Monday, April 20, 2020

When one book helps you understand another

This morning we were reading Canto 3 of The Faerie Queene Book I, in which the sorcerer Archimago disguises himself as the Redcross Knight after having caused Redcross to mistrust Una and leave her behind.

Una (whom Spenser also calls Truth) has gone to find her knight, and when the disguised Archimago catches up with her, she really believes him to be Redcross. Every time I've read this I've wondered why the character who is identified as the Truth was deceived by this evil man, but today something caught my attention. A little earlier in the canto, Una is compared to the sun . . .

     . . . Her angels face
     As the great eye of heaven shyned bright,
     And made a sunshine in the shadie place;
Did never mortall eye behold such heavenly grace.

. . . and that reminded me of something.

At the beginning of the school year, I read Paradise Lost with Angelina Stanford's Early Modern Literature class. In this story, when Satan escapes from Hell, the first thing he does is to ask Uriel, the angel whose sphere is the sun, for directions to Earth, so that he can see "this new happy race of men," and give praise to God.

   So spake the false dissembler unperceived;
For neither man nor angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone,
By his permissive will, through Heav'n and earth:
And oft though wisdom wake, suspicion sleeps
At wisdom's gate, and to simplicity
Resigns her charge, while goodness thinks no ill
Where no ill seems.
(Paradise Lost, Book III, lines 681-689)

The more Great Books you read, the more it improves your ability to understand what you're reading -- they're all talking to one another.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Poetry for Coronatide

“O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
’Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!”

The two youngest and I have been reading Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” aloud together since last week, one section per day. We read the final section this morning, where the passage quoted occurs. How appropriate, and how fitting, even though I had only vague memories of the poem when we decided to read it after finishing Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar.

When I asked my kids what they wanted to read next, my 17-year-old said, with a knowing smile, “The Wasteland.” Her older brother was looking through his poetry book to see if it was in there so he could go ahead an mark the place for tomorrow.

“What’s the first line of that?” he said.

“‘April is the cruelest month,’” she said, and we all laughed.

Thursday, February 27, 2020


~ George Herbert (1593-1633)

Welcome deare feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie,
                But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church sayes, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
                To ev’ry Corporation.

The humble soul compos’d of love and fear
Begins at home, and layes the burden there,
                When doctrines disagree.
He sayes, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandall to the Church, and not
                The Church is so to me.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
                When good is seasonable;
Unlesse Authoritie, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it lesse,
                And Power it self disable.

Besides the cleannesse of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
                A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulnesse there are sluttish fumes,
Sowre exhalations, and dishonest rheumes,
                Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
                And goodnesse of the deed.
Neither ought other mens abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
                We forfeit all our Creed.

It ’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
                Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.
                In both let ’s do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
                That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
                May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
                As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
                And among those his soul.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Work, glory, leisure, worship, and love

Buy at

At the beginning of his Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper quotes this passage from Plato ...

But the Gods, taking pity on mankind, born to work, laid down the succession of recurring Feasts to restore them from their fatigue, and gave them the Muses, and Apollo their leader, and Dionysus, as companions in their Feasts, so that nourishing themselves in festive companionship with the Gods, they should again stand upright and erect.
[Laws, 2.653c-d]

... which reminds me of this poem:

~Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)

Low on his fours the Lion
Treads with the surly Bear;
But Men straight upward from the dust
Walk with their heads in air;
The free sweet winds of heaven,
The sunlight from on high
Beat on their clear bright cheeks and brows
As they go striding by;
The doors of all their houses
They arch so they may go,
Uplifted o’er the four-foot beasts,
Unstooping, to and fro.

And of course the very word “leisure” reminds me of this poem:

~William Henry Davies (1871-1940)

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

We know from the creation account in Genesis and from the Ten Commandments that we’re supposed to rest and worship, and we learn in the Psalms that this leisure properly grows from a delight in God and his love for us.

Domine, Dominus noster
~Psalm 8

O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!
who hast set thy glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings
hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies,
that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,
and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen,
yea, and the beasts of the field;

The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea,
and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!

Worship, leisure, standing upright crowned with glory, having dominion... It all comes together in this Psalm.

This is such an essential part of what it means to be a human that even the pagan philosophers and poets wrote about it to the best of their understanding. They knew that all of creation, beauty, glory, and rest were the gifts of Divine Love.

“Address to Venus”
~Lucretius (ca. 99 B.C. - ca. 55 B.C.)

Delight of Human kind, and Gods above;
Parent of Rome; Propitious Queen of Love;
Whose vital pow’r, Air, Earth, and Sea supplies;
And breeds what e’r is born beneath the rowling Skies:
For every kind, by thy prolifique might,
Springs, and beholds the Regions of the light:
Thee, Goddess thee, the clouds and tempests fear,
And at thy pleasing presence disappear:
For thee the Land in fragrant Flow’rs is drest,
For thee the Ocean smiles, and smooths her wavy breast;
And Heav’n it self with more serene, and purer light is blest.
For when the rising Spring adorns the Mead,
And a new Scene of Nature stands display’d,
When teeming Budds, and chearful greens appear,
And Western gales unlock the lazy year,
The joyous Birds thy welcome first express,
Whose native Songs thy genial fire confess:
Then savage Beasts bound o’re their slighted food,
Strook with thy darts, and tempt the raging floud:
All Nature is thy Gift; Earth, Air, and Sea:
Of all that breathes, the various progeny,
Stung with delight, is goaded on by thee.
O’er barren Mountains, o’er the flow’ry Plain,
The leavy Forest, and the liquid Main
Extends thy uncontroul’d and boundless reign.
Through all the living Regions dost thou move,
And scattr’st, where thou goest, the kindly seeds of Love:
Since then the race of every living thing,
Obeys thy pow’r; since nothing new can spring
Without thy warmth, without thy influence bear,
Or beautiful, or lovesome can appear,
Be thou my ayd: My tuneful Song inspire,
And kindle with thy own productive fire;
While all thy Province Nature, I survey,
And sing to Memmius an immortal lay
Of Heav’n, and Earth, and every where thy wond’rous pow’r display.
To Memmius, under thy sweet influence born,
Whom thou with all thy gifts and graces dost adorn.
The rather, then assist my Muse and me,
Infusing Verses worthy him and thee.
Mean time on Land and Sea let barb’rous discord cease,
And lull the listening world in universal peace.
To thee, Mankind their soft repose must owe,
For thou alone that blessing canst bestow;
Because the brutal business of the War
Is manag’d by thy dreadful Servant’s care:
Who oft retires from fighting fields, to prove
The pleasing pains of thy eternal Love:
And panting on thy breast, supinely lies,
While with thy heavenly form he feeds his famish’d eyes:
Sucks in with open lips, thy balmy breath,
By turns restor’d to life, and plung’d in pleasing death.
There while thy curling limbs about him move,
Involv’d and fetter’d in the links of Love,
When wishing all, he nothing can deny,
Thy charms in that auspicious moment try;
With winning eloquence our peace implore,
And quiet to the weary World restore.

[This content was originally part of my Poetry Month 2011 series.]

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Tips for readers: Getting through hard books

Earlier this summer when Cindy Rollins and Angelina Stanford were interviewing me for their Literary Life podcast, I mentioned that I didn’t start reading books that were hard for me till I was in my thirties. They asked me how I pushed through when reading something like that, so I mentioned a fairly recent experience with Charles Williams’ poem Taliessin Through Logres. In that case, I just kept looking for things I was already familiar with, which helped me keep going till I’d become familiar with Williams’ style and the general flow of the story.

I’d like to share some other strategies I’ve used over the years.

About a decade ago I decided to get better acquainted with Flannery O’Connor’s stories. Up until then I’d only read her short story, “Revelation,” but I’d read it many times, first in high school and then again every few years to see if it turned out any better, by which I mean, to see whether I could get to the end of the story without the bad guy turning out to be ME. Our library had the huge Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor—short stories, novels, essays, letters—so I started reading the fiction, and when it got too dark and difficult, I’d take a break by reading the non-fiction. Her essays are so thoughtful and her letters are delightful, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, and I found that getting to know the author as a person made reading her stories easier.

Another thing that has made it easier to persevere though hard books is reading and discussing them with friends, whether this happens in person or over the internet. I read Homer and Virgil and Ovid this way, and am currently working through Plato’s Republic with friends. Knowing we’re going to meet on a certain day, and that my friends will have read the next section, and that they will definitely have interesting things to share about it is very motivating for me!

This one may come as a surprise, but reading aloud to my children has gotten me through some hard things that I had tried and failed to read alone. William Langland’s Piers Plowman, and Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene fall into this category. I read Langland to my older set when they were in high school, but I started Spenser with my younger set much earlier, so I had to do some groundwork before reading the unabridged poem, but knowing that they loved the story and were waiting for the next canto, and sharing their delight in the story, helped me keep doing my part.

This next example is kind of hard to categorize, but maybe I should call it comparing the hard book to something else I already know and love. C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man was like this for me. I tried several times to read it and just could not comprehend what he was talking about, and always gave up before I’d gotten even half way through it. But one day when I picked up That Hideous Strength to read for the umpteenth time, I happened to notice the words “Abolition of Man” in the Preface. I don’t think I’d ever read the Preface before, and I was surprised to read, “This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.” This drove me back into that book and finally I could see what he was talking about in there, since I already knew what it looked like from That Hideous Strength.

How about you? How do you manage to read hard books?

Monday, August 19, 2019

In which Spenser talks back to Lull

Walter Crane - Britomart (1900)
Britomart, Walter Crane (1900)

In Book III of The Faerie Queene, Spenser tells the story of Britomart, the knight of Chastity. Britomart is the only child and heir of a king so she has been training in arms since girlhood. One day she looks into a magic mirror and sees the noblest knight in Faerieland and falls in love with him. She is so sick with love that her nurse takes her to Merlin for a cure, but Merlin tells her that this most noble knight is Artegall, who will be her husband. Together they will be the ancestors of generations of kings. He shows her the future and it’s glorious in many ways, but also tragic and heartbreaking.

Merlin tells her that Artegall will die young, but her comfort will be their son. He also tells her that Artegall needs her help and she must go find him. Britomart puts on armor, dresses her nurse as a squire, and sets out to find her future husband, having many adventures (including rescuing damsels in distress) along the way.

It’s a beautiful book and we meet many other characters who also embody the virtue of Chastity, though they are all very different. Spenser doesn’t ever have a one-size-fits-all idea of what the virtues look like, or how they should be embodied.

Are you surprised that Spenser gave us a lady knight? He’s following the classical tradition. There’s Camilla, the warrior maiden in The Aeneid, and Hippolyta, daughter of Ares and queen of the Amazons in The Iliad.

So, I had to laugh and wonder whether Spenser was refuting Ramon Lull at one point of his Book of Knighthood and Chivalry. Lull says that women “who have often the mirror in the hand,” aren’t fit to be knights, and that “only vile women or only villainy of heart” would want to be, or agree to accept a woman as, a knight.

Hah! I love Spenser so much.

And no, I don’t want to be a knight, myself. Not my calling at all.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Current reading and a plea for help


C.S. Lewis
Prince Caspian*
Preface to Paradise Lost
The Discarded Image

Plato, Republic

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Ramon Lull, Book of Knighthood and Chivalry

Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus

Mary Jo Tate, Flourish

Sidelined (it’s been a few weeks, but they’re still sitting out):

Dorothy Sayers, all the Lord Peter novels and short stories in chronological order*

Ariosto, Orlando Furioso

Reference (cluttering up my desk area because I keep dipping into them):

Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Northrup Frye, The Secular Scripture

E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture

Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake

To Be Read (too numerous to list)

[*denotes re-read]

Clearly I need to come up with some sort of a reading plan. I have a loose plan, in that I do my Bible reading when I first wake up, and read Ovid during breakfast. After that though, it’s as my whimsey takes me.

Also I need a decent system for keeping track of teaching/writing notes and ideas. Normally, everything is just in my head, or I’ll write down sketchy ideas on random pieces of paper, but then I don’t have a system and things get lost. If you have any advice, please share!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Of hermits and knights

Don’t you love it when you read one book and it reminds you of another book you love?

Recently, knowing what a medieval nerd I am, Angelina Stanford told me about a book on chivalry written in the 1200s, and translated into English by William Caxton in 1484. One of my first thoughts was, “I’ll bet Edmund Spenser read this book,” so of course I bought myself a copy of it (in updated English).

I have not been disappointed.

Ramon Lull’s Book of Knighthood and Chivalry opens with an aging knight who decides it is time to put knighthood behind him and begin to contemplate his death and the answer he will make to God when he faces him at the last day. He becomes a hermit and lives in a forest, subsisting off the fruit he can find.

In one part of the same woods was a fair meadow in which was a tree well-laden and charged with fruit, upon which the knight of the forest lived. And under the same tree was a fountain fair and clear that quenched and moistened the entire meadow. In that same place was the knight accustomed to come every day to pray and to adore God Almighty . . . .

One day, while sitting beside the fountain saying his daily prayers, a squire on horseback wanders into the meadow.

And then to him came the knight who was very old and had a great beard, long hair and a feeble gown worn and broken from overlong wearing. And by the penance that he daily made was discolored and very lean. By the tears that he had wept were his eyes wasted and had the regard and countenance of a very holy life. Each marveled at the other, for the knight who had been so long in his hermitage had seen no man since he had left the world.

The two men observe one another quietly for some time before the hermit speaks, knowing that “the squire would not speak first out of his reverence.”

“Fair friend, what is your intent and why have you come hither to this place?”

The squire says that he was on his way to the king’s court to be knighted, “But my travel and journey have been long, and while I dozed my palfrey went out of her right way, and has brought me to this place.”

At the mention of knighthood, the hermit grows quiet and pensive, remembering the old days. When the squire asks him what he is thinking about and learns that this old hermit used to be knight, he asks the old knight to teach him what he needs to know in order live honorably as a knight “after the ordinances of God.” The rest of the book is the knight’s lessons on chivalry.

I’m thinking of a scene that closely parallels this one, only with notable differences.

In Book I, Canto I of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the Redcrosse knight also encounters a hermit in the woods.

At length they chaunst to meet upon the way
   An aged Sire, in long black weedes yclad,
   His feete all bare, his beard all hoarie gray,
   And by his belt his booke he hanging had;
   Sober he seemde, and very sagely sad,
   And to the ground his eyes were lowly bent,
   Simple in shew, and voide of malice bad,
   And all the way he prayed as he went,
And often knockt his brest, as one that did repent.

The hermit greets Redcrosse with a low bow, and Redcrosse eagerly asks the old man whether he knows of any “straunge adventures, which abroad did pas.”

   “Ah, my dear Sonne” (quoth he) “how should, alas,
   Silly old man, that lives in hidden cell,
   Bidding his beades all day for his trespas,
   Tydings of warre and worldly trouble tell?
With holy father sits not with such thinges to mell.”

But in the very next line he contradicts himself by telling Redcrosse of some strange goings on nearby that the young knight will surely be interested in. This is still early in his career and Redcrosse has not yet learned to tell the difference between the seeming and the reality—he listens to the words spoken but doesn’t realize when the speakers behavior or previous words contradict what he’s hearing, so he’s taken in by this “hermit” who is really the evil magician Archimago.

Of course, the obvious difference is that Lull’s hermit is an honorable man, living honestly, who offers help to one who seeks it, while Spenser’s is an enemy to Redcrosse and is bent on destroying him. Archimago can put on the clothes of a hermit and mimic his speech to an extent, but he can’t disguise who he truly is for long.

Another difference is in the way the squire and Redcrosse interact with the hermits. The squire is humble, considerate of the hermit, and asks him for wisdom and guidance. Redcrosse is hasty, rushing straight from a perfunctory greeting to asking the hermit to tell him where to go for adventure, something he really should not have expected a true hermit to know about.