31 May 2010

Points of Interest in Kermode & Lewis

Although there is no connection between them that I can think of, I’d like to post about some brief comments in two different books I’ve been reading the past couple of days. The first was a rather disappointing error. At the Half Price Books 20%-off Memorial Day sale, I picked up a copy of The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue, the published edition of the 1965 Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr College given by Frank Kermode. Having always enjoyed Kermode’s work, I felt let down when I noticed the words ‘Greek Orthodoxy’ while skimming through and stopped to read the following: ‘The Book of Revelation made its way only slowly into the canon—it is still unacceptable to Greek Orthodoxy—perhaps because of learned mistrust of over-literal interpretation of the figures.’ [1] I guess I thought it was a matter of common knowledge that, first, Revelation can be seen as part of the Eastern canon as early as St Athanasius’s 39th Festal Letter in 367, and, second, the only reason one might think otherwise is that it was never included in the Eastern lectionary.

The other thing I came across was of a happier sort. In a piece written as an introductory chapter to a book that was never completed, ‘De Audiendis Poetis’, C.S. Lewis is arguing against the view that the power of the wondrous tales—which he calls ‘ferlies’—found in Mediæval literature is always derived from primitive myths and rituals in which the tales had their origin. In response to this view, Lewis writes:

The myth or rite does not always (it may sometimes) seem to me superior or equal in interest to the romancer’s ferly. The cauldron of the Celtic underworld seems to me a good deal less interesting than the Grail. The tests and ordeals—often nasty enough—through which savages, like schoolboys, put their juniors interest me less than the testing of Gawain in Gawain & the Green Knight. In tracing the ferly’s imaginative potency to such origins you are therefore asking me to believe that something which moves me much is enabled to do so by the help of something which moves me little or not at all. If after swallowing a quadruple whiskey I said ‘I’m afraid I’m rather drunk’, and you replied, ‘That’s because, while you weren’t looking, someone put half a teaspoonful of Lager beer into it’, I do not think your theory would be at all plausible. [2]

I thought Lewis’s analogy with the quadruple whiskey simply wonderful.

[1] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue (Oxford: Oxford U, 2000), p. 7.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval & Renaissance Literature, collected by Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2008), pp. 14-5.

29 May 2010

Sr Macrina Has Returned!

For those not yet aware, one of my two favourite former Cistercians, Sr Macrina Walker of A vow of conversation, is back at the blogging wheel. She is still in the process of a possible journey to the Orthodox Church and is asking for prayers. In the meantime, however, she is already blogging about Fr Andrew Louth again, now from a tent somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Netherlands!

'I Liked Him for His Goodness'—G.K. Chesterton

Today, 29 May, is the birthday of the great English journalist, apologist, novelist, poet, controversialist, convert to Roman Catholicism, critic, biographer, and wit, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936). I have already posted a sort of personal introduction to GKC, a reworking of something originally written for those entirely unfamiliar with him, here. Naturally, I assume that the average Logismoi reader will know GKC fairly well, but there it is. Here is the entry for Chesterton in Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia:

English journalist, essayist, novelist, and poet; author of biography, history, literary criticism, and polemical works. Like his friend Hilaire Belloc, Chesterton was a propagandist of his Catholicism and his conservative political views (the two were referred to as Chesterbelloc). Chesterton became a Catholic in 1922, but he had always been a traditionalist, admiring the Victorians, romanticizing the Middle Ages, and attacking H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. He is best remembered for his essays, such as ‘On Running after One’s Hat’ (1908), which are merry and witty, and for such poems as ‘Lepanto’ (1911), which are full of gusto. Sometimes he conveyed his serious ideas in fantastic novels, as in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), and a series of detective novels, beginning with The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), in which the priest Father Brown is sleuth. Chesterton wrote the fine study The Victorian Age in Literature (1913). Among his polemical works are Heretics (1905), Orthodoxy (1908), What’s Wrong with the World? (1910), and The Everlasting Man (1925), an outline of history. [1]

I have to admit, this astonishingly brief article leaves something to be desired. I know little about Chesterton’s distributist views, but it doesn’t take a close acquaintance to see that calling them ‘conservative’ is a gross oversimplification, if not an outright falsehood. I recently saw here that Maximus Daniel Greeson had posted the following from a 19 April 1924 article of Chesterton’s in The Illustrated London News:

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. [2]

Also, I’m not sure that Chesterton really is ‘best remembered for his essays’, but likely more for those works which the article calls ‘polemical’ but which actually wear their polemicism so lightly and good-naturedly, and which go so far beyond the narrow confines of the specific beef with this or that sparring partner, that the term can be misleading. I for one first encountered GKC through Orthodoxy, and found that as a work of what I would call apologetics I liked it in many ways better than I had liked Mere Christianity when I first read that as a teenager.

At any rate, as a description of Chesterton’s work without any reference to his life, I certainly prefer what Terry Glaspey has to say in his handy little volume, Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading: A Guided Tour of Classic & Contemporary Literature:

‘The Shakespeare of the aphorism’ is the title that someone has given to Gilbert Keith Chesterton. He had the ability to pack more paradox and more truth into a single sentence than possibly any writer in history. This characteristic makes his books a joy to read for their penetrating insight and their infectious cleverness. Put this together with a swashbuckling faith, a warm and joyous sense of humor, and a dependence on plain common sense, and you have a fine definition of Chesterton’s highly individual gift. It is a tough call to say which is better: his highly original nonfiction (for example, Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man) or his always-entertaining fiction (for example, the Father Brown stories and The Man Who Was Thursday). Read both for a model of a man who enjoyed his faith. [3]

I also cannot resist quoting a passage from C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy where he speaks of the early appeal of Chesterton, even for a young atheist:

I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humour was of the kind which I liked best—not ‘jokes’ imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the ‘bloom’ on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his liffe and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or ‘paradoxical’ I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. Moreover, strange as it may seem, I liked him for his goodness. I can attribute this taste to myself freely (even at that age) because it was a liking for goodness which had nothing to do with any attempt to be good myself. I have never felt the dislike of goodness which seems to me to be quite common in better men than me.[4]

I have offered a goodly number of quotes and excerpts from GKC’s work, not only in the post to which I have already linked, but in several others on this blog. I will here give only two more, but these, I believe, new ones for this blog. First, from Orthodoxy:

I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home. [5]

And now, naturally, for a poem—this one taken from The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse:

‘The Holy of Holies’

‘Elder father, though thine eyes
Shine with hoary mysteries,
Canst thou tell what in the heart
Of a cowslip blossom lies?

‘Smaller than all lives that be,
Secret as the deepest sea,
Stands a little house of seeds,
Like an elfin’s granary.

‘Speller of the stones and weeds,
Skilled in Nature’s crafts and creeds,
Tell me what is in the heart
Of the smallest of the seeds.’

‘God Almighty, and with Him
Cherubim and Seraphim,
Filling all eternity—
Adonai Elohim.’ [6]

[1] Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed., ed. Katherine Baker Siepmann (NY: HarperCollins, 1987), p. 181.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Works, Vol. XXXIII: The Illustrated London News, 1923-1925, ed. Lawrence J. Clipper & George J. Marlin (SF: Ignatius, 1990), p. 312.

[3] Terry W. Glaspey, Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading: A Guided Tour of Classic & Contemporary Literature (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), pp. 48-9.

[4] C.S. Lewis, ‘Surprised by Joy’, The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1994), p. 105. I often feel that I must apologise for my rather lame edition of Surprised by Joy. The ‘inspirational writings’ of C.S. Lewis? Doesn’t that put him in the same section of the bookstore as Joel Osteen and The Prayer of Jabez? But this was a high school graduation gift from my parents, and they inscribed it with these words:

We know that Lewis has been a strong influence in your spiritual life, and we trust that this volume will bring you much pleasure and inspiration.

Plus, as the cover tells me, it has ‘Four Bestselling Works Complete in One Volume’—Surprised by Joy, Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves, and The Business of Heaven—all of which are superior to Osteen and Jabez.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (SF: Ignatius, 1995), pp. 85-6.

[6] D.H.S. Nicholson & A.H.E. Lee, eds., The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (Lakewood, CO: Acropolis, 1997), pp. 519-20.

28 May 2010

'Come Ye, Christian People of Norway!'—St Hallvard of Husaby

Today, 15 May on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Passion-bearer Hallvard Vebjørnsson of Husaby (1020-1043), Defender of Oslo. [1] St Hallvard is the patron Saint of Oslo (and indeed, is depicted on the seal of the city, as one can see below), as well as of my sponsor when I was first received into the Orthodox Church fourteen years ago. As with many martyred Saints, very little is known about St Hallvard apart from the story of his death. Here is the entry for him in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints:

Hallvard (d. 1043), martyr and patron of Oslo. The son of a noble landholder of Husaby (Norway), he spent his youth in Viking activities.

One day, crossing the Drammenfiord by boat, he was accosted by a woman who appealed to him to take her with him, as she was falsely accused of stealing and was in danger of death. Her pursuers then arrived and called on him peremptorily to give her up. He refused as he believed her to be innocent; whereupon they were both shot dead with a bow. Hallvard’s body was thrown in the sea with a stone attached, but it floated: he was revered as a martyr for defending an innocent person. His body was enshrined in a stone church in Oslo, whose patron he became and still remains. [2]

I will add only that according to the Wikipedia article (here), St Hallvard was the son of one Vebjørn of Husaby and his wife Torny, a relative of St Olaf of Norway.

Although I still have not read the acclaimed novel Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, I noticed that volume 2 of my edition is entitled The Mistress of Husaby. Three hundred years after the time of St Hallvard, Kristin’s husband is a knight of Husaby, and the volume opens with their return there. We read:

They had come up into Skaun, and were riding high on a hillside. Below them in the valley bottom the woods stood white and shaggy with rime; everywhere the sunlight glittered, and a small lake in the midst flashed blue. Then all at once the troop passed out from a little pinewood, and Erlend pointed ahead:

‘There lies Husaby, Kristin. God grant you many happy days there, my own wife!’ he said, with a thrill in his voice.

Before them stretched broad plough-lands, white with rime. The manor stood, as it were, on a broad shelf midway on the hillside—nearest them lay a small church of light-coloured stone, and just south of it were the clustered houses; they were many and great; the smoke whirled up from their smoke-vents. Bells began ringing from the church, and many folk came streaming from the courtyard to meet them, with shouts of greeting. The young men in the bridal trains clashed their weapons one on another—and with a great clattering and the thunder of hoofs and joyous uproar the troop swept forward towards the new-married man’s abode. [3]

Reader Isaac Lambertson has written a beautiful Akolouthia for St Hallvard, available online here at the Orthodox England site. In conclusion, I offer the Idiomelon in Tone 2 and the Kontakion in Tone 8 of the Passion-bearer:

Idiomelon in Tone 2

Come, all ye Orthodox peoples! Come ye, Christian people of Norway! Come, ye citizens of Oslo! Let us extol Hallvard the wondrous youth. who, nurtured from infancy on the precepts of Christ, and reared in piety and reverence, bravely sheltered the defenseless woman, whose life and that of her unborn babe were sought by savage malefactors; for he was mindful of the words of Jesus, that no-one hath greater love, than that he lay down his life for his fellow man. Wherefore, let us imitate Hallvard as he imitated his Lord, that we also may be vouchsafed a place in paradise with Him.

Kontakion in Tone 8

Like a merchant man seeking fine pearls, the young Hallvard plied the seas of life; and having freighted the ship of his soul with compassion and all the Christian virtues, he found a most precious treasure on the waters of Dremmenfjord, and sold all he had, purchasing it with the very blood of his life, for he bravely shielded the defenceless woman for the sake of Christ his God. Wherefore, marvelling at his innocence and valour, let us cry aloud: Wondrous is God Who is glorious in His saints!

[1] Today, of course, is also the feastday of the more well-known St Pachomius the Great, and I put a great deal of work into a post for him (here) last year.

[2] David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 242.

[3] Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavrandatter, Vol. II: The Mistress of Husaby, tr. Charles Archer (NY: Knopf, 1946), p. 277.

27 May 2010

War & Peace 2: Tolstoy & Homer

In a post earlier this month announcing his intention to reread War & Peace in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, Matthew Reed quotes from and links to a post he had written a few years ago on a previous blog comparing Tolstoy’s novel with Homer’s Iliad. I’m glad to see this, because this is the very subject I had chosen for this post. Indeed, Matthew notes ‘I believe someone famous compared the two books before me so this is nothing new’, and in fact the comparisons seem to have begun with Tolstoy himself. Harold Bloom insists, ‘When Tolstoy compares himself to Homer we are persuaded, as no other post-Homeric writer could persuade us. Whether as prophet or as moralist, Tolstoy remains both an epic figure and a creator of epic.’ [1] Such comparisons continue, according to Richard Pevear, with a book I’d very much like to get my hands on—Rachel Bespaloff’s On the Iliad, a ‘comparison of Homer and Tolstoy’. Pevear quotes Bespaloff’s words, ‘Tolstoy’s universe, like Homer’s, is what our own is from moment to moment. We don’t step into it; we are there.’ [2]

But while I believe there certainly is something to the points of commonality that Matthew notes in his old post, it seems to me that the fact that we are dealing with two lengthy and unflinching looks at the horror of war can mask what I believe are some important differences. They are differences which do not seem so important to many modern readers, but which are necessitated by the distance between circa 9th-c. BC Greece and 19th-c. AD Russia. I’d like to consider these difference in two closely related areas: first, in terms of distinctly generic characteristics, and second, in terms of the specific portrayal of the common epic theme of war, which links the two together whilst simultaneously highlighting their distance from each other. I should point out, however, that these observations are based solely on my reading of the first volume, as well as my reading of a few critics on the subject of Tolstoy. Some of them are general enough to be safely stated at the outset, while others are not. We shall see whether they are borne out as the novel progresses.

Bloom refers to Tolstoy as ‘both an epic figure and a creator of epic’, and most of us feel we know and accept what he means by this. But our familiarity with this use of the term ‘epic’ can cause us to forget that it is a very broad and, I believe, recent one. Consider, by contrast, the seminal definition of ‘epic’ in Aristotle’s Poetics:

But as for the imitative art that is narrative [in manner] and employs metrical language [as its medium], it is evident that, just as in tragedies, its plots should be dramatic in structure—that is, should involve a single action, whole and complete in itself, having a beginning, a middle, and an end, so that like one whole living creature it may produce its appropriate pleasure—and that its structure should not resemble histories, which necessarily present not a single action but a single period of time with all that happened therein to one or more persons, no matter how little relation one event may have had with another. [3]

Of the features named here, I find that the Iliad and War & Peace have only the narrative manner in common. Tolstoy certainly doesn’t use metrical language. Indeed, Prince Mirsky has observed, ‘His style is deliberately prosaic—purged to chemical purity of all “poetry” and rhetoric—sternly puritanical prose.’ [4] As for singleness of action, Richard Freeborn observes in his contribution to The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, ‘The greatness of War & Peace lies in the very multiplicity of its many locales, characters and viewpoints’, [5] and Prince Mirsky notes the ‘vast proportions, the numerous personages, [and] the frequent changes of scene’. [6]

It is also worth noting that the epic metre—the heroic hexametre—is entirely discrete. Aristotle writes, ‘Indeed, it would seem out of keeping if anyone were to compose a narrative imitation in some other meter or in a combination of meters, since in comparison with the other verse forms the heroic [hexametre] is the most deliberate and weighty.’ [7] Now, this might seem to be a moot point, since, as I’ve emphasised, Tolstoy doesn’t use metre at all, and doesn’t even quote poetry the way Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov frequently does, for instance. [8] But the equivalent in Tolstoy of the mixing of the ancient genres, so foreign to epic, is the mixing of ‘genres’ in its more modern sense. War & Peace is hardly a straightforward narrative. As Prince Mirsky notes, Tolstoy ‘carried further than anyone (except Aksakov) the deliberate neglect of narrative interest and the deliberate avoidance of artificial construction.’ [9] Pevear refers to ‘the sudden leaps from fiction to history, from narration to philosophizing’, [10] but even this does not quite go far enough. For the ‘realism’ of prose leaves all of the various examples of what Mikhail Bakhtin calls ‘primary speech genres’ on the level of their own style, rather than sublimating them in the monologism of a novelistic equivalent of the heroic hexametre. [11] Though all is controlled by Tolstoy (and indeed, Bakhtin insists that he is more monologic than Dostoevsky), to a great degree we still find that the charactres have their own voices, expressed in dialogue, letters, commands, ejaculations, etc., and even the narrator shifts from simply telling us or describing to us the action of the narrative to expounding a philosophy of history. Though we do not find different metres, the variety of prose ‘genres’ is perhaps even more striking.

Of course, there are other characteristics of the epic of which Aristotle is not quite consciously aware, because he takes them for granted. In the brief paper I posted here, I summarised some of Bakhtin’s comparisons of the epic with the novel: the epic is monoglot (that is, scarcely even aware of other languages or voices than its own, much less reflecting or incorporating them), its subject matter is of an elevated and uniformly serious type, its meaning is straight-forward and non-ironic. Tolstoy’s novel is permeated with French and sometimes German, even when the prose itself is actually written in Russian, he is prone to deal with earthy and comic situations, and his work is replete with irony, ambivalence, and implication.

In fact, while I am initially tempted to say that War & Peace, like the epic poetry of old, is an example of ‘the literature of ruling social groups’, [12] it certainly does not belong to the ‘ruling social group’ of its day in the same way as the epics. What Prince Mirsky calls Tolstoy’s ‘satirical representation of society and of diplomacy’ [13] could have no place in The Iliad. In Bakhtin’s view, satire is an example of a ‘parodic-travestying literature’, which ‘introduces the permanent corrective of laughter, of a critique on the one-sided seriousness of the lofty direct word, the corrective of reality that is always richer, more fundamental amd most importantly too contradictory and heteroglot to be fit into a high and straightforward genre.’ [14] Indeed, such forms are linked with the very pre-history of the novel itself—

These parodic-travestying forms . . . destroyed the homogenizing power of myth over language; they freed consciousness from the power of the direct word, destroyed the thick walls that had imprisoned consciousness within its own discourse, within its own language. A distance arose between language and reality that was to prove an indispensable condition for authentically realistic forms of discourse. [15]

But these generic differences may perhaps seem too obvious. Of course Tolstoy’s novel is not an epic poem, one may say! Tolstoy himself denies that it fits any genre at all: ‘It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War & Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.’ [16] But let’s consider at least one point of definite contact with epic as it is usually conceived—its preoccupation with war. Superficially, this is one of the novel’s most characteristically ‘epic’ features. The Iliad is the consummate poem of war, and the Aeneid begins with the famous words Arma virumque cano, which Robert Fitzgerald has gone so far as to render, ‘I sing of warfare and a man at war.’ [17]

But while war in the Iliad is inevitably terrible, there is never any surprise that this should be so. It is worth quoting C.S. Lewis at length:

It is all the more terrible because the poet takes it all for granted, makes no complaint. It comes out casually, in similes.

As when the smoke ascends to the sky from a city afar
Set in an isle, which foes have compassed round in war,
And all day long they struggle as hateful Ares bids.
(Il. XVIII, 207.)

Or again,

As when a woman upon the body falls
Of her husband, killed in battle before the city walls. . . .
She sees him down and listens how he gasps his life away,
And clings to the body, crying, amid the foes; but they
Beating her back and shoulders with butts of spears amain
Pull her away to slavery to learn of toil and pain.
(Od. VIII, 523.)

. . . This is a mere simile—the sort of thing that happens every day. . . . For Homer it is all in the day’s work. . . .

. . . In Homer, [epic] greatness lies in the human and personal tragedy built up against this background of meaningless flux. It is all the more tragic because there hangs over the heroic world a certain futility. ‘And here I sit in Troy,’ says Achilles to Priam, ‘afflicting you and your children.’ Not ‘protecting Greece’, not even ‘winning glory’, not called by any vocation to afflict Priam, but just doing it because that is the way things come about. . . . Here there is just the suffering. Perhaps this was in Goethe’s mind when he said, ‘The lesson of the Iliad is that on this earth we must enact Hell.’ Only the style—the unwearying, unmoved, angelic speech of Homer—makes it endurable. Without that the Iliad would be a poem beside which the grimmest modern realism is child’s play. [18]

Thus, we can see that War & Peace is not even among ‘the grimmest modern realism’. As Prince Mirsky notes, ‘The philosophy of the novel is . . . profoundly optimistic . . . The optimistic nature of the philosophy is reflected in the idyllic tone of the narrative. In spite of the horror—by no means veiled—of war, . . . the general message of War & Peace is one of beauty and satisfaction that the world should be so beautiful.’ [19] It is for this reason that Tolstoy’s charactres are so surprised by the horror of war—it fits ill with the beauty of the world, which must exist in ‘spite’ of it. Think of Part 2 of Volume I of War when, superficially wounded, Nikolai Rostov thinks to himself of the approaching French, ‘Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?’ [20] Then, recall by contrast the resignation of young Patroclus in Il. XVI, ll. 988-97, struggling for breath when Hector has speared him through the bowels:

‘. . .
A gift of the son of Cronus, Zeus—Apollo too—
they brought me down with all their deathless ease,
they are the ones who tore the armor off my back.
Even if twenty Hectors had charged against me—
they’d all have died here, laid low by my spear.
No, deadly fate in league with Apollo killed me.
From the ranks of men, Euphorbus. You came third,
and all you could do was finish off my life . . .
One more thing—take it to heart, I urge you—
you too, you won’t live long yourself, I swear.
. . .’ [21]

Another difference lies in Tolstoy’s use of war as what Freeborn calls a ‘catalyst’ for the moral transformation of his charactres. [22] While Freeborn finds that in Tolstoy’s depiction of war ‘no guiding hand, let alone any providence, seems capable of bringing order out of chaos’, in the same paragraph he observes that ‘on those of his characters who experience it intimately’ the effect of war ‘is morally transforming’. We see when Nikolai Rostov is wounded and, in Freeborn’s words, ‘suddenly realizes . . . that he is no longer a little boy protected by the love and loyalty of his family.’ [23] In fact, according to Bakhtin, the whole notion of a hero changing is profoundly alien to epic, and was already identified in the 18th c. as one of the unique characteristics of the novelistic hero: ‘the hero should not be portrayed as an already completed and unchanging person but as one who is evolving and developing, a person who learns from life’. [24] It is ironic that it is precisely the ‘epic’ preoccupation with war that constitutes a catalyst for the charactres’ moral transformation.

There are, of course, other possible avenues for exploration when we place these two great works side by side. Just as Homer’s epic taught the ancient Greeks the nature of and means of acquiring arete, Freeborn sees Tolstoy as teaching a kind of—perhaps uniquely modern—heroism, ‘the “active virtue” animating the best men in Russian society’. [25] There is also the question of similarity or dissimilarity between what Bakhtin calls the ‘epic past’ in Homer, and the evocation of ‘the historical scene’ in Tolstoy. [26] But this is already a long post, and my family is anxiously awaiting use of the computer. I’d love to hear any comments on these points, as well as the various points I have discussed.

Finally, Andrea Elizabeth has notified me that she already has a few War & Peace posts as well. They can be found here.

[1] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books & School of the Ages (NY: Riverhead, 1995), p. 312.

[2] Qtd. in Richard Pevear, ‘Introduction’, War & Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Vintage, 2008), p. xiv.

[3] Aristotle, Poetics, tr. James Hutton (NY: Norton, 1982), pp. 71-2.

[4] Prince Dmitri Svyatopolk Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature: From its Beginnings to 1900, ed. Francis J. Whitfield (NY: Vintage, 1958), p. 264.

[5] Richard Freeborn, ‘The nineteenth century: the age of realism, 1855-80’, The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, rev. ed., ed. Charles A. Moser (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1995), p. 303.

[6] Mirsky, p. 272.

[7] Aristotle, p. 73.

[8] In fact, this insistence on rarely mixing poetry with his prose might actually be considered a feature that brings Tolstoy’s work closer to the spirit of the ancient genre and makes it less novelistic in the sense we shall be discussing.

[9] Mirsky, p. 264.

[10] Pevear, p. x.

[11] This is not to say that Tolstoy’s work does not contain a deeper monologism. As Bakhtin writes, in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. & tr. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994):

Such characters as Andrei Bolkonsky, Pierre Bezukhov, Levin, and Nekhlyudov have their own well-developed fields of vision, sometimes almost coinciding with the author’s (that is, the author sometimes sees the world as if through their eyes), their voices sometimes almost merge with the author’s voice. But not a single one ends up on the same plane with the author’s word and the author’s truth, and with none of them does the author enter into dialogic relations. All of them, with their fields of vision, with their quests and their controversies, are inscribed into the monolithically monologic whole of the novel that finalizes them all and that is never, in Tolsto, the kind of ‘great dialogue’ that we find in Dostoevsky. All the clamps and finalizing moments of this monologic whole lie in the zone of authorial ‘surplus’, a zone that is fundamentally inaccessible to the consciousnesses of the characters. (p. 72)

[12] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas, 1998), p. 4.

[13] Mirsky, p. 271.

[14] Bakhtin, Dialogic, p. 55.

[15] Ibid., p. 60.

[16] Qtd. in Pevear, p. xi. In fact, Tolstoy’s denial that his work is a novel presumes the 18th-c. (and earlier) model of the novel. ‘But,’ Bakhtin insists, ‘it is characteristic of the novel that it never enters into this whole [of literature conceived as a totality of genres], it does not participate in any harmony of the genres. In these eras [the Greek classical period, the Golden Age of Roman literature, the neoclassical period] the novel has an unofficial existence, outside “high” literature’ (Dialogic, p. 4). In other words, its lack of well-defined generic qualities is precisely what places War & Peace within the novelistic ‘genre’ as Bakhtin conceives it.

[17] Virgil, The Aeneid, tr. Robert Fitzgerald (NY: Random House, 1983), p. 3.

[18] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (NY: Oxford U, 1965), pp. 30-1.

[19] Mirsky, pp. 272-3.

[20] Tolstoy, p. 189. The scene is an interesting parallel to Maxim Gorky’s words about Tolstoy himself:

All his life he feared and hated death, all his life there throbbed in his soul the ‘Arsamasian terror’—must he die? The whole world, all the earth looks towards him [Me, whom everybody loves so?]; from China, India, America, from everywhere living throbbing threads stretch out to him; his souls is for all and forever. Why should not nature make an exception to her law, give to one man physical immortality? (qtd. in Bloom, p. 311)

[21] Homer, The Iliad, tr. Robert Fagles (NY: Penguin, 1998), p. 440.

[22] Freeborn, p. 302.

[23] Ibid., p. 301.

[24] Bakhtin, Dialogic, p. 10.

[25] Freeborn, p. 299.

[26] Ibid., p. 299.

26 May 2010

War & a Fur Piece

I look forward to another comment or two on my first post on Tolstoy’s War & Peace, and as mentioned another has been planned. But I also wanted to point out that Matthew Reed of a fur piece has written a very interesting post of his own (and has promised more) on the expression which Pevear & Volokhonsky have rendered ‘clerical persons’ in V. I, Part 1.xx. I urge all, especially those with a good knowledge of Russian, to read it and comment here.

War & Peace 1: Princess Marya Bolkonsky on Spiritual Reading

Our target date for the completion of Volume 1 of Tolstoy’s War & Peace has now come and gone (see this post), and I hope that other readers besides myself are also making some headway in this weighty tome. Although I have a matter of greater pertinence to the central themes of Tolstoy’s magnum opus to post on later, I wanted to go ahead and excerpt a brief passage that struck me early on. Princess Marya Nikolaevna Bolkonsky has received a copy of Karl von Eckartshausen’s ‘occult treatise’ (in the translators’ words), A Key to the Mysteries of Nature, from her friend Julie Karagin, with the recommendation, ‘Read the mystical book I am sending you and that is causing a furor here [in St Petersburg society]. Though there are things in this book that are hard to grasp with weak human understanding, it is an admirable book, the reading of which calms and elevates the soul.’ [1] The more sensible Princess Marya replies:

A thousand thanks, dear friend, for the work you have sent me, and which is causing such a furor there. However, since you tell me that amidst several good things there are others that weak human understanding cannot grasp, it would seem to me rather useless to occupy myself with unintelligible reading matter; which by that very fact cannot be of any fruit. I have never been able to understand the passion certain persons have for muddling their wits by fastening upon mystical books, which only awaken doubts in their minds, excite their imagination, and give them an exaggerated character totally contrary to Christian simplicity. Let us read the Apostles and Gospel. Let us not seek to penetrate what they contain of the mysterious, for how should we dare aspire, miserable sinners that we are, to initiate ourselves into the terrible and sacred secrets of Providence, so long as we wear this fleshly husk, which raises an impenetrable veil between us and the eternal? Let us limit ourselves, then, to studying the sublim principles that our divine Savior has left us for our conduct here below; let us seek to conform ourselves to them and to follow them, let us persuade ourselves that the less flight we give to our weak human spirit, the more pleasing it is to God, who rejects all science that does not come from him; that the less we seek to delve into what he has been pleased to conceal from our knowledge, the sooner he will grant us the discovery of it through his divine spirit. [2]

The excitement over the book in St Petersburg society reminds me of the whole unfortunate Masonic spirit of that time as described by Fr Georges Florovsky in Ways of Russian Theology—that is, truly Masonic, rather than ‘Masonic’ by association or otherwise tenuous connection.

For its part, Princess Marya’s wise response calls to mind two things. First of all, St Barsanuphius of Gaza wrote to a brother who had asked (in Letter 547) whether it is okay for him to read works of dogmatic theology: ‘I would not like you to meditate on these because they raise the intellect upward; I would prefer you to meditate on the words of the Old Men because these humble the intellect downward.’ [3] Second, in his ‘Prologue’ to the Evergetinos, St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain wrote:

The whole of the moral philosophy of the Gospels summons all men to itself. There are those who concern themselves in this or that way with certain other types of philosophy; and of these persons, some spend all of their days studying, say, mathematics or physics, while others concentrate on metaphysics and more general subjects. Yet they entirely neglect moral philosophy, even though it is both the paramount and most necessary of all types of philosophy. These men study the harmony and order of the heavens, and earth, and all other matters. But because they do not know, as they ought, that the investigation of ourselves is distinctly superior to that of alien matters and, moreover, because they do not know tha tknowledge on its own—that is, being bereft of practical application—has no substance and does not differ from fantasy, as the holy Maximos notes, precious few of these men address the question of how to bring themselves into harmony with the beauty of moral life, or how to learn true virtues through experience. Now, I ask you: What is the good of materialistic philosophy, when the soul has a philosophy of its own, yet is crudely beset by passions? I, for one, see no good. Surely we must apply ourselves to moral philosophy, or risk being found wanting in relation to our higher aspect.

Such as these former things much concern the majority of people. The God-fearing Fathers, however, determined that their most holy system was superior, sensing with the more percipient eyes of the mind how truly beneficial is this moral type of philosophy and how readily they might advance to the other kinds of philosophy if they should first become facile in the system in question. [4]

Of course these Saints are speaking of books and areas of study which are not necessarily false or harmful per se, and yet they still warn the faithful about preoccupation with them. Although I am not familiar with the work of this Karl von Eckartshausen, I am rather dubious of its consistency with Orthodox Christianity!

I look forward to seeing posts from other bloggers who may have joined in the War effort. I am not following blogs as closely these days as I once did, and would enjoy receiving an e-mail or a comment notifying me in case of any new posts. I will gladly link to them in order to facilitate further discussion.

[1] Leo Tolstoy, War & Peace, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Vintage, 2008), p. 93.

[2] Ibid., pp. 94-5.

[3] Ss Barsanuphius & John, Letters, Vol. 2, tr. Fr John Chryssavgis, Vol. 114 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, DC: The Catholic U of America, 2007), p. 132.

[4] St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, ‘Prologue’, The Evergetinos: A Complete Text, Book I, ed. & tr. Archbishop Chrysostomos, Hieromonk Patapios, et al. (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2008), pp. xxxii-xxxiii.

25 May 2010

St Cyril Among the Saracens

I thought this was an interesting story from the ‘For Consideration’ section of yesterday’s Prologue reading. St Cyril, Equal to the Apostles, addresses the question of a Christian pacifism:

They asked St Cyril in the Saracen camp: ‘As a Christian, is it possible to wage war and also to fulfil Christ’s command to pray to God for your enemies?’ To this St Cyril replied: ‘If, in one law, there are two commandments written and given to men to fulfil, which man would the better fulfil the law—he who fulfils one commandment or he who fulfils both?’ To this the Saracens replied: ‘Undoubtedly, he who fulfils both.’ St Cyril continued: ‘Christ our God commands us to pray to God for all those who persecute us, and to do good to them, but He has also said to us: “Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends” [John 15:13]. And we therefore submit to the insults that our enemies cast at us individually, and pray to God for them, but as a group we defend one another and lay down our lives for one another, so that you wouldn’t, by enslaving our brothers, take away their souls along with their bodies and kill them off completely.’ [1]

According to Anthony-Emil Tachiaos, St Cyril went among the Saracens mainly as a political diplomat, but true to the tradition we considered yesterday (here), was also caught up in extensive theological conversations. In Tachiaos’s words:

It is apparent from this [passage in St Cyril’s biography] that the discussions took place in the course of lengthy symposia, around a table laden with provender. At first the talk was theological, but it soon encompassed other subjects. The Arabs cross-examined Cyril and were stunned by the extent of his knowledge; and having tried unsuccessfully to impress him with their own knowledge, they were quick to ask him: ‘How do you know all this?’ Cyril replied first with a parable, which brought him to the proud maxim that expressed all the self-assurance of Byzantine thinking: ‘All the sciences started with us’. [2]

[1] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 2, tr. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 167.

[2] Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril & Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 32.

24 May 2010

'Our Sacred Pair of Enlighteners'—Ss Cyril & Methodius

Today, 11 May on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Apostles to the Slavs, Cyril & Methodius of Thessaloniki (9th c.). I posted on these great Saints on their feastday last year, and have mentioned them and their mission numerous other times (see these posts), so this will likely be brief post. Sir Dimitri Obolensky calls Ss Cyril & Methodius ‘the greatest of all missionaries who worked among the Slavs’, and singles out St Cyril as ‘a linguistic genius’ who ranks ‘among the greatest philologists Europe has ever produced’. [1] Though widely renowned as the inventor of an alphabet, generally agreed to be the ‘Glagolitic’, R. Auty credits the Saints with the ‘establishment’ of the Old Church Slavonic literary language itself. [2] Here is the account of the lives of these two holy brothers in the Prologue:

They were brothers from Salonica, of eminent and wealthy parents, Leo and Maria. The elder brother, Methodius, spent ten years as an officer among the Slavs in Macedonia, and thus learned the Slavic language. [3] After that, Methodius went off to Olympus and gave himself to monastic asceticism, and Cyril (Constantine) later joined him there. When the Khazarite king, Kagan, sought preachers of the Christian faith from the Emperor Michael, the Emperor commanded that these two brothers be found and sent to the Khazars. They converted Kagan to the Christian faith and baptised him, together with a great number of his nobles and an even greater number of the people. After some time, they returned to Constantinople, where they compiled a Slavic alphabet of 38 letters and began to translate the service books from Greek to Slavonic. At the invitation of Prince Rastislav, they went to Moravia, where, with great devotion, they spread and confirmed the Faith, made more copies of the books, brought them priests and taught the young. They went to Rome at the invitation of the Pope, and Cyril fell ill and died there, on February 14th, 869. Then Methodius returned to Moravia and laboured at the confirming of the Faith among the Slavs until his death. After his death—he entered into rest in the Lord on April 6th, 885—his disciples, the Five Followers, with St Clement as bishop at the beginning, crossed the Danube [4] and moved towards the south, to Macedonia, where, from Ochrid, they continued the work among the Slavs that Cyril and Methodius had begun in the north. [5]

In another essay from the same book I have already quoted, Obolensky considers Ss Cyril and Methodius in their distinct rôle as Byzantine missionaries, or more properly, missionaries of the East Roman empire. Thus, they were missionaries and diplomats, a ‘double rôle’ which ‘resulted from the close relationship . . . between the evangelical ideal of the Byzantine Church and the foreign policy of the empire.’ The (Greek-speaking) Romans of this period directly identified ‘the Pax Romana and the Pax Christiana’, believing that they had been uniquely ‘consecrated to the service of Christ by the emperor Constantine, and were therefore the new chosen people who had the duty to bring the Gospel to the barbarians of the whole world.’ Obolensky goes on to write:

To such an ambassador was naturally attached something of the pomp and majesty of his political sovereign. Missionaries and diplomats of Byzantium, Cyril and Methodius were also Byzantines of their time, typical representatives, no matter how eminent, of the cultural elite of their period. The revival of monastic spirituality and of humanistic scholarship in the ninth century, which some historians have termed the ‘Byzantine renaissance’, remained imprinted on their thought and their careers. Methodius the monk and Cyril the scholar, professor at the University of Constantinople and pupil of [Saint] Photius [the Great], the greatest humanist of the age, admirably personified these two aspects of Byzantine civilization of the ninth century. This was a period in which the intellectuals and statesmen of Byzantium believed more than ever in their empire’s world-wide mission. [6]

I thought this an interesting dimension to a portrait of the Saints. It is rightly noted that they were so enlightened as to bring Christianity to the Slavs in the Slavs’ own language. As St Cyril wrote in his ‘Prologue’ to the Slavonic translation of the Gospels (which I have posted in full here):

. . .
Lest having an unenlightened mind,
And listening to the Word in foreign tongue,
You hear it like the voice of a copper bell.
For Saint Paul, in teaching, said this:
‘In offering my prayer up to God
I would rather speak five words
That all my brethren understand,
Than a multitude of incomprehensible words.’ [7]

But while it is thus undoubtedly correct in a certain sense to speak of the ‘baptism’ of Slavic culture, we mustn’t forget the extent to which the emerging Slavic Christianity was a Byzantine one speaking in the Slavonic language. Drawing on the renowned Russian literary historian and Slavicist, Dmitri S. Likhachev, [8] Anthony-Emil Tachiaos writes:

When they accepted Orthodoxy from Byzantium, the Slavic people simultaneously accepted a multitude of cultural and educational elements as well, the main vehicle of which was the Byzantine texts circulating amongst them in Slavic translation. And whereas the Slavs had only their popular oral tradition of folktales and songs, the Byzantines gave them an entire written tradition all at once. So the acquisition of the written word—as well as the other elements of which it was the bearer—cannot be described as ‘influence’, but rather as a wholesale transplantation of Byzantine culture into the Slavic world. [9]

Finally, I will just mention that the Apostles to the Slavs make a happy appearance in Elizabeth Kostova’s excellent vampire novel, The Historian (about which I have already posted here, here, here, and here), when the Bulgarian scholar Anton Stoichev welcomes students to his house to celebrate the feastday of the Saints:

You know, this is my favorite holiday. We have many saints’ days in the church calendar, but this one is dear to all those who teach and learn, because it is when we honor the Slavonic heritage of alphabet and literature, and the teaching and learning of many centuries that have grown from Kiril and Methodii and their great invention. [10]

In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion of the Saints, from the Great Horologion:

Dimissal Hymn of Saints Cyril & Methodius. Fourth Tone

Since ye were equal in character to the Apostles, and teachers of the Slavic lands, O divinely-wise Cyril and Methodius, pray to the Lord of all to strengthen all nations in Orthodoxy and unity of thought, to convert and reconcile the world to God, and to save our souls.

Kontakion of Saints Cyril & Methodius. Third Tone

Let us honour our sacred pair of enlighteners, who, by translating the divine writings, have poured forth for us a well-spring of divine knowledge from which we draw abundantly even unto this day: We call you blessed, O Cyril and Methodius, ye that stand before the throne of the Most High and intercede fervently for our souls. [11]

[1] Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Byzantium & the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1994), p. 207.

[2] R. Auty, ‘Introduction’, Handbook of Old Church Slavonic, Part II: Texts & Glossary (London: U of London, 1968), p. 1.

[3] Obolensky actually states that he was ‘a governor of a Slavonic province of the Empire (op. cit., p. 206).

[4] For some reason, St Nicholas does not mention that the Five Followers were actually imprisoned and sold into slavery by the Frankish clergy in Moravia. See Obolensky, p. 210.

[5] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 2, tr. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 166.

[6] Obolensky, p. 244.

[7] Qtd. in Thomas Butler, ‘Introduction’, Monumenta Bulgarica: A Bilingual Anthology of Bulgarian Texts from the 9th to the 19th Centuries (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic, 2004), p. xxii.

[8] On whom see this fascinating interview at the website of the ROCOR cathedral in Washington, DC, as well as this article in The New Yorker.

[9] Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril & Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 130.

[10] Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian (NY: Back Bay, 2006), p. 491.

[11] The Great Horologion, tr. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1997), pp. 480-1.

20 May 2010

'The Red, Red Passionate Rose'—Eco & Masefield on Rose Symbolism

In his fascinating Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco writes that he chose the title of his bestselling debut novel in large part because ‘the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left: Dante’s mystic rose, and go lovely rose, the Wars of the Roses, rose thou art sick, too many rings around Rosie, a rose by any other name, a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, the Rosicrucians.’ [1] I was reminded of this afresh today when I acquired a new addition to my John Masefield collection—The Poems and Plays of John Masefield, Vol. 1: Poems—and read again in ‘The Ballad of Sir Bors’ a striking use of rose symbolism for one particular thing: Christ’s precious blood contained in the Holy Grail.

Would I could win some quiet and rest, and a little ease,
In the cool grey hush of the dusk, in the dim green place of the trees,
Where the birds are singing, singing, singing, crying aloud
The song of the red, red rose that blossoms beyond the seas.

Would I could see it, the rose, when the light begins to fail,
And a lone white star in the West is glimmering on the mail;
The red, red passionate rose of the sacred blood of the Christ,
In the shining chalice of God, the cup of the Holy Grail.

The dusk comes gathering grey, and the darkness dims the West,
The oxen low to the byre, and all bells ring to rest;
But I ride over the moors, for the dusk still bides and waits,
That brims my soul with the glow of the rose that ends the Quest.

My horse is spavined and ribbed, and his bones come through his hide,
My sword is rotten with rust, but I shake the reins and ride,
For the bright white birds of God that nest in the rose have called,
And never a township now is a town where I can bide.

It will happen at last, at dusk, as my horse limps down the fell,
A star will glow like a note God strikes on a silver bell,
And the bright white birds of God will carry my soul to Christ,
And the sight of the Rose, the Rose, will pay for the years of hell. [2]

Eco himself has elsewhere described at length the dangers of overinterpretation, noting the ‘indisputable fact . . . that from a certain point of view everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity and similarity to everything else.’ He then goes on to write, ‘But the difference between the sane interpretation and paranoiac interpretation lies in recognizing that this relationship is minimal, and not, on the contrary, deducing from this minimal relationship the maximum possible.’ [3] While Eco is consciously exploiting the dangers of such overinterpretation in the title of The Name of the Rose—and indeed, it seems to be a recurring theme in his fiction and nonfiction alike—Masefield has made things quite simple for us. His rose is the ‘red, red passionate rose of the sacred blood of the Christ, / In the shining chalice of God, the cup of the Holy Grail.’ I cannot help but think that here we have reached the uppermost possibility of symbolic or analogical deferral.

[1] Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose, tr. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), p. 3.

[2] John Masefield, The Poems & Plays of John Masefield, Vol. 1: Poems (NY: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 79-80.

[3] Umberto Eco, Interpretation & overinterpretation, with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, & Christine Brooke-Rose, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1994), p. 48.

15 May 2010

'Stars of the Spiritual Firmament'—A Hymn for the Fathers of Nicæa

At the Vigil this evening I was struck by the Doxasticon at Lauds, by George of Nicomedia (I quote Archimandrite Ephrem’s translation):

The choir of holy Fathers, hurrying together from the ends of the inhabited world, taught the one essence and nature of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and clearly handed down to the Church the mystery of theology. As we praise them with faith, let us call them blessed as we say: O godly camp, inspired soldiers [note the Greek actually says ‘hoplites’!] of the Lord’s array; stars with many lights of the spiritual firmament; the indestructible towers of the mystical Sion; the sweet-scented flowers of Paradise; the all-golden mouths of the Word; Nicæa’s boast; adornment of the inhabited world, intercede unceasingly for our souls.

Τῶν ἁγίων Πατέρων ὁ χορός, ἐκ τῶν τῆς οἰκουμένης περάτων συνδραμών, Πατρός, καὶ Υἱοῦ, καὶ Πνεύματος ἁγίου, μίαν οὐσίαν ἐδογμάτισε καὶ φύσιν, καὶ τὸ μυστήριον τῆς θεολογίας, τρανῶς παρέδωκε τῇ Ἐκκλησίᾳ· οὓς εὐφημοῦντες ἐν πίστει, μακαρίσωμεν λέγοντες· Ὦ θεία παρεμβολή, θεηγόροι ὁπλῖται, παρατάξεως Κυρίου, ἀστέρες πολύφωτοι, τοῦ νοητοῦ στερεώματος, τῆς μυστικῆς Σιὼν οἱ ἀκαθαίρετοι πύργοι, τὰ μυρίπνοα ἄνθη τοῦ Παραδείσου, τὰ πάγχρυσα στόματα τοῦ Λόγου, Νικαίας τὸ καύχημα, οἰκουμένης ἀγλάϊσμα, ἐκτενῶς πρεσβεύσατε, ὑπὲρ τῶν ψυχῶν ἡμῶν.

The imagery of the Church’s poetry is incomparably beautiful. In Orthodox Tradition, the Fathers are not doctrinal police, as the modern mindset seems to think, but ‘soldiers’, ‘stars’, ‘towers’, ‘flowers’ and ‘all-golden mouths’.

11 May 2010

'The Mournfulness of Ancient Life'—Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So, thank you to all who said prayers for me. Thanks to God, I am doing much, much better already. I have been taking into account the advice I received in the comments on the last post, and I intend to slow down significantly my rate of posting on Logismoi. I’m not sure yet if I will set a new goal—I’ve been posting every day for quite some time—but for the time being I’ll just see how it goes and post as the mood strikes me. I may also try to keep the posts a bit simpler, so as not to overdo it.

Today, 12 May, is the birthday of the English Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), named for but not to be confused with the Florentine poet and author of the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). [1] While W.H. Auden has included Rossetti in his anthology of British minor poets, in the introduction to Rossetti in Lionel Trilling’s and Harold Bloom’s Victorian Prose & Poetry, it is argued that the Pre-Raphaelite, ‘though out of favor in our time, seems to this editor the best poet of the Victorian period, after Browning and Tennyson, surpassing Arnold and even Hopkins and Swinburne (greatly undervalued as Swinburne now is).’ [2] According to Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Rossetti’s ‘lyric poems are distinguished by richness and vividness of detail, mysticism and fantasy, and the frequent use of modified ballad form.’ [3]

Concerning Rossetti’s origin, Joseph Knight tells us that his family came from the city of ‘Vasto d’Ammone, the ancient Histonium’. His father, Gabriele Rossetti, was ‘distinguished as a patriot and a man of letters’, but was persecuted by Ferdinand, the King of the Two Sicilies, and forced to flee to England. [4] Once in England, Rossetti’s father married Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, whose father was Gaetano Polidori, a translator of Milton into Italian, and whose brother was Dr John William Polidori, physician to Lord Byron, participant in the famous ghost-story game which spawned Frankenstein, and author, as a result, of the first vampire story in English, The Vampyre. A few years after Rossetti’s birth, his father took up the post of Professor of Italian Literature at King’s College, a post he held until 1845. Gabriele and Frances Rossetti had four children, who were ‘all honourably known in connection with literature’: [5] Maria Francesca, author of A Shadow of Dante, Dante Gabriel, William Michael, and Christina, the latter three of whom were all associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. According to George Creeger’s account of the eldest son’s work:

Rossetti possessed the talents of painter and poet alike: at the age of six he was already writing verses, and when he was fifteen there appeared a privately printed volume entitled Hugh the Heron. But he devoted much of his energy to mastering the craft of painting; and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded in 1848 by him (together with [William Holman] Hunt, [John Everett] Millais, and [Thomas] Woolner) was at first only incidentally concerned with literary principles. But even as Rossetti’s fame as a painter grew, he wrote a good deal of poetry, much of which was printed in The Germ, a periodical started by the Brotherhood in 1850. Many of his later MSS. he buried, however, in the coffin of his wife and beautiful model, Elizabeth (née Siddal), who, already ill with tuberculosis, died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862. Seven years later the MSS. were recovered [6] and formed the basis of the volume of poems published in 1869. Rossetti’s last years were marked by increasing morbidity, quasi-paranoia, and addiction to drugs; but in 1881 he published a second volume of poetry, Ballads & Sonnets, in which the signs of his genius were still clear. [7]

James Merritt has quoted Rossetti’s brother, William Michael, as saying of one of his own poems that ‘the informing idea of the poem was to apply to verse-writing the same principles . . . which the Pre-Raphaelites upheld in their pictures’. [8] Similarly, Dante Gabriel actually has lyrics which are meant to accompany his paintings. His subject matter and symbolism are of course frequently Christian, as are those of his paintings, though we mustn’t conclude too much from this. While Rossetti was raised in his mother’s Anglican faith, unlike his sister Christina he seems not to have been a traditional believer. George Landow quotes William Holman Hunt as saying that Rossetti spoke ‘in a very patronising way about the “poor man” Jesus, and . . . ridiculed the promises about coming again’. [9] John Ruskin writes, ‘To Rossetti, the Old and New Testaments were only the greatest poems he knew; and he painted scenes from them with no more actual belief in their relation to the present life and business of men than he gave also to the “Morte d’Arthur” and the “Vita Nuova”.’ [10]

But Landow also points out in some detail Rossetti’s use of Christian typology in his poetry, particularly in one sonnet he composed to accompany a painting entitled ‘Passover in the Holy Family’:

Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. ‘Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
With blood-stained door and lintel,’ – did God say
By Moses’ mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families,
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.
The pyre is piled. What agony’s crown attained,
What shadow of Death the Boy’s fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained.

In Landow’s words, Rossetti ‘was intrigued by the fact that prefigurative symbolism provides a means of redeeming human time, of perceiving an order and causality in human events.’ He goes on to observe, ‘It is precisely this aspect of typological symbolism with which Rossetti concerns himself in his sonnet, which . . . proceeds by setting forth the series of details—the types—which prefigure Christ’s ultimate self-sacrifice.’ Interestingly, this actually suggests a very good reason for the direct linking of painting and poetry for Rossetti. As Landow writes:

Ever since Lessing had reiterated the ancient truth that paintings were limited to a single moment in time, artists had increasingly concerned themselves with dramatically climactic moments. But this new form of symbolism offered a means of inserting the scene in several different times, as it were, and thus enriching the picture’s effect. Paradoxically, this potential also emphasizes the limited nature of the visual image, because it makes it depend heavily for its effect upon linguistic, extra-visual sources for meaning and drama.

Rossetti’s fascination with typological symbolism also appears in the poems he composed about other artists’ works, for in these he is adding the typological dimension on his own authority. [11]

In conclusion, I suggest all have a look at some of Rossetti’s other work, here for instance, as well as this stirring post on the Pre-Raphaelites by Kevin Edgecomb of biblicalia. There is also another interesting take on Rossetti’s religious symbolism here. I leave you with ‘The Sea-Limits’ (1849-50), anthologised by Auden as well as Trilling and Bloom:

Consider the sea’s listless chime:
Time’s self it is, made audible,—
The murmur of the earth’s own shell.
Secret continuance sublime
Is the sea’s end: our sight may pass
No furlong further. Since time was,
This sound hath told the lapse of time.

No quiet, which is death’s,—it hath
The mournfulness of ancient life,
Enduring always at dull strife.
As the world’s heart of rest and wrath,
Its painful pulse is in the sands.
Last utterly, the whole sky stands,
Grey and not known, along its path.

Listen alone beside the sea,
Listen alone among the woods;
Those voices of twin solitudes
Shall have one sound alike to thee:
Hark where the murmurs of thronged men
Surge and sink back and surge again,—
Still the one voice of wave and tree.

Gather a shell from the strown beach
And listen at its lips: they sigh
The same desire and mystery,
The echo of the whole sea’s speech.
And all mankind is thus at heart
Not anything but what thou art:
And Earth, Sea, Man, are all in each. [12]

[1] It is worth pointing out, however, that in their note on Rossetti’s ‘Sestina (after Dante)’, Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom write, ‘No more successful version of anything by Dante exists in English . . .’ (Victorian Prose & Poetry (NY: Oxford U, 1973), p. 624).

[2] Ibid., p. 616.

[3] Katherine Baker Siepmann, ed., Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. (NY: HarperCollins, 1987), p. 846.

[4] Joseph Knight, Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Walter Scott, 1887), p. 11.

[5] Ibid., p. 13.

[6] On the subject of the ‘recovery’ of the manuscript, which as is noted occurred seven years after the woman’s burial, Knight insists that the idea was suggested by various friends, culminating in an offer on the part of one Mr Charles Augustus Howell to actually ‘take charge of the execution of the task’, to which Rossetti ‘was still averse’. Finally, ‘All was found as it was left, but the book, though not in any way destroyed, was soaked through and through, and had to undergo a long process of ablution in the hand of the medical man who assisted Mr Howell. By his care also the whole was dried leaf by leaf’ (Knight, p. 106).

[7] George R. Creeger, ‘Notes’, 19th-Century British Minor Poets, ed. W.H. Auden (NY: Delacorte, 1966), p. 368.

[8] James D. Merritt, ed., The Pre-Raphaelite Poem (NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1966), p. 20.

[9] Qtd. in George P. Landow, Replete with Meaning: William Holman Hunt & Typological Symbolism, here.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Trilling & Bloom, pp. 625-6.

08 May 2010

Logismoi News, Good & Bad

I’ve recently had two pieces of good news. The first, and rather less important, is that a proposal I wrote for a paper was accepted for the 41st annual conference of the Mythopoeic Society, Mythcon 41, to be held at Southern Methodist University (at which I fondly recall seeing a lecture by William Abraham years ago) in Dallas this July. The paper is tentatively entitled ‘“Mirrored in his soul with all its awe”: Cosmological Conflict in Njegoš’s Ray of the Microcosm’.

The second piece of news is that I’ve been offered a job next year teaching elementary Latin at my daughter’s classical school. (For those who are curious, yes, I’ll probably be relearning some of the declensions myself as I teach them to the kids!) Although I’d originally hoped to be doing something with the secondary school, my wife and I are very happy, and we see this as a good way to get a foot in the door. Besides, it goes without saying that I’ll be taking my duties quite seriously either way. (Sorry for the accompanying photo, Kevin!)

In other news, it looks quite likely that I’ll be in the Big Apple for a day or two around the 12th to 14th of June, and in Durham, NC later that same week. While in those places, I’d love to try to meet any bloggers or readers nearby, so please let me know. I’ve already been in touch with Bishop Savas of Troas and Christopher Orr about hanging out in NY.

Finally, readers, for the bad news. I have lately been experiencing some symptoms of what I believe to be tremendous stress, symptoms which directly interfere with my blogging activity. After discussing the matter with my spiritual father, my wife, my dad, and several close friends, I’ve decided among other things to take a little break from blogging for several days. My plan at the moment is to resume on 12 May, when I hope to write a post about the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In the meantime, I intend to spend more time with my family and outdoors, and less time with books and staring at a computer screen. I do not intend to give up on my long-term reading projects (mentioned here), but only my habit of reading snippets or quickly consulting individual passages of books and, worse, online material.

For the time being, I shall leave you with this stanza from Matthew Arnold, the final one of his ‘Bacchanalia; or, the New Age’ (The Works of Matthew Arnold (Ware, UK: Wordsworth Editions, 1995), p. 421):

The world but feels the present’s spell,
The poet feels the past as well;
Whatever men have done, might do,
Whatever thought, might think it too.

07 May 2010

'The Glory of His Nature'—Robert Browning

Today, 7 May, is the birthday of the Victorian poet, Robert Browning (1812-1889). Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom write of him, ‘. . . [W]hen you read your way into his world, precisely his largest gift to you is his involuntary unfolding of one of the largest, most enigmatic, and most multi-personed literary and human selves you can hope to encounter.’ [1] And since, of course, the encounter with ‘literary and human selves’ lies at the centre of the Geisteswissenschaften, I find this a very enticing comment indeed. Here is the entry on Browning in Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia:

The son of a bank clerk, Browning was long unsuccessful as a poet and was financially dependent upon his family until he was well into adulthood. In his teens, he discovered Shelley and adopted Shelleyian liberalism in opinion and confessionalism in poetry. Accordingly, his first poems—Pauline (1833), Paracelsus (1835), Sordello—were long, personal, and self-consciously poetic, though the latter two supposedly had as their subject actual historic personages. All three works were considered failures, and, from 1837 to 1846, Browning attempted to write verse drama for the stage, again unsuccessfully. In 1845 he met Elizabeth Barrett, then considered one of the outstanding poetsof the day, and married her the following year. Partially because of her ill health and partially because of her father’s opposition to the marriage, Browning took his wife to Italy and remained there until her death in 1861. The story of their love has been dramatized by Rudolf Besier in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

Pippa Passes, a dramatic poem included in the collection Bells & Pomegranates (1841-46), was among Browning’s first significant works; Pippa, a little Italian girl, passes by singing and unwittingly influences the lives of four groups of people. During
the next twenty-five years, Browning published many volumes of poetry, all of which sold badly: Dramatic Lyrics (1842), which contained ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, ‘My Last Duchess’, ‘Soliloquy in a Spanish Closter’, and ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’; Dramatic Romances & Lyrics (1845), which included ‘How the Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’ and ‘The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s Church’; Christmas Eve & Easter Day (1850), a long poem; and Men & Women (1855), which contained many of his best-known poems: ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, Andrea del Sarto’, ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’, ‘Two in the Campagna’, and ‘A Grammarian’s Funeral’. In the collection Dramatis Personae (1864) were included ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’ and ‘Prospice’.

After forty years of poetic obscurity, Browning abruptly came into his own with the publication of the massive ‘The Ring & the Book’. The story, which Browning found in an old manuscript, deals with a 17th-century murder case. In the poem, each of twelve characters presents his view of the action in a long dramatic monologue.

Though his philosophy is now considered less profound than it was at the heigh of his success, Browning is notable for his psychological insight into character and motivations; his sometimes abrupt but forceful colloquial English; his perfection of the form of the dramatic monologue, in which a speaker tells something of himself and reveals more than he intends or realizes; his learning; and his predilection for Italian Renaissance subjects. [2]

Trilling and Bloom call Browning ‘by temperament and belief, . . . one of the most vehement Protestants in the language’. [3] Psychologising in the extreme, they write of his religion that his mother ‘was an evangelical Protestant, and her dissenting religious views, though in altered form, were always to remain vital in Browning’s consciousness.’ Finally, the esteemed editors go on to tell us: ‘Under the impact of Shelley’s spirit, Browning renounced his mother’s religion. . . . His attachment for his mother proved immediately more compelling than his need for his own integrity, and he yielded. Something fundamental in him was never to forget.’ [4] Terry Glaspey, however, in his delightful little Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading, says of Browning, ‘The intensity of Browning’s faith shows itself in many of his poems. He is the rare poet who can write of spiritual things in such a way that they communicate even to the unbeliever.’ [5]

Without a doubt, Browning’s best-known lines are in the first of thirty-two stanzas that make up ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’, a poem about old age in which the speaker is supposed to be the mediæval Jewish scholar and astrologer, Abraham ben Meïr ibn Ezra (c. 1092-1168):

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in his hand
Who saith, ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’ [6]

My comment about the stanzas of course hints at a problem that may well have helped to keep Browning’s work little-read these days: his poems are usually pretty long. But of course, they are also very obscure. Edward Berdoe, in the preface to the 2nd edition of his Browning Cyclopædia agrees, ‘With the exception of certain superfine reviewers, to whom nothing is obscure—except such things as they are asked to explain without previous notice—every one admits that Browning requires mor or less elucidation.’ [7] This is precisely why the title page of the same work tells us that it is equipped ‘with Copious Explanatory Notes & References on all Difficult Passages’!

Anthony Esolen spends the first chapter of Ironies of Faith analysing Browning’s ‘longest and most difficult work, The Ring & the Book’, which Esolen calls ‘a masterpiece of Christian poetry’. Browning is said to have written it ‘to show human beings failing to interpret correctly the actions and motives of one another’ because of the limits placed on their vision by ‘their moral compromises’. [8] The central idea is summarised in some lines (7.918-29) spoken by the heroine, Pompilia, whose ‘humility enables her to move outside herself, to imagine what it might be like to be someone else’: [9]

So we are made, such difference in minds,
Such difference too in eyes that see the minds!
That man, you misinterpret and misprise—
The glory of his nature, I had thought,
Shot itself out in white light, blazed the truth
Through every atom of his act with me:
Yet where I point you, through the crystal shrine,
Purity in quintessence, one dew-drop,
You all descry a spider in the midst.
One says, ‘The head of it is plain to see,’
And one, ‘They are the feet by which I judge,’
All say, ‘Those films were spun by nothing else.’ [10]

As Esolen comments, ‘We judge by what we see, and unless we love deeply, we see ourselves. So will a cheat watch the fingers of everyone else at the card table.’ [11]

I have also found myself drawn to Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. The title is taken from King Lear III.iv.187-89:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still,—Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man. [12]

But as Tom Shippey has observed, it is much older than Shakespeare—‘The line obviously comes from some lost ballad telling the story of how Child Roland [13] went to Elfland to rescue his sister from the wicked King, a monster-legend, a Theodoric-story.’ [14] At any rate, Browning has turned it into a poem that is dark in more ways than one. As the speaker says in the seventh stanza (ll. 37-42):

Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among ‘The Band’—to wit,
The kinghts who to the Dark Tower’s search addressed
Their steps—that just to fail as they, seemed best,
And all the doubt was now—should I be fit? [15]

Trilling and Bloom call it a ‘nightmare poem’ which, while having ‘no overt allegorical purpose’, is full of phantasmagoria ‘so powerful as to invite many allegorizings’. [16] Thus, Berdoe informs us:

For my own part, I see in the allegory—for I can consider it no other—a picture of the Age of Materialistic Science, a ‘science falsely so called’, which aims at the destruction of all our noblest ideals of religion and faith in the unseen. The pilgrim is a truth-seeker, misdirected by the lying spirit—the hoary cripple, unable to be or do anything good or noble himself; in him I see the cynical, destructive critic, who sits at our universities and colleges, our medical schools and our firesides, to point our youth to the desolate path of Atheistic Science, a science which strews the ghastly landscape with wreck and ruthless ruin, with the blanching bones of animals tortured to death by its ‘engines and wheels, with rusty teeth of steel’ . . . . Most of the commentators agree that when Childe Roland ‘dauntless set the slug horn to his lips and blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came”’, he did so as a warning to others that he had failed in his quest, and that the way of the Dark Tower was the way of destruction and death. [17]

Of course, it should not be supposed that Browning is all ‘destruction and death’. I was delighted and amused by a poem in nine stanzas that I chanced across once among his Complete Poetic & Dramatic Works, called ‘Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis’. Berdoe’s entry on the title summarises the poem thusly: ‘The name of some old scholar, who has wirtten a book, which is read by a profane fellow in a garden, who throws it into a decaying tree, there to be in company with congenial fungi.’ [18] It is enough to produce a shudder in any bibliophile, a feeling compounded for me by the fact that I was reading it in an 1895 Riverside Press edition. Finally, the profane fellow, taking pity ‘for learning’s sake’, fishes out the unfortunate volume:

Here you have it, dry in the sun,
With all of the binding all of a blister.
And great blue spots where the ink has run,
And reddish streaks that wink and glister
O’er the page so beautifully yellow:
Oh, well have the droppings played their tricks!
Did he guess how toadstools grow, this fellow?
Here’s one stuck in his chapter six!

How did he like it when the live creatures
Tickled and toused and browsed him all over,
And worm, slug, eft, with serious features,
Came in, each one, for his right of trover?
—When the water-beetle with great blind deaf face
Made of her eggs the stately deposit,
And the newt borrowed just so much of the preface
As tiled in the top of his black wife’s closet? [19]

[1] Lionel Trilling & Harold Bloom, Victorian Prose & Poetry (NY: Oxford U, 1974), p. 494.

[2] Katherine Baker Siepmann, ed., Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. (NY: HarperCollins, 1987), pp. 132-3.

[3] Trilling & Bloom, p. 393. Browning’s ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister is noted for its reflection of his ‘extreme Protestant prejudices’ (ibid., p. 500).

[4] Ibid., p. 492.

[5] Terry W. Glaspey, Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading: A Guided Tour of Classic & Contemporary Literature (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), p. 43.

[6] The Complete Poetic & Dramatic Works of Robert Browning (Cambridge Edition) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895), p. 383.

[7] Edward Berdoe, The Browning Cyclopædia: A Guide to the Study of the Works of Robert Browning, 2nd ed. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1924), p. v.

[8] Anthony Esolen, Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2007), p. 1.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Browning, pp. 516-7.

[11] Esolen, p. 5.

[12] A.L. Rowse, ed., The Annotated Shakespeare, Vol. III: The Tragedies & Romances (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1978), p. 382.

[13] ‘Child’ being ‘a term specially applied to the scions of knightly families before their admission to the degree of knighthood’ (Berdoe, p. 103), and Roland being the hero of the Song of Roland.

[14] T.A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (London: Grafton, 1992), p. 165.

[15] Browning, p. 287.

[16] Trilling & Bloom, p. 528.

[17] Berdoe, pp. 104-5.

[18] Ibid., p. 472.

[19] Browning, p. 167.

06 May 2010

'Most Honoured Cultivator of Piety'—St George the Trophybearer

Today, 23 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Great Martyr and Victorious Wonderworker, George the Trophybearer (†303). [1] Here is the account of his life in the Great Horologion:

George, this truly great and glorious Martyr of Christ, was born of a father from Cappadocia a nd a mother from Palestine. Being a military tribune, or chiliarch (that is, a commander of a thousand troops), he was illustrious in battle and highly honoured for his courage. When he learned that the Emperor Diocletain was preparing a persecution of the Christians, Saint George presented himself publicly before the Emperor and denounced him. When threats and promises could not move him from his steadfast confession, he was put to unheard-of tortures, which he endured with great bravery, overcoming them by his faith and love towards Christ. By the wondrous signs that tookplace in his contest, he guided many to the knowledge of the truth, including Queen Alexandra, wife of Diocletian, and was finally beheaded in 296 in Nicomedia.

His sacred remains were taken by his servant from Nicomedia to Palestine, to a town called Lydda, the homeland of his mother, and then were finally transferred to the church which was raised up in his name. (The translation of the Saint’s holy relics to the church in Lydda is commemorated on November 3; Saint Alexandra the Queen, on April 21.)

Through the centuries Saint George has shown himself to be a swift and present helper to all who call on him with faith, whether on land or sea, to the uttermost ends of the earth; yet so many miracles have been worked at his tomb in Lydda (the present-day Lod0, that when Palestine was in the hands of the Moslems, they took half of his church and turned it into a mosque, which may still be seen to this day, dedicated in his honour and testifying to the abundant power of his intercession. [2]

I posted extensively on St George last year, as can be seen if one clicks on the ‘St George’ label in the sidebar. At any rate, I will certainly not be able to devote so much attention to him this year, if only because I’ve already used most of my material. I have, however, come across two interesting books in the meantime, both of which examine the history of the cult of St George from a fairly secular, English perspective. Both also include extensive discussions of the story of St George’s slaying of the dragon (on which I have posted here and here). By far the shorter and simpler of the two, Giles Morgan’s St George: Knight, Martyr, Patron Saint & Dragonslayer is a helpful overview and an attractive little volume, but it lacks notes and illustrations. St George: Hero, Martyr & Myth by mediaeval and art historian Samantha Riches has better notes, copious illustrations, and is in general a fuller account. It is also a handsome, coffeetable-sized book. One of the many interesting things I’ve learned from these books is the foundation in 1871 by John Ruskin of the ‘Guild of St George’. Riches writes:

Perhaps the most interesting of the associations that have taken St George as their tutelary saint is the Guild of St George, founded by the aesthete, writer and political thinker John Ruskin in 1871 with the principal aim of furthering and assisting agricultural society in England. One of the first goals of the organisation was to purchase land for agriculture ‘which shall not be built upon but cultivated by Englishmen with their own hands’; another was to persuade member of the upper classes of English society that agriculture was an honourable occupation ‘consistent with high thoughts and noble pleasures’. The list of objectives of the Guild includes not only the acquisition and cultivation of land, and the building of farms and houses for agricultural labourers alongside the repair of buildings in impoverished rural areas, but also the offer of financial grants and the erection of educational establishments. Besides the teaching of agricultural skills, there was also an intention to create museums of art and natural history ‘for the cultivation of taste and intelligence among rural labourers and craftsmen’ . . . . The Ruskin Museum at Meersbrook Park in Sheffield formed a lasting monument to the ambition to edify, but at the outset this aspect of the Guild’s work was secondary: ‘there were to be the schools of St George, the Museums of St George, and always first and foundationally the land of St George’. The creed of beliefs of the companions, or members, of the Guild, included the following:

‘I will not kill or hurt any living creature needlessly, nor destroy any beautiful thing, but will strive to save and comfort all gentle life, and guard and perfect all natural beauty upon the earth.’ [3]

The sentiments expressed in this credo sum up a combination of interests—nature, art and chivalry—which were clearly important to Ruskin himself. It is likely that St George appealed to him as a figure of chivalry, although the choice of patron of the new organisation will almost certainly have been influenced by the saint’s links with agriculture, and perhaps also metalworking. Ruskin is known to have had a long-standing personal interest in the concept of chivalry. . . . He claimed that a specific painting of St George and the dragon (from a cycle of the dragon legend by Vittore Carpaccio, c. 1505-7, at the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice) represented a perfection of chivalry, reading into the image a moral lesson in the use of physical power for noble purposes. . . . In Fors Clavigera, the series of open letters which he wrote to the working classes of the British nation between 1871 and 1884, Ruskin made it clear that he considered St George to be the essence of a Christian gentleman. The letters dealt directly with the problems of capitalism: he planned that the Guild of St George should evolve into a utopian rural society where the land would be worked for the greater good, where English people could flourish far from the corrupting influence of city life. . . . [4]

Apart from my own posts, however, I would also refer the reader to the excellent posts produced by John Sanidopoulos around the time of the New Calendar feastday a couple of weeks ago. In one post (here), John has a number of videos featuring Greek folk songs about the Great Martyr, while in another (here) he reposts a collection of ancient references to the Saint, including the following inscription from the lintel of a St George church—formerly a pagan temple—dating to 515 at ‘Zorava in the late Roman province of Arabia’:

The abode of daimones has become the house of God. The light of salvation shines where darkness caused concealment. Where sacrifices to idols occurred, now there are choirs of angels. Where God was provoked, now He is propitiated. A certain Christ-loving man, the town-councillor John, son of Diomedes, offered a gift to God from his own property, a beautiful building, after installing within it the worthy body of the martyr George, who appeared to this John not in a dream, but manifestly. [5]

John also links (here) to Budge’s translation of ‘The Passion of St George’ by the blessed Abba Theodotus, 4th- & 5th-c. Bishop of Ancyra in Galatia (in full here). A note in the manuscript which introduces the Passion calls the Saint ‘the martyr of Diospolis of Palestine, the sun of the truth, the star of the morning, the mighty man of the Galileans from Melitene and the valiant soldier of Christ’. The Passion itself concludes with Abba Theodotus’s appraisal:

Behold now, O beloved brethren, we have told you these things of the great honours which God has vouchsafed to the valiant soldier of strength, the mighty athlete, Saint George, whose festival is celebrated this day throughout all earth and heaven, and of the remainder of his glory and of the mighty and exalted honour he holds in the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of Christ the King. And now O beloved, blessed of God, since we know of a truth that Saint George has drawn nigh to God in this manner and has obtained freedom to enter into the presence of the Holy Trinity at all times and to show favour to every one, let us make ourselves champions, through love, of our poor brethren and strangers; let us love one another, let us keep innocence, and it shall come to pass to all of us, O beloved, that Saint George will, through our Lord Jesus Christ, show favour to us, and have compassion upon us, and forgive us our sins, and bless the gathering together of our people, small and great, old men and young men, and widows and virgins.

I shall conclude with the Kontakion of the Saint, taken from the Great Horologion:

Kontakion. Fourth Tone
Thou Who wast raised up

Having been cultivated well by the Lord God, * as the most honoured cultivator of piety * thou has now gathered sheaves of virtues for thyself; * for, as thou didst sow with tears, * thou dost reap with rejoicing; * with thy blood didst thou contest * and thou now hast received Christ. * And by thine intercessions, O Saint George, * thou grantest all the forgiveness of trespasses. [6]

Addendum: I was just surprised to learn that there is a Guild of St George, inspired by Ruskin, that is still in existence. According to their website:

Today the Guild is a charitable Education Trust, which tries to put Ruskin's ideas into practice. Its purpose has never been to pursue specifically Ruskinian or antiquarian projects. It aims to work in the spirit of Ruskin's Company, but to pursue those values in contemporary ways. It works through a number of properties. It has an educational art collection, built up by Ruskin and supplemented since, in the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield. It owns some farmland and woodland in the Wyre Forest, near Bewdley, Worcestershire, which it manages in an environmentally friendly manner. It owns a number of houses in the Arts and Crafts style in the Hertfordshire village of Westmill; these are let at affordable rents and maintained as buildings of quality.
It also provides scholarships and awards across a variety of subjects close to Ruskin's heart. It recently funded the very successful national Campaign for Drawing, and it provided the finance for a nine-year cycle of Triennial Exhibitions in the Millennium Gallery, which have Ruskin at the heart of them but extend his concerns into the present century. It has also begun organising a series of open symposia on issues of current importance. These are designed to question the political truisms of our day, much as Ruskin questioned those of his. The Guild is also, at present, supporting work in the regeneration of old orchards and hay meadows in the Wyre Forest area, and it helped to build an architecturally striking study centre on its land, The Ruskin Studio.

[1] I take this date from David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 213.

[2] The Great Horologion, tr. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1997), pp. 465-6.

[3] One can read the full ‘creed’ in John D. Rosenberg, ed., The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 415-6.

[4] Samantha Riches, St George: Hero, Martyr & Myth (Thrupp, UK: Sutton, 2000), pp. 199-200. Giles Morgan mentions it briefly in St George: Knight, Martyr, Patron Saint & Dragonslayer (Edison, NJ: Chartwell, 2006), pp. 111-2.

[5] The source is given as F. Trombley, Hellenic Religion & Christianization c.370-529 II (Leiden, 1995), p. 363.

[6] Horologion, p. 466.