Archive for December, 2012


“One step ahead of the shoe shine, two steps away from the county line…”

Every December, I think, ‘Well, I didn’t write much on the blog this year.” Then I look back and find myself amazed by all the neat stuff that begged to be written about—and by how many of you apparently enjoy this singular blend of books, poetry, gargoyles, and medievalism.

Thanks for reading “Quid Plura?” in 2012! Here are highlights from the year that was—which I hope you’ll take as an invitation to check back often in 2013.

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Washington isn’t known as a city with a deep sense of the past, but this blog continued to find medievalism rampant amidst the ephemera.

Our Joan of Arc got a body scrub and a new sword.

Winter beasties peered from the College of Preachers, and churches were festooned with “faux-tesques.”

In southeast D.C., we learned that Frederick Douglass was (sort of) a medievalist.

I cursed in my garden a medieval weed.

Taste the past: the National Cathedral medlar tree.

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In Georgia, finding medievalism was weirdly easy, first at America’s only all-out Gothic Revival synagogue, and then on a highway beside B-17 bombers.

Enjoy a summer postcard from the medieval Midwest: Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri.

Take a jaunt to Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson clashed with Saxon warriors.

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Avid readers develop obsessions, hence this triad of posts about Washington Irving:

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The Velveeta people weren’t “thinking medieval” when they demanded you “eat liquid gold.”

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Meet the art historians who spent the end of World War II chasing down medieval relics.

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Let’s give Mary Jo Bang’s quirky Dante translation a chance.

In my neighborhood, you might fall into a Philip K. Dick novel.

A used book offered up the ghosts of a Bulgarian poet and a Librarian of Congress.

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Thirty books in four years! In 2012, I finished reading all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain works.

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I also wrapped up a series of 53 poems and herded them into a book: Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles.

At Christmastime, I put my translation, The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier, into wider circulation.

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In 2012, “Quid Plura?” celebrated an anniversary. Here’s the best from those first five years.

“…and sing that rycht balulalow…”

MAKESHIFT CRÈCHE

Dead verse shines tonight:
all the voices in your head
  calling: “Gloria!”

“Winter is the glad song that you hear…”

Christmas songs are quick to commemorate the sounds and the sights of the season, but rarely do they dwell on smells. Most people, I gather, fondly recall the fragrance of spruce needles or the cloying whiff of cookies, but this year I’ll pine for a more medieval Christmas scent: the sweet, pseudo-oenomelic aroma of tiny, rotting fruit.

Meet the National Cathedral medlar! Planted in 1962 to honor Florence Bratenahl, the medievalist who refined Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for the cathedral garden, the tree goes unnoticed by nearly everyone. There aren’t many medlars in America, and when the cathedral horticultural staff and garden guild kindly let me harvest the fruit of their medlar in December 2010 (in exchange for writing two articles for the garden guild newsletter), I soon learned why: this is one persnickety tree.


Every spring, the medlar’s large white flowers blossom with absurd brevity, at a day and hour determined by the tree’s own inscrutable whim. (Most years, the medlar stubbornly hangs onto its red-gold leaves well into December, long after other trees are as bony and cold as Dickensian waifs.) During the summer, the flowers turn into grotty little fruit with deservedly obscene medieval nicknames. The French knew the medlar as the cul de chien, and Chaucer called it the “open-arse”; his bitter Reeve likened himself to a medlar in The Canterbury Tales. More recently, Shakespeare denigrated the medlar in four different plays, and D.H. Lawrence, not one to be outdone, dubbed them “wineskins of brown morbidity” and “the distilled essence of hell.”

You see, here’s the thing about medlars: The fruit is hard, acidic, and inedible until a good early-winter cold snap, after which it has to “blett,” or ripen into the semblance of rottenness, under precise conditions known only to God and the medlar itself. (Some sources even warn you not to jostle the fruit or let them touch each other. Medlars are the Happy Fun Ball of obsolete produce.)

Medieval people would have bletted their medlars in wooden crates filled with straw. As a modern-day apartment dweller, I bletted ten pounds of medlar fruit in cardboard boxes lined with shredded credit-card courtesy checks.

Bletting medlars is a lost art. Hours turn into days, days turn into weeks, acids turn into sugars, and the end result is…most inelegant.

Did I mention they sometimes sigh or whistle when squeezed?

Ah, but holy crow, the smell of a home full of bletting medlars is truly divine. They smell like they taste: a robust blend of applesauce, cinnamon, and cheap wine. Charlemagne ordered the medlar to be grown on royal estates; a barn or fruit cellar full of bletting medlars must have been heaven for the Carolingian nose.

Participating in one medlar harvest made clear to me why this fruit, well known to medieval people, is barely a novelty now. For one thing, despite my best efforts at climate control, at least two pounds of fruit took the express lane straight past “bletted” and into genuine rot. Also, once you get past the five gigantic seeds in each fruit, you’ve not much of the squishy stuff to eat. In the U.K., Tiptree sells a lovely medlar jelly, but when a dear friend and I decided to try a medlar tart recipe from an Elizabethan cookbook, we spent hours mutilating hundreds (hundreds!) of weeping squishballs to make just two of these:

That tart’s tastiness was inversely proportional to its beauty, but it was also ludicrously labor-intensive. Medieval and early modern Europeans ate the fruit straight-up or enjoyed mashed and boiled jellies; a tart was a rare luxury.

As medlars lack widespread commercial value—did I mention concerns about their “violent laxative properties”?—the wizards of modern food science haven’t bothered to demystify them. For the latest medlarology, you have to dig up a 1989 Economic Botany article that documents (with remarkable encyclopedicity) everything now known about them, from passing references in classical texts to the chemical composition of the wood. Still, even in our Internet age, no one can tell you exactly how to blett the fruit, and I’m currently preparing to answer a barrage of riddles in a crumbling, booby-trapped crypt so a thousand-year-old crusader will pass on to me the mystic secret of cultivating medlars from seeds.

I hit the wrinkly rare-fruit jackpot in 2010. Since then, the medlar tree at the National Cathedral has (the chief horticulturalist tells me) suffered from fire blight, which is common among trees in the apple family. The fruit blackens and dies before maturing; a cool, wet spring may cause the problem to recur. (Lacking the ability to do anything useful, I’ve worked several medlar references into the poems in Looking Up.)

The truth is, if the medlar sprouted elf heads or started singing madrigals, it couldn’t befuddle me more than it already has, but I’ll never forget the aroma that welcomed me home every time I returned from some tedious holiday errand. The National Cathedral medlar reminds me that the road back to the Middle Ages is not only endless, but also endlessly strange. Relieved to know I’ll never run out of things to write about, I can only wish the readers of this blog a blessedly olfactive Christmas—and a New Year as hopeful and sweet as a medlar-blessed home.

“There’s a beast upon my shoulder, and a fiend upon my back…”

“I’ve always hated dragon stories, hated the entire elf-dragon-unicorn axis. The very notion of high fantasy causes my saliva to get thick and ropy. But as an exercise, I was attempting to create a dragon whom I could respect in the morning.”

That’s what Lucius Shepard told an interviewer in 2001, seventeen years after publishing “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” a much-praised (but too-little-known) fantasy story starring one of the best fictional dragons of all time. As it turned out, my first Christmas gift of the season came from someone who knew I’d love this new hardcover volume, which collects all six of Shepard’s hard-to-find “Dragon Griaule” stories for the first time.

Griaule the dragon is 6,000 feet long, 750 feet high, awake, seething, but magically immobilized. Over the course of centuries, communities spring up on and around him, ecosystems flourish in the shadows of his wings, and his very presence casts a pall over fretful locals who’ve repeatedly failed to kill him—until a young artist named Meric Cattenay convinces the town fathers to pay him to spend half a century slathering the ancient dragon in beautiful but highly toxic paint.

“I don’t believe Griaule will be able to perceive the menace in a process as subtle as art,” Cattenay argues, a line that earned a laugh from my students (and from me) when I taught this story in 2009, but “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” quickly grows far beyond its amusing premise to become an eerie cautionary tale about creativity and the human costs of artistic obsession.

Subterranean Press has given The Dragon Griaule a pretty standard fantasy cover, but don’t be fooled; this isn’t Wyverns of Wonder, Book XXVII, but something cleverer, richer, and far more strange. Reviewers like to claim that a good fantasy or science-fiction book “transcends its genre,” but that’s a dreadful backhanded compliment, and Shepard deserves better than to be compared to the worst. He writes wry, fresh fantasy that uses old tropes to say things few other fantasy writers have bothered to say. Ambivalent about the genre, he tempers wonder with nagging doubt, knowing how hard it is to get others to open their minds. As Meric Cattenay’s admonishes the bitter, dragon-dwarfed townsmen: “It astounds me that you can live next to a miracle, a source of mystery, and treat him as if he were an oddly shaped rock.”

“…and every one of them words rang true, and glowed like burning coal…”

In 2007, I translated the 15th-century romance “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear,” a 972-line Middle Scots poem about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm at Christmastime, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier (a sort of medieval Tommy Saxondale). Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.

The translation was an experiment: I wanted to see if I could imitate all 75 of the original poem’s tricky rhyming, alliterative, 13-line stanzas in a translation that was both readable and entertaining. (Check out “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear” in its original Middle Scots to see what I was up against!) I made the translation available as a free, downloadable PDF in 2007, and then in 2008 I sold the occasional paperback directly through the blog.

This year, I decided it was time to put this book into wider circulation. The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is now available through Amazon as a $10 paperback. There’s also a version specially formatted for the Kindle. (To get a taste of the translation, sample this low-res PDF of the first few pages.)

No one else has ever translated “Rauf Coilyear” into rhyming, alliterative, modern English verse, and I doubt anyone else will be nutty enough to try—so whether you’re a longtime reader of this blog, a student of medieval literature, a fan of old-fashioned poetic formalism, or a collector of truly obscure manifestations of Charlemagniana, I hope you’ll find this translation a satisfying read. Despite what Mamillius claimed, sometimes a sad tale isn’t best for winter after all.

“Let us close our eyes; outside, their lives go on much faster…”

In modern cities, crowds and commerce and cars drown out the ring of mere bells—but this Sunday, if you hear a faint pealing from an Episcopal church, know that it marks the feast-day for three medievalists. Two of them, English-born church architect Richard Upjohn and painter and stained-glass artisan John LaFarge, deserve to be remembered, but pause a bit longer to consider the third and most eccentric, architect Ralph Adams Cram, who clamored to rebuild the medieval world in a greener, more placid America.

Born in New Hampshire in 1863, Cram was the son of a Unitarian minister, but seeing the cathedrals of Europe at 23 drew the young man to Catholicism—almost. Enamored of medieval ritual at a time when becoming Roman Catholic would have been gauche, Cram instead embraced Anglo-Catholicism, a form of High Church Anglicanism, as did many Episcopalian intellectuals in the urban Northeast who adored Catholic aesthetics more than they loved the theology.

Cram looked at every skyline and imagined it dwarfed by spires. He was the architect who changed the style of St. John the Divine in New York City from Romanesque to Gothic; he worked for a time on Washington National Cathedral; he designed “collegiate Gothic” halls and other buildings with medievalist touches at Princeton, Wheaton, Richmond, Sweet Briar, and USC; and his firm built scores of churches that stand as neo-Gothic monuments from Pittsburgh to St. Paul. (In 1901, Cram literally wrote the book on church building.)

For Cram, medievalism was more than an aesthetic conceit. After World War I, he saw ruined societies doomed to one of two fates: a slide into a new Dark Age, or a return to ugly, worn-out modernism. Doubling down on his historical predilections, Cram offered, instead, a third way.

“It is in no sense a programme,” he insisted in 1919, with doubtful modesty,

it is still less an effort at establishing an ideal. Let us call it “a way out,” for it is no more than this; not “the” way, nor yet a way to anything approaching a perfect State, still less a perfect condition of life, but rather a possible issue out of a present impasse for some of those who, as I have said, peremptorily reject both of the intolerable alternatives now offered them.

Cram’s proposal? Americans should live, like medieval people, in walled towns.

Much of Walled Towns, Cram’s truly peculiar 1919 book, is a vision of Beaulieu, an imaginary burg situated “about forty miles from one of the largest cities of New England” in a spot that meets Cram’s criteria: arable land, a river, and “some elements of natural beauty.” We can drive to this happy outpost, but the gate house is our last chance to hail the outside world by telephone and telegraph. We’re required to garage our car—but we may, if we wish, pass through the gate on a rented horse. The walls of Beaulieu defend the reveries of an architectural fanatic: a gate that resembles Warwick Castle, a church like St. Cuthbert’s in Wells, a college that blends New College, Oxford with St. John’s, Cambridge, and a town hall inspired by the Hôtel de Ville.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears notes that “[s]ince Cram’s death in 1942, historians have dismissed him as an elitist crank, a reactionary in art and politics,” which oversimplifies his life and work. What makes Cram so interesting today is how awkwardly his equal hatred of democracy, socialism, communism, and anarchism meets the political assumptions of the early 21st century.

Cram’s Walled Towns forbid usury, stock markets, production of goods for profit, and all forms of advertising. Walled Towns forbid steam power, but not water mills or, surprisingly, hydroelectricity. A Walled Town is self-sufficient:

That one town or district should be given over to to the weaving of cotton or the spinning of wool; that shoes should chiefly be produced in Lynn, furniture in Grand Rapids, glass in Pittsburgh, beer in Milwaukee, hams in Chicago; that from all over a vast district the raw material of manufacture should be transported for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, to various howling wildernesses of highly specialized factories, only to be shipped back again after fabrication to be used or consumed by many of the original producers, was and is one of the preposterous absurdities of an industrial system supported on some of the most appalling sophistry that ever issued out of the Adullamite caves of political economy.

In the Walled Towns all this is changed . . . As each town has its own special products, maintained always at the highest standard, the market never fails.

In a Walled Town, only landholders may vote, and daily life is ruled by guilds—not, Cram stresses, the folk sentimentalized by a wistful William Morris, but a true restoration of the medieval guild system, which Cram calls “the precise antithesis of collectivism, socialism and trades-unionism of whatever form.”

Everyone in a Walled Town shares the same religious convictions; if you’re an Episcopalian knocking at a Catholic gate, seek your coreligionists down the road. Here, knowledge of Latin and a grounding in reading, writing, music, and math are universal, but education, which isn’t apportioned equally, focuses on character. The local college is run by faculty and alumni, not by corrupt or neglectful trustees. Walled Towns have no museums, because old and beautiful objects, such as medieval altarpieces, have been restored to their original uses. Walled Towns have fine art theaters, but no movie houses or sensationalistic shows—because in a Walled Town, “all life is couched in terms of true drama and living beauty.”

Given Cram’s fervent pursuit of applied medievalism, he seems to have overlooked “walled towns” that had recently failed. By World War I, American Arts and Crafts communities had waned; New Clairvaux, a commune of Massachusetts farmers and craftsmen founded in 1902 according to medievalist principles, had flopped; Rose Valley, a Pennsylvania arts-and-crafts project based on the utopianism of William Morris, was suburbanized; and the Americans most likely to retreat into anti-modern self-sufficiency were communists and anarchists, like the founders of my failed hometown commune, Fellowship Farm. Did Cram really believe that a Walled Town could be “at the same time individualist, coöperative and aristocratic”?

Cram does leave himself an out, claiming that his proposal need not be taken literally:

“The phrase ‘Walled Towns’ is symbolical only; it does not imply the great ramparts of masonry with machicolated towers, moats, drawbridges and great city gates such as once guarded the beautiful cities of the Middle Ages. It might, of course; there is no reason why a city should not protect itself from the world without, if its fancy led in this pictorial direction…

For Cram, “pictorial direction” is all. Here’s what he sees in 1919: “ragged and grimy children,” “a surly labourer” who “scowled coarsely, and swore, with his cigar between his teeth”; “men in dirty shirt-sleeves”; “children and goats [that] crawled starvedly around or huddled in the hot shadow”; “the mob of scurrying, pushing men and women, a mob that swelled and scattered constantly in fretful confusion”; “dirt, meanness, ugliness everywhere—in the unhappy people no less than in their surroundings.”

By contrast, Cram’s medieval “way out” abounds with “a great lady on a gaily caparisoned palfrey, with an officious squire in attendance, or perhaps a knight in silver armour, crested wonderfully, his emblazoned shield hanging at his saddle-bow.” There is “the pleasant clamour of voices, the muffled chanting of cloistered nuns in some veiled chapel, the shrill cry of street vendors and children, and the multitudinous bells sounding for worship.” Cram may decry utopians from Plato to H.G. Wells, but his Walled Town is itself the trite utopia of an architectural sketch: happy, faceless people strolling through pristine shopping malls or public squares, doing only what their designer envisions, never misusing, abusing, or defacing their earnest surroundings, freed by architects alone from the ugliness of human nature.

A century after Cram built his mental Beaulieu, no one lives in neo-medieval towns, but Cram still left his mark. Countless Americans first encounter medieval forms in the churches and cathedrals he designed, and his neo-Gothic spires and arches adorn campuses where, in the 1920s, Americans began studying the Middle Ages with greater zeal.

Notice, though, how American medievalism has changed. These days, few academics, ecclesiasts, and architects want to live in the Middle Ages. They tend to look back with detachment, while medievalist nostalgia thrives in genre fiction, video games, and Renaissance Faires. Meanwhile, Cram’s odd brand of aristocratic idealism lives on, split into bits across the ideological spectrum.

When Ralph Adams Cram, fiery nemesis of the impersonal, the imperial, the commercial, the cacophonous, writes that “the only visible hope of recovery lay in a restoration of the unit of human scale, the passion for perfection, and a certain form of philosophy known as sacramentalism,” he makes himself easy to dismiss, even as he drapes precious new lights on humanity’s evergreen dreams. But if, in a slough of disillusionment, you’ve ever pined for agrarian simplicity, religious or political uniformity, stark self-sufficiency, aesthetic transcendence, or lasting peace, then you’ve been, however fleetingly, a pilgrim to one of Cram’s Walled Towns—although it’s been a church, a Ren Fest, a Tea Party, an Occupy rally, or a perfectionist corner inside your own mind where you visit your will on the world.

So on Sunday, if you laugh at the impulse to build a Walled Town, be more charitable than you imagine he was, and let the bells ring for old Ralph Adams Cram. They’re always ringing somewhere.

“What would an angel say? The devil wants to know.”

[During this busy season, I’m pleased to offer a “rerun” from December 2010.]


In the murk of winter, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine makes you wend your way backwards through time—across traces of terrible fire, beneath vaulting conceived Romanesque but raised Gothic, past altars that look far older than they are. In the end, behind the sanctuary, is the beginning: the cathedral’s oldest chapel, where the saints of the Eastern church—Origen, Ignatius, Chrysostom, Basil—reign in their respective niches.

Across from them, around the portal, stand columns of angels. Though stacked head to toe, they rarely catch the eye, and they’ve gone largely unnoticed since 1905, when for one week, all New York was called to ponder them.

Gutzon Borglum was 38 years old. He had trained in Paris with Rodin, and his public monuments would soon rise across the United States, but for now, fame eluded him. A decade away from failing to carve Robert E. Lee into Stone Mountain and two decades before sculpting Mount Rushmore, Borglum set his mind and hands alike to a modest task: the careful making of angels.

Strongly nativist even by the standards of his day, Borglum admired the Klan, and the world would soon deem him cranky, stubborn, and confrontational. Yet the sculptor was none of those things on October 4, 1905, when Episcopalian officials stopped by his studio to see his plaster casts:

The clergy were admiring them when the up-State clergyman stopped before two statues, and broke the silence with this:

“Whoever heard of a woman angel?”

The clergy gasped: then the truth dawned upon them. For hundreds of years all over the world art had been depicting angels as female and in no place in the Bible could it be ascertained that angels were other than male.

The questionable figures were two of twenty angels meant for the Chapel of St. Saviour: the Angel of the Resurrection and, more sensitively, the Angel of the Annunciation. “It seems to me,” Borglum would later say, “that it is repugnant to every gentlemanly sense to conceive of a man performing that role. The idea is such a delicate one that I made the figure of even the woman shrink back after she had told the Virgin, as if it was almost too sacred a thing for her to put into words.”

Angelology focused the minds of New Yorkers. After claiming in its report on Borglum that 15th-century painter Fra Angelico had depicted female angels, the New York Times drew the ire of an anonymous Jesuit:

A headline on Page 6 of your to-day’s issue tells the public “We’re Wrong About Angels.” Indeed you are—you.

It would be interesting to know of one period or one picture where art has “depicted women angels.” As for Fra Angelico da Fiseole, he was a follower of Church tradition and of scholastic philosophy: the former of these invariably represents angels as appearing in the likeness of young men, while the latter teaches that angels are really incorporeal and sexless. Christian art, conventionally obliged to choose a sex for its angels, followed the hint given by the language of the Church, which invariably makes the names of the angels masculine—”Sancte Michael, Sancte Gabriel, Sancte Raphael,” never “Sancta.”

A day later, the Times replied with a cheeky editorial:

If Mr. BORGLUM had taken the trouble to read his New Testament in Greek before putting hand to clay on his commission for angels he would have avoided this shocking error in sex. He would have noted that AGGELOS is neither feminine nor neuter, but masculine, and so your angel must show in some fashion that he belongs to the tyrant sex. Bootless the plea that HOMER makes the lovely Iris a messenger of the goddess, and the Edda introduces the Valkyrs, who are tomboys, if you will, but maidens ever fair, as messengers of Wotan. These be pagan toys with which a properly Christian sculptor has naught to do . . . The book—what does the book say? Well, it says that angels are masculine. There you are.

Of course there must be women angels in heaven, for even MOHAMED stocks his Paradise with houris, but they never come down . . . Very likely the sensibilities of lady angels are too fragile to stand the coarseness of human life. Suppose one of them should light upon a wife beater, or see a car on the Brooklyn Bridge with forty men seated and thirty women standing! . . . We believe that with the astuteness of the fair sex raised to a heavenly degree these lady angels leave such chores to the males.

As newspaper nationwide chattered about Borglum’s angels, Dr. William Reed Huntington, chairman of the cathedral’s Sculpture Committee and the most influential Episcopal priest of his generation, fielded odd questions:

“I think in sacred art, as far as I know, face and form never indicate either male or female, but I must confess I never saw an angel with whiskers.”

“Or a moustache, doctor?” he was asked.

“No. Nor a moustache,” he replied.

“From some source or other,” ran a coy report two days later in a Pennsylvania paper, “came a horrid rumor that Mr. Borglum intended to put whiskers on the faces of his angels, so that there could be no question hereafter as to their sex.”

Voices rose, less a choir than a din. The New York Christian Herald hinted that the debate was a silly one, for where does scripture consistently show that angels even have wings? The New York Evening Post cited Emanuel Swedenborg on the existence of female angels. At the behest of newsmen, Jewish Encyclopedia editor Joseph Jacobs sifted through the Kaballah.

Borglum’s supporters minimized what happened next. In 1952, his wife Mary lamented that the affair “put upon the sculptor a stigma, a mark of an evil temper, which he carried to the end of his life.” A sympathetic 1961 biography suggested that the incident never happened at all.

Yet press reports from the following week are clear: Gutzon Borglum smashed the two offending angels:

I felt like a murderer, but that was the only thing to do under the circumstances . . .

I didn’t want an express man to haul them away to be stored somewhere. I didn’t want any one to touch them except myself. So I simply broke them to pieces myself, and I should hate to tell you how I felt when I did it.

Oh yes, I am under contract to do that work for the Cathedral. The word came that the angels must be men, and men they shall be.

That gentle, elegant sculptures proceeded from Borglum’s hands speaks well only of his talent; art and virtue are often estranged. Still, the sculptor showed surprising grace a few days later when he explained his plan for the cathedral’s first chapel:

The group was described by a text from the New Testament: “I piped to you, and ye did not dance.”

It symbolizes the despair of a woman who, finding that her appeal to the man’s higher nature has failed, turns away from him, and only the ensuing silence awakens him.

“I was impressed with the idea in this way,” said Borglum. “I went to a concert with a friend and heard Ysaye play one of Brahms’s compositions exquisitely. I was moved, delighted, enthusiastic, and I turned to my friend to discuss it with him. He was silent, the music had not touched him, we could not meet, and I was disappointed.”

A century later, most pilgrims to “St. John the Unfinished” scarcely glance at Borglum’s reverent, unironic angels, and no one remembers what they represent. At least two of the statues recall a week when angel faces roused pedantry, dogmatism, or scorn in otherwise decent people. Only Borglum, in the wake of his outburst, enshrined a contrary notion: that infamous people can bring about beautiful things.

In a season of hope, pause before Borglum’s angels, which a 1937 guidebook called “worthy of more than passing notice.” They may not move you, but when you know what they’re saying, they never seem silent again.

“I can hear people singing, it must be Christmas time…”

Just seven weeks into the life of Looking Up, nearly 100 copies are already in circulation—a surprising and gratifying start for a small, strange book of formal poems about gargoyles with almost no press and a publicity budget of zilch. To everyone who bought a copy or who sent readers here via blog posts, Facebook, or Twitter: thank you!

Christmas is coming, and I need to sell a few more copies to break even and start earning money to donate to the cathedral, so if you’d like a copy—or several stocking-stuffable copies—now’s the time.

The most helpful way to get Looking Up is to order copies from me. You can go to the original post about the book and use the Google Checkout pulldown menu. You can also use Paypal: just check out the pricing based on quantity and destination in the pulldown menu and send the equivalent via Paypal to my email address, jeffsypeck -at- gmail dot com. I’ll ship your books by the next business day.

If you’re a check-or-money-order sort of soul, or if you have questions about ordering, no problem! Just email me. You can also find the book in the gargoyle section at the National Cathedral’s spiffy new first-floor gift shop—and, of course, at Amazon.com.

If you’re new to Quid Plura?, feel free to browse the first drafts of 50 of the book’s 53 poems or read the best posts from the past five years. This blog is about books, art, writing, and above all, discovering traces of the Middle Ages in unexpected places. I don’t update it as frequently as I’d like, but keep checking back. I’ll do my best to make sure there’s something worth reading.