And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 31. juli 2012

Piers Plowman

(...) til I gan awake
- The Vision of Piers Plowman, William Langland

Last week I finished reading The Vision of Piers Plowman, a 14th-century unrhymed alliterative poem in Middle English, written by a cleric of minor orders, William Langland (c.1330-c.1386), of whom little is known beyond his Worcestershire provenance and his career as a London psalter-clerk. The poem exists in four versions, Z, A, B and C, written within the timeframe c.1365-c.1386, although the authenticity of Z is still a matter of contention. It was Walter Skeat who gave the poem its title in the late 1800s while working on what came to be its standard edition for about a century, a task that took about 20 years to complete. The revision of the B text was conducted by A. V. C. Schmidt.

I no longer remember how I came to learn about Piers Plowman, but I suspect it was during a course on the Late Middle Ages in the spring of 2009 and the work caught my interest fairly quickly. Shortly afterwards I ordered the Oxford World Classics edition, but became repulsed when I discovered this was a Modern English prose rendition. Fortunately I came upon the Everyman edition by chance during my first visit to York the autumn of that year. It did, however, take me quite a while to find time for the read itself, and after years of waiting, aborted beginnings and other preoccupations I finished the prologue one day I was waiting for my supervisor to get back to me on a thesis draft. By that time I had taken a course in Middle English romance at the University of York and thus become better acquainted with the language, and I believe this gave me the courage I so far had lacked to undertake the enterprise.

The Vision of Piers Plowman. or Piers Plowman for short, is a magnificent and challenging read. The narrator of the poem speaks of himself accordingly: "'I have lyved in londe,' quod I, 'my name is Longe Wille.'" and through a succession of dreams he conducts a search for the elusive Piers Plowman and the figures Dowel, Dobet and Dobest who will lead the Christians away from their irreligion and to the true Christian Church. This dreamwalk (and here be spoilers) brings Longe Wille to a wide range of allegories depicting his contemporary England, Biblical episodes, virtues and vices in a manner that spoke to the common man and highborn alike through a range of similes and a vocabulary echoing the life a 14th-century Englishman was familiar with. Christ is spoken of in chivalric terms who is jousting in Jerusalem to die on the rood, the titular character, Piers Plowman, is Simon Peter, the head of the true Church, Unitee, while Dowel, Dobet and Dobest are personifications signifying the three stages of Christ's life on earth, Dobest being his ultimate sacrifice on the cross. These things are not properly revealed until passus XIX and from the Prologue onwards the reader is kept in the dark as to the true nature of these particular allegories. I found this quest surprisingly suspenseful, despite the fact that the intervals between each time they are mentioned are both tangential and prolix, but William Langland - the author, as distinguished from Longe Wille the narrator - masterfully makes their names pop up with sufficient frequency to keep the reader alert to the true goal of his protagonist.

The poem is first of all an exploration of and an elegy over how Christians have failed to follow the teachings of Christ, and how mankind is punished for their sundry sins. William Langland is adamant that the plagues and dearths of the 14th century owed their occurrences to the wickedness of mankind, and he is equally adamant that the chief cause of these failings are the haughty clergy - more preoccupied with philosophy than pastoral work - and the shortcomings of the king and his advisors. It is stated that the most true Christians are the plowmen, the shepherds and the common labourers who conduct their business faithfully and do not sink into vice. However, although the author (and narrator, no distinction between them are needed on this level) are eager to have the Church and society undergo a reform, they do not want to abolish the institutions. The king is a necessity, it is stated, whose absence would be catastrophic. Similarly the forces of true Christianity - Conscience, Contricion and Cardynale Vertues to name just a few - are not bent on destroying the Church but to replace it with the true Holy Church, that of Unitee, a place where all Christians should unite. This is made especially clear in the concluding episode - passus XX - where the various Christian personifications are fighting against the forces of Antichrist led by Coveitise besieging the Church of Unitee. At this juncture Coveitise and his ally Symonye have already chased Good Feith flee from the halls of Westminster, illustrating the state of the secular rulership very poignantly. The state of the clergy proves equally detrimental for at the height of battle Conscience calls:

'Help, Clergie, or ellis I falle
Thorugh inparfite preestes and prelates of holy Chirche!'
Freres herden hym crye, and comen hym to helpe -
Ac for thei kouthe noght wel hir craft, Conscience forsook hem.
- Passus XX, lines 228-31

In other words not even the monks who followed Conscience into the newly established Unitee are sufficiently schooled in the craft of Christian love, the craft Conscience asks for in this passage. Inevitably Unitee falls, a fall brought about by Frere Flaterere (Flattery) who in the guise of a surgeon is allowed into the church to help Contricion who is badly wounded. This illustrates perfectly how the medieval mind perceived the role of the clergy: as spiritual doctors. Frere Flaterere, however, proves to be a bad doctor and fails - deliberately - in his task. After the fall of Unitee Conscience goes wide in the world in search of Piers Plowman and then Longe Wille wakes up.
From the 14th-century Luttrell psalter.

William Langland has in this poem created a very powerful social and religious critique whose allegories are deeply human and whose narrator is painfully aware of the human condition. Towards the end of the poem, after Longe Wille wakes up from one of his dreams, he describes how he is troubled with gout and impotence, and how aging afflicts him after the personification of old age - Elde - has ridden over his skull and left its imprint in the waning of his hair:

And Elde anoon after hym, and over myn heed yede,
And made me balled bifore and bare on the croune:
So harde he yede over myn heed it wole be sene evere.
- Passus XX, lines 183-85

Although aware of human frailty William is also concerned with mankind as a being wrought by a divine Creator:

For be a man fair or foul, it falleth noght for to lakke
The shap ne the shaft that God shoop hymselve
-Passus XI, lines 394-95

For man was maad of swich a matere he may noght wel asterte [escape]
-Passus XI, line 400

Mankind's divine provenance makes it holy, but this also calls for humility. "Although men made bokes, God was the maister" (Passus XII, line 101) William states and it is in part lack of such humility that has caused the current detrimental state, that and the workings of poorly schooled priests:

Right so out of Holy Chirche alle yveles spredeth
There inparfit preesthode is, prechours and techeris.
- Passus XV, lines 92-95


Grammer, the ground of al, bigileth now childre:
For is noon of thise newe clerkes - whoso nymeth hede -
That kan versifie faire ne formaliche enditen,
Ne naught oon among an hundred that an auctor can construwe,
Ne rede a lettre in any language but in Latyn or in Englissh.
- Passus XV, lines 371-75

Piers Plowman is, in sum, a powerful call for reform of a failing and dilapidated society. This struck a chord in William Langland's contemporaneity as can be witnessed by a letter from John Ball, a leading figure in the 1381 rebellion, to the peasants of Essex, in which he alluded to the figure of Piers Plowman. The poem was very popular and has survived in more than sixty manuscripts. It is tempting to say that this popularity can be ascribed to Langland's message being very apt for his time and succeeding times, but this is conjecture on my part. For any medievalist and any Christian this text is a fascinating window into ages past and a thought-provoking search to the original state of Christianity, presented with a timeless vitriol and occasional humour. It may not cause an awakening - and should perhaps not either - but it is well worth the time spent reading.

søndag 29. juli 2012

A place of one's own

A little lowly Hermitage it was
Downe in a dale, hard by a forests side,
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

A short while back I read an article in the Huffington post about the retreats of famous writers and I was thrilled to see a selection of the various nooks and cells to which people repaired for the sake of literary production. I have myself for quite some time been fascinated by the idea of leaving the world and humanity behind for a brief space of time and dedicate oneself to the task of writing, thinking and reading.

Since I am currently overdue on my MA thesis I needed to do some editing this summer. This can be very difficult to get done when there are duties to take into consideration at home, when your days are not entirely your own and when things move a bit too fast when they shouldn't move fast at all. Consequently I took two Sundays off, installed myself in my late paternal grandparents' house and brought with me food and other material I needed for the work.

I established my tryst by the window in my boyhood room and placed my books within reach, put the kettle (or rather a pan with water in it) on in the kitchen and started working. It was delightful to get back to my thesis after weeks of non-academic labour and I found an immense serenity in the task, letting the hours pass by only to break my work flow whenever tea or food was needed.

Late in the evening of the first Sunday I finished after I had edited the second and third chapters, leaving the fourth and fifth to the next day when I realised I was no longer paying proper attention to my own words. The rest of the evening was spent reading Joseph Brodsky's Rome Elegies while dabbling a bit with poetry of my own while listening to a deluge hammering down at the world outside.

The next session was this Sunday and lasted only the afternoon since the task at hand was less daunting and I had already managed to get some of it done earlier in the day. Again I found my room to be a perfect anchorite cell for this purpose, and I found the house very well situated for a writer at work since I could - when needed - step out on the verandah and stare idly at the water, smell the summer and observe my native community at a small distance.

When today's alloted load was done I retreated to my bed briefly and relaxed with the words of Pablo Neruda. I always find poetry to be a good diversion after time spent reading things demanding more focus and there is a particular joy in reading 20th century verse in a house where the 20th century still lingers in every wall and corner, and where nostalgia makes it easier to absorb the sense of longing one so often find in poets of that period.

onsdag 11. juli 2012

In response to Titian

The London National Gallery is currently housing an exhibition called MetamorphosisTitian 2012, launched this very day (July 11) and celebrating the 16th-century Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio known by his nicknames Belluno or, more famously, Titian (1488/90-1576). The exhibition features commissioned works by contemporary artists and poets responding to three of Titian's paintings after Ovid's Metamorphoses, three paintings that occupy the exhibition's centrestage. Being an admirer of Titian's work myself I became very enthusiastic to learn about this and I have just begun to immerse myself in the project, which is a part of the Cultural Olympiad's London 2012 Festival and features poets like Simon Armitage, George Szirtes, Frances Leviston and numerous others. Personally I was most excited by the inclusion of Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney, whose chilling poem "Actaeon" can be heard here.

Inspired by this exhibition I decided to put up one of my own responses to one of Titian's works, albeit a paiting very different from the dramatic and mythological illustrations of Ovid's poetry. The work in question is the famous Venus of Urbino from 1538, commissioned two years earlier by the duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo della Rovere.

Venus Couchant

After Titian's Venus of Urbino

I notice how she eyed you from the start,
Her playful eyes fast fixed in your direction,
But this you noticed only for the art,
It was included merely for perfection;
You just percieved her looks, not her affection.

Imagine then, Belluno, for a girl
Of her estate to show herself like this,
For one short while the centre of your world
Beholding how you worked, then think: "this is
A handsome man, oh would he dared to kiss!"

And you? You eyed her maidens and her house,
Her little lapdog sleeping on the bed;
Perhaps this negligence was what aroused
Her smile and that coy tilting of the head,
While you were painting furniture instead.

Perchance she thought that you were such a man
Her maids would whisper of in nightly hours,
A man to kiss her lips and take her hand
And lead her to a dark secluded tower
Or let some fragrant grove serve as a bower.

She would not know the full depths of her dream,
Her being only young and innocent,
Almost a child, not more than seventeen,
Yet with a stare so yearning, reverent
Which your stern silence seemed but to augment.

And so she blushed, ah, yes, you caught that, too,
Yet failed to see her passion was that strong;
You were the world to her, Belluno, you,
A man of fifty years and her so young;
You noticed but her tresses, how they hung.

She loved you, dear Belluno, verily,
She loved you for your movements and your grace,
She studied both, you see, quite avidly
And mapped your features with her dreaming gaze,
So dreaming she might conjure up your face.

These were her thoughts, you see them plainly there
Made manifest in blushes and her eyes;
To all but you, of course, they seem so clear,
But you did never heed them, and likewise
Will never she heed any husband's eyes.
- November 01-02 2010

fredag 6. juli 2012

Reading Jane Griffiths - Part I

A couple of months back I decided to explore the works of female poets, having realised that the vast majority of poets in my library are men. This led me to the works of Jane Griffiths, a poet born in 1970 and perhaps most famous for her doctorate on the Tudor poet John Skelton and Poetic Authority. I purchased her first collection, A Grip on Thin Air, and read it with great anticipation after I had browsed through the tantalising titles in the index. I realised, from the titles alone, that Jane Griffiths is the sort of poet I very much want to like and admire. After having read her first collection, however, I could not make up my mind what I thought of her poetry and I decided to dedicate two blogpost to how I read Jane Griffiths so as to elucidate the matter for myself. I have decided to make this an opus germinatum, a twin-work with a prose component and a poetic component, in the manner of Sedulius Scotus and Aldhelm of Malmesbury. This blogpost is the poetic part and it treats my reaction to A Grip on Thin Air. The poem is not exhaustive in this regard, it does not explore all the motley particulars of my reaction to this collection, but it sums up the general idea. Once I have read her second collection, Icarus on Earth, I will compose the prose part.


For Jane Griffiths

He, when thinking of her poetry, imagines fields
that playfully stretch towards the horizon,
the artificially divided landscapes
and skylines begging travellers to play catch.

He imagines the middle-worlds of airports
whose transient inhabitants are reduced
to numbers and last names, whose faces
are by the edifice made faceless, mute and blank.

He imagines the kingdoms that the airports make:
realms of their own reality whose strange laws
dictate their own geography and claim
that Schiphol is not really a part of Holland.

He imagines the armadas of aeroplanes,
quaint homeless things on whom they all depend:
the kingdoms and their rulers and their denizens
whose gyrovague existences come and go.

He imagines the sun through windows. Behind glass
the sun reflects in metals and the fleeting clouds
and sometimes, almost taunting, can be seen
singeing the horizon in its constant calm.

He imagines this and more of these conjured kingdoms
when her versed pages pass beneath his gaze,
perfunctorily and well beyond his scrutiny,
drifting but leaving imprinted memories.
- May 27 2012