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For Holy Saturday

I had another post in the works, but, for Holy Saturday, I thought I would share a poem by Dorothy Sayers instead…

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I make the wonderful carven beams
Of cedar and oak
To build King Solomon’s house of dreams,
With many a hammer-stroke,
And the gilded, wide-winged cherubims.

I have no thought in My heart but this:
How bright will be My bower
When all is finished; My joy it is
To see each perfect flower
Curve itself up to the tool’s harsh kiss.

How shall I end the thing I planned?
Such knots are in the wood!
With quivering limbs I stoop and stand,
My sweat runs down like blood . . .
I have driven the chisel through My hand.

~”The Carpenter’s Son”

Have a blessed Saturday and a joy-filled Easter.

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Posted by on April 19, 2014 in Devotional, poetry

 

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God of Brook and Brush

My high school experiences with nature poetry were less than ideal. After being subjected to William Wordsworth’s more didactic poetry, I concluded that Wordsworth was dry and boring. (My other reading didn’t help matters. Chesterton’s analysis of how the old poets sang of the “gods of the brook and brush” rather than the brook and brush themselves left me considerably biased against the romantics.)

My freshman year of college, I expounded those opinions to my English professor, who quickly told me that the romantic naturalists were anything but boring. Still, it took several more years for Wordsworth and I to heal our quarrel. Even the healing was an accident; I was bored and picked up my mother’s old Norton Anthology. I found some of Wordsworth’s better poetry and changed my mind. Even so, Wordsworth is not my favorite nature poet. That role goes to Gerard Manly Hopkins. Hopkins’ poetry is, admittedly, more difficult to decipher than Wordsworth’s, and it reminds me more of T.S. Eliot than of any 19th-century romantic. Hopkins comes across as a very modern poet. Yet Hopkins reminds me more of the old poets Chesterton spoke of–though, not being a pagan, he sings of the God of brook and brush. From his poem “God’s Grandeur”:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

Hopkins’ poem “The Starlit Night” contains what is currently my favorite description of the natural world.

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!

I realize that my Tolkien obsession is showing, but “fire-folk” and “elves’ eyes” are phrases too wonderful not to love. Hopkins brings to my attention something that was pointed out yet again to me in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. In the modern West, we have a temptation to ignore anything with a scientific explanation. Know how colds can be cured? Don’t pray about them. Know all the scientific “laws”? Forget that things didn’t have to work that way. Understand that a star is a flaming ball of gas? Tell yourself that every time you’re tempted to wonder at the night sky.

Or you could remember that science only explains what exists. It does not, however, infuse those things with meaning. People do that, and poets like Hopkins do it especially well.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2014 in poetry

 

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Fell and Fair: The Fall of Arthur

FallOfArthurJ.R.R. Tolkien is one of those authors who tends to inspire either love or hatred, and even those who love him hate him every so often. The man was brilliant—and hardly finished anything he started. Thus the loving hatred. Christopher Tolkien has done wonders in editing his father’s unfinished projects, but sometimes even his efforts fall short in the face of half-done manuscripts and illegible writing.

The Fall of Arthur, published last year, is one of those manuscripts with which Christopher Tolkien could only do so much. J.R.R. Tolkien launched the poem intending to describe Arthur’s final conflict with Mordred in alliterative verse. Unfortunately, he became distracted by The Lord of the Rings. Christopher Tolkien writes, “At the victorious end of the sea-battle…my father ceased to work on The Fall of Arthur: in my view, one of the most grievous of his many abandonments.”

Grievous, indeed—at least for those of us who love epic poetry. Very few poets have been interested in writing epics for the last hundred years or so. C. S. Lewis dreamed of doing it, but he eventually realized that poetry was not his calling. Tolkien’s narrative poetry was brilliant, but it was his hobby, and his most famous poems are the shorter ones in The Lord of the Rings. Fortunately his son’s work has left us with some of them, not least The Lay of Sigurd and Gudrún published in 2012, which (fortunately) is a complete story, unlike The Fall of Arthur.

Don’t pick up The Fall of Arthur because you like The Lord of the Rings; it has only a tenuous connection with Tolkien’s mythology. Don’t pick it up because you like Arthurian stories, because it isn’t a complete story. The poetry, however, is worth reading, even if it isn’t complete. Tolkien’s word choices, as always, are exquisite.

Some have criticized the manuscript for its negative portrayal of Guinevere: “As fair and fell   as fay-woman/ in the world walking   for the woe of men/ no tear shedding.” Of course, with the manuscript unfinished, we have no way of knowing how nuanced Tolkien’s final portrayal of Guinevere might have been. Beyond that, however, we do know that Tolkien goes beyond his source material in describing Guinevere’s feelings at all.

Unless you’re a hard-core Tolkien fan, you probably don’t need to own The Fall of Arthur. Try badgering your interlibrary loan librarian instead. It will save you money, especially since the book is a hardback.

My final opinion on The Fall of Arthur? If Tolkien were alive, I would kill him for not finishing the poem. Sadly, he’s dead.

That is the source of this problem—along with many others.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2014 in poetry

 

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When Book Trails Lead to Chesterton

Book trails can be interesting. Toward the end of the summer, I semi-innocently read the His Dark Materials series—to see what all the fuss had been about. Well, I found out what the fuss had been about. The series drove me nuts. But it also made me curious about Philip Pullman’s background. So I did a little research.

Gilbert_ChestertonWhich led me to more Pullman. Which led me to William Blake. Which led me to G.K. Chesterton. Whom Pullman doesn’t like.

I had read some of Blake’s poetry before, mostly some of his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. His Marriage of Heaven and Hell was a pretty different experience. That is where Blake makes the claim that John Milton turned the Devil into the hero of Paradise Lost. I’m still not sure how seriously to take that claim, since Blake wrote his work as a satire of the Swedenborgians—one of those slightly odd nineteenth-century sects that have been mostly forgotten, and for good reason.

So, at a friend’s suggestion, I turned to Chesterton for enlightenment. Chesterton’s biography of Blake doesn’t put any intense focus on Blake’s literary works, but it does offer a critique of his personality and thought. As a poet himself, Chesterton greatly admired Blake while strongly opposing some of his beliefs.

Chesterton’s biographies are not biographies in the traditional sense. (Chesterton—traditionalist though he was—did very little in the “traditional sense.”) The biography is less about the events Blake’s life than it is about an effort to understand him. But understanding him was what I wanted to do anyway.

Chesterton left me with a lot of thoughts about William Blake. But—in typical Chestertonian fashion—he left me with more thoughts about life. About education, even.

“People say that specialists are inhuman,” wrote Chesterton, “but that is unjust…. The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man.” Supporters of a liberal arts education, please stand up.

You know the stereotypes…the university professor who knows everything to know about his subject but doesn’t care two bits for his students. The medical student whose rudeness grows in proportion to his knowledge. The increasingly ruthless businessman. Chesterton says that the stereotypes are all bunk. The real problem isn’t intelligent people who turn into machines. The problem is intelligent people whose learning makes them so narrow that they can’t function outside of their specialty.

A professor of mine sometimes told a story about a stellar English student in Britain. She went to Oxford, if I recall correctly, and a group of visiting American students invited her to a meal because they had heard about her and thought she would be interesting to talk to.

She wasn’t. And not because she was rude or socially awkward. She simply didn’t know how to participate in the conversation. The Americans might not have her raw intelligence, but they had enough general knowledge to talk about a wide range of subjects. She could talk intelligently about English and very little else. So she sat through the evening in near-silence, the product of an overly specialized education.

“Wherever [the specialist] is not exceptionally learned,” Chesterton argues, “he is quite casually ignorant.” Chesterton mainly applied his contention to scientists, but, as my professor’s story shows, the problem is not confined to scientists. And I’m fairly sure it isn’t only confined to Europe. American support for the liberal arts is waning. We would do well to listen to Chesterton’s warnings:

In short, the danger of the mere technical artist or expert is that of becoming a snob or average silly man in all things not affecting his peculiar topic of study; wherever he is not an extraordinary man he is a particularly stupid ordinary man. The very fact that he has studied machine guns to fight the French proves that he has not studied the French. Therefore he will probably say that they eat frogs. The very fact that he has learnt to paint the light on medieval armour proves that he has not studied the medieval philosophy. Therefore he will probably suppose that medieval barons did nothing but order vassals into the dungeons beneath the castle moat….People talk about something pedantic in the knowledge of the expert; but what ruins mankind is the ignorance of the expert.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2013 in Nonfiction, poetry

 

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Baltic Regions

I was babysitting the morning I came across it—my two little charges were asleep, and I was looking up a few things on the Internet. My mother had wanted me to get the hours for a restaurant she was interested in, and when I called her, she asked what I was doing.

“Researching Lithuanian mythology,” I said.

I think she started laughing at me. But it was a pretty productive morning, since Lithuanian mythology took me to Latvian mythology—of which, I learned, very little remains, except in a few literary sources. One is Lacplesis, an epic poem written by Andrejs Pumpurs. Pumpurs lived in the nineteenth century, at the height of European nationalism, and, as a member of the Young Latvia movement, he wanted to unite the Latvians and secure their independence.

The problem was that Latvia had never been independent. The country had gone from tribalism straight into domination by whichever neighboring country happened to be most powerful. Yet the Latvians still had a common culture. Its mythology might have been in shambles, but traces of it remained. Pumpurs took these traces and built them into an epic.

Lacplesis translates as Bearslayer, the name of the hero at the center of the poem. Set at the turn of the 13th century, Lacplesis finds Bearslayer living at a time of tumult. Christianity is being pushed upon the Latvians against their will, and Bearslayer is determined to resist.

Lacplesis is less an assault on Christianity than it is a statement of Latvian patriotism, however. The gods briefly profess respect for Christ, but less for those professing to follow Him:

“Now, many peoples living on the Earth
Accept His word but see not what portends;
For humankind in shame denies His worth,
His message twists to serve unworthy ends.”

The Germans are trying to conquer Latvia, using Christianity as a pretext. The gods do not question the facts of Christ’s life, but their concern is Latvia’s crisis. In the words of Perkons, the thunder god:

“Though good, Christ’s message clearly yet is old,
For from the East these teachings reach our land.

But those who bear His message to our shores
Have come to us to serve a different view.
To conquer Baltic regions is their cause,
To make our people slaves their purpose new.”

There have, to my knowledge, been only two translations of Lacplesis into English. One is very difficult to obtain; the other, which I read, is available here as an ebook. This second translation is rhymed, which is the source of my main complaint—some of the rhymes are awkward. The original was written in unrhymed verse, and I do not think the translator’s attempt at heroic verse was entirely successful. Still, despite the weaker rhymes, the emphasis of the original story comes through.

Bearslayer faces a number of enemies as he attempts to defend Latvia. The Germans, of course, are behind all the trouble, but some Latvians side with them. One is the beautiful Spidala, secretly a witch; Kaupa, a chieftain seduced by the power and splendor of Rome; and the false holy man Kangars, who makes a vow to serve the Devil.

The Devil is actually a character in the poem, which seems like an attempt by Pumpurs to have the best of both worlds—to preserve the traditional Latvian religious without rejecting the Christian tradition in which most Latvians had been raised. Thus Christ is briefly honored, the Devil seen as the source of Latvia’s problems, and the gods treated as benefactors.

Aside from the weaknesses of the translation, the biggest weakness in the poem seems to be its tendency to treat whitewash (and blackwash) certain subjects. The gods are all, and always, favorable to Latvian patriots. Those who worship the Latvian gods are all sincere, while those who follow Christianity are all hypocrites. Bearslayer is the perfect hero. His beloved, Laimdota, is the perfect heroine. Spidala, the witch, is the most complex character—she eventually burns her pact with the Devil and marries Bearslayer’s best friend.

Of course, Pumpurs did not want to rival Homer. He meant to rally the Latvians around their culture, a task at which he succeeded. Modern Latvians celebrate a holiday in honor of his writing Lacplesis, which has become engrained within their national culture.

I was reading through Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series at roughly the same time as Lacplesis. It was an interesting contrast. Religious hypocrisy is a major theme in both stories, but they differ in one important respect. Pumpurs criticizes the Germanic “missionaries” because they fail to live up to the standard of good to which both sides hold. Pullman criticizes Christianity  for failing to live up to a standard of good—but what is good? Clearly some things in the series are bad, like killing innocent children, or betraying someone. But good is unclear. The end of the series encourages the people of Pullman’s fantasy world to “tell true stories.” True from their individual viewpoints—but truth as such is not a concern. In fact, reading the series made me want to demand, with Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?”

In Lacplesis, truth as such is never in question. Perhaps a little more ambiguity would help the story. Maybe a German missionary could have been a sort of well-intentioned tragic character, like Hector in The Iliad. But I do not doubt that the poem’s confidence in goodness and truth have helped the people of Latvia.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2013 in Mythology, poetry

 

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Mavis Beacon Teaches…Rubaiyats?

My introduction to Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat was–like many good things in life–an accident.

I was required to take a keyboarding course. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. After learning the basic strokes, I mostly typed the same literature passages over and over again, including several from the Rubaiyat. Like this one:

The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

I’m not sure how many times I typed that, but it was enough for me to remember Omar Khayyam’s name, if not his poetry. So I randomly picked up his Rubaiyat from a shelf at the library (I usually leave with more books than I ever intended) and took it home. I’m halfway through it now. And it–combined with the two apocalyptic novels I had originally intended to pick up–made for a somewhat sleepless night. Something about the rhythm of the individual rubaiyats themselves stuck to the part of my brain that produces cases of mental ADHD.

It certainly was not the message of the Rubaiyat. Omar Khayyam–and his (rather free) translator, Edward FitzGerald–held a fairly bleak view of life, creating the rather Epicurean fatalism that pervades the poems. G.K. Chesterton sharply critiqued Khayyam in Heretics, devoting a chapter to all of the reasons that all person should not drink wine out of despair.

Was Chesterton right? Yes. But the Rubaiyat is still worth reading–not just because it is a translation of Middle Eastern literature, but because it is a Victorian translation of Middle Eastern literature. Many Victorian writers found the Middle East fascinating. They viewed it as a place of sensuous, unearthly beauty (in my opinion, they mostly revealed that few Europeans really understood the Middle East at the time). But their impression, correct or not, influenced their poetry. Alfred Lord Tennyson, in particular, reflected some Eastern influences–his “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” is only one example. At one point, in fact, he was so caught up with the poem that he decided that he was going to learn Persian.

His wife disliked that idea and sent him off to learn badminton instead.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2013 in poetry

 

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Communion–and communion

I blame the Lutheran Church for my recent reading rampage. I’m familiar with the closed communion that occurs in a few Baptist churches, but when I noticed that the Missouri Synod churches do the same thing…. The short version of the story is that I decided it was high time I actually understood all the different church doctrines on the issue. Now, four books later, I’ve developed some inclinations in regards to what Communion is, and some convictions about how it should be celebrated. (Hint: Communicating as seldom as possible, because frequent Communion can make Communion less meaningful, ain’t it.)

"Communion of the Apostles," by Fra AngelicoMy freshman year of college was probably the biggest factor in getting me to see the Supper’s importance, and that mainly because I wasn’t able to partake of it. I realized I was missing something, though I wasn’t sure exactly what, or why that lack seemed to bother me more than it did my fellow students. I eventually got so hungry for it that I tried to celebrate it on my own. But sugary grape juice from the cafeteria, added to hamburger bun bits, a Bible, and an empty dorm room, do not Communion make. The desire, of course, was good. But something that no one had ever explained to me was the part that the Church plays in Communion. It isn’t simply an individual act of remembrance. It is a meal for the Church, meant to strengthen the Church as a body, just as the Church is nourished by the sacrifice of Christ’s body.

Communion is about Communion between Christ and the Church. It is also about communion within the Church, between its members. Over Christmas I attended a service at a Methodist church and was surprised by the fact that we all took bread from the same loaf. But there was a reason for the single loaf of bread. Just as there was one loaf, so the Church is one body.

Dorothy Sayers, in her book Catholic Tales and Christian Songs, included the following poem, “Against Ecclesiasts.” I’m still grasping the poem’s full meaning. But one thing is clear: Sayers was emphasizing the fact that to fully celebrate Communion–large C–we must first be willing to experience communion with others.

Between the Low Mass and the High,
Between the Altar and my cell,
I met Christ and passed Him by,
And now I go in fear of Hell.

My dying brother Ninian
Confessed himself to me and said:
“I find the Christ in every man,
But how comes He in wine and bread?”

I cursed my brother as he died,
“Absolvo” I would not repeat,
I bare away the Crucified,
I would not sign his breast and feet.

I lifted Christ above my head,
I kneeled to Him, I bare Him up,
And Christ cried to me from the bread,
Christ cried upon me from the cup:

“What is this bitter sin of thine,
So little to have understood, . . .
To find Me in the bread and wine
And find Me not in flesh and blood?

“Go, say thy Mass for Ninian,
That, when he comes to Heaven, maybe
His prayer shall save thee, righteous man . . .
If he can find the Christ in thee!”

It’s easy enough to look at the bread and cup and think of Christ. But what about the person sitting next to us? Paul writes, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

The early church broke bread together every time they met, celebrating the Supper at least weekly. Where their Communions broke down, as in I Corinthians, the unity of their church was vitally damaged.

The Church has seldom had a problem with obsessively observing Communion. More common historically has been the neglect of Communion–medieval Catholics avoiding Communion until they had to be required to communicate once a year, Scottish Presbyterians limiting Communion to those who passed a spiritual examination by the elders, American Protestants arguing that frequent Communion makes Communion less meaningful. And on it goes. The Bible doesn’t tell us how frequently we should communicate. But it clearly does treat Communion as something vitally important to the health of the Church.

Do we?

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2013 in Devotional, poetry

 

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