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The Dream of the Rood

anonymous (Anglo-Saxon)

7th-8th century

(In a vision, the cross of Christ reflects with awe on its part in the death of God.)

The beginning of The Dream of the Rood in Anglo-Saxon (Old English), in its only surviving manuscript, the 10th century “Vercelli Book”. It resides in the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, Italy; see it online at the beta site: Vercelli Book Digitale.

“The most beautiful of the medieval religious poems”. This is often said of The Dream of the Rood. The first time I read this assessment—I had never even heard of the poem—it was by the Anglo-Saxon scholar R. K. Gordon in the colorful old Everyman Library series. The description as beautiful captured my attention. And it is beautiful. The vivid imagery, the incorporation of heroic and mystical themes, the profound devotion, the ethereal vision, the very language. Seeing such a work called beautiful is gratifying, for it highlights a virtue that is often languishing in recent religious literature, and religious sensibility in general. In both East and West, the enjoyment of beauty has frequently been marred by a suspicion that it may tempt one to elevate the lower over the higher, or to submit to illusory or distracting pleasure. Calling a religious poem “beautiful” recalls a time and a place when beauty was a central value in the building of churches, in the composition of sacred music, in devotional images and writings, and even in the grounds for the faith commitment itself. There have been times and places when the contemplation and enjoyment of beauty was widely embraced, on the idea, as Aristotle said, that “Beauty is the gift of God.”

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Hippolytus

(Ἱππολυτος)

Euripides

429 BC

(Disaster ensues when Phaedra falls for her stepson!)

Crop of Phaedra and Hippolytus (1802), by the French neoclassical painter Baron Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (Louvre, Paris). The painting manages dramatically to squeeze in several elements of the plot: the youth expresses his resistance to Phaedra, even as the nurse whispers in her ear; meanwhile Theseus clenches his fist in rage.

The gods will have their play, and we piteous humans must suffer in double jeopardy. First, vice will eventually bring destruction, and yet we are by nature weak and prone to vice. Second, everyone is subject to fate, which is not kinder to good people than to bad. So we are doomed—we cannot be virtuous as we want to be, and so we are in trouble; and yet even if we could be virtuous we would get smacked anyway by the vicissitudes of fate! Hence Euripides’ fist-waving at the gods… yet he manages to preserve some reverence. Artemis tells us that the pious are still much more highly regarded by the gods than the impious. When the impious person suffers, the gods nod “take that!”, whereas the faithful incur their favor, which can bring some benefit. So, given our sad lot in life, it is better to be suffering and good than suffering and evil. Or that is Euripides’ line anyway. In this play we see how this web of cosmic influences plays out in the life of a chaste and honorable man destined for greatness by rights, when (through no fault of his own) his stepmother takes an improper liking to him.

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Arnold’s early poems

Matthew Arnold

1840-1849

(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)

Crop of Melancholy (1894), by Edvard Munch.  This painting is in the Rasmus Meyer Collection at The Bergen Art Museum (now part of the KODE museum group in Bergen, Norway).

“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”.  What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age!  And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson.  The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith.  This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor.  Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration.  Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor.  Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once.  If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.

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The Song of Roland

(La Chanson de Roland)

anonymous (Turold?)

late 11th century

(The mightiest and noblest of Charlemagne’s crusading knights is betrayed, but his companions stand fiercely by him as the Saracens attack.)

Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778 AD). Sir Roland’s death. From a fourteenth century illuminated manuscript, that can be found at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (Library of the Arsenal), a department of the National Library of France.

The year is 778. The brave knight Roland and his army, led by eleven of the noblest warriors in Christendom, watch in horror as an army five times larger than their own approaches through the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. Roland’s friend Oliver urges him to call for Charlemagne’s aid with his famed olifant horn. Roland will not. He will trust to God, to France, and to his sword Durendal. He shouts a rallying speech to his men– this is their day to shine. They banish fear and meet the Saracens. This is an anthem of a book– a mighty, direct, vibrant punch of a poem. It is simple, stylized, yet well balanced; powerful, but not without subtlety. It is short, as epics go– slim and to the point, forget the historical backgrounds and love stories. This is the earliest surviving and the best of its genre– the “Songs of Deeds”, or Chansons de geste, of medieval French literature, of which there were hundreds. In style, in its portrayal of the values of chivalry, in its composition, and in its spirit, it is the supreme knightly adventure poem.

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Songs and Sonets

John Donne

d. 1631

(An earthy, imaginative, thoughtful soul reveals his view of love, steeped in metaphor and emotion.)

Crop of Francesca da Rimini with her lover Paolo, by the Scottish painter William Dyce (1837).  This painting can be seen in the National Galleries of Scotland. Though not quite as scandalous as Paolo, who is here courting his brother’s wife, John Donne did sneak around with his master’s daughter against his will, eventually marrying her.

Donne is a master of love poetry– some say the best of them all– because he combines rich experience with deep and varied thought.  The whole person is writing here, his intellect and his heart in a powerfully effective, if strained, cooperation.  He is at once philosophical and romantic, a learned dreamer, an impassioned thinker.  On one hand these poems are often acutely emotional and physical, full of sweat and tears. Love and death are often intimately associated, by virtue of heartbreak as well as the sheer weight of true love itself. But at the same time the poems are bursting with erudite imagination, especially loose analogy and illustration (“conceits”) from physical science, alchemy, astronomy, and ancient and medieval philosophical and theological ideas. Donne sees no problem in linking his love to events and bodies of astronomic or even divine proportions. He employs so many characteristic devices, has so many surprising and intriguing perspectives, that his poems can be enjoyed just for these, even if we knew nothing of love.  But of course, love is the main thing on his mind… really the only thing on his mind.  Everything else is playing a supporting role. For those who think of Donne as the Reverend Doctor, the dean, the spiritual teacher… you will see that person here mainly in his cleverness, his breadth of education, a few metaphors, and of course his deep affinity for things spiritual.  Otherwise, here our Donne is a much more earthy bloke– here he is Jack Donne, the lover.  Then again, perhaps there is more to the continuity. The man who is first fascinated by women and drama and then later by God and church, is a man of fierce and fervent heart, seeking a worthy object of devotion. (more…)

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