Thomas Hardy and his Choirmaster

Thomas Hardy by William Strang 1893Today is the anniversary of Thomas Hardy’s death in 1928. Perhaps you’ve read some of his wonderful novels, like The Mayor of Casterbridge (my own introduction to the Victorian master) or Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or my personal favorite Jude the Obscure (which I’ve posted about here and here). But did you know the novelist was also a poet? After Jude the Obscure, he was principally a poet.

Right now, I’m going through his massive volume of poetry as I construct a reading list for the program I’m in, and I would like to share with you one of his poems that resonates with this anniversary. Of course, most Hardy poems resonate with this anniversary, but perhaps you haven’t come across this one before, “The Choirmaster’s Burial”:

He often would ask us
That, when he died,
After playing so many
To their last rest,
If out of us any
Should here abide,
And it would not task us,
We would with our lutes
Play over him
By his grave-brim
The psalm he liked best—
The one whose sense suits
‘Mount Ephraim’—
And perhaps we should seem
To him, in Death’s dream,
Like the seraphim.

As soon as I knew
That his spirit was gone
I thought this his due,
And spoke thereupon.
‘I think’, said the vicar,
‘A read service quicker
Than viols out-of-doors
In these frosts and hoars.
That old-fashioned way
Requires a fine day,
And it seems to me
It had better not be.’
Hence, that afternoon,
Though never knew he
That his wish could not be,
To get through it faster
They buried the master
Without any tune.

But ’twas said that, when
At the dead of next night
The vicar looked out,
There struck on his ken
Thronged roundabout,
Where the frost was graying
The headstoned grass,
A band all in white
Like the saints in church-glass,
Singing and playing
The ancient stave
By the choirmaster’s grave.

Such the tenor man told
When he had grown old.

Want to know what those ghosts were playing? Click here for Benjamin Milgrove’s “Mount Ephraim” tune.

The lines, “That old-fashioned way / Requires a fine day” stick with me. I would hope that Hardy’s wishes were respected more than the choirmaster’s, but it seems only his heart rests where he wanted it, while the rest of him was interred befitting a poet of England in Westminster Abbey.


Burial site of Thomas Hardy’s heart. Photo by Gary Watson CC BY-SA 3.0


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6 Hopkinsian Observations on the Epiphany


What an epiphany feels like according to Wikipedia

A grandmother has a gun to her head, as Miss O’Connor tells it, and her “head cleared for an instant.” Luke searches his feelings and knows it to be true, Darth Vader is his father. Stephen Dedalus looks over at a woman in the water, her face “touched with the wonder of mortal beauty,”  and he cries out “in an outburst of profane joy.”

We’ve all had our epiphanies. The moments when we don’t quite know why, but we see ourselves more clearly or realize something that had eluded us before.

When these experiences are expressed in literature, James Joyce’s works seem to be the trope namers. In Stephen Hero, an unpublished manuscript that was influential on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce defines his understanding of the literary epiphany:

By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.

It is in these epiphanic moments that we find “the supreme quality of beauty” as Joyce puts it.

Philosophy professor, Richard Kearney, sees the epiphany as a central aspect of our modern and secular response to the physical world. “Far from banishing epiphanies,” Kearney argues, “secularization can lead to an immanent multiplication of the times and places in which epiphanies are made possible.” But to understand how epiphanies work, how we can find Joyce’s “supreme quality of beauty,” and even how the grandmother can reach for the gun-wielding Misfit with compassion, we need to look at the liturgical Epiphany that inspired the literary epiphany.

To do so, Kearney turns to the writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (and you thought this would be a post on Joyce and O’Connor). But instead of the poetry of Hopkins, he turns to the devotional writings of Hopkins. During a retreat in January of 1889, Hopkins wrote on the Epiphany, ecstatically proclaiming that “yesterday I had ever so much light on the mystery of the feast…more than I can easily put down.”

Kearney distills these pages of notes down to six observations that open up the Epiphany, and by extension our own epiphanies, for us.

1. The Magi were strangers

Epiphanies seem to come from outside ourselves. The startling otherness of an object or a situation strikes us in such a way that sparks the realization. As Kearney puts it:

Hopkins makes much of the fact that the three magi were strangers from afar—Gentiles or “Persian Magians,” as he put it, who may have come from the “… borders of India.” They came, he notes, in secret, unrecognized and unannounced; and it is telling that right after their visitation, the Holy Family takes flight into another foreign land, Egypt.

The trope of the divine stranger is common in biblical literature. Consider the story of Abraham and the three angels, here through Robert Alter’s translation:

Rublevtrinität ubtAnd the Lord appeared to him in the Terebinths of Mamre when he was sitting by the tent flap in the heat of the day. And he raised his eyes and saw, and, look, three men were standing before him. He saw, and he ran toward them from the tent flap and bowed to the ground. And he said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be fetched and bathe your feet and stretch out under the tree, and let me fetch a morsel of bread, and refresh yourselves.”

Though the narrator reveals that the stranger is divine, Abraham only sees only three men, and yet he still runs out to greet them with hospitality.

In the Epiphany, there is a doubling of this trope. The Magi come as strangers, much as Hopkins felt a stranger in Dublin, but the divine stranger is actually the Christ child.

2. The Magi, unlike the shepherds, come after Christmas

Hopkins notes that the “date of the coming [is] uncertain.” We aren’t quite sure when the Magi come, but we know it’s not simultaneous with the shepherds. Liturgically, these two manifestations, one to the local shepherds and another to foreign Magi, are separated by twelve days. The Shepherd Mass will be celebrated at dawn on Christmas, while the Magi are celebrated today. According to Hopkins, these twelve days equal a combination of the six days of creation and a new set of six for redemption, making “a sort of mystical year, meaning the fulness of time.”

Kearney sees this as a specific kind of time unique to the epiphanic moment. He calls it the “aftering” of the Epiphany, and proposes that “the nativity is revealed in its after-effects.” Like how Dante sees the griffin through the eyes of Beatrice, we see the Christ child through the eyes of the Magi.

And perhaps, that means we also see the Misfit through the eyes of the grandmother, as we’ll see in the next observation.

3. The Magi approach the sign of the star as readers

As astrologers, the Magi read the stars as hermeneutical signs to come to the conclusion that the child in the manger is divine. Hopkins emphasizes that “the star was nothing to ordinary observers, perhaps not visible at all to them.” Perhaps an outsider watching the grandmother would only see an unhinged man with a gun recently escaped from prison, but she sees “one of [her] own children.”

4. The gifts of the Magi are aromatic frankincense and myrrh

The Magi bring “sweet-smelling gifts,” which Kearney notes highlight the “carnal character of the Epiphany.” The epiphanic moment of a divine stranger is decidedly physical and sensual. Abraham sees the three men in “the heat of the day” and then runs out to meet them, offering refreshing gifts. The grandmother reaches out to touch the Misfit. Stephen Dedalus’s moment of looking at the woman in the water is then not a divergence from the liturgical sense of an epiphany but firmly within the tradition.

According to Kearney the very physicality of the Nativity and the Epiphany points to how Christ as divine stranger is in this moment is a homeless child and that “here we have the epiphanic paradox par excellence, of the highest in the lowest, the first in the last, the infinite in the infinitesimal.”

5. The Epiphany as an event is “surrounded by darkness”

The star of Bethlehem shines at night. The Nativity takes place in a dark cave. The Christmas narrative itself is darkened by the flight into Egypt and Herod’s order for the slaughter of the innocents.

In O’Connor’s story, the grandmother is at her darkest moment when she has her realization. Before his own epiphany and after considering “the grave and ordered  and passionless life that awaited him,” Stephen Dedalus is described as “disheartened,” and raising “his eyes towards the slowdrifting  clouds, dappled and seaborne,” he drearily thinks of them as “voyaging across the deserts of the sky, a host of nomads on the march.”

6. We must read the Epiphany of the Magi with the Epiphanies of the Baptism and the Wedding at Cana

Often we might think of the Feast of the Epiphany as the manifestation to the Magi as representatives of Gentiles. But Hopkins, following an older liturgical practice folded the manifestation to the Magi with the manifestation to John the Baptist on the Jordan and the turning of water into wine at Cana. Take a look at this antiphon, “Hodie celesti sponso,” to see the way the three epiphanic moments revolve together:

Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.

Each separate event is mystically unified through a single narrative. Rather than John baptizing Christ, Christ washes his bride. Rather than bringing gifts to a child in a dark cave, the Magi are wedding guests at the very wedding where water will turn to wine.

Beyond these six observations, though, there is a seventh one that can’t yet be written: our reaction. In the darkness of an epiphany, when approached by the stranger, whether Magi or Misfit, we are faced with a choice. We can reach out to the Misfit like the grandmother, or we can pull the trigger. In his book, Anatheism, Kearney looks at religious stories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam where the stark otherness of a divine stranger leads to this choice. “In such primary scenes,” he proposes, “two responses are registered: hostility or hospitality.” Abraham could have coldly ignored the three angels, but instead he ran out to meet them.


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Ring Out, Wild Bells

Catholic Cathedral Moscow Bells

Happy New Year!

Why don’t we celebrate with a section from In Memoriam A.H.H. Tennyson wrote this poem, with its cantos of raw grief enveloped by a calmer ring of a Prologue and an Epilogue, to mourn the untimely death of his friend. Part of the structure of this poem works around annual celebrations that work in the poem as a kind of scaffolding. The chaos of the raw elegy is organized in a ritual manner with a return to Hallam’s birthday and Christ’s nativity. This section of the poem follows the Christmas cantos of 104 and 105, and comes right before a section memorializing Hallam’s birth on February 1st.

I thought it resonated with our New Year’s festivities, especially this year…

In Memoriam A. H. H. CVI

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

And here’s a fabulous rendition of the poem, that Tennyson could have never imagined…

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Year in Review

Janus Bifrons by Adolphe Giraldon

We’re at the close of The Golden Echo’s second year. During the year, we settled down from our move out to Georgia (as much as we can as Cascadians) and we’re now awaiting our firstborn, Eleanor. With everything that’s going on, I thought we would take a look at some of the most viewed posts on the blog so far.

Most popular posts published this year

1. Ten Bookish People You Should Follow on Twitter

There might just be donuts on the other side of this link…

2. How to Read Literature Like a Monk

And by monk, I don’t mean Br. Monday. He’s not much of a reader…

3. 3 Reasons Why You Should Read Difficult Poems

Find out why it’s a good think when a poem resists understanding after the first reading.

4. All Shall Be Well

I think everyone needs to hear how “al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.

5. El Pájaro por Octavio Paz

Una poema que se trata de silencio, un pájaro, y la muerte.

Popular posts from last year

1. The Power of Language to Transform the Human Heart

When Gerard Manley Hopkins writes a poem about a blacksmith and addresses him as one who “didst fettle for the great gray drayhorse his bright and battering sandal,” he is not merely bringing the blacksmith to life, but in a way is bringing us to life as well. Through the sound, rhythm, passion of his words, he is bringing to life in us, as might never have been brought to life at all, a sense of the uniqueness and mystery and holiness not just of the blacksmith and his great gray drayhorse, but of the reality itself, including the reality of ourselves.

– Frederick Buechner

2. Why the Leaden Echo Isn’t Enough

Find out why this beautiful song is only half the story.

3. A Person is a Student is a Customer is a Product is a Thing

I think the Margaret Atwood bump helped here…

4. 5 Myths about Writing

Judging from the keyword searches leading to this post, I think people are looking for ways to write the 5-paragraph essay instead of the hard truth that it’s a teaching tool that can get in the way when we start college.

5. Relational Reading

Well, I think language does bring us together. Fragile and misleading as it is, it’s the best communication we’ve got, and poetry is language at its most intense and potentially fulfilling. Poems do bring people together.

William Stafford

What’s Next?

This coming year, expect some posts about Eleanor and books. We’re putting together a list of fairy tales we will never read to her (looking at you “Donkey Skin”) and books that we want to make sure she grows up with. I’ll also be working my way through my reading lists for my comprehensive exams, so I’m sure something will come out of that. At Emory we go through two period lists and one theory list. For my period lists, I’ll work my way through my specializations of medieval and Victorian literature.

And in May I’ll be at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, so you can look forward to a post or two on that.

Which posts were your favorites? What would you like to see more of? Doing a year in review post on your blog? Go ahead and link to your post below in the comments.


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Christmas with Hopkins

With his emphasis on the embodiment of Christ in his poetry, the priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins has quite a few seasonal poems to choose from. Last year, we looked at one of his darker Christmas poems, but I thought we would be a little more festive this year.

The stanza above is from “Ad Matrem Virginem,” which is subtitled as a “eucharistic hymn” for “the feast of the Nativity.”

As a classics professor, Hopkins was fluent in Latin, so he has a few poems written in the language, and he even penned Latin translations of Shakespeare. Here’s a prose translation from Catherine Phillips’s collection of Hopkins’s poetry:

Mother of my Jesus, Mother of mighty God, teach me about Him, the small sweet God. How much did you love Him whom you conceived, the inconceivable, the terrible Lord, but as the Word made flesh brought into smaller compass in you?

We don’t know for certain when Hopkins wrote this poem since it is undated, but according to Phillips, the “handwriting suggests that it dates from Christmas 1870.” Having entered the Jesuits two years earlier, 1870 is the year that he began his philosophical studies in Stonyhurst.

Throughout the poem, which you can read in translation here, the speaker enters into a dialogue with Mary and requests knowledge of Christ: “teach me about Him, the small sweet God.” This request, which implies the intimacy between Christ and Mary, is countered with the speaker’s unworthiness. While she brings Christ to the world in the Visitation, the speaker is the poor sinner that only shows Christ crucified back to the Father. All of these pleas for the grace to change, to “love,” to “rejoice,” to “embrace,” and to “contemplate” are all answered through the shifting attitude of the speaker, culminating in the joyous act of worship of the final line: “Praise to God always!”

Hopkins also translated Latin hymns into English, like the 13th century Christmas carol, Angelus ad Virginem. You can read the original verse with Hopkins’s translation here. Hopkins prepared the translation for the Jesuit magazine the Month. The original is in MS Arundel 248 and is held in the British Library. You can see the carol with its square notation at the very top of leaf 154, while the Middle English translation starts on the fifth line down from the top:

In a letter to his mother on Christmas Eve of 1881, Hopkins describes the music as  “interesting from its great age besides being striking and pretty.” See for yourself if you agree with his assessment as you listen to the music below. You can even follow along with the leaf above. I know the square notation looks different than the modern notation we’re used to, but don’t let that stop you.

Merry Christmas from us and Eleanor!


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Who’s Br. Monday

Monastic MondayIf you’re new to the blog and wondering who that Br. Monday guy was from last Monday’s post, I thought I would collect all of his adventures again here.

1. Abba a Word

The start of the series with a little primer on the origins of the monastic movement and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

2. A Tale of the Most Excellent Eavesdropper

Wherein Br. Monday does something he shouldn’t.

3. Once When a Hippopotamus was Ravaging the Neighboring Countryside

Br. Monday still doesn’t like talking about this.

4. How to Quarrel Like a Monk

Wherein Br. Monday gets a free brick!

5. If You Give a Monk a Fishing Net

Wait for the exciting sequel: If You Give a Hermit a H…oh never mind.

6. Abba Arsenius on Education

Wherein Br. Monday learns the true meaning of education.

7. Community, Conversatio Morum, and Crocodiles

Wherein Br. Monday wishes he had chosen a different life.

8. Abba John’s Office Hours

If you forget anything from this list — don’t worry! —  Prof. John will fill you in.

9. Milosz and the Monk

In Br. Monday’s absence, we learned how a modern monk met the poet Czeslaw Milosz.

10. Br. Monday is Back and the Abbas aren’t Happy about It

Wherein Abba Moses becomes Br. Monday’s favorite by convincing the other abbas to leave him alone.

11. How to Make a Monk Laugh Part 1

Wherein Abba Pambo and Abba Giles have a disagreement.

12. 1500 Years Practice at Getting Along

It has to be a miracle that there haven’t been more Name of the Rose-style homicides in monasteries…

13. How to Make a Monk Laugh Part 2

Br. Monday still doesn’t get the joke, and I’m not sure I do either.

14. What Can the Desert Tell Us about the Researcher/Educator Debate?

Why not both?

15. The Last Thing Br. Monday Wants to Do

Let’s just say he wouldn’t mind taking the “labora” out of “ora et labora.”

16. Waiting for the Barbarians

Br. Monday still doesn’t get why he was the only one who ran.

17. Design

Br. Monday’s first retreat conference wherein he learns:

We are all alive together and bound into varying constellations by the live numbers of the proportions through which we see and touch each thing and the next.

18. First Love

Wherein Br. Monday learns a very important lesson about lying and matches.

19. Dignity

Br. Monday didn’t learn anything here.

20. Lady’s Man

Let’s just face it–every monk is one of these.

21. False Impression

Think you understand other parts of the world? So does Br. Monday…

22. Br. Monday Wishes You a Happy Labor Day

And he did just that, even though every day is a holiday for Br. Monday. Seriously, all he does is stand there with that look on his face whenever I ask him to help out with something.

23. Talking Points with an Abba

Out here in the desert, the Abba’s are always getting stuffy, churchy questions. Be the first to ask the Abba what he thinks about the last season of Arrested Development or if he’s going to wear his robes to The Force Awakens premier.

24. On This Holy Mountain

It is good that you are here. It is good that you are here. And most importantly: It is good that you are here.

25. The Worst Kind of Monk

Wherein I offend Br. Monday deeply. No, I won’t apologize.

26. Where is Br. Monday?

Wherein we discover that Br. Monday and the Provincial have run off.

27. Deconstructing the Desert

Abba Derrida has something to teach us about hospitality.

28. The Rule of the Thelemites

Gold give us, God forgive us,
And from all woes relieve us;
That we the treasure
May reap of pleasure,

And shun whate’er is grievous,
Gold give us, God forgive us.

Inscription on the Gate of Theleme

29. Tales of the Hasidim

“If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I, and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you.”

30. The Hermitage of Br. Monday

This is what happens when you take away a monk’s TV.

31. How to Read Like a Monk

Find out how to apply the monastic practice of lectio to your own reading.

32. The Metamorphosis of Br. Monday

Ever wonder how after all of these adventures Br. Monday grew about as much as George Costanza did after nine seasons? Here’s your answer.

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Reading Fairy Tales as a Genre


Illustration by Charles Folkard from a 1949 edition of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.

Fairy tales aren’t easy. We might think through a Disney-induced cultural memory that we have a handle on the genre, but we aren’t the target audience. Some medieval romances were written for a courtly audience. I don’t know about you, but I’m not part of a court with its concerns and expected knowledge of participants. Even the later collection and reimagining of the fairy tale with work by the Brothers Grimm or George MacDonald addresses a past audience that seems deceptively similar to a contemporary, English-speaking reader. Reading a medieval or Romantic or Victorian text actually means reading the texts of a different culture.

So how do we help students read these texts? Maybe they’ve grown up with Disney (or the far superior Studio Ghibli works) and need to work out the assumption that come with that. Perhaps they’ve read Tolkien and Lewis and know the genre from its modern descendants.

In Engaging Ideas, John Bean goes through ways to help students transition from surface reading to becoming deep readers who can do more with difficult texts, including deceptively simple texts like the fairy tale.

First, let the students know that these texts aren’t so simple and that struggling with them is synonymous with engaging them, NOT with a lack of reading skills.

A way to go about this is modeling your own reading for the students. Perhaps with a document camera, show where you find the text puzzling or where you summarize and analyse the text in the margins. At the same time hold back from directly explaining the text yourself. Bean cautions against promoting the vicious circle where students who struggle with interpreting a difficult text assume the professor will just lecture on it because it is difficult.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t use mini-lectures to help students with context. In my fairy tale course, I’ll need to point out the structure of a romance as integration, alienation, and reintegration to help students engage the different ways that same genre is imagined and reimagined across texts.

But we still need to promote deep reading by having students engage and struggle with the text without relying on an expected lecture.

Summary writing and genre analysis can help there. For my course, I will have students write short summaries of each romance and fairy tale we read together. These will need to be as absent of analytical moves as possible (though acknowledging that every summary has implicit analysis through selection of important details). Then, using those summaries as evidence, they will write a short genre analysis paper of about three pages. In this paper they will describe the general structure of the genre, identify a target audience, and consider the possible rhetorical purpose of texts within the genre.

For the fairy tale course I’m designing, I devote the first unit to developing these critical reading skills to prepare students for their later writing. You can take a look at the course more here.

This ends our short series on genre. Check out the other posts in the series with the links below:

All Fiction Is Genre Fiction

Playing with Genre

The Metamorphosis of Br. Monday

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