What do we do with old books? I mean really old books. How do we understand them when they seem so alien to us? Time can seem to be the enemy of understanding. Past texts can seem cryptic. We wonder if Chaucer is as ironic as we may like to see him or if we … More How Temporal Distance Helps Us Read
Nothing is so purely the trace of the mind as writing, but also nothing is so dependent on the understanding mind. In deciphering and interpreting a miracle takes place: the transformation of something strange and dead into a total simultaneity and familiarity. This is like nothing else that has come down to us from the … More The Miracle of Reading
I love Christina Rossetti’s imagery of the line “my life is in the falling leaf.” Though I’m perhaps stretching the figurative language, I can’t help imagining the sunlight of her life sucked into the leaf as it fades, shrivels, and falls. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “winter world” in “To R.B.” it so perfectly captures the … More My Life Is in the Falling Leaf
Ever think about all the art that has been lost? Beowulf comes out of an oral tradition of scops singing from a trove of texts. We have this manuscript, which fortunately survived the fitting-yet-sad fire at Ashburnham House, but what about all the other poems? Or what about all the ephemeral moments when a scop arranged … More Kept with Fonder a Care
You know the movement to make traditional bad guys good in children’s stories, or to at least give their side of the story. When I was a boisterous oddly serious public school lad, I remember a story that had recast the big bad wolf as a hapless neighbor who only wanted sugar from his selfish … More The Big Bad Wraecca
Why do we enjoy tragedies? Why is there something almost pleasant about an elegy. We watch King Lear, knowing that the moment will come when he carries Cordelia out. We watch Macbeth to hear “Out, out, brief candle!” I’ve noticed that I enjoy Old English poetry and the works of Thomas Hardy because they enter … More Why Do We Enjoy Suffering in Literature?
We’re leaving Arthurian Legend and moving toward some Anglo-Saxon texts in the following weeks. The Celtic Bretons are pushed back as the Saxons invade. The White Horse that Tennyson uses as a sign of civilization early in the Idylls becomes an epithet for the Saxons, who are now “Lords of the White Horse.” But then … More The Demonic Book of the Bretons