Archive for July, 2011

July 30, 2011

most lithe to his people

Beowulf, translated by Frederick Rebsamen, the closing lines (3179-3182):

Hearth-companions   praised their lost one
named him the ablest   of all world-kings
mildest of men   and most compassionate
most lithe to his people   most loving of praise.

There is something wonderful about this final description of Beowulf (slayer of Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon) as “hearth-companion,” “mildest of men,” “most compassionate,” and “most lithe to his people.” Merriam-Webster defines lithe as “characterized by easy flexibility and grace” (first known use in the 14th century). It gives the origin of “lithe” as “from Old English līthe gentle” which is “akin to Old High German lindi gentle” and “Latin lentus slow.”

(I plan to be offline for the next week.)

July 29, 2011

sounds of the harp

Beowulf, translated by Frederick Rebsamen, lines 99 to 107:

They lived brightly   on the benches of Heorot
caught up in laughter   till a creature brought them
fear in the night   an infernal hall-guest.
Grendel circled   sounds of the harp
prowled the marshes   moors and ice-streams
forests and fens.   He found his home
with misshapen monsters   in misery and greed.
The Shaper banished him   unshriven away
with the kin of Cain   killer of his blood.

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July 28, 2011

stand in the glow of ripeness


Czesław Miłosz

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart.
Without knowing it, from various ills –
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Thanks to Hallie for singling out this poem. I owe thanks to a common friend for my small enjoyment of poetry. It is good to read more by Miłosz.

July 27, 2011

airy abeles set on a flare

The magi would have understood this imperative to look at the stars. Abeles (or white poplars) are a Eurasian salicaceous tree (Populus alba) having palmately (“like a palm with fingers extended”) lobed leaves covered on the underside with dense silvery-white hairs. Flares are “a fire or blaze of light used especially to signal, illuminate, or attract attention.” These silvery sentinels stand signaling, calling us to notice and take heed.

This poem ends with an image of grain being gathered home to the barn. All of God’s people are the harvest that is taken home together behind the “piece-bright paling.” This image of grain being gathered into God’s barns is a prominent theme across many of Hopkins’ poems.

The Starlight Night

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!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

Buy then! bid then! — What? — Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89) wrote with ecstatic vision and deep hope. This is a poem that I wish to wander through more slowly and more often. Angels and stars frequently overlap in scripture (even as the phrase “heavenly hosts” can mean either the stars or the armies of God, see the passage below). In the stories of Tolkien and Lewis, stars give their daughters in marriage to kings, sing order and beauty into the world and lend their light to the greatest jewels of the gods and elves.

The “heavenly hosts” made famous by English translations of the Bible have two distinct meanings: one is a reference to the stars; the other to God’s celestial armies, presumably of angels. Sometimes the two references seem to merge. In fact, the two meanings of the Hebrew phrase for “host of heaven” … reflect a probable association between angels and stars and planets in the Hebrew imagination. The heavenly hosts of stars, moreover, sometimes have associations of idolatry, since surrounding pagan nations were given to astrology and worship of the heavenly bodies. (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery by Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit and Tremper Longman, page 372.)

Journey of the Magi by Sassetta, c. 1435 (tempera and gold on wood; 8 1/2 x 11 3/4 in.; Metropolitan Museum of Art):

The Starry Night by Van Gogh, June 1889 (oil on canvas; 29 x 36 1/4 in.; Museum of Modern Art, New York; completed near the mental asylum of Saint-Remy 13 months before Van Gogh’s death):

July 26, 2011

by your humble birth

Prayer by Abbess Bridget of Kildare, from the Ancient Christian Devotional, pages 192-193.

Rouse us, O Lord, from the sleep of apathy and from tossing to and fro in our thoughts, that we may no longer live as in a troubled dream but as people awake and resolved to finish the work you have give them to do. By your humble birth root out of our hearts all pride and haughtiness, that humble ways may content us, if so be that we may serve the humble. By the life of compassion for those who labor and are heavy laden, teach us to be concerned one for another and to bear one another’s burdens. By your hallowed and most bitter anguish on the cross, make us to fear you, and love you, and follow you, O Christ. Amen.

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July 25, 2011

no queenly way

Another standard Anglo-Saxon kenning that echos in the mind is “peace-weaver” for “wife” or “queen.” It connects to many harsh and heavy burdens of Anglo-Saxon queenship. One example from the Gummere translation of Beowulf for The Harvard Classics:

Haughty that house, a hero the king,
high the hall, and Hygd right young,
wise and wary, though winters few
in those fortress walls she had found a home,
Haereth’s daughter. Nor humble her ways,
nor grudged she gifts to the Geatish men,
of precious treasure. Not Thryth’s pride showed she,
folk-queen famed, or that fell deceit.
Was none so daring that durst make bold
(save her lord alone) of the liegemen dear
that lady full in the face to look,
but forged fetters he found his lot,
bonds of death! And brief the respite;
soon as they seized him, his sword-doom was spoken,
and the burnished blade a baleful murder
proclaimed and closed. No queenly way
for woman to practise, though peerless she,
that the weaver-of-peace from warrior dear
by wrath and lying his life should reave!

July 23, 2011

unlock’d he the word-hoard

“Word-hoard” is a favorite kenning from Beowulf (and it appears in other Anglo-Saxon literature). In a single compact image, it suggests that we should amass a storehouse of language inside of us (closely related to Augustine’s understanding of memory as a wealthy city). Lines 258 to 260 from Beowulf translated by William Morris and Alfred John Wyatt:

He then that was chiefest in thus wise he answer’d,
The war-fellows’ leader unlock’d he the word-hoard:
We be a people of the Weder-Geats’ man-kin
And of Hygelac be we the hearth-fellows soothly.
My father before me of folks was well-famed
Van-leader and atheling, Ecgtheow he hight.

Via Project Gutenberg.

July 22, 2011

what I live on

Speaking of Augustine, Wilken writes:

Like all great Christian thinkers he consciously moved within a tradition he had himself not created. He was most comfortable with a page of the Bible open before him in a basilica in the midst of the community of faith to which he was accountable. The church fathers wrote “as those who are taught” (Isa. 50:4).

From The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken, pp. xix-xx.

In a revealing aside in a sermon preached on the anniversary of his ordination Augustine said, “I nourish you with what nourishes me; I offer to you what I live on myself.”

Ibid, p. 42.

July 21, 2011

hikers overdue at home

Finding the Broken Man

by Scott Cairns

When I found the fallen climber caught
halfway down the slope of stunted pines,
he was already dead two days, and his body
stank; he was loose and careless as a boy.
I gave my jacket up for lost, and wrapped him
as I could, then shouted loud, hoping others,
in my group were near enough that together
we could lift him out. It’s a common thing
near White Pass and, I suppose, any mountain town
to be called out in search of hikers
overdue at home. Having found one dead
is a sort of badge we wear, and one
I’d probably wear, if the others searching
had heard me call, of if I’d been
man enough to wait.

This is another cherished favorite passed along to me by someone else. Cairns speaks poignantly about failed kingship. He tells a hard story well, and suggests immediately from the title that his poem is also about another broken body abandoned on another tree.

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July 20, 2011

the sun shall glory

Going back to the roots of our own language with this imitation of Anglo-Saxon verse, Richard Wilbur explores how broken things are remade at the roots of mountains. The second poet laureate of the United States, Wilbur won two Pulitzer Prizes and the T.S. Eliot Award among many others.

I first came across this poem when studying the verse forms in Beowulf, and it now hangs on my wall, framed in an old wooden candle sconce that I found abandoned in an empty lot.

This image of the poem is captured from the Poetry Foundation because the formatting it too hard to duplicate.

Found this helpful info at Laudator Temporis Acti:

Wilbur prefaced his poem with a motto from the fragmentary Old English epic Waldere. …This is translated by Bruce Mitchell et al., edd. Beowulf: An Edition with Relevant Shorter Texts (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998), p. 209, as “Surely the work of Weland will fail not any of those men who can hold strong Mimming.” Weland was a smith, and Mimming was a sword.

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