Of Anglo-Saxon Drink and Old-Style Philology

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery . . .
— Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, ll. 15-18

 

Part One

On the Taste and Strength of Anglo-Saxon Drink: A formal effort

Much ink has been spilled on the Old English words, beor, ealu, medu, and win, but little perhaps by critics familiar with both Old English and brewing. There has often been an underlying assumption that the words refer to some sort of standardized and distinct beverages, and so, we have a number of broad efforts to identify the qualities of the various beverages produced by the Anglo-Saxons. When one considers that the Anglo-Saxon period covers at least five centuries of human development, defining Anglo-Saxon beverages should be at least as difficult as trying to pin down the distinctions between such products of the last five centuries as purl, lager, ale, claret, icewine, stout, beer, small beer, imperial stout, India pale ale, and bock.

It is clearly a mug’s game, but . . .

Apparently very clear and important information, although much cited, has been largely misunderstood or overlooked. British Library MS Royal 12D17 was published in 1851 by Thomas Cockayne. This manuscript, commonly referred to as Leechdoms, from a bit of the title of Cockayne’s multi-volume work, provides a seemingly clear picture of the relative specific gravities of water, win, beor, and ealu, and so, as most home brewers would see immediately, a fairly clear idea of sweetness, and perhaps, of alcohol content, of the beverages familiar to the author of Royal 12D17. There certainly would have been regional variations we may never understand in beverages produced by the Anglo-Saxons, but very clear information seems to have survived about one particular suite of libations:

Pund eles gewihð xii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres & 1 pund huniges gewihð xxxiiii penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund buteran gewihð lxxx penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & 1 pund melowes gewihð vi penegum læsse cxv þonne pund wætres & 1 pund beana gewihð lv penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & xv pund1 wætres gaþ to sestre.2
— Cockayne, Leechdomes, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, volume II, p. 298

If one concludes, as may seem reasonable given the long history of 240 pence to the pound, whatever the actual weight indicated by “pund”, that there are 240 “penegum” to a “pund”, then it is a quite simple of matter of arithmetic to work out specific gravities of the Royal MS’s beor, ealu, and win:

Water: 240 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.00
Beor: 218 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 0.90
Ealu: 246 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.025
Win: 255 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.0625

Ann Hagen (p. 200) and Christine Fell (p. 84, etc.) argue that Beor is a sweet drink, “sweeter than wine, ale, or skim milk” (Hagen p. 200). If the Royal MS is accurate this cannot be the case: Beor, at a specific gravity of 0.908 must be very dry or, if sweet, impossibly high in alcohol. A modern wine is considered to be sweet at a specific gravity from 1.010 to 1.025. A modern wine of higher gravity is likely made from concord grapes and either sacramental or kosher. The Royal win was apparently a very sweet wine and ealu either very sweet, very full bodied, or both. But Royal’s beor, no matter how high we might reasonably speculate its alcohol content, can never be argued to be a sweet beverage. Even at 40% alcohol, such a sweet modern drink as Cointreau measures at 1.040. At 0.908, Beor must have a sweetness equivalent to a modern dry wine or a strong beer such as an imperial stout or a barley wine.

Whatever the tastes may have been in other regions and periods of Anglo-Saxon England, at the time and place the information in Royal 12D17 was recorded – if accurate – the taste was for sweet wine and ealu and for dry, strong beor.

It must be noted that Hagen (p. 200) makes a patently false claim: “a port at twenty percent alcohol, even if sweet, will weigh noticably less than the same volume of water.” Despite the evidence of Cointreau mentioned above, I have myself tested Hagen’s claim with a nice bottle of Madeira standing in for the port she mentions. I measured the specific gravity of my Madeira by weighing equivalent volumes of both it and ordinary tap water and doing the simple arithmetic. The Madeira was noticeably heavier than was the water, despite the former’s 20% alcohol. Apparently Hagen neglected to consider that sugar is far, far heavier than alcohol and a small amount of sweetness easily outweighs a fairly high amount of alcohol.

 

Part Two

Revisiting the Land of Cockayne: A conversational effort

One evening (for the sake of the narrative I’m assuming it to have been an evening) I was sitting quietly reading Ann Hagen’s Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink when I was struck by a passage which included words “quoted” from Leechdoms:

An interesting passage from Leechdoms states that ‘a pint of ale weighs six pence more than a pint of water, and a pint of wine weighs 15 pence more . . . and a pint ofbeor weighs 22 pence less . . .’ (pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres . . . ond pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres). p. 200<

I’ll ignore for the moment the fact that the word “mare” has been dropped from Hagen’s transcription of the passage from Leechdoms – thing are dropped at times in every scriptorium.

As a homebrewer and home winemaker, I immediately recognized that if the numbers in this passage of Old English accurately represented a Medieval reality, it would be only a matter of simple arithmetic to roughly calculate the alcohol content of Anglo-Saxon ale, wine, and beor. Hagen is correct in stating “if we could be sure of the volume of an Anglo-Saxon pint, and weighed it against some Anglo-Saxon pennies, it would be possible to discover the alcohol content of beor”(p. 200) provided we can trust the numbers provided by the Anglo-Saxon scribe, but we may not need to know the volume of that old pint. But Hagen makes a sad and incorrect assumption when she states that “Alcohol weighs only four-fifths of the same volume of water, and a port at twenty percent alcohol, even if sweet, will weigh noticeably less than the same volume of water.” (p. 200) In fact, I have conducted the experiment and found that a nice Madeira (a convenient stand-in for Port), sweet by any standard, weighs 14% more than an equal volume of water. Even and extremely high alcohol liqueur such as Cointreau, at 40% alcohol, has a specific gravity of 1.04, making even such a high alcohol sweet beverage noticeably heavier than water.

Obviously, between transcription error and easily tested and dismissed false assumption, I was not going to take Hagen at her word for what was in Leechdoms – I both sought out the original passage she quotes and decided to do my own arithmetic.

The arithmetic first. Not being certain of the weight of the Anglo-Saxon penny or pound or the volume of the pound (pint), I thought, why not just assume for a moment that a pound (pint) is a measurement of both weight and volume. Furthermore, why not assume that there are a very British 240 pennies in a pund. One could run the numbers and see what one finds out.

As preliminary, lets look at ealu:

One pund of ealu equals 1 pund six pennies of water. If we assume that the six pennies are 6/240 of the pund of water, that would give ealu a specific gravity of 1.025, which is roughly equivalent to a Russian Imperial Stout.

So far so good. What about wine and beor? Long story short: Wine, 1.0625, Beor 0.95. These numbers put Beor into an American “lite” lager range and wine becomes something very sweet, in the range of a Reisling Icewine.

Hagen’s conclusions, based largely on evidence from other texts, in contrast, are that beor was sweeter than wine, ale, or skim milk. Furthermore, she argues that was probably dry (p. 295). As mentioned, Hagen is drawing on many other lines of evidence than just the specific gravity measurements recorded in Leechdoms.

But why such a disparity?

Well, as it turns out, the numbers recorded in Leechdoms are manifestly and obviously inaccurate and unreliable, but to see this one must actually look at the entire passage rather than (mis)quoting an expurgated version from a secondary source, which Hagen has apparently done.

Christine Fell, in “Old English Beor” (Leeds Studies in English, 8(1975), p. 84, quotes the same passage from Leechdoms, with the same ellipsis Hagen includes (excludes?). Clearly Hagen didn’t bother in this instance to go back to Cockayne’s 1851 edition which she cites. If one examines the complete list of comparative weights in Cockayne’s edition (as I have), one finds that there can be little certainty about any of the numbers or comparative weights, and one is left with little more than a word list.

Pund eles gewihð xii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres & 1 pund huniges gewihð xxxiiii penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund buteran gewihð lxxx penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & 1 pund melowes gewihð vi penegum læsse cxv þonne pund wætres & 1 pund beana gewihð lv penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & xv pund1 wætres gaþ to sestre.2

— Cockayne, Leechdomes, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, volume II, p. 298.

 

Part Three

In For a Penny, In For a Pound: a lot of numbers

Leechdoms lists Oil, Ale, Wine, Honey, Butter, Beor, Meal, and Beans. In the following chart I compare the Leechdoms’ specific gravity numbers to modern measurements. Oil, Honey, and Butter are fairly safe comparisons. Beans and Meal are less safe as there is no indication of what type of meal or beans is meant and the state of dryness (which makes a very significant difference of specific gravity for beans) is unknown. The Oil numbers look very promising, but both the Honey and particularly the Butter numbers are quite far from expectation. Leechdoms says honey weighs 34 pennies more than water and butter weighs 80 less but honey actually weighs 40% more than water and butter weighs just 9% less. I can see no way to reconcile these numbers from Leechdoms’ with physical reality, no matter the weight of the Anglo-Saxon Pennies and Pund.

               Leechdoms5               Actual

Oil          0.95                         0.92 (Olive)
Ale         1.025                        ?
Wine     1.0625                      ?
Honey   1.14                          1.4
Butter   0.666                         0.959
Beor      0.908                         ?
Meal      0.975                        0.61 (Oatmeal)
Beans    0.77                          0.64 (Fresh, Fava) 0.908 (Dry)

When examined in their textual context, it becomes clear that the apparent specific gravities preserved in Leechdoms, if they were ever to any degree accurate, have become garbled into hopeless inaccuracy in textual transmission.

 

Part Four

The Incredible Lightness of Being an Old-Style Philologist

 

The proper response to the hero on the beach is likely not a recognition of a familiar literary convention, but the recognition of a situation intimately known to every individual — for every [one] is at some point in [their] life “on the beach.”

— Me, “The Critic on the Beach,” Neophilologus 71 (1987), 118.

A long time ago I wrote a very pretentious and apparently unpublishable paper titled “Playing Ball on the Road to Xibalba: The Hero on the Beach and Faith in Eternal Life in the Popul Vuh, Arnold’s Dover Beach, and The Wanderer”. It was a study of what had first been described as an “oral-formulaic theme” in Old English poetry, but with the passage of scholarly time, the object of study came to be discovered so widely that if had become clear that the Emperor was somewhat underdressed, if he were an emperor at all, as I came to demonstrate in “The Critic on the Beach”. After an epigraph of a few lines from Arnold’s poem, I began my unacceptable piece with:

I can well remember sitting one evening in a cafe with friends discussing some books I’d just bought, including a copy of Virgil’s Eclogues. At the time I had been expending a good deal of energy wrestling with the concept of the Hero on the Beach, a staple of Old English oral-formulaic theory. It was with a certain amount of surprise that while reading aloud from Virgil my friends and I discovered that the old Roman poet had used the same elements in the same combination that Old English poets were thought to have used. I had by that time already finished a paper on the Hero on the Beach in The Wanderer and I had considered my little work to be modestly revolutionary, taking, as it did, the theme to be more metaphorical, or even allegorical, than merely descriptive. But here we had stumbled onto something much more revolutionary: Virgil seemed to be anticipating the Old English convention by about a millennium. Even if one does not accept the bilingual pun suggested by my friends in their paper on the subject, there is a suggestion of something not yet fully understood about the Hero on the Beach.

I went on for close to thirty pages and fifty-something footnotes referencing and/or quoting at length the popular music of Jane Siberry and The Bangles, the Quiché Maya epic The Popul Vuh, Eliot’s Prufrock, Sophocles’ Antigone, and, perhaps most satisfyingly, my own published scholarly work. It’s a rambling, impressionistic piece which concludes, after a few more cups of coffee and tea:

One of the first incidents which lead me to question the conventional view of the Hero on the Beach occurred as I sat at a traffic light with an old friend I had not seen for some months. We were at a crossroads, about to turn from a country road onto the main road into the city. As I sat, I realized that we were ourselves “on the beach”. The question in my mind became, is the significance of the theme dependent on the details being written down, on being described? Or can the details be significant on their own? It has been recently that I have seen that the details make up a vitally malleable situation, a situation which is magically able to express a perhaps infinite number of profound meanings, often a number of meanings in a single work. In the three works discussed in the present study, the Hero on the Beach is a means of expressing a faith which must necessarily be a paradox: a faith in a form of eternal existence in the face of a painfully evident human mortality. Whether the theme’s ability to express profound meaning is merely a wide-spread coincidence or a result of the inherent wiring of the human brain is a question I do not feel qualified to address. But it should be pointed out that C. G. Jung suggested that there is an underlying principal in man’s universe which leads to “meaningful coincidences.” Perhaps my discoveries in the cafe with Virgil, while listening idly to music, and while sitting at traffic lights are examples of Jung’s synchronicity. The speculation tells us little about The Wanderer as an independent entity, but it suggests a wealth of questions about The Wanderer, and literature in general, as expressions of mankind’s relationship with, and understanding of his universe. These questions might never have been asked if the Hero on the Beach had continued to be studied only in the context of Old English poetry.

Of rejection letters I’ve received over the years, one of those I received for “Playing Ball on the Road to Xibalba” stands out as my favourite because of the included anonymous peer reviewer’s comments. They are truly a wonderfully funny piece of literature, and so, I include most of them:

On the validity of the argument, dependability of the method and data:

This is a shockingly untheorized paper. There is no sense (at all) of where things are going or why. I did like the informal style, however inappropriate for an academic discussion, since it is lively and irreverent. But underneath all the fizz, there lurks an old-style philologist with an old-style textual problem: He has discovered some analogies and wants the world to know. One might, in the author’s personal mode, compare the procedure to an [sic] weary beachcomber, staggering along, dried up in the sun, rancid from the heat, but spraying himself with Old Spice. (He could also be imagined, given the egotistic self-reference of the discussion, as singing love-songs to himself.) There is simply no concpetual [sic] map provided here. Why are analogies significant? Do they show something about the commanalities [sic]/banalities of the human “wiring”? Or merely the restrictions of a narrow genre (if the hero is on the beach without a bright light then he isn’t a HERO ON THE BEACH but something else, like Leopold Bloom or Edgar, perhaps)? Or an archetype? But if the latter, there should be empirical, as well as textual, evidence to show its true universality.

On the style:

The author’s style is informal and self-referential, but lively. There is some fizz (but lots of fluff) to decorate the dead(ly) body of philology. The chief objection to the paper is more a question of method than style; it lacks any theoretical grounding, it is mapless, it doesn’t even seem to be aware of the problems (some interesting) that it touches upon but does not take up. . .

Well. This was the 1980s when Theory had at last become fully ensconced and fortified in Academia, and I was about to give my academic sandals a few good shakes and move on to fresh forests and pastures new. Academia had determined that the time for young Old Philologists had passed.

But now I am become old, and I find I like being an old philologist, with leisure and no ties to the fashions and fetters of theory-bound academia. A philologist is a bit of a magpie. A philologist outside academia is a free-range magpie, able to gather information where ever fancy is struck. Because I am a homebrewer, I recognized the potential of that old list in Leechdoms. Being a philologist, I dug into the source. Unlike many contemporary scholars, who seem to merely quote each other’s references rather than consulting the primary sources, I looked at Cockayne’s full transcription. And I did the arithmetic. And I conducted actual real-world experiments. And out of the happy fizz and fluff, I drew some conclusions: Leechdoms is unreliable as evidence of the character of Anglo-Saxon drink; theory is no substitute for the leisurely collection of and rumination on evidence; theory is too often a hammer for which everything must be a nail; there is still lots of beach combing waiting for an old-style philologist.

Pass the Old Spice, please.

We have to go down deep to play this game of literature and literary criticism. But it is a game, a game of searching for questions and then searching for answers. I think that anonymous reviewer knew well that it is a game, and I take his playful comments less as criticism and more as a hat tip to a fellow player. But his apparent dismissal of old-style philology troubles me. “These questions might never have been asked if the Hero on the Beach had continued to be studied only in the context of Old English poetry.” Or only in the context of theory. Or only in the context of reused quotes from tertiary sources. Experiments call out to be conducted. Old texts wait to be read and reread. Arithmetic must be done and redone. And, always, we sit on the shoulders of a vast and various army of giants.

The poetry that goes by this misleading and unfortunate title attracts occasionally from afar people of various sort — philologists, historians, folklorists, and others of that kidney, but also poets, critics, and connoisseurs of new literary sensations. The philologists (in a wide sense) have as usual done most of the work, and their ardour has not more than usual (probably less than in Beowulf ) been diverted from at least intelligent appreciation of the literary value of these documents.

It is unusually true here that a real judgement and appreciation of these poems — whose obscurity and difficulty is such that only the devoted labour of many philologists has made them available — is dependent on personal possession of a knowledge of the critical, metrical, and linguistic problems. Without the philologist, of course, we should not know what many of the words meant, how the lines ran, or what the words sounded like: this last is in old Scandinavian verse of possibly more importance even than usual. . .

— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, p. 16.

Now and then we each bring a little tidbit to the meticulously crafted groaning board of human expression. I am happy with participation, whether it ends in rejection or acceptance. I have no interest in throwing over the banquet table of the ages in favour of a rickety TV tray of this week’s theory. If I am to sit at this banquet, on the shoulders of these giants, I would prefer to look to the horizon now and then as I pick at the philological crumbs on their bibs, rather than turn my blindfolded eyes to a wall, untouched by experiment, trailing flatulent clouds of theory.

 

______________________

1Cockayne reads pund here as an error for yntsan, “ounce”.

2Cockayn has note: “Sexterius medicinalis habet uncias decem. Plin. Valer. Pref.”

3Cockayne reads pund here as an error for yntsan, “ounce”.

4Cockayn has note: “Sexterius medicinalis habet uncias decem. Plin. Valer. Pref.”

5Based on 240 pennies to the pund.

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A Happy Meeting with Rupert Thomson’s “Secrecy”

Funny things happen on Twitter.

One morning a week or two ago, House of Anansi Press, a prominent Canadian publisher, tweeted a challenge:  first person to reply with the name of the artist responsible for the tableau pictured would win a reading copy of Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, Secrecy.  Honestly, being largely closeted away from contemporary English-Language non-Canadian literature, I’d never heard of Thomson before.  There’s a good possibility I’d never have read his work if I hadn’t answered Anansi’s tweet with such dispatch. Such dispatch that I was actually first!  A few days later, the book arrived in the mail with a nice little note. image It seemed only right that I take a break from Isherwood’s Berlin and Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards to read through this gift.  And a ripping read it is!  Thomson’s opening frame narrative of a dark and stormy day in November 1701 immediately hooked me and I stayed on the hook throughout.  Thomson is a very comfortable read, even when writing about uncomfortable things such as the clinical dismemberment of a dead body, torture and various killings.  Thomson’s fiction of the real Sicilian Baroque wax sculptor Gaetano Zummo is a vivid, almost entirely believable evocation of the late 17th century Florentine court and underworld(s).  While not an epic such as Umberto Eco or Roberto Bolaño would produce, Secrecy is distinctly more than a best-seller historical romance.  Secrecy is dark, gritty and even borders on smelly.  There is profundity to be plumbed. Thomson tells the story of the sculptor’s time in the employ of Grand Duke Cosimo in Zummo’s own voice.  Zummo is obsessed with decay and ambiguity in his art — and perhaps in his life.  The Florentine world seems to feed those obsessions, beginning with the ominous gift of a wormy truffle on p. 28.  Zummo tells us minute and unexpected details which are exquisite and a little frighteningly real, like his reaction to a simple brushing touch at dinner:

I felt a shock go through me, all the way to a small, surprising place in my left heel. (p. 54)

And many questions are left unanswered for both Zummo and the reader, like the significance of Cosimo’s pet cockerel at Zummo’s first meeting with the Grand Duke.  Ambiguity and uncertainty are everywhere. Zummo’s love, Faustina, contributes wonderfully evocative descriptions and memories.  I noted particularly her father’s horsemanship on page 94:

. . . when her father rode he seemed to float above the saddle, only connected to the horse by the most intangible of threads.  His hands on the reins, his feet in the stirrups — but lightly, ever so lightly.  They were like completely separate beings who just happened to be travelling in the same direction, at the same speed.

and her exquisite description of her aunt Ginevra’s heart on page 97:

If she tried to imagine Ginevra’s heart, she saw wood-shavings, and bacon rind, and thin, curling off-cuts of boot leather.  It was like peering into the corner of a shed, or into a room that was hardly ever used.

But, wait.  These are Zummo’s memories of Faustina’s memories.  At other points, Zummo tells his story in quoted conversation, but on these and other occasions, he becomes almost an omniscient narrator, apparently able to see the thoughts of Faustina.  Is he a reliable narrator?  At one point Faustina herself reminds Zummo and us that her memories are not necessarily accurate records.  Ambiguity abounds. Some small quibbles: Once or twice as I was reading I felt that a phrase Thomson chose was just a touch anachronistic, perhaps making Zummo’s story accessible, but breaking the period realism briefly.  But these moments were so minor I made no lasting note of what exactly the phrases were. I felt personally a little disappointed that the character of Fiore, the young girl who makes herself Zummo’s sidekick, is worth of greater development.  She is a gem shining in Zummo’s rot-filled world. But, as I said, these are quibbles.  Secrecy is a fine, fascinating, exciting read.  Its three hundred pages pass more quickly than one would wish, but it is by no means a light-weight work.  Secrecy is packed with sweeping history and tiny detail, but it is never a chore nor overwhelming.  Thomson has achieved a fine balance in an intensely human novel I would highly recommend.

 

By the way, Secrecy would have been a great literary accompaniment to the National Gallery of Canada‘s touring show, Beautiful Monsters  recently at the Art Gallery of Alberta and coming next year to the Kamloops Art Gallery and  The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

“The City of the End of Things” by Archibald Lampman

If I were to write a scholarly paper on Archibald Lampman’s remarkable poem, “The City of the End of Things“, I would probably spend weeks or month in the Rutherford Library at the U of A reading everything written by Lampman and everything written about Lampman’s life and works.  I would definitely mention Shelly and I might mention Wells, Teasdale and Bradbury.  I would avoid mentioning Lewis and Ellison, although I might bring in Star Trek for fun.  I would meticulously footnote and be sure to add passages in Latin and possibly Greek.  I might throw in bits of Old English from “The Ruin” which so exquisitely descends into fragments as it progresses, and maybe a bit of Czech and Polish.

On the other hand, if I were writing a blog post about “The City of the End of Things” I would probably sit down in a hospital room — like the detective in that Tey novel — with a print-out of the poem, a notebook and pen, a smart phone with a failing battery, and my memory.  I would certainly mention Ellison and Star Trek, I might even bring in Robert Bloch.  I would probably not do anything like meticulous research (that might come another day) and I’d probably let the structure of the poem structure my post to a certain extent.

In fact, if I were to write a blog post about “The City of the End of Things”, I would probably write something unlike a scholarly article and quite like what you’ll find below.

Some of my most vivid memories of childhood are images of dying worlds, for example, the skittering giant crab-creatures under the red sky in Well’s The Time Machine, or Jadis’ empty city of Charn in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew.  Long ago I met Shelley’s traveller from an antique land and Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” is an old friend, although it was only relatively recently that I found Bradbury’s inspiration in Sara Teasdale’s poem of the same name.

I’ve always been playing catch-up with Canadian Literature — something of an embarrassment — so it was only late in life that I came across a quite startling end of the world in what might seem an unlikely place.  Archibald Lampman lived a short life, beginning shortly before the Confederation of the Canadas and living to see only the first three decades of the new Dominion.  Well known in life, he is, perhaps less remembered today except in CanLit circles.  Lampman was known as one of the “Confederation Poets”, along with Duncan Campbell Scott, now infamous as the author of Canada’s “Final Solution to the Indian problem.”  In 1895, four years before his death, Edmund Stedman placed Lampman’s short, unusual poem of alternate rhymed tetrameters, “The City of the End of Things” in his A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895.

I can’t help but feel an echo of Lampman’s title in the title of Harlan Ellison’s “The City at the Edge of Forever,” perhaps the finest original Star Trek episode.  Indeed, Ellison’s almost empty City bears more than a passing resemblance to Lampman’s.  Ellison seems to have an affinity for titles of this structure: vis. “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” in his anthology Dangerous Visions.

But, back to “The City at the End of Things.  What a fascinating, intriguing, mysterious and allusive thing it is!

Lampman begins by describing the location of the City in “the Valleys huge of Tartarus” seemingly quite clearly placing the City in the Classical underworld.  The eighth line is the title, in position to become a refrain, although that never happens.

The second section (20 lines) expands on the description of the fiery, Hellish City.  In line 16 are mentioned the “thousand furnace doors” which bring to my mind the “aditus centum, ostia centum” of the Cumaean Sibyl’s cave in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Inhuman music is heard, no man is there, only fire and night.  Continuous noise, no cessation, no change.

The third section, twice the length of the first, begins with a description of the surprising robotic mechanical men who keep the City going.  While inhuman creatures may seem startlingly prophetic (and marvellously steampunk) for Victorian Canada, it strikes me that Lampman may be looking back to the bronze man Talos of Apollonius’ Argonautica and earlier, rather than ahead to Čapek, Asimov and Lem.  The second half of this section clarifies that not only are there not any humans like us in the City, but Death would shrivel our souls and snap “each thread of memory.”

The fourth section, twenty lines again, begins with a description of the City’s origin as the work of human hands.  But the builders have withered until only three remain in a room in a tall tower facing each other, “masters of [the City’s] power.”  And one other remains standing unmoving and immovable at the Northern Gate.  Of this one Lampman says:

In his pale body dwells no more
Or mind or soul, — an idiot!

In the final 24 line section Lampman lets us know that the three shall perish, the wheels will slack, the fires die, the sound fall to silence, and the buildings fall to rust and dust.  No tree or grass will grow in the dead City.  And then, the final four lines:

Alone of its accurséd state
One thing the hand of Time shall spare
For the grim Idiot at the gate
Is deathless and eternal there!

Well.  What to make of this?

Certainly interesting is the line count structure of two twenty line stanzas separating stanzas of 8, 2×8, and 3×8 lines.

Very interesting as well is the vision of an empty dead world at such an early date in a land itself politically new and so filled with “untamed” wilderness.

But something of a conundrum is the figure of the deathless, eternal, mindless and soulless Idiot.  Why is he eternal while the City and its builders must decay and fade?  The Idiot has no soul, no mind, no memories, no motion.  He is nothing but a shell, like the “empty nut” of line 44, the remnants of the hypothetical Man meeting Death in the City of the End of Things.

What is the Idiot except eternal meaninglessness?  Is Lampman suggesting that all meaning must decay? Or is he suggesting that Eternity, continuance without decay or change, would be a meaningless existence?  Perhaps he is just asking the question, “What are some implications of Eternity?  And is eternal, unchanging existence desirable?”  Perhaps this is the insight of The City of the End of Things:  there is only life where there is change and decay.

And, perhaps the Idiot, the one Eternal of the poem, is Death, the one Eternal of our world.

Where to Begin with Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia”?

Last night I finished reading Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia.  I don’t know where to start in my praise and reflection.

I might begin by remembering my youthful imagining of a Shakespearean tragedy titled “Nicholas II”, a grand, dark romp featuring an over-the-top mad monk named Rasputin, a bumbling, soliloquizing Tsar, a flamboyant rhetorician Lenin . . . And I might end by saying, although The Coast of Utopia is about different revolutions in different countries and a different Tsar named Nicholas, Stoppard has produced something very like the Shakespearean tragedy I had imagined, but far grander and far more intimately human than I could have dreamt as a teen.

I could begin by mentioning that I’ve seen only a few of Stoppard’s plays produced — The Real Thing, On The Razzle, Rock and Roll, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, of course — but then, rare is the person who has seen every Shakespeare play they’ve read.  Experience has shown me that Stoppard’s plays work beautifully both on stage and in the study.

Maybe I should begin with Stoppard’s fascinating return to the trilogy convention of Classical Greek theatre, for, is The Coast of Utopia not a modern Oresteia, three linked plays laying before us the personal tragedy of Herzen’s life and the parallel social tragedy of Europe in the middle years of the 19th century?

And shouldn’t I also mention that this trilogy of two act plays together make a six act play, passingly similar to Shakespeare’s five act structure? Of course, at nine hours, the plays are more of a marathon than any of Shakespeare’s single plays. But then the Henrys Parts I, II, III, etc. come to mind . . .

I’d have to get to Stoppard’s stunning erudition and wit, the intellectual belly-laugh inducing throw away quips, and the earthy ones as well (I’m thinking of the suppository in Salvage, here).  And Stoppard’s exquisitely sensitive rendering of the aging of thought, of the growth — and withering — of the revolutionary’s mind and of the revolution.

And, of course, The Coast of Utopia‘s subject is also the little considered or remembered foundation of the modern West, the age between the American and French Revolutions and the Russian Revolution, the aftermath of Napoleon and the time of his lesser namesakes.  Marx struts across the stage for a moment or two and then hides out in the British Museum, while the men and women who actually make revolutions shuffle through time in shabby clothes and chase unruly children, trying to make marriages work and households get by while struggling to change the world.

I don’t know where to start in my praise of and reflection on The Coast of Utopia, so I’ve started a few different places.  I recommend a careful reading and rereading of the plays.  I’m certain deep reflection will follow, and then more praise. The Coast of Utopia is a stunning piece of work. I suspect reflection on and praise of it will never be finished.

The Coast of Utopia is published by Faber & Faber

We live in the Science Fiction I read as a teen

It’s strange to have artistic time on my hands now that “My Village” is hanging on display and I’ve taken a few pieces to Harcourt House for the annual Members’ Show and Sale.  As I sat minding “My Village” yesterday, I started doodling illustrations for an idea I had a few days ago.  For the past few months I’ve been following the adventure of “Astronaut Abby“, Abigail Harrison, an audacious teenager from Minnesota who intends to be the first person to walk on Mars.  As part of her preparation, Abby has devoted herself to reaching out to other young people to inspire them to pursue studies and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).  The latest part of that outreach has been a partnership with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano and a crowdfunded journey to Baikonur Cosmodrome to see Luca’s launch.  On her return, Abby intends to visit schools in person and to give virtual talks and workshops about her experiences and ambitions.  Throughout, this astronautic mission has been powered by social media in its finest manifestation.

I couldn’t help but think as I followed Abby’s exploits, and the exploits of Cmdr. Chris Hadfield, that Abby is, in fact, living in the science fiction I read as a teen. So, I decided to recreate a little piece of Abby’s Golden Age Science Adventure as a bit of doodling.  First I jotted down an opening for a story about a mid-west teen setting out on an adventure to Baikonur, the Space Station, and Mars, trying to catch a bit of the flavour of 1930’s juvenile pulp magazine science fiction.  Then, as I sat minding “My Village” I doodled in a sketchbook.  Here’s the final sketch I made:

sketch

Then I scanned the sketch and did a bit of computer work on it:

Abby second scanAbby third scanAnd finally I juggled the elements around a bit, added the text I’d written, printed the whole thing out on newsprint and scanned the whole thing again:

Abby's Soyuz Adventure

Then I chiriped the product off to Abby at the mighty spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome from my handheld teleputer just in time for Luca’s launch to the World’s Space Station.

Now I’m about to watch Abby’s mysterious Italian mentor arrive at his destination in his Soyuz space ship. On one of I don’t know how many computers I have in my house.

It’s science fiction, I tell you!

Update, June 2, 2013 – Astronaut Thomas H. Marshburn (@AstroMarshburn) tweeted at 9:23 PM on Sun, Jun 02, 2013 this bit of Science Fiction Poetry (it even rhymes):

“Perfect morning under gray skies with a light rain & warm wind on my face. I missed life under clouds while in space.”
(https://twitter.com/AstroMarshburn/status/341394697975128064) .

But it’s not Science Fiction! This is a real Spaceman celebrating his return to the Green Hills of Earth!

Tomorrow is here!

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On the Occasion of Commander Hadfield’s Return to Earth

I have written elsewhere about my inspiration as a youngster watching Neil Armstrong stepping down onto the Moon, the same event that put another young Canadian boy on the road to command of the ISS.  I have written elsewhere about the writings of Carl Sagan leading me to the great Irish mystic poet Yeats.  I have written elsewhere about how obvious it seems to me that science and art are fundamentally the same thing, that both inspire and move us, the both change us and our world and, perhaps most importantly, both science and art, and all the wonder they stir in us, are accessible to all of us.  I have always known this to be true.  I have always seen supporting Science and supporting the Arts as obvious obligations of individuals and society. But I am very aware that many friends and acquaintances have never been able to see through those lenses.

Over the last five months I’ve often thought of Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s Stardance in which art comes to a space station as dance. And, of course, I’ve thought of the paintings of astronaut Alan Bean and of cosmonaut Alexey Leonov.  While Bean and Leonov’s art is exquisite and inspiring, they painted after they came home. And the Robinsons so wonderfully imagine making art in space, but they never did it.  But, perhaps because they lacked the internet, these artists never caught the larger public’s attention.  They never joined, on a grand scale, science to ordinary people through art.

I realized tonight as Commander Hadfield’s new video of Space Oddity went viral, that this fairly  unassuming gentleman from Sarnia has done it.  He has shown ordinary people art and science meeting together  And the people get it!

Using social media and the biggest stage possible – the sky – Hadfield has had us watch him rapt for five months as he shape-shifted from rock star to zero-gravity chef to science teacher to science fiction character to military commander, and, finally, to a fifty something man with a crew-cut and moustache who actually pulls off a self-shot music video of his own acoustic cover of perhaps the most iconic Bowie song.  Whatever the flaws of adaptation or performance, Hadfield has capped his inspiring public Space Odyssey with a piece of art that captures the tension apparent in his earlier collaboration with Ed Robertson, the tension between the unknowable-to-most joy of looking down on Earth from a home in the sky and the universal human joy of standing at home on the Green Hills of Earth.  No longer the story of an ominous malfunction of Major Tom’s capsule which leaves the astronaut stranded, Hadfield’s revised Space Oddity is a bitter-sweet lament for the end of his stay on the Space Station and his final return to earth. He is facing an inversion of Bowie’s original conceit of the Marooned Astronaut  –  Hadfield knows that it is to Space, not to Earth, that he will never return. With this recording Hadfield has turned a once inconceivable  Space Oddity – a Canadian kid from Sarnia becoming the tweeting rock star commander of the International Space Station opening hailing frequencies to Captain Kirk – into an Odyssey of Space very true to the spirit of the Greek epic poem.  Although at last he stands on the shores of Ithaca, he can’t help but look longingly back at the Cosmic Ocean he has sailed.

Hadfield has put himself up there and made a point of making art with us and for us from that tin can he’s sitting in.  He makes us all feel like we’re there with him, doing science, looking down on our blue home, feeling wonder at the speed and the vastness.

And we can’t help but sing along.

Thank you, Commander Hadfield.

We can hear you, Major Tom!

Safe landing!

 

Update, May 14, 2014: Yesterday Commander Hadfield’s one year licence from Space Oddity‘s publishing company ran out, so the Space Oddity video was voluntarily taken down from YouTube.  Sad, in a way, I guess.  For those who missed it: you missed something pretty special. For those who saw and heard glitter space rock science fiction become science fact, you’ve been part of something special.  This morning Jian Ghomeshi gave us a fine audio essay on the vanishing of Hadfield’s Major Tom.

 

Making connections through The Paston Letters

Last Wednesday I made time to partake of one of my favourite activities: I walked to my local second hand bookshop, The Bookseller, and spent an hour or so browsing unencumbered by companions or rush. As usual, the proprietor, Mr. Prins, had set aside a few hardcover Everyman’s Library Editions and an old blue hardcover Oxford World’s Classic for me to consider.  Unlike most visits, today I had time.  I left the four volumes on the counter, the seed of a number of large stacks I would build as I browsed.  Throughout my visit, Mr. Prins pottered about the store, flitting from the computer on his book-stacked desk, to the shelves and to “the back” where I imagine an infinity of yet-to-be- and never-to-be-catalogued books wait to be brought into the light.

The one volume I had come specifically seeking was H. G. Wells’ little war-time (WWII) anti-Catholic diatribe, Crux Ansata (“Why don’t we bomb Rome” it begins). I had been reading it online, but, as well as finding the digital a completely unsatisfying, indeed, unsettling manner of reading, I knew that I would someday require a real copy for the Wells collection I’ve been building since that day in about 1980 that I stumbled on a copy of Ann Veronica in that bookstore that used to be in Hub Mall on the University of Alberta Campus.  If I remember correctly, that bookstore, since shifted locations a number of times, is now The Edmonton Book Store on Whyte Avenue, in the location that one time was Bjarne’s Books, a shop and proprietor I sadly miss.  Edmonton’s loss — Victoria’s and Cyberspace’s gain.

I went straight to the Fiction section and was at first disappointed by the slimness of the Wells selection.  A few of the usual War of the Worldses and Time Machines. And, there in the middle, a slim little volume bound in dark leather. Crux Ansata! With a large smile on my face I strode back to the counter and plopped my find onto the Everyman Shelley and Langland and the little blue Paston Letters.  Now to some truly unencumbered browsing!

Oh, the treasures I found!

An early edition of the Tolkien/Gordon edition of Sir Gawain; Skeet’s two volume edition of Piers Plowman and Richard the Redeless (I already had one, but this was in better condition. The next day I traded the old one for a copy of  Bentham’s Fragment on Government); a lovely copy of the first edition of Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (in four volumes); Brown’s English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century; a 1959 copy of Vinaver’s Malory; nice old hardcovers of Quirk & Wrenn’s Old English Grammar and Campbell’s venerable volume on the same subject; The Oxford Book of Medieval Verse; nice editions of Ancrene Wisse and The Parlement of Foules . . .

And a copy of Sisam’s edition of 14th Century Verse and Prose, a volume I find oddly common in Edmonton — I have three copies now myself. But this latest copy, unusual in that it still had a (rubbed) dust jacket, had a little surprise for me which made me take a second look at the other books in my stacks. There on the flyleaf was written in small letters in ball-point “Raymond J. S. Grant”.

During my days at the University of Alberta, Dr. Grant was the senior Anglo-Saxonist in the English Department, standing in a venerable line stretching back to R. K. Gordon, a professor at the University’s foundation and, by the way, translator of number 794, Anglo-Saxon Poetry, in Everyman’s Library.

IMAG0733

It was Dr. Grant who surprised me during an undergraduate directed reading of The Seafarer by saying “I think you might have a publication here.”  Because of Dr. Grant, I had my first scholarly publication accepted before I got my Bachelor’s degree.

I have gradually have fallen out of contact with the people of my University days. I regularly return to campus, but it’s a different world with different people now.  Not worse, not better, just different.  I had some sort of memory that Dr. Grant had retired and perhaps gone back to Scotland. As I gathered my thoughts for this piece I found on the University web page that Dr. Grant is, indeed, emeritus, as is my thesis supervisor, L. N. McKill, the man who first taught me Old English.  After I got home from the bookstore I discovered Dr. McKill’s name on the flyleaf of Brown’s English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century.  I held in my hands volumes that had educated my educators. These books had been around me in those offices three decades ago as I puzzled my way through great poetry sadly experienced by only a few.

What I find of extreme interest in second hand books is the little bits of paper one finds tucked into them.  Dr. Grant’s copy of Sisam’s Fourteenth Century Verse & Prose (1959) is undoubtedly a text from his student days.  Tucked into book at the first page of the Introduction are two slips of paper, one laying out the geography of dialects of Middle English with representative authors (information repeated in the facing map) and the other a cryptic, multicoloured graph of English sound changes.

IMAG0735

These are meticulous thoughts-on-paper of a student of a different time, brief glimpses of the learning process in an age of paper, conversation and information hard-won from beautiful, tactile, fragrant objects with their own individual histories — books in a library.

Mr. Prins filled a banker’s box with my selected volumes and agreed to hold the heavy collection for me to pick up later when I’d be out with a vehicle. When I returned two stacks of brick-red hardcovers were on the counter.  “I told you I thought I had a lot of Wells back there!” Mr. Prins announced with a grin.  Indeed, he had brought from “the back” a twelve volume matched set of Wells’ novels ranging from The Time Machine to The Undying Fire.  A fine day’s discovery!

Later Wednesday evening I looked more carefully at the World’s Classics copy of The Paston Letters.  There was no name on the fly leaf.  It seemed an anonymous book with no story to tell outside of its text.  But, tucked in the back was a small blue slip of paper which indicated that this, like some others of the volumes in the box, was a review copy sent out by the publisher in the hope that professors would say nice things about it. On the back of the slip was a hand written note:

Raymond:

pp. 41-72 seem to be missing from this book as also 73 to 104. I suppose that is a whole gathering! Give him hell next time — you might get a real find from them.

Joan

IMAG0734

Sure enough, a gathering is misplaced in the book.  But of far more interest to me is the note. Considering the number of Dr. Grant’s books that had recently come into the Bookseller, I have no doubt that “Raymond” addressed in the book is Dr. Grant. And I am equally certain that “Joan” who wrote the note is Dr. Joan Crowther, a Chaucerian I never met during our shared time at the University.  But I did meet and get to know Dr. Crowther in her retirement as each weekday morning I got her clubs out of storage for her round of golf.  I lost touch with Dr. Crowther after leaving the world of golf just a few years before she left this world.

As I stood looking at that little blue note on Wednesday night I recalled a brief exchange, one of many conversations we shared over clattering golf clubs.  These words came shortly after my reading crossed a very special threshhold:

“Dr. Crowther, do you find that the more you read the more everything seems to connect together?”

Dr. Crowther held her golf bag still and looked at me.

“Oh, yes, John!”