Celebrating George Herbert

Today is the feast day of George Herbert, a poet who has quietly but powerfully shaped both the way I write and the way I relate to God.

I brought very few books with me to England—it turns out that books weigh a lot!—just a few of the texts I’d be teaching. But I brought two copies of George Herbert: Helen Wilcox’s doorstopper of a scholarly edition, but also my little beat-up paperback from college days. When I walk in the door of a Herbert poem and have a good look around, I almost always feel less alone.

In honor of the day, here are two poems, with a little bit of commentary.

Praise (3)

Lord, I will mean and speak thy praise,
                                                Thy praise alone,
My busie heart shall spin it all my dayes:
                      And when it stops for want of store,
Then will I wring it with a sigh or grone,
                                 That thou mayst yet have more.

When thou dost favor any action,
                                                It runs, it flies:
All things concur to give it a perfection.
                      That which had but two legs before,
When thou dost bless, hath twelve: one wheel dost rise
                                 To twenty then, or more.

But when thou dost on business blow,
                                                It hangs, it clogs:
Not all the teams of Albion in a row
                      Can hale or draw it out of door.
Legs are but stumps, and Pharoah’s wheels but logs,
                                 And struggling hinders more.

Thousands of things do thee employ
                                                In ruling all
This spacious globe: Angels must have their joy,
                      Devils their rod, the sea his shore,
The winds their stint: and yet when I did call,
                                 Thou heardst my call, and more.

I have not lost one single tear:
                                                But when mine eyes
Did weep to heav’n, they found a bottle there
                      (As we have boxes for the poor)
Ready to take them in; yet of a size
                                 That would contain much more.

But after thou hadst slipped a drop
                                                From thy right eye,
(Which there did hang like streamers near the top
                      Of some fair church, to show the sore
And bloody battle which thou once didst try)
                                 The glass was full and more.

Wherefore I sing. Yet since my heart,
                                                Though press’d, runs thin;
O that I might some other hearts convert,
                      And so take up at use good store:
That in thy chest there might be coming in
                                 Both all my praise, and more!

I won’t say too much about this poem (as I will about “The Altar,” below); it reads pretty well all on its own. I’ll just point out the way its varied meter works in various ways. Even before you begin to read, a quick glance at the page shows you that the line lengths, and therefore the meter, are quite irregular. But they’re regularly irregular—each stanza is metrically identical to the others—and they’re quite effective in communicating different ideas. For example, look at the short second lines of the first three stanzas.

  • In the first stanza, the suddenly short phrase “thy praise alone” emphasizes the poet’s focused attention on God. The line itself zooms in.
  • In the second stanza, the suddenly short “it runs, it flies” suggests rapid motion. Whereas “thy praise alone” is just a phrase, a little piece of a sentence, this little four-syllable line actually includes two independent clauses—two complete sentences! It accomplishes a lot, quickly.
  • In the third stanza, the suddenly short “it hangs, it clogs” is grammatically identical to the short line in the second stanza, but here it suggests the exact opposite of speed. And the exact same poetic trick of truncating the meter works to reinforce these opposing ideas. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because “hangs” and “clogs” seem redundant, stuck, whereas “runs” and “flies” suggest a forward-moving narrative, the two actions Pegasus might take at lift-off.

Similar analysis might be made of the long lines in each stanza.

This entire poem moves through contrasts such as these—and that is very rare for poems and songs of praise, which often seem (to me) to drone on in an exalted monotone. How many other poets would include so much attention to tears in a poem of praise?

The Altar

A    broken    ALTAR,    Lord,    thy   servant   rears,
Made   of   a   heart   and   cemented   with   tears:
Whose   parts    are   as   thy  hand   did frame;
No  workman’s  tool  hath  touch’d  the  same.
A      HEART      alone
Is    such    a     stone,
As      nothing       but
Thy  pow’r  doth  cut.
Wherefore each part
Of   my   hard   heart
Meets  in  this frame,
To  praise  thy  name:
That    if    I    chance    to   hold    my    peace,
These stones  to praise  thee  may  not  cease.
Oh,    let   thy    blessed   SACRIFICE    be    mine,
And     sanctify     this    ALTAR     to    be    thine.

For years and years, I always skipped this poem when reading or teaching Herbert, because it seemed too easy and obvious. Get it? It’s an altar! Joseph Addison mentioned this poem in particular as an example of “false wit,” and I was inclined to agree with him.

But it’s not at all a simple poem. This is one of the things Herbert does: he’ll give you something that seems superficial, obvious, and plain—but that impression is a deliberate rhetorical choice on Herbert’s part. Every sophisticated orator has the ability to sound like someone who’s unsophisticated and not an orator. Herbert, once the Public Orator of Cambridge University, uses that skill all the time.

To start with the shape of the poem, then. Yes, it’s an altar. It’s also an “I.” The thesis of the poem is that “I am an altar,” and “I = altar” is the implied visual pun of the poem’s shape. Already, the poem is not as simple as it seems: it’s about psychology and identity, not just about a church table.

We’ll get to the psychological dimension in a moment, but it’s also worth noting that Herbert’s presentation of the altar itself was witty and innovative for his day. He seems to have had in mind emblem books, which were quite popular in the early seventeenth century. An early modern emblem has a title, a picture, a motto, and a poem—all of which work together to teach a moral lesson. Several emblems featured a heart on an altar:

From George Wither, A Collection of Emblems Ancient and Modern, 1635

In “The Altar,” Herbert condenses such emblems. Instead of a picture plus some text, Herbert gives text that is the picture. Similarly, he doesn’t just set his heart on an altar; his heart in the poem is the altar—which allows him to draw on the many “stony heart” references in scripture. When we see this poem in the context of early modern emblems, it begins to look less like an unimagined stunt and more like the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Similarly, when we move beyond the shape of the poem to its theme—specifically, the issue of identity—it’s complicated. The poem’s governing idea is Luther’s point that a believing Christian is simul justus et peccator, simultaenously righteous and a sinner. That paradox emerges here in several ways:

  • “A broken altar, Lord, thy servant rears…” No, he doesn’t. Just look at the shape of the poem: it’s an astonishingly unbroken altar. “Praise (3)” above is shaped much more like a broken altar than this one is.
  • “Whose parts are as thy hand did frame.” So, wait: did God frame a broken altar? And if they’re in a “frame,” shouldn’t the “parts” be considered some sort of whole?
  • “No workman’s tool hath touched the same.” Well, except for the poet and the typographer. (I had to insert spaces by hand to get those lines all even in the version above.)

At the end of the altar, we have an equivocal ethos, an identity that wavers between “thine” (justus) and “mine” (peccator). We have the poet’s ego and also his (pardon me) altar ego. It is very tempting to read the title of the poem as an implied pun on the word “alter.”

“The Altar” is the first poem in “The Church,” the main collection of Herbert’s poetry. (I wrote a few weeks ago about this placement.) The very next poem, “The Sacrifice” picks up on this equivocal ethos. It is written in the first person (the “I” to which we’ve just been introduced), but the first person is not the poet: it’s Jesus as he is betrayed and crucified.

From the first printed edition of Herbert’s The Temple, 1633

Yet another context for this poem seems to be Herbert’s own vocation. His biographer Izaak Walton recounts the story of the night when Herbert was installed as priest in his parish at Bemerton. Herbert went inside the little church—which students and I will visit in a few weeks—to ring the bell, and… he just didn’t come out. For a long time. “He stayed so much longer than an ordinary time,” writes Walton, “that his friend Mr. Woodnoth looked in at the church window and saw him lie prostrate on the ground before the altar; at which time and place (as he after told Mr. Woodnoth) he set some rules to himself for the future manage of his life; and then and there made a vow to labour to keep them.”

St. Andrew’s Church, Bemerton

Herbert probably did not get up off the floor that night, give his apologies to the good Mr. Woodnoth, and go home to write “The Altar.” But I suspect that Walton’s anecdote and the poem represent the same spiritual moment, a moment of existential wrestling and reckoning.

Rest in peace, George Herbert, and live in joy.


On this feast day four years ago, I had a George Herbert encounter in York Minster, which you can read about here.

The Flower

A few weeks ago, when the semester fell into full swing, I found my desk covered with books and notes-to-self scrawled in various places on bits of paper. That’s actually how I like things—I prefer to nest in at least a little bit of clutter—but at one point I became overwhelmed. There’s no snow here in Britain, but I had that grim, resigned feeling I would have felt back in Michigan marching out to shovel the sidewalk while more snow is falling, just to keep up.

When I sat down to get things sort of sorted, my eyes immediately fell on a single sentence scrawled on one slip of paper, right between various logistical details: “You must believe in spring.”

My wife had come across a recording of this song by Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, and she had mentioned in an email that I needed to take a listen. I had jotted the title down so that I’d remember to check it out.

I have to say, she wasn’t wrong.

Stories of hope

I took two pictures on my flight from the USA to the UK in January. There had been some question of whether I would get off the ground at all. A winter storm was sweeping eastward across Michigan, and the airline was canceling flights left and right, including the one I had originally planned to take from Grand Rapids to Detroit. My wife and son had driven me three hours to the airport so that I could at least keep my original flight to London (and thereby make my trains and Covid test in the UK). The two of them had hurried home—into the blizzard—while I nervously watched the terminal monitors to see whether my flight would, in fact, fly.

The ice and snow had just been closing in on the airport as we fastened our seatbelts pulled back from the gate. For some reason, I took a picture. Several hours later, I looked out the same window just as the pilot announced our descent into London. And I took another picture.

So when I finally arrived in England and saw these two pictures back to back in my camera roll, I instinctively said, “hope.” They weren’t just isolated snapshots in time. Put together, they suggested a trajectory—a plot—of movement from darkness to light, from ice to sunshine, from the crowded ground to the wide open skies.

Our brains love narratives. Given two separate images, we will naturally try to connect them, often by filling in some causality in between them. That’s how we create a fluid sequence out of the separate frames of a comic book or graphic novel. And “hope” is one of the narratives we love to find or construct.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a run through suburban Liverpool. It was mild and cloudy when I left home. By the time I got down to the River Mersey, the wind was fierce, and it was hailing. Also, the sun was shining through the clouds. I took this picture:

And again, when I saw it in my camera roll, I said, “hope.” The dark anchor, a traditional symbol of hope in the lower left, with glimmers of hail showing against it, while high on the right—over the deep of the river—shines the sun. Read left to right, this image is the same narrative suggested by the two pictures I had taken on my flight here. 

Was I thinking of framing this story to match the earlier one from the airplane, deliberately matching narrative structures while I was buffeted by the wind, exhausted from running, and wondering whether it was safe to be out or whether I should seek shelter? No.

I just took out my phone, snapped the shot as quickly as I could, and hurried home. But there it is. Hope.

It turns out that our host institution here is Liverpool Hope University, formed when Catholic and Anglican schools merged. The name was largely inspired by the fact that Hope Street literally runs between the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals downtown.

Light will break through darkness; the sun will rise over the snow; new unions will heal old and bitter rivalries.

When I read the words “you must believe in spring” in light of these narratives, it seems to me less of an argument—something Tony Bennett is urging me to do—and more of a declarative statement, something we all just do instinctively, whether Tony Bennett wants us to or not. If you’re a human being, you must have a brain, and a heart, and a nervous system. And you must believe in spring, seeing connective patterns of hope in the world around you. It’s a narrative imperative: you simply will connect separate facts to spell hope.

This is especially true if you’re on the Semester in Britain, which runs only in the spring semester. You will begin in grim grey. You will end with daffodils, at the very least.

“The Flower”

We’ve been reading and analyzing at least one or two George Herbert poems each week, and for tonight I’ve picked “The Flower.” I consider it one of Herbert’s very best poems, and I’d like to save it for later, but last week’s reflective writings and our recent conversations have suggested that students are emotionally ready for it now. Many of the students have now been through not one but two rounds of homesickness, so their internal weather has cycled through a few seasons. Plus I’ve seen crocuses muscling their way through the dead leaves along my favorite running route. It’s time.

Those crocuses, though, are part of the problem.

When you read a poem called “The Flower” and see that it involves spiritual struggle—especially if you’re reading it during spring time, you will naturally read it as a poem of hope. I have seen many student essays on this poem, all of which treat it as statement of faith that God will see us through the hard times into better ones, and into the best time of all, which is eternity in heaven.

And passages of this poem do indeed present the story of springtime renewal and redemption in simple, vivid terms:

       How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
  Are thy returns! Ev’n as the flowers in spring;
       To which, besides their own demean,
  The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
               Grief melts away
               Like snow in May,
       As if there were no such cold thing.

How lovely is that? The frosts not only go away but, in their melting, water the flowers. The frosts not only retreat with their cold bite; they bring forth the pleasure of the blossoms.

Or these these lines, which have sunk deep into the heart of many a practicing poet:

       And now in age I bud again;
  After so many deaths I live and write;
       I once more smell the dew and rain;
  And relish versing…

The narrative of hope, the one that seems hard-wired into our interpretive apparatus as humans, is undeniably a part of this beautiful, challenging poem. But only one part—and only the easy part.

The stanza quoted immediately above, with the smell of the dew and rain, continues:

               It cannot be
               That I am he
       On whom thy tempests fell all night.

Herbert is pulling a bit of a fast one here. He’s saying that it’s impossible to imagine that the God who restores him had also depleted him. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says when he describes the difference between guards and prisoners in the Gulag, “Don’t expect someone who’s warm to understand someone who’s cold.” But by saying that it’s impossible to imagine it, Herbert makes us imagine it. By naming the thing that he cannot see, he makes it visible.

This is Herbert through and through: when he is saying one thing, he’s also often saying the exact opposite. He’ll tell you that he’s “a broken altar” in a poem that literally forms the shape of a complete altar on the printed page. He’ll say that his heart “scarce can groan” in the concluding couplet that polishes off a perfect sonnet. 

(My basic scholarly line on Herbert’s poems is that they’re dialogic: there are at least two voices operating in most of his poems, often one that dictates what the poem says and a totally different one dictating how the poem says it.)

In “The Flower,” Herbert insists that winter seems impossible in spring time—“as if there were no such cold thing”—and in saying so remind us of those old cold things we would otherwise deny. Even the sweetness of the opening lines comes with a bitter shadow: God’s refreshing “returns” presuppose God’s departure.

Other passages of the poem clearly show God angrily punishing, rejecting, freezing the poet.

So the poem is not just a progression from pain to joy. If a part of the poem’s tonality comes from the Song of Solomon (“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth”), another part of it comes from Job (“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”).

In fact, one of the subtle but notable features of the poem is its persistent present tense. The positive moments of the poet’s experience are emphatically present: “How fresh… are thy returns”; “And now in age, I bud again.” But don’t let the “hope archetype” fool you: the negative moments are also in the present tense: “Thy anger comes, and I decline.”

One critic (Anthony Low) points out that there are three forms of the present tense in the poem: the simple present, the historical present, and the eternal present. The poet is both inside time and outside of time—at the same time. Which is to say that the poem somehow embodies the reality of Christian existence.

In short, both the joy and the suffering are fully present—in one form or another—in the multidimensional moment that is the poem. Herbert has taken the two separate phases in the narrative of hope and stacked them on top of each other.

The second stanza, especially, seems to me a masterpiece:

       Who would have thought my shrivelled heart
  Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
       Quite underground; as flowers depart
  To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
               Where they together
               All the hard weather,
       Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

If you’re a poet writing about a flower, and you come to the point of your poem when you need to describe the flower in winter, I’ll bet you reach for imagery of graves, dust, darkness, and that kind of thing. 

What you don’t do is to describe birth, community, housekeeping. Not in that part of your poem. But that’s exactly what Herbert has done. That dead moment in the narrative? That’s part of God’s rhythm, too. It’s strangely alive.

But even that beautiful stanza doesn’t negate bitter realities. The next two stanzas show God not nourishing an apparently dead flower from below but striking down an apparently growing one from above, all under the topic sentence “These are thy wonders, God of power.” (Note the present tense verb.)

Herbert’s larger point in “The Flower” is not that God gets us through the tough times; it’s that the tough times also come from God.

That’s an unsettling point to accept in the abstract, and almost impossible to accept in the middle of a tough time. Herbert doesn’t intend this to be a poem of comfort; he intends to tell the truth. And the whole truth is that fall and winter are also divinely ordained seasons. Tragedy is also an archetypal narrative. 

So yes, Herbert says, you must believe in spring. But you must also believe in that other thing. And “believe” is exactly the right verb here, because winter seems impossible in spring time, and vice versa.

I’ve reached for this poem a couple of times in low moments over the past month and found it profoundly unhelpful. Sure, when I wake up well-rested and ready to write, some of its lines come to mind unbidden. But it never works as a framework within which to understand my own homesickness or sense of failure—at least in the moments when I am feeling those things most acutely.

I fully believe in the big, broad God whom Herbert describes in this poem—a God who is much more than just my personal protector, a God whose plans are far larger than my own well-being and therefore often seem to me dismissive, negligent, or even cruel. 

But when it comes right down to it, I’m a middle-class white American male, which is to say that I’m used to a world which is largely designed by and for people just like me. (It also calls into question my earlier assertion that the narrative of hope is embedded in human nature; surely there are less-privileged humans who would beg to differ.) Whatever my theological convictions, I just don’t like being discomforted; it seems wrong.

And I think my students are on my side here. We’ve been reading Psalm 90 every week, discussing the verses that seem particularly relevant, and students are persistently surprised at the idea that God punishes sin and afflicts believers:

    For we are consumed by your anger;
        by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
    You have set our iniquities before you,
        our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
    For all our days pass away under your wrath;
        our years come to an end like a sigh.

That’s not the God they know, or at least not an aspect of God they’ve often experienced or considered—which is one of the reasons why I’ve chosen “The Flower.”

My main job here in Britain is to blend the academic and experiential aspects of the program: to get students to physically explore British culture as we study it, and to get them to think in a scholarly way about the things they’re experiencing. Sometimes that doesn’t mean climbing a castle. Sometimes it’s just reading one’s own emotional weather in terms of a good poem.

As much as I would love my students to leave my class with intimate knowledge of this poem—or any poem, for that matter—what I’m going for is not so much knowledge as skills: the skill of being able to recognize a misleading narrative through which you’re reading something; the skill of stepping outside that narrative; the skill of bringing one’s own experience into genuine dialogue with a text.

We’ll see how that goes.

Stratford Upon Avon

Shakespeare’s birthplace

I’ve never really liked Stratford Upon Avon.

We’ve now read Richard II and Othello back to back, and I’ve prepped both plays from scratch, reading and annotating them and drawing up my class plans before looking back at notes I’ve made for other classes. The florid language in Richard II is among the most beautiful Shakespeare ever wrote; the character and plotting of Othello deft and nuanced, opening issues of identity that still seem startlingly modern. I walked into town with a head and heart full of Shakespeare.

But Stratford itself often feels to me very distant from the plays, despite the fact that pull quotes appear all over the place, and there are stores with names like “Much a Shoe About Nothing.” In fact it seems to me that the Shakespeare Industrial Complex in Stratford—centered on the much-reconstructed house where he was born—stands at two removes from the real vitality and energy of the plays.

The first remove is the one between the town and the author. Shakespeare went to London to write his plays. Maybe he worked on some in Stratford at some point. But if he and his plays hadn’t gone to London, we wouldn’t ever know that he or they existed. It seems appropriate that the grand statue on Henley Street is facing away from Shakespeare’s birthplace and off into the busy world.

The second remove is between the author and the text. I had already preached against bardolatry (i.e., the worship of Shakespeare) in class. Even the label “the Bard” is a misleading nineteenth-century misconstruing of what a bard is and does. The Romantics and Victorians imagined a bard as a lone genius, high atop some lofty crag with nothing but eagles and God speaking into his ear. 

John Martin, The Bard, 1817

The word “bard” was originally used, however, to denote a much more human figure: someone who would sit in the middle of a clan and serve as the communal memory, reciting stories he had heard from other bards—stories that expressed not his own genius but the questions, values, and identity of the culture in which he lived and served.

Shakespeare was actually more of a bard in this original sense: an extremely communal storyteller passing on (and, admittedly, improving a great deal) culturally important stories he had received from others. The best texts are his theatrical scripts, and a script is probably the most collaborative kind of text a person could write. He was influenced by his actors and his audience, and his texts were obviously tweaked to suit the needs of performances in various kinds of space. 

We don’t have any of Shakespeare’s plays in his own handwriting, and there is zero evidence—none—that he had any concern or involvement in the printing of his plays. I showed students pictures of Renaissance printing presses, wherein the text would literally pass through the hands of the anonymous compositors, who would assemble each line letter by letter (backward and upside down) to prepare a page for print. Shakespeare was nowhere to be seen, at this point, and the resulting pages are the only texts of Shakespeare that we have. He was completely content to let his words live entirely through the mouths, bodies, and finally hands of other people.

Jan van der Strate, Impression Librorum, ca.1590

So those texts seem a long way from their author, who was himself a long way from Stratford when he wrote them. It always seems as if it ought to be easy to meet Shakespeare in this town, but I always struggle to find him here. 

In effect, the character of Shakespeare himself has now become a literary creation, the projection of a meager bit of biographical evidence through several centuries of admiration and imagination. The bard one meets in Stratford is usually the nineteenth-century Bard (capital B), the great universal literary genius high above all others. 

Text: Henry V 1.1.30-31, describing Prince Hal’s transformation to Henry V.

There is an irony in this: the Shakespeare worshipped at his birthplace is a nearly-divine figure who seems to transcend time and space. It would seem that the physical birthplace of such a being would be largely irrelevant to his greatness. 

To put this irony in other terms, John Keats coined the phrase “negative capability” to denote Shakespeare’s genius: his personal power, his singular gift, was to create characters who are not at all like himself. Shakespeare’s unique identity as an author involves his ability to conceal his unique identity in his writing. 

It does make sense to celebrate that kind of literary achievement. It’s a little ironic to celebrate it at a site so closely connected to the literal identity that Shakespeare consistently managed to erase or evade.

In addition to seeing the house where Shakespeare was born, we visited the original guildhall where Shakespeare’s father served and the upstairs schoolroom where Shakespeare himself learned Latin and literature. For reasons I cannot fully explain, this place seemed to me more strongly connected to young William than any other place in town. We did enter through a small gift shop; we were subjected to a short bardolatrous film; and one of our tour guides apparently expected us to be awed by the fact that the bum of young Will Shakespeare could plausibly have graced the large money box in the guildhall. (“If I were a boy visiting my father here,” me mused, “I would have sat on that. I can’t prove it. But I’m sure he did.”)

But one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s presence in the guildhall seem so palpable to me is that it was kept so plausibly small. A boy on the box. Yes, okay: I could picture that. My son William would have sat there, too. And after the film, most of the tour didn’t really mention Shakespeare at all: it involved examining the numbered wooden beams cut from the forest of Arden and—most intriguing—the discovery of pre-Reformation paintings in the hall that had been whitewashed in the reign of Henry VIII. Shakespeare was, at best, a minor character in these stories. Which helped to keep him realistic.

Upstairs, in the schoolroom, we ourselves sat on wooden boxes (called “forms”) that had been blessed by the bum of the Bard, but of course it was what his head did in this room that is most important. A very plausible impersonator played the part of of a Tudor tutor, explaining the rules of the schoolroom, leading us through some Latin conjugations, and finally dropping the act just a bit to answer basic questions.

In this room, Shakespeare first learned the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Here, too, I was persuaded by understatement. The tutor did not quote Shakespearean speeches. He made no mention of Shakespeare’s genius. (When a woman on our tour asked what kind of student he was, the tutor shrugged, “Oh, average, I would imagine.) He simply pointed out a few obvious places in the plays that contained material also found in the grammar textbooks of the time. A single framed picture of Shakespeare—a sepia facsimile of the First Folio engraving—hung unobtrusively in a corner.

“If it weren’t for the education he received in this room,” said the tutor simply, “Shakespeare would have become a glover like his father. He was the oldest son. A Latin education gave him knowledge, but it also gave him access.”

And of course he’s right. Our group of students was joined by a small family, a mom and a dad and their two school-age boys. The tutor drily observed the cruelty of the parents in taking advantage of the boys’ school break to take them to… another schoolroom. But I got talking to the dad at one point, and he explained—with some earnestness—that Shakespeare would be on his sons’ assessments. They’d need an advantage. This was just sightseeing; he was trying to give his sons the same edge that John Shakespeare had wanted to give his.

What I found most remarkable about the schoolroom itself was the lack of paper. Boys (no girls) ranged in age from 7-14 in Shakespeare’s class, and they sat facing one another on the benches, working the lessons together out loud. “Of course,” I thought. “The best way to understand Shakespeare is either to read him out loud or hear someone else reading him.” It makes sense why seven years of intensive training in language as an oral medium would well prepare one to write for the stage. I could see how someone taught in this way might be more likely to write Richard II.

In the next room over, however, the school did have several desks with quills and ink and parchment—along with a small selection of dress-up clothes. Our group is considerably older than Shakespeare would have been in this school, but after the tour of the guildhall in the basement and the lesson from the tutor in the schoolroom, they were ready to play. Which they did, first by trying their hand at the quills, then moving to the costume rack: basically following Shakespeare’s own trajectory from daddy’s boy to schoolboy to writer and actor.

The narrative of the guildhall and the schoolroom is the barest start along that trajectory. To get a better sense of it we would need to follow it not only out into the world but out into the Globe. Which we will.

But here, at least, was a glimmer of the plays to come.

Alas, the plague

The real place to go to meet the Shakespeare in Stratford is of course down by the river, in the theater of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Even a mediocre performance of a Shakespeare play always contains more energy and wonder than anything else in town.

Sadly, this year, we did not have the chance to see a play. In Shakespeare’s own day, the theaters would often close during times when a plague was raging through London, so it is perhaps appropriate that this was the excursion most affected by the coronavirus.

Ordinarily, I would choose the plays on the syllabus by looking at the RSC website, assigning whichever one(s) we could see performed. Because of the pandemic, however, the company did not announce its season until too late—and even, I was reluctant to buy group tickets: if another lockdown was imposed, a theatrical performance would be the very first to be cancelled.

The day before we left, one of our group announced that she had tested positive for Covid. She had traveled to Ireland earlier in the week with a small subset of our class. I wanted to play it very safe, so I cancelled our three-hour class that night and asked everyone to take a test before getting on the bus to Stratford the next day. Two more of those tests came back positive. 

At this writing, those three are fine, in relatively good health and relatively good spirits.

I stood by the bus door the next morning and greeted most of the twelve remaining students with the same cheery question (“Feeling negative today?”), but I this is a fairly close group, and I think everyone felt the absence of the three who stayed behind. I know I did. Our group, like Shakespeare himself, was represented well enough in Stratford, simply not as present as one might have liked.

Scenes from a run

Down to the Mersey and back

With no excursion this weekend, I’m taking a break from essay writing and instead offer these pictures from today’s run. The route is one I’ve come to call the “Fine Nine,” because it’s nine miles long and features most of my favorite sites in my area.

Green Lane
Calderstones Park
Queens Drive

Queens Drive is one of the major roads the ring Liverpool out in the suburbs. Most the sidewalks and houses in my neighborhood look a lot like this. If only want to go a few miles, this is what I’ll be running through.

My favorite kind of sign to see

This is a shortcut to Sefton Park that I discovered last week. It’s always fun to spot one of these and say, “Hey, where does that go?” It’s often a nifty shortcut.

Nifty shortcut
This is actually not the most impressive home on the block.
The mighty Mersey

I stopped taking pictures for a stretch between the previous one and this one, because it had started raining. At this point, the rain had given way to hail, the Mersey was basically a wind tunnel for cold air from the Irish Sea, and already the sunlight was starting to return.

Here’s another footpath I discovered in the last couple of weeks. I spotted this one from the shuttle bus between campuses and said, “Hey, where does that go?” Turns out it’s a straight shortcut from the Mersey to Sefton Park (read: runner’s paradise).

A pretty typical intersection. When I knew I’d be living in Liverpool, I thought this was mostly what I’d be running in. Very glad to have been so wrong!

Liverpool’s artsy. This fairly grubby tunnel (under the intersection in the previous picture) nevertheless features paintings of local scenes by local artists.

Sefton Park

Sefton Park is 235 acres of broad pathways, water features, bridges, forests, and open meadows. It’s about two miles from my flat, so if I’m running a little short on distance, I do some loops here until I’m exactly two miles shy of my goal. Best buffer ever.

The Palm House in Sefton Park

Another couple of miles of this, and then…


There are four flats in this little house. Mine’s on the ground floor, on the left. (The little path leads to my “front” door.

In Contrayez Straunge

In which we wander into Wales

Once upon a time, an enormous Green Knight appeared at Arthur’s court with a great battle axe and challenged any of the famous knights to a game with only two moves. In the first move, the Green Knight would stand still while Arthur’s knight chopped off his head with the axe. In the second move, that knight would return the blow.

Sir Gawain—after doing some quick math and a mental review of basic human anatomy—agreed to the game, chopping the Green Knight’s head clean off, at which point the Green Knight’s body picked up his own head and told Sir Gawain to find him at the Green Chapel in one year and one day. He then rode boldly out of Arthur’s court into unknown lands.

A little less than a year later, Sir Gawain set out to meet his fate, riding from the the splendid order of Arthur’s court through a savage wilderness in search of his great green nemesis…

Places gain meaning from the stories we tell about them. That rather obvious point is one of the through lines of our coursework this semester in Britain. 

We’re here to study Britain, to ask the question, “What is this place?” 

And of course the most thoughtful response to that question isn’t to answer it outright but to consider multiple ways in which it has been answered: how has this place been understood in the contexts of different narratives? We’ve been looking not at definitions but at the act of definition as it has been performed at various points in history.

Painting by John Howe

This story of Sir Gawain begins in the mythical setting of Arthur’s Camelot, but Gawain rides forth into a liminal space somewhere between fact and fiction, because the poet takes great pains to name particular landmarks that would have been readily known to his northwestern audience at the end of the fourteenth century—places that are still recognizable today. He’s not in Narnia; he’s not traversing Middle-earth or Westeros. He rode, says the poem,

   Till he had wandered well-nigh into North Wales.
   All of the islands of Anglesey he holds on his left,
   And follows, as he fares, the fords by the coast,
   Comes over at Holy Head, and enters next
    The Wilderness of Wirral—few were within
   That had great good will toward God or man.
   * * *
   Over country wild and strange
   The knight sets off anew.
   Often his course must change
   Ere the Chapel comes into view.

   Many a cliff must he climb in country wild (“in contrayez straunge”);
   Far off from all his friends, forlorn must he ride.

(Trans. Marjorie Borroff)

Thus the anonymous Gawain poet shapes the landscapes of North Wales as “contrayez straunge,” a no-man’s land between the two civilized courts. This is, of course, an Englishman’s portrayal of North Wales, a liminal space not just between myth and history, fact and fiction, but also between the English and the Welsh. The area of the Wirral did have the reputation for being a forest full of outlaws—a place so dangerous that Edward III ordered it clear-cut in 1376.

But this view of North Wales didn’t start in 1376; it goes two Edwards back into the late thirteenth century, when the English king Edward I decided that he wanted to subdue Wales once and for all. He ordered the so-called “Iron Ring” of castles to be built throughout North Wales, not only as military strongholds for English troops, but also as thunderous rhetorical statements that the English were here in force, here in grandeur, and here to stay. 

The military purpose of his castles is now moot, but their rhetorical message is still going strong. They speak it loudly and boldly simply by existing. And they had been doing so for a century by the time Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written. For an English colonialist, Wales became the rough green region between strong castles: the exact landscape into which Gawain rides.

At the same time, there are narratives such as the Chester Cycle of mystery plays—written at roughly the same time as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—in which the shepherds in the Christmas play are clearly Welsh, and clearly do “have great good will toward God and man.” When three of these shepherds meet in the meadows, one says: “Nowe seinge God hath gaithred us togeither, with good harte I thanke hym of his grace.”

So alongside political conflict, there was also plenty of mutual trading and cultural exchange between the English and the Welsh at this time; the Gawain poet simply overlooks most of it, effectively reinforcing the colonial narrative of the Welsh as being wild, unruly, and dangerous. One consequence of using such pointedly real place names is to shape the identity of this real place and its people from a particular point of view—the same point of view from which Edward I built his castles.

If the identity of a place hovers between fact and fiction, the fictions matter.

This past Saturday, we journeyed into Wales—“in countrayez straunge”—roughly following the path that Sir Gawain would have taken as he left Arthur’s court in search of the Green Knight—although we were coming from the north, so we followed it backwards. As we drove down to Caernarfon, I was literally able to point out the window to the “islands of Anglesey,” which Gawain “held on his left” while we held them on our right.

We made three stops.

1. Flint Castle

Flint Castle was the first of Edward I’s Welsh castles, a day’s march from Chester. It had been standing for nearly a century when Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written, but it isn’t mentioned in the poem.

It was on our itinerary because it’s the site of a famous scene in our next text, Shakespeare’s Richard II, where King Richard is cornered by Henry Bolingbroke and descends to “the base court” to submit to the man who would usurp him as Henry IV.

Students leave the same tower that Richard II left to submit to Bolingbroke

The castle, in other words, is central to two narratives: an assertion of power by one English king (Edward I), and a dramatic secession of power by another (Richard II).

Of course, every person who visits any site also understands it in the narrative of their own experience, and students seemed to find the place liberating after scarcely an hour on our coach. It was hard not to—the low horizon, the green grass, the relatively warm air and fresh breeze. Only at the bottom of the towers was it really easy to read this site as an instrument of domination and submission.

2. Saint Winefride’s Well

Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Winefride, who wanted to become a nun. This enraged the young man who wanted to marry her, Caradoc, and he promptly cut off her head.

Three miracles ensued. First, her uncle happened to be a Welsh abbot and later saint named Beuno. (His name is sometimes Anglicized as “Saint Bono.” I will not do that.) Beuno reattached her severed head, and she was restored to life. Second, Beuno cursed Caradoc, who fell dead and the spot, and the earth itself opened to swallow him. Third, a spring immediately gushed forth from the place where Winefride’s head had hit the ground, and the water from that spring brought healing power to those who devoutly sought it.

There is still a small shrine around Saint Winefride’s Well, which has been visited by common pilgrims and queens and kings—including Richard the Lionheart and Henry V—for 800 years. It seems to be the “Holy Head” mentioned in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (above), a place with obvious relevance to the Beheading Game in which Sir Gawain is participating—and also to the challenges of chastity that face him in the middle of his story.

Window in the chapel at St. Winefride’s Well

Here is a place that is clearly, and some would say completely, defined by the story that is told of it.

I don’t think students knew exactly what to make of it. We had visited the shrine of Saint Cuthbert the week before, and several people in the group are extremely reluctant around saints and shrines. (The word “idolatry” has come up repeatedly in conversation and in students’ writing.)

Curiously, the students who don’t identify very strongly as Christians had the fewest problems with these religious practices; it was our devout Protestants who, well, protested the honor shown to Cuthbert and Winefride—and did so on explicitly Christian grounds.

I encouraged these students to show up to Saint Winefride’s Well as Christians, whatever that might mean: to say a short prayer, to recite a favorite Bible verse, to simply stand and breathe and listen for whatever prayer God might cause to rise in the silence of their hearts. I didn’t ask anyone to pray to or through Saint Winefride herself, or even to acknowledge her as a saint or exemplary person. (Personally, I’m not sure she ever existed.)

I simply invited everyone to use this spiritual space as a spiritual space and not simply a tourist destination. I don’t know if any of that happened, and I won’t ask. But the group did get suddenly silent for about a minute or so after we entered the shelter of the well itself.

For my part, the most moving aspect of the shrine is the vast array of names carved into the walls—some of them quite old. The interior space is small and intimate, even though it’s built out of bare stone, and I could sense the presence of centuries of fellow Christians all around me. I don’t believe the literal facts of the Winefride narrative, and maybe some of them didn’t, either. But we all believe in the power of God expressed in that story. It seemed to me that we were all gathered around that.

As I mentioned above, we always visit sites within the narrative of our own experience, and here it seemed to me that the narrative was a collective experience, a spiritual wiki slowly written across the ages.

While I was looking around at the walls, for some reason, I suddenly missed my mom. She died of cancer about three years ago. I don’t know why she came to mind: she had no connection to Saint Winefride, or any other saint, and I don’t think she would have known exactly how to take the story or the shrine, either. She would have looked at the stones, though—she always looked at stones. Mom never traveled very far, but she was an explorer at heart, the kind of person who took an active interest in pretty much everything and everyone. I could just hear her voice in my head as I looked at the names carved into the walls: “Let’s see if we can find the oldest one!” So she and I did.

Now, it would be possible to narrate this story as a mystical encounter, with the soul of my mother literally putting those words into my head and silently gliding at my side as I moved around the well. 

This wasn’t that. At least I don’t think so. (Although, really, who’s to say? Mom is with God now, and with God all things are possible. And who among us knows exactly what it means to “be with God”?)

I’m quite content to say that I simply missed her and was heartened to think of her. I went into the small chapel beside the pool, lit a 40p candle to mark the memory in some physical way, and briefly thanked God for the many ways she had and has been present to me.

3. Caernarfon

Once upon a time, there was a Roman Emperor named Macsen Wledig. Macsen dreamt one night of a beautiful princess who lived in a great castle on between a mountainous region and the sea, and he loved her with all of his heart and might (which is saying a lot: his name in Latin was Magnus Maximus). The dream did not evaporate when Macsen woke up. He believed that the princess was real, and he sent scouts throughout his empire to find her.

Which they did. The lovely Princess Elen lived with her father, a British chieftain, at Segontium in modern day Caernarfon. Macsen went to her. She welcomed him, as did her father and the local people, and Macsen and Elen fell in love, establishing the city as their capital, ruling together for many years and begetting heroic descendants including King Arthur and Constantine.

A story on top of a story

Edward I did not build on stone alone: he also set the foundations of the mighty Caernarfon Castle on this myth. He stacked the story of his own conquest on this local legend, fully intending this earlier Welsh story to show through in his new English narrative. And multiple aspects of his own life did echo that of Macsen: he was the foreign leader of a multinational empire (in Edward’s case, territories in France, England, and Ireland—in addition to Wales).

He was also passionately in love with his wife, Eleanor of Castille (not Elen—but close!—and alas, not Welsh).

Caernarfon Castle is thus not only an intimidating statement of military presence—and it is certainly that—but also Edward I’s attempt to tap into local, Roman, and Arthurian myths as ways to validate his power. Students observed that it does indeed feel like a house of war, but also like a fairytale castle, complete with a sea on one side and rolling green hills on the other. The towers of Caernarfon are all multifaceted. That seems appropriate.

One place to see the confluence of these two stories is in the Eagle Tower, basically a royal palace within the castle.

The Eagle Tower with that essential element of every castle: the coffee shop

The eagle was the emblem of the Roman Empire, of course, but—as historian Sara Cockerill has pointed out—the design of the tower itself, with three polygonal towers, is a reference to the seal of Castille: an architectural embodiment of Edward’s devotion to his wife, Eleanor.

Eleanor of Castille’s Coat of Arms

It was also in the Eagle Tower that Edward and Eleanor’s son Edward II was born, becoming the first English Prince of Wales—a title that Edward was attempting to take forcefully from local claimants to it. Legend has it that he promised to give them a prince who was born in Wales and spoke not a word of English, with baby Edward ticking both boxes.

That’s a nifty story, but that title—Prince of Wales—is still held by English royalty, and the slate circle in the middle of the courtyard was placed there for the ceremony in which that title was conferred on Prince Charles by the queen in 1958.

The thing about the past is that it’s not always just the past.

Stories within stories

Also included in the castle—accounting for nearly a quarter of the massive building—is an extensive museum covering the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a military regiment that goes all the way back to 1689. It is an astonishingly comprehensive history of the regiment, with walls and walls of text and pictures, and cases and cases of medals, weapons, and other artifacts—all showing the courage, valor, and honor with which these soldiers from Wales served the British empire.

Which is a little weird. The castle itself, the grand container for this exhibit, is the story of the suppression of the Welsh by the English king. The exhibit, on the other hand, shows the story of the Welsh bravely fighting and dying for the English kings and queens—often in an effort to suppress other nations into submission to the British empire. 

As a visual explanation for this weirdness, I’d point to the familiar Union Jack—the flag of the United Kingdom. The flag includes elements of every country in that union except Wales: the red cross of St. George for England; the white-on-blue X of St. Andrew for Scotland; the red X of St. Patrick for Ireland (it’s complicated).

Here there be not Welsh dragons—despite the fact that Wales is part of the United Kingdom. The Welsh flag wasn’t even formally recognized as such until 1959.

Yet here is this extensive museum to Welsh officers fighting and dying under the British flag.

I tried to imagine what Edward I would make of the museum. I’ll bet he’d like it very much indeed.

OK, I said to myself. But all the brochures, plaques and literature are in Welsh. The castle is now operated by Cadw, an office of the Welsh (not English or British) government dedicated to preserving Welsh heritage. And the flag that flies over Caernarfon is the Welsh flag, which contains no British elements. One might say that although the English castle still stands; the Welsh have now literally taken it over. And they’re using the building to tell their own story. (They’ve graciously included an English version so that the rest of us can read it.)

Fair enough. But it’s odd when the story they’re choosing to tell at such length—in whatever language, but especially in their own—is the story of their participation in an imperial expansion of which they themselves were among the earliest casualties.

I don’t get it. I wonder if it’s difficult (or even possible) for a twenty-first century American—a person whose country was formed by the rejection of English imperialism and whose land has never been colonized by a foreign power—to fully understand the long and nuanced narratives of Welsh history?

Stories outside of stories

When I was planning this excursion (about a year ago), I did a web search for local tour guides. The “local” part was important to me. I wanted someone who could talk about the castle, of course, but also the town. Preferably someone who actually lived there; preferably someone who spoke Welsh. I realized that our excursion into Wales would be shaping students’ own narratives of the place, and I didn’t want to swoop in from England to Edward I’s grand English stronghold, marvel at its might, and then board the bus back to England. That would have been another version of Sir Gawain’s Anglocentric narrative placement of Wales.

I figured the castle would speak for itself. I wanted someone to fill in the rest of the picture, so that when my students reflected on the day, their memory of it would include a real Welsh person and a sense of the lives spent outside the castle walls.

Melissa Lambe of Caernarfon Walks provided all of that. She’s a native of Caernarfon, where over 80% of the people speak Welsh (the highest percentage even in Wales). She explained that her schooling not only included Welsh but was actually in Welsh—although the students “took an English class, too.”

I was curious to hear how such a person would tell the story of the castle. She did give us some good factual information as we walked around the building from the outside, but it was far from the focal point of the tour. We soon moved on to the streets of the city and up the hill to the remains of an old Roman fort. 

At one point, various phrases in Welsh were written into the sidewalk, and Melissa challenged us to read them out loud. “That’s pretty close!” she said—although when she herself read them, I couldn’t help think that “pretty close” might be Welsh for “not remotely.”

A little later, we came to something I had never seen before: a church literally built into the corner of the city wall. I was marveling at the architecture, trying to guess the date, and thinking through the logistics and possible symbolism of the building when Melissa casually remarked that her parents had been married there, and that she herself had been baptized there. 

When we talked as a class about the visit a couple of days later, I’m not sure how many students remembered the date when Edward I finished Caernarfon Castle. Several remembered those facts about that church.

To be clear, the focus of the tour was not Melissa’s own life and times in the city. She is a history scholar with a wealth of knowledge and a flipbook of pictures showing how various places looked in days gone by. The personal bits came almost inadvertently, as offhanded comments along the way—which in some ways made them more genuine. They weren’t part of a presentation. They were real life.

As we were walking, I asked Melissa about the story of the castle. How do they tell that story—in Welsh—to schoolchildren? She explained that there isn’t a heroic emphasis on Edward I. The castle is not so much the grand ambition of a great man as it is the target of various rebellions by the Welsh. That makes sense.

lot of sense. In fact, in her own way—knowingly or otherwise—I think Melissa was doing the same thing.

In 1400 (shortly after Gawain was written; the year after Richard II walked down from the keep at Flint Castle), Owain Glyndŵr—“Owen Glendower” in English ever since Shakespeare’s fairly skewed version of him in 1 Henry IV—began a fifteen-year uprising against the English that included the storming of Caernarfon Castle. 

And he used the town to do it. City walls had been built concurrently with the castle, and because the north side of the castle was completely protected by the city walls, the north walls of the castle hadn’t been finished. The Welsh population had been mostly pushed outside the city walls and were allowed inside only on market days (some things never change), but on one such market day Glyndŵr and his followers used the opportunity to storm the castle.

They ultimately failed. But as Melissa finished her tour, I suddenly realized how little of that tour had been devoted to the castle, and how much of it had been spent in the town. She didn’t tell the exciting, militant stories of the major rebellions. She pointed out various features of Welsh life outside those narratives: the smallest pub in Wales, the smallest church in the UK. 

Urgent question: Could the tallest member of our group fit into the smallest church in the UK?

But these little things had the cumulative effect of displacing that massive castle as the center of the story. In a way, her tour was a quiet, calm, cheerful equivalent of the Glyndŵr Rising: a civilian counter-narrative pushing back on the story-built-on-top-of-a-story.

Watch out for that last step: it’s a doozy.

There is a gentle power here, the power of simple survival. The great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova—whose husband and son were executed by the State, who was personally persecuted by Stalin—defeated all of her enemies using the oldest trick in the book: she outlived them. So have the Welsh. Their national motto might well be: “We’re still here” or simply “Here we are.” Because that is the message that is communicated by the flags and narratives that still fly over Caernarfon.

Now, I wonder what Edward I would think of that? Alas, the silent soul of that departed king put no words into my head in answer to that question.

*   *   *

Places gain meaning from the narratives in which they appear, including the very powerful narrative of our experience of that place. As we boarded the bus and headed back north into England—holding the islands of Anglesey on our left this time, as had Gawain—I worried that the excursion had been overloaded. So many places, so many narratives.

But I remembered with a smile that the candle I had lit at St. Winefride’s Well was still burning, and I hoped that students would be disposed to remember this region not just as a wild in-between or off-to-the-side place, but as a space occupied by real people and defined by a multitude of stories.