‘Time Present and Time Past': Winter Reading for St. Lucy’s Day

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In this post, I’m putting together some winter reading recommendations. A lot of these are either children’s books, or about children’s books – which I suspect isn’t coincidental.

The obvious thing to read for St. Lucy’s day is John Donne’s ‘Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day’, which is here. The poem was written while England still used the Old Calendar (the calendar some Orthodox Christians still use, in which Christmas day is January 7th), and so St Lucy’s Day, the 13th of December, is also the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, which is now relocated to December 21st. This slippage of time captures something else about this season, which is the role that nostalgia for the past and anticipation for the future play.

In Christian theology – and particularly medieval theology – the liturgical calendar is all about observing a moving programme of repetitions that are both cylic, and teleological, focussed on an end and a goal. Advent is like this: both a progression towards Christmas, and a repeating cycle year on year. In medieval liturgy, Advent foreshadows Lent, as a time of fasting and penitence, but it is also a time of excitement, building up to the celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas. So, the stories I’ve picked catch some of this sense of nostalgia and anticipation, of ‘once’ and ‘in the future,’ that characterises medieval Advent. 

The other day I picked up Helen MacDonald’s non-fiction book H is for Hawk, which is partly an account of her struggle to come to terms with her dad’s death, partly a description of what it’s like to train a Goshawk while working as a twenty-first century lecturer living in Cambridge, and partly a reading of T. H. White’s medieval-influenced book The Goshawk. I’m enjoying this book, which is full of lovely, spare descriptions of fen landscapes as seen through the eyes of a hawk, which (as MacDonald observes elsewhere), sees not three colours but four, including ultraviolet light:

“Stuart pulls off the road onto a farm track to the west of the city. The evening is warm, but there’s a torn-paper whiteness behind the sun that speaks of frost to come. I unhood the hawk. Her pale eyes stare out across the hillside of stubble and chalky till, at slopes cut with hedgerows crisped at their edge into shot-silk taffeta. She sees skeletal teasels and fencewires. Larks calling overhead. A discarded twelve-gauge shotgun cartridge by my feet. Red.”

It’s beautiful writing.

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There’s one point where MacDonald comments on White’s re-writing of Malory’s Morte Darthur (The Sword in the Stone), noting that while Malory described Merlin’s fate of imprisonment in a cave under a hill, it was White, not Malory, who gave Merlin the tragic foreknowledge of that fate. It’s not so, or at least not to my reading of the Morte. Malory has Merlin explain to Arthur (who has yet to marry Guinevere but has already set in motion the tragic events that will result in his own battle with his son Mordred):

“‘it is gods wyll youre body to be punysshed for your fowle dedes. But I may wel be sory,’ said Merlyn, ‘for I shalle dye a shameful deth to be put in the erthe quyck and ye shall dye a worshipful deth.”

This is all we really hear of Arthur’s death, since – famously – the narrative leaves uncertain whether the Arthur of the last chapters is fatally wounded or whether he will come again, “rex quondam, rexque futurus”: sometime king, and king to be. Merlin’s fate, on the other hand, comes surprisingly early in Malory’s narrative, given how large the character looms in other stories of Arthur. Tricked by his lover Nimue, Merlin is trapped in a cave in the roots of a hawthorn bush, buried alive.

frost

The cadences of Malory’s prose are constantly indebted to the Vulgate Bible (which echoes behind the King James version we are more likely to know today) and to the liturgy; when he describes how it is rumoured that Arthur is not dead but “he will come again,” I think we are supposed to catch the echo of the liturgy of Christ (another king who is dead-but-not-dead), who “will come again, to judge the quick and the dead”.

Merlin’s foreknowledge is – like the image of Arthur sleeping in Avalon, his beginning and ending summed up in that uncertain pairing of ‘sometime’ and in time ‘to come’ – tragic because nothing, neither foreknowledge nor the knowledge of the cyclic nature of time, can lessen the human experience of finality.

Susan Cooper, author of the phenomenally brilliant children’s book series The Dark is Rising, plays with this same idea of time folded over and cyclic, of Arthur’s return and Merlin’s entrapment. Her second book focuses on Will, a boy growing up in a large country family in the 1970s, who gradually discovers the presence of shadowy forces of good and evil from centuries past are hovering on the edges of his own reality. In this narrative, Merlin features as a present-day character as well as a legend from the past, whose once-time servant Haukin is driven to betray him through terror, and whom Will meets as a half-mad beggar stumbling through snowy woods. This is an echo of the medieval poet Langland’s character of Haukyn, a labourer in a torn and tattered coat who is excluded from the central character’s light-filled visions of the Christ-knight who will come to save the world. Cooper’s world is filled with anticipation and nostalgia – from Will’s anticipation of the snow he hopes will fall on his birthday (the shortest day, the 21st of December), to the nostalgic image of carol singing in which Will sees the present world fall away and imagines the carols of an earlier Christmas gathering.

Another wintery read is Alan Garner’s eerie and atmospheric description of the journey he took to write his novel ThursbitchHis journey crosses the Pennine landscape and involves a wintery encounter with a half-buried eighteenth-century memorial stone on a lonely hillside. This stone leads him to a local legend of a man found dead on a snowy hillside with the print of a woman’s shoe in the snow beside him, and on from that to what he believes to be the real location for the fictional Green Chapel of the fourteenth-century Christmas poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This mapping of the worlds of long-ago fiction onto real geography is beautifully spooky, as if we could see the ghosts of the past if we were only able to be in the right place.

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A Christmas story that makes use of this sense of time and place is The Children of Green Knowe, in which a lonely motherless boy, Tolly, goes to stay with his great-grandmother in a twelfth-century house for Christmas, where he slips through time to meet a family of children from the reign of Charles II. In the 1980s a TV series was made of it, set in the real house at Hemingford Grey, which is of course of the kind of quality you’d expect for 1986, but which makes you wish they’d remake it.

Lucy M. Boston, like Cooper, makes beautifully evocative use of weather, and where Cooper  brings to life the smell of the air before a snow fall and the restless flurrying of rooks in the treetops, Boston describes a Christmas of heavy flooding in the fens, with water cutting off the house from everything around it, with thunder and lightning that gives way to deep snow and the singing of the carol Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.

The story isn’t purely Christmassy though, or at least not purely celebratory. Listening to a carol sung in the next room and four hundred years ago, Tolly’s grandmother gives a perfect response to why Christmas carols can be sad:

‘It is lovely, only it is such a long time ago. I don’t know why that should be sad, but sometimes it seems so.’ 

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More Recommendations for Advent

Not all of these are time-travel stories, and they are not all set at Christmas (though A Traveller in Time culminates with a brilliantly plangent Christmas scene). But they all seem to me to fit the bill for nostalgia, anticipation, and a sense of time passing.

Alison Uttley, A Traveller in Time
Dorothy Sayers, Nine Tailors
Antonia Forest, End of Term (Kingscote)
Rosemary Sutcliff, Knight’s Fee and The Armourer’s House
Anya Seton, Katharine.

Please add yours in the comments.

The best ever version of the Christmas story itself, by the way, is Jan Pienkowski’s silhouette illustrations to an abridged synthesis from the King James Bible (abridged syntheses of the Bible are very medieval).

Note

The pictures are mine. As with everything else on this blog, please don’t use without permission. Thanks!

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Advent at King’s College, Cambridge: A Post about Learning to Belong

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View from Garret Hostel Bridge over Clare, with King’s Chapel in the distance.

Since I started teaching this term, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes something inclusive. How do I include all of these students? How do I attract students who’re already worrying they may not ‘fit in’? At what point do I have to do something that threatens to leave some of them behind, and when can I afford to use terminology and concepts that aren’t easily accessible?

Medieval literature can seem pretty inaccessible. As a medievalist, I have a working familiarity with Latin; I know a fair bit about reading and handling manuscripts (these texts aren’t easy to read and even when printed in modern editions, they use letters we don’t usually see, like þ and з), and I rely on a lot of Christian theology which, like the Latin, can carry very awkward connotations about inclusion and exclusion.

This term, I was lecturing on the long Middle English poem Piers Plowman, which is phenomenally demanding. The impact of the exclusionary aspects of the text break down along gendered, racial and class lines, which is what makes them so difficult to teach around. To give the most obvious examples, students from State schools are less likely to be familiar with Latin; students who have never been targets of anti-Semitism may be less likely to find Langland’s habitual vitriol triggering, and I’m very conscious that my background as a high church Anglican gives me an advantage in coming to terms with the implications of a text that truly believes all non-Christians are in for eternal damnation. The effects of unfamiliarity are what we might call micro-exclusions (extending the useful concept of microaggressions). They’re tacit, but they do affect us along those lines of pre-existing discrimination.

This Sunday, I went to the Procession for Advent service at King’s College Chapel, a service that is not dissimilar in its liturgical texture, nor in its high potential for exclusion, to Piers Plowman. Now, I’ve got to admit, since I got my current job, I have been pinching myself to believe it’s not a giant mistake, and one of the things that got me most geekily excited was getting to hear King’s choir.

Church interior, from the Psalter of Henry VI (London, BL MS Cotton Domitian A. XVII, f. 12v). Henry VI initiated the building of King's College Chapel.

Church interior, from the Psalter of Henry VI (London, BL MS Cotton Domitian A. XVII, f. 12v). Henry VI initiated the building of King’s College Chapel.

You can get a bit of the idea of the structure of the service from this youtube link (sorry for the quality), but basically it’s choir singing interspersed with Bible readings. It began in darkness – and 88 metres of cathedral can get very, very dark at the altar end when the only light is coming in through the far door – and gradually, as the choir processed slowly up towards the altar, they brought candles and light with them.

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I’m no expert on liturgy, medieval or modern. And this service was set up in 1934 by the then Dean of King’s, so it’s not got a long history. Eric Milner-White served as a chaplain in the First World War, and I’ve always associated that kind of post-war atmosphere of piety with the kind of service this is.

But, despite its newness, the service made me think of the ancient pre-Easter service of Tenebrae, in which all the lights in the church are gradually put out, until at last a book is slammed shut and the noise echoes around the pitch black church. That service is threaded through the medieval narrative of Piers Plowman, in which the author imagines Christ descending into Hell in the form of a light, which leaves the world in darkness on Good Friday, but which lightens up Hell, blinds the devil, and frees the souls kept captive there.

This service is, obviously, a reverse of that one, and, in a similar way to Tenebrae or to a medieval poem like Piers Plowman, it was full of symbolic light and sound and gesture. The antiphons between readings or hymns were sung in Latin; there was a bit of post-conversion T. S. Eliot and a couple of medieval carols.

A carol written by Henry VIII: bastard in his personal life, but hey, cute music manuscript.

A carol written by Henry VIII: bastard in his personal life, but hey, cute music manuscript. London, BL MS Add. 31922, f. 36v.

I know a lot of people would find many aspects of this service, and its context in a university college chapel, highly problematic. It’s not an accessible form of worship, as you can tell from the connotations I’m finding in it. It’s not designed to be easily interpreted, and a perfect (literal) example of this was found in the notes at the beginning of the service booklet, which warned us not to expect to be able to read it during the service itself. And you don’t just wander along. You can queue for a place in the street on the day, but you’ll be sitting behind the rood screen, and the majority of people who go, are going because they have tickets. Finally, you have a sense that you’re trespassing into male-only space. King’s choir has traditionally been all male, and it did piss me off to see that the male choir had a group of women processing with them, whose job was to carry the candles … but not to sing.

I was wondering how to respond to this, as I looked back over the carols the choir sung, and particularly one Middle English carol. It’s in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Arch. Selden. B. 26, f. 14v, if you’re interested, and A Clerk of Oxford has a nice blog post about it. There’s a version on youtube here, you can look at the manuscript page (complete with music) here, and here are the lyrics (I’ve modernised thorn to ‘th’ and yogh to ‘y’ or gh, but left the rest of the spelling as is):

Nowel, nowel, nowel,
Nowel, nowel, nowel.

Owt of your slepe aryse & wake
For God mankynd nowe hath ytake
al of a maide without eny make,
of al women she bereth the belle.

And thorwe a maide faire and wys,
Now man is made of ful gret pris,
Now angelys knelen to mannys seruys,
& at this tyme al this byfel.

Now man is brighter than the sonne,
Now man in heuen an hye shal wonne,
Blessyd God this game is begonne,
& his moder emperesse of helle.

That euer was thralle, now ys he fre,
That euer was smalle, now gret is she;
Now shal God deme both the & me,
Unto his blysse, yf we do wel.

Now man may to heuen wende,
Now heuen & erthe to hym they bende,
He that was foo, now is oure frende,
This is no nay that Y yowe telle.

Now, blessyd brother, graunte vs grace
At domes day to se thy face,
And in thy courte to haue a place,
That we mow there synge nowel.

The place where this carol manuscript was copied was an exclusionary space: a monastery in Worcester, a space whose exclusion mirrors wider exclusions of women throughout medieval society. The choir who sung it in King’s Chapel are performing in a context of music and worship which, likewise, has an exclusionary history, a history of male-only space in which the Church and the university often seem to speak in one (Latin) voice. Yet, this carol balances exclusion with strong, and interestingly gendered images of community. 

The carol places Christ’s birth in the context of his coming battle with the devil, which will see Mary reign as ‘emperesse of Hell’. The ‘game’ begun with Christ’s birth is this contest, and this word reminds me very much of other medieval narratives. Langland’s Piers Plowman, which was written perhaps sixty or so years before this carol is first recorded and was circulated in the same West Midlands area, imagines the conflict between Christ and the devil over the rights to the souls in Hell as a matter of wit and trickery, not just a contest of brute force. In the same way, Langland’s contemporary the Gawain-poet, also writing in the West Midlands, uses the motif of a ‘Christmas game’ to stage a conflict over the human soul of his hero.

I love the drama of that image, and I love how the carol telescopes time, so that everything from Christ’s birth to the Harrowing of Hell is condensed into this single narrative, with a glance forward even to the end of Time.

The image of the first verse is completely standard, even a bit of a cliché: Mary is ‘a maide without eny make,’ that is, a woman without a ‘make’ (= mate, or husband) and a woman without any ‘make’ (= match or peer; ie., a peerless woman). The next mention of her, however, jolts us out of cliché: 

Blessyd God this game is begonne,
& his moder emperesse of helle.

The chronology of the carol skips straight from Christ’s birth and the beginning of the ‘game’ for man’s soul, to the image of the Virgin reigning over conquered Hell. There’s a similar startling discontinuity in another medieval carol, Adam Lay Y-Bounden, which I’ve written about before, and which jumps straight from the taking of the apple in the garden of Eden, to its unexpectedly fortunate result, the coming of the Virgin Mary to be humanity’s intercessor in heaven.

The exclusion of parts of the well-known narrative lets us look at it in a new light. On the one hand, the writer has entirely excluded the human history of Mary from his carol. This image of Mary as a powerful empress rather than a human mother harks back to the older iconography (which you can still see a lot of in the Orthodox Church). It’s deliberately more awe-inspiring and less sympathetic than the later imagery of Mary as nurturing mother, and it’s slightly out of step with the fifteenth century, slightly exclusionary and distant, bringing us up short. But, at the same time, it makes me wonder whether this exclusionary image doesn’t have its positive points: it’s an image of a female figure who is primarily powerful rather than emotional, awe-inspiring rather than humble.

And the depictions of gender become even more startling. When the author describes ordinary humanity, he writes:

“That euer was thralle, now ys he fre,
That euer was smalle, now gret is she”

(‘Whoever was enslaved, now he is free./ Whoever was small, now great is she.’)

This is the sort of elegantly gender-balanced language you’d expect in a modern piece of writing, by someone rendering feminist theories of language into religious verse. And yet it fits into this fifteenth-century carol.

Finally, what puts a shiver down my spine (in a good way) is the last verse, which I’ll quote again in modern English:

“Now blessed brother grant us grace
At doomes day to see thy face,
And at thy court to have a place,
That we may there sing nowell.”

Partly, this works for me because in medieval literature, there are dozens of writers who use unexpected family relationships to imagine their bond with God. But I like both the parity and the monasticism implied by ‘brother’. Since this manuscript was copied (if not necessarily composed) in a monastery, I like to think that the writer might have been imagining Christ as if he were another ‘brother’ in religion. It suggests a real familial warmth to the relationships between monks, which I don’t think we often think about.

I do think this is interesting in terms of gender. We’re so often encouraged to think about how oppressed or disempowered groups might establish mutually supportive relationships, and we often study the bonds created in the women-only spaces inhabited by medieval nuns, or the support between medieval women from all walks of life.

But we’re less inclined to look at the emotional and familial bonds between men, perhaps because emotional and familial bonding is (in modern culture) so often seen as part of the feminine sphere and, in the extreme, as an aspect of wifework, which I’ve written about before. So, we end up reinforcing the idea that emotion and accessability are gendered, that we should always be able to imagine and relate to women’s emotions, while men’s are a closed book.

The author of this carol didn’t imagine a Christian community in which ‘he’ meant ‘all humanity’ and women weren’t mentioned, which is something some modern writers still fail to do. And I find it difficult to fault him for falling back on the exclusively male space of the medieval monastery as his personal image of the ‘court’ of heaven, because I can see how, for a medieval monk, the language of ‘brotherhood’ might provide the most immediate emotional connection.

I feel lucky to be able to read all of the resonances of liturgy and medieval context into a service like this one, a poem like Piers Plowman, or a carol like ‘Arise and Wake’. I’m conscious that people often perceive the kinds of texts I read, and the kinds of experiences I’m having at the moment, as inaccessible, and feel these kinds of text or performance are ‘not for them’. I’m trying to find ways to make these texts more accessible – not by ignoring the difficulties of interpretation they cause, but by exploring the ways in which they can question even the exclusionary situations within which they were produced. The richness of these medieval carols, of this (perhaps exclusionary) modern liturgy, of a poem like ones I teach, is something incredibly difficult to grasp. But when you do grasp it, and get through all of those micro-exclusions, you may find texts – and people – struggling with the same questions of how to avoid exclusion, how to imagine a properly inclusive community.

Update

I just thought I’d link to an account of the Carols from Kings TV service, filmed a few days ago, on Mary Beard’s blog. I was passing through King’s as the TV crew were preparing to film, and found out they light the chapel from outside, which makes sense, but also makes it look amazing as you look back across the river. Here.

Notes

It’s worth knowing that, as a college, King’s has an established tradition of active efforts to attract students who might not initially feel comfortable applying to Cambridge.

If you want to know more about medieval carols or their manuscripts, check out this blog post over at the British Library site, by Sandra Tuppen. It’s a lovely Christmassy read.

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The Ups and Downs of Being a Dyslexic Academic

Chaucer's Alphabet Poem. From Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 239, f. 81r.

Chaucer’s Alphabet Poem. From Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 239, f. 81r.

“And ‘a’, and ‘b’, and ‘c’ … xyz, xy with esed, and per se, Tyttle Tyttle Tyttle than Est and Amen.” 

This string of alphabetic letters and puzzling interjections comes from a medieval manuscript, London, BL MS Harley 1304. It probably looks like gibberish, or reminds you of the incomprehensibility of the written page you felt when you were learning to read. But for a medieval child, these marks had meaning: aside from the alphabetic letters, the ‘esed’ tells a child how to say the letter ‘z’, while the ‘and, per se’ (‘and, just as it is’) provided a key to the & symbol included at the end of the traditional alphabet. Every word and name, however odd, had a meaning, but they also remind us how easily written culture can become strange and incomprehensible.

I’ve been meaning to write a post about dyslexia and being an academic for, ooh, about a year now, but I’ve been putting it off. And then, today I read this excellent post by a fellow dyslexic academic, in which she pointed out that it’s Dyslexia Awareness Week. So, here’s a post. It’s not everything I want to say, but it’s something.

For me, for a long time, being dyslexic was something I was pretty comfortable with, something I’d acknowledge easily, but which honestly didn’t affect my academic life much.

I was much more likely to need help with the boring day-to-day side of things. I’ll give you an example of why. Imagine you’re in the Post Office, posting a parcel using a self-service machine to print the label. You need to type in the Post Code. Now, a normal digit span is between five and nine. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll err on the low side and say six. That’s the number of digits most people can comfortably manage to keep in mind for a moment or two, while they write it down. If you think about it, you’ll see how most things are nicely adapted to this – bank cards come with the numbers separated neatly into groups of four, post codes are six or seven digits, your PIN is four digits.

Oddly, this seems to be something that’s stayed consistent for a while. Medieval educated people knew about chunking things into sixes and sevens. But, they didn’t immediately adapt their numeric system, because few people really needed to use it for big numbers. They mostly used Roman numerals, and you can see that these aren’t the best adapted for large numbers. 1998, for example, is four digits, while its equivalent MCMXCVIII is more than double that.

My digit span is three at a push and two to be comfortable. So, it’s 1/3 of normal.

Imagine you’re standing at a self-service machine, trying to type in the postcode for the letter you’re trying to post. Only now, imagine that postcode is OQFXJD298 894PLZGFH. And imagine that the buttons you have to press are arranged in a random order, too, so you need to look for each letter and number. You don’t track well, so imagine they shift around slightly every time you look away. The machine is set up to assume you can type this string of letters and numbers pretty much instantly, without pausing to check it where the buttons are. So it’ll time out if you take too long.

You can probably see where I’m going. I time out. I hate using self-service machines. I’d rather queue, and if I’m not allowed to do that, someone has to come and help me. Mostly, if that person isn’t impatient (actually, they’re often not), they will assume they’re dealing with someone with low literacy. They’ll be kind, and I have on occasion had someone ask me if I’ll get home ok. It’s thoughtful, but it’s the kind of help doesn’t easily sit alongside careers in academia in most people’s minds.

But in academia, it was a different story. Writing a PhD, or even doing an undergraduate degree in English, is actually reasonably dyslexia-friendly. It’s also very isolated.

When I was writing my PhD thesis, I initially wanted to focus on non-standard medieval reading, so obviously, I did disclose my dyslexia, because I using it as a research tool. My supervisors were quick to make accommodations, so that was fine. It perhaps should have been a warning sign that one of my supervisors occasionally commented that I seemed to have a slightly unusual process of drafting chapters – but I didn’t worry too much. Last summer, I finally handed in my thesis – some inch-and-a-half thick block of A4 pages full of footnotes and picture captions and transcriptions of Middle English. At some stage in this process, my supervisor suggested I should let my examiners know I was ‘severely dyslexic’. I winced back from that term. It’s one that’s used (in my experience) in formal reports, and I knew I wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination severely dyslexic. But she pointed out she’d rarely taught students who struggled as much as I did.

This wasn’t something I’d been aware of. I’d been coasting along quite happily, and it was a bit of a shock to wiggle myself back into that old identity as the struggling dyslexic student – the one I hadn’t really felt was ‘me’ for a long time. To cut a long story short, I did pass my PhD, but I did fail my corrections the first time around. My internal examiner was, to put it mildly, Not Happy. She’d put a lot of time into making a very clear list of corrections – why on earth hadn’t I bothered?! If I’d known I wasn’t managing the corrections, why hadn’t I asked for help?

The answer (obviously, but I didn’t immediately understand) was that I’d had no idea I was having problems on the level she saw. I’d skip thirty lines and not even notice. I’d make a correction, then put it straight back. I couldn’t keep track of which page I was on.

Eventually, I took a breath, and asked for help. I got a lot of proof-reading from friends (and my very generous supervisor) that year – and that’s a lot in the context of PhD students, who ask each other to proof-read all the time. I resubmitted my corrections and held my breath, and this time, I did get through.

At the moment, I’m lecturing medieval English, which is something I’m sure my infant school teacher didn’t quite expect. I’ve made a lot of progress. Five years ago, I struggled to read a twenty-minute conference paper. I had to learn to memorize it, instead of reading aloud. Now, I can memorise an hour’s lecture and I know how to sort out my lecture notes (14 point type, double spaced, short paragraphs, lots of italic and bold and pointy arrows) so that I can glance at them if I need to.

I can even lecture for an hour on Piers Plowman, and that is hard, reading aloud in Middle English and unpicking syntax on a powerpoint I can’t read for myself. I’m thankful alliterative long lines only have four or five stresses. It’s draining doing those lectures, but fun to know I can do it, too.

When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t know of any dyslexic academics. If I was taught by any, they didn’t make a point of talking about it. I’m trying to talk about it, not just to make excuses, but because, actually, you can adapt to most things. Slowly, I’m bringing together the two sides of how I deal with dyslexia – the side I use in the Post Office queue, where I ask for help and I know it’s obvious I’m struggling, and the side I use in academia, where for a long time, I didn’t feel as if there should be any struggle at all. I really enjoy being dyslexic. I’m interested in the pedagogy of it, and the psychology, and the histories of orthography that inform how our own reading systems developed. I’d like to think there will be more and more of us working in academia, who can bring these slightly skewed perspectives to the table.

Every now and again, in a medieval manuscript, I come across some scribbles by children learning the alphabet. And every now and again, I notice some of the letters are backwards, in the wrong order. I can’t show you a picture, because I don’t have the copyright – but you can imagine that when I see that, it really makes me feel at home.

Notes

For more on the medieval alphabet, see Daniel T. Kline’s book Medieval Literature for Children (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), especially the article by Martha Dana Rust, from which the alphabet above is quoted.

For more on Dyslexia Awareness, see the pages by the British Dyslexia Association and Dyslexia Action.

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If you think feminism is winning, read this. (Trigger warning)

I’ve just been absolutely blown away by the question one of my brilliant students asked. So much so, in fact, that it’s only just sunk in.

Now, I’m enjoying lecturing and it’s the beginning of term, so it’s maybe not surprising that the five minutes of questions at the end of the lecture has been my favourite bit. Yesterday, I was lecturing on one of the theories about how to define Middle English romance as a genre. There’s an idea that it grew out of national epic, as a way to offer the class of men who needed to marry and to fight (that is, knights) a paradigm of virtuous life that wasn’t the peaceable, celibate life of the medieval saint. So far, you may think, so dry. But this lecture meant I talked a lot about racism and a fair bit about sexual violence, because both of those things are used by medieval authors to imply that men – and English men at that – are not thugs but heroes, while painting women and non-whites as inferior.

One popular episode in the Arthurian tradition is a really glaring example. Arthur – our wonderful English hero – travels to France, where he is told that a murderous giant has abducted an aristocratic woman, Arthur’s own subject. Arthur goes charging to the rescue, but he is too late. An old woman tells him she has just buried the mutilated body of the woman he seeks to protect: she was raped so violently she died.

This horrific episode is, in narrative terms, designed to serve an important and specific purpose. Arthur, the hero, is no saintly warrior. In his youth, he committed incest with his sister and produced a son, Mordred, whom he then tried to kill by sentencing all the babies born within that time to death by drowning. Arthur’s sin of sexual deviance followed by murder of an innocent can only be blotted out by the dramatic description of a worse sin of the same kind, which throws our sympathy behind the ‘least worst’ option.

In my lecture, I discussed this example, the rhetorically sophisticated language of the author, the parallels to post-medieval tropes of English masculinity, and a host of other things. In my mind, this episode was typical of Middle English romance, because of the way it uses the graphic violence of rape to further the reputation of a defender of women, rather than to change or explore the situation of the raped woman.

My student asked whether we ever read romances in which men rape their wives.

I began to explain that, in medieval England, the law did not recognise marital rape as a crime, and as I explained that, it dawned on me that the majority of my students – people who are young adults in 2014 – have never lived in a time in which, in England, marital rape was not a crime. They saw it as a medieval barbarity.

My title responds to Laura Bates’ article in the Guardian, which claims that the backlash against feminism proves that we are winning. I like her argument. I think she’s right. The sea change that means that my students can image marital rape might have been a medieval crime shows she is right. When I was born, marital rape was legal in England. It should be shameful that this brings me closer to a medieval legal system than to modern one. But, at the same time, I’m shocked by the slowness of real change – it took six hundred years to move on with the definition of rape! And that makes me second-guess the ‘progress’ we’re trying to celebrate.

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Academics: They’re not Women, you Know.

I’ve just read (via twitter link from two female academics, Alice Bell and Lisa Jardine), this delightful Guardian article, titled ‘Why do academics dress so badly? Answer: they are too happy’.

Well, that’s lovely, I thought. It is nice to see an article acknowledging that, amid the chaos of REF 2020 and funding cuts and short-term contracts, there is someone sticking up for the fun side of academic life. I’ve just started a new job. It comes with perks like an actual living wage and the chance to move to a city with decent shopping. One of the things I have very much enjoyed doing with said living wage was buying a couple of new dresses and a very swish dressing gown from Nomads on King’s Parade, which is one of my favourite shops in the world. (Don’t worry, I also splashed out on some lovely new books and spent time walking past King’s chapel sighing contentedly and pretending I was in Granchester with James Norton. I have a Life of the Mind, you know).

The article tries for an arch, tongue-in-cheek tone. But as I read it, I was confused.

Paisley body warmers? Cornish pasty shoes? ‘Amusing’ cufflinks? Fortunately, Marx can explain our crimes of fashion,” it began. 

That’s funny, I thought. I can’t remember when I thought of wearing any of those.

Ostensibly, the article engaged with the question of gender in academic dress. That is to say, it dragged out the tired old chestnut that women can wear whatever they like and men have to wear suits. And it’s so hard for them! To be all fashionable! Because they have thinky-thoughts and everything!

Women (who are, btw, on average doing the lion’s share of housework and child-tending), don’t have such difficulties. Their butterfly minds rise above the serious work of hard thinking (or the dollops of baby-sick) and straight in to LK Bennett. Well, my mind does. I have no child-sick to contend with.

If you are wondering why I’m irritated by this article, read it, and look at its use of language. ‘Academic’ is, virtually throughout, synonymous with ‘male academic’. Early on, a woman is referred to as a ‘colleague’ (in implicit contrast to the ‘academic’ to whom she speaks). Now, sure, she might well be non-academic staff, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that an article on how ‘academics’ dress is really all about men.

There was one ray of light – and I thought we were getting to some kind of sensible acknowledgement that women academics existed, for eventually we reached a straight comparison of what men and women academics should wear to look good.

Apparently, for a man to look good as an academic, what he needs are good cufflinks. No brand, you know. Just cufflinks. The last time I bought cufflinks (and they were nice), they cost about £40.

For a woman to look good as an academic?

“a Hermès scarf should be enough to swing the vote.”

Oh, ok then. Mind if I pick the cheapie option? I’m so sorry, I know … but £250 is more than my weekly rent, so …

I could go on about this article, which has really irritated me with its casual assumptions about who the default ‘academic’ is, and I could moan more about its utterly patronizing and misguided attempts to throw a bone to those few women readers who might care. I will point out that the financial side of things matters, in part, because the average age and seniority of female academics is lower than that of men, so we are less (not more) likely to be in a good position to shell out on that designer scarf to impress. And, sadly, we’re also more likely to be judged for it if we claim we’re just too ‘happy’ to care about how we look. But, I’m not going to go on. I’m an academic, and caring about my clothes not only makes me happy – it’s also perfectly compatible with being fulfilled by my academic work.

A few weeks ago, the very stylish Rachel Moss set up this tumblr account, ‘This is How Academics Dress’. You can add pictures, to broaden everyone’s stereotype of what academics look like. This is a hugely positive thing: a simple, effective way of showing people that there’s a wide range of academic images, far more diverse than the ‘(white) man in a suit’ we’re used to seeing.

More recently, I was discussing clothing with my brilliant third-year student, who is starting to write a fascinating dissertation on the subject (why yes, Prof Wolff, people can expend real academic energy and time on clothing! I know, right?!). I won’t spoiler her research, which is her own, but there was one snippet I thought relevant. We noticed how much, when you read and look at medieval texts, men dress in flamboyant clothes, in silks, in embroideries. For us, it’s easy to read those clothes as ‘feminine,’ because that’s our stereotype. But we’d be wrong. The tiny details of masculine dress – the green and gold of, say, the disguised baddie in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which tells a sharp-eyed observer how to spot him later in the text – are designed to separate the clever readers from the dupes. In short: clothing matters.

NYC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection. The Belle Heures of Jean, Duc du Berry. c. 1400. St Jerome in a Woman's Dress

And never more than for poor St Jerome, a martry to a pretty dress. Perhaps this explains the deep-seated male anguish over academic clothing? Image from http://johanoosterman.tumblr.com/.

Update

It’s been suggested I need to clarify that, in this post, I am referring to academics who teach and/or research at universities, not to teachers in schools. I’m not sure what the dress codes are in most schools, but they may be quite different. Apologies to anyone offended.

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Witches and Wicked Bodies: Imagining the ‘Other’

Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520. Exhibition Poster for 'Witches and Wicked Bodies' at the British Museum

Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520. Exhibition Poster for ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ at the British Museum

This weekend I went to the ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies‘ exhibition at the British Museum. It’s free, and open until January 11th, and I really enjoyed it.

It’s not a big exhibition, and it’s all moody and wintery with very little colour (mostly black-and-white prints and drawings and so on). There are a few ‘flashbacks’ to the earlier sources that influenced later artists, including a really gorgeous Boeotian Greek vase with an image of the witch Odysseus meets, Circe, pictured as an African woman.

This made me think about race, and I noticed was that a lot of the post-medieval imagery attached to witches is similar to the anti-semitic imagery of medieval England and Europe. Medieval attitudes to Jews and witches were at the front of my mind anyway, because on Friday I taught the passage in Langland’s late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman where Christ is condemned to death in front of a baying crowd of spiteful Jewish accusers, and one of the accusations they throw at him (twice) is that of witchcraft:

‘”Crucifige!” quod a cachepol, “I warante hym a wicche!”‘
(‘”Crucify him!” said a tax officer, “I bet that he is a witch!”‘)
Piers Plowman B, XVIII 46

Now, this comment is actually pretty odd, in its context. A lot of people assume that medieval accusations of witchcraft were all over the place, because there’s a very popular misconception that, well, medieval people were all barbaric and woman-hating, so obviously they must have been burning witches left, right and centre? Right? Well, wrong. That’s the early Moderns, and they preferred to hang them, anyway.

It’s not that medieval people never mention witches. As I’ve said in a previous post, Robert Mannying (writing in the early fourteenth century) has a brilliant story dripping with innuendo, about a witch who gets the better of the local bishop. But, by and large, medieval England doesn’t have the witch-mania that came later, accompanied by hangings and inquisitions and the generation of all the stereotypes we associate with witches today.

What’s they do have – and the scene in Piers Plowman that mentions witchcraft is full of it – is anti-semitism. And as I went around the exhibition, I realized that, actually, the imagery of these two kinds of ‘evil Other’ were echoing each other.

Crusaders slaughter Jewish men. French Bible Illumination, taken from this site.

Crusaders slaughter Jewish men. French Bible Illumination, taken from this site.

Medieval anti-semitic images and texts typically represent Jews, one of the arch-enemies of Christianity, as male. Saracens (ie., Muslims) are often women who fall into the enduringly racist ‘dusky-skinned princess destined to be saved by handsome white man’ trope. But most Jewish figures are men. As you can see in the image above, like witches, medieval Jews as represented by non-Jewish people have distinctive attributes. Here, in addition to their pointed Jewish hats, the Jewish men kneeling in the bottom right-hand corner are leaning, twisting their bodies anti-clockwise, while their attackers lean and gesture in a clockwise motion.

This is a pretty common trope in iconography (I went to a cracking lecture on it by, if I remember rightly, Anthony Bale. Depressingly, the lecture was so good I was concentrating more on that than on who gave it!). Jewish figures are often pictured moving anticlockwise (‘widdershins’), or reaching out with their (sinister) left hands. And here, in the exhibition, the same visual point was being made in images culmination with Dürer’s Witch Riding backwards on a Goat: just as Jews lean anti-clockwise (‘widdershins’), so too the post-medieval witches dancing in that direction or ride facing backwards to indicate their unnatural position in the world.

Witches were imagined eating babies and poisoning wells; in medieval anti-semitic stories we find stories of Jewish communities murdering children (like the revoltingly pious little song-school scholar in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, who continues to sing hymns to the Virgin Mary even after evil Jews have cut up his body and hidden it in a privy). The medieval story that Jews used the blood of murdered Christians to bake their matzos translates nicely into the giant’s ‘I’ll grind your bones to make my bread,’ but it’s also picked up in images of cannibalistic witches.

The parallels extended to accessories. There was one amazing seventeenth-century German picture of a witches’ sabbath, which included a ring of women dancing to the accompaniment of a giant black hare. The longer you looked, the more pairs of Cheshire-cat eyes and hunched catty backs you noticed hiding in the corners of the image. And I knew that Black cats seem to have had a dubious reputation in a lot of contexts, before becoming our preferred image of the witch’s familiar. Alan of Lille claimed that Cathers – twelfth-century heretics – were in the habit of kissing black cats on the arse, which was obviously a sign of devil-worship.

Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r

Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r. Image from Discarding Images.

A few medievalists I know have been wondering why on earth this intrepid archer is shooting such a vulnerably-positioned cat – now do we know why? Cat arses: dangerous business.

Sure enough, in her book on the emergence of anti-semitic medieval imagery, Sara Lipton finds thirteenth-century images of Jews kissing black cats, too. She also finds that toads – as images of greed – became part of the same iconography, as did ravens. You can see where this is going.

Now, naturally, as my friend observed while we were going round the exhibition, the rumours and images and anecdotes are easily adapted to fit new bogeymen (women?) in every generation. But for me, it’s particularly interesting when a set of images that were centred around one gender shift across to the other gender. What was it that changed? 

The paraphernalia we’ve become accustomed to associating with witches – with cackling, evil caricatures of the real people who were executed for their Otherness, like the early-Modern witches hanged in England and abroad, and like the Jewish communities murdered or expelled from twelfth-century England – is a meme used to instil fear. Once, this imagery stirred up, and simultaneously justified, medieval anti-semitism to people whose country had got rid of its Jewish population. Then, it became the imagery of the women society wanted to stare at, shudder at, and use to frighten children. And it has endured.

Notes

Aside from the book linked to above, there’s an article by Lipton that’s worth reading (and the title alone is great): ‘Jews, Heretics and the Sign of the Cat in the Bible Moralisée,’ Word and Image 8 (1992): 362-77.

In the medieval illumination, I’ve just noticed God is looking leftwards too. What’s that about?

Irritatingly, when I came across Daily Fail article about this exhibition, they claimed that the exhibition poster (The Witches’ Rout, an engraving by Veneziano dated to c. 1520) was ‘typical of the terrifying witches of the fifteenth century’. Now, either someone writing doesn’t understand how century-naming works (it’s actually quite common, that), or they figured meh, what does it matter, it’s more or less medieval and who really cares that this exhibition seemed to be making some kind of point by starting with the Renaissance, eh?

Grr.

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‘Bodies without Histories': Poems and Memories

Botticelli, 'Madonna of the Book,' 1480

Botticelli, ‘Madonna of the Book,’ 1480

I should have written a post for National Poetry Day yesterday, but life got in the way, so it’s here today instead.

It’s long, but a lot of the length comes from two pieces of poetry I wanted to post.  Apparently, today, it would be de rigueur for me to write an enthusiastic blog post, not about poetry, but about my first visit to Oxford’s new manuscript library. I have been, and it is lovely, and yes, you can look out over the Oxford skyline, and yes, the stairs are excitingly futuristic and look very Battlestar Galactica, and yes, I am (just!) old enough to have looked up my first manuscripts in the old five hundred year old library built by Duke Humfrey and I am sad that no one else will get to do that now. But, Sjoerd Levelt and David Rundle have both written lovely, eloquent pieces on the subject.

Their research places them in a chain of known and named readers in this library: Professor Rundle works partly on Duke Humfrey, the fifteenth-century aristocrat who had it built, and Dr Levelt works on John Selden, book collector and historian, for whom the ‘Selden end’ of the old manuscripts reading room is named. Both of them made interesting points about what it was like to handle manuscripts belonging to these men in the very same space where those manuscripts were kept and read hundreds of years ago. You could stand in the room and imagine the exact same physical experiences – the same manuscripts in your hands, the same light slanting through the same windows – that those men had in the past. 

Memory has a corporeal aspect in some of my favourite poems, and functions a bit the way that long-lived libraries do, to let dead voices come to life again through shared books.

Start with The Wasteland. Before I had the foggiest idea what Eliot was talking about, let alone where half of these archaic-sounding lines were stolen from, bits of the poem stuck out in a non-English rhythm.  “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.” Those lines are actually from Dante’s Inferno: “si lunga tratta/ di gente, ch’ i’ non averei creduto/ che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta” (‘such a long train of people, that I would not have believed that death had undone so many’). Before that, they look towards Virgil’s Aeneid, which Dante draws on to imagine his crowd of thronging dead, and from which he borrows his imagined guide through Hell, the poet Virgil. His crowd echoes that of Virgil, who describes how “omnis turba ad ripas effusa ruebat,/ matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vita/ magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae …” (‘all of this crowd were rushing to the banks [of the river Styx]: mothers and men, bodies devoid of life, great-hearted heroes, boys and unmarried girls …”). In turn, Virgil’s Latin is taken from Homer’s Greek in the Odyssey, where, after Odysseus summons the dead up from Hades with a libation of blood, αἱ δ’ ἀγέροντο/ ψυχαὶ ὑπὲξ Ἐρέβευς νεκύων κατατεθνηώτων/ νύμφαι τ’ ἠίθεοί τε πολύτλητοί τε γέροντες” (‘then the spirits of the dead came, thronging, from Erebus: young wives and youths, old men who had suffered much …’)

The Greek takes us in a loop back to the modernist poets, for Pound – Eliot’s contemporary and friend – begins his Cantos with a loose translation of the same Greek lines with which this book of the Odyssey begins, which then echo forward into Latin, Italian and then Eliot’s English. Each subsequent re-use of an older text reanimates that text, just as Homer’s dead are brought back to speak to Odysseus in the first place.

I absoutely love the way these poems form a conversation. And I feel hugely lucky to have got to study all of them. It’s on my mind because I’m going back to teach some of the courses where I first met some of these writers (and places are evocative, even for feministy women). But, then, a little bit of me feels as if it’s not my conversation,  just as it’s not my library – I’m a visitor on the edge of a conversation carried out between men and in the male voice. Much as I love those male voices, I wondered how we could think about women immortalised in poems and memories.

The first medieval poem that sprang to mind when I thought about women, poetry, memory and loss was this one (anonymous, for what it’s worth, ok, I admit I think here anon was a man, despite writing about a woman). Here are the opening lines, with a facing translation:

I
Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye,
Pearl, pleasing to a prince’s taste,
To clanly clos in golde so clere
To enclose cleanly in bright gold
Oute of Oryent, I hardyly saye,
From the Orient, I dare swear
Ne proved I never her precios pere.
I never found her precious peer.
So rounde, so reken in uche araye,
So round, so beautiful in every setting
So smal, so smothe her sydes were,
So small, so smooth, her sides were
Queresoever I jugged gemmes gaye
Wheresoever I judged beautiful gems
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure.
I set her apart, unparalleled.
Allas, I leste hyr in on erbere;
Alas, I lost her in a garden
Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
Through the grass to the ground, it slipped from me.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
I linger, wounded by love-frustration
Of that pryvy perle withouten spot.
For that special pearl, without a spot.II

Sythen in that spote hit fro me sprange,
Since it sprang from me in that spot,
Ofte haf I wayted, wyschande that wele
I have often waited, wishing for the joy
That wont was whyle devoyde my wrange
That once was wont to dispel my woe
And heven my happe and al my hele.
And raise my heart and happiness.
That dos bot thrych my herte thrange,
This only pierces my heart sorely,
My breste in bale bot bolne and bele.
My breast burns and swells in anguish.
Yet thoght me never so swete a sange
Yet, I never thought of so sweet a song
As stylle stounde let to me stele;
As that still moment let steal over me,
Forsothe, ther fleten to me fele
Indeed, many things flooded over me,
To thenke hir color so clad in clot.
To think of her colour, covered in earth.
O moul, thou marres a myry juele,
Oh mould, you mar a merry jewel,
My privy perle wythouten spotte.
My own pearl, without a spot.

The whole poem is much longer, and it has a gorgeously complicated, repetitive, architectural structure to it. As it unfolds, we realize that the reason the man speaking refers to this pearl as ‘she’ is because the precious stone represents a woman whom he loved and who is now dead and buried – ‘lost’ in a garden that is a graveyard, her ‘colour so clad in clot’, clothed in clods of earth.

I find this a poignant evocation of grief – especially the speaker’s contrast between the ornate beauty of the lost pearl and the gruesome glimpse of the woman’s burial, ‘clad in clot’. However, there’s no denying that even though the dead woman, the lost pearl, belongs to a poetic tradition as old as that which Eliot traces back to Homer, her precious, passive, untouchable body belongs to a wider tradition of representing chaste, beautiful women as perfect in their proximity to death. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne writes a brilliant (and disturbing) description of this kind of medieval attitude:

“Chaste female spirituality is … located in bodies without histories, locked away both from outer event and physiological change. … This writing-out of women is part of a thematic preoccupation with their death in the literature of chastity.”

[quoted from Wogan-Browne, ‘Chaste bodies: frames and experiences,’ in Framing Medieval Bodies, eds. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 24-42 (p. 24)]

On the surface, all of this is true of Pearl, just as it is of the earlier text to which Wogan-Browne refers. The repeated line referring to a pearl ‘without a spot’ echoes the medieval scriptural interpretations of the perfect female beloved as one who, like the Virgin Mary has no ‘spot’ of sin. In death, she is enclosed in the grave, ‘clad in clot,’ yet this enclosure only continues that more beautiful enclosure imagined in the first lines, where she was ‘clos[ed] in gold’. 

Admittedly, this is a complex poem. It won’t let me construct some neat theory about the ways in which dead men are memorialised through poems that let them speak again, while women, in death, are passive and silent. And I’m glad I can’t.  However, I still read those lines and wish I had something later to look towards, the way you can look from Dante to Eliot or Homer to Pound. And so, that’s where the second poem I want to quote comes from. It’s by a modernist, contemporary with Pound and Eliot, and she deserves to be better known. This is a piece from her long epic poem, Trilogy.

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino ('Our Lady of the Goldfinch'). 1505-6

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino (‘Our Lady of the Goldfinch’). 1505-6

We have seen her
The world over,

Our Lady of the Goldfinch,
Our Lady of the Candelabra,

Our Lady of the Pomegranate,
Our Lady of the Chair;

we have seen her, an empress,
magnificent in pomp and grace,

and we have seen her
with a single flower

or a cluster of garden-pinks
in a glass beside her;

we have seen her snood
drawn over her hair

or her face set in profile
 with the blue hood and stars;

we have seen her head bowed down
with the weight of a domed crown,

or we have seen her, a wisp of a girl
trapped in a golden halo;

we have seen her with arrow, with doves
and a heart like a valentine;

we have seen her in fine silks imported
from all over the Levant,

and hung with pearls brought
from the city of Constantine;

we have seen her sleeve
of every imaginable shade

of damask and figured brocade;
it is true,

the painters did very well by her;
it is true, they never missed a line

of the suave turn of the head
or subtle shade of lowered eye-lid

or eye-lids half-raised; you find
her everywhere (or did find),

in cathedral, museum, cloister,
at the turn of the palace stair.

da Vinci, study of the Madonna, c. 1484

da Vinci, study of the Madonna, c. 1484

We see her hand in her lap,
smoothing the apple-green

or the apple-russet silk;
we see her hand at her throat,

fingering a talisman
brought by a crusader from Jerualem;

we see her hand unknot a Syrian veil
or lay down a Venetian shawl

on a polished table that reflects
half a miniature broken column

O yes – you understand, I say,
this is all most satisfactory,

but she wasn’t hieratic, she wasn’t frozen,
she wasn’t very tall;

she is the Vestal
from the days of Numa,

she carries over the cult
of the Bona Dea,

she carries a book but it is not
the tome of the ancient wisdom,

the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new;

all you say, is implicit,
all that and much more;

but she is not shut up in a cave
like a Sibyl; she is not

imprisoned in leaden bars
in a coloured window;

she is Psyche, the butterfly,
out of the cocoon.

H. D. shows how this woman, the Virgin Mary – central to Western Art History – is seen in the eyes of painters and viewers as a conflation of exchangeable images of femininity, now one woman, now another, now pictured like this, now like that. These Madonnas, with their precious stones and beautiful settings, their enclosure in picture frames or even ‘trapped in a golden halo’, patently share in the same iconographic tradition of the medieval pearl-maiden. A poet like Pound or Eliot might have made her literary and artistic predecessors speak, but instead, H. D. offers a corrective to their view. She strips away all of the rich, evocative tradition and insists on her own poetic authority to define her Madonna. This Madonna is not a (female) ‘body without history,’ nor a (male) speaking voice reanimated, but a move towards something new. 

I hope you like the poems. 

Note

The titles H. D. gives to her Madonna are the titles of paintings, mostly by Raphael. I have to admit, I don’t really warm to Raphael. I always visualised this poem with vague images of da Vinci Madonnas. Sorry! I have absolutely no idea whether or not H. D. could have read the medieval poem Pearl. The imagery is drawn from many of the same sources, but Pearl wasn’t especially well known when H. D. was writing. 

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