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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Reciting Beowulf as though I know what I’m saying.

Some time ago I realized that when I read Old English (or Latin) verse out loud, I read as though I didn’t really know the meaning of what I was saying.  I knew how to sound out the words and I even could offer a translation, but I didn’t actually sound like I meant it.  I set myself the vague goal of someday really getting to know the first twelve lines of Beowulf so that I could say them with real understanding, conversational, the way I would read a passage from Shakespeare, or Yeats, or even Chaucer, not the largely bombastic declamation that often afflicts renditions of Beowulf. Remember: Beowulf is known to us not because rough, mead-swilling warriors enjoyed it, but because Medieval Catholic monks thought the poem was worth preserving.

I suppose the seed was planted back when a mutual acquaintance got me together with David Ley for a brief bit of tutoring for his role as Hrothgar in Blake William Turner’s Beowulf the King.  But I have to thank writer and fellow erstwhile Old English scholar Angie Abdou for really spurring me to get down to brass tacks and conduct the experiment.

So, here it is — Beowulf 1-12 as though I know what I’m saying:

And here is the text, punctuated as I think it should be:

Hwæt. We Gardena,         in geardagum
þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum,         meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.         Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden,         he þæs frofre gebad:
weox under wolcnum,         weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc         þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade         hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan.         þæt wæs god cyning!

A Shout Out to the Planetary Society

It’s been about half a year now since I started throwing my thoughts out from Behind the Hedge (someday I may explain the blog title) and apart from a few hints and passing references, something fundamental has been missing:  Science.

When I was just tiny, a few years before watching Neil Armstrong smudge his way down that shadowy ladder with the really big step at the bottom, I poured over my father’s National Geographic Magazines, enthralled by two things:  the explorations of the sea, mostly by Jacques Cousteau, and the planned exploration of space, mostly by NASA.  When I moved out on my own, one of the first things I did, remembering the excitement of my childhood, was to get my own subscription to National Geographic Magazine.  Sometime later, my father handed over all his back issues stretching back to the mid-1950s.  Now I have almost sixty years of the things and I remain subscribed, although the sense of adventure has faded quite a bit.  Over and over I say to each month’s issue “You climbed a whole mountain!  Wow!  Did you know there’s a bunch of old men over there who WALKED ON THE MOON before you were born?!  And they got there in what amounts to little more than a  Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of big bombs strapped to the back of it!!”

Shortly after the moon landing, I took Charles Coombs’ Project Apollo out of the school library and then made my father order me my own copy from some bookstore in downtown Sudbury, Ontario.  I still have that book.  I spent my days making.  I made sharks out of plasticene and (strangly square) Saturn V rockets — complete with lunar module concealed in the top of the third stage — out of Lego.  And I craftily built the lunar module upside down so that it could dock with the command module.

Guess how I was turned onto the poetry of Yeats when I was in junior high school.

An epigram to a chapter in Intelligent Life in the Universe by Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii was a bit from Yeats’ “Song of the Wandering Aengus”:

Though I am old with wandering
through hollow lands and hilly lands
I’ll find out where she has gone
and kiss her lips and take her hands
and walk among long dappled grass
and pluck till time and times are done
the silver apples of the moon
the golden apples of the sun

And wither the threads from that poem through my life?

I reverently lifted one line for one of my few published (very obscurely published) bits of verse:

. . . on broken roads which lead nowhere
I search for unknown goals
through hollow lands and hilly lands
sun burning on my back . . .

I suspect that Yeats, together with a well timed visit to the banks of the River Wye, lead me to Wordsworth who was so obviously a pleasant uncle (but not a “funny uncle”, despite Ken Russell’s Clouds of Glory which quite probably led me to Tom Stoppard, charmingly guided by Felicity Kendall) to the child who was the father of the man I am.

And what about art?  I suspect that a strange meeting in my adolescent mind between Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and David Hardy’s The Challenge of the Stars put me on that road.

As a barely-past-tween, when I privately decided that painting was to be one of my lives, my first purchase was a big tube of Mars Black, because all I was going to paint was David Hardyesque space scenes.  Now I buy huge jars of titanium white and very, very rarely buy a small tube of some very traditional earth pigment, and hardly ever use black.  On the surface, my painting owes more to pre-modern traditions than to the Space Age  But, when I honestly consider things, scientific exploration — which I consider art- and literary-criticism to be — is the only thing that makes me passionate. High School acquaintances told me later in life that they thought I’d follow a science path.  Nope.  Anglo-Saxon poetry for me.

Where did that come from?

A long, long time ago I held a copy of  The Lord of the Rings in my hands in a Public Library in Windsor, Ontario and said to myself “This looks like a cheap rip-off of the Narnia stories.”  In hindsight, I was an idiot at that moment, but, fortunately, my mother reintroduced Tolkien to me for a third time — I had, without making the connection, spent a moment with “Smith of Wooton Major” in some elementary school classroom.  Tolkien made me learn Old English and learning Old English vastly improved my understanding of language and poetry.  After five years, two degrees, and a couple of publications, I left formal academia behind, again to the surprise of professors and colleagues.

Now, decades later, I subscribe to five publications:  The Old English Newsletter, which arrives at odd intervals; Canada’s History (formerly the Beaver) which comes bimonthly as near as I can figure; the comfortable old National Geographic; Scientific American; and the increasingly infrequent Planetary Report, which is a part of the real point of this post.  Except for the Old English Newsletter, I read every issue of these magazines from cover to cover.  In fact, I first subscribed to Scientific American after reading Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ mention that he, too, read that magazine from cover to cover every month.  To me, all five magazines are about understanding the world and my place in it.

But, the Planetary Report is a voice from and to my childhood.  If you haven’t heard of this wonderful little publication, it is the newsletter of the Planetary Society, a think tank/lobbying organization/fanclub/cult/bunch of really varied and smart people founded by one of the smartest, Carl Sagan and two friends three decades ago with the sole and noble purpose of teaching people that space exploration is beautiful, inspiring, artistic, fascinating, gobsmackingly neat and absurdly inexpensive considering the wonders, both practical and human, it returns and, even more, considering the insane obsenities we spend obscene amounts of our labour and humanity on.

Early supporters were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.  Bradbury, before his death intervened, was scheduled to be a part of a little Planetary Society get-together in a few days.  The Planetary Society is perhaps the ultimate geek club — “I’m making space exploration happen!!!”, but for over three decades this bunch of ordinary and extraordinary people has quietly, soberly, and doggedly pushed governments to push the boundaries of knowledge and pushed the boundaries of knowledge themselves during times when governments have been remarkably loathe to learn much of anything.

Today the Planetary Society’s CEO is Bill Nye (yeah, that Science Guy) and has a remarkable  board of directors, including Niel deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and the coolest astrophysicist ever (“that black guy from PBS” as one friend of mine describes him.  Sometimes Canadians can be a little too blunt.)

Some of the Advisory Council of the Society are artists, writers, Star Trek actors and, yes, one of them is an old man who has WALKED ON THE MOON!! After travelling there in what amounts to a Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of bombs strapped to the back!!

The latest issue of the Planetary Report closes with a poem and a beautiful piece of art of the sort my thirteen year old self dreamed of painting.  Inside there are stories about urban Dark Skies efforts, about the Mars Science Laboratory which should land on Mars in a few days (it’s about the size of a Volkswagen Kombi, but the technology has advanced a bit), about near-Earth asteroids and extra-Solar planets.  And there are projects for kids.

Projects for kids.  One of the finest things the Planetary Society has done over the years, finer than sending digital copies of classic Science Fiction literature and art to Mars, finer than launching member-financed space missions, finer even than sending my name (and those of thousands of other Society members) to Saturn — about the finest, noblest thing the Society has done is to encourage young people to dream, to learn, and to achieve.  The Planetary Society provides grants to young scientists, to amateur scientists around the world.  The Society has provided brilliantly creative teenagers the opportunity to conduct real scientific investigation with robots on mars — hands on!

Although U.S. based, the Planetary Society is Planetary, with members around the world and making efforts to work with space agencies of all countries.  The societies grants are available to any nationality, its student outreach is global.

And, once a year they have this thing they call “Planetfest” in Pasadena and at science centres all over the planet.   A whole huge crowd of dreamers, scientists, poets, artists, writers get together to look up at the sky and say

“Wow.  Just Wow.”

And

“Thank you, Carl.”

This year Planetfest happens in just a few days, August 4th and 5th, timed to watch the landing of The Mars Science Laboratory.

I’ve never attended as I am, perhaps ironically in the context of the Planetary Society, a bit of a homebody, but if there were ever a crowd I’d have a laugh being a part of, it would be this one.  I’m not recruiting for the Society.  I’m not suggesting that anyone who might read this should run out and buy a membership (although that would be fine, if the fit is right).  What I am interested in doing is letting people know that the Planetary Society exists, what it’s for,  and what sort of person ends up as a member.

I am a working artist, a lover of theatre, a reader of poetry, and absolutely the most inspiring thing I can imagine is exactly what the Planetary Society was created to do and exactly what Art, Theatre and Poetry are for: to help us all to understand where we are in this inconceivably huge existence.

It’s a perfect fit.

Update, September 4, 2012:  A few days ago I was having a silly conversation about googling one’s self and I came across this brief blog post by Charlie Loyd in which Carl Sagan and I are associated through a fairly obscure aspect of Old English poetry.  It seems I have come full circle, in a sense: inspired to poetry  by Carl Sagan as a child and then associated with him through poetry much later in life.  It is a funny old Cosmos, isn’t it?

I read Roo Borson’s “Rain; road; an open boat” and then I read it again!

What an exhilarating experience!

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading and rereading Roo Borson’s Rain; road; an open boat, making notes as I go.  What a beautiful, challenging book it is!  The title of the book is a nesting of the titles of its three sections.  Within each section are interlaced poems in verse and prose riffing on landscape, nature, memory and everything else in imagination and out.  Many volumes and scholarly careers could be (and, I hope, will be) devoted to teasing out the structure Borson has erected.  Here I’ll just take a quick dip into the thunderous waterfall :

Rain

Of the opening poem, “Various Landscapes” I wrote in my notes:

What is going on?  is this pseudo-Haiku and commentary?  Are we seeing the various levels of a I Ching hexagram?

There is certainly a dialogue — or a call and response — between the verses and the prose poetry.

Although the atmosphere seems rural Japanese (or is this my expectation after Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida?) the mention of the sausage shop crashes us into urbanity  or at least suburbanity and European bratwurst.

Where is this house:  Where the river road meets the coast road.  One wall is all windows . . . It is Ossian’s Hall, which closes the book!

The prose poems have become visions, dreams, dream visions.  All floral, but cankered.  The fantasy guest room has become reality and reality is the vision.

But the Guest House is in China, not Japan.

§

I couldn’t help but think of my old Bollingen copy of the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching as I red “Various Landscapes”: while an unchanging digram replaces the varied hexagrams, the three line stanzas accompanied by long prose commentaries create something oracular about the appearance of the page.  I suspect Borson intends the resemblance.

My perplexity continued with the second poem, “California Nutmeg”:

What to make of this?  The place whence her night dreams proceed and around which her mental faculties take shape is where a solitary tree grows out of place in and alien forest.

“and makes itself at home wherever it happens to issue from the earth” as does Borson, I think.

§

“Wild Violets” (the first of this title, we later find out) at first blush is a pretty study of memory and nostalgia, much like “Radish Flowers” which follows.  I thought:

So much seems at first Impressionistic, but there’s sure to be an underlying order with Borson, I think.

Hints of future and signs of past on this day on the cusp of summer

“In the world but not of it.”

§

“Durham” made me remark that “I must reread Durham in Old English”.  A thousand years or so ago, another poet wrote of Durham, a poem both similar to and different from Borson’s.  Both are careful to mention the woods and the river, the natural landscape in which Durham is situated.  I find it very intriguing that two poets so far apart in time and tradition stood in the same spot and described the same place so similarly.  The Old English (with my translation):

     Is ðeos burch breome         geond Breotenrice,
     steppa gestaðolad,         stanas ymbutan
     wundrum gewæxen.         Weor ymbeornad,
     ea yðum stronge,         and ðer inne wunað
     feola fisca kyn         on floda gemonge.
     And ðær gewexen is         wudafæstern micel;
     wuniad in ðem wycum         wilda deor monige,
     in deope dalum         deora ungerim.
     Is in ðere byri eac         bearnum gecyðed
    ðe arfesta         eadig Cudberch
     and ðes clene         cyninges heafud,
     Osuualdes, Engle leo,         and Aidan biscop,
     Eadberch and Eadfrið,         æðele geferes.
     Is ðer inne midd heom         æðelwold biscop
    and breoma bocera Beda,         and Boisil abbot,
     ðe clene Cudberte         on gecheðe
     lerde lustum,         and he his lara wel genom.
     Eardiæð æt ðem eadige         in in ðem minstre
     unarimeda         reliquia,
    ðær monia wundrum gewurðað,         ðes ðe writ seggeð,
     midd ðene drihnes wer         domes bideð.

Fully known is this town
throughout the British realm
Steeply established, stones round about
grown up wondrously
A river strongly runs past weirs
in waves, and therein dwell
many fishes in the flood
and there is growing near
a woody fastness great.  There live
full many wild beasts
in that dwelling, in deep dales
beasts innumerable.
In that town, too, known to men
they’ll find, most full of grace
the Saint Cuthbert and the head
of the chaste King Oswald
England’s lion; Bishop Aidan;
noble travel partners
Eadberh and Eadfrith.
Bishop Æthelwold
is there with them and the well known
Bede the scholarly
and Abbot Boisil gladly taught
in youth the chaste Cuthbert:
and well he took his learning up.
Unnumbered relics lie
beside the saint inside the minster
there many wonders come,
as books make known, the while that man
of God for judgment waits.

Borson mentions the blackbird’s song and relates it to an old song of a blackbird.  What is this old song?  Is it the Beatles song or is it something other?

“A Place in the Woods” is a brief prose poem describing disappointed hopes made manifest, but hints that the manifestation will be swallowed by the silent past.

“Wild Violets” (2) brings Rain to a close with a recasting of the first “Wild Violets” and the clear indication that interlace is going to be a primary structural principle of the book.

Of particular note in the recasting:  after fifty years old papers dog-eared have replaced the wild violets.

Rain; road

“Late Sunshine” begins the second section with a quite lengthy return to the pseudo-haiku and prose response.  In my notes I recast the poem, quoting the brief verse bits and reducing the prose paragraphs to bullet points:

A riff on Borson’s “Late Sunshine”

1.

“Thin sun
Thin rain
the blossoming oats –”

The turtle and his eye
Entries on dead people on the internet
The fish laid out side by side.

2.

“The world in old photos
or the world in spring —
which is younger?”

The millipede
The masks and the borrowed instruments
Smells and things
Gifts and judgement thereof
False named plants
Reputation’s growth
Dead honey eater’s eye
The cats in the tree
Time
The shock of the familiar
Dream Mart
Three questions as we die
The moth on the sidewalk after rain
The arrival of the future
The dazzling become familiar
The Kingfisher necklace
Remembering birth and death.

3.

“The delicate scent of bottle-gourd blossoms
the wisteria beans long and glat
the repetative songs of the birds of early summer”

do memories return to us or we to them?
embroidered on a pillow
restoring significance
the name game
the other name game

4.

“Standing on the right foot
lifting pine seeds with the left —
cockatoo etiquette”

indispensible stereotypes
a third name game
envy
narrow minds and broad

5.

“A magpie lark
standing guard over the waterfall
water gliding past its feet –”

the inverse law of death and intentions
buildings
pigeons in the train station in prose and verse
the face in the mirror
buildings and art
illusion
the stranger
Goldenrod
White Duck Narrows

In “Blowing Clouds” Borson shows she loves to juggle words and syntax and punctuation.  This is a virtuoso juggle!

(with prose commentary.)

My notes on the last poems of Rain; road;:

“Dictionary”

preservation.

“Black Point

Verse then prose

Memory of time with friends long later when one friend has died.

“Road”

prose and then verse
echoes of all that’s gone before.

“Roads in the Berkeley Hills”

verse then prose

the thing, which no longer exists except in memory, exists still in you, in us (in we?).

The final section Rain: road; an open boat begins with “New Rain” another extended verse/prose call and response.  Again my notes are bullet point paraphrase:

prose then verse and so on

something white in the Japanese rain

Camellia buds
minnows
statues
deer
the rain pavilion

Something strange on the mountainside
fox-bear
the wind

the bus to a temple and the driver identifies the animal
dragonflies
statues and castle
the tanuki
the tooth-regrowing temple
heron
the tour guide
Hakuin’s sermon (this stanza, describing Hakuin’s untranslated ten word sermon, is ten words long)

Journeying to Japan
sweet peas
tend days of rain and snow

Kyoto and Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Pagoda verse
to the
Golden Pavilion

Colour and cold noodles
cool
cucumbers

Tended obscurities
snails painting
with moonlight

Subtracting the self
the person I’ve never met
whose ghost is this
lost morning
old pond
longing to be like others

The Gardens of Kyoto
the lost hat

The crow calls out to the friend with his recovered hat.
Osaka Bay
tonight’s moon
among the pines.

My notes on the last four poems:

“Baxter’s Grave”

The road to locally ignored grave of a poet

The prose is explanation.

I find myself wondering at this point whether the prose explanation is advantagious or detrimental to the poetry.

“A Chaise for Sharon”

patience.

“To go to Huangshan”

Prose about Huangshan

Rain
Pine
dragonfly

the identical tourist raincoats at first are (intentionally) absurd but by the end are jewels of perseverance.

“Cathedral”

The blackbird in a filigree of images high on Bucks Hill

“and the robin
small beneath the hedge”

“all the tropes spent”

This is Durham again.

§

I have a suspicion Borson has not spent all her tropes.

The book closes with an “Afterword and a Note” concerning the eighteenth century Scottish folly called “Ossian’s Hall” and then a poem, “Ossian’s Folly, Black Linn Falls” about Borson’s visit to that place.  Here we are returned to the guest house of “Various Landscapes” with it’s wall of windows and the river outside.

Rain; road; an open boat is a densely structured beautiful interlacing of images across all the poems, a seductive mesh drawing us to it over and over again, a braided woodland waterfall, calling to us with voices of memory and hopes and dreams.

Enter it said the river’s falling
enter it and entered instead its thunderous names.”

On “Beowulf The King” by Blake William Turner

First, full disclosure.  I have various dogs of various sizes in this fight.  I am by training a scholar of Old English Literature. I have published a number of academic articles on Old English poetry, at times touching on Beowulf. Some years ago I completed (although I wouldn’t call it “finished”) a verse translation of Beowulf.  And, perhaps the most biasing fact:  I briefly tutored Hrothgar (David Ley) in his Old English pronunciation for this production.

I confess, after reading hints about Beowulf the King in the weeks leading up to opening night, I returned in my mind again and again to Richard Bentley’s on-target criticism of Pope’s “translation” of Homer’s Iliad:  “It’s a very pretty poem Mr. Pope, but you must not call it ‘Homer’.”  I worried that my reaction to the play would be similar or worse.

I’m very happy to report that Beowulf the King is a very pretty play, and, although it is very different from the poem in so many ways, it is perfectly appropriately titled.  This play is not the Old English poem, but it is certainly a Beowulf for our time.

There, with the academic geekery out of the way, we proceed to the play (and strive to avoid spoilers) . . .

I don’t think I’m giving much away if I mention that the play opens, after a brief musical overture(more about that later), in Old English.   Hrothgar (David Ley) strides onto the stage and declaims the first three lines of the poem and then steps aside to be the chorus to a series of battle scenes which effectively condense the genealogies which open the poem into an exciting little pill for the audience to swallow.  The scene is set:  battle, kingship and honour in Denmark.  But, of course, something is rotten in Hrothgar’s kingdom . . .

But, I don’t want to just paraphrase the play or the poem;  I’d rather you went to the play and read the poem (in translation, I expect).   I’ll comment on things which struck me about the play — problems confronted and solved, felicitous interpretations and satisfying expansions and interpolations.

Grendel (Darren Paul) speaks.  An obvious departure from the poem, Grendel’s monologues transform the monster from being a mute threat of the outside world he would be without speech into something more like the poem’s dark alternate of Beowulf — in the poem, many of the same words are used to describe both the “hero” and the “monster”.  Having Grendel speak forces the investigation of his motivation – only hinted at in the poem – and also allows investigation of religion in a society in religious transition – again, only hinted at in the poem.  The speaking Grendel must make us think of John Gardner’s short novel Grendel – was it an influence on the play or are the similarities the result of drawing on the same source?  And, the gorilla in the mead-hall is Caliban, the cursed wildman of The Tempest, like Grendel, the son of a cursed mother.  Darren Paul’s Grendel in another life could go toe to toe with Prospero.

Another interesting and fundamental addition is the curse Grendel’s Mother (Amber Borotsik) places on Beowulf (Sheldon Elter) just before her death.  Beowulf forevermore will feel a mother’s pain at the loss of her son whenever he kills.  This burden explains the half-century of peace (left unexplained in the poem) the Geats enjoy under Beowulf’s rule.  Beowulf’s struggle to maintain peace – completely absent from the poem, but darn interesting in the play – dominates Act Two and provides an interesting twist at the very end.  In the poem, Beowulf’s retainers (except for one), turn cowardly, following his orders to stay out of the fight with the dragon although honour would require them to rush in to his defence.  In the play, the cowardly abandonment is more than just leaving Beowulf to fight alone.  The real abandonment is the Geats’ return to warfare after their king’s death.  Beowulf the King argues that easy cowardice is to do battle, while  actual heroism is to take the difficult road of making peace.

Some things that concerned me anticipating the play:

All those fights!

I’d read that each of the six actors had at least five death scenes, but I was pretty sure there aren’t anything like thirty deaths described in the poem.  I couldn’t help but expect a whole lot of gratuitous fighting, but . . .

. . . the fights are dramaturgically functional things, not extraneous at all.  They make connections for the audience between characters and between narrative elements.  They are actually narrative bridges in dance.  When one considers the battles mentioned in passing in the poem, one of which – the Frisian war — is expanded to a vitally important scene of Beowulf’s character development, thirty-some deaths seem a low figure.  I came dreading a silly blood-bath but was given a stylized battle-dance vitally necessary to the structure and message of the play.

When considering a staging of Beowulf it’s hard to imagine what will be done with the monsters.  Grendel and his Mother are the least of the problem — they’re basically human and imaginative costumes take care of them.  The Dragon is the obvious challenge, but when I heard that Beowulf’s swimming match with Breca (Bryan Web) was going to be staged, I thought “that’s it.  It can’t be done.”

But, they did it! and it is magnificently done!  I’ll say nothing more than the swimming match and the underwater fight with the monsters is a little dramaturgical tour de force worth the price of admission (okay, I had comps, but still) in itself.

The play, like the poem, ends with the dragon fight.  The dragon (David Ley, in the biggest mask in theatre history) also speaks, unlike in the poem, but it is so right!  And again, the representation of the dragon is brilliant, his paws and claws ingeniously so!

But, the dragon’s fire . . .

hmmmm.

Somehow it just doesn’t quite do it.  The smoke seems to be well represented/suggested by the two fabric flags/banners at each side of the dragon, but the lights and sound don’t quite have the lethal materiality the dragon’s flaming breath might need.  But, that shortcoming is minor in what is a stunning execution of what would seem a staging impossibility.

The music by Joel Crichton struck me as a very appropriate blending of faux-Wagner and urban techno-something-or-other.  The beatboxing in the overture gave the exactly right hint of gangsta which was picked up in the touches of inner-city gang in the design of set and costume.  There are Jets and Sharks in the wings.  I’ve long thought that the best modern analogy to the culture of war, honour and allegiance of Beowulf is the twentieth-century urban youth gang.  I was pleased to see the analogy drawn in the play.

Beowulf The King really is, despite the rough edges of a preview performance (and the rough edges of a preview audience) a quite startlingly good and fascinating grapple with the monster that is Beowulf.

Finally, I strongly recommend Anna Dow’s brief essay “Whose Side Are You On, Anyway” on pages 26 and 27 of the program. It succinctly presents some difficulties of the poem and is very insightful about the play.  As well, the “Playwright’s Notes” by Blake William Turner on page 9 contain a few gems.

Workshop West’s production of Beowulf the King is playing in the beautiful theatre space of La Cité francophone until April 29th.

Idle Thoughts on “Thureth”

The other night I sat down for a moment and picked up my old copy of Volume Six of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records — The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems — letting it fall open where I had stuck a slip of paper years ago and my eyes fell on the little poem from Cotton Claudius A.iii. known modernly as “Thureth”.

What a charming little gem it is!

    Ic eom halgungboc;         healde hine dryhten
    þe me fægere þus         frætewum belegde.
    þureð to þance         þus het me wyrcean,
    to loue and to wurðe,         þam þe leoht gesceop.
    Gemyndi is he         mihta gehwylcre
    þæs þe he on foldan         gefremian mæg,
    and him geþancie         þeoda waldend
    þæs þe he on gemynde         madma manega
    wyle gemearcian         metode to lace;
    and he sceal æce lean         ealle findan
    þæs þe he on foldan         fremaþ to ryhte.

Eleven lines in the voice of a book.  The book begins with the simple statement that it is a Benedictional, a book of blessings — a “hallowing book” in Old English. Then the book tells of his Lord,Thureth (healde hine dryhten) (or does the book say “the Lord held Thureth”?  Or is there a touch of both meanings?), the man who ordered the decorations adorning the book.  One has a sense of the book primping just a little, but not more than modesty allows — “look at these decorations Thureth put on me! May the Lord keep him who dressed me up like this — to the greater glory of God, of course!”  Then the book goes on to mention that Thureth has also set aside many other worldly treasures as an offering to God and that all may know of his righteous life.

There is a tension, so common in Old English poetry, between humble devotion to God and the eternity to come on the one hand, and the irresistible enjoyment of earthly pleasures of treasure and ornament.  The book alternates from line to line between what may be partaken of on earth (on foldan gefremian mæg) and thoughts of the Lord, between having many treasures in mind (on gemynde madma manega) and offerings to the lord.  And the working of the book’s adornments are placed parallel to the Lord’s creation of light, just as the God’s miracle-working power parallels Thureth’s good works.  There is an embracing of the material, an elevation of the use of wealth for good works and of art itself to something just a little lower than the work that God himself does.

The poem ends with what is a standard statement the all shall have an eternal reward who live righteously on earth but one can’t help but think that the book is itself thinking of it’s own eternal reward, the adornments Thureth ordered for it and which it so proudly mentions in line 2.

Far from being the rejection of the worldly that has sometimes been fashionable for critics to find in Medieval literature, “Thureth” is a celebration of the worldly as a pathway to the Eternal.

And “Thureth” is also a tasty little bonbon of poetic personification.