Archive for January, 2012


“Look up, look down, there’s a crazy world outside…”

You can walk past buildings for years and never see the faces glaring down at you—until one day, you stop and look up.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (here in D.C., near the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Ellicott Street NW) was begun in 1930 and finished in 1958.

By then, its spire was unfashionably neo-medieval….

…ringed as it is with winged lions right out of illuminated manuscripts.

Two miles away, the folks at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church (across the street from American University) began building their new church in 1932.

A prominent spire promises similar beasties…

…but two waterspouts near the front of the church are barely zoomorphic…

…while the spire itself sports not gargoyles, not grotesques…

….but faux-tesques!

“Though the interstate is choking under salt and dirty sand…”

The sprouts of spring are many weeks away—but let these literary links break through the frost-encrusted soil of your mind.

Michael Drout is amused by the Nobel Tolkien snub, but he also takes it seriously.

Richard Utz finds evidence for the “unique continuity” of medievalism.

The inimitable Dr. Beachcoming reads up on medieval dog-heads.

“From imperial representation to barbarian fortress”: Lost Fort visits Trier.

Sadly, the Ozark Medieval Fortress will likely go un-built.

Brian Murphy seeks the starting line of fantasy.

Bill Peschel reads a much-praised fantasist and wonders what the fuss is all about.

The Sliver Key learns how to stop worrying and appreciate Peter Jackson.

Jason Fisher asks: Is “alright” all right?

(Jason’s Tolkien and the Study of His Sources is also now available for the Kindle.)

Dylan plays familiar verses: “American Pied Beauty.”

University Diaries seeks “verbal consciousness” in poetry.

Clive James praises poetry’s technicians.

First Known When Lost looks for poems about ice skating.

My friend Ephemeral New York discovers a gorgeous mosaic dome.

Patrick Kurp picks poems at a yard sale.

Steve Donoghue travels with Penguins.

Jake Seliger writes about trolls, and attracts them.

The terrific Poetry News in Review has a new home on the Web.

Hats & Rabbits proffers a parable.

Writer Beware advises iBook users to study the fine print.

Bibliographing imagines Tolstoy’s A Christmas Carol.

Steven Riddle reviews The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry.

The Book Haven sees senescence in Stevens, Eliot, and Miłosz.

“Mountain passes slipping into stones…”

Facing away from the cavewoman pietà, this bone-wielding caveman tears open his own abdomen, but he’s less brutal than he seems. Candor sometimes demands that you de-form yourself a bit.

 

THREE SEASONS

 

     Panting at twilight
the fox halts, and bends his neck:
     “one white bone is yours.”
You shook me half awake look!
with cold, open, empty hands

 

            * * *

 

     Beneath your mirror,
light, scarf, gloves, clock, sonnet book,
     a deer tibia—
you beam, and gaze into it

Lose her to God for a while

 

            * * *

 

     Four trees fell.
                             She swings
through fresh-mown sunshine, smiling
     over fitful seeds
slight as a hummingbird skull
light as a hummingbird dream

 

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)

“Throw the world off your shoulders tonight, Mr. Smith…”

Silly and serious, profane and sacred, the gargoyles at the National Cathedral have become tourist attractions all their own. You can buy a book about them, the cathedral offers special tours, and I hear some strange neighbor is even writing gargoyle-themed poems.

They’re not, however, the only gargoyles and grotesques in town, or even on the cathedral grounds. Turn northeast and stroll a few steps and you’ll bump into Cathedral College (formerly the College of Preachers), dedicated in 1928 just as American neo-Gothic church building was waning and collegiate Gothic was on the rise.

Mostly Anglophilic neo-Gothic with Tudor-ish outbuildings and annexes, Cathedral College closed for budgetary reasons in 2009, but gray winter is a fine time to peep through leafless vines and trees…

…to see the grotesques on the large corner tower.


First up: a pelican feeding her young with the blood of her breast, a medieval Christian symbol of self-sacrifice that’s hardly unknown in the American South.

Harder to see: a rooster, medieval symbol of (among other things) vigilance.

This owl’s shut eyes may suggest modesty, or sinners refusing to see and do the good, or, not inconceivably, Jews rejecting Christianity.

Everyone knows that in the Middle Ages, anthropomorphized frogs gesturing sincerely symbolized…um…

Exposed only in winter, this embrambled goat-devil is suitably eerie.

The College of Preachers was built by Frohman, Robb, and Little, one of several firms that made America look a little more medieval: Philip Frohman designed more than 50 American churches, and FR&L gave Trinity College Chapel in Hartford its neo-Gothic air. Frohman himself is best known for stepping in to re-design the National Cathedral in 1919. To a large extent, the building is “his”; he reportedly still climbed the scaffolding to oversee construction until his retirement in 1971. (Like many Episcopalian medievalists of his generation, Frohman was drawn to Catholicism; unlike most, he eventually converted.)

If Frohman, his partners, and their stonemasons intended the grotesques on Cathedral College to tell an obvious story, then I’m missing their meaning—beyond, perhaps, “please decorate the tower drainage system.”

“Ne can Ich eu namore telle. / Her nis namore of þis spelle”—but I’m open to generous and creative interpretations, even wild ones, of this medieval-ish menagerie that countless Washingtonians stomp past every day without ever stopping to see.

“She shouldn’t oughta try to be that way…”

“She would rise before us then, a vision to win us, not repel: a lithe young slender figure, instinct with ‘the unbought grace of youth,’ dear and bonny and lovable, the face beautiful, and transfigured with the light of that lustrous intellect and the fires of that unquenchable spirit.”

So wrote Mark Twain about Joan of Arc, the sole figure who could make him mute his famous disdain for medievalism. “[S]he is easily and by far,” he swooned, “the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” (Twain considered Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc his favorite of his own books; his heroine’s penchant for mottos—”Work! Stick to it!”—prompted Shaw to brand her “an American school teacher in armor.”)

It’s hard to overstate what a big deal Joan of Arc was in America at the dawn of the 20th century—but like most spirited forms of medievalism, Joanolatry first rose overseas. In 1870, when the French lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians, humiliated nationalists—when Europeans rouse medieval heroes from their graves, nationalism is usually the reason—made a symbol of the Maid of Orleans. American writers as early as John Daly Burk in 1798 cast Joan as an emblem of patriotism and pre-modern innocence, but by the late 19th century, European-influenced children’s books and chivalric romances about female heroes fired up men and women alike, as T.J. Jackson Lears points out:

The life of the chivalric warrior, male or female, ranged far outside the realm of reading circles and parlor chitchat. “Oh, to be a wild Kossack!” Emily Greene Balch wrote in her commonplace book after reading Taras Bulba. “Fight hard and drink hard and ride hard . . . Our clothes grow strait. Oh, for a horse between the knees, my blood boils, I want to fight, strain, wrestle, strike . . . To be brave and have it all known, to surpass and be proud, oh the splendor of it.”

Lears further argues that the American Cult of Joan was about more than escapism. For late 19th-century Americans, saints also “embodied instinctive communion with nature, simple faith unhampered by learning, and sexual purity. Personifying shibboleths of romantic liberal Protestantism, they entered the pantheon of the genteel tradition.”

World War I only gouged Joan further into American culture: She was immortalized on the Hudson in 1915, beloved by readers of Lucy Foster Madison’s 1918 novel (with its gorgeous Frank Schoonover illustrations), and brought to the screen by Cecil B. DeMille. Decades later, Joan was still sufficiently famous that OMD could write not one but two songs about her, while the Smiths could mention her and know that the image would stick.

According to the Book Haven, yesterday was the 600th birthday of Joan of Arc. Fortuitously, I learned this morning via D.C. neighbor and blogger George that the Joan of Arc statue in Meridian Hill Park, dedicated by President Harding on the saint’s birthday in 1922

…but (as this 2007 photo shows) disarmed for decades…

got her sword back just last month! (And got a full body scrub too.)

Congrats to locals, who reportedly lobbied the Park Service for two years to make this happen, and happy 600th to Miss of Arc, who was, as one of history’s greatest thinkers put it, “a most bodacious soldier and general.

“Wheel in a wheel, way in the middle of the air…”

Savannah is famous for its gorgeous and walkable squares. One in particular, Monterey Square, was the site of drama in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—but when I tromped through the square during Christmas week, I was drawn instead to a Gothic Revival church…

…that’s not, in fact, a church. Behold: Temple Mickve Israel! Dedicated in 1878, it’s the third home of a congregation founded in 1733 when 41 Jewish colonists, most of them Sephardic, sailed to Georgia (where Catholicism was illegal, but Judaism wasn’t) with the support of Jews in London.

Last week, I heard a passing tour guide announce that the congregation chose the Gothic Revival style to honor the cathedrals of their Spanish and Portuguese hometowns. That claim is specious; this building was dedicated nearly 150 years after the colonists arrived. According to the docents, the 19th-century Jewish congregants, like their Christian neighbors, simply got caught up in the Gothic Revival craze. Boy, did they ever.

For a synagogue, Mickve Israel is a weirdly pure model of a neo-Gothic church. It was designed by English-born Henry G. Harrison, a renowned Episcopalian church architect and a disciple of Gothic Revival master A.W.N. Pugin. Harrison’s background shows: Mickve Israel has a basic cruciform shape with a nave and transept; pointed arches; stained-glass windows with tracery; quatrefoil designs everywhere; buttresses; pinnacles; and a castellated multi-story tower. The ark is also neo-Gothic, as are the chairs alongside it.

The big difference, of course, is the swapping-out of a steeple with what the authors of Synagogue Architecture in America call “a Middle Eastern element hinting at the true Jewish nature of the building.”

I’d say it does far more than hint. That cupola insists, with confidence and grace, “Our roots are European, the Gothic style is ours to use—but we’ll top it off with a sign of our deeper origins and our present difference.”

A surprising schmeer of myth adheres to this synagogue: that the Jewish congregation bought it from the local bishop; that it’s based on a specific Spanish or Portuguese cathedral; and that the choir loft was once segregated seating for women.

Those tales aren’t true—but it is true that while other Gothic Revival synagogues used to exist, and while others still standing can boast neo-Gothic doodads, Mickve Israel is (as far as I can tell) the only remaining full-on Gothic Revival synagogue in America.

Today, this 200-family congregation reveres its medievalist gem, a building that bravely (but not brashly) asserted that Judaism belonged in a Southern city in the 19th-century—and well beyond. In 1927, when a fire destroyed the tower, the people of Mickve Israel rebuilt it…

…just as it was, and probably always will be: Gothic reverie, Middle Eastern memory, persistent American dream.