Monday, August 10, 2020

Layers of meaning

I originally wrote the post below in April of 2019, but this past week I reread Macbeth for a class I’m teaching in Medieval cosmology and something new occurred to me this time through.

The story of the woman with the lap full of chestnuts can be looked at it from a different angle. A witch came to her wanting to take her blessings, and the woman, recognizing the evil creature, told the witch to leave, and she left. The witch attacked the husband’s ship, but she couldn’t do any permanent harm:

Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tossed.

Evil influences can be refused. Macbeth and his lady could have rejected their evil impulses, but they chose not to.

And in Medieval and Renaissance literature, those two meanings (this one, and the one in the post below) can both be true at the same time. In his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrup Frye calls this the “principle of manifold or ‘polysemous’ meaning.”

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

First impressions of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act I, Scenes 1-5

That’s an awfully boring title, isn’t it? I couldn’t think of anything clever. :-p

The kids and I are reading Macbeth for our Medieval and Renaissance Literature class with Angelina Stanford, and I had some random things I wanted to write down before I forgot them, so here they are.

The Weird Sisters, Henry Fuseli, c. 1783

First Witch:
A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap
And munched and munched and munched. “Give me,” quoth I.
“Aroint thee, witch,” the rump-fed runnion cries.
Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger;
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.

This sailor must be must be quite a man, given the trip he’s on, the ship he masters, and the fact that the Witch says she can’t sink his ship. She can, however, curse the husband of this foolish woman.

I’m saying she’s foolish because here she is with her lap full of blessings gobbling them so greedily that she won’t even share when an old woman asks for some.

If you know anything about fairy tales, you know that’s a huge mistake, a mistake of wicked stepmother proportions.

The chestnuts caught my attention though because so often the chestnut tree is used in literature as a symbol of happiness and prosperity. If you know anything about Macbeth, you know that this most definitely isn’t a story about happiness and prosperity.

Let me go back to the beginning.

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens with the stage direction, “Thunder and lightening. Enter three Witches.” These three make a plan to meet with Macbeth before the day is over (to tell him he will be king, as we later learn), and saying, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” they exit, and Scene 1 ends.

Given that the story begins with upheaval in nature, I’m going to assume that whatever disorder that set off this tragedy has already happened.

They reappear in Scene 3: “Thunder. Enter the three Witches.” The First Witch tells of her encounter with the sailor’s wife, which Asimov says has nothing at all to do with the play—it’s just there to please King James I, who “considered himself a particular expert on the matter of witchcraft,” and had “written a book called Demonology, in which he advocated . . . the severest measures against witches.” [Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare: The English Plays, page 151]

Asimov, you’re a genius and I love you dearly, but you completely missed the boat on this one. Shakespeare wasn’t just a suck-up. He was an artist and he knew exactly what he was doing here.

(Before going on, I want to point out that these three are elsewhere in the play called the weyward/weird/wyrd sisters, so I think we’re supposed to think of them as being similar to the Fates of classical mythology, or the Norns of Norse mythology, priestesses who told the future.)

Now back to the chestnuts. Chestnuts provide a lot of nutrition and calories in a tiny little package, so they’ve always symbolised things like prosperity and fertility. Because they fall in such abundance during the harvest season, they also symbolise foresight and long life. Here’s something new I learned: They also symbolise the ability to receive ancient wisdom.

So, we have a prosperous woman (that she’s “rump-fed” tells us this) enjoying the bounty of nature, who refuses an old woman’s request for food, resulting in her husband being cursed. In Scene 5, we meet Lady Macbeth, who is as unnatural a woman as it’s possible to be.

I don’t have any conclusions exactly, mostly questions and guesses. Was Macbeth already corrupted before he met the Weird Sisters? I tend to think so, since good people don’t jump head-first into evil. CS Lewis talks about this regarding Mark Studdock’s descent in That Hideous Strength. Macbeth does briefly seem to accept that if he’s meant to be king, it’ll happen without his taking action. But Lady Macbeth must have long since fallen since she’s so quick to push her husband into evil action in order to bring about the prophecy.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Because he's 20 today

. . . and still asking questions . . .

More real bits for Donna and some mothering stuff for Kristen
Yesterday afternoon I dropped my eldest off at the library and took the two younger boys along for the ride. My three-and-a-half-year-old four-year-old asked questions the whole entire trip which I tried really really hard to answer patiently and thoughtfully.

"Mama, how do spiders get in houses?"
"Mama, why are houses old?"
"Mama, what's that place?"
"Mama, what bus is that?"
"What persons go on it?"
"Where do they go?"
"Mama, what's that place?"
"Mama, where are we going?"
"Can I go in, too?"
"Mama, what's that's place?"
"What do persons need banks for?"
"Mama, is that a church?"
"Is that a church, too?"
"Why do they make all the churches here?"
"Mama, what's that place?"
"Why did God make wasps?"
"Do Luke cough?"

Though my voice was never raised, by this time having made my third wrong turn, dissolving into hysterics I told him not to ask me any more questions.

Margaret mentioned in a comment below that she had never heard me raise my voice to my children, and though I fail plenty, this is an area where God has really blessed me, so I want to share a couple of things I've learned along the way.

Before I married, I provided after-school care for K4 through 1st graders at a Christian school. On my first day of work, while sitting outside the classroom waiting for the teacher to introduce me, I resolved never to raise my voice to these children, a resolution which was broken on the playground less than an hour into the job when it was time for the kids to line up and go back inside. After work that day I bought myself a whistle that I trained the kids to respond to - one long blast meant "line up," and two short ones meant "stop!" - someone was either about to get hurt or was behaving badly.

After that first day, I never did raise my voice to those children, and by the end of the school year, after spending 25 hours a week with two dozen four to seven year olds, I concluded that God had uniquely gifted me to be a good mommy to a large family.

Ha! Pride goeth before a fall, and successfully managing several small children in a controlled environment for five hours a day is nothing at all like managing one or two small children in a normal house all day, every day, with no weekends off or vacations, but I did learn one valuable lesson that I've put into practice since that time - if at all possible, use a whistle or bell to call the kids when they are too far away or too spread out to speak to them in a normal tone of voice. Over the years we've used different bells to call the family to a meal or to call them in from play. You just don't want yelling to become a habit, or for your kids to be used to hearing your voice raised. That should be saved for extreme emergencies.

The other thing I've learned by experience is that when I do raise my voice in anger or frustration it's almost always because I neglected a problem when it was small and more easily dealt with and didn't get around to taking care of it until after it had gotten big enough to make me angry. I've also learned to pay attention when I'm just plain irritable because it's so easy to sound angry or peevish or to respond sarcastically without noticing it. There are days when I have to take a deep cleansing breath and pray quickly, Oh God, HELP! almost every time I open my mouth to speak!

And I will gladly confess that the reason I pay so much attention to this area and work so hard on it is because it's such a weakness for me. Oh how my flesh enjoys the sins of the tongue, and oh how thankful I am that God has heard my many many prayers and is conforming me to the image of his son!

Identify your particular weaknesses early on, and begin working on them soon, before your sin has hurt your children. For me, this means not only curbing angry or sarcastic speech but making the effort to smile and to speak with kindness and gentleness even when I don't feel like it.

And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

Originally posted 21 October 2004

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?