“A concert of kings, as the white sea snaps…”

A few months ago, I got an email from Katie Holmes, a classical guitarist and music student at Columbus State University in Georgia. She had read my book of poems inspired by the National Cathedral gargoyles and was hoping I’d be okay with her setting some of them to music.

I told her to go for it. Her YouTube channel showed that she’s a talented and promising musician with an impressive formal education, and I was eager to see what she’d do.

Ms. Holmes debuted her first composition inspired by Looking Up on April 3—and, to my delight, she did much more than merely set a poem to music. Instead, she took “An Octopus Reappraises Her Lobster,” one of the earliest and most popular poems in the series, and committed a riskier act of artistic interpretation, turning it into a composition for…voice and marimba!

[Go to this YouTube link if the video doesn’t work.]

Just when I think life is low on surprises, there it is: a trained vocalist takes the stage to sing, with all due solemnity, “I hear the hot breath of the lobster I love.”

Without the cathedral and its grotesques to put it in context, this piece of bittersweet light verse becomes a surreal new work of art, a echo from an eerie, alien, inverted world well beyond my imagining. It’s its own weird beastie, and I love it.

As I wrote to Katie, I’m glad she felt free to make this poem hers. We all long for readers, listeners, and fans, but having an interpreter—essentially an artistic collaborator—is a rare and unexpected gift.

* * * * *

AN OCTOPUS REAPPRAISES HER LOBSTER

I hear the hot breath of the lobster I love;
The trees wilt below us; there’s nothing above.
You snore and I shudder, for sleepless I know
The oath of adventure we swore long ago:

“Between us, our limbs number eighteen in all;
Let’s creep from this tank and slip over the wall
And forever be free! Let’s aspire to perch
On a spire of our own on the loftiest church.”

You clawed at my tentacle, tender and green,
Like the first awkward kiss of a king and his queen.
You scuttled, I swam; through the garden we went.
Where grass gripped the stones, we began our ascent.

A lobster lives long, as no octopus can,
But a lobster has in him but one perfect plan.
I longed for longevity; no girl expects
To ask of her lobster, “So what happens next?”

You curl up contentedly, dreaming of me;
I cling to my cornice and scarcely feel free.
“I won’t let you down,” you once vowed, and I sighed.
I love that you’re honest; I wish you had lied.

“Asking for more only got us where we are today…”

A while back, two poets independently responded to my gargoyle-poem book by asking me if I knew Maryann Corbett. I didn’t, but when I looked her up, I was pleasantly stunned to find someone whose modus operandi I understood: a poet who tends to the formal, a medievalist who holds a non-academic day job. Her latest book, Mid Evil, collects only 40 poems, but together they show how we frame our yearnings with fragments of the past—both the world’s and our own.

At first, all I saw was Corbett’s medievalism. Mid Evil takes its title from a poem about an blasé student’s chronic misspellings; the book also includes poems about studying medieval manuscripts, facing cancer in light of Cathar heresies, seeing The Return of the King with costumed teenagers, and imagining J.R.R. Tolkien’s inner life. Corbett is a skilled translator, so Mid Evil includes modern English versions of several medieval poems: the Old English “Deor” and three Exeter Book riddles, all of them in a form that recalls Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines; two balades from the French of Christine de Pizan; and verses from Alcuin about a nightingale, rendered in a meter that evokes the long Latin lines of the original.

When medievalism inspires new works of art, I’m intrigued and delighted, so I might have decided that all this was enough. On a hunch, though, I decided to read Mid Evil not as a miscellany but as a collection with purposeful organization. What emerged was an even more meaningful book: the story of a halting but ongoing pilgrimage.

Appropriately, Mid Evil opens with two poems in which old books provoke unexpected emotion. In “Paleography,” Corbett describes the intermingled confusion and enthusiasm that comes from trying to read 16th-century handwriting, which leaves her feeling “like the child who listened, puzzled / by the cries in the next room.” She lets the reader decide whether her experience is a sign of cosmic immaturity or a rare opportunity for the renewal she later craves. In “Hand,” she finds a colophon in a Middle English manuscript that reads “pray for him that made this book,” which pits skepticism against faith but leads Corbett to contemplate the actual, physical existence of the long-dead scribe and to “wonder how long the bones of a hand would last.”

In Corbett’s poetry, such relics are forever surprising us; they suggest a larger, more more challenging context to our lives. A teacup, for example, is a tribute to centuries of human activity—slavery, alchemy, religion, myth—culminating in the morning sip that affords the poet a moment of peace. A blue bowl tells the story of the aging and the dead and holds memories of a loud, insulting father:

“Depression glass.” Imagine it: her mother,
using that gimcrack thing for sixty years,
remembering how a speechless misery feels.
A kind of sore the mind keeps picking at.
I think she’s kept a lot of things like that.

And see, the mother’s still around. That’s why
she hasn’t sold it yet to an antique store.
I’ve often told her that would be a mercy.
Honey, it would. That’s what collecting’s for.
Restoring things. We clear the clouds away
so people see good things for what they are.

If mundane objects can resonate with meaning, so can our lives, as long as we’re open to seeing them as stories. In “The Return of the King Screens at Midnight at the Multiplex,” Corbett’s disputatio between skepticism and faith takes on a secular cast as she notes a conflict familiar to medievalists: the detached study of the scholar versus the playfulness of the costumed fan. She realizes it’s not a conflict at all, but reason for an overdue reprimand:

And I
am riven in the dark, remembering
how, long ago, I swore the only way

into these glamours was to learn to sing
in ancient grammar. Oh my misspent youth:
As well escape your life with imagining

as riddle through the words of some dead mouth.

Settling into her theater seat, she bids herself “[t]o hear the tale that salves the sting of truth” and to think about the fleeting value of fantasy and escapism. “So make your minds / more bloody,” she later exhorts girls shopping for Halloween costumes at Goodwill, hoping they’ll revel in pretending to be monsters. Otherwise, they’ll miss a youthful opportunity, however modest, to experience something beyond themselves, like the hapless undergraduate of “Mid Evil”:

And the last blow is this, your final exam,
in which, over and over, you call the course
mid evil literature. Yes, I suppose
for you that is the word. We both are lost here,
mapless in Middle Earth and muddling through.
You’ll claim your paper. Mild civilities
will be exchanged, and then you’ll lope away,
a sad C minus in your grip ensuring
we’re done. It’s mid-December. Snow will fall—
hrim ond hrið, but no one says that now,
since this is the sphere of Time, beneath the moon,
where everything must change, and where the poems
evaporate like hoar-frost in the sun.

Poems, movies, stories, myths—they shore us against aimlessness, but they also nudge us toward generosity. Faced with a storyteller in “The Pandhandler’s Tale,” Corbett puts aside her reservations and welcomes “the willing suspension of disbelief, / which lets us yield ourselves to the tale of wonder,” even though she only ends up attracting more panhandlers. The experience is real regardless; we’ve avoided a mystery, perhaps even a moment of grace, by assuming a story is false. Imagining one of the Brothers Grimm rewriting tales told by a cowherd’s wife, Corbett wonders: “Does it matter / that now we know how far from truth it falls?” A poem about Abelard and Eloise finds fault with all parties, but encourages interpretation: “What can we know? Perhaps less love than pride / led to their woes. Read their own words. Decide.”

But myth, fantasy, stories, and scholarship all have their limitations, as Corbett makes clear in several poems with a tragic edge. A fond memory of watching the rousing “Victory at Sea” on television in the 1950s darkens with the adult realization that the veteran who was dozing in a nearby armchair likely saw horrific things; simple stories are for children. The myths in fashion magazines prove useless decades after our teenage years; a mysteriously returned gift from a daughter’s long-ago lover shocks us out of our personal fables and into complex reality. Even history itself has limited value: in “The Historian Considers the End Time,” a scholar wracked by cancer is tempted by the Cathars’ heresy of the evil of the body, but her medievalism is useless. She can only hope to leave behind scant relics that give meaning to someone else:

They must, those thirteenth-century prelates,
have known it with a blazing certainty,
the truth he’s going to know then, when he hugs
the clothes that hold her fragrance, when his chest knots
as he cleans her closet, when months past the funeral
he finds in a broom strands of the long, dark hair.

So what do we do when the shadow of nothingness looms? All of Corbett’s thematic strands rise and converge in “Sing, My Tongue,” the final section of Mid Evil. These seven poems find strength and revelation in singing as Corbett invites us to join her in church. “On Singing the Exultet” puts us in the choir at the start of the Easter Vigil, where the singer marvels at the audacity of what she is about to do:

It’s candlelight that makes it possible.
How otherwise could you, with your puny pipes,
expect to do this? yell to the end of space—
where air won’t carry sound—and order the nebulae
Exult? But here you are: you’re going to dare it.

Even feeling insignificant implies a cosmic context for our lives, as “the light of the unforeseen”

burnishes a quiet table
where lover and beloved look at each other
weighing a question that will change the world.
That has already changed it.

In these closing poems, Corbett grapples with doubt while singing at a funeral; one page later, she crashes to earth after the high of singing Mozart with an orchestra in a cathedral. “I’ve come to feel / how all my feasts are haunted,” she says after a child interrupts her attempt to find focus in church, and she falls back on translating Alcuin, who exhorts the nightingale to sing without end: “Sour as my soul had become, you could fill it with honeying sweetness.” She ends on a note of fatigue, physical and spiritual, but despite being disheartened by “wheezing gasps where nothing is inspired,” she still hopes for profundity:

I want it back: the confidence in air—
ruah, pneuma, spiritus—the breath
that stirs the vocal folds of nuns in choir.
The breath that Is. The sound of something there
guiding this gusty round of birth and death.
The rush of driving wind. The tongues of fire.

Mid Evil starts with scholarly study and ends in a wish for religious exultation; it begins with writing and ends in song, becoming a prayer for inspiration, confidence, purpose, and grace. Whether that prayer can or will receive an answer remains, for Corbett, an open question, but she comes to a conclusion I gladly endorse: that myth and medievalism are promising places to start.

“Well, it seemed to be a song for you…”

Two years ago, I was half-watching the Disney Channel with my nephew and niece when a commercial startled me—not because a fleeting tween sensation had finally done something funny, but because I couldn’t believe they were airing a two-minute promo for poetry. Backstage at a children’s poetry slam, Caroline Kennedy was chatting about her new Disney-backed anthology, Poems to Learn by Heart, without naming a single poem in the book. Naturally, I wondered: What sort of anthology do we get from a network that exalts dancing and singing above all other human endeavors?

As it turns out, a pretty conservative one. Poems to Learn by Heart isn’t the slam-tastic book the commercial makes it out to be; instead, it’s full of traditional, anthology-friendly names: Shakespeare, Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Stephen Crane, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, Richard Wilbur—around a hundred poets in all. Adults who want poetry to be “edgy” will find the selection cautious—the wildest poet here is Amiri Baraka, whose “Ballad of the Morning Streets” won’t shock grandma—but Kennedy has less seasoned readers in mind. To her credit, she knows that while most English majors have read poems like “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, most American children (and their parents) have not. She also gets that this book’s 183 pages contain more poetry than most kids will encounter in twelve years of school, so it’s a rare chance to show them what the English language has to offer, from Lewis Carroll to Nikki Giovanni.

Even though Kennedy arranges her selections by subject (“the self,” “family,” “friendship and love,” “faeries, ogres, witches,” “nonsense poems,” “school,” “sports and games,” “war,” and “nature”), Poems to Learn by Heart doesn’t feel guided by a clear editorial point of view. Of course, that’s an adult concern; young readers who don’t yet know their own tastes may enjoy discovering Ovid, Countee Cullen, and Robert Louis Stevenson alongside a Navajo prayer, the Gettysburg Address, the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, selections from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, and Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the Socialists” speech. I appreciate breadth, and even the inclusion of lyrical prose, but is it here to foster inclusiveness, or to deflect criticism? One could easily use the table of contents to reconstruct the minutes of Disney’s fretful editorial meetings: Something for the religious? Cultural-literacy conservatives? Social-justice liberals? Native Americans? Check, check, check, and check.

Despite these thoughtful, wide-ranging selections, this book doesn’t always fulfill the promise of its title. Kennedy may be gung-ho for memorization, but I didn’t always see the mnemonic value of her selections: Is “Peace” the one Gerard Manley Hopkins poem to remember? Why learn Shakespeare’s sonnet 94 instead of one of the others? Kennedy asked a six-member poetry slam team at a Bronx high school to help pick these poems, and she devoted four pages to their own passionate free-verse poem about racism, consumerism, child abuse, and mass media. While I hope the publication credit gave their lives a hearty boost, I do wonder, perhaps heartlessly, if their work belongs here. For whom other than the teens who wrote and performed it is it a “poem to learn by heart”?

I was also baffled by the selections in a final “extra credit” section: “Young Lochinvar” by Walter Scott, “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Longfellow, “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge, Robert Service’s crowd-pleasing “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and the first 18 lines of the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. “Mostly they are old chestnuts that have fallen out of favor,” the scion of a privileged political dynasty warns us, lest she come off as a square, “but the feats of memory required to master them will impress even the most modern audiences.” Why can’t the editor of a poetry anthology write as if she actually believes that old things have value beyond their potential for self-exploration and showing off? (And who the heck drops Chaucer on kids without a pronunciation guide?)

That final section highlights this book’s major flaw: a lack of wild, wham-bang narrative. Jon J. Muth’s illustrations are beautiful, but his cover captures the overall mood: gentle, contemplative, dreamy. That’s fine for some kids, but what about action for the more rambunctious? It’s not my style to call for a book to be less intellectual (or for things Disney to be less introspective), but cripes, what about a good, gory chunk of Beowulf or Homer, or an Asian or African epic? Where are the pirates, cavemen, and ghouls of Robert E. Howard? Except in passing in its introduction, Poems to Learn by Heart forgets to teach kids that some of humanity’s best stories are told in verse—and that people proudly carry them around in their heads.

I hate to be hard on this book. For many kids, it will be their only introduction to poetry, and some, I hope, will adore it. Decades from now, if those readers fondly remember this book as adults, the Disney Channel will deserve praise for marshaling its legions of wolf-mounted marketing goblins in support of something more sophisticated than terrible sitcoms—nothing less than Octavio Paz, Seamus Heaney, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Elizabeth Bishop, and Ovid. Only then will I know if Poems to Learn by Heart has served children well or if it’s the century’s first great, unread gift book, a smart, well-intentioned effort to elevate young readers that’s (maybe) too pensive, too mousey, too nice.

“Turn on these theater lights and brighten the darkest skies…”

(Dante in D.C.: solarized Polaroid negative)

Most aspects of medievalism in America don’t baffle me. I understand why we want to lay down European roots through Gothic architecture, I get why the pedigreed chivalry of Charlemagne and King Arthur might appeal to us, and the imaginative pleasures of medieval-ish fantasy are (mostly) self-evident. But Dante? I’ve never grasped what Americans hope to do with him—maybe because the answer turns out to be “everything.”

While Dante helped rally Italian nationalism in the early 19th century, Americans looked to him for different shades of inspiration. Melville saw him as a guide through moral quagmires; Emerson considered him a simple genius; and others longed for his unshakeable certainty in their own supposedly weak-willed and overly tolerant age. Charles Eliot Norton, who promoted the study of Dante at Harvard and established the Dante Society of America, praised the poet for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure). You can imagine the scent of Dante cigars, fondly recall the “Dante’s Inferno” ride at Coney Island, or show off your snazzy Dante earrings. You can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

So is Dante nothing more than a leering cadaver we clothe in our whims? In a blog post about two new Dante books, Cynthia Haven at Stanford suggests that il Poeta has something greater to offer us, a vision as priceless as it is stark:

A more interesting question might be: what does Dante tell us about our world that we do not recognize ourselves? Here’s my take: we live in a time and in a generation that thinks everything is negotiable, and that every psycho-spiritual lock can be jimmied. As W.H. Auden put it, we push away the notion that “the meaning of life [is] something more than a mad camp.” For us, there’s always a second, third, and fourth chance. It’s a strength – but it’s a weakness, too. Maybe that’s why we resist Dante. We don’t realize that some things are for keeps. There’s not always another day. Not all choices can be reversed with every change of heart – and no, our heart isn’t always in the right place. Words unsaid may remain forever unsaid. And perhaps no choice is trivial or innocent: it is the choices that bring us to ourselves, the choices that reveal and work as a fixative for our loves, our priorities, and our direction.

Just before Christmas, I checked out “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah. The title was misleading, since the art wasn’t inspired by Dante; the works only echoed his concepts and themes. “The concern here is not with the Divine Comedy or Dante,” explained the curator, “but with something truly universal.” How gloomy, but how unsurprising, that another interpreter of Dante, another artist in search of the timeless, doesn’t discern that they’re one and the same.

“It’s not the way you have your hair, it’s not that certain style…”

After the artists at a major art center in Virginia asked me to do some writing for them, I was delighted when they kept me busy for nearly two years—and surprised when their work pushed me back toward the visual arts after a 20-year lapse. I’m now fumbling with media I saw others handle so masterfully, but the most challenging project by far has been prying (sometimes literally prying) interesting photographs from three mid-1960s Polaroid Land Cameras.

As I’ve written before, A Land Camera is not versatile. Although it has a focus bar and other manual controls, an electric eye presumes to do much of the squinting. There’s no zoom, development time depends on the air temperature, and the prints leave behind photographic placentas in strips of chemical-drenched litter.

I don’t aspire to be a photographer; I’m learning to use only this type of camera, with all its quirks and severe limitations and almost no reliance on Photoshop. Using a Land Camera is like writing a poem within strict formal constraints: Certain flourishes are simply impossible—but if we practice a little, what can we make it do?

It helps to have an obsessive theme—and so from time to time, I haul my cameras out into the world in the hope of framing glimpses of medievalism in snapshots. Over time, maybe, this project will find its focus.

* * *


I love the little neon mujahed on this sign in Ocean City, Maryland. Four things helped me take this low-light photo: a tripod, a homemade Lego camera stand, electrical tape, and a beatifically indifferent night manager.

Although Ocean City is flashy and bright, I had to keep the shutter open for five seconds, which shows you just how light-hungry these old cameras can be.

* * *

I spent the day before Columbus Day doing research at the Johns Hopkins library—but when I was done, I roamed the city looking for something medieval to photograph. There’s a statue of William “Braveheart” Wallace along the reservoir in Druid Hill Park, but the afternoon light fell far more serendipitously on this Christopher Columbus monument from 1892.

What hath Columbus to do with the Middle Ages? He loved the travel stories of Mandeville and Marco Polo, he was beguiled by medieval legends about marvelous islands to the west, and on his third journey, he was sure he’d located the Earthly Paradise. He hoped his Atlantic voyages would ultimately convert the Chinese emperor to Christianity and help fund a new crusade to reclaim Jerusalem. Quoth historian Luis Weckmann: “Columbus, the first link between the Old World and the New, stands in a clearer light, perhaps, if we envisage him not so much as the first of the modern explorers but as the last of the great medieval travelers.”

* * *

No, gnomes aren’t medieval, but they are rooted in 19th-century European medievalism, and there’s certainly a medieval tradition of wee woodland beings making trouble for us humans. Some Anglo-Saxon charms even blame certain types of pain and disease on wicked little “elves.” (Plus, this gnome is made out of felt, the discovery of which is rather dubiously attributed to saints Clement and Christopher.)

At only four inches high, this fellow gave me a excuse to practice using the special Polaroid “close-up kit.” This picture doesn’t illuminate anything particular about the American penchant for medievalist fantasy, but it did teach me that when you’re on your belly in the grass at noon on a hot summer day photographing gnomes with an antique camera, the cops slow down to get a better look at you.

 * * *

This Gothicpalooza facade on the bagel shop at 36 East Main Street in Newark, Delaware, contrasts sharply with the quaint Colonial Revival campus of the University of Delaware campus just footsteps away. The facade’s two beasties have looked down on the drunk and the un-drunk alike since 1917, when the building was a pharmacy. As I wrote back in 2013, I’m convinced they were inspired by specific grotesques at Notre-Dame in Paris.

* * *
“…but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shall be wel.”

Sometimes you get lucky. In the crypt of the National Cathedral, there’s a stark little chapel lit only by indirect sun. On a frigid afternoon last January, I leaned on a pew and snapped a quick picture of this Good Shepherd statue. The resulting image startled me; with these old cameras, light and luck are always intertwined.

Last year, Fuji stopped making this fast black-and-white film, so I’m brooding, dragon-like, over a hoard of it. It’s possible that I’ve chosen the wrong tools for the task, and that lingering traces of the Middle Ages demand a sharper lens. We’ll see. For now, I’ll keep learning how to use old cameras that thrive on what shadow and sunlight demand.

“…but as for fame, it’s just a name…”

Blackfriars Playhouse interior. Photo by Lauren D. Rogers.

What was it like to see a play in the 1590s? The good folks at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, answer that question at least five nights a week, as unflagging actors stage the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in a cozy recreation of Shakespeare’s first theater in London. The Blackfriars is now in the throes of its Actors’ Renaissance Season, the annual late-winter whirlwind where a dozen actors direct themselves and play all of the roles in five plays at once, with only a few days to prepare and rehearse. (There’s a prompter nearby, but it’s a sign of the actors’ immersion in their work that they rarely need to “prithee” him.)

This weekend, we drove down to Staunton for two shows: Aphra Behn’s “The Rover,” which taught me a useful new 17th-century exclamation—‘sheartlikins!—and John Webster’s “The White Devil,” a lurid, over-the-top revenge tragedy packed with vivid metaphors and similes about death and the cruel indifference of nature. “But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men, / For with his nails he’ll dig them up again”—T.S. Eliot parodied those lines, and I was startled to hear the originals spoken by a grieving mother; it’s rare to spot a footnote from “The Waste Land” running loose in the wild.

Because I’ve written so much about Charlemagne, I was also surprised to hear a character name-check the Carolingians during one of Webster’s most frantic scenes: Two women think they’re tricking a scoundrel named Flamineo into a complex, three-way suicide pact, but he’s actually tricking them into revealing their falseness by giving them pistols loaded with blanks. As he feigns preparation for death, he muses on his afterlife—so the Blackfriars actor said something like this:

Whither shall I go now? O Lucian, thy ridiculous purgatory! To find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, and Julius Caesar making hair buttons, and King Pippin crying apples in a cart.

A reference to one of the Pippins, but not Charlemagne? That surprised me, so I looked up the full text of the play, and sure enough, the Big C is right where I thought he would be:

Whither shall I go now? O Lucian thy ridiculous purgatory! To find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, Pompey tagging points, and Julius Caesar making hair buttons, Hannibal selling blacking, and Augustus crying garlic, Charlemagne selling lists by the dozen, and King Pippin crying apples in a cart drawn with one horse.
Whether I resolve to fire, earth, water, air,
Or all the elements by scruples, I know not
Nor greatly care—Shoot, shoot,
Of all deaths the violent death is best,
Far from ourselves it steals ourselves so fast
The pain once apprehended is quite past.

What intrigued me here is that either the actor, overwhelmed by having to learn five plays at once, skipped over several of the mighty men who are reduced to menial labor in purgatory—or, more likely, he and his castmates cut the play for time, paring down this overwrought passage to the three names an early 21st-century audience might know: Alexander, Julius Caesar, and…Pippin?

Although they all had the same name, Charlemagne’s disfavored hunchback son who inspired the 1972 jazz-hands musical wasn’t the same guy as Charlemagne’s other son Pippin, who ruled Italy, or Charlemagne’s father Pippin, the first Carolingian king. The fact that a Pippin made the cut but Charlemagne didn’t hints at the priorities of theater people, who know the musical but not necessarily the history behind it—but that’s not a complaint. The Blackfriars’ productions are engrossing and smart, historical figures are doomed to whirl ’round Fortune’s wheel, and Webster knew that drawing sustenance from the mouldering past is part of the natural and necessary gloom of life:

Or, like the black and melancholic yew-tree,
Dost think to root thyself in dead men’s graves,
And yet to prosper?

“Success or failure will not alter it…”

“A thousand skeptic hands won’t keep us from the things we plan,” Alcuin wrote to Theodulf of Orleans at the dawn of the ninth century, “unless we’re clinging to the things we prize.” Despite Alcuin’s optimism, a thorny new translation project has kept me from writing substantive blog posts, but I can share this enlightening array of mid-winter links.

What did a Tolkien expert think of the final Hobbit movie? Michael Drout weighs in.

Steven Muhlberger ponders what it means to be both a historian of the Middle Ages and a medieval reenactor.

Steve Donoghue appreciates Longfellow’s poetry: “the sheer unembarrassed power of it has undimmed power to work if readers drop their cynicism and let it.”

How is Michael Moorcock’s new fantasy novel? Steve Donoghue will tell you that, too.

At New York theaters, Paul Elie discovers Southern Gothic.

In France, Lucy sees smoke, and hears a bell tolling softly for another.

Dale Favier finds joy in the driveway of Copernicus.

Diane Seneschal concludes that in teaching, “the remedy is the poem itself.”

Chris at Hats and Rabbits sticks up for Rocky Balboa.

Flavia ponders Facebook taboos and “the pleasures of the private.”

Prof Mondo advises a student not to sweat those youthful fumbles.

Jake asks: What incentivizes professors to grade honestly?

It’s like the raft of the Medusa, only less cheerful: economists analyze the job market for English Ph.Ds.

“Na na na na na na, make my mind up for me…”

[I originally posted this on September 16, 2010. Some of the details are out of date, but the sentiment is appropriate for today.]

When I was 20 years old and no paragon of intellectual maturity, I drew a weekly comic strip for my university paper. The strip had its smarter moments, but more often it served as a vehicle for what I deluded myself into believing was provocation. I advocated seal clubbing, and I called for all campus disputes, however minor, to be settled with firearms. I graduated no longer convinced that most cartoonists are brave tellers of truth, because honestly, nobody cared. My biggest critic was a jerk who called me at home to tell me I’d misstated the number of people in the Rolling Stones. He called me “buddy,” in the snidest possible way.

One strip did cause a problem. A single panel depicted a haloed, self-satisfied Jesus handing Mary a souvenir. It read: “My Son Went to Hell and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” When I asked a Christian friend if he thought the comic was appropriate for Easter week, he shot me a look of deep parental disappointment. He also let it pass.

The editor-in-chief of the newspaper did not. Because his letters page had recently hosted a contentious debate about religion, he told me he planned to end the discussion of religion in the newspaper for a while. Therefore, any depiction of Jesus on the comics page was out. “But I don’t want you to be Bil Keane,” he assured me. “I want you to be edgy!”—a weirdly confident lie from a young man holding his first position of authority. We spoke by phone for an hour. When we were done, he confessed that he didn’t understand my comic anyway.

Citing time constraints, I declined to draw a replacement. That week, the newspaper ran 20 square inches of blank space. A year later, I left cartooning behind. The editor-in-chief joined the New York Times. I didn’t really know him, but Google tells me he’s still climbing the career ladder at the paper while teaching journalism nearby.

These days, I have zero interest in provoking or offending, and I find most attempts to tweak the religious to be lazy at best. Even so, my cartoonist years seemed all the more idyllic when I read this morning, with horror and nausea, that Molly Norris of the Seattle Weekly has ceased to exist:

The talented cartoonist who launched the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” on Facebook, and then regretted and withdrew her proposal, has nevertheless had to go into hiding — moving, changing her name, washing out her identity — at the suggestion of the FBI. It’s just like the witness protection program. The government, however, will not be picking up the tab. She will.

Norris viewed the situation with characteristic humor: “When FBI agents, on a recent visit, instructed her to always keep watch for anyone following her, she responded, ‘Well, at least it’ll keep me from being so self-involved!’”

Some quick background: when someone on the “Revolution Muslim” Web site threatened to kill the South Park guys for a segment that included a depiction of Muhammad, Comedy Central caved, and Norris responded by drawing a cartoon. Someone other than Norris started an “‘Everybody Draw Muhammad’ Day” Facebook page based on her drawing, and she became the obvious target.

How permanent is Norris’s identity wipe? The Seattle Weekly explains:

She likens the situation to cancer—it might basically be nothing, it might be urgent and serious, it might go away and never return, or it might pop up again when she least expects it.

In my own speech, I choose reticence, but I take a very liberal position otherwise: As far as I’m concerned, if you’re breaking no other laws, then you can say whatever you want, draw whatever you want, and deface or defile anything that’s your own property, be it a flag, a holy symbol, an effigy, you name it. However, in return, I reserve the right to judge you, denounce you, lobby against you, tell others how wrong you are, and speak vociferously in reply. Speech invites consequences, and I’m open to arguments about responsible, voluntary limits. That said, I’ll always put threats and violence on the far side of that line, and I’ll never suggest that in a free society, an artist or writer was asking to be forced to erase herself from existence.

So yes, despite being a pretty inoffensive writer, I took the news about Molly Norris personally, just as I did in 2008 when I read that Sherry Jones’s publisher was firebombed. I’ve written a book in which Muslims guzzle wine, Jews own slaves, and Christians kill in the name of religion. While nothing about my take on the early Middle Ages is all that wild, what’s to stop some hateful, publicity-seeking pastor from hagriding me, or some Islamic fanatic from registering his disapproval via DaggerGram? If doodles can incite worldwide riots, how can I know that my 20-page depiction of a liberal, even libertine, Baghdad won’t light a madman’s fuse?

In a few days, Banned Books Week will roll back around. Writers and teachers and academics and librarians will wear “I read banned books!” buttons, trumpet the cause on blogs and Facebook, and assert their superiority to the withered River City shrews who object to the dandelion-sniffing scenes in Naked Came I. Like many religious practices, it’s a liturgy everyone recites but few really live. On the day a woman begins erasing herself—for how long, no one knows—for drawing pictures and writing words, the National Cartoonists Society is spotlighting Li’l Abner, while the day’s offerings on the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists website take inconsequential stands against Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, Fidel Castro, and that dingus pastor in Florida.

And my former editor? He’s tweeting about a fabulous new café. We should totally go. We’ll call our book club and talk about the new Franzen novel. Big news: Oprah likes it! What’s it called again?

“Shuffling your memories, dealing your doodles in margins…”

I won’t be sorry to see 2014 sink silently into its grave. It was a year of too much work, too little good health, and almost no time at all for the writing I’d hoped to do.

Even so, when I look back at the year that was, I’m satisfied with the quality of what I posted on this blog, if not the quantity. As you recover from feasting and holiday travel, I hope you’ll enjoy this recap and discover a post or two you otherwise missed.

Thanks for checking in! I’m grateful for your occasional eyeballs; in the year ahead I’ll do my best to make this blog worthy of their ongoing attention.

* * *

The “Quid Plura?” year in medieval-ish books:

We learned at last how J.R.R. Tolkien translated Beowulf into Tolkienese.

I loved Need-Fire, a book-length poem by Becky Gould Gibson about the women who ran the double monastery at Whitby during the 7th century.

Why do people throw themselves into medieval reenactment? Novelist Tod Wodicka offered some answers in his delightfully titled All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well, and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well.

* * *

The “Quid Plura?” year in medievalism, American-style:

Traveling in Colorado invited musings on medieval traces in the Old West; the debate rolls ever on.

It’s been a while since Flannery O’Connor was seen only as a “Southern Gothic” writer; she should also be remembered as a committed American medievalist.

This year, I learned that taking pictures with a 50-year-old Polaroid is like composing verse in strict poetic forms, but I went out anyway and sought scenes from medieval-ish America—a project very much in progress.

* * *

The “Quid Plura?” year in creepy international medievalism:

The name of the al-Qaeda group “Khorasan” reminds us of Tom Shippey’s dictum that “[t]here are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

Likewise, why did Gavrilo Princip choose June 28 for the assassination that ignited World War I? He had medieval Serbia in mind.

The Sochi Olympics prompted a look back at W.E.D. Allen’s remarkable History of the Georgian People, which reads like a Robert E. Howard yarn.

As a disinterested observer, I had no opinion on the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum except to note that the Scots themselves set a worthy and decent precedent: keeping their medieval forefathers silent and snug in their graves.

Still, you never know where medievalism and nationalism might intertwine. In Baltimore, I stumbled onto a memorial that uses medieval Poland to sanctify modern heroes.

* * *

The “Quid Plura?” year in translation:

For the 1,200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death, I translated Walafrid’s account of Charlemagne in purgatory into metrical, alliterative verse.

I did the same with a poem about the month of November by a ninth-century monk, but I translated part of Alcuin’s “The Debate Between Spring and Winter” into a rather earthier idiom.

To my surprise, my English version of a lament on the death of Charlemagne’s infant daughter was accepted for publication in the summer translation issue of Able Muse.

* * *

The “Quid Plura?” year in academia:

By now, anyone who enters grad school in the humanities must know that the prospects are bleak, but in the 1980s and 1990s at least two medievalists saw this crisis coming.

That said, when journalists summarize academic research, the scholars in question often deserve better—so no, there weren’t as many female Viking warriors as there were men.

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

[A few years back, I got to join my longtime friend who writes the Ephemeral New York blog as she sought out material for new posts. This 2010 post of mine, which resulted from one of our excursions, strikes me as a suitable seasonal rerun.]

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.