Saturday, 31 October 2009

Slants of Light

Recently I've been reading a lot of Middle English tail-rhyme romances - the supreme example, to my mind, to support the argument that originality in literature is over-praised. Most of these romances are formulaic, predictable and repetitive, in every aspect from plot to characterisation to vocabulary and imagery, yet they are immensely satisfying to read. Well, I find them immensely satisfying; lots of critics don't agree! But I'm the kind of person who would rather read the Child ballads than the Canterbury Tales, so I have basically no high-brow credentials.

Anyway, there are a very high number of formulaic phrases in the romances, which are often just used to fill out the rhyme, but some of them - pretty much by accident rather than poetic skill - are extremely evocative. I was thinking of this yesterday because I was reading the romance Ipomadon, which is about a bashful knight who does all his fighting in disguise; it's absurdly long, but it has some nice moments. One of the formulae which struck me there is the conventional simile for a woman's beauty: the hero calls his lover "her that is of ble as bright/as sun that shines through glass" (ble = countenance).

This made me think about glass. It's a common phrase to describe women in the romances, and even some of the men - King Horn, for example, has this in the opening picture of its hero:

Fairer nis non thane he was
He was bright so the glas (13-14)

In romances, eyes are often "grey as glass" - grey (that is, blue) eyes being considered the height of beauty. I confess this simile puzzles me a little, because I can't quite imagine how glass can be considered blue; perhaps it helps to remember that medieval glass was distorting, not clear. Is that why sun shining through glass is brighter than ordinary sun?

Medieval glass from Muchelney Abbey, Somerset

Devotional lyrics in praise of the Virgin Mary have their own twist on the 'light/glass' topos. The carol with the refrain "To bliss God bring us all and some, Christe, Redemptor omnium" contains the lines:

As the sunne shineth through the glas,
So Jesu in his mother was.

And another lyric addresses her: "[As] gleam glidis þurh þe glas, of þi bodi born he was". Though a conventional image, it's still a lovely and an elegant one, with the gentle delicacy of this more famous lyric. It's a common formula because it works, every time.

This was all just an excuse to post this picture:

The refectory of Cleeve Abbey, Somerset

Monday, 26 October 2009

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great died on 26th October in c. 901; he was only about fifty years old, but he had one of the most remarkable careers of any English king. When he came to the throne in 871, Wessex was the only kingdom in England which was not under the control of the Danes: he repelled the invaders, revolutionised the military defence of his kingdom, founded the English navy... And best of all (from the perspective of those of us who study medieval literature), he embarked on a programme of education which was intended to make it possible for every free-born man in the kingdom (!) to learn to read English, and to have available the books which were most important for them to know. He arranged for the translation of - or perhaps even translated himself - a range of religious and philosophical texts into English: the first fifty Psalms, Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, the Old English Orosius, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and encouraged the writing of the invaluable historical source which is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Just incredible. The whole face of Old English literature would be different without Alfred.

My favourite passage from his translations comes in Soliloquies, where the process of translation itself is discussed. Anyone who has tried to translate something from one language to another and fretted about being unable to capture the nuances of the original will identify with Alfred's metaphor. He compares the writing of the book to going into the woods to collect materials for building, gathering armfuls of timber, and mourning because he can only carry so much: "on every tree I saw something which I needed at home".

Friday, 23 October 2009

To Autumn

I was inspired to post because at this very minute, outside my window, gathering swallows twitter in the skies. There are some poems which are so familiar that one loses sight of how good they really are - lots of Shakespeare sonnets are like that for me - but every single time I read Keats' 'To Autumn', and every time autumn comes around and brings the poem to life, it hits me again what a wonderful piece of work it is.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Saturday, 10 October 2009


Today I found a place in Oxford where I've never been before. There are quite a lot of places I've never visited in Oxford (according to the application on facebook which counts how many colleges you've visited, I've only been to 61% of them...) but after five years, it's a list that's getting shorter. However, I was exploring the University Parks today, and I finally found Mesopotamia.

This is a small, unobtrusive strip of land between two stretches of the Cherwell. You have to love the donnish sense of humour which named it 'Mesopotamia', the land between the rivers! It's very narrow - in the photo above, the water starts perhaps a foot out of shot on either side - and today it was deserted, even on a Saturday afternoon. The Parks were so autumnal and so full of nice-looking people, it was like a Richard Curtis film: rugby players shouting and cheering, children playing in the leaves, couples walking hand-in-hand, old women sitting in the sun and talking. Mesopotamia is a little more untidy and a little less pretty, but at least it was peaceful.

Full term starts on Monday. I'm a bit apprehensive about starting my DPhil, but it's always a joy to be back in Oxford, and to see its familiar beauties again.