Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: poetry (page 1 of 2)

the danger of eulogy

In 1975 Seamus Heaney’s second cousin Colum McCartney — whom it seems he did not know personally — was murdered by members of the Glenanne Gang, Ulster Protestants engaged in a campaign of terror that largely involved killing Catholics at random. McCartney and a friend were returning to their homes in Ulster from a football match in Dublin when they were stopped at a police checkpoint — which turned out to be not a police checkpoint at all. Both were shot in the head. 

Soon thereafter, Heaney wrote a poem, “The Strand at Lough Beg,” in memory of McCartney. (It is in his collection Field Work.)  In the poem’s final stanza the dead man appears to the poet, appears not where he was killed — that happened “Where you weren’t known and far from what you knew” — but at Lough Beg, a place familiar to the family: 

Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud. 

A scapular, worn primarily by monks and priests, offers here an image of prayer and hope, and the poem is prefaced by a quotation from Dante’s Purgatorio. In caring for the body of his dead cousin, then, Heaney is preparing him for his final journey. 

Some years later, in Heaney’s harrowing sequence “Station Island” — a sequence shaped more thoroughly by long meditation on Dante than the earlier poem had been — the poet is again visited by his dead cousin, and the visit is not pleasant. In the first poem the poet speaks while the murdered man is silent; in the second the poet must listen to the voice of man he had eulogized. The sequence narrates a pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a journey involving several encounters with the dead, very like those Dante experiences in his voyage through the Three Realms — except often more uncomfortable.

We have reached the eighth station. Heaney is conversing with “my archaeologist” — Tom Delany, his friend, who died of tuberculosis at age 32 — when suddenly his cousin Colum appears, with a word of accusation: 

But he [Delany] had gone when I looked to meet his eyes
and hunkering instead, there in his place
was a bleeding, pale-faced boy, plastered in mud.
‘The red-hot pokers blazed a lovely red
In Jerpoint point the Sunday I was murdered,’ 
he said quietly. ‘Now do you remember? 
You were there with poets when you got the word
and stayed there with them, while your own flesh and blood
was carted to Bellaghy from the Fews.
They showed more agitation at the news
than you did.’  

(The Fews is the part of County Armagh where McCartney was murdered; Ballaghy is the village in County Londonderry where Heaney was born and raised and where McCartney was buried.) You did not clean my body and lay me out for burial. You remained in the company of your fellow poets. Heaney pleads for himself, says that the news made him “dumb,” describes the image of Lough Beg just outside Bellaghy that rose unbidden to his mind. (His mind went to the home town they shared, but his body did not.)

Colum is not appeased.

You saw that, and you wrote that — not the fact.
You confused evasion and artistic tact.
The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
For the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio 
and saccharined my death with morning dew. 

You confused evasion and artistic tact. You told yourself you heeded your calling by shaping the story artfully, festooning it with imagery; in fact you merely whitewashed the ugliness of my murder. To this charge the poet makes no response — except, of course, the poem itself, which is in fact made of Heaney’s own words, not Colum McCartney’s. 

And this is both the problem and the wonder. Philip Larkin once said, in response to a comment about how “negative” his poems are, that “The impulse for producing a poem is never negative; the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done.” Colum’s accusation against his cousin is just this, that he has done a positive thing — but then, the accusation itself, being couched in masterful verse, is also a positive thing. The poet’s eulogy must be beautiful, even (especially?) when the dead one’s murder was hideous beyond our ability to confront it. It is only in the language of poetry that the poet can acknowledge the limits of the language of poetry. 

Auden, fifty years later

Auden Getty

W. H. Auden died fifty years ago today.

He is the single most important writer and thinker in my life, and has been ever since, in my very last class in graduate school, I read his collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand. (Though it’s more than a collection of essays: it’s Auden’s Ars Poetica or Biographia Literaria.) The prose led me to the poetry and then there was no going back.

I wrote my first book (a book that had a peculiar route to publication) about Auden, featured him as one of the central figures in my The Year of Our Lord 1943, and have now produced three critical editions of his books: The Age of Anxiety, For the Time Being, and (forthcoming) The Shield of Achilles

Some of my essays and reviews about Auden available online: 

He was, shall we say, quite a character, and the anecdotes about him — about his titanic messiness and equally exceptional kindness — may readily be found. I do wish I had known him personally, but his work is so filled with his distinctive personality that I always feel that I do.  

Auden has done more than anyone else to help me understand what it means to be a Christian in my own moment — one neither hankering after a vague Utopia or pining for an illusory lost Arcadia. In poetry and prose alike, he has given me great pleasure and inexhaustible food for thought. One of the great themes of his work is the necessity and the blessing of gratitude, and thus he has been my primary instructor in how to be grateful. Today, especially, I am grateful for him. 

Reading more poetry? That’s a great thing. Reading a book of poetry a day? That’s a 100% guarantee that you will get almost nothing from your reading. Better: Read one lyric poem a day, but read it five times.

This isn’t quite right: Auden would never have been named Poet Laureate even if his comic/pornographic poem about a blow job hadn’t existed. He was widely loathed in England, as I explain early in this piece, because he stayed in the U.S., where he had arrived in January 1939, when war broke out in September. And then in 1946 he became an American citizen, which surely would have ruled out any such honor. (Imagine someone writing poems for British public occasions who wasn’t a subject of the Queen!) Any commentary on the “filthy” poem was just one more whack on a long-dead horse. 

All that said, Auden would’ve loved being Poet Laureate. He enjoyed to an extreme degree writing poems for particular occasions — when giving his inaugural address as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry, in 1956, he said, “I should be feeling less uneasy at this moment than I do, if the duties of the Professor of Poetry were to produce, as occasion should demand, an epithalamium for the nuptials of a Reader in Romance Languages, an elegy on a deceased Canon of Christ Church, a May-day Masque for Somerville or an election ballad for his successor. I should at least be working in the medium to which I am accustomed.” He often said that any real poet could write a good poem on any subject when asked. Only amateurs and incompetents have to wait for “inspiration.” 

Forthcoming: The Shield of Achilles

I will be returning soon to my posts on Augustine’s City of God, but maybe not for another week or so, because I need to devote my full attention to the final edits of my forthcoming critical edition of Auden’s collection The Shield of Achilles — my most recent contribution to Princeton University Press’s Auden Critical Editions series. I will admit to being very excited about this project. Though things may change, below please see my Preface in its current form.  

The Shield of Achilles appeared in 1955, which for Auden was right on time: he tended to publish a collection of poems every five years or so, and the previous book, Nones, had appeared in 1951. The poems of Nones indicated the beginnings of a major transition in his work. Through the first half of the 1940s he had written long poems in which he worked through the implications of his newfound Christian faith for politics and history (For the Time Being), for art (The Sea and the Mirror), and for the psyches of people devastated by war and by the various dislocations of modernity (The Age of Anxiety). But in the major poems in Nones Auden began a reckoning with certain themes that, he came to realize, he had neglected: the embodied life that humans share with all other creatures, and the character of genuine human community.

That he spent much of his time in these years living on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, around people whose language he knew imperfectly and whose habits he struggled to share, in a country that reminded him constantly of the complex relationship between Rome’s empire and the great claims of the Christian faith, exercised a powerful influence on the course of his thinking. To Ischia he wrote, in 1948 when he was new there,

                    How well you correct
Our injured eyes, how gently you train us to see
               Things and men in perspective
          Underneath your uniform light.

If in Nones Auden inaugurated his new quest to “see / Things and men in perspective,” in The Shield of Achilles he provides a powerful report on the fruits of that quest. It is the boldest and most intellectually assured work of his career, an achievement that has not been sufficiently acknowledged, in large part because its poetic techniques are not easily perceived or assessed. It is the most unified of all Auden’s collections, and indeed — once its intricate principles of organization are grasped — may be seen as the true successor of those long poems of the 1940s.   

Cities 4: Secondary Epic

My previous post discussed the way Augustine sets up his City of God as antithetical to the Aeneid. Auden’s witty poem “Secondary Epic” may be seen as a kind of pendant to Augustine’s critique. It focuses not on the prophetic narration of Anchises in Book VI, but rather on a complementary moment, the description in Book VIII of the Shield of Aeneas. About this description Auden has some questions:    

How was your shield-making god to explain
Why his masterpiece, his grand panorama
Of scenes from the coming historical drama
Of an unborn nation, war after war,
All the birthdays needed to pre-ordain
The Octavius the world was waiting for,
Should so abruptly, mysteriously stop,
What cause could he show why he didn’t foresee
The future beyond 31 B.C.,
Why a curtain of darkness should finally drop
On Carians, Morini, Gelonians with quivers,
Converging Romeward in abject file,
Euphrates, Araxes and similar rivers
Learning to flow in a latinate style,
And Caesar be left where prophecy ends,
Inspecting troops and gifts for ever?
Wouldn’t Aeneas have asked: — ‘What next?
After this triumph, what portends?’ 

And then the poem concludes, returning to Anchises: 

No, Virgil, no:
Behind your verse so masterfully made
We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.
Your Anchises isn’t convincing at all:
It’s asking too much of us to be told
A shade so long-sighted, a father who knows
That Romulus will build a wall,
Augustus found an Age of Gold,
And is trying to teach a dutiful son
The love of what will be in the long run,
Would mention them both but not disclose
(Surely no prophet could afford to miss,
No man of destiny fail to enjoy
So clear a proof of Providence as this)
The names predestined for the Catholic boy
Whom Arian Odovacer will depose. 

The names of that “Catholic boy”? Romulus Augustulus. What poet could resist the irony

Auden borrows the title of his poem from A Preface to Paradise Lost, in which C. S. Lewis distinguishes primary epic — poems like the Iliad and Beowulf that show no obvious awareness that what they’re doing is, you know, epic — from secondary epic, which is always aware of its tradition its inheritance. Poems like the Aeneid and Paradise Lost are always gesturing towards their predecessors to make sure you know they are indeed epics. Secondary epics tend therefore to be at least somewhat polemical, in tension with their predecessors, because after all if those predecessors has said everything and said it perfectly there would be no need for later poems. Virgil has therefore set himself up to make an argument through his narrative, an argument about the destiny of Rome and the nature of heroism, and Auden joins Augustine in pointing out that the argument doesn’t work: No poet writing in the midst of history can plausibly convince us that a historical city is eternal and that heroic service to it can therefore have eternal consequences. The Pax Romana is not a telos, it’s merely an event among other events, subject to varying interpretations and to the power of change. “No, Virgil, no.” 

Katherine Rundell

The difficulty of Donne’s work had in it a stark moral imperative: pay attention. It was what Donne most demanded of his audience: attention. It was, he knew, the world’s most mercurial resource. The command is in a passage in Donne’s sermon: ‘Now was there ever any man seen to sleep in the cart, between Newgate and Tyburn? Between the prison, and the place of execution, does any man sleep? And we sleep all the way; from the womb to the grave we are never thoroughly awake.’ Awake, is Donne’s cry. Attention, for Donne, was everything: attention paid to our mortality, and to the precise ways in which beauty cuts through us, attention to the softness of skin and the majesty of hands and feet and mouths. Attention to attention itself, in order to fully appreciate its power: Our creatures are our thoughts, he wrote, ‘creatures that are born Giants: that reach from East to West, from earth to Heaven, that do not only bestride all the sea and land, but span the sun and firmament at once: my thoughts reach all, comprehend all.’ We exceed ourselves: it’s thus that a human is super-infinite. 

comparative study of real and fictional corbies

Carol Rumens:

There’s a human narrator, but s/he bows out after three lines. Of the two crows, one has a single, though essential, line: “Where sall we gang and dine today?” The other, having reconnoitred the scene already and worked out the feeding strategy, replies in vivid, uncompromising detail. Anthropomorphism of this kind can be justified on the grounds that the invented bird-talk reflects real, observable bird behaviour regarding food, territory and judicious co-operation. 

Really? That’s how the poem can be justified — by objective analysis of “real, observable bird behaviour regarding food, territory and judicious co-operation”? If the behavior of these poetic corbies should prove inconsistent with the most up-to-date ornithological findings, would we have to toss the poem in the dustbin? 

Barbara Graziosi:

Strong readings of the Iliad tend to focus on the final encounter between Achilles and Priam, and Achilles’ return of the body of Hector, Priam’s son, whom he has killed. To [Jasper] Griffin, that scene affirms the value of a human life in the face of death. To [James] Porter, it makes the Iliad a poem of war, not death: Homer, “however we understand the name,” reveals the inexplicable, violent loss of life, not just the finality of death. I agree with Porter, as it happens. But while Porter and Griffin engage in critical single combat, we may want to listen to how the Iliad actually ends. The last word does not belong to Priam or Achilles, but to the women of Troy. At the funeral of Hector, their ritual laments insist on one theme: their dependence on the deceased. He meant different things to each, we learn, but they all relied on him. This is a theme that Achilles, in his great wrath, has difficulty grasping. It is also a theme that, from the position of combative criticism, can escape attention. From the perspective of the women of Troy, however, it is painfully obvious that people can only flourish when they look after each other and, in shared ritual, take care of the dead.

The Love Feast

“The Love Feast“ — me in the new issue of Harper’s (paywalled, I think?) on the immediately forthcoming two volumes of Auden’s complete poems:

In almost every reading of Auden, the familiar hinge of his career remains visible — and indeed is emphasized in the division of these two volumes, the first of which ends in 1939 and the second of which begins in 1940. But thanks to [Edward] Mendelson, it is now generally seen to mark a transition, not from excellence to incompetence, but from one kind of excellence to another. And this way of viewing the transition is now typically accepted even by those, such as Heaney, who prefer the earlier verse and lament what was lost.

All the themes of Auden’s later verse converge on a rejection of the heroic and triumphal modes, and the substitution of a different register, that of the repeated and the mundane. In the second half of his career, Auden patiently worked out, in both prose and masterful verse, the implications of his homemade anthropology — his own account of what his friend Hannah Arendt would later call, in a 1958 book, The Human Condition. That anthropology ultimately centers on two core propositions: that we are prone to trust and love what breaks our hearts, and that we are creatures alongside the birds and the social insects, albeit creatures who, as he says in one poem, have “assumed responsibility for time.” We must live simultaneously in nature and history, though we forever are tempted by those prophets who tell us we can only take full refuge in one or the other. 

CUT 38

Photograph of Auden by Irving Penn, 1947 © The Irving Penn Foundation 

Alan Shapiro:

For good or ill, I have spent more time reading and writing poetry than doing anything else in my roughly three score and ten years of life. My poets, the poets I have grown to love, have become my second family, the family I chose; they constitute the better part of who I am. Diverse as this family is in language, gender, and race, it is still primarily (though not exclusively) a family of white Christian men and white pagan men. Some of them did terrible things off the page; some of them were fascists or fascist sympathizers. Some were spies. Some of them abused or neglected wives and children; some were mentally unstable. Many of them were drunks, perverts, drug addicts, sex addicts, sadists, brownnosers, backbiters. Some, furthermore, were colonialists, slave traders, slave owners. Some were themselves enslaved, or had once been slaves. Most were certainly anti-Semitic. Off the page, I probably would have detested them, and I have no doubt they would have detested me. But on the page they are guardian angels, beloved spirits, the most intimate and generous of guides. What they at their best have taught me is that the gold of the work is not reducible to the shit of the life. And that even the “wokest” of minds can never entirely escape the moral limits of their time and place. The miracle is what still manages to reach us, move us, expanding our understanding of what it means to be alive through someone else’s lived experience, not just despite our differences, but maybe, too, because of them.

Sidney was right

Sir Philip Sidney:

I conclude, therefore, that [the poet] excels history, not only in furnishing the mind with knowledge, but in setting it forward to that which deserves to be called and accounted good; which setting forward, and moving to well-doing, indeed sets the laurel crown upon the poet as victorious, not only of the historian, but over the philosopher, howsoever in teaching it may be questionable. For suppose it be granted — that which I suppose with great reason may be denied — that the philosopher, in respect of his methodical proceeding, teach more perfectly than the poet, yet do I think that no man is so much Philophilosophos as to compare the philosopher in moving with the poet. And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching; for who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught? And what so much good doth that teaching bring forth — I speak still of moral doctrine — as that it moves one to do that which it doth teach? For, as Aristotle says, it is not Gnosis but Praxis must be the fruit; and how Praxis cannot be, without being moved to practice, it is no hard matter to consider. The philosopher shows you the way, he informs you of the particularities, as well of the tediousness of the way, as of the pleasant lodging you shall have when your journey is ended, as of the many by-turnings that may divert you from your way; but this is to no man but to him that will read him, and read him with attentive, studious painfulness; which constant desire whosoever has in him, has already passed half the hardness of the way, and therefore is beholding to the philosopher but for the other half. Nay, truly, learned men have learnedly thought, that where once reason has so much overmastered passion as that the mind has a free desire to do well, the inward light each mind has in itself is as good as a philosopher’s book; since in nature we know it is well to do well, and what is well and what is evil, although not in the words of art which philosophers bestow upon us; for out of natural conceit the philosophers drew it. But to be moved to do that which we know, or to be moved with desire to know, hoc opus, hic labor est

poem and antipoem

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David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a wonderful movie, but it shouldn’t be thought of as an adaptation of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In saying that I am not criticizing it: it’s a mistake to expect a movie that claims to be an adaptation of a novel or some other kind of written text to actually be an adaptation. It almost never is; it’s often better to think of film adaptations as riffs on the originals. But Lowery’s The Green Knight is not a riff on the poem so much as a photographic negative of it. 

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Lowery’s Round Table is a foreboding place in a cavernous dark hall — something like a brugh; Arthur’s court in the poem is a bright and airy environment of festivity and ease, less Heorot and more Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

662px Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Janvier

The Gawain of the poem is the most accomplished and most fastidiously elegant member of that smart set, precisely the opposite of Lowery’s Gawain, who is callow, self-indulgent, uncertain about his direction in life – basically a caricature of a millennial. Given the contrasting initial positions of the poem’s protagonist and the movie’s protagonist, their stories will necessarily trace very different arcs.

I think the arc followed by the movie is consistently interesting, and well presented. (Also, Dev Patel is fantastic.) The movie is visually glorious, often in ways that precisely and movingly illuminate Gawain’s psychological state. However, it’s the sort of story that we, today, are pretty comfortable with: a boy-man in failure-to-launch mode who finally finds something he believes in enough to bring him to the point of launching. The poem tells a very different kind of tale, one that we aren’t nearly as interested in hearing: it’s a story about how even the most celebrated and admired person in a particular society can be afflicted by the vices endemic to that society as a whole. And should that person ever come to the point of recognizing his own frailties and failings, which are to an even greater degree the frailties and failings of his society, then you can be sure that the society will make a point of not learning any of the lessons that he has so painfully learned. That’s what the poem shows us. 

It’s hard for me to imagine a film director today choosing to tell that one, though you might get a glimpse of what it would look like if you imagine an alternate final scene of The Social Network in which Mark Zuckerberg, instead of saying “I’m not a bad guy,” says, mournfully, “I’ve come to understand that I am a very bad guy” — only to have his confession laughed off.  

A random note: early in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury constructs an elaborate simile comparing human society to a colony of honeybees, and speaks of “the singing masons building roofs of gold.” Two things struck me as I read that line: it’s one of the most gorgeous lines of verse I have ever read, and nobody but Shakespeare would have written it. The singing masons building roofs of gold

plus ça change

Most poets in the West believe that some sort of democracy is preferable to any sort of totalitarian state and accept certain political obligations, to pay taxes, to vote for the best man or programme, to serve as jurymen, to write letters of protest against this or that act of injustice or vandalism, but I cannot think of a single poet of consequence whose work does not, either directly or by implication, condemn modern civilisation as an irremediable mistake, a bad world which we have to endure because it is there and no one knows how it could be made into a better one, but in which we can only retain our humanity in the degree to which we resist its pressures.

— Auden in Encounter (April 1954)


I read once that Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, an Argentinian and a Chilean, a conservative and a Communist, formed a bond over the one thing they agreed on: English is the best language in which to write poetry because it has so many one-syllable words. How those native Spanish speakers envied all the one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words! 

I wrote a post a while back about the power of the monosyllabic, and I have a new example: “Seemed the Better Way,” from Leonard Cohen’s final album. (Yeah, I quoted the title song recently — I’m obsessed with the record right now.) 

Here are the lyrics: 

Seemed the better way
When first I heard him speak
Now it’s much too late
To turn the other cheek

Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it’s not the truth today

I wonder what it was
I wonder what it meant
First he touched on love
Then he touched on death

Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it’s not the truth today

I better hold my tongue
I better take my place
Lift this glass of blood
Try to say the grace 

Ninety-six words, thirteen of which have two syllables; the rest are monosyllabic. Another way to count, removing repetition: The song uses fifty-one different words, four of which have two syllables. The spareness and simplicity of the language match the spareness and simplicity of the music: 


At the excellent Futility Closet I learn of a nineteenth-century fellow who wrote a sermon entirely in words of one syllable:

He who wrote the Psalm in which our text is found, had great cause to both bless and praise God; for he had been brought from a low state to be a great king in a great land; had been made wise to rule the land in the fear and truth of God; and all his foes were, at the time he wrote, at peace with him. Though he had been poor, he was now rich in this world’s goods; though his youth had been spent in the care of sheep, he now wore a crown; and though it had been his lot for a long time to hear the din of war and strife, peace now dwelt round the throne, and the land had rest.

That’s quite good, is it not? See also William Barnes’s book of speech-craft.

And: this stanza from one of the greatest of Auden’s poems, “The Shield of Achilles”:

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

Sixty-three words: one of three syllables, four of two syllables, all the others of one syllable each (including thirty-seven of them in a row). The words trudge at the pace of a terrible dirge.

waking into the world

Auden’s single greatest poetic achievement, I think, is his sequence “Horae Canonicae,” which begins with the first hour of the prayerful day, Prime. Here is a stanza from Auden’s poem in which he describes something that always interested him, the experience of waking up:

Holy this moment, wholly in the right,
As, in complete obedience
To the light’s laconic outcry, next
As a sheet, near as a wall,
Out there as a mountain’s poise of stone,
The world is present, about,
And I know that I am, here, not alone
But with a world and rejoice
Unvexed, for the will has still to claim
This adjacent arm as my own,
The memory to name me, resume
Its routine of praise and blame
And smiling to me is this instant while
Still the day is intact, and I
The Adam sinless in our beginning,
Adam still previous to any act.

Most of Auden’s critics know that he read Heidegger, and it’s easy to hear here an echo of Heidegger’s idea of “being thrown” (Geworfen) into the world. John Fuller also finds here echoes of Husserl and Paul Valéry. And all that may be true, but I wonder if there might be another source: Beowulf.

In the genealogical section with which Beowulf begins, we’re told that Halfdane had four children, though that’s not quite how the poet puts it. The poet says that four bearn — as some Scots still say, bairns — “woke into the world”:

ðaém féower bearn | forðgerímed
in worold wócun

And isn’t that what Auden is talking about? The daily birth, the daily waking into the world.

Maybe, maybe not. But it would be very characteristic of Auden to write a poem which blends an idea of Heidegger’s with a phrase made by the Beowulf poet.

Also, if when we are born we wake into the world, in death, we part from it: worulde gedál. That word gedál means “parting” or “separation,” but the Germanic root also means “valley.” When we die we are parted from the world: we take a last look at it, perhaps, across the great valley that separates us. Late in Auden’s sequence, at the hour of Compline, as he moves towards sleep at the end of a day that has seen the incomprehensible sacrifice of “our victim,” he writes:

Nothing is with me now but a sound,
A heart’s rhythm, a sense of stars
Leisurely walking around, and both
Talk a language of motion
I can measure but not read: maybe
My heart is confessing her part
In what happened to us from noon till three,
That constellations indeed
Sing of some hilarity beyond
All liking and happening,
But, knowing I neither know what they know
Nor what I ought to know, scorning
All vain fornications of fancy,
Now let me, blessing them both
For the sweetness of their cassations,
Accept our separations.

the impeded stream

I remember sitting in an empty classroom at Washington and Lee late into the night, working on a poem instead of studying for an exam on international trade. I had spent three years as an economics major: endless afternoons in dead-aired classrooms from which I can’t remember a thing in the world except that I wanted, wanted, wanted something so vague it might as well be money. By the time of my last class in the “C-School” I was so hungry for meaning that everything was instantly allegorical—the blind professor who taught international trade, the desk he clung to like a life raft, the random dog that sauntered into that third-floor classroom one afternoon as if he owned the place. He stopped right in front of my desk, turned around twice before taking a disconcertingly deliberate shit, then trotted lightly out like an ironic angel.

Not that the true path was by any means clear. I still had twenty years to writhe on the high hook I knew only as Ambition. It’s almost the definition of a calling that there is strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical—how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc.—but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself within it? Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it. “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” (Wendell Berry)

Christian Wiman

“money is a medium of exchange”

The king has set up his mint by Thames.
He has struck coins; his dragon’s loins
germinate a crowded creaturely brood
to scuttle and scurry between towns and towns,
to furnish dishes and flagons with change of food;
small crowns, small dragons, hurry to the markets
under the king’s smile, or flat in houses squat.
The long file of their snouts crosses the empire,
and the other themes acknowledge our king’s head.
They carry on their backs little packs of value,
caravans; but I dreamed the head of a dead king
was carried on all, that they teemed on house-roofs
where men stared and studied them as I your thumbs’ epigrams,
hearing the City say Feed my lambs
to you and the king; the king can tame dragons to carriers,
but I came through the night, and saw the dragonlets’ eyes
leer and peer, and the house-roofs under their weight
creak and break; shadows of great forms
halloed them on, and followed over falling towns.
I saw that this was the true end of our making;
mother of children, redeem the new law.

They laid the coins before the council.
Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics, said:
Good; these cover the years and the miles
and talk one style’s dialects to London and Omsk.
Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.’

Taliessin’s look darkened; his hand shook
while he touched the dragons; he said ‘We had a good thought.
Sir, if you made verse you would doubt symbols.
I am afraid of the little loosed dragons.
When the means are autonomous, they are deadly; when words
escape from verse they hurry to rape souls;
when sensation slips from intellect, expect the tyrant;
the brood of carriers levels the good they carry.
We have taught our images to be free; are we glad?
are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to Logres?’

The Archbishop answered the lords;
his words went up through a slope of calm air:
‘Might may take symbols and folly make treasure,
and greed bid God, who hides himself for man’s pleasure
by occasion, hide himself essentially: this abides —
that the everlasting house the soul discovers
is always another’s; we must lose our own ends;
we must always live in the habitation of our lovers,
my friend’s shelter for me, mine for him.
This is the way of this world in the day of that other’s;
make yourselves friends by means of the riches of iniquity,
for the wealth of the self is the health of the self exchanged.
What saith Heracleitus? — and what is the City’s breath? —
dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.
Money is a medium of exchange.’

— Charles Williams, from Taliessen through Logres

the poet’s house

One summer many years ago, when I was leading a study tour in Britain, we paid a visit to Sir Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford House. I led the group past the tea shop and around a corner, and there the great mansion, with its lawn sloping down to the River Tweed, stood. One of my students halted in his tracks and stared, transfixed. “Oh, I am so gonna be a poet,” he whispered.

I put a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “David,” I said, “That is so not how it works.”

“Poetry makes nothing happen”

Alexander Chee:

My generation of writers — ​and yours, if you are reading this — ​lives in the shadow of Auden’s famous attack on the relevance of writing to life, when he wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” I had heard the remark repeated so often and for so long I finally went looking for its source, to try to understand what it was he really meant by it. Because I knew it was time for me to really argue with it. If not for myself, for my students.

The thing is, Chee makes no attempt whatsoever to find out what Auden meant when he wrote “Poetry makes nothing happen.” If he had, he might have learned that Auden never in any way made an “attack on the relevance of writing to life.” That line was a response by Auden to the political poets of the Thirties who convinced themselves that in writing poetry they were changing the social and political order. But, Auden believed, they weren’t. Poetry does many wonderful things, Auden believed, but in the sphere of politics it can make nothing happen. 

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!


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)

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.

Among the truly great poets, the handful of absolute masters, the most neglected is Horace. This was not always so, but when the study of Latin fell away so too did Horace’s influence and reputation. He does not yield readily to translation: his poetry combines colloquial ease and extreme concision in a way almost impossible to imitate in other tongues. (David Ferry’s marvelous versions don’t even try to be concise, but they capture much of Horace’s distinctive and inimitable charm.) In the last hundred years, two major poets in English have understood themselves as heirs to the Horatian tradition. One of them is W. H. Auden, and the other is Les Murray.

Michael O’Loughlin has named this tradition “retired leisure,” a retreat from the vortex of social and political life not simply to repudiate it, but to save yourself from being torn apart by it, to see it more clearly, to bear vivid witness to its absurdities—and perhaps to exemplify better ways to live. Horace’s friend and patron Maecenas bought him a farm near modern Licenza—the poet called it his “Sabine farm”—and from there he watched with tolerant wisdom the follies of Rome, and wrote his beautiful poems. Les Murray’s place in little Bunyah, up the North Coast of New South Wales, is his Sabine farm.

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.



This endlessly elaborating poem
Displays the theory of poetry,
As the life of poetry. A more severe,

More harassing master would extemporize
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as,
In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness,
The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.

— Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”

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.