“…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.

“I watched you try, try to make that girl cry…”

Yesterday, with a speed that can only be chalked up to witchcraft, an ambulance parked at our local high school turned into Facebook rumors about hearsay about sightings of—well, I’m hardly the first to sound the alarm about the latest existential menace to law and order and basic human decency:

The frenzy was born in South Carolina in late August after unsubstantiated reports surfaced that clowns were spotted trying to lure children into the woods. The craze has since ignited a national phenomenon, with scary clown sightings reported in more than two dozen states from Alabama to Wisconsin. While many were hoaxes, a handful of the incidents resulted in arrests: in Alabama, at least seven people face felony charges of making a terrorist threat connected to “clown-related activity,” Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton told the Times-Picayune.

The incidents continue to stack up. Just this week, hundreds of students in Pennsylvania State University swarmed surrounding campus streets to carry out a mass clown hunt. A Connecticut school district said it is banning clown costumes and any “symbols of terror.” And an armed clown hoax temporarily put a Massachusetts college on lockdown.

The issue even made it all the way to the White House, where press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the phenomenon on Tuesday.

One of the reasons I like being a medievalist is that it helps me distinguish the quirks of specific eras from timeless human folly. The former almost always sharpen into the latter when glimpsed through the lenses of distance and time.

In De Grandine et Tonitruis (“On Hail and Thunder”), Agobard, the ninth-century archbishop of Lyons, describes his encounter with a mob of rustics who had captured some “weather magicians” and were ready to stone them to death. He relates, grudgingly, a popular belief that men from a land called Magonia were stealing crops that had been knocked down by hail, which the weather magicians could summon and control, and flying away with the grain in their cloud ships. He also documents his investigations into a rumor that Duke Grimoald of Benevento, Charlemagne’s enemy, was sending men to sprinkle cartloads full of poisonous dust to kill the local cattle.

Agobard refrains from outright ranting, but his frustration is clear:

This story was so widely believed that there were very few to whom it seemed absurd. They did not rationally consider how such dust could be made, how it could kill only cattle and not other animals, how it could be carried and spread over such a vast territory by humans. Nor did they consider whether there were enough Beneventan men and women, old and young, to go out from their region in wheeled carts loaded down with dust. Such is the great foolishness that oppresses the wretched world.

The situation may be medieval, but Agobard’s inquiry into the ways of weather magicians is an evergreen example of what happens when you hack through hedgerows of rumor in a vain attempt to find the crooked byway to the weed-smothered outskirts of truth:

Often we have heard it said by many, that they knew that such things were certainly done in specific places, but we have never yet heard anyone claim that they themselves had seen these things. Once it was reported to me that someone said that he himself had seen such things. With great interest I myself set out to see him, and I did. But when I was speaking to him and encouraging him, with many prayers and entreaties, to say whether he had seen such things, I nevertheless pressed him with divine threats not to say anything unless it were true. Then he declared that what he had said was indeed true and he named the person, the time, and place, but nevertheless confessed that he himself had not been present at the time.
[translated by P.E. Dutton in Carolingian Civilization: A Reader]

I’d cite more of De Grandine et Tonitruis, but a leering figure just crept from the woods. I could be mistaken, but he’s hauling what seem to be a bag of kidneys and a Mexican rat. There’s a farm across the street; if the cattle keel over, we’ll know who to blame. Like peasants before me, I’ll scan the horizon—and chase floppy footprints through ages of dust.

“So I broke into the palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner….”

“When the heck else will we ever get to see this?” With every seasonal email from the American Shakespeare Center, I ask myself this question—and then I gladly make the three-hour trek to Staunton, Virginia, to see a play I’ll never see on any other stage, let alone in a faithful reconstruction of the Blackfriars, Shakespeare’s indoor theater. This time, the play was Henry VI, Part 2, not juilenned in the interest of run time or mashed up with other plays in the trilogy but staged in its entirety as part of a three-year “War of the Roses” event—and marketed, cheekily, as “The Rise of Queen Margaret.”

Henry VI, Part 2 isn’t subtle or artfully written, but the Blackfriars players make it fun just to see the damned thing at all. In the current production, which runs through November, Chris Johnston nails his role as Henry, a pious doofus who’s out of his depth. Alison Glenzer (who was haunting as the Jailer’s Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen in 2013) gives the cheating, scheming Queen Margaret unexpected heart and soul; no one laughs as she cradles the severed head of her lover. Rene Thornton, Jr., does double duty as both a hounded, frazzled Gloucester and, late in the play, the future Richard III, gleefully wielding a spiked and shielded crutch. ASC newcomer Jessika Williams is subtle and poignant as Gloucester’s wife, Eleanor, whose tenderly depicted marriage falls apart when political winds blow ill. The preposterously versatile John Harrell (who cracked me up in Ben Jonson’s Epicene in 2014) makes a good Duke of York, ambitious and haughty, and earns a blast of applause after a genealogical discourse that’s as effortless as it is endless. And then David Anthony Lewis comes roaring in, as if flung from a Viking mosh pit full of cocaine, to brutalize England as the willfully ignorant rebel Jack Cade.

Those were my favorites, but the truth is, everyone at the Blackfriars is good—because who signs on to play multiple roles in four or five plays per season, four seasons a year, for years at a time, unless they love the theater more than they love sleep, leisure, or life itself? The actors also introduce each performance, sell raffle tickets, play songs at intermission, and handle the on-stage concessions. Their bios in the playbill all include a line like “more than 123 roles in 99 productions”—a staggering claim when few of them seem older than 40. I can’t imagine that there are more dedicated stage actors anywhere in North America; maybe that’s how they always make American-accented English sound like Shakespeare’s natural voice.

I’ve seen plenty of Shakespeare productions by other, bigger companies, and they’re too often beguiled by novelty: Measure for Measure presented as a nude Weimar cabaret, Two Gentlemen of Verona as special-effects-laden grunge-melodrama with U2-themed karaoke, a drag-queen Taming of the Shrew strained beyond its limits with 18 pop songs by Duncan Sheik. I wince to remember a lifeless All’s Well That Ends Well that ended with the grinning cast, clad in World War I costumes, breaking into a frantic, almost apologetic riverdance.

The folks in Staunton do none of that. They study the play, learn their lines, and then come out on a bare but beautiful stage to interpret their characters almost entirely through voice, motion, and costuming, tight formal constraints that make every performance immediate and real. Despite the breezy atmosphere—including pre-show pop concerts and improvised interactions with audience members, who themselves may be drinking beer or scarfing down gummi bears—their work feels, in its fashion, more respectful of its source material than productions by larger companies. The Blackfriars actors let you see a play for what it is; they make you all the more aware of how other companies can smother a play under sets, lighting, and boffo art direction in the name of “deconstructing,” “reimagining,” or “reinterpreting” it.

The Blackfriars Playhouse celebrates its 15th birthday this month. I can’t imagine a better place to keep filling in the massive gaps in my knowledge of English theater and be entertained with every nutty visit. These folks turn even weak plays into crowd pleasers—and really, who else is going to stage Fletcher and Massinger’s ridiculous 1622 Tempest-inspired, horny-Amazon comedy The Sea Voyage? Where else will you see Beaumont and Fletcher’s naughty-bits stab-fest The Maid’s Tragedy? Happy birthday and congratulations, Blackfriars; I hope this post finds you a few new fans. To swipe the final triumphant line of the play I saw last night: “And more such days as these to us befall!”

“Don’t blame the sweet and tender hooligan…”

When the journal Able Muse lands in my mailbox twice a year, I’ve typically torn through the cardboard and gotten to skimming before I’m back inside the house. As usual, the summer 2016 issue rewarded my exertions, opening with a piece that’s as solid as grapeshot in the wall of a clifftop villa: “It’s Time to Talk About Lord Byron Again,” Amit Majmudar’s overview of Byron’s Letters and Journals: A New Selection, published last year by Oxford University Press. Majmudar, a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist who’s also the current (and first) Poet Laureate of Ohio, has penned what’s ostensibly a review essay, but his immersion in the English poetic tradition makes it one heck of an inducement to revisit Byron’s sprawling corpus and his almost pointlessly preposterous life.

The precision that makes Majmudar a good poet lends a special shine to his prose. Here’s one of several passages that share the delight of a satisfied reader where other reviewers would dutifully summarize:

Byron’s Letters have what you find in the letters of few other poets: Tumult. He sought drama, and drama sought him. A future Prime Minister’s wife, jilted, cuts herself for his sake. A few months later, he’s sleeping with his half-sister. White-water torrents, adultery in Italy; gonorrhea, malaria, indigestion. We read of him stripping off his coat and boots to keep Shelley, who was unable to swim, from drowning in a storm (he managed to pull the poet to shore in the end after vigorous bailing). Random gunshots sound a hundred feet from his door, after which he carries a dying policeman into his room to bleed to death. Enough action for one life, perhaps. Only then he sets off to expel the Turks from Greece.

I loved this bit, too:

What with the prolific poetizing, the bisexual vortex of his bed set amid the smells and noises of a small zoo, the international fame, the international infamy, the looks, and the wealth, he must have struck people as a monster of nature, possessing a kind of preternaturally intense life-force.

[. . . ]

The promiscuity at the time did wax operatic, if only opéra bouffe, complete with shouting matches between the weeping cuckold and defiant adulteress, whilst the foreign interloper buttoned his breeches. In 1817, one of Byron’s mistresses moved into his house uninvited and refused to leave, even after her husband, her relatives, the police, and Byron himself begged her to go home. (He ended up employing her as a housekeeper-with-benefits; apparently she performed excellently in both her duties, reducing his daily expenses by half.) To gauge how sordid Byron got in those years, we need only go to the Letters of his neighbor and fellow exile, Percy Bysshe Shelley—who, for all his atheism and his shared contempt for British moral cant, was horrified to hear Byron haggle with Italian parents over the price of their daughter.

Majmudar writes wittily about Byron’s nigh-unbelievable adventures, as a fellow poet should, but he offers the benefit of a different expertise. As a doctor, he can’t help but mention, as few critics could, the modern connection between extreme promiscuity and suicidal depression, and that Byron’s hypersexuality was not atypical of what our age witnesses in a childhood abuse survivor—which, among so much else, he was.

Majmudar’s essay is 13 pages long. I’ve cited the bits that got a laugh out of me, but the rest is both a finer and more concise introduction to Byron than I ever got in college, covering not only his life and his erratic evolution as a poet but also his recent critical standing and international legacy. Apparently his poems translate congenially. Yet there’s one thing this titan of vitality was powerless to do: commend his spirit to the here and now. “We have had no Byronic poet for a few generations now, and we are the duller for it,” Majmudar laments, suggesting that poetry would do well to jog out into the dunes once in a while and shake the solemnity off its paunchy, pasty frame. Byron, he says, reminds us “it is possible for poetry to get written in the downtime between pleasure seeking and politicking, cussing and whoring and seeing (and saving) the world.” More of us can stand to hear this, and I liked that Majmudar embeds his exhortation in an example of what a strong review should be: proof that reading the book is a good, rousing start.