Tagpoetry

Adam Zagajewski, “The Self”

It is small and no more visible than a cricket
in August. It likes to dress up, to masquerade,
as all dwarfs do. It lodges between
granite blocks, between serviceable
truths. It even fits under
a bandage, under adhesive. Neither customs officers
nor their beautiful dogs will find it. Between
hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.
It camps in the Rocky Mountains of the skull.
An eternal refugee. It is I and I,
with the fearful hope that I have found at last
a friend, am it. But the self
is so lonely, so distrustful, it does not
accept anyone, even me.
It clings to historical events
no less tightly than water to a glass.
It could fill a Neolithic jar.
It is insatiable, it wants to flow
in aqueducts, it thirsts for newer and newer vessels.
It wants to taste space without walls,
diffuse itself, diffuse itself. Then it fades away
like desire, and in the silence of an August
night you hear only crickets patiently
conversing with the stars.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 8

image from the one surviving manuscript of the poem

My friend Adam Roberts has some thoughts about this poem I’ve been considering and if he doesn’t commit them to writing at some point I’ll eat me wee woolen cap. But in the meantime I’ll just say that Adam thinks that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem about circumcision. He wrote to me (and I post this with his permission),

But isn’t this the larger structure of Gawain and the Green Knight? First, an as-it-were public symbolic circumcision, in front of the whole court, in which the mighty phallic knight somehow does and doesn’t get his top chopped off; and then the second act, in which the struggle is private, internalised, to do with Gawain resisting the temptations of Lady Bertilak, in the private space of a bed rather than the public space of a royal court; a struggle that has to do ‘with the heart’ in the romantic sense, but also in the sense that it’s about a different sort of danger than the sort in which a warrior puts himself in the way of battlefield harm. An inward danger. And it’s this latter danger that really defines Gawain’s courage. In a similar way Christ has to both put himself physically in the way of bodily pain and death, but also has to overcome his inner struggle, “let this cup pass” and so on. And really the passion marks a shift in emphasis from the former to the latter in the broadest sense, doesn’t it? Not that martyrs won’t suffer physically, but that physical pain, like physical purification, becomes less important than spiritual suffering and redemption…. Likewise judgement: before, transgression was physically punished, adulterous women stoned to death — and maybe the Green Knight’s axe is an executioner’s rather than a warrior’s axe — but after the punishment of transgression gets turned about, made into a focus for self-reflection on one’s own transgression, “let him who is without sin chop the first head off” as it were. So the Giant is OT justice, big and obvious and fatal; and Gawain’s journey leads him to a NT understanding of justice as forgiveness of sins, and inner fidelity.

How interesting, in light of this argument, that Gawain’s decisive encounter with the Green Knight happens on New Year’s Day, or, as it is known in the timekeeping of the Church, the Feast of the Circumcision.

When I read Adam’s comment I immediately thought of Harold Bloom’s famous early essay on “The Internalization of Quest-Romance”, which sees that internalization as something that happens in the Romantic era, but Adam’s reading shows it already at work in the 14th century, as part of the inevitable outworking of the logic of Pauline Christianity (which moves from external circumcision to the “circumcision of the heart.”) Gawain’s real quest is not the one that takes him through a wintery English landscape, but rather one that leads through the darkness of his own inner life.

I think Adam is exactly right to say that the poem is about law and grace, but I may read that relationship somewhat differently than he does. I want to emphasize again that Morgan le Fay accuses the Arthurian court of pride: they really do believe that they perfectly embody Chivalry. But Chivalry is a kind of code, a law, and the Green Knight comes to show that the best of Arthur’s knights is unfaithful to that code. In other words, he functions precisely as Paul says the Law does in Romans 7:

What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

In order that sin might be shown to be sin — this is the key. Paul was, as he says of himself, “a Pharisee of Pharisees,” a “blameless” man — or so he thought. But eventually the law taught him his own ineradicable sinfulness, and so he died, so the law killed him. Had it not been for the law, that fierce instructor, he would have gone along in self-satisfaction to his grave. But the law that killed him “is holy and just and good”: it killed what had to be killed in him, “in order that sin might be shown to be sin.”

And Gawain too experiences this — because of Bertilak and Morgan le Fay. They, though seeming to be his enemies, have in fact been his best friends, for they have shown him the truth about himself. He therefore wants to make sure he always remembers the lesson he has learned at the Green Chapel, and chooses the green garter the Lady gave him as an emblem of it:

“But the girdle,” he went on, “God bless you for this gift.
Not for all its ore will I own it with honor,
nor its silks and streamers, and not for the sake
of its wonderful workmanship or even its worth,
but as a sign of my sin — I’ll see it as such
when I swagger in the saddle — a sad reminder
that the frailty of his flesh is man’s biggest fault,
how the touch of filth taints his tender frame.

What I find especially noteworthy about Gawain’s response is what is absent from it. Paul’s account in Romans 7 of what sin taught him culminates in an outcry: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Which is immediately answered with: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Gawain seems to stop with “Wretched man that I am”: if he rejoices in the divine grace extended to him he does not say so.

Thus when he returns to Camelot, he bitterly confesses his failings:

“Regard,” said Gawain, grabbing the girdle,
“through this I suffered a scar to my skin —
for my loss of faith I was physically defaced;
what a coveting coward I became it would seem.
I was tainted by untruth and this, its token,
I will drape across my chest till the day I die.
For man’s crimes can be covered but never made clean;
once entwined with sin, man is twinned for all time.”

This doesn’t sound good: “never made clean”? “Twinned for all time”? (Note also that, to return to one of Adam’s points, the physical “defacement” — a cut on his neck — is nothing compared to Gawain’s internal suffering. His martyrdom is happening inside him.) Is there no one to rescue him from this body of death?

But if Gawain is trapped in despair, that can only be made worse by the invincible frivolity of the court:

The king gave comfort, then laughter filled the castle
and in friendly accord the company of the court
allowed that each lord belonging to their Order —
every knight in the brotherhood — should bear such a belt,
a bright green belt worn obliquely to the body,
crosswise, like a sash, for the sake of this man.
So that slanting green stripe was adopted as their sign.

For Gawain that sash marks a profound wound; it is not something to be celebrated, not an element of festivity. “Laughter filled the castle”? Gawain must have been wondering what there is to laugh about.

So if the court does not understand sin, Gawin, it seems, does not (yet) understand forgiveness. Which means that none of them at Camelot has escaped the realm of Law, with its inevitable oscillation between self-satisfaction and self-loathing. Another way to put this point is to say that none of them understands Christmas — and that, I think, is what this poem is all about. Let’s be reminded of the meaning of Christmas by Charles Wesley:

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

God bless us every one!

Finis.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 7

If you look closely at the picture above (by John Howe, the famous Tolkien illustrator) of Gawain’s confrontation with the Green Knight, you’ll see the pentangle on his shield. That is described much earlier in the poem:

First he was deemed flawless in his five senses;
and secondly his five fingers were never at fault;
and thirdly his faith was founded in the five wounds
Christ received on the cross, as the creed recalls.
And fourthly, if that soldier struggled in skirmish
one thought pulled him through above all other things:
the fortitude he found in the five joys
which Mary had conceived in her son, our Savior.
For precisely that reason the princely rider
had the shape of her image inside his shield,
so by catching her eye his courage would not crack.
The fifth set of five which I heard the knight followed
included friendship and fraternity with fellow men,
purity and politeness that impressed at all times,
and pity, which surpassed all pointedness. Five things
which meant more to Gawain than to most other men.
So these five sets of five were fixed in this knight,
each linked to the last through the endless line,
a five-pointed form which never failed,
never stronger to one side or slack at the other,
but unbroken in its being from beginning to end.

Sir Five-by-Five his friends called him, though probably not. In any case, here early in the story the poet is describing the images that represent what Gawain trusts in — above all, “the fortitude he found in the five joys / which Mary had conceived in her son, our Savior.”

And yet when faced with the prospect of meeting the Green Knight again, Gawain gives no thought to Mary or her Son. He trusts rather in the garter a certain lascivious lady gave him. (Isn’t he a little too old to believe in magical garters?) So how’s that going to turn out for him?

In the end: not so badly, because the Green Knight (Bertilak in disguise, we learn) really was playing a Christmas game after all. He never intended to chop Gawain’s head off; he just wanted to teach him, and the whole court of Arthur, a lesson. And the lesson is that they are guilty of pride — which is to say, it is a specifically Christian lesson that the the Knight wishes to teach.

Arthur’s court is a very self-satisfied place. They believe that they are the very flower of chivalry — and chivalry, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is comprised of courtesy and courage. But Gawain, by declining to keep his promise to his host, by hiding from him what he had received, failed in courtesy; and he did it because he was terrified of losing his life (a lack of courage he demonstrated once again at the moment of confrontation with the Knight). Yet Gawain is morally the best of all Arthur’s knights.

Now, you might respond that shitting your silken hose when faced with a an enormous green man threatening your neck with a “gigantic cleaver” is a pretty understandable human response. But Gawain, like other members of the Arthurian court, doesn’t think of himself as an ordinary human. Thus the Green Knight: “‘Call yourself good Sir Gawain?’ he goaded, / ‘who faced down every foe in the field of battle / but now flinches with fear at the foretaste of harm.’” In the end Gawain, who is supposedly the most chivalrous of Arthur’s knights, turns out to be a poor weak sinner like the rest of us. This is to him an intolerable revelation:

“Dread of the death blow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave in to greed, and in doing so forgot
the fidelity and kindness which every knight knows.
As I feared, I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed.”

(Again, as I mentioned in an earlier post, this is a culture that takes the sin of “treachery” very seriously indeed.) Bertilak the Green doesn’t deny Gawain’s account — he implicitly accepts it — but rather plays the role of a priest pronouncing absolution:

“By confessing your failings you are free from fault
and have openly paid penance at the point of my axe.
I declare you purged, as polished and as pure
as the day you were born, without blemish or blame.”

As much as to say: “Of course you failed, just like everyone else. What matters is that you confessed your sins and may thus be forgiven.” But if even the noble Sir Gawain collapses under pressure, then what becomes of Camelotian Exceptionalism? And this is the lesson that Morgan le Fay — not here the enemy of Camelot but its moral instructor, playing the same role that Nathan plays to King David as the revealer of a true but previous hidden moral state — wants the Arthurian court to learn. Thus Bertilak: “She guided me in this guise to your great hall / to put pride on trial, and to test with this trick / what distinction and trust the Round Table deserves.” The answer to that test: it deserves not nearly as much distinction as its members think.

To be continued…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 6

As I noted in my previous post, Gawain’s deal with Bertilak is simple: What each takes during the course of the day he must exchange with the other. So Bertilak gives to Gawain the beasts he has killed, and Gawain gives to Bertilak … kisses, because those he exchanged with the lady. But what would Gawain have done if he had succumbed to temptation and bedded Bertilak’s wife? (“Who whom?” as Lenin asked.) I can’t help believing that the comedy here is intentional.

But we can only speculate about what might have happened, because Gawain does not bed the lady, despite her eagerness and persistence. Strangely, on that third day she gives up her pursuit of Mary’s knight. She merely asks him to wear, in her honor, a garter — a garter which, she explains, oh by the way, protects its wearer from any harm.

I’m reminded here of a story. A young accountant for a big company has been quietly embezzling for some time, and a co-worker has just tipped him off that he’s been found out, and will be called into the boss’s office the next morning to be (a) fired and (b) arrested. In despair, the accountant wanders for hours through the streets of the city, but clearly there is no way out for him — except one. He finds the highest point on the bridge over the river that rushes through the city, and prepares to leap to his death.

But at that very moment a wizened, wrinkled old woman wearing some peculiar kind of robe or cape steps forward and calls on him to stop. “I know what’s wrong with you,” she says. “I know what you’ve done. I know that all will be revealed in the morning, and your life will be ruined. But I can prevent it from happening.”

The accountant knows this is ridiculous, but he can’t stop himself from asking: “How?” And she explains to him that she knows what has happened because she is a witch — and her witchcraft gives her the power to replace all that stolen money in the company’s coffers, to make his crime as though it had never been, to cleanse him from all guilt. All he has to do, she adds, is one little thing: have sex with her that night.

He looks her over and reflects that the only things worse than having sex with her are suicide and prison. So he agrees. Later that night, at her apartment, he shudders a bit at what he’s just done but starts pulling his clothes back on and preparing for a new and better day. The old lady lifts herself a bit from the bed, pats him on the back, and says, “Thanks, dearie. But one more thing: Aren’t you a little old to believe in witches?”

Which brings us back to Sir Gawain, who certainly believes that the lady’s garter has magical power and that his return engagement with the Green Knight is going to be No Problem Atall. That evening he makes confession of his sins and “The priest declares him so clean and so pure / that the Day of Doom could dawn in the morning” and he’d be scot-free. All the people of Bertilak’s castle note how happy Gawain has become. Everything is looking up.

There’s just one problem: When he saw Bertilak earlier that evening and they exchanged gifts — Bertilak gave him a fox that had, unfortunately, been torn to pieces by dogs — all Gawain gave his host in return was another kiss. He kept the garter.

To be continued…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 5

At several points in the poem Gawain is referred to as “Mary’s knight,” and it certainly seems that here she has been gracious in answering his prayers. For immediately after he ends his prayer with his threefold self-crossing he discerns a place of refuge: a castle, inhabited by a gracious man named Bertilak and his lovely wife. They are delighted to have the famous Sir Gawain as their guest, and much Christmas festivity (at the table of feasting and at prayer in their chapel) is had by all.

Bertilak is a hunter, and on each of the following theee days he goes out on a hunt, leaving Gawain to rest and recuperate at home before he must proceed to the Green Chapel — which, he learns, is quite nearby. (O joy.) Bertilak and Gawain make a little agreement: each will bring to the other whatever he acquires during the course of the day. It’s, you might say, a Christmas game — though Gawain doesn’t seem to notice that in this it resembles an agreement he made with another stranger a year earlier.

This extremely complex and marvelously artful poem is very concerned with tacit and explicit agreements — with, as it were, the social contract of the Age of Chivalry. Some such concern arises in every pre-modern society: for instance, an awareness that in an often threatening and only partly civilized world we are often in desperate need of hospitality, and therefore must also be willing to offer such hospitality to others. You can see this theme going all the way back to the Odyssey, in which the Cyclops shows his barbarity by eating those whom he should treat as his guests, while back in Ithaca the suitors of Penelope show their barbarity by abusing her hospitality to them. So guests and hosts owe certain decencies to one another, and failure of those decencies is taken very seriously indeed in the premodern world; look at where the betrayers of guests and hosts are in Dante’s Inferno: in the very deepest circle of Hell.

But the temporary relations of guest and host are no more strictly governed than those permanent ones between lord and liegeman, which the Gawain poet is also interested in, as we saw at the beginning when none of Arthur’s knights came to his aid until Arthur’s offer of himself shamed Gawain into stepping up. And then there are the obligations one owes to the bond of marriage: chaste faithfulness within it, and for those outside, respect for its covenant. Those are about to come into play in this poem, but again, let me stress how concerned this poem is with all the forms of tacit and explicit agreement — all the promises we, either silently or verbally, make to one another. Much that in our world is governed by law was then governed by such personal promises. One’s words and one acts, including the acts of giving and receiving hospitality, must be one’s bond.

So what is Gawain supposed to do when, as Bertilak is out on his jolly hunts, the lady of the house starts hitting on him? At first she is relatively subtle, but soon enough she, as the poet says, makes her meaning quite plain. And now Gawain is in a bind indeed. For to have sex with her would be a double betrayal of Bertilak, would be to offend against the man as host and as husband. And yet knights are also sworn defenders and servants of ladies: they take pride in doing a lady’s bidding. But what if the lady is bidding you to give her a bit of rumpy-bumpy on a cold winter’s afternoon? What we see here is a moment when an entire moral system — the system of Courtesy — seems to be broken, or rather to be breaking right before Gawain’s eyes. For whatever he does he will inevitably he uncourteous to someone — he, known not as the most powerful or eloquent of Arthur’s men but rather the most courteous. The place that looked to be a respite before a great challenge has proved to be itself a challenge. What is Mary’s knight to do now?

To be continued…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 4

At several points in the poem Gawain is referred to as “Mary’s knight,” and it certainly seems that here she has been gracious in answering his prayers. For immediately after he ends his prayer with his threefold self-crossing he discerns a place of refuge: a castle, inhabited by a gracious man named Bertilak and his lovely wife. They are delighted to have the famous Sir Gawain as their guest, and much Christmas festivity (at the table of feasting and at prayer in their chapel) is had by all.

Bertilak is a hunter, and on each of the following theee days he goes out on a hunt, leaving Gawain to rest and recuperate at home before he must proceed to the Green Chapel — which, he learns, is quite nearby. (O joy.) Bertilak and Gawain make a little agreement: each will bring to the other whatever he acquires during the course of the day. It’s, you might say, a Christmas game — though Gawain doesn’t seem to notice that in this it resembles an agreement he made with another stranger a year earlier.

This extremely complex and marvelously artful poem is very concerned, it seems, with tacit and explicit agreements — with, as it were, the social contract of the Age of Chivalry. Some of this arises in every pre-modern society: for instance, an awareness that in an often threatening and only partly civilized world we are often in desperate need of hospitality, and therefore must also be willing to offer such hospitality to others. You can see this theme going all the way back to the Odyssey, in which the Cyclops shows his barbarity by eating those whom he should treat as his guests, while back in Ithaca the suitors of Penelope show their barbarity by abusing her hospitality to them. So guests and hosts owe certain decencies to each other, and failure of those decencies is taken very seriously indeed in the premodern world: look at where the betrayers of guests and hosts are in Dante’s Inferno: in the very deepest circle of Hell.

But the temporary relations of guest and host are no more strictly governed than those permanent ones between lord and liegeman, which the Gawain poet is also interested in, as we saw at the beginning when none of Arthur’s knights came to his aid until Arthur’s offer of himself shamed Gawain into it. And then there are the obligations one owes to the bond of marriage: chaste faithfulness within it, and for those outside, respect for its covenant. Those are about to come into play in this poem, but again, let me stress how concerned this poem is with something that the medieval world in general seems to have cared about very deeply: all the forms of tacit and explicit agreement — all the promises we, either silently or verbally, make to one another. Much that in our world is governed by law was then governed by such personal promises. One’s words and one acts, including the acts of giving and receiving hospitality, must be one’s bond.

So what is Gawain supposed to do when, as Bertilak is out on his jolly hunts, the lady of the house starts hitting on him? At first she is relatively subtle, but soon enough she, as the poet says, makes her meaning quite plain. And now Gawain is in a bind indeed. For to have sex with her would be a double betrayal of Bertilak, would be to offend against the man as host and as husband. And yet knights are also sworn defenders and servants of ladies: they take pride in doing a lady’s bidding. But what if the lady is bidding you to give her a bit of rumpy-bumpy on a cold winter’s afternoon?

What we see here is a moment when an entire moral system — the system of Courtesy — seems to be broken, or rather to be breaking right before Gawain’s eyes. For whatever he does he is to someone uncourteous — he, known not as the most powerful or eloquent or Arthur’s men but rather the most courteous. The place that looked to be a respite before a great challenge has proved to be itself a challenge. What is Mary’s knight to do now?

To be continued…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 3

 

Once the voice has quietly spoken, every knight must ride alone
On the quest appointed him into the unknown:
One to seek the healing waters, one the Dark Tower to assail,
One to find the Lost Princess, one to find the Grail.

Through the wood of Evil Counsel, through the Desert of Dismay,
Past the Pools of Pestilence he must find the Way.
Hemmed between the Haunted Marshes and the Mountains of the Dead,
To the Valley of Regret and the Bridge of Dread.

— W. H. Auden, “Song of the Quest”

Gawain postpones his journey as long as he possibly can, for he can imagine no happy ending to the Quest laid upon him: to find the Green Chapel and receive from the Green Knight the promised reciprocation.

In this section of the poem, the passing of the year is marked by the calendar of the Church. It is on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (September 29) that Gawain thinks he should leave Camelot and begin his search. But he does not leave; he tarries. A month later, on All Saints’ Day (November 1) he realizes that he may tarry no longer, and on the next day he sets out.

That next day, as it happens, is the Feast of All Souls. The brilliant, eccentric, maverick scholar Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy believed that the creation of All Souls’ Day was a great revolution in Western culture, because it added to the existing cult of the saints — those holy ones who intercede for us at the throne of God — a salutary reminder of all of us, all the souls, who are on our pilgrimage and need one another’s prayers. All Souls’ Day reminds us that everyone still on the way, whether in this world or in Purgatory, needs the prayers of the faithful. It marks, Rosenstock-Huessy said, “the universal democracy of sinners under judgment.” And that, as we shall see later, is a democracy that matters very much to this poem.

In any case, once Gawain is on his way time ceases to be marked by the sacred calendar: instead, the poet describes for us an increasingly wintry landscape: bare trees and swirling winds in the wild wood, a wilderness — and in the Middle Ages “wilderness” was a word to conjure fear — in which the knight cannot confidently make his way. He does not know where to look he does not know what he is looking for.

Now through England’s realm he rides and rides,
Sir Gawain, God’s servant, on his grim quest,
passing long dark nights unloved and alone,
foraging to feed, finding little to call food,
with no friend but his horse through forests and hills
and only our Lord in heaven to hear him.

Finally he pauses to pray: “Father, hear me, / and Lady Mary, our mother most mild.” What he wants above all is a place “where mass may be heard, / and matins in the morning.” He ends his prayer and crosses himself three times. It is Christmas Eve.

To be continued…

 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 2

Green Knight

All the visitor wants is to play a little “Christmas game” — but it appears that no one at Arthur’s court wants to play with him. Perhaps that’s because he is enormous and green.

a fearful form appeared, framed in the door:

a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,

a hulk of a human from head to hips,

so long and thick in his loins and his limbs

I should genuinely judge him to be a half giant,

or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.

But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,

for despite the bulk and brawn of his body

his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.

In fact in all features he was finely formed

          it seemed.

     Amazement seized their minds,

no soul had ever seen

a knight of such a kind —

entirely emerald green.

(It’s hard to get the “bob and wheel” — the short lines that end each stanza of the poem — to render accurately in HTML. In general, HTML is not made for the presentation of verse. Sorry.)

The knight clearly resembles the Green Man of European folklore, a kind of vegetation deity whose attitude towards humanity is ambiguous — he can be generous, he can be threatening. It is interesting, and perhaps relevant to this poem, that the Green Man is often represented in medieval churches, often as a stone carving, and sometimes in quite colorful form, as in this roof boss from Rochester Cathedral:

RochesterCathedral Boss1

Or maybe it’s the particular game he offers that’s the problem: for he carries with him a massive axe, a “gigantic cleaver,” and he suggests that one of Arthur’s knights should take it and chop his, the Green Knight’s, head clean off — and then, he says, in a year and a day he’ll return the favor.

No one steps up to volunteer — until, in the embarrassed silence, King Arthur himself does. This event could be read as a token of Arthur’s courtesy and courage, and surely there’s an element of that; but aren’t the knights sworn to protect and serve their liege lord? Should they not be interposing themselves between their king and this terrifying stranger?

Only when Arthur offers himself does one knight, Gawain, acknowledge that the whole situation is rapidly becoming humiliating:

For I find it unfitting, as my fellow knights would,

when a deed of such daring is dangled before us

that you take on this trial — tempted as you are —

when brave, bold men are seated on these benches,

men never matched in the mettle of their minds,

never beaten or bettered in the field of battle.

I am weakest of your warriors and feeblest of wit;

loss of my life would be grieved the least.

Were I not your nephew my life would mean nothing;

to be born of your blood is my body’s only claim.

Such a foolish affair is unfitting for a king,

so, being first to come forward, it should fall to me.

This is throwing some serious shade on all the other knights, who (if he speaks true) are all more powerful and/or wiser than he. But none of them moves a muscle. So forward Gawain steps and takes the axe.

The Green Knight tells Gawain to search him out in a year — to seek a place called the Green Chapel, where he will wait for Gawain. However, Arthur whispers to Gawain that if he gives the fellow’s neck a truly serious whack, he won’t have to worry about what might happen in a year. Sage counsel; so Gawain lifts the “gigantic cleaver” high and lops the visitor’s head clean off. Problem solved!

Except …

The handsome head tumbles onto the earth

and the king’s men kick it as it clatters past.

Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,

yet the man doesn’t shudder or stagger or sink

but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs

and rummages around, reaches at their feet

and cops hold of his head and hoists it high,

and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,

steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle

still gripping his head by a handful of hair.

Then he settles himself in his seat with the ease

of a man unmarked, never mind being minus his head!

He then reminds Gawain of his obligations, bids everyone farewell, and rides away, leaving them to contemplate the great feast that’s growing cold on their plates.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

To be continued…

Sir Gawain Is Rising

The estimable Robert Macfarlane has helped to organize a group reading on Twitter of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. The choice makes sense: it’s the most-loved entry in a much-loved series of books, and its action begins on Christmas Eve and continues to the end of the Christmas season.

And yet the book really has nothing to do with Christmas. It takes narrative advantage of the warm associations people have with Christmas, but Cooper makes a point early in the novel of emphasizing the falsity and ineffectuality of Christianity. Now, of course, I wouldn’t say that the book should therefore be avoided — I have spent my entire adult life studying and teaching books by people who are indifferent towards Christianity, or who despise it, or who know nothing about it at all — but as a Christian I think I might want to make a different choice for reading this season.

So here’s my suggestion: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th century poem by an unknown writer from England’s West Midlands — where J. R. R. Tolkien, who translated the poem, is also from. Not only do we know nothing about the author, but the poem itself, along with three others apparently by the same person, survived in a single manuscript, thanks to the antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton. The poem is written in alliterative verse, which most translations attempt to replicate at least to some degree.

By far the best of those translations, I believe, is the one by Simon Armitage.

It was Christmas at Camelot — King Arthur’s court,

where the great and the good of the land had gathered,

all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table

quite properly carousing and reveling in pleasure.

Time after time, in tournaments of joust,

they had lunged at each other with leveled lances

then returned to the castle to carry on their caroling,

for the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one day,

with more food and drink than a fellow could dream of.

The hubbub of their humor was heavenly to hear:

pleasant dialogue by day and dancing after dusk,

so the house and its hall were lit with happiness

and lords and ladies were luminous with joy.

Such a coming together of the gracious and the glad:

the most chivalrous and courteous knights known to Christendom…

And then a strange and utterly unexpected guest appeared — to propose a “Christmas game.”

To be continued…

Les Murray, “Animal Nativity”

The Iliad of peace began
when this girl agreed.
Now goats in trees, fish in the valley
suddenly feel vivid.

Swallows flit in the stable as if
a hatching of their kind,
turned human, cried in the manger
showing the hunger-diamond.

Cattle are content that this calf
must come in human form.
Spiders discern a water-walker.
Even humans will sense the lamb,

He who frees from the old poem
turtle-dove and snake,
who gets death forgiven
who puts the apple back.

Dogs, less enslaved but as starving
as the poorest human there,
crouch, agog at a crux of presence
remembered as a star.

keep the body receptive

I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow…. So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible, but whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.

Leonard Cohen

thought, speech, writing

A continual negotiation was going on between thought, speech and writing, thought having as a rule the worst of it. Speech was humble and creeping, but wanted too many fine shades and could never come to a satisfactory end. Writing was lordly and regardless. Thought went on in the twilight, and wished the other two might come to terms for ever. But maybe they did not and never will, and perhaps, they never do.

— Edward Thomas, “How I Began” (1913)

all hat, no cattle

T. S. Eliot and his sister Marion, during Eliot’s 1958 visit to the U.S. with his new wife Valerie. At one point in the trip they visited Dallas, where Eliot was named an honorary sherriff and received both a badge and the Stetson he’s sporting here.

John Fuller

This is a really lovely profile of the poet and critic John Fuller, whom I admire greatly in both of his roles, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. When I was working on my critical edition of Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety, I of course heavily consulted Fuller’s magisterial commentary on Auden — and then when I was working through the Auden manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Humanities Center at the University of Texas, I would sometimes find in the folders and notebooks small handwritten notes by Fuller, correcting some mistaken attribution or pointing out some further piece of information. When working in those archives he had taken the time and trouble to make things easier for those who would come after him — an extraordinary act of scholarly generosity.

And then, when the edition came out, I received a gracious letter from Fuller. In a gently apologetic tone, he explained that, though he had been asked to review the book, he could not, as he had retired from reviewing. But he wanted me to know that he thought I had done an excellent job and that he had learned a good bit about the poem from my introduction and notes. For a few days I was quite swollen with pride about that.

The profile concludes with these lovely lines from Fuller’s new book:

Lucent the points of burning air. To sit
On terraces is to not want to go
So long as the flames glow. No, not one bit.
Reluctance is a struggle: burning slow,
Or hoping to be suddenly relit
Like those renewing birthday candles. Though
Birthdays have been and gone, and few will come
Again, still, think of this: there may be some.

There may be some, indeed; and I hope for Mr. Fuller more than a few. He is a gentleman and a scholar and, of course, a poet.

 

It has been the fate of many poets to find that the world is at once too much and not enough, to be driven to suicide and madness, or to the creation of hermetic works or mythologies, secondary worlds that overlay or displace the unaccommodating original. We might say that Murray’s Catholic faith serves as a mythology whose scope he sees as requiring no adjustment. What we definitely can say is that the world Murray renders is close at hand even for the remotest reader. It is completely lived in. It is handled, worked, scented, mapped, celebrated, lamented, and its people honoured in both presence and memory. Murray’s way is not the only way, but it is a wonderful achievement.

— Sean O’Brien. My review of Murray’s New Selected Poems is here.

Nietzsche saw art, and Lady Philosophy, as a benign illusion that sustains us in the face of the awful truth, which would cause our eyeballs to protrude from their sockets. My understanding of poetry’s consolatory powers has more in common with the concept of psychoanalysis as a way of fortifying the self through the acceptance of perpetual unrest. Our wills and fates do so contrary run that even our wills are not under our control. I wouldn’t be the first to see psychoanalysis in this sense as a trope for poetry (or vice versa). In Adam Phillips’s psychoanalytical version of Bloom’s pragmatism, a text answers the question “what can it get you out of?” One thing it can get you out of is the false hope that you can escape unrest.  

“No one here gets out alive” is the best case scenario. Consolation is not false comfort. Poetry’s a prophylactic, not a vaccine. One way poetry helps you to accept perpetual unrest, to arm yourself to confront perplexities, is by reminding you that you’re not alone (a not coincidentally common refrain in popular song). This just in: everyone you love will be extinguished, and so will you. But this can be said of every person in the universe. You’re not special. Men and women have been living and dying for a long time, and some of them have left records. Those records won’t eliminate your fears; they might help you to live with them. They might help you raise an army.

Auden was harsh on what he considered attention-seeking. Once when a friend referred to a public occasion when Robert Frost had forgotten his lines, Auden was satirical: Frost hadn’t forgotten his lines — he was just trying to steal the scene. Auden said to me, ‘If you’ve only just written a poem, you don’t forget the lines.’

A voice of his own. The occasion was JFK’s inaugural, where Frost did not exactly forget his lines but seemed to have trouble reading what he had written (though if he needed to read them then he had indeed forgotten a poem he had just composed). He proceeded to recite, instead of his inaugural poem, “The Gift Outright.”

I’m inclined to think that Auden was right, though. Maybe Frost disliked the new poem and preferred the old one. Maybe he liked playing the visually compromised old poet. In any case, the moment provoked a wonderful poem by Richard Wilbur which I’ll post here if I can find it.

Another contentious area for Hill is religion. Much of his verse dramatises a passionate wrestling with faith. Is he a Christian poet? “Well, it’s a tag, isn’t it?” says Hill. “They tag you with a convenient epithet.” He pauses. “I’m reasonably au fait with the Christian documentation. I’m quite able to use theological terms.” He turns to the Rev Alice Goodman: “Can I say that I dislike the Church of England in so many ways without harming you?” he asks. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written appreciatively on the following lines from Canaan: “I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site.” One reason why Williams and other members of the clergy love Hill, Goodman claims, is “because he expresses the things about the Church and about the faith that they felt but could not in their position articulate”. Yet she reminds him he has written sensitively on Vaughan’s and Donne’s work. “Yes,” he replies, “because it’s excellent and fascinating. Not because I suddenly feel that Vaughan is a brother in the faith or that reading Donne converted me to a love of Christ.”

Goodman points out that he kneels at the Church altar on Sundays. Her husband, she says, is “communicant but resentful”.

“When did I say that?” says Hill.

“You didn’t, I just said it now.”

“It sounds like me.”

“I’ve been married to you for some years,” she says drily.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg, “Supernatural Love”

My father at the dictionary stand
Touches the page to fully understand
The lamplit answer, tilting in his hand

His slowly scanning magnifying lens,
A blurry, glistening circle he suspends
Above the word ‘Carnation’. Then he bends

So near his eyes are magnified and blurred,
One finger on the miniature word,
As if he touched a single key and heard

A distant, plucked, infinitesimal string,
“The obligation due to every thing
That’ s smaller than the universe.” I bring

My sewing needle close enough that I
Can watch my father through the needle’s eye,
As through a lens ground for a butterfly

Who peers down flower-hallways toward a room
Shadowed and fathomed as this study’s gloom
Where, as a scholar bends above a tomb

To read what’s buried there, he bends to pore
Over the Latin blossom. I am four,
I spill my pins and needles on the floor

Trying to stitch “Beloved” X by X.
My dangerous, bright needle’s point connects
Myself illiterate to this perfect text

I cannot read. My father puzzles why
It is my habit to identify
Carnations as “Christ’s flowers,” knowing I

Can give no explanation but “Because.”
Word-roots blossom in speechless messages
The way the thread behind my sampler does

Where following each X, I awkward move
My needle through the word whose root is love.
He reads, “A pink variety of Clove,

Carnatio, the Latin, meaning flesh.”
As if the bud’s essential oils brush
Christ’s fragrance through the room, the iron-fresh

Odor carnations have floats up to me,
A drifted, secret, bitter ecstasy,
The stems squeak in my scissors, Child, it’s me,

He turns the page to “Clove” and reads aloud:
“The clove, a spice, dried from a flower-bud.”
Then twice, as if he hasn’t understood,

He reads, “From French, for clou, meaning a nail.”
He gazes, motionless,”Meaning a nail.”
The incarnation blossoms, flesh and nail,

I twist my threads like stems into a knot
And smooth “Beloved”, but my needle caught
Within the threads, Thy blood so dearly bought,

The needle strikes my finger to the bone.
I lift my hand, it is myself I’ve sewn,
The flesh laid bare, the threads of blood my own,

I lift my hand in startled agony
And call upon his name, “Daddy Daddy” —
My father’s hand touches the injury

As lightly as he touched the page before,
Where incarnation bloomed from roots that bore
The flowers I called Christ’s when I was four.

hidden imagery in handwriting

In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas.

I would guess that if you hired a left-brainiac economist to analyze “the present situation of poetry,” he or she would find that the dynamics of the system match those of an economy with overwhelming quantities of counterfeit money in it. People have given up accepting the tender. There is real value being created, but it is in the gray market, so to speak, in the barter economy of coteries and sometime hermits. It is no one’s fault—America in its wisdom has figured out how to get lots of poems, things that are nominally poems, printed. Recognizing this is important, as I wouldn’t want to ascribe to general venality and the Decline of the West what may just be contingencies in the means of production. Why are the shows on HBO awesome and Hollywood movies terrible, when they are made by the same class of people—the same people, sometimes—in the same place, using the same processes and techniques? Maybe it is that one sells subscriptions to affluent households and the other fishes for fourteen-year olds’ pocket money, that is, one is in a long-term relationship with its audience and the other is not. It may be that vaguely analogous impersonal factors—parameters of our media industries, of our patronage systems, and so on—have pushed our dispensation into a place where it is better at producing Halo 4 than lyric poetry. For the time being.

Every poet, consciously or unconsciously, holds the following absolute presuppositions, as the dogmas of his art:

(1) A historical world exists, a world of unique events and unique persons, related by analogy, not identity. The number of events and analogical relations is potentially infinite. The existence of such a world is a good, and every addition to the number of events, persons and relations is an additional good.

(2) The historical world is a fallen world, i.e. though it is good that it exists, the way in which it exists is evil, being full of unfreedom and disorder.

(3) The historical world is a redeemable world. The unfreedom and disorder of the past can be reconciled in the future.

It follows from the first presupposition that the poet’s activity in creating a poem is analogous to God’s activity in creating man after his own image. It is not an imitation, for were it so, the poet would be able to create like God ex nihilo; instead, he requires pre-existing occasions of feeling and a pre-existing language out of which to create. It is analogous in that the poet creates not necessarily according to a law of nature but voluntarily according to provocation.

— W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be as follows:

(1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or hebrew, and two modern languages would be required.

(2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.

(3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.

(4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.

(5) every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.

A poet has not only to educate himself as a poet, he has also to consider how he is going to earn his living. Ideally, he should have a job which does not in any way involve the manipulation of words. At one time, children training to become rabbis were also taught some skilled manual trade, and if only they knew their child was going to become a poet, the best thing parents could do would be to get him at an early age into some Craft Trades Union. Unfortunately, they cannot know this in advance, and, except in very rare cases, by the time he is twenty-one, the only nonliterary job for which a poet-to-be is qualified is unskilled manual labor. In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy and, of these, all but the first can be directly detrimental to his poetry, and even translation does not free him from leading a too exclusively literary life.

— W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay. A democracy in which each citizen is as fully conscious and capable of making a rational choice, as in the past has been possible only for the wealthier few, is the only kind of society which in the future is likely to survive for long.

In such a society, and in such alone, will it be possible for the poet, without sacrificing any of his subtleties of sensibility or his integrity, to write poetry which is simple, clear, and gay.

For poetry which is at the same time light and adult can only be written in a society which is both integrated and free.

— W. H. Auden, Introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938)

We have three minds, I reckon, one of which is the body, while the other two are forms of mentation: daylight consciousness and dreaming consciousness. If one of these is absent from a work, it isn’t complete; and if one or two of them are suppressed, kept out of sight, then the whole thing—whatever it is you’ve created—is in bad faith. Thinking in a fusion of our three minds is how humans do naturally think, at any level above the trivial. The questions to ask of any creation are: What’s the dream dimension in this? How good is the forebrain thinking, but also how good is the dream here? Where’s the dance in it, and how good is that? How well integrated are all three; or if there is dissonance, is that productive? And, finally, what larger poem is this one in? Who or what does it honor? Who does it want to kill?

Readers would be rightly insulted if they felt I’d assumed they were less smart or less sophisticated than I am. That would be unbearably condescending. And anyway they like some puzzlement, some baroque, perhaps, and certainly some material that doesn’t release all its savor at a first lick. Really, writers and readers alike, as you know, we work beyond our own intelligence; necessarily so. That’s the raison d’etre, the road to the trance that art exists to provide. The significances in a poem ought to be latent as well as patent: You find them as a matter of pleasure as you are reading; you don’t need a critic to tell them to you.

Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental — the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised-Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity — that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity — and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …

I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been “humanized,” and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery prayer of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.

If a return to the older method now seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization — there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.

From a letter W. H. Auden wrote to his father in October of 1942, explaining his decision to use a largely contemporary setting for his long poem For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio. I’m working on a critical edition of that poem for Princeton University Press, and goodness, it’s fun.

Andrew Hudgins, “The Cestello Annunciation”

The angel has already said, Be not afraid.
He’s said, The power of the Most High
will darken you.
Her eyes are downcast and half closed.
And there’s a long pause — a pause here of forever —
as the angel crowds her. She backs away,
her left side pressed against the picture frame.

He kneels. He’s come in all unearthly innocence
to tell her of glory — not knowing, not remembering
how terrible it is. And Botticelli
gives her eternity to turn, look out the doorway, where
on a far hill floats a castle, and halfway across
the river toward it juts a bridge, not completed —

and neither is the touch, angel to virgin,
both her hands held up, both elegant, one raised
as if to say stop, while the other hand, the right one,
reaches toward his; and, as it does, it parts her blue robe
and reveals the concealed red of her inner garment
to the red tiles of the floor and the red folds

of the angel’s robe. But her whole body pulls away.
Only her head, already haloed, bows,
acquiescing. And though she will, she’s not yet said,
Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord,
as Botticelli, in his great pity,

lets her refuse, accept, refuse, and think again.

Les Murray, “Poetry and Religion”

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.

A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it a religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds — crested pigeon, rosella parrot —
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

Les Murray on writing a poem

It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again. It seemed to be a knack I discovered as I went along. It’s an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind. All three are firing at once, they’re all in concert. You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive. It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form.

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