Archive for April, 2009


“Afraid of change, afraid of staying the same…”

Late in life, Charlemagne famously lamented the crudity of his early schooling. “I think of all the education that I missed,” he mused to Alcuin in a letter about a particularly baffling astrological problem, “but then, my homework was never quite like this.” Even 1,200 years ago, the Frankish king understood the need to rethink the ways of teachers and scholars—which is why Monday’s call for university reform by Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia, is really nothing new.

Taylor’s New York Times mini-manifesto makes several points, a few of them good, many of them silly, most of them kicked around by academic bloggers for years. People who are more deeply invested in academia can debate the op-ed’s merits; I’m interested in the example Taylor uses to illustrate the pitfalls of hyper-specialization:

In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

Hardly innovative, Taylor’s use of “medieval” is lazy shorthand: “OMG midevil is teh irrelevent.” If I were grading this op-ed, I’d ask him to explain this example rather than drop it, freshman-like, at the end of a paragraph as if its risible obscurity speaks for itself. Later, when Taylor claims “there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text,” he uses “medieval” to suggest both obscurity and obsolescence. No other field or period rates a colorful pejorative in this generally bland piece; when political scientists fail to consider the role of religion, Taylor merely finds them guilty of a “significant oversight.”

A grad student working on Duns Scotus will need to know paleography, historiography, philosophy, theology, and possibly other fields. If, as Taylor claims, “[r]esponsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary,” then the budding medievalist at Columbia is already more likely than his colleagues to embody that ideal. Of course, if Taylor is right to predict that “[t]hrough the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge,” then the medievalist enjoys another advantage, one that’s almost unfair: access to a deeper, richer vocabulary to characterize the unsubtle doctor who thinks it’s fine to use the New York Times to ridicule a student.

“Working on his ark, working all by himself…”

Working, learning, teaching—life calls, but there’s always time for links.

Writer Beware takes down another scammer.

Here’s a fine defense of Twitter.

Unlocked Wordhoard finds Robin Hood’s politics pretty inflexible.

Got Medieval spots bad 15th-century Photoshopping.

If your kids want to read about ancient Rome, Eternally Cool has mysteries for them.

Steve Muhlberger hosts the latest Carnivalesque, the ancient and medieval blog carnival.

Jake Seliger is thinking about e-books.

War Music beguiles Lex Fajardo.

Ephemeral New York recalls a French chateau on Fifth Avenue.

Finally, this Ernie Kovacs video speaks for itself, even if no one in it speaks at all.

“But Friday, never hesitate…”

Another week ends; let’s praise people who were far more prolific than I’ve been.

Scott Nokes rebukes the guy who ruined the modern swordfight.

A sharp-eyed classicist swoons, for Rod Blagojevich knows Horatian odes.

Steven Hart tries to remember the forgotten Pulitzer novelists.

Julius Caesar continues to conquer Twitter.

South of Rome, Eternally Cool finds a vending machine for books.

Heavenfield notes that NPR is going the way of Chaucer’s pilgrims.

In Cologne, they’re still sifting through rubble for history’s bits and pieces.

From zombies to e-books, Jake Seliger cultivates April’s literary links.

Congrats to Julie K. Rose! She’s a semifinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

Long before “Dancing With the Stars,” choreographer Stanley Donen paired Bruce Willis with Sandahl Bergman for seven great minutes of “Moonlighting.”

Speaking of dancing: it’s a five o’clock world when the whistle blows. So enjoy the weekend!

“Moja droga, ja cię kocham…”

When I was growing up, our household recognized only one Polish prince, but yesterday in Central Park I spotted another royal Pole who’s certainly worthy to carve the Easter ham.


That’s King Władysław II Jagiełło, who (the monument tells us) was king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania, “founder of a free union of the peoples of East Central Europe” and “victor over the Teutonic aggressors at Grunwald, July 15, 1410.”


The “Teutonic aggressors” reference was timely: this statue greeted visitors to the Polish pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. In April of that year, Polish dignitaries at the fair were already worried about a German invasion.

Just weeks after Germany rolled into Poland, Mayor La Guardia was publicly lobbying to keep this statue in New York and hoped to acquire the awesome medieval-ish entrance to the Polish pavilion, a 141-foot tower made of 1,200 gilded shields.

Incidentally, when the old men in my family got this look on their faces, we tended to keep them away from the cutlery.

In 1940, the plan was to raise money to keep the king and his tower in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, but Poland donated the statue to New York City in 1945. King Jagiełło ended up in Central Park, where he faces west across the Turtle Pond.

I don’t know what happened to the king’s mighty medieval-ish shield tower, but I’ll have to find out later, because right now there’s ham slabs on the table, and they’re not gonna eat themselves.

Happy Easter!

“…und lass uns ruhig schlafen…”

A weary week limps toward completion, leaving interesting links in its wake.

When Scott Nokes taught Paradise Lost, a student worked out the distance between Heaven and Hell. Lingwë checked the math.

Jonathan Jarrett shows you what historians do when they read early medieval charters.

Adrian Murdoch continues to track press coverage of the anniversary of the battle of Teutoberg Forest.

Apparently, there’s a call to boycott Kindle books that cost more than $9.99.

Ephemeral New York finds pieces of the old Penn Station at the Brooklyn Museum.

The World of Royalty invites you to seek advice “from fifty of history’s unluckiest royal women.”

Victoria Strauss speaks rationally about self-publishing.

Nathan Bransford lets you be a literary agent for a day.

Steve Donoghue reviews a new translation of the Aeneid.

Jake Seliger reviews pens.

Got Twitter? Follow Julius Caesar—or a komodo dragon.

In 1987, William Blake met Tangerine Dream.

Finally, when Germany’s biggest pop singer covers an 18th-century poem, das Resultat ist schön.

“It’s a long way to Harlan, it’s a long way to Hazard…”

Dró djarfliga dáðrakkr Þórr
orm eitrfán upp at borði
Hamri kníði háfjall skarar
ofljótt ofan úlfs hnitbróður.

Hreingálkn hrutu, en hölkn þutu,
fór in forna fold öll saman
Søkðiz síðan sá fiskr í mar.

Then very bravely Thor, the courageous one,
pulled the gleaming serpent up on board.
With his hammer he struck the head
violently, from above, of the wolf’s hideous brother.

The sea-wolf shrieked and the underwater rocks re-echoed,
all the ancient earth was collapsing…
Then the fish sank into the sea.

“You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever…”

How flippant should Agamemnon sound? In a review of Anne Carson’s new translation of the Orestia, Brad Leithauser contrasts the “plainspoken delivery” of Carson’s dialogue with the “combination of metrical mellifluousness and clunkiness” of Richmond Lattimore and finds a middle ground in the “clipped yet graceful, brisk cadences” of Robert Lowell. Leithauser’s review is interesting, but it feels incomplete without a mention of Christopher Logue, the one modern poet who has found his calling in making the ancient world shamelessly colloquial.

An activist, autodidact, and occasional actor, Logue has spent nearly half a century using all the gimmicks of modern poetry to craft a loose, idiomatic version of Homer’s Iliad. Literally irreverent, Logue frees himself from the tyranny of his source material through one curious disadvantage: he’s ignorant of ancient Greek. As a result, his Homer—currently collected in three separate volumes—includes scenes that aren’t in the Iliad; at one point, he even cribs a passage from Milton. Sensitive to the distinction between scholarship and artistry, Logue calls what he’s doing an “account,” not a translation—and if that makes classicists cringe, they’re probably missing the point.

Known for his gleeful use of anachronisms—like his description of Ajax, often cited by reviewers, as “[g]rim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”—Logue deploys evocative modern language to create quick, crisp snapshots. Here’s his description of Agamemnon’s champions in “All Day Permanent Red”:

Nestor, his evening star.
Ajax, his silent fortress. Good—even on soft sand.
Odysseus (you know him), small but big.
Fourth—grizzled and hook-tap nosed—the king of Crete,
Idomeneo, who:
“Come on!”
Would sign a five-war-contract on the nod.

Logue’s Homer resounds with the diction of war, but he also crafts domestic scenes with a deftness that other poets should envy. In “The Husbands,” an exchange between Zeus and a petulant Athena neatly reveals the condescension that defines their relationship:

The armies wait. “Dearest Pa-pa, the oath said one should die.
The Trojan was about to die. He did not die.
Nobody died. Therefore the oath is dead.
Killed by a Trojan. Therefore Troy goes down.”

Drivers conducting underbody maintenance.

“Father, You must act.
Side with the Trojans, Greece will say,
Were we fools to believe in His thunder?
Why serve a God who will not serve His own?”

And giving her a kiss, He said:

“Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.”

When battle calls, Logue can craft a passage as thrilling as anything in 300, combining heroic deeds with colloquial diction while never undercutting the tone, as in this passage from “Patrocleia”:

The air near Ajax was so thick with arrows, that,
As they came, their shanks tickered against each other;
And under them the Trojans swarmed so thick
Ajax outspread his arms, turned his spear flat,
And simply pushed. Yet they came clamouring back until
So many Trojans had a go at him
The iron chaps of Ajax’ helmet slapped his cheeks
To soft red pulp, and his head reached back and forth
Like a clapper inside a bell made out of sword blades.
Maybe, even with no breath left,
Big Ajax might have stood it yet; yet
Big and all as he was, Prince Hector meant to burn that ship:
And God was pleased to let him.

Logue’s poetry may be campy, but it also moves, and thrills, and entertains. By making translation look like a blast, he disguises his real accomplishment: mastering a style that suits his particular genius, all to turn quirks into genuine art.

“…when streams are ripe and swelled with rain.”

Each April, references to two poems burst forth like emerald weeds. The month begins with allusions to the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales, and I never mind reminders of Chaucer; but by mid-month, by tax day, even half-literate news anchors will have made eye-rolling references to The Waste Land. Yes, April is “the cruelest month.” As April-themed allusions go, are these really the best we can do?

This April, consider Dame Edith Sitwell, the largely forgotten writer of the heaviest light verse in the world. You may have read (or heard) “Waltz,” her evocative ditty about fashion-fickle nymphs and other denizens of pseudo-pastorale:

The Amazons wear balzarine of jonquille
Beside the blond lace of a deep-falling rill;
Through glades like a nun
They run from and shun
The enormous and gold-rayed rustling sun;
And the nymphs of the fountains
Descend from the mountains
Like elegant willows
On their deep barouche pillows
In cashmere Alvandar, barège Isabelle,
Like bells of bright water from clearest wood-well.

You may be looking at those lines and thinking “What?”—but take a minute, read the poem aloud, or listen to it echo in your head, before you decide you don’t like it. Good poets are highly conscious of diction, but Sitwell was the rare poet who focused on sound, rhythm, and onomatopoeia almost entirely at the expense of concreteness and clarity. With the typical Sitwell poem, how it sounds is often what it’s about.

That’s why it’s a pleasure to discover, among Sitwell’s late works, a poem called “The April Rain,” in which she uses her distinctive style and abstruse allusions not simply to please the ear, but also to evoke springtime and the innocence of young love.

“Such is our world, my love,” declares a boy to a girl, “[a] bright swift raindrop falling”:

The sapphire dews sing like a star; bird-breasted dew
Lies like a bird and flies

In the singing wood and is blown by the bright air
Upon your wood-wild April-soft long hair
That seems the rising of spring constellations—
Aldebaran, Procyon, Sirius,
And Cygnus who gave you all his bright swan-plumage…

As she develops the raindrops as symbols, Sitwell falls back on wistfulness:

Such are the wisdoms of the world—Heraclitus
Who fell a-weeping, and Democritus
Who fell a-laughing, Pyrrho, who arose
From Nothing and ended in believing Nothing—fools,
And falling soon:
Only the April rain, my dear,
Only the April rain!

That fool-begotten wise despair
Dies like the raindrop on the leaf—
Fading like young joy, old grief,
And soon is gone—

Forgot by the brightness of the air;
But still are your lips the warm heart of all springs,
And all the lost Aprils of the world shine in your hair.

I doubt Sitwell’s closing lines will join the ranks of quotable April verses, but “The April Rain” is a charming reminder that when we discuss the month in poems, it ought to be known as much for its sounds as for its more obvious scents.