Looking into Yeats has Repercussions, or, That Escalated Quickly

The other day I was reading a bit of Yeats. I’m not quite sure why my glance fell on his “A Thought from Propertius” nor why it was held. Perhaps the name Propertius caught my eye. Although I had at one time been mentored by a scholar of Propertius, I had never read a word of the man’s poetry. For some reason I had spent my time with Catullus and Tibullus.

Here is Yeats’ little thought from Propertius:

She might, so noble from head
To great shapely knees
The long flowing line,
Have walked to the altar
Through the holy images
At Pallas Athene’s Side,
Or been fit spoil for a centaur
Drunk with the unmixed wine.

Well! I had to do some searching and find out what old W. B. had read in Propertius’ Latin to inspire that lovely celebration of a particular woman!  After a bit of mucking about on the Internet, I pinned it down to the second elegy in Propertius’ second book of elegies, conveniently titled “Propertius II, ii”.  As I read the Roman boy’s Latin I thought, “Wow! William Butler really distilled the thing down to its bare essence!”  After spending a week or so with Propertius’ deeply mythical allusions — first while translating them into English verse while riding the LRT, then in just rolling the result around in my head — I think I can honestly say I prefer Propertius’ celebration of his lover.

Here’s what I jotted down on that rush hour train ride (Propertius’ Latin follows):

Propertius II, ii.

Free I was and was prepared
for life in an empty bed.
But now the peace I had composed
has been betrayed by Love.
Why does such a human form
loiter on this earth?
I, Jupiter, forgive you your
intrigues in ancient times.
Yellow her hair and long her hands,
her body statuesque.
When walking she is dignified
like the sister of high Jove,
or Pallas when she strides unto
Dulichium’s altars,
her breast concealed by gorgon head
and its snake-bearing locks.
And she is like Ischomache,
the Lapith heroine,
desired spoil of Centaurs’ rape
while they were in their cups.
Like Brimo when, by sacred font
of Boebeis, laid down
her virgin body, so it’s said
beside swift Mercury.
Now yield the contest, goddesses
whom in those ancient days
the shepherd saw take tunics off
up on Mount Ida’s heights.
And oh! may old age never have
the power to change that face
although she reach the span of life
of Cumae’s prophetess.

And, in Latin:

Liber eram et vacuo meditabar vivere lecto;
at me composita pace fefellit Amor.
cur haec in terris facies humana moratur?
Iuppiter, ignosco pristina furta tua.
fulva coma est longaeque manus, et maxima toto
corpore, et incedit vel Iove digna soror,
aut cum Dulichias Pallas spatiatur ad aras,
Gorgonis anguiferae pectus operta comis;
qualis et Ischomache Lapithae genus heroine,
Centauris medio grata rapina mero;
Mercurio satis fertur Boebeidos undis
virgineum Brimo composuisse latus.
cedite iam, divae, quas pastor viderat olim
Idaeis tunicas ponere verticibus!
hanc utinam faciem nolit mutare senectus,
etsi Cumaeae saecula vatis aget!


Creative Commons Licence
My translation of Propertius II, ii is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Like I need to tell you.

“Huff” by Cliff Cardinal at Edmonton’s Rubaboo Festival

What a theatre experience!

If you missed Cliff Cardinal’s painful, disturbing, challenging, difficult, funny tour de force performance in his self-written Huff during it’s Edmonton run at Rubaboo, you might want to catch up with Cardinal in Vancouver next week, or Toronto, Quebec City, Montreal, Manitowaning, Kelowna or Victoria in the coming weeks and months. As brutal as Cardinal’s exploration of substance abuse and inter- and intra-generational violence is, Huff is a piece of theatre worth seeking out.

I might have missed Huff if, when I bumped into her at the opening of Tomas Illes’ A Delicate Side of Edmonton, artist Dawn Marie Marchand had not mentioned the play to me. Her reminder to me a few days ago got me planning ahead to make sure I didn’t miss the play. I made sure to mention it to #yegtheatre blogger extraordinaire Jenna Marynowski and was pleased when she told me she’d already planned to be at the same matinee performance I would be going to.

Something over fifty people made a good audience in the Milner Library’s cozy theatre. The set was a beautifully economical infinite black space with very effective use of lighting, still projection and simple hanging cloth banners, three of which are tied to the lives of the three brothers, the main characters of Huff. A wooden chair and crate, a beer bottle, a rag, a bowl, a brown paper huffing sack, and a large jar of stewed tomatoes completed the set and props.

And then Cardinal goes to work. If I count correctly, in seventy fast paced minutes, Cardinal plays all three brothers, their father, their mother, their father’s new partner, their kookum, their dog (who speaks), and an aggressive and accidentally suicidal skunk. I believe up to six of these characters, all portrayed by Cardinal, are on stage at any one time, all interacting with each other, all absolutely clearly discriminated in Cardinal’s wholly remarkable performance. As well, Cardinal ingeniously incorporated — no — he forced audience participation.

The standing ovation for Cliff Cardinal, playwright and actor, was absolutely well deserved.

I will give little more away than to say Huff is an extremely challenging, difficult, and timely piece of theatre.  At one point one of the brothers says (of his brothers? of his family? of the audience as well?) “we are products of the Res (Rez?) schools!”

Repeatedly the youngest brother speaks of his gift from the Creator, the ability to breath gently and put a feeling of joy into the heart of others. Each time he demonstrates this gift, his arms are extended, as though crucified.

Here, I think is the quintessence of Huff: the three brothers, the four (and so many more) in La Loche, the now largely forgotten lost of Natuashish, and the countless “products of the res schools” . . . they all had that gift from the Creator, to breathe — to huff joy into our hearts or anyone’s. But everyone of the dead died for our sins and the sins of our fathers to the seventh generation and to the Eighth Fire.  And all the survivors have died a little or a lot.

Huff is a painful, painful piece of theatre, a wonderful drama, and Cardinal’s is a stunning, human and humane performance. If Huff comes your way, see it.

The Sacred and the Profane in the Digital Age: One does not simply click into Mordor

. . . the symbolism of death to the profane condition is always present; but, as we have seen, this is characteristic of every genuine religious experience.

Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, p. 52.


The other night I was chatting with a dear friend about Christianity’s history of appropriating elements of religions which preceded it. This subject is, of course, popular with the New Atheist Club and has flooded cyberspace in recent years in a pretty negative way.  In Religious Studies and History of Religions circles, this sort of appropriation, which, of course, happens in all religions, often goes by the name “syncretism”. By whatever name, religious syncretism can be a two way street.

In our conversation I mentioned Pope Gregory the Great’s instruction sent by messenger to (later St.) Augustine of Canterbury on his mission to the Britons at the end of the 6th Century.  Here it is, as the Venerable Bede recalled it:


. . . dicite ei, quid diu mecum de causa Anglorum cogitans tractaui; uidelicet, quia fana idolorum destrui in eadem gente minime debeant; sed ipsa, quae in eis sunt, idola destruantur; aqua benedicta fiat, in eisdem fanis aspergatur, altaria construantur, reliquiae ponantur. Quia, si fana eadem bene constructa sunt, necesse est, ut a cultu daemonum in obsequio ueri Dei debeant commutari; ut dum gens ipsa eadem fana sua non uidet destrui, de corde errorem deponat, et Deum uerum cognoscens ac adorans, ad loca, quae consueuit, familiarius concurrat. Et quia boues solent in sacrificio daemonum multos occidere, debet eis etiam hac de re aliqua sollemnitas immutari; ut die dedicationis, uel natalicii sanctorum martyrum, quorum illic reliquiae ponuntur, tabernacula sibi circa easdem ecclesias, quae ex fanis commutatae sunt, de ramis arborum faciant, et religiosis conuiuiis sollemnitatem celebrent; nec diabolo iam animalia immolent, et ad laudem Dei in esu suo animalia occidant, et donatori omnium de satietate sua gratias referant; ut dum eis aliqua exterius gaudia reseruantur, ad interiora gaudia consentire facilius ualeant. . . . Ecclesiastical History, I, 30

. . . tell him that I have long wrestled with the cause of the English: clearly, the destruction of the templs of idols among that people must be minimized; but those idols within must be destroyed; holy watter is to be sprinkled on them, altars constructed, relics deposited.  For, if they are well constructed, it is necessary that they be converted from a demonic cult and be given unto the worship of the true God; that when the people see that their temples are not destroyed, the will turn their hearts from error and, may more easily come to know the true God by gathering in that familiar place.  And since they’re used to killing many cattle in sacrifice to demons, let another solemnity take its place, such as a Day of Dedication, or the Nativities of the Sainted Martyrs, whose relics are deposited there.  Let them make shelters for themselves of tree branches around the church that once was a temple, and celebrate religious feasts with solemnity; but not offering animals to the devil but killing animals to be eaten in the praise of God and offering thanks for their satiety to the Giver of All Things. So, while some exterior physical joys are granted them they more readily consent to the inward spiritual joys. . . .


Far from being the forced conversion practised in so much of later Christianity and in early Islam, Gregory’s advice was to (somewhat) gently encourage a syncretism between Christianity and the Old Religion of the people.

The chapel-in-the-sacred-grove method of proselytizing, also used in places other than 6th Century Kent, likely contributed to the surprising number of Saints and folk-saints with similar names to pagan gods.

As my friend and I chatted, a beautiful place came to my mind.  Twenty-five or so years ago I visited Chamula, a Maya town in the Highlands of Chiapas.  A number of years before my visit, the story went, the people of the town drove out the priest and reclaimed the church, converting it into a temple that suited their deeper, pre-Conquest religious traditions. At the time of my visit, the people were very protective of their sacred building.  The old church and the town office were guarded by grim men bearing nasty looking metre-long black clubs.  Outsiders wishing to visit the interior of the church had to have their identity papers scrutinized in the town office, and, if deemed acceptable, were issued a pass allowing entrance.  Photography was absolutely forbidden. Rumour had it that in a previous season some tourists had broken that one rule and had paid with their lives.

After my pass had been scrutinized by one of the armed men at the church door, I entered the dim interior.

I took no pictures.

My memory of the interior of the church at Chamula is vivid still.  The old statues of saints and apostles, given new clothing, lined up along the wall to my left. No pews, the floor instead strewn with straw.  A few elderly people sitting on the floor with lighted candles.  The sound of quiet chanting and the smoke of copal filling the space.  There was a chiaroscuro of incense smoke and candle light glittering from the lacquered cheeks and eyes of wooden saints.

I don’t know how long I stood silently or tiptoed through that magical space before stepping back into the overcast zocalo, rain threatening.

I told my dear friend about this visit and then said sadly, “now there are probably photos of the interior all over the internet.”  She wisely chose not to look.  Fool that I am, I did a Google image search and let myself glance for a moment at the thumbnails, then turned quickly away.  Although the elements seemed to all be in the photos — even the elderly people sitting cross-legged on the floor — the pictures were not pictures of the place I had been, of the place I remembered.    The photos seemed pornographic, the Chamulan sacred space brutally stripped naked and harshly lit for perverse voyeurs’ jaded eyes.

I wish I hadn’t looked. I had been party to sacrilege.

The Internet is a wonderful tool, with powerful possibilities to educate and connect people.  It provides marvellous opportunities to lead people out of darkness, to heal cultural rifts.  But there is always the danger that we will be reduced to the lowest common denominator, and lower.

We have the greatest poetry, the finest art, the most sublime music, the deepest learning at our fingertips. And we also have goatse, snuff videos, and various numbers of girls with cups.  There are no boundaries between the sacred and the profane, no distinctions between the beautiful and the hideous, between the fundamental and the fundament. I fear that, for many people, there are no value differences either.

The experience of travelling by plane and car to Chamula, the fearful frisson of being an outsider in that zocalo, in that town office, of being scrutinized by men willing to kill, the wonder of standing in the heart of that Mystery, and the vivid memories still held after a quarter century — all of these feelings and memories have a sacred value for me.  The photos in cyberspace have no reality.  They have no relationship of any value to the Old Church in Chamula which I experienced one overcast afternoon decades ago. A google search will never be a pilgrimage. One does not simply click into Mordor.

I don’t want a brave new world in which nothing is sacred.  One doesn’t have to believe to respect the sacred. One doesn’t have to be Muslim to remove one’s shoes at the doors of a mosque. A man need not be Catholic to remove his hat when entering St. Peter’s.  Only the rude or the ignorant would take photos during a Bar Mitzvah. When we respect a sacred place, even if we think absurd the faith that holds that place sacred, we are respecting the people who have struggled to find meaning in that place.  When we honour the boundaries set by the people of Chamula, we honour the mysterious syncretism they have created out of the troubled history of Chiapas. And if we do the honouring and respecting correctly and well, if we enter with honesty into our own particular human struggle, each of us creates a deeply meaningful personal syncretism.

Let’s talk about the new Arena in Edmonton

When I go downtown in Edmonton (almost every day) and look at the “Ice District” — the big arena and the community rink and the winter garden which will house Alex Janvier’s treasure “Iron Foot Place”, and the office towers and residential towers and shops and . . . . and when I see all the construction workers busy as bees, supporting their families and building infrastructure for the future of the people of Edmonton — when I see all that activity coming from regular working people very gainfully employed in a time of economic downturn — I’m sorry, but I don’t see a playground for millionaires. I see a pretty wise investment in art, in sport, in infrastructure, in employment, and in social cohesion.

I admit, I have concerns about the impacts on the homeless and the less advantaged, on the Boyle Street Co-op and other inner-city institutions — yes, institutions, every bit as much such as the AGA, the RAM, The Citadel, or any other bit of our civic structure — I worry about the loss of the bus depot . . .

But, seriously: in a time of economic recession, thousands of ordinary people, largely union members, are employed building infrastructure as workplaces for thousands of ordinary people, largely union members, and some (on the left and the right) are still doing the “playground for millionaires” song and dance.

Strange bedfellows, you guys.

I think I’ll hang with the regular peeps who are bringing home the bacon by building a neat place for sport and art and music and fun and modern space for other peeps to work and bring home the bacon.

Yeah, Ice District is a crappy name, but it’s a good thing for Edmonton’s working people.

How about we who are working and have homes stop whining about phony “millionaires’ playgrounds” (who exactly, I ask you, is happily paying hard earned money to watch the millionaires play?) and start working on homes for our homeless neighbours? Like hockey? Spend three periods volunteering at a homeless shelter. Donate the price of a ticket — or a season ticket — to the Hope Mission. Like rock concerts? Skip one and give the ticket price to the Bissell Centre.

Venting on Facebook or Twitter or whatever is cheap — I know: I do it all the time, I’m doing it now.

Making a difference takes work. And a whole big load of ordinary people are working on the (horribly named) Edmonton Ice District.

And they’re making a difference.


Will you?

The Middle Ground Between Marlowe’s Shepherd and Raleigh’s Nymph

For some reason in the past few weeks and months I’ve been revisiting love poems, from  Classical through the Renaissance.  Perhaps I’m feeling my second childhood, although I don’t remember the end of the first.  While certain poems of Catullus have been much in mind, an Elizabethan love lyric and a jaded old courtier’s parodying “response” have preoccupied me a bit.

Christopher Marlowe’s “A Passionate Shepherd to his Love” is well known to anyone who has ever been young and passionate.  Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymphs Reply to the Shepherd is equally well known to anyone who was ever a pinched and defensively smug young person without a date on a Saturday night.  I have been wondering whether there is a poem which stands somehow on the middle ground between Marlowe’s charming, beautiful, mannered, Arcadian cry of carpe diem, and Raleigh’s bitter little embrace of sad, narrow mutability.

Marlowe is sometimes credited with bringing the pastoral mode into English Literature with “The Passionate Shepherd”, although Spencer’s “A Shepheard’s Calendar” appeared more than a decade earlier.  Certainly Marlowe’s poem stands squarely on that rustic Arcadian road walked by shepherds, swains and their lovers from Theocritus, through Horace, Virgil, Tibullus, Spencer and, after Marlowe, to Milton, who murdered Lycidas with a magnificent pastoral elegy.  Marlowe’s poem is a beautiful exercise in what is a highly conventional mode. Everything of the Pastoral is crammed into the twenty-four lines: the geography of mountains, hills, fields, groves, river valley; the idylic agriculture of sheep, myrtle, roses and song birds; and the fantasy gifts envisioned of coral and amber and gold.  It is a tour de force and a pretty gem of a poem, a lovely fantasy to charm into warmth any heart that still can feel.

Marlowe was twenty-nine when he died, younger — in his early twenties, perhaps — when he wrote “The Passionate Shepherd”.  Raleigh was  in his forties when he wrote his “Nymph’s Reply”.  I would happily argue that the sensibilities of a forty-something-year-old man are rarely the same as those of a twenty-year-old man particularly when it comes to passionate love.  Raleigh’s poem, despite the appropriate trappings, is not in the pastoral mode. Rather, “The Nymph’s Reply” stands on that line of satire running through Juvenal up to and through Alexander Pope.  While Raleigh may stir a bit of a chuckle by pointing out the naivete of Marlowe’s Shepherd, what Raleigh is really doing is dismissing the pleasures of the world in a very Medieval way.  “The Nymph’s Reply” is really little more than a line from the Old English poem The Wanderer: “eal þis eorþan gesteal    idel weorþeð” (Every thing on this earth turns to waste).  Factual, perhaps, but not certainly or humanly True.

At one point I thought about trying to write my own Response, of finding some middle ground between Marlowe’s idyll and Raleigh’s morbidity.  There have of course, been dozens of Responses written in the last four hundred years. As much as I like to reinvent the wheel, I gave up on the idea of my own Response when I reread Wordsworth’s “She Was a Phantom of Delight” and saw that my goal had been realized far more completely than I could ever have done.
Wordsworth was not, of course, writing a “Nymph’s Reply”.  I don’t imagine he had any thought of Marlowe when composing “She Was a Phantom of Delight (although his poem is in iambic tetrameter couplets, like Marlowe’s and Raleigh’s).  But Wordsworth has captured Marlowe’s youthful care-not-for-tomorrow, has acknowledged the decay Raleigh cannot see past, and has found a permanence of love more profound than the two Elizabethan fellows seem to have imagined possible.  Wordsworth does this by shedding the conventional pastoral imagery as the poem progresses, moving from “May-time and the cheerful Dawn”, through simple, profoundly human realism in the middle bit of household life and ending on a transcendent note of Pantheism/Panhumanism.  The transient Phantom of Delight of Wordsworth’s youth becomes “something of angelic light” precisely because she became

A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food,
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.

Wordsworth has been Marlowe’s Shepherd, but he grew up. He did not, however, grow out of his wonder, and his love, like poor Raleigh did.  With a clear, mature, unjaded eye, Wordsworth looks at his middle-aged Love, perhaps a little saggy and creaky, and at once he sees the Phantom of Delight, the Woman, the sorrows, the strengths and the joys. The only word I think is missing from Wordsworth’s poem is “Friend”.

Wordsworth stands on that middle ground I had searched for, between Marlowe’s dreamy Shepherd and Raleigh’s hopelessly pragmatic Nymph, and he sees so wonderfully much more than they or the poets who created them did!

The Poems

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The Shepherds’ Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

Sir Walter Raleigh

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every Shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move,
To live with thee, and be thy love.

Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
When Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb,
The rest complains of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields,
To wayward winter reckoning yields,
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and Ivy buds,
The Coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

But could youth last, and love still breed,
Had joys no date, nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee, and be thy love.

She Was a Phantom of Delight

William Wordsworth

She was a Phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament;
Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
Like Twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
A dancing Shape, an Image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.

I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin-liberty;
A countenance in which did meet
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.

And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A Being breathing thoughtful breath,
A Traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light.

I guess I haven’t completely wasted my life

Thirty-two years ago, shortly following my first scholarly publication (“On The Seafarer, line 34b”), after spending an idyllic summer in the Lucanian countryside helping to dig up a ruined Roman villa – a summer which a quarter century later inspired the twenty-four wee paintings which seem to have made me into some sort of “artist” – I sat down in a small upstairs room in a tiny house in the London suburb of Watford and translated a Latin love poem (Catullus 3) into English verse and wrote that translation out on the rear flyleaf of the little book of Latin poetry I was just now perusing once more.

I guess I haven’t completely wasted my life.

John Richardson's photo.


I posted this to Facebook last night, but some people don’t do Facebook, so . . .

There’s this thing trending on teh twitter called “#IDenounceHarper.

I can’t.

Denouncing my neighbour is something I don’t want to ever be called to do. It’s the ultimate of Fascist suggestions, a call to the absolute end of freedom of thought. Whatever I think of him, of his vision for Canada, of his record as Prime Minister, as political organizer, as stock boy, or as university student, Mr. Harper, like all Canadians, is, before all else, my neighbour.  I’m not going to jump on a foul intertube bandwagon and DENOUNCE the man, the husband, the father, the guy whose life’s course has been so similar to my own while arriving at such a dissimilar place.

I’ll happily criticize his policies, his tactics, his strategies, his ads, his claims, his choice of pet.  I’ll gladly vote for a candidate from a party opposed to his. I’ll shout from the rooftops that his vision of Canada is absolutely inconsistent with my own.

But I will not denounce Mr. Harper.

If he has committed or condoned crimes, we have a functioning Parliament and functioning Courts to deal with those.  I don’t expect to ever be called as a witness in proceedings against Mr. Harper. A vanishingly small percentage of Canadians should expect such a call. Our denunciations are nothing but the venting of spleen, usually anonymously, often stupidly maliciously.

Mr. Harper has done something I never would have had the guts to do: he threw his hat into the ring and he rose to the highest elected office in the land and governed as he saw fit.  I wish he never had, but I can’t denounce him for having more guts than me. 

I don’t want another minute of Prime Minister Harper, but, as much as I dislike my impression of him as an individual, I will not denounce him. 

In the end we are all neighbours in the most civil of  civil societies, Canada.

Vote. Don’t Hate.