Friday, June 30, 2006

"the secret of the universe..."

(Taken at Wikipedia)

I'm still keeping those promises, so I'm again short on time (despite rising at 3:00 a.m.). I'll therefore keep this entry correspondingly short.

Since Dennis Mangan stole the joke that I stole from Wendy Bracewell, I'm stealing a quip from Dennis that he stole from Arthur Koestler, who once stole a cosmic insight from God while under the influence of LSD:

"Last night I discovered the secret of the universe, but this morning I forgot what it was."

I suppose that Koestler might call that "darkness at dawn."

Be that as it may, I know someone who had the same insight ... and also forgot. But he was clever like a 'furriner' because he had anticipated that he might forget and had circumvented that eventuality.

But I'm getting ahead of my story.

This happened in my hometown of Salem, Arkansas, and the protagonist (or antagonist, depending on how you felt about him) was a doctor's kid who as a young teenager had once tried to fly his father's small, propeller-driven airplane from Arkansas to Mexico to pick up some cocaine with the bright idea of selling it on the streets of our isolated Ozark hometown (population 900) and getting rich.

Without anybody noticing.

Despite what you might think, the fellow was actually a very bright kid. Inquisitive. Curious. Articulate. And always thinking ahead ... even if in the wrong direction.

So when he was under the influence of LSD and had his mystic, crystal revelation, he knew from previous experience that he might forget his acid insights, so he scrounged around for a pen and paper, and he wrote and he wrote and he wrote, page after page after page of his multidimensional insight into the many-faceted secret of the universe.

Then, he put the sheaf into a safe place and fell asleep.

The next morning, he woke up, remembered that he had learned the secret of the universe, and went to fetch the papers. On them, he had written, sheet after sheet after sheet, these words:
Something in this room stinks. Something in this room stinks. Something in this room stinks...

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

"And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power."

'Bonnie' Johnnie Milton
Well-Mannered English Poet
(As Courteously Portrayed By Wikipedia)

Word is still out on "virtue, freedom, power," but it seems that Milton did remind us of our manners, or so says Arvind Thomas, "Milton and Table Manners," in the Milton Quarterly (March 2006), Volume 40, Issue 1:

The Fall, as Milton's Paradise Lost makes unequivocally clear, occurs within the context of disorderly eating. Unlike the earlier scenes of mannerly and communal eating, the scene of the consumption of the forbidden fruit throws into relief the willful violation of manners that both Adam and Eve have up to that point observed. Eve gorges the proscribed apple in silence; Adam makes no attempt to converse on edifying topics while partaking of the fruit; the eating excites their libido and produces indigestion apart from awakening the sense of shame that neither possessed until then.
I haven't yet read this article, but I intend to, and for those interested, it's currently (as of June 29, 2006) online.

Sorry that today's entry is so brief, but I've still got those promises to keep...

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Shades of Milton...

Artist not Identified
(As Depicted on Wikipedia)

Dr. Timothy J. Burbery, a professor of English literature at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, has posted a request on the Milton Listserve that I belong to, asking for poems that refer to John Milton or his works.

In reflecting upon his request, I realized that Oscar Wilde's 1881 poem "To Milton" was modeled upon William Wordsworth's "London, 1802."

In his Favourite Coat
Photographer not Identified
(As Depicted on Wikipedia)

To Milton (1881)
Oscar Wilde

Milton! I think thy spirit hath passed away
From these white cliffs and high-embattled towers;
This gorgeous fiery-coloured world of ours
Seems fallen into ashes dull and grey,
And the age changed unto a mimic play
Wherein we waste our else too-crowded hours:
For all our pomp and pageantry and powers
We are but fit to delve the common clay,
Seeing this little isle on which we stand,
This England, this sea-lion of the sea,
By ignorant demagogues is held in fee,
Who love her not: Dear God! is this the land
Which bare a triple empire in her hand
When Cromwell spake the word Democracy!

I note in passing that in the lines "This England, this sea-lion of the sea, / By ignorant demagogues is held in fee," there might be an echo of the prophecy of the dying John of Gaunt in Shakespeare's 1594 play Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1, "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England," for the theme is similar: "That England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself." But I digress, so let us return to my point and look at Wordsworth's poem.

Reproduced from Margaret Gillies's 1839 Original
(As Depicted on Wikipedia)

Here it is:

London, 1802
William Wordsworth

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters; altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men:
O raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea,
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free.
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

As in Wilde's, this sonnet begins by invoking Milton. Indeed both do so by calling out to him forcefully: "Milton!"

There's probably no allusion, but I'm reminded of another famous call to awaken the dead:

With great voice, he cried out: "Lazarus, come out!"

That was John 11.43. Was Milton thinking of this in Paradise Lost, Book 1.314ff, where he has Satan call out to awaken the dead: "He call'd so loud, that all the hollow Deep / Of Hell resounded. Princes...." The 'dead' angels, fallen into Hell, from off the burning lake arise, although abashed.

Away from fallen angels and back to our Wilde man, I suggest that his lines 2-4, "From these white cliffs and high-embattled towers; / This gorgeous fiery-coloured world of ours / Seems fallen into ashes dull and grey," imply the mind-made hell of heaven that Milton's Satan exclaims in Paradise Lost, Book 1.254-255: "The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n."

Perhaps Wordsworth had a similar thought in telling Milton that "England hath need of thee: she is a fen / Of stagnant waters," implying that England had become a type of Hell, for a stagnant, or dead fen, might recall the "Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death" in Paradise Lost, Book 2.621. But I'm probably stretching my point.

There's a lot more to be said about these two poems, but other scholars have doubtless already said it, and I have promises to keep...

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Dagelet Island, South Korea

Map Showing Ulleung-do (Red-Circled)
(As Seen From Wikipedia)

Better known among Koreans as Ullung Island (Ullungdo) or Ulleung Island (Ulleungdo).

For a gods-eye view, go to Satellite Views and click your way via Asia and South Korea to Ullung-do (Dagelet Island). Unfortunately, one can't zoom in to see individual sites like beaches, mountaintops, and soju bars.

I'm showing this because in about a month, my family and I will be visiting this beautiful, volcanic island for three days. How did I get interested in taking a small vacation on Ulleung-do? I saw these vacation photos at Lao-Ocean-Girl's blog (h/t The Marmot's Hole) and decided that this must be the cleanest place in South Korea. Naturally, I have to see this for myself and report back.

But why am I telling you this now, when I haven't even gone there yet? Because my fabulous wife made the reservations only yesterday afternoon, and I'm still excited about it.

And also to prove that Gypsy Scholar does, indeed, have an offline life.

I just wonder if I'll be able to blog from there...

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Monday, June 26, 2006

The Medieval "Bling" Factor

(As Glimpsed from Wikipedia)

My long-lost Aussie friend Wendy Bracewell once told me an amusing story of a xenphobic little Australian boy in elementary school who reacted to his teacher's reference to "foreigners" by muttering,
"Furriners are bastards."

His teacher overheard and admonished him, "Johnny! Now, that's not very nice. This year, I'm going to try to change your mind about foreigners."

And she spent a lot of classtime that year teaching about the many foreigners who had made various sorts of important discoveries, invented various types of useful devices, or accomplished various kinds of great feats.

At the end of the year, she turned to Johnny, who had quietly listened to all of the evidence demonstrating the greatness of foreigners, and said, "Well, Johnny, I guess you have a different opinion of foreigners now."

Johnny grinned and said, "Yep. Furriners are clever bastards."
I'll admit to some conflicting allegiances here. I rather like Johnny's attitude. On the other hand, here in Korea, I'm one of those clever bastards. Well, I like to think so. The clever part, anyway.

And as one teaching Medieval English literature ... among other things that I don't do especially well, such as teaching American culture and Western civilization ... I find my modernist self in the position of defending the 'Dark' Ages to my little-Johnny students who think that the Medievals were primitive barbarians.

Well, they weren't primitive and barbaric, and here's one more bit of evidence. According to a BBC News report, "Rare sword had 7th Century bling," a sword found at Bamburgh Castle in 1960 that had been fogotten by the archaeological world has been rediscovered and metallurgically tested:
Experts at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, say X-rays of the 7th Century sword prove it was made from a unique method using slices of carbonised iron .... They revealed the blade of the sword, which predates the Vikings, was made up of six, individual strands of carbonised iron bonded together .... Archaeologist Paul Gething said [that] ... "What makes it unique is that the billet is made up of six strands of carbonised iron, which have been micro-welded to bond them together. There have been swords found before which have been made of up to four strands, but none have ever been found with six. This is a vastly superior sword which, in its time, would have had serious bling factor."
See? Those Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons of the seventh century had highly sophisticated metallurgical technology. I guess that changes your opinion of the Medievals.

Little Johnny grins and says, "Yep. Them Mid-Evils was sophisticated barbarians!"


Sunday, June 25, 2006

"Time that with this strange excuse..."

Edmund Spenser
Painter not Identified

One of the little ironies of teaching is that the bad students get all the good help.

I spend half an hour or more, even up to an hour on long papers, making corrections and writing comments on error-ridden student essays. As you might imagine, this can grow rather tedious rather quickly, and I've now been marking final essays for the past two weeks solid.

Thus with joy do I greet the occasional student essay that needs few markings but mostly an appreciative reading, such as one on "Edmund Spenser and Archaism" that introduces its topic as follows:

A poet's poet, known otherwise as "the prince of poets", Edmund Spenser lived in Elizabethan England [Britain] from 1552 to 1599. He wasn't born to all the privileges, but to a modest family in London. He received a decent education in Cambridge and was influenced by Richard Mulcaster the humanist and Gabriel Harvey, with whom he shared great interest in theories of poetry and quantitative versification in English. Spenser set out on his career by serving as personal secretary and aide to Dr. John Young, and later Lord Grey of Wilton. During his services, he got to know some important and powerful poets like Sir Philip Sydney, Sir Edward Dyer, and Sir
Walter Ralegh. One noticeable [notable?] thing about Spenser is that unlike these poets, he intentionally tried to be the great English poet of his age, and his principal interest was not in court, churches, or states. He began his work as a poet by translating some poems. His first major publication of his own poetry was The Shepheardes Calender in 1579. His well-known poems are The Faerie Queene, Amoretti, Epithalamion, and Prothalamion. In his works, he used a language that did not quite belong to his own time. Although Edmund Spenser pursued 'archaism' by copying some actual lines and language of Chaucer, he was more than a mere imitator because he not only reproduced what seemed like an archaic spelling to his contemporaries but also created his own unique archaic diction and became one of the most influential figures in English literature, inspiring many poets, including Milton.
As you see from the occasional red font, I've made a few corrections and suggestions. I even considered repositioning the comma in
"the prince of poets", Edmund Spenser
from after to before the quotation marks, but since this student spent some years abroad in England, I'll indulge her British punctuation and pardon her for writing well.

As you can see, this Korean student writes well, better than most native speakers of English. By this, I mean that she not only writes fluent and nearly flawless English but that she has a writer's sense for supplying details that answer a reader's inchoate questions even before the question is asked. A poor writer might remark that Spenser was "influenced by Richard Mulcaster," leaving it at that and us to ask, "Who's Richard Mulcaster?" But a good writer, like our student above, would add to "influenced by Richard Mulcaster" an identifying detail, such as "the humanist." Most of my students, both in Korea and over the years and lands, wouldn't add any designation at all, leaving poor Mr. Mulcaster a cipher.

Richard Mulcaster, incidentally, was one of 16th-century England's humanists and educational reformers, best known for his work devising a rigorous curricula for teaching Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and for his writings on humanist education.

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Korean 'Red Devil' Team Takes On the Swiss: Live Blogging

Bulgeun Akma (붉은 악마)
aka "Red Devil"
Official Support Club

Caught in the German World Cup fever's Grippe, all of Korea is probably up watching their Korean Red Devils take the Swiss team to hell.

Except that right now, at five in the morning and the game half over, the Swiss are leading 1-0.

I keep waiting for the Red Devils to turn the heat up and start frying the Swiss like a slab of Speck in hell ... but my wife has just informed me that the redshirted team in this match is ... the Swiss?

What the hell? Damnation! Those foreign devils have the same game plan! Roast the other team in Hell!

Well, they say that sports is war by another name, and "War is hell," so I guess that it's a helluva war in hell between two devilish armies this fine June morning.

By the way, I realize that the "Red Devils" are, technically, the fans, not the team, but don't give me hell about that. Allow me some artistic license...

Uh-oh. Swiss up, 2-0, on a bad decision by one of the officials. One official called an offside, but another official disagreed, and in the confusion, the Swiss made a goal.

...time dismally passing...

Sigh ... game over. Switzerland won. Sadness among the demons in Dogebi Hell.

UPDATE: For a far better blogging of the game, go to Marmot's Hole and read Dissident Dave Marshall's blow-by-blow account, which explains so well in passing why the 'offside' was not a real offside that even my Korean wife has accepted the ruling!

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Student essays can be so depressing...

Image of a Gypsy Scholar Grading Student Essays
(Image Borrowed from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I praised a student. Today, I dispraise one.

Clever students can sometimes expend more spirit in a waste of shameless cheating than would have been needed for writing a good essay. One smart student turned in an essay on Shakespeare that sounded like it might say something interesting. Here's the introduction:

Melancholy embodies a complex mixture of sentiments, typically defined as "a mental condition characterized by extreme depression, bodily complaints, and often hallucinations and delusions; an abnormal state attributed to an excess of black bile and characterized by irascibility or depression of spirits."[1] Indeed, melancholia is a relatively novel idea that surfaced during the Renaissance.[2] As European society gradually emphasized a philosophy centered on humanity over divinity, literature started to elaborately reflect human emotions, including the theme of melancholy. For instance, Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, and Burton scrutinized the subject of melancholy in some of their most appreciated works. When these "writers gave melancholy the complex meanings and associations it has in their work, they were drawing on a tradition that had been developing throughout classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, and whose diverse origins made it an especially fruitful subject for literature."[3] Shakespeare, one of the best known and the most highly praised English writer, has left many works that approach the theme of melancholy. Shakespeare's four tragedies are subject to the theme of melancholy because these works communicate the theme of solitude, madness, the sense of tragedy, jealousy, and the great paradoxes of life.

(The small, bracketed numbers represent the students footnotes, which I reproduce here: [1] Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1998); [2] Winfreid Schleiner, Melanchholy, Genius, and Utopia in the Renaissance (Wiesbaden: In Kommission bei Otto Harrassowitz, 1991), 9; and [3] Bridget Gellert Lyons, Voices of Melancholy (Barnes and Noble, New York, 1971), 1.)
This introduction reveals some commendable strengths but also betrays some troubling weaknesses. The student has sought out sources and found reputable ones but already shows a tendency to overquote. Smart students who overquote probably haven't set aside enough time for working on their essay, and from this, a number of problems follow. For instance, they often won't notice that they've contradicted themselves. In the introduction above, the student has cited one source to claim that the novel idea of melancholia first emerged during the Renaissance but quoted another the locates its origin in classical antiquity. Such students will also cut corners to make the essay work a bit better, and one way they do this is by manufacturing quotes.

I found one such fabrication in the fourth body paragraph. In a series of statements alluding to William Hazlitt's analysis of Shakespeare's characters, the student also directly quotes Hazlitt to say this:
Lady Macbeth is the mirror of her husbands' delusion and thus also displays melancholic feature by becoming mad and finally falls to her death.
Nice quote, one might think ... except that something doesn't quite fit. Lady Macbeth is no polyandrist, so "husbands'" can't be right. The student must have mistyped "husband's" instead. Similarly, "melancholic feature" should be "melancholic features." There's also a stumbling aspect to the quote as it missteps from "becoming" to "falls." Wouldn't Hazlitt have written something more like "by becoming mad and finally falling to her death"? For that matter, wouldn't Hazlitt have preferred to avoid the alliteration in "finally falling" and to have expressed himself more like this: "by growing mad and ultimately falling to her death"?

My suspicions aroused, I checked the source cited: "William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays: Macbeth, Shakespeare Online, 2000." The website address read:
I clicked and landed on a site that informed me that the link had expired but provided an updated link, which led me to the larger Shakespeare Online website. There, I clicked analysis and landed on a webpage devoted to the analysis of 9 plays by Shakespeare. On that page, I clicked Macbeth and reached Hazlitt's commentary. But I found no remark by Hazlitt about Lady Macbeth being the mirror of her husband's delusion, not even a hint that Hazlitt might have reflected upon such an image.

I therefore did what I should have done from the beginning. I went to Advanced Google and searched for this exact phrase: "Lady Macbeth is the mirror." That search led to a website called Planet Papers, where one can purchase essays, and I found on that page an essay titled "Delusional Characters in Shakespeare." Interestingly, the student didn't use that paper but merely quoted from it ... or, rather, partly quoted: "Lady Macbeth's is the mirror of her husbands' delusion." Misquoted, in fact, for the possessive ending on "Macbeth" was lopped off. (And there's that polyandric "husbands'" again! I guess the student didn't mistype that mistake, after all.) The rest of the student's quote was an utter fabrication, which explains some of the problems that we noted above.

Why go to such trouble to fabricate a Hazlitt quote? I suppose that the student must have liked the remark about Lady Macbeth's delusion being the mirror of her husband's delusion but felt a need to link it to the themes of melancholia and madness and to attach it to a reputable source.

Note, for the record, that nothing of the quote is traceable to Hazlitt.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

"William Shakespeare's Discovery"

'Intellectual Voyages of Self-Discovery'
(Image Borrowed from Wikipedia)

I sometimes complain here in Gypsy Scholar about students who don't heed my advice on how to write an expository essay, so I ought to praise those who pay attention and follow through.

In the middle of marking -- and marking all over -- final essays, I came to one with a good introduction:

The Elizabethan Era (1158-1603), the peak of the English Renaissance, is often called the "Age of Discovery." The individuals were encouraged to discover themselves and the world. The perspective had an influence on many Elizabethan intellectuals. William Shakespeare was one of the intellectuals in this period. Then, what did he discover? Considering that literature can reflect a writer's intellect, we might be able to find his discovery reading his poems and plays although his life is obscure. Of his masterpieces, The Sonnets are still arousing various critical attention. Due to this fact, it is hard to assert the theme of The Sonnets in a single phrase. Here, I only focus on the poet's view of eternity. The view of eternity presented in Shakespeare's Sonnets reflects Renaissance Humanism because it emphasizes human ability to keep valuable things eternally in earthly existence in spite of human's mortality.
While this introductory paragraph has its flaws, some due to the student using English as a second language, it flows nicely enough. It begins broadly but not too broadly with the Elizabethan Era and by successively narrowing the focus leads smoothly to the crucial point: Shakespeare's view of eternity. I especially like the move from Burckhardt's thesis that the spirit of the Renaissance encouraged individuals "to discover themselves and the world" to my student's question about Shakespeare: "Then, what did he discover?" That's nicely done.

Some things could have been better. For instance, Burkhardt could have been acknowledged for the insight about Renaissance individuals discovering themselves and the world, but that has perhaps reached a level of common knowledge among the educated by now, so let it pass.

As for the ability that Shakespeare discovered within himself, namely, the power to achieve something for an earthly eternity, we know already that the student is thinking of "Sonnet 18":

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The student may have been spinning ideas from off a blog entry that I posted some weeks back, or from one of my class lectures touching on the same topic, but the student's insights have sufficient originality that there's no need to footnote me.

If every undergraduate student would achieve this level of sophistication, grading would be a whole lot easier ... until time for setting the curve.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Finding Prester John: Chinese Christianity

Zhang Wanlong, Life of Jesus
Relief Carved on 11.8' x 5.2' Panel of Antique Camphor Wood
Depicting Life of Jesus Through 75 Intricately Detailed Scenes
(Image at SBL Forum, Copyright 2006, Society of Biblical Literature )

Some historians argue that the voyages of discovery usually associated in our minds with the Renaissance have their origin in the Crusades, and that part of the motivation for such men as Henry the Navigator was to find the legendary Christian ruler Prester John to the east of the Muslim world in order to ally with him against Islam.

Prester John was never found, but Christianity had taken root in parts of Asia, as the Europeans discovered, and has received impetus there in late modern times through foreign mission work and indigenous proselytizing.

To the surprise of some, Christianity is rapidly increasing its numbers in China. Estimates of numbers of Christians range as high as 100 million and growing, but reliable statistics do not exist because most Christians are said to belong to underground house churches.

But if the upper estimates are close to the mark, and if Christianity is growing as rapidly as some say, then Prester John may have been found at last, for many Chinese house churches are committed to bringing the Christian message to the Muslim world as part of what they call the "Back To Jerusalem" movement that will send 100,000 Chinese missionaries along the ancient Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean. Those missionaries might consider heading up the Danube and Rhone rivers as well, for the Medieval European Christians who first sought Prester John have long gone missing and might be hard to find again.

Meanwhile, back in the East, a growing Christianity is grafting the branches of Chinese culture onto what St. Paul called "the rich root of the olive tree" (Romans 11.17, NRSV), and not only in the underground house churches but also in the officially recognized China Christian Council (CCC) and Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), which are currently sponsoring Chinese Christian art on exhibit in the United States. In a brief article "'Not spread by mouth only': The Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China," Sara Hayden of Columbia Theological Seminary has drawn attention to an exhibition of "impressive religious works created by Chinese Christian artists -- including paper cuttings, examples of micro-calligraphy, and linen scrolls -- [that] display biblical interpretations with uniquely Chinese characteristics." The exhibition is being shown in three cities:

With its opening in late April at the Crystal Cathedral in Greater Los Angeles, the Bible Ministry Exhibition is being held for the first time outside of China and Hong Kong. After its initial presentation at the Cathedral, the exhibit moved to Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. According to coordinator Ma Hongzhi, the Atlanta site was chosen for its "Bible Belt" location and the promise of support by former President Jimmy Carter. Following its stop in Atlanta, the exhibit moves to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City.

The exhibit has already left the Crystal Cathedral (April 27 - May 4) and is currently in Atlanta at the Ponce de Leon Baptist Church (May 19 - 24) but will soon move to The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City (June 5 - 12).

Zhang Wanlong's Life of Jesus appears especially impressive in a photo showing the artist in front of the painting at the Crystal Cathedral website -- even though the camera hasn't focused close enough to reveal the painstaken details.

If any Gypsy Scholar reader has visited this exhibit, let us know how you found it.

UPDATE: As my smarter older brother has pointed out, the exhibit has already left the States, so the SBL article -- which says, "Following its stop in Atlanta, the exhibit moves to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City." -- must have been written over a month ago even though I received it electronically only yesterday, but I should have paid more attention to the dates that I myself was typing. Sorry about that. Did anybody see this exhibit?

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Poetry Break: "Nothin'"

The Moon as seen from Wikipedia

In 1989, I left for Germany on a Fulbright Fellowship, feeling on top of the world. One moon later, having discovered that my stipend didn't stretch very far in Kiel, a northern German city on the Baltic Sea, and despite being closer to the North Pole there, I was feeling rather less than on top of the world.

I was feeling rather more ... antarctic.

Emperor Penguins have a hard antarctic life. Did you know that? Recently, my family and I watched La Marche de l'empereur (in French with Korean subtitles!), and afterwards, my 9-year-old daughter wrote in her journal, "I hadn't known that penguins suffered so much."

Well, I wasn't a Kiel imperial penguin, but short on cash, and only temporarily in town for language study before heading on to Tübingen, where I'd again have to find a place to stay, I felt penniless, homeless, and obscurely blue.

But the moon was shining, so I wrote this:

Ain' got no money,
ain' got no home,
ain got much pride,
'pon my bones...

B'duh silver moon
glows pure t'night:
So I rench my soul
in pale moon light.
Sometimes, the moonlight is enuf...


Monday, June 19, 2006

Vernard Eller: A Pearl ... for the Brokenhearted

(Image Borrowed From House Church Central)

Five in the morning, Seoul time, and all of Korea must be up right now watching the Korean soccer team play France in the World Cup. I can hear my wife and daughter cheering and groaning -- mostly the latter, for Korea has fallen behind 1-0.

I'm being an ugly foreigner, sitting here in my study, blogging obliviously on ... on the 14th century and the anonymous Pearl Poet. If Korea loses, however, I can offer consolation for the brokenhearted...

Speaking of which, that seems to be the subtitle of an online translation of Pearl by a certain Vernard Eller, an intellectual Christian with a variety of interests who made his spiritual home in The Church of the Brethren, a denomination that traces its origins to the pacifist tradition of Radical Reformation.

Eller was a prolific author of Christian books, even penning one on Christian sex titled The Sex Manual for Puritans! The tone is rather 'tongue-in-cheek' -- for instance, he tells us in a chapter on "The Climax" that "[t]he boin-n-ng" lasts about "[f]ive seconds at most."

I think that he's referring to the male's experience of boinging.

By any objective measures, such a boing is not very long. Fortunately, time is subjectively stretched and dilated at such moments, so the boing can seem to last as long as six seconds.

But I'm getting off-topic. I meant only to note that --

Breaking News at 5:40 a.m. Seoul Time: Korea has just tied the score! Dae Han Min Guk! Tsuh-Tsuh, Tsuh-Tsuh, Tsuh! Dae Han Min Guk! Tsuh-Tsuh, Tsuh-Tsuh, Tsuh! Dae Han Min Guk! Tsuh-Tsuh, Tsuh-Tsuh, Tsuh! Oh Pilseung Korea! Oh Pilseung Korea! Oh Pilseung Korea! Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh! Boin-n-ng!

-- Vernon Ellis translated the Pearl Poet's great pearl poem as A Pearl ... for the Brokenhearted to give "counsel ... [of] the Christian gospel for the brokenhearted, ... comfort for our own grief."

I find fascinating that contemporary, Protestant Christians stemming from the Radical Reformation would turn to a Medieval Catholic text in an obscure English dialect for spiritual consolation, but perhaps the twilight of our times has brought the owl of Minerva to her flight...

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Pearl Poet: Sarah Stanbury on 'numerological structure'

(Image borrowed from TEAMS, University of Rochester)

Various editions of Pearl are available for those interested in reading it. William F. Klein suggests in his review that we read "Condren's book with a copy of a good scholarly edition at hand ... for example, Andrew Malcolm and Ronald Waldron, The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, Exeter, 1987." I may need to obtain a copy of that.

Meanwhile, I've been searching the internet for online materials and turned up a piece that my sidebar indirectly links to but which I'll directly link to here. TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) has published online the introduction to Sarah Stanbury's 2001 edition of Pearl (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications).

Stanbury notes the poem's attention to number:

Integral to the poem's play with language are formal patternings that build repetition and change into the structure of the poem. In its principles of rhyme, versification, and numbering, Pearl is unmatched for complexity in Middle English poetry and perhaps rivaled only by Dante's Divine Comedy. Attention to number is a vital part of the poem's design. The use of a twelve-line stanza seems to be carefully chosen as part of a numerological structure: the New Jerusalem has twelve tiers in its foundation and is also twelve furlongs long; the poem itself, 1212 lines long, is a composite of twelves. Concepts of perfection and blemish parlayed through the image of the pearl are also graphed through number. Comprising twenty sets of five, the stanzas are grouped to add up to 100, a number of perfection. This symmetry is offset, however, by the curious addition of an extra stanza in the fifteenth set - with the result that the stanzas total 101. One hundred and one, a strong number that suggests new beginning after return, is doubtless no accident. This number appears as a stanza or chapter total in several other medieval texts; and most strikingly, 101 is also the sum of the stanzas of the Cotton Nero A.x. manuscript's most famous poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

I cite this passage here merely to note that various scholars have encountered the fact of the poem's "numerical design" -- though Stanbury calls this its "numerological structure" -- and that there exists a tradition already at work interpreting Pearl and other poems according to number. In a footnote to the passage quoted above (footnote 5 in the online text), Stanbury cites several studies of poetry designed by number:

For Franciscan texts based on 101, see John Fleming, "The Centuple Structure of the Pearl," The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century, edited by Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1981), 81-98, which argues that "101," the number of stanzas in the poem Pearl, is the number of spiritual consolation.

For discussion of the uses of number in Pearl, see Ian Bishop,
Pearl in Its Setting: A Critical Study of the Structure and Meaning of the Middle English Poem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968), 27-32, on number symbolism.

For more discussion of the uses of number in Pearl, see Russell A. Peck, "Number as Cosmic Language," Essays in the Numerical Criticism of Medieval Literature, edited by Carolyn D. Eckhardt (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1980), 15-64, on Boethian and Augustinian number symbolism with application to Pearl on 44-51,

For still more discussion of the uses of number in Pearl, see Maren-Sofie Rostvig, "Numerical Composition in Pearl: A Theory," English Studies 48 (1967), 326-32, a study of number and number symbolism.

This blog is beginning to look like a bibliographical essay, but as my motto states, I'm riding a "wagon hitched to a star," going wherever it takes me, and if this momentous expedition requires attention to some cartographic details concerning the cosmography of my mental universe, just remember that the ride is costing you nothing.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Pearl Poet: Professor Condren Responds

Symbol by Early 17th-Century Mystic Jakob Böhme
Names of Jesus
Derivation of Pentagrammaton from Tetragrammaton
(Borrowed from Wikipedia)

In my quest to find out more about Professor Condren's theory without incurring pecuniary debt, I sent him an email to inquire and have received a reply, thereby incurring an intellectual debt.

Here's what I wrote to Condren:

Greetings from Horace Jeffery Hodges. I am a professor of Medieval English at Korea University, in Seoul. I am writing because I have recently become aware of your theory concerning the Pearl Poet.

You can see the 'history' of my awakening interest in the numerological symbolism in these posts to my blog (which I paste here only as evidence, not as an invitation to read what is not intrinsically interesting).

Regular readers will note that I exaggerated my expertise. I should have written that I'm an 'accidental' professor of Medieval English ... but that's another story. Anyway, Condren looked at the blog entries and found my two questions:

1. What was the Medieval approximation for the Golden Ratio?
2. Why does Condren drop the "signature twelves" and the "signature 31s"?

Perhaps I should refresh our memories as to why I posed these two questions. In an online query that was posted on Drexel University's Math Forum in June 1999, Condren explained:

The line counts of the four poems [in the Pearl Poet manuscript] are, respectively, 1212, 1812, 531, and 2531. This highly artful arrangement, minus the signature twelves in the first half and signature 31s (the tenth prime as the Middle Ages reckoned primes) in the second half, gives us two halves of 3000 lines each. More intriguing still, the two outer poems divided by the two medial poems give the Golden Section.

I had earlier noted in my blog entry that the Golden Section, aka the Golden Ratio, is an irrational number that can be given a decimal expansion for as far as one wishes: 1.61803398874989484820....

With that in mind, I followed Condren's method and divided "the two outer poems ... by the two medial poems"...

...without the "signature twelves" and "signature 31s" -- a move that already raises some danger signals for me, but okay. If we add 1200 and 2500, we get 3700, and if we add 1800 and 500, we get 2300. If we then divide 3700 by 2300, we obtain 1.60869565217....

That's closer but still no cigar. We can round off Condren's mean and the actual Golden Mean to 1.609 and 1.618, respectively. That's pretty close, but not the same. If we round off a bit more, we get 1.61 and 1.62. Closer yet, but still not the same. If we round off one more time, we get 1.6 and 1.6. The same ... finally.

At this point, I raised my two questions, to which Condren has graciously responded as follows:

The interesting questions you ask could engage me for several pages, much more, in fact, than I included in my book of a few years ago. But I think it would be best to confine myself to a couple of fundamental points as a way of leading you to a less adverse disposition to numerical design than you express in your blog. Indeed, let me begin with that phrase, "numerical design." You call it numerology in one of your blog entries. Believe me, numerical design differs from numerology as much as astronomy differs from astrology in the modern world. To quote from my book, "While numerology assumes that numbers have inherent symbolic meanings related to the divine supervision of the universe, a numerical analysis focuses almost entirely on formal units of text -- lines, stanzas, sections, fitts, books, and the like -- to discover whether the sizes and shapes of these parts, and their interrelationships, do not perhaps communicate the same meaning that the verbal texture of the manuscript conveys" (p. 3).

I'm glad that Condren corrected my terminology, for I sensed that my reference to the "numerological symbolism" didn't quite capture what Condren is describing. So, "numerical design" it is. Condren continues:

Let me jump to another widely accepted truth the Middle Ages held, that the divine creator used number as the "tool" that enabled the first transition from the mind of God to the physical presence of matter, or as the medieval philosophers themselves put it, "from vitrue to essence." Well then, if God created the universe out of number, then the pale parallel of a poet creating his literary world should also call for number as its efficient cause, especially if he believed his highest ambition was immitatio Christi. So the doubt you have that any modern would design a poem on the basis of number cannot accord with either the philosophy of the Middle Ages nor the poems produced then. You might look at a brief, but immensely persuasive, article by Charles Singleton, "The Poet's Number at the Center," MLN 80:1-10, to see only one instance of Dante's devotion to number in his Commedia.

Oh no! More articles to purchase! I suppose that these are the interest payments on my intellectual debt. By the way -- and just for the record -- I believe that not I but one of the commentors referred to the unlikelihood of a Modern poet structuring a poem according to numerical design. Anyway, Condren now broaches the first of my two questions:

You sound a little triumphant in noting that the Pearl poet never quite got it right when he was trying to reach the magic number of the Golden Section, a failure that makes you even more skeptical that you formerly were. Well, first, no one ever gets it right. Only geometry can reach a perfect golden cut. But the measurement of this geometry in whatever numerical system one chooses to use, fails to capture this precision. The closest our measurement can come is with an irrational number. But while the concept of "incomensurability" nearly broke up the neo-Pythagorean circle, efforts to demonstrate this concept would elude mathematics until long after the fourteenth century. The breakthrough came when the West discovered Indian decimals. Thus the Pearl poet did not have the luxury of the precise numbers you were looking for in the calculations I presented. Just think of the challenge such mathematicians faced: the formula you show on your web site uses the sq.rt. of 5, and leaves it at that. But a medieval mathematician only had at his disposal a rational convergent, namely 20/9, to work out the equation you cite. These days one can hit a key for 5, press the sq.rt. key and in a nanosecond learn that the sq.rt. of 5 is 2.236067977.... The medieval mathematician, on the other hand had only 20/9, or 2.222222... in modern terms, an unavoidable error of 0.01384... To my mind it is astonishing that the Pearl poet achieved such precision despite beginning with a huge inaccuracy. Yet you find fault with him for missing his mark by only 0.02051.

I apologize for sounding triumphant. I intended only to sound amusing as I presented my otherwise rather tedious calculations. Ordinarily, I have better control over my literary style. At any rate, what I wanted to understand -- though perhaps lost in my calculations -- was how the Medieval world approximated the Golden Section and what their approximation was. I'm still not quite clear on these two interrelated points, but let me see if I understand. For the sq. rt. of 5, the Medievals used 20/9, or 2.222222.... If I plug this into the Modern formula, i.e., 1/2(1 + 20/9), then I obtain 1.6111111.... I take it that this was the Medieval approximation of the Golden Section? If so, then dividing 3700 by 2300 -- to obtain 1.60869565217... as the Pearl Poet's approximation of the Golden Section -- does come a lot closer than I could previously see. But this again raises my question as to why one should use 3700 and 2300 rather than 3743 and 2343 for the line numbers, to which Condren responds:

You wonder as well why I discounted the "signature twelves" and the "signature 31s." [Editorial note: 12 + 31 = 43, as reflected in 3743 and 2343.] I argue at some length that these units and tens columns show how the manuscript is to be read, as in music the bass and treble "signatures" are not themselves played, but only indicate the time and key with which the notes are to be played. To my mind the fascinating thing about these particular signatures is the tension they show between the duodecimal system and the decimal system, the implications of which would take too long to illustrate. I'll give just one tease: the expansion of the tetragrammaton (the four-letter name for God) into the pentagrammaton (the five-letter name for God, or Jesus) parallels the expansion of the two Hebrew-era poems (Purity and Patience) at the center of the manuscript into the two Christian-era poems (Pearl and Sir Gawain) at the manuscript's extremes, for which the geometric demonstration of the divine proportion--"division into mean and extreme ratio"--with its compelled expansion, is a perfect analogue.

Not knowing much about music theory, I'm now far beyond my ken. (If only my family could have afforded those piano lessons that I wanted to have as an adolescent...) I guess that I'll have to buy Condren's book to even broach an understanding of this.

I want to thank Professor Condren for his gracious reply to my query. Naturally, his explanation has led to still more questions, as always happens, but I think that I should now probably shell out the money for the book and satisfy my expensive curiosity in the proper fashion rather than incur further intellectual debt at the expense of Professor Condren's time.


Friday, June 16, 2006

Pearl Poet: William F. Klein's Review of Condren

Logo Borrowed from:
The Medieval Institute College of Arts and Sciences
University of Michigan Library

Thanks to Ian Myles Slater for pointing the way to The Medieval Review, which offers a free online review of Condren's book by William F. Klein, of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. For the ignorant among us (and that includes me), Ian helpfully adds:
For those not familiar with it, TMR, formerly Bryn Mawr Medieval Review, is "a moderated distribution list," run by and for medievalists. It offers a searchable collection of reviews going back to 1993.

I didn't know all that, but as my older brother, Pat, once remarked to me in a well-honed putdown, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio." This applies in spades to my knowledge of Medieval numerology.

Klein's review is useful not because he shows that Condren is right or wrong, for he admits: "That his analysis is sound I cannot claim or argue. His book will have to make its own way in the world." But he is impressed enough to add: "At this point we must give Condren the benefit of our doubt." Why is Klein willing to do this? Because he believes "that Condren's study of the manuscript does in fact display a structural design that cannot be other than utterly intentional and that everyone who would like to claim knowledge of the manuscript and the poems should read his book."

I'll leave Klein's review to my readers to read, but I would like to quote here Klein's quote of Condren's own "Afterword":

The implications of the highly wrought strategy we have been discussing, in which mathematics serves as a revealing analogue to metaphysical matters, might be stated in various ways depending on the context one wishes to emphasize. To a mathematician the conversion of a measuring system based on fours into a system based on fives requires the magic of an irrational number that leads to infinity if applied repeatedly. To a medieval theologian the New Law expands and enriches the Old Law through the advent of Christ, whose teaching, if continuously applied, in turn translates the New into eternal salvation. To a poet there is little difference, for his epiphany comes in recognizing the parallel between mathematics and theology and in realizing poetry's power to make palpable what otherwise would be ineffable. Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have a foot in both the four cornered world and the world that supersedes it. The duodecimal basis of the former, the four fitts of the latter, and the worldly concerns of both suggest the sphere of Purity and Patience. The 5 square prime number of stanzas in both Pearl and Gawain, the fifth Platonic solid suggested by the former, and the latter's pentangular emblem, five-line bob-and-wheel, and power of regeneration imply the abode of the Pearl maiden. Above it all lies the manuscript's astonishing representation of elegant coherence. The profound congruence of the universe with man's theological and moral concerns, and with all that lies on his too-much-loved earth, unfolds before us with subtle simplicity. The disciplines of the quadrivium--arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy--have been drawing their lines unwaveringly toward the judgment on which will depend the eternity, not only of the characters described in its lines, but also on every reader humbled by this manuscripts exquisite beauty. ( Edward I. Condren, The Numerical Universe of the Gawain-Pearl Poet: Beyond Phi, page 147)

This certainly demonstrates that Condren has thought long and hard about the potential implications of the numerical relationships that he believes himself to have found. If he's right, then his book is brilliant -- and the Pearl Poet even more so.

This is the sort of book that my old history of science professor John L. Heilbron would find fascinating, given his interest in the confluence of mathematical astronomy and Christian theology in the The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Pearl Poet and Condren's Golden Section

Thanks to Wikipedia, I now have a greater understanding of the famous Golden Ratio and some questions for Professor Condren (not that he's reading my blog).

On the left above, you can see Wikipedia's image of a rectangle containing (almost) the Golden Ratio:
The dimensions of the gray rectangle are in the ratio 144/89 = 1.6180, very nearly the golden ratio, thought by many to be a most pleasing ratio for a rectangle.
On the right above, you can see Michael Lahanas's image of a line whose segments show the Golden Ratio, which is explained as follows:
A line is divided into two segments AG and GB. The entire line AB is to the AG segment as AG is to the GB segment.
The Golden Ratio is an irrational number that is today expressed by the following formula:

I hope that this is visible, but if not, go to this image on Wikipedia if you haven't already done so.

As an irrational number, the Golden Ratio can be given a decimal expansion for as far as one wishes: 1.61803398874989484820....

We now approach my question. Condren states the following in his post on Drexel University's Math Forum (June 1999):

The line counts of the four poems [in the Pearl Poet manuscript] are, respectively, 1212, 1812, 531, and 2531. This highly artful arrangement, minus the signature twelves in the first half and signature 31s (the tenth prime as the Middle Ages reckoned primes) in the second half, gives us two halves of 3000 lines each. More intriguing still, the two outer poems divided by the two medial poems give the Golden Section.
Okay, if we add 1212 and 2531, we get 3743, and if we add 1812 and 531, we get 2343. If we then divide 3743 by 2343, we obtain 1.59752454118.... That's not especially close to the Golden Ratio. So, let's try again without the "signature twelves" and "signature 31s" -- a move that already raises some danger signals for me, but okay. If we add 1200 and 2500, we get 3700, and if we add 1800 and 500, we get 2300. If we then divide 3700 by 2300, we obtain 1.60869565217....

That's closer but still no cigar. We can round off Condren's mean and the actual Golden Mean to 1.609 and 1.618, respectively. That's pretty close, but not the same. If we round off a bit more, we get 1.61 and 1.62. Closer yet, but still not the same. If we round off one more time, we get 1.6 and 1.6. The same ... finally.

At this point, I'd need to know two things:
1. What was the Medieval approximation for the Golden Ratio?
2. Why does Condren drop the "signature twelves" and the "signature 31s"?
I presume that Condren has some answers, but for now, I'm even more skeptical than I already was.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Professor Edward Condren: On the Pearl Poet

Professor Edward Condren
English at UCLA
(Borrowed from UCLA, June 14, 2006)

By Googling, I located online an enquiry posed by Professor Condren on Drexel University's Math Forum back in June 1999 when he was researching the material that became his book. Here are some details that he provided on his interpretation of the entire manuscript of the Pearl Poet's four poems:
A unique fourteenth century manuscript, British Library Cotton Nero A.x., has four poems, two of which are the brilliant Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It has always been thought to be a mere anthology, probably by the same author. My book argues that it is in fact a single artifact unified by the same mathematics that, from the Neo-Pythagoreans onward, have been held to demonstrate the unity of all creation. The line counts of the four poems are, respectively, 1212, 1812, 531, and 2531. This highly artful arrangement, minus the signature twelves in the first half and signature 31s (the tenth prime as the Middle Ages reckoned primes) in the second half, gives us two halves of 3000 lines each. More intriguing still, the two outer poems divided by the two medial poems give the Golden Section. The first poem, Pearl, has 20 sections of 5 stanzas each, with each stanza containing 12 rhyming lines. Moreover, the first line of each stanza replicates the last line of the preceding stanza, with the first line of the poem echoing the last line of the poem. It seems clear to me that this poem's 1212 lines create a verbal dodecahedron: 20 vertices; 12 faces; each face a five-sided pentagon. The pentagon, of course, is highly dependent on the phi ratio. The three remaining poems seem 2-D, rather than 3-D. In other words, the poet may have conceived them as the three inscribed planes. The first of these remaining three, Purity, is constructed almost entirely of phi-related sections which encode a five-pointed star -- another phi-dependent figure -- which happens to be the main symbol on Sir Gawain's shield. The next poem I haven't entirely cracked yet (hence my query about the size of the inscribed rectangles). It's a retelling of the story of Jonah. But its 5 sections have intriguing sizes: 60, 184, 60, 104, 123. When we remove the overages, which total 31 (4 + 4 + 23), we are left with two 60s, two 100s, and 180. This last is the radius of the circumscribed circle surrounding the five-pointed star laid out in Purity.
Obviously, this is technical stuff, and I haven't had time to delve into it beyond checking just enough to learn that the "Golden Section" and the "phi ratio" are two names for the same thing, the "Golden Ratio," which was known as the "Divine Proportion" in the Middle Ages. Assuming that the Pearl Poet really was encoding this into his poem, the question then becomes: What does it all mean?
I presume that Condren tells us in his book. From the book description at Amazon, I infer that the Pearl Poet's manuscript of four poems is intended to reflect the cosmos, though what this means in its particulars would require my reading Condren's book, which I may well do

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Poetry Break: "Ozark Creek Bed"

Fossil trilobite Redlichia chinensis
From the Cambrian of China
(Borrowed via Wikipedia)

After a Korean evening under an awning with Korean friends, too much soju, and manifold slices of pork from a monster hog hardly abstracted from the grunting beast itself, I'm not quite up this morning to discussing the etherial Pearl.

Stone, however, I can handle:
Ozark Creek Bed

Like burnt must, those old
Cambrian scents, broke from the bone-
smooth circumference of in-
stone, curling pre-pteradactylic up,
in the unfamiliar air,
and hanging in-
explicably there . . . .

I don't quite recall precisely when I wrote this ... back in the stone age, I suppose. The format doesn't reflect the offline version, unfortunately, for this is partly a visual poem.

I blame Blogger ... or society ... or childhood deprivation ... but perhaps the fault is my own.

Anyway, the third and seventh lines should be indented about five spaces, the fourth line about ten spaces, and the eighth about fifteen.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

"To pay the Prince or set Him saught..."

The Angel Shows St. John the Heavenly Jerusalem
(English Gulbenkian Apocalypse, c. 1250)

In his comments to yesterday's post, Eshuneutics mentioned that Enitharmon Press has a new edition of Pearl.

With that information, I found a webpage at Medieval Forum advertising this new translation by Victor Watts (edited by David Fuller and Corinne Saunders). A sample of the traslation is provided, and it just happens to be the passage that I was attempting to make sense of and translate yesterday.

I'll post the online translation here, and since I think that I ought always to contribute something when I borrow, then I'll provide the Watts translation interlinear to the original for ease of comparison:

To pay the Prince other sete saghte
To pay the Prince or set Him saught // propitiate Him

Hit is ful ethe to the god Krystyin;
it is full eath to the good Christine; // easy/Christian

For I haf founden Hym bothe day and naghte
for I have found Him both day and naught // night

A God, a Lorde, a frende ful fyin.
a God, a Lord, a friend full fine. // most true

Over this hyul this lote I laghte,
Over this hile this lote I laught, // upon/mound/fortune/received

For pyty of my Perle enclyin,
for pity of my Pearl incline, // lying prostrate

And sythen to God I hit bytaghte
and sithen to God I it betaught // then/committed

In Krystez dere blessyng and myn,
in Christ's dear blessing and mine,

That in the forme of bred and wyn
that in the form of bread and wine

The preste uus schewez uch a daye.
the priest us shows every day.

He gef uus to be His homly hyne
He gave us to be His homely hine // members of His household

Ande precious perlez unto His pay.
and precious pearls unto His pay. // to His pleasure

Amen. Amen. (1201-13)
Amen. Amen.

Readers will have noted that this doesn't look quite like a translation into Modern English, and they'd be right. Watts has not so much translated as modernized, as the editors explain:
Victor Watts's version preserves as far as possible the original wording and word order but modernises the spelling. This is a limited form of modernization, but the only way in which all the features of the original text's elaborate formal structure, which are so important to its feeling as a poem, can be retained -- the alliteration, patterns of rhyme, and patterns of linked opening and closing lines by which stanzas are grouped. Some archaic spellings remain or have been slightly modified.
The edition, therefore, would be very useful for undergraduate students interested in studying the poem but deterred by its difficulty ... and also for would-be scholars like me whose Middle English skills leave something (call it 'expertise') to be desired.

Interestingly, given his fascination with the poem, Watts asks himself if "the poem is not really a misguided and overwrought failure." As he explains in the introduction:
Depth of feeling, semantic subtlety, didactic force, humanity, humour even, there certainly is. But although he poet subtly varies his style between the didactic and the narrative passages, nevertheless the preciousness and awkwardness of his style has impressed itself upon me more forcibly than hitherto in making this experiment of modernisation.
The editors, however, prefer to understand Watts as attributing the fault not to the poet but to the modern readers:
Although Watts clearly views Pearl as "a jewel of exquisite form and sensitivity," he specifically acknowledges the difficulties presented to a modern audience by the "preciousness and awkwardness" of the Pearl-poet's style and language. If anything, this might be an understatement. Even for readers of Middle English, the dialect used by the Pearl-poet, one usually associated with the North West Midlands around the Cheshire-Derbyshire-Staffordshire border area, presents a challenge.
My Middle English skills would need to be a lot better before I could judge on this issue, but the question is certainly one to note and consider.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

"To pay the Prince other sete saghte..."

I'm about to prove my incompetence with Middle English, but I wanted to understand the poem's ending, and I find that translating a passage myself often leads to deeper insight.

In this instance, my efforts haven't led me to any significantly greater understanding, for I'm still struggling with the translation. I didn't find the word "enclyin" in A Concise Dictionary of Middle English, by A. L. Mayhew and Walter W. Skeat, but the word looks like "incline," so I've provisionally chosen that even though I can quite make out the grammar.

Perhaps the experts who sometimes glance at my blog can help me out.

Just so no one is dependent upon my translation alone, I've included two online translations after my own. Mine is in parentheses, followed by Bill Stanton's translation, and then by Vernard Eller 's translation:


To pay the Prince other sete saghte
(To please the Prince or suitably reconcile)
To please the Prince and him requite
To please the Prince or with him get right


Hit is ful ethe to the god Krystyin;
(It is fully easy for the good Christian;)
Is easy for the Christian man
Easily comes to the good Christian;


Foe I haf founden hym, bothe daye and naghte,
(For I have found him, both day and night,)
For I have found him day and night
For I've found him, both day and night,


A Gode, a Lorde, a frende ful fyin.
(A God, a Lord, a friend fully fine.)
A God, a Lord, who ever can
A God, a Lord, a Friend full fine.


Over this hyul this lote I laghte.
(Upon this hill this plight I accepted.)
Upon this hill me guide aright
Upon the hillock I accepted my plight


For pyty of my perle enclyin,
(For pity of my pearl incline,)
In pity for that pearl which ran
For pity of the pearl I pine.


And sythen to God I hit bytaghte
(And since to God I it entrusted)
To God, who gives his gifts of right
Then gave I that pearl to God outright


In Krystes dere blessyng and myn,
(In Christ's dear blessing and memory,)
And to Christ's blessing which began
In blessed memory of the Christ divine


That in the forme of bred and wyn
(That in the form of bread and wine)
With bread and wine his mighty plan
Who, in the form of bread and wine,


The preste uus schewes uch a daye.
(The priest us shows each day)
The priest each day our souls inspires
The priests do daily show by measure.


He gefs uus to be his homly hyne
(He gives us to be his humble servant)
To make us each God's artisan,
To be humble hirelings he doth us assign


Ande precious perles unto his pay.
(And precious pearls unto his pleasure.)
Those precious pearls my Prince desires.
And precious pearls unto his pleasure.

The poet then adds "Amen. Amen." I presume that the double amen is significant, but I know not how.

Does it count as line 1213? That would mar the numerological structuring of 1212, wouldn't it? What think ye, schoolmen?

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Saturday, June 10, 2006


Pearl Poet Pentangle
An Endless Knotty Problem
(Image from Wikipedia)

A couple of years ago, in preparing to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I bought Casey Finch's The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet, which contains all four works generally agreed to stem from the hand of the same unknown poet, plus another poem that has sometimes been attributed to him.

I read all five of these poems in translation, checking the Middle English on the opposing page when something intrigued me.

What I didn't notice at the time -- perhaps because I was more interested in gearing up to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- was the complexity of The Pearl. It tells the experience of a dream vision in which the author encounters his daughter, who died young and is now in heaven, which can be read biographically or allegorically, or both. The poem has 101 stanzas, each one of 12 lines with the following rhyme scheme: ababababbcbc. The stanzas are arranged in groups of five linked by the identical final word in each stanza. For instance, the final word in each of the five stanzas comprising the first group is "spot."

But there is one exception, group 15, which has 6 stanzas. Each of the first five stanzas of group 15 ends with the word "less," which is somewhat ironic since this this group has one extra stanza. Moreover, the extra stanza, while not ending in "less," does have its initial line end with that word.

Apparently, the Pearl poet has set out a complex puzzle here for us to notice and solve. Why the shift from 5 to 6 stanzas? Why the emphasis upon "less"? Why group 15?

These lead to other questions. Why 20 groups? Why 12-line stanzas? Why 101 stanzas in all? Why 1212 lines?

I have no earthly idea, which is appropriate, given the unearthly quality of this poem.

Yet, it's perhaps worth noting that the poet emphasizes the number 144,000 (borrowed from St. John's Revelation), so the 1212 lines could be code for "1000 x 12 x 12."

But I'm just guessing.