“Let me set the battlements on fire…”

Mark Twain wasn’t joking when he griped that Southerners’ obsession with the chivalric novels of Sir Walter Scott helped cause the Civil War. In Life on the Mississippi, he laments that Scott had “run the people mad, a couple generations ago, with his medieval romances,” inspiring “maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world had seen”:

The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it.

I kept Twain in mind last week when I visited Antietam National Battlefield, the site of the single bloodiest day in American history: September 17, 1862, when Union and Confederate armies clashed, taking 23,000 casualties between them. The rangers at Antietam give thorough and informative talks, and I visited some of the famous sites with all due solemnity—but then I stumbled onto medievalism in the cemetery just to the south.

According to architectural historian Catherine Zipf, the job of designing and beautifying Civil War cemeteries fell to Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during and after the war. Every cemetery was to have a superintendent’s lodge, and Meigs standardized the design: each lodge was located near the gate or the edge of the cemetery, shaped like an L with a porch and reception hall, and built in a scaled-down French Second Empire style. Here’s a good example from Glendale National Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia:


(Glendale National Cemetery, Richmond; photo from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website)

After 1865, the Second Empire style was popular for federal architecture, most notably in the then-new State, War, and Navy Building next to the White House. Zipf argues that the style screamed modernity and federal control, especially when the government dropped these lodges into Southern cemeteries, where they contrasted starkly with the Greek-revival porticoes of big plantation houses. The Confederate dead were usually excluded from these cemeteries, and the huge “U.S.” on the second stories of the lodges was not subtle. Meigs let no questions linger about which side had won, and what that meant for the conquered.

So then why does the lodge at Antietam look like this?

What an odd, dreamlike blending of castle and house. According to a memo on this lodge by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, the federal government ran 80 national cemeteries by 1880, but Antietam was one of only two originally established and run by a state. Maryland got the jump on things by convening its own cemetery commission, sending the Confederate dead to be buried elsewhere, and hiring versatile D.C.-based architect Paul Pelz to design and build this lodge in 1867. The Park Service helpfully points out its distinctive features: “stone walls, turret tower with battlements, pointed arch windows, and a gable porch with crossbracing vergeboards.” (The latter term was new to me.) The tower gave veterans and visiting mourners a view of the battlefield, but this little castle didn’t earn fealty from locals. According to the Park Service, ne’er-do-wells loitered in the cemetery, incurring the wrath of superintendents who demanded that they stop using the grounds (in the words of an 1881 War Department inspector) “as a lounging place for the floating part of the citizens, canal men, loafers, young fellows and their sweethearts.”

So why is the lodge at Antietam so unlike its counterparts in other federal cemeteries? American medievalism surged in the 1870s. Tourism to Europe had never been higher; at Harvard, Henry Adams became the country’s first professor of medieval history; other campuses would soon start hiring medievalists and building in neo-medieval styles; and New Yorkers were drawing up plans for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I suppose it’s possible that the Maryland cemetery commission chose a versatile architect simply because they wanted a trendy building.

Yet I think something bigger is going on here. Maybe this little castle reflects Maryland’s ambivalence as a slave state that stayed in the Union, neither northern nor southern in its economic mainstays or social sympathies. That’s one way to explain why a cemetery that excludes the Confederate dead would evoke the chivalry that drove wealthy Southerners to war. Maybe some Marylanders hoped to pry medievalism out of Southern hands by claiming the symbolism as a spoil of war, quashing its power by making it fully American. Maybe the house-and-tower design says that domestic tranquility is buttressed by military defense. All those things may be so—but the most likely explanation is that the lodge at Antietam is a reaction to horror, a fearful attempt to push the bloodiest day in American history—in 1867, still a fresh wound—back into a romanticized past, making it romantic, heroic, less awful to face.

If that’s the case, then the builders deceived themselves. The first federal superintendent, Civil War veteran George A. Haverfield, assumed his post here in 1879, but a War Department letter unearthed by the Park Service suggests that an unorthodox but presumably generous gesture brought down swift violence upon the house:

Haverfield, having no family with him, had his laborer and the laborer’s wife live in the lodge, and boarded with him. The husband got jealous of the Superintendent, and rather, reversing the usual order in such cases, the husband was shot dead by the accused wife. It was through this sad occurrence that I learned that Haverfield was not living with his family. Had he been, the tragedy would probably not have happened.

(letter from Captain A.F. Rockwell to Quartermaster General, 20 August 1879, cited in the Historic American Buildings Survey report on the lodge)

A graveyard castle, a love triangle, jealousy, murder—the story has all the makings of a lurid Gothic novel, and the longtime closure of the tower gives the lodge a further tinge of mystery. Twain, of course, would have shaken his head. If the architects of the Antietam lodge thought they could romanticize the battlefield, softening the carnage through the heroic haze of knightly combat, then they misunderstood the limits of medievalism. You can’t plaster over the horrors of war; the blood finds a way to seep out in the end.

“Or will these changing times, motorways, power lines…”

On a cold, sunny day last November, I tromped along the Potomac and decided, on a whim, to hike the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. Over several hikes, sometimes with loved ones but often alone, I covered all of its 40-odd miles, rambling north from the canal towpath by the river along the wooded ridge of South Mountain, and finally—yesterday!—trudging into Pen Mar, Pennsylvania, my own ersatz Compostella. Although I foresaw the hours of chilly silence, the protesting soles, the glimpses of deer tails fleeing like ghosts through the brush, I hadn’t expected to stumble onto a medievalist monument by a forgotten poet or a Gothic chapel emerging from medieval shadows—and I certainly didn’t imagine that the Appalachian Trail itself was built upon a mixed medieval metaphor.

“As Roman civilization received ultimately its cleansing invasion from the hinterland, so American civilization may yet receive its modern counterpart.” So wrote Benton MacKaye in “Outdoor Culture—the Philosophy of Through Trails,” his 1927 address to the New England Trail Conference in Boston (republished in the 1950 collection From Geography to Geotechnics). A Harvard-trained forester with excessive faith in central planning, the eccentric MacKaye dreamed up the Appalachian Trail but left it largely to others to build. He wasn’t always thrilled with the result—he wanted a wilderness retreat, where others were happy to settle for an unbroken path—but over time, he imagined that the A.T. held increasingly profound philosophical significance. What began as a place for public recreation became, in MacKaye’s mind, a long, winding pathway toward social reform.

First, though, MacKaye had to reveal his idea, like an oracle, through metaphors and riddles. Early in his 1927 speech, he deploys the first of two medievalist images:

I once saw Douglas Fairbanks in the photoplay Robin Hood. The hero climbs the proverbial tower; with one arm he catches the beautiful lady as she jumps to elude the bad man’s attentions; with the other he continues climbing, then deftly annihilating Mr. Bad Man, he receives embraces nobly won. It was a glorious show. Intensely I imbibed it from start to finish, transferring my personality totally and thoroughly into Douglas’s rugged body. For fifty cents I had been a hero for twice as many minutes. I left the theatre victorious, vicarious, and with my money’s worth. Into this vivid little Utopia I had made my “get-away” from the humdrum of ordinary prosy life.

Here, then, are the two brands: the Utopia of creative thought, and the Utopia of effortless escape; the pipe dream of a Magellan, and that of a movie-fan; the real and the vicarious; the active and the imbibing. Which in the long run is the most fun?

[. . .]

Which would you rather be—a makebelieve Robin Hood, or a real (though diminutive) Magellan? We can be the first for fifty cents; what are the chances for becoming the second?

Like many before and since, MacKaye recognizes that the Middle Ages offer easy escapism, but he responds to the common claim of his era that men had become “over-civilized” by offering an alternative: personal exploration on a trail through true wilderness.

A second medieval metaphor sends “The Philosophy of Through Trails” spinning off in an ambitious and rather startling direction. MacKaye spent his whole life trying to save wild places from the encroachment of cities, and I love his justification for the Appalachian Trail—one of the oddest uses of medievalism (or, perhaps, Late Antiquity-ism) I’ve ever seen:

And now I come straight to the point of the philosophy of through trails. It is to organize a Barbarian invasion. It is a counter movement to the Metropolitan invasion. Who are these modern Barbarians? Why, we are—the members of the New England Trail Conference. As the Civilizees are working outward from the urban centers we Barbarians must be working downward from the mountain tops. The backbone of our strategy (in the populous eastern United States) lies on the crestline of the Appalachian Range, the hinterland of the modern “Romes” along the Atlantic coast. This crestline should be captured—and no time lost about it.

The Appalachian Range should be placed in public hands and become the site for a Barbarian Utopia.

The metaphor continues: For MacKaye, cabins and trails are “but a line of forts” that require a fighting force of hikers: “we must mobilize our real (if diminutive) Magellans—our pioneers of a new exploration.” I suppose he sees no contradiction in federal bureaucracies claiming and preserving land in defiance of civilization, but such was MacKaye’s mind: a whirlwind of quirky notions all swirling around one transcendent goal: restoring a balance between the natural and the artificial in American life. “It is a quest for harmony,” he wrote,

for what is pleasing and not ‘vile’ in that outward world which is our common mind. This philosophy—or culture—is, to my mind, the raison d’etre of the through trail and its ramifications. It is “the why” of the Appalachian Trail, which—let us hope—may some day form the base for the strategy of a “Barbarian invasion,” and for the development of a Barbarian Utopia.

As a regional planner who worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority, MacKaye generated reports that must have read like prose poems to his more practical colleagues. He once argued that hikers, as a small subset of the population, were entitled to mountains of their own in the name of protecting minority rights. During World War II, in a telling example of an expert unable to see beyond his specialty, he advocated that the United States organize its national defense strategy around watersheds. But despite his knack for cryptic pronouncements, MacKaye was always clear about his radical vision.

“[W]e must widen the access to the sources of life,” he wrote in 1946 after co-founding the Wilderness Society, insisting that his democratic goal was “not to grab off earldoms for some but to open up kingdoms for all.” There’s that medieval dream again: Utopian, in that it’s found literally nowhere, but always attainable, as long as you see it’s not someplace to be, but is something you are.

“And everything under the sun is in tune…”

We hardly need any more books in our house. They’re shelved in the guest room, stacked in the bathroom, tucked under tables, and stowed in my trunk. I try to discourage people from sending me books, even if they look pretty good; my backlog is immense. But last spring, when a stranger from Pittsburgh contacted me to tell me about the epic he’d written, I almost filed away his email without replying, yet something about his good-natured mix of modesty and erudition told me to give him a more thorough look. I’m glad I did; Tim Miller has joined a select group of quirky poets who feel called to contend with a neglected form, the book-length narrative poem, and what he does with it is brilliant.

To the House of the Sun is no dainty chapbook; it’s 33 books long, a 600-page tome illustrated with woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer and annotated to the hilt. On the surface, it’s the story of Conrad, a young Irish man in Savannah during the Civil War who wanders north, in love with a ghost, losing himself in a quest for personal vengeance but finding peace and wisdom beyond his imagining. To say more about Conrad’s involvement in the war, the famous figures he encounters, and where his quest really takes him would spoil the strange, sprawling plot. But like other poems in the epic tradition, Tim Miller’s book is about more than its narrative. Its diction and tone help tell a richer and more universal story, one that begins with vivid purpose:

In the second year of our War:
in the fourth month:
on the twelfth day of the month,
as I stood on the sands of Savannah facing the sea,
a voice breathed into me—
    & my song ascended to be sung:
        my poem came down from its own mouth:
    & these new words were my life:

& before the end, I wound my way around the mountains: I found my way to the hidden road, where the sun rises: & I created for us all a dwelling out of danger, here & in heaven, & the underworld:

& here, I will write & inscribe & show:
here, I will make a place to see it,
    the Book & the Day:
here, I will make a place to watch,
    the light beside the sea:
here, I will make the ground to know,
    of a place in the shadows:
here, I will make a place to live in the dawn:
here, I will bring a voice back
    that will stand us all upright:
    make us all unbroken by grief:
    unstricken by cares—
    that will raise up low spirits:

& she was the beginning & the end of my song,
& my stand on the shore.

To the House of the Sun evokes millennia of faith, storytelling, and scholarship simply by committing to its orthography: from its first lines, it looks like the typed-up notes of a young scholar seized by inspiration as he transcribes and translates a cryptic inscription. Look closer, though, to see the designs of a careful poet: these lines mark where the singer’s words intersect time; alliteration evokes a sense of place (“the sands of Savannah facing the sea”); and psalmic repetition gives them incantatory power, affirming poetry’s roots in enchantment. This could be Gilgamesh, King David, or Hildegard of Bingen, and Miller honors that ageless mysticism here. To the House of the Sun sounds and feels like an ancient text, layered with fragments of sources and traditions, a pastiche that takes familiar poems and scriptures and stories and weaves them into something inspiring and fresh.

I don’t know how else to give a sense of To the House of the Sun but to share a few representative passages. Here’s a slave describing how he stole children’s copybooks and taught himself to read:

& when I didn’t have one I looked at the board fence:
I looked at the brick wall:
I looked at the sides of carriages:
I looked at the storefront windows,
all covered with words to unlock:

& my family are long gone from here, so I’ve never feared getting sold away from anybody. & words were all I had—and as long as I could smile as we passed from Corinth to Athens & know what those names meant, they couldn’t take a thing from me. & that’s real freedom: that’s more freedom than jumping up North where all they want is to send me back to Africa. I’d rather take a beating down here than their pity & a boat fare, up there:

    when a freed black man can walk a Southern street &
      whistle at a white woman & not be
        hanged or cut up or beaten
        or weighed down with stones & thrown in a river—
      & when a freed black man can walk a Northern
street without being accused of taking every white man’s job—
      & when the President himself doesn’t assume living among us is impossible—
That’s when it’ll get so much better. Until then we’ll always be an object to you people—& my own mind is enough in the meantime.

[ . . . ]

I recognize the starts in the sky, & that’s a privilege the wealthy can’t own. Do what you can not to be owned, is all.

Here’s a battlefield chaplain, telling his story:

I was walking through a hospital when a man came yelling after me: & he tells me what he’d been through: & I went off to the edge of the woods with him: & I sat on a cracker-box, & heard his confession—& he jumps up after & yells Oh Father, I feel so light!

& not to tell you what he confessed, but what others did too, that they’ve been godless for years—they’ve wandered & done what men do, even while married: & it’s this War that gave them their God back: this War, & the distance from their wives & families, that showed how much they depended on both—or not, showing sometimes how little love they know anymore.

And here’s one of many agonized stories from the wounded and dead:

    & there was the one with the violets:
    & his ribs & insides were just sitting out:
    & he looks at me all embarrassed,
    & he starts babbling about some girl:

& we were good friends, but I never knew about this girl: & it hurt him so much, this secret: & I hate to think of her back home, hearing he’s dead, & having no one to talk to about it, forever. & she’ll keep the pain, for sure—it won’t ever go away.

Clearly this isn’t the Civil War of TV movies or weekend reenactors or even poignant Ken Burns fiddle-whispers. What Conrad sees is overwhelming: Miller wants to humble you with the unfathomable number of lives affected by the war. There are so many stories here—sometimes rendered in just a few words or a handful of lines—about tortured black men, murdered prisoners, doomed soldiers seeking solace in prostitutes, mothers in mourning, baffled ghosts, even a priest who can summon water from the earth. For all I know, Miller’s approach may be unprecedented in Civil War fiction. There are no stock characters or cartoon souls; everyone gets a distinctive few lines, a defining moment, an acknowledgement of their fleeting humanity set against the infinite. In that sense, To the House of the Sun is a work of literary realism. It’s as if Miller means to challenge Walt Whitman’s insistence in the 101st chapter of Specimen Days:

Such was the war. It was not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its interior history will not only never be written—its practicality, minutiæ of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested. The actual soldier of 1862–’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written—perhaps must not and should not be.

Sharing Whitman’s desire to see the war clearly and in all its complex ugliness, Miller imagines futures beyond Whitman’s ken, with the privilege of hindsight:

How will any of us talk of this War when it’s over? Should the North win, will a man in Pennsylvania really feel so much pride, when going down to Virginia—or will a Virginian really feel satisfaction when walking Northern streets, should the South win?

That’s how it is now—
how it has to be now, for the newspapers & the public:
they’ve got to make generals divine & their soldiers into heroes:
    & the dates of the battles:
    & the ground:
    & how the weather was—these things matter now—
but will they in the future: will we only focus on the understandable bitterness of our mother’s brother & our father’s uncle & our family’s old hometown—or will we find something better to do with all the memories; & will we rise somewhere in the air, where we can forget ourselves, finally:
    & forget what our families did:
    & forget what was done to them,
    & instead see them all as God might, forgiven?
Or will the making of peace be like moving two mountains, for these people?

To the House of the Sun soberly acknowledges the vastness of history: the brother of Conrad’s friend “was not wounded so a black man might be freed: & the wounded soldier on either side doesn’t die or recover for the sake of a Union only, but for something in the far future we’ll never know.”

As To the House of the Sun progresses, the smoke and blood of the Civil War recede, giving way to a series of dizzying visions, a revelation that blurs Blake, Eliot, the Bhagavad-Gita, Celtic myth, and a whirlwind of mystical traditions into a statement about the place of each of us in the divine. But as trippy and transcendent as his poem can be, Miller doesn’t want it to be obscure. To the House of the Sun is a hefty book, 620 pages in all, but more than 250 of those pages are reference: meticulous notes, lists of sources, and a compelling 20-page defense of his borrowing and adapting from cultural and religious traditions that range from the Bible to Confucianism, from Christian saints’ lives to Arthurian legend. In my notes, I initially wrote “not necessary – why include all this?”, but I get it now. Miller isn’t trying to impress us with his erudition; he wants us to share his inspiration. “In the end, there was no reason not to allow the notes to become a kind of anthology of world literature,” he writes in a candid note, “and I figured that, anyhow, someone put off by a six hundred page poem would not be any more comfortable with a four hundred page poem. The opportunity to do this can happen only once, and it seemed best to do so with both feet on the gas.”

And even though Miller’s poem is full of heartbreak and loss, his Whitmanesque love for creation, his passion for the fine details of every life, are reason for universal hope:

This is the final goal, perhaps an impossible one, that of somehow suggesting a sense of awe for the entire world, for everything we do, for everything we experience, of injecting real meaning (as opposed to mere irony or ego) into everything we do. This is the real reason for all the borrowing—to refer not to a text or some words, but to situations in the human life that are basic, meaningful, and even holy, whether now or thirty-five thousand years ago.

I can’t write a proper review of To the House of the Sun. Dear reader, you already know if you’re inclined to relish a 33-book epic set during the Civil War, inspired by the world’s great religious and literary texts, and offering prophetic glimpses of the divine. I loved it, not only because it’s proudly noncommercial and defies everything that’s trendy right now in entertainment, poetry, and the culture at large, but also because it offers a hard, humane vision that tries to disturb and inspire you into wanting to be better than you are. Reading and writing are not, by themselves, moral acts, and we often ascribe more virtue to them than they deserve, but To the House of the Sun is proof that a lifetime of the right kind of reading really can lead to enlightenment—and sometimes, a genuine act of creation.

[Read more excerpts of To the House of the Sun on the publisher’s website, explore Tim Miller’s blog Word and Silence, and buy the book on Amazon: select new seller “S4N Books” to get an autographed copy from the publisher at half price.]

“…but nevertheless you know you’re locked toward the future.”

Nobody associates the Appalachian Trail with the Middle Ages. I wrote that in haste after discovering a faux-medieval monument in a Maryland park. Now I know better—because if you hike north from Gathland for seven miles, the forest opens onto an old highway and the parking lot of an eighteenth-century inn, and across the road you see this:

That’s St. Joseph’s Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, built in the 1880s to serve as a local Catholic mission church and family mausoleum. The Appalachian Trail now runs next to it through the weeds, but this patch of mountain used to be part of the vast summer retreat of Mrs. Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren.

The daughter of a Congressional Whig, Dahlgren was a Washington socialite and much-consulted etiquette expert. She was widowed twice after marrying prominent men: first an Assistant Secretary of the Interior and then later Admiral John Dahlgren, an innovator in naval ordnance. In 1876, the Widow Dahlgren bought an old inn here on South Mountain, fifty miles outside D.C., and made it her summer home. Although the house looked nothing like a castle, she romantically wrote that it seemed to her “like an old manor-seat surrounded by tenantry.” She commissioned this chapel just as the Gothic Revival style was becoming fashionable for churches, prep schools, and universities.

Dahlgren Chapel (as it’s now known) is a solid and serious piece of work, with no gargoyles or grotesques to override dignity with whimsy and few overt nods to modernity. I’m intrigued by the bell tower, which looks like God reached down and gave it a 90-degree turn: Does it imitate any particular medieval church? Is it unusual to find a cross on both the bell tower and the main roof?

I can’t find the name of the architect—hopefully the group working to preserve the chapel will know—but I did learn something interesting from looking into Dahlgren: she was a highly refined writer with more than a passing interest in the Middle Ages.

You wouldn’t detect a yen for the medieval from your first glance at her ouvre: an etiquette guide, novels about Washington society, a bio of her husband and a collection of reminiscences about living in South America during his naval service, a volume of ghost stories—Dahlgren was as prolific as she is forgotten. She deserves better, at least from Maryland readers, because her 1882 book South-Mountain Magic would be smart and engaging even if it weren’t steeped in medieval metaphors and imagery.

Of mostly local interest, South-Mountain Magic collects Dahlgren’s research into the folkways of her rural neighbors, most of them poor German foresters and mountaineers who weren’t shy about sharing their old-country superstitions. There are stories here about Civil War ghosts on the nearby battlefield, a Native American spirit with its head on fire, jack-o’-lanterns and will-o’-the-wisps, Satanic masses, and even a local wizard whose German spell-book is packed with hexes and cures—which, Dahlgren notes, are always perversions of Christian prayers and rites.

“The prevalence of such a confused mass of superstition as we chronicle, and that too within fifty miles of the very capitol of this vast nation . . . does not prove much as regards a theory of progressive civilization, and the wonderful and special enlightenment of the nineteenth century,” Dahlgren writes with dainty wit. However, her book isn’t a denunciation of occultism and superstition; rather, it’s a careful Catholic argument for studying the supernatural.

Although wary of imitating centuries of “innumerable philosophers and sages, ever seeking for that cabalistic lore, which may overstep the boundary line between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen,” Dahlgren waxes theological: What of the “ecstacies, visions, and mystic revelations” of saints who have been allowed glimpses of Heaven? Might not lesser souls with “lower perceptive powers also seize some flashes of light, sent forth from that Divine emanation that permeates creation?” Don’t poets, artists, and musicians have a gift for apprehending the divine? Dahlgren then proposes a scientific justification: By studying magic, we can better understand the relationship between the material and the immaterial, between actions and causes, just as the study of magnetism and electricity has been productive and informative. For all we know, Dahlgren argues, scientific explanations for ghosts and spells may yet be forthcoming.

Today’s Catholic philosophers will still find Dahlgren an articulate, thoughtful ally, but I’m most interested in her respect for the Middle Ages, which suffuses her view of the world. Even as she catalogs local superstitions, she makes a trenchant point about the present: we’re not as “modern” as we think, and an honest comparison with the past should leave us humble but enlightened, like a desert saint:

There is no study, probably, more useful to give the mind something like a just balance, than the comparison of the various forms of civilization, ancient and modern. And yet when such comparisons are made, as they often are, from a sophistical standpoint, they do more harm than good. The class of minds that stultify this present era, without looking carefully through the long vista of the past ages, very much resemble those people who, staying closely at home, make their own contracted notions the standard of excellence.

The present age passes by St. Simon of Stylites poised on his pillar, and jibes at him as an undoubted madman, quite unconscious all the while that he has gained a wider range of vision from his serene height of contemplation, than the dust-stained pilgrims who revile him as they plod onward in the highway below.

To Dahlgren, modern superstitions are the misguided impulses of a soul seeking true religion but settling on “the lovely legends clinging on to the ardent faith of the so-called ‘dark ages,’ although not received as of faith”:

These accepted legends and traditions, orally handed down from generation to generation, frame in the life of the lowly peasant who believes in them, with the absolute beauty of the brilliantly illuminated border of the quaint manuscripts of that age. These borders enclosed, perhaps, a black lettering, but they expressed the true.

As we write, a vision of another and a better world comes before us. We behold the majestic, solemn repose of the monastery, and standing in a niche, as it were, set apart, a venerable figure, with bared head bowed down over the sacred desk in profound contemplation. For here is the Holy Bible, fondly clasped, with its protecting chain . . .

Such faith was of the past. Now what is of the present?

Medievalism was an important part of nineteenth-century Catholicism, and Dahlgren draws on it to offer one of her era’s most charming Catholic arguments against the pride of modern secularism. Her imagery is particularly appropriate now, given how many hikers tromp past her chapel each spring:

It is a long pilgrimage, to be sure, from the mediaeval ages to the present day, and our sandals are turned into shoes, and our shoes have lost their soles in the toilsome journey. So we are at last here, in the broad light of progress, and we enter a fashionable shop to get others more suited to the advanced ideas around us. We are duly pinched and excruciated, somewhat as we once saw the martyrs tortured, only now there is no motive in our suffering to ennoble it; and finally we are told we have “a fit.” How we sigh for the graceful old sandals, that we wore loosely strapped, without having “a fit,” and not high-stepping, tight-compressing, all-torturing, with thin understanding, iron heels and steel springs, as these. But we are assured that our purchase is of the most improved patent and latest style, and our package is handed us.

As we stretch forth our hands to receive it, what blur or film fills our eyes, once so bright with visions of the glorious past? Can we longer see, or do we dream?—for the shoes handed us are wrapped in the rudely torn leaves of a Bible! “May God forgive the impiety!” we explain. “The Bible,” answers the flippant salesman, “is of no special value; it is spread broadcast in this nineteenth century, not chained to the desk as in the Dark Ages. It is cheaper to us than other waste paper, for it is given away by thousands.”

Today, Dahlgren’s home is an inn again, and the land she called her “sky-farm” has been put to other uses, but her chapel stands as a monument to her medievalism—an open respect for the supernatural as a weirder aspect of God’s creation. “The moods that beset us here,” she concluded, “are not to be measured by conventional standards.”

Medievalism as an alternative to or refuge from modernity has a history as long as modernity itself. In Dahlgren’s lifetime, it would find fresh expression not only among Catholic aesthetes but also through the Arts and Crafts movement, in early chivalry-themed scouting clubs and youth groups, among collectors of folklore, and on the pages of popular novels. What brings hikers here isn’t so different. “Truly, this world is replete in mysteries,” Dahlgren wrote. “The golden thread which connects the ages cannot be destroyed.”

“Spin me down the long ages, let them sing the song…”

Nobody associates the Appalachian Trail with the Middle Ages—but when hikers in Maryland descend from the woods through a gap in the mountains, a chivalrous vision awaits them: a castle-like pile of looming stone that seems like the dream of some long-buried age—which, in a weird way, it is.

That’s the War Correspondents’ Memorial Arch, built in 1896 by George Alfred Townsend on the grounds of what used to be his mountain estate, now a quiet and haunting state park.

Townsend was once a familiar name in newspaper-reading homes. Although he spent most of the Civil War in New York, Philadelphia, and Europe, he rose from modest beginnings to find renown as a journalist and commentator, first by landing a scoop of an interview with General Philip Sheridan and later by covering Lincoln’s assassination. He published widely under the pen name “Gath,” got rich, and built Gapland, his home here on a Civil War battlefield, where he spent decades cranking out novels and poems in a futile bid for literary immortality.

And then in 1896, with sponsors like Thomas Edison, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Joseph Pulitzer, who perhaps didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, he built his remarkable arch.

Looming 50 feet tall, with plaques and inscriptions along its sides, the memorial is a busy confection of sculptures, symbols, and nebulous notions. One local Civil War interpreter argues that many of the writers and artists memorialized on it are undeserving or impossible to identify, a charge the park’s historian denies but doesn’t fully refute, even as she calls the monument “inexplicable to most.” The asymmetry, the allegorical faces of “Speed” and “Heed,” the horse heads, historical quotes ranging from Thucydides to to Froissart to Sir Henry Stanley, a sampling of Townsend’s own verse—there’s much to mull over, but for me the big question is: Why did Townsend build a medieval monument in the first place? Sure, medievalism was thick in the nineteenth-century air, but what the heck inspired him to romanticize journalists with such a showy ode to the Middle Ages?

Fortunately, Townsend left behind a 48-line poem about the memorial—collected in his overstuffed tome Poems of Men and Eventslest posterity be baffled. Here’s a taste of “War Correspondents’ Memorial (at Gapland, Md., 1896)”:

Born so rigid, stony and frigid,
    Moor and Roman it must be,
Long erected, a gate dissected
    From some castle’s feudality;
Or set in the passes, where saying masses,
    Pilgrims, crusaders, kneeling them,
Gazed and trembled, with undissembled
    Joy, in the sight of Jerusalem.
Vale of Catoctin, like jewels locked in
    An azure casket, flash thy lights!
Like the Escorial, our Memorial
    Guards them all from the mountain heights.

Yawning fortalice, thine the portal is
    Freedom opened with her pen….

You get the picture. That’s the medieval section of the poem, where Townsend asks us to believe that the monument is easily mistaken for a Romanesque ruin in medieval Jerusalem or a fragment of the Spanish royal palace—although his private letters apparently reveal that he based the overall shape of the memorial on an arch at at a train station and the facade of the fire house in nearby Hagerstown.

Even so, Townsend’s attraction to medieval forms isn’t arbitrary or aimless. If you spend a few frigid winter days, as I did, paging through Poems of Men and Events and his short-story collection Tales of the Chesapeake, you encounter more than a journalist with lofty aspirations, a hack struggling to be Longfellow, Twain, and Washington Irving all at once. What you find, among so much else, are the dreams of a part-time medievalist, a man eager to matter in the romantic, enchanted sweep of the world.

To read too much Townsend in one sitting is to contend with some dreadful poetry and prose: odes to politicians, the treacly story of a lame Congressional page, the tale of a Jewish loner on the island of Chincoteague that’s so vaguely written I can’t tell if it’s intentionally antisemitic. And then there are the rhymes: “Sugarloaf” and “antistrophe”; “standards plant ’em” and “azure bantam” (in a poem about the Delaware Blue Hens!); and thirteen impressively strenuous attempts to rhyme the name Magruder, among them “brooder,” “alluder,” “interluder,” “concluder,” and “obtruder.” And if, perchance, you need a 40-line poem that uses the Senate rules of cloture as a metaphor for a flirtatious rendezvous, then Townsend is the bard of your wonkiest dreams.

But Townsend clearly longs for magic, too. I enjoy seeing places I’ve lived and known well—D.C., Maryland, and Delaware—judged worthy of legend and verse: A boy in Newark, Delaware, accidentally swallows a timepiece as Mason and Dixon survey the area, and he grows up to be an expert watch-fixer. Some hicks in the mountains have an eerie encounter with John Brown. And in one of Townsend’s silliest and most genuinely charming stories, an old man with a blow-hole shambles into a publishing office and claims to have wandered the seas as the King of the Fish. The world of Townsend’s imagination is supernatural and spiritually alive: The poem “Harpers Ferry Sunset” turns the historic town into a setting for Christian martyrdom and timeless enchantment:

Nothing here has since abided
    But the spell of Nature’s spasm,
He the scenery divided
    And his spectre fills the chasm.
Armorers and all their din,
    Feudal times, he gathered in;
Him suspended, where he went,
    He suspended government!
As a whirlpool leaves a tragic
    Rift aghast where it sucked down,
In the camera of magic
    Swims thy maelstrom face, John Brown!

Townsend wants to find myth and magic in nineteenth-century headlines, and sometimes he succeeds. Even with its giggle-inducing reference to “spent balls of scandal,” his prophetic sonnet about President James Garfield is competent enough, and his ode to Rutherford B. Hayes has a metaphysical allure that demanded I re-read it to see if it was better than it seemed. Posterity is ever on Townsend’s mind: a nice 1871 poem imagines the half-built Washington Monument forever incomplete, disdained by a future race as evidence that we were “some brood ingrate with thrift, / And souls unfinished.” The poem made me wish Townsend had paused to hone his best ideas rather than scribble as if being paid by the whim.

Medieval spirits bumble through Townsend’s poetry: Civil War armies are Charlemagne’s troops, the Smithsonian building is a medieval abbey, Jefferson is a second Averroes. Townsend obviously shared his contemporaries’ wistful, romanticized sense of the Middle Ages, so I’m tempted to say that his faux, fragmentary castle stands for martial bravery and chivalrous virtue. But then Townsend does something not so nineteenth-century. In his 1896 speech dedicating the memorial, he explains its purpose: “Its lesson to the neighbors around it is the profitableness of knowledge and of letters and imagination to any people, however they may undervalue these things.” Townsend takes a symbol of war and makes it instead about the peaceful business of writing, reporting, and art.

Or does he? The monument’s main inscription shows a hodgepodge of intentions: “To the Army Correspondents and Artists 1861–1865 Whose Toils Cheered the Camps, Thrilled the Fireside, Educated Provinces of Rustics into a Bright Nation of Readers, and Gave Incentive to Narrate Distant Wars and Explore Dark Lands.” According to one of Townsend’s friends, the Pan-like statue is actually Mercury (or is it Pheidippides?), the faces of the gods represent Electricity and Poetry, and the arches symbolize Description, Depiction, and Photography—but contemporary press reports cited in a 2014 about Townsend don’t offer consistent interpretations of the memorial. Like much of Townsend’s writing, this arch is packed with literary and historical references coherent to no one but “Gath.” Even that pen name, an adaptation of his initials, is an Old Testament reference that speaks to nothing beyond the knowledge of the Bible he inherited from his preacher father. I don’t know what the Middle Ages meant to Townsend; I do know he got lost in history trying to find his place in it.

“Imagine how happy he’d be to know that someone was reading his work,” my girlfriend suggested when she saw me flipping through Townsend’s books. That’s all most writers want: for their stories and poems to exist in the minds of readers who help them outlast their creator. Today, Townsend is remembered only for this architectural folly he built late in life, when he was penniless, reclusive, and desperate for a legacy. “Three score years of pushing quill as the exponent of my hand have become second nature,” he wrote in an unfinished 1913 memoir, “and I hardly understand why I am not still wanted.” Surrounded by stonework ruins, an empty mausoleum, and the indifferent mountains and woods, his arch is now as evocative as a medieval elegy: Fortune is fickle, life is uncertain, and death is assured. That isn’t the romance that Townsend envisioned, but it stands as the story he actually wrote. Hikers at Gathland ponder it briefly, then look to the trees and move on.

“Freezing breath on a window pane, lying and waiting…”

As “Quid Plura?” stumbles toward (mirabile dictu) its tenth year, I’m amused by the unforeseen ways the blog continues to evolve—and heartened that people still stop by and comment, even during a slower or stranger year. Whether you’ve been visiting throughout 2016 or just happened to find yourself here on a whim, I hope you’ll find something worthwhile in this rundown of the year that was.

In 2015, I started a yearlong poem about moving to the Maryland woods. Through August 2016, I posted the first drafts of the monthly installments here. Start with the prologue and then continue through September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June, July, and August.

How can you have a more medieval Halloween? Carve your jack-o’-lanterns out of turnips.

This was the year, alas, of creepy clown sightings. Find out what they have in common with Carolingian folk scares.

Congrats to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia! This blog celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Blackfriars by taking in a performance of Henry VI, Part 2.

Many scholars claim to want a wide-ranging readership. I found a medieval literature professor who actually means it.

Articles about writers’ letters and journals are rarely as interesting as the sources themselves—but Amit Majmudar, poet laureate of Ohio, brought Lord Byron to life with one heck of a book review.

Dismayed by the din of a blustery year, I found time to review some books too:

I also celebrated the four-year anniversary, and not-half-bad sales, of a certain gargoyle-poem book of my own.

Thanks, as always, for your eyeballs, emails, comments, and links! In 2017, I’ll continue to write about medievalism, poetry, and the arts—and while I doubt I’ll post with anything other than perplexing randomness, I can safely promise that whatever turns up here you’ll never find anywhere else.

“And I’ll float on your melody, sing your chorus soft and low…”

When you put a small book out into the world, especially a book of poems, hope takes unexpected forms, including the graceless prose of a purchase order. Four years after its debut, Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles continues to find readers: Two weeks ago, the National Cathedral gift shop ordered its eighth batch of copies, which I packed up and happily delivered by hand.

Whether bestsellers or self-publishers, most writers observe a taboo against discussing book sales, but I’m happy to share my own experience: So far, I’ve sold nearly 250 copies of Looking Up. That strikes me as pretty darned good for a self-published book of medieval-influenced neoformalist verse with a P.R. budget of zero and only one real-world sales venue. The majority of copies have sold through the cathedral gift shop—and the thought of their visitors flipping through a physical book and then feeling inspired to buy it thrills my old-fashioned soul.

A look at a spreadsheet last week gave me a second piece of good news: This project is now profitable! I’ve told the cathedral I’ll donate 75 percent of the net proceeds to their earthquake-repair fund, and after more profits accrue, I’ll do just that. It may not be the biggest gift the cathedral ever gets, but I’m sure they’ll be glad to receive it.

If you’d like a copy of Looking Up, here’s what to do:

Buy it from me. Email me (jeffsypeck -at- gmail -dot- com) and I’ll get a copy to you. The book is $14, with shipping based on where you live. You can do Paypal, a check, whatever works.

Order it through Amazon (and its international variants: .de, .es, .fr, .it, .uk), Powell’s, or the online retailer of your choice.  I’m not always happy with how the cover prints when you order from these sites, but it’s a quick, convenient way to get copies.

Buy it at the National Cathedral. If you’re in D.C., please pick up the book at either of the cathedral’s two gift shops. You’ll be helping to keep it in stock. (If for some reason you’re okay with paying $12 shipping, you can order it through their online store.)

Of the 53 poems in Looking Up, all but two of them began on this blog; you can browse the first drafts of those 51 poems here. I appreciate everyone who cheered on these poems during the three years they bubbled and churned into being, and I’m grateful to everyone who’s picked up a copy of the book since 2012. I’d love to double the current sales over time—and wouldn’t it be something if poetry, and poetry readers, could help replace a fallen stone or straighten a crooked spire?

 

“You can keep my things, they’ve come to take me home…”

[This is the thirteenth and final part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appeared here as I wrote it, in monthly installments. In the near future, I’ll make it available as a paperback book; for now, this blog will again focus on medievalism, poetry, and books by other people. To read the entire first draft of this poem online, start with the prologue and then continue through September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June, and July.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

AUGUST

She says: Come look. There are lights in the pasture
And more in the trees. The moons are returning.
The first three run like rolling beads
In the innermost ripples and ridges of night.
The fourth winks only at fortunate changes:
A shiver in sunlight, a secret gift,
A whispered assurance in welcoming mist.
The fifth is still clouded, but clear in its vision
And destined to glimmer the day we depart.
In the lowest grove, in the gilded trough
Where the twelfth month rests, red and breathless,
The Pig with Sticks stands proud in the muck
Of the southern horizon. With restless pleasure,
He dwells on his riches. The dregs fly past
As he noses his hoard into new combinations
Of clusters and piles, then picks them up
With a careful chomp and carries the best
To a shaded nook, where shapes rise plain
Into provident lines. He loves his sticks.

…and two weeks later, my love and I
Are down by the river at dusk, on a path
That branches through weeds toward the bank, where fiends
Or fishing pilgrims left fires to smolder
And sailed on their way. The whitest ashes
Assert their curses in sunset embers
That fly with the nudge of a knobby branch.
Our job is clear: we are called to the mud
On the rim of the world for the work of conclusions,
To smother a flame. We flood the coals,
And I hate the way the hissing earth
Defies the silence. If some white wisp
Could ride the steam as it writhes through the treetops
And over the woods through the wakeful dusk
It would glimpse, in the east, aching titans
On the wide horizon of the world grown old,
Whirling in stupor on wheels of flame.
We frustrate their brethren from forming out here;
The scale of the landscape discourages pride.
We creep under trees to the towpath that rolls
Into infinite folly in either direction
And cut straight across, till we come to our door,
Where we light a small home-fire and listen for owls.

But after the coals are encrusted with ash,
And after the ashes are irked by a chill
From the flapping of bats, I fall over something
While thinking of nothing: a thick, dry stick
And a slim, light twig that slip from the kindling
And land in tandem, like a lumbering groom
And his gangly young bride, then blur into strands.
The sluggish canal and the sleek gray river
Roll without touching, twins in their courses,
But one must end; the other reaches,
In the sum of time, someplace immense
And immeasurably good. We should go, when we can.

In the overgrown weeds at the edge of the road,
Across from the fences where cows, in their wisdom,
Meander through pastures and pray to the grass,
I look for a monk, to amaze him with proof
Of a sensible world. I wait until twilight.
When nobody comes, I cast my glance
On the long trace westward: my love is approaching.
She’s pulled by the sunrise; our paths always meet.
The clearing behind her, our home for the year,
Is the long-ago dream of a difficult spirit
Who whirled through the forest, defiant and brash,
As  the earth did his bidding, to open and sunder
Its five blinding moons from the fathomless rock.
The whispering stones say he waits to bequeath them;
The stars say a daughter is destined to save them,
To cast out enchantments and claim her fate
As it lopes like a bear from a borderland cave.
We tend it for now. We talk to the hummingbirds,
Watch for invaders, and water the bones.

We wait without fear, but our fingers entwine
As familiar cravings crawl from their vaults
And a hideous miracle heralds an ending.
The sky starts wheeling, a skittering halo
Of fickle visions that flicker like candles
In utter, awful, empty space,
Then twelve slim notions tumble and shatter
And twirl into pinpoints, and time sets loose
What the pieces contained, as a pillar of vermin
And vultures smeared with smoldering entrails
And shrieking moths in shrouds of fire
Slams to the earth. With an ailing sob
Like the boundless wail of a broken tyrant
Whose empire drowned in an acorn cup,
A lashing of pin-light levels the cornfields
And scatters the crows, and the sky is an outrage
Of muscle and blood. They’ve been here before,
These thoughts with no faces, formless and starving,
That bellow the country will bring us no peace.

And together we watch while the winds go still
And the whirlwind parts, and the white sky summons
A fond constellation to fall through the stars
Reborn, and laden with lighter burdens,
Who rouses the Dawn, and the days grow shorter
But deeper, and sweet, and the dying glint
Of the year in its grave leaves us younger at heart.
Less clear if the wait made us worthy or not,
We shake off the fallout and shuffle as one
Through the matted cadavers the maelstrom cast down,
A holy flood of hook-backed crickets
And mold-white toads and mummified bats.
They crunch underfoot, as fragile new idols
And secret familiars emerge from the brush
With whatever fine meaning the morning desires:
A lamb draped in lavender, love-flustered barn owls,
A bear borne by horses and beasts on the wing―
Like a beaming ghost as it glides among hallways,
Creation turns with us, and welcomes us both
With hope past words to our house in the grove.

I pushed my sticks into pitiful bundles.
I’ve laid them out. I’ve lined up some
And skewed a few others, then scattered the rest
At the end of the drive, by the edge of the road,
And still something formed there, defying all promise
Of chaos with order. Now only the calendar
Ends, while the world, wound in infinite riddles,
Whirls golden and new. I give you this year
To turn and unravel, to unreel as you wish,
To find and fix a fraying end
To its knotted beginning, and I gratefully pray
That the heavens grant you a grove of your own
To puzzle through poems in places of quiet
And murmur new verses in moments of peace.

“The shipwrecks and the ghosts, from up and down the coast…”

Wyeth has made Halloween a personal Walpurgisnacht, an annual reconnection with the unearthly, with witchcraft and hidden meanings. On that day he is electric with fun. He picks the deformed pumpkins and carves them into jack-o’-lanterns, a long lineage of fantastic death masks summoned up from childhood by the remembered scent of candle-heated pumpkin flesh.

On Halloween night Wyeth sometimes throws open his studio to the Wyeth clan and cohorts. They raid the NC [Wyeth] costume collection and disappear behind Andrew’s store of stage makeup, becoming a pack of ghouls touring the homes of close friends. Sometimes Wyeth in makeup and costume just walks alone in the night through a cornfield. “Marvelous,” exclaims Wyeth. “Getting rid of myself—fifty years after I’m dead, I’ll come walking back in disguise. I’d like nothing better.”

Always he is transported by a sensation of invisibility, of seeing the world through other eyes—revisiting his boyhood orgies of delicious horror. “It’s the eerie feeling of goblins,” he explains, “of witches out riding their broomsticks, dark holes behind windows, the glint of metal, the smell of damp rotting leaves and moisture, the smell of makeup, the feeling of your face under a mask, walking down a road in the moonlight as a child.”

—Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life (1996)

“No one could find me on their own, I’m off the beaten track…”

American Halloween may be the most medieval of holidays, even if the omnipresence of New World pumpkins obscures its already murky traditions. Most people carve jack-o’-lanterns, for example, without wondering why the heck they’re doing it. The curious can look to Irish folklore, to a tangle of tales about a scoundrel named Jack whose evil deeds keep him out of Heaven but whose tricks sufficiently infuriate the Devil to bar him forever from Hell. With nowhere to go after death, Jack roams the earth, his path lit only by the glow of an ember in a hollowed-out turnip.

Between the eighth-century inception of All Saints’ Day in Rome and the pre-Christian celebrations of Samhain, I see no harm in presuming that the jack-o’-lantern tradition is medieval too. And so last October I turned to my more sensible half and asked her: “Why doesn’t anyone carve turnips anymore?”

As it turns out, Old World jack-o’-lanterns are weirdly easy to make. Cut off the top, scoop out the brains with a melon baller, and use one of those cheap little mini-saws—they’re sold every autumn as pumpkin-carving tools, although they’re nigh-useless on the real thing—to turn a humble, bulbous root into an eerie little sentinel.

We found these—the largest turnips I’ve ever seen—at a roadside produce market out here in the Maryland boonies. The taproots add unexpected spookiness, and the skin is thick enough that you can hang them with a head full of tea-light without worrying that they’ll break and fall.

Should you suffer pumpkin withdrawal, you can easily give your lantern the traditional jagged leer.

So why did lantern-carving immigrants from the British Isles turn in their turnips for all things cucurbita? Some people have suggested that North American turnips tend to be smaller than their New World cousins, and thus harder to carve, but I don’t think that’s it; rather, pumpkins have one clear advantage over hollowed-out turnips. Carved pumpkins can survive with their dignity intact for days or weeks if the weather’s right and squirrels don’t get into them—but our Old World jack-o’-lanterns lasted only two or three days before their little faces wizened into unrecognizability. A damned soul wandering the night for all eternity needs better visibility than that. On the other hand, turnips are faster and safer to carve and much less messy, so we’re happy to light them along our porch as tokens of fleeting glory, retelling a legend the centuries never quite quenched.