Sunday, January 27, 2019

Rewriting the Middle Ages, James Harpur's 'Kells' 3/3b

This is the fourth, final post about James Harpur's 'Kells'. 
Opinionating in progress. 
Does it matter if Harpur’s Gerald doesn’t fit what is known about his historical namesake? I think it does, in this case. ‘Scribe B’ can be ‘generic early medieval Scribe with (possibly modern) attitudes’ but there is nothing generic about Gerald of Wales. Nor is this the rivet counter's question of historical accuracy which dogs historical fiction. Harpur’s poem is not an episode in a Netflix pseudo historical costume drama whose sole purpose is to entertain the largest possible audience and to hell with the details. 
The poem is a well-written consideration of spiritual questions. It seems to want to be taken seriously. And therefore the argument it proposes or explores is diminished by a mismatch between poem and history. 
And there are two of these. The first is the obvious one. Tact and Humilty are hardly qualities that one can associate with Gerald. 
The second is less obvious.
It’s difficult not to read the Medieval church backwards. Over the last few decades the modern Christian Church, as an institution, has not had a good press. We have been treated, repeatedly, to the news that men of God, some with positions of power and authority, have behaved in an abominable fashion. The medieval Catholic church can be read through the contempt of its protestant critics at a time when it was undoubtedly corrupt. 
It’s dangerously easy to imagine that any career orientated cleric in the 12thcentury, must, as in this poem, have made a choice between individual spirituality and public advancement and been, if not corrupt, then corrupted.
1)     But I’m not convinced that this is true. What Gerald believed, his own ‘spirituality’ is probably much more complicated, and possibly unknowable, but I don’t think he can be used to represent an opposition he would not have recognized. 
2)    Earlier in the poem Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger are offered as two different approaches to the numinous. Bernard was unimpressed by art, Suger gilded his church. This is true, but like most apparent binaries it’s the extreme points at either end of a continuum.
3)    This is complicated by the story of Christ’s temptation in the desert which is referenced at the head of the poem. This seems to qualify 2 because it suggests the worldly, rather than being a conduit to the numinous becomes an end in itself. This shift in the argument is not marked in the poem but instead drifts.
4)    Gerald then becomes a representative of one who a) encounters the spiritual through art and b) turns aside for the pursuit of worldly power and c) regrets doing so in his bitter Old age.
5)    I’m not convinced you can use Gerald to epitomize 2 or 3. I think the simple binary ‘spirituality or worldly success’ or, in the poem’s term’s ‘a will to advancement vs spirituality’’ is a modern one based on a modern concept of Individual ‘spirituality’, tainted by modern attitudes towards the church.  
6)    The story about Kells that Gerald tells (See first of these posts) is just one more story in a life time body of work that is an anthology of wonder stories. The miraculous book is one of many miracles. Gerald does not recount any kind of epiphany when he sees the book. He merely writes at the end of his description, if you saw the book ‘…you will not hesitate to declare that these things must have been the result of the work, not of men, but of angels’. He then tells the story of the book's miraculous creation (see first post in this series) then he writes…’And then we shall set out those things that happened in more modern times’ and proceeds to tell the story of a talking cross in Dublin.  The world for Gerald was a place of wonder and miracle. He has been accused of being a credulous audience for wonder tales, but it’s also possible to argue that for Gerald the world was a site of wonders which pointed towards the God who had made it.
7)    Gerald’s attitude towards the spiritual and the worldly was much more complex than a simple binary would allow. Towards the end of ‘The Jewell of the Church’, having gone to great and often funny lengths to castigate the ignorance of priests, he realises he has suggested that all bishops are damned, recoils and qualifies his point. (Gemma Ecclesiastica trans John J Hagan Distinction ll, chapter 38). His attitude to power and spirituality is not straightforward. He was quite happy to lecture the pope when he thought the Pope was wrong. He admired both Beckett and Langton, both of whom played major ‘political’ roles. He was against prelates who did not do their job properly, and who were out for personal gain, or who were lackeys of the King, but he was not against the temporal power of the church. The structural hierarchy, and the responsibilities of any position in that hierarchy are taken as given. His ‘will to advancement’ is as much a sign of his spirituality as the chosen isolation and poverty of a hermit he admired.
8)    Gerald failed in his attempts to become Archbishop of Wales, or Bishop of Saint Davids, and he may have lived out his years at Lincoln, amongst his books, but it’s difficult to imagine him saying at the end of his life ‘everything is meaningless’ without qualifying it in some way. (Harpur has him say this twice, p59 and p63).
9)    With scribe B, once the background is established, there is room for invention. As I suggested in the previous post, that room isn’t infinite. With Gerald, it’s much more difficult to go from ‘Medieval Attitudes towards X’ to “Gerald’s attitudes towards X’. Only martyrs and lunatics are rigidly consistent, and if it’s difficult enough to work out ‘medieval attitudes towards spirituality’ it’s even more difficult to imagine what Derek Attridge calls ‘idioculture’; the unique configuration of cultural forces which combine in any individual. What Gerald believed, his own ‘spirituality’ is probably much more complicated, and possibly unknowable, but I don’t think he can be used to represent an opposition he would not have recognized. 
10) Poems, with their generic tolerance of ambiguity, are ideal places to explore the contradictions that characterise belief and the awkward alterity of the past. 
11) Am I criticizing Harpur for not writing the poem I would have tried to write in his position. No. I’ve written poems about Gerald and rewritten some of Gerald’s stories. Am I guilty of rivet counting?  It’s a poem, not a history essay? 
12) A literary character is nothing but a set of attributes and actions collected round a proper noun. Scribe B, emerging from the established ground of ‘anonymous Irish Medieval Scribe’ offers the writer some freedom to create a ‘character’. But when the proper noun also belongs specifically to a historical, biological entity, who is knowable, then I think this isn’t nit picking. If a writer is going to advance an argument, or use a character to represent or personify that argument, I think being faithful to the original becomes necessary. 
13) This in no way detracts from Harpur’s achievement, because most people reading the poem won’t care and he’s not writing an historical essay. He’s writing poems, which is something he’s very good at. 
14) It’s just possible that Harpur is quoting Gerald. Perhaps somewhere he found the words he uses. In which case everything changes, or would if there was some form of annotation indicating what was found and what was invented. 

End of opinionating....

Friday, January 25, 2019

Old and Early Middle English

Perhaps obvious, but still interesting to compare readings of Old English with Laȝamon's early Middle English.
'Maldon' was obviously written after the battle in 991, Laȝamon's 'Brut' sometime between 1155 and the mid 13th Century. 

Tuesday, January 22, 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
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.

Friday, January 11, 2019

James Harpur 'Kells', Scribe B and rewriting the middle ages 2/3

Part two
In ‘Scribe B’ , the second section of 'Kells' in The White Silhouette, James Harpur invents a character for someone who is known by nothing more than a change in handwriting in a manuscript. The poem unavoidably raises the question: what might it have been like to be a monk on Iona during the Viking Age? 
The real answer is nobody knows. It’s worth keeping that in mind. 
Harpur begins by creating Scribe B’s general context. 
The trails of faceless scribes
unknown except in whispers
scrawled in vellum margins
across Europe, lonely voices
beside the marching legions
of vulgate uncials. (48)
Harpur then quotes some of the anonymous marginalia of monks (48), as though Scribe B himself were emerging from the margins. The poems adapted here are well known (amongst medievalists?) and they establish the speaker as a generically reliable ‘early medieval Irish scribe’. The history is shaded in: Viking raids, dead monks, the flight from Iona to Kells, the work of the scribe. 
The background is convincing, but to lift Scribe B out of the generic scribe of the historical details, there has to be an attempt at imaginative reconstruction. 
And that’s where the interest lies.
No one knows what an early medieval Irish scribe thought or believed. We can admire their skill and reconstruct their technique. We can marvel at the patience or dedication their persistence required. We can enjoy their marginal comments. But go beyond that and you are stepping off the map. 
Even the statement ‘they were Christian’ begs the question; what did it mean to ‘be a Christian’ in this period. We can study the theology, but the distance between theology and practised faith can be vast. 
We don’t know what Irish monks believed. Nor what they thought, (even if someone else’s thought is ever truly knowable). The stories that survive from the monastic life at this time are stories of extremes, of Saints like Columba, told by writers who wanted to extol the virtues of their heroes. Columba is no more a representative of the majority of Irish monks than Beowulf is of English military elites.  
Once the facts have been marshalled, there seems to be two orientations. In the first, the writer conscripts a name and uses it as a clothes horse for his or her own beliefs and values. The alternative is to embrace the genuine alterity of the past and try to recreate the original in all its awkward difference. 
The danger of the first is obvious. It denies the real differences. But it’s easy to do, ubiquitous and popular. The danger of the second is that it can ignore the similarities, often doesn’t have much to support it and can appear unbelievable. 
I prefer the second option and admire writers who attempt it. 
Harpur gives Scribe B four attributes, two squarely human and credible, one that looks medieval, and the fourth like a grain of sand in an oyster shell.
The human ones are homesickness for Iona and fear of the Vikings.
The one that looks medieval is his fear of the sin of pride.
My heart burns for praise
If God wants witnesses
For his creation, why such a sin
to want the same for mine (53)
It’s credible, though it assumes modern artistic pride in anonymous medieval craft. 
People alive now, in the English-speaking world, grew up in a society which lead them to expect reward and recognition for excellence. The training starts in school, with its competition for results, positions and prizes, and continues throughout a working life, with its promotions, reputations and bonuses. It’s an expectation reinforced none too subtly by what and who the media value. 
We know that any institution, any work place, has its rivalries, jealousies, tensions. We take a certain amount of friction as natural. We see anonymity as a form of failure. If we’re honest, we do feel cheated when our efforts and achievements go unremarked.
Can those conditions and assumptions be transposed wholesale to an Irish monastery at the beginning of the 9thcentury?
If they can, then Scribe B becomes not an anonymous monk who sees his work as a form of prayer, part of his discipline, but as an artist who sees himself as the point of origin of a work only he could produce. I suspect that the post-Romantic ideal of the artist is read backwards, because today we see The Book of Kells as a work of art, and the men who illuminated it and wrote it out as artists.
Is Harpur’s presentation of Scribe B’s guilty desire for applause coloured by those modern assumptions about the self-conscious artist and equally modern assumptions that such skill should be acknowledged if not rewarded. 
In our culture, it’s difficult to imagine someone who was that skilled who didn’t want his or her skills to be admired and acknowledged. In a culture of anonymous labor dedicated to the glory of God, where humility and self-effacement were aggressive features of the culture, I’m not sure he would have thought like this. 
However, it’s not impossible. Perhaps humility and self-effacement were hard won and the desire for applause had to be constantly repressed. It’s not far from that thought to the suggestion that perhaps humility was only assumed because it was expected and there is something innately hypocritical about monastic culture? 
Or is just a familiar failure to believe that people in the past may have viewed the world in very different ways? 
The odd one of the four is Scribe B’s statement:
Live life as if death
Were just a tide away.  
Having admitted I don’t know what a Christian thought, it feels odd to ask ‘Is that a Christian monk’s thought?’ Would a monk have put his trust in his God and accepted that whatever happened was God’s plan. Or was that the ideal and this is the scared human reality of the situation?
I don’t think those questions can be answered emphatically. And that’s what makes the poem so interesting as an example of historical recreation. Because the map itself is reliable, stepping off it opens the dialogue between the poem and history, each illuminating and challenging the other.
This has been over long, but in the next and final post, the issues raised by Harpur when he conscripts Gerald of Wales to represent an argument: Gerald being anything but anonymous or humble. 

Friday, January 4, 2019

James Harpur, 'Kells' and rewriting the middle ages. 1/3

James’ Harpur’s ‘Kells’ is a sequence of 4 poems in his book ‘The White Silhouette’ (Carcanet 2018). Harpur rewrites the middle ages in ways I admire so I want to consider his practice in some details.
Three posts: This one admiration for Harpur’s skill as a poet; the second consideration of the way he gives the appearance of life to a man known only as “scribe B’ and the third some questions about the practice of using a known historical character as a mouthpiece for values/attitudes/beliefs. And then I’ll tidy the three posts and post them as one on the website.
Part one.
In which he admires the poet’s skill.
The easiest was to do this is to compare Harpur to his source where he’s following it closely. ‘Gerald of Wales’ (56-64), the third piece in ‘Kells’, begins with a quotation from ‘The History and Typography of Ireland’ Harpur merely notes ‘Gerald of Wales 1185’. Good luck tracking that one. Anyway…. On pages 59 to 60 Harpur retells a miracle story from the same source. 
(In what follows the prose is taken from John O’Meara’s translation of Gerald’s ‘The History and Typography of Ireland’, and page references are to the readily available Penguin Classics edition. Page references for Harpur are to ‘The White Silhouette’.)   
On the night before the day on which the scribe was to begin the book, an angel stood beside him in his sleep and showed him a drawing made on a tablet which he carried in in his hand…. (85)

The night before a certain monk
was due to paint a page
he dreamt an angel proffered him
a tablet etched with silver circles
enclosing threads of gold.
Between circles, lines crossed
like swallows skimming fields;
their ends split up and curved
away, entwined again, were spun
towards the firmament
by figures of saints and animals
In gold and dragonfly viridian. (59-60)
[The monk admits the task is beyond him. The angel tells the monk to pray to Brigid and returns the next night.]
‘…on the following night the angel came again and held before him the same and many other drawings.’ (85)
Next night the angel came again
With other tablets filigreed
As if with webs picked off the grass (60)
In both examples Harpur’s skill as a poet Is evident. He’s following Gerald closely but turning the prose into poetry and making it his own. Some of the exuberance of the book is captured in his language. 
But both similes, ‘like swallows skimming fields and ‘As if with webs picked off the grass’ are not only effective in isolation as images but have a structural purpose so that taken together they contribute to the movement of the story. 
Before his spiritual eyes have been opened the lines look like ‘Swallows skimming the grass’…a blur of random movement, swift and graceful, but hard to follow and confused. If you don’t pay attention and glance at the Book of Kells or one of the carpet pages in the Lindisfarne gospel, that’s what you see. 
When his ‘bodily and mental eyes’ (Gerald 85) have been opened, he sees the delicate patterns as ‘webs picked off the grass’.  
 Whet he now sees, rather than the chaotic movement of birds, is the delicate organized patterns of a spider’s web. Paying attention, he sees patterns rather than chaos. The difference in the images mark the development of his understanding. 
But what he draws, no matter how well he draws it, is heavier, thicker, less delicate. Whatever the intricacy of Kells reminds you of, it’s unlikely to be spider webs picked off the grass on a dewy autumn morning, unless you’ve read this first. 
The image suggests the way that things imagined are often diminished when made real and the way spiritual experience is inevitably transformed when it’s expressed in any human sign system. 
Good similes are hard to make. Similes that are not only good as images but structural components of a development in narrative and argument are priceless. 
In the next post. ‘Scribe B’ and the creation of a character.