchanged means not extended, though you can't really get a sense even from this picture of how tiny it is. I was standing right against the back wall when I took it!

One of the nicest things about it is the stained glass, some of which is by 'the Father of Victorian Stained Glass', Thomas Willement. Willement lived not far away at Davington Priory, on the outskirts of Faversham, which I suppose is how St Bartholomew's got his attention. (Similarly, and not far away, the equally isolated Kingsdown was much beautified by a church designed by Edward Welby Pugin, son of Augustus).

St Bartholomew's made me appreciate once more just how much stained glass, even of indifferent quality, can add to a church. "Colour fulfils where Music has no power", as Kipling puts it, especially in an otherwise plain and simple setting. There was something about the mixture of patterns in these windows that seemed to elevate the whole place; to reify light itself.