Monday, January 21, 2019

James Harpur's 'Kells', rewriting the middle ages, 'Gerald of Wales'. 3/3a

The third poem in 'Kells' is ‘Gerald of Wales’.
Leaving aside the quality of Harpur’s poetry, which I’ve already praised, ‘Gerald of Wales’ rephrases the problem of using a dead character to represent or personify attitudes or beliefs. Unlike the situation with the anonymous ‘Scribe B’, a great deal is known about Gerald, mostly from his own writing. Almost twenty individual works survive, including two that are close to modern ideas of an autobiography. H.E. Butler combined these, with some other additions, to produce ‘The Autobiography of Gerald of Wales’. Even for people like me, who cannot read Latin, there’s a lot of Gerald’s work available in English. 
Anyone who reads Gerald’s non-autobiographical work will quickly realise that he had a very high opinion of himself; he came from a powerful Marcher family, he was highly educated by the standards of his time, having lectured in the schools of Paris. He had an apparently insatiable love of stories, the weirder or more miraculous the better, and sometimes it’s difficult to know why he has inserted a story beyond the fact he found it interesting. He was brave, physically resilient, he did the journey to Rome four times, he was a fine horseman, and he saw nothing incongruous about lecturing Kings and Popes, even when it was obvious they weren’t listening to him. 
He must have been a master at the art of alienating people.   
Here are three modern writers describing Gerald. The first two are his translators, the third an Archbishop of Wales, a title Gerald thought should have been his.
‘The reader will […] see the single-minded vanity of an ambitious flatterer, the haughty contempt of one who came with his family to reform and invade …(John O’Meara p17)
'He was strongly convinced of his own ability and importance, and prepared to argue his case, in public and in private, in person or by letter with any tiresome adversary from the Pope and the King of England down. His tongue could be very sharp and the ink in which he dipped his quill-pen was often dipped in gall. …he was self-regarding and self-admiring; and the faults and weaknesses of other men were only too apparent to him.'  (Lewis Thorpe p23).
'Yet, one can never get away from the impression that everything Gerald did, and said, was ultimately for the greater glory of Gerald …'
Dr. Barry Morgan. Gerald of Wales was no great patriot-Archbishop   https://www.churchinwales.org.uk/news/2012/08/5449/
So my reading of ‘Gerald of Wales’ came crashing to a half when I read:
from childhood, when on the shore
I’d build churches out of sand.
To this end; a life of careful tact
Selective showings of humility… (p62)

More on this to follow.

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