Yesterday was the first mild day of March here in northwest England, and we traveled up to the Lake District, eating lunch at a fine restaurant overlooking the lake in Windermere, riding a boat up the lake to Ambleside, and climbing a steep, slippery trail to see a waterfall before grabbing a bite to eat and heading back to Liverpool.
This was the first of our excursions that I had no real hand in organizing: the International Hub at our host university arranged everything about the trip, and the 16 of us joined 30 other international students, faculty, and staff for the outing.
“The trip will be a fun and relaxing day with no history or cultural commentary,” promised the email publicizing the trip, “just a day away from Liverpool and your studies, so you can enjoy the fresh air, beautiful views and meet other students.” Which reminded me of William Wordsworth’s poem “Lines written at a small distance from my house”:
It is the first mild day of March: Each minute sweeter than before, The red-breast sings from the tall larch That stands beside our door.
There is a blessing in the air, Which seems a sense of joy to yield To the bare trees, and mountains bare, And grass in the green field.
My Sister! (‘tis a wish of mine) Now that our morning meal is done, Make haste, your morning task resign; Come forth and feel the sun.
* * *
Then come, my sister I come, I pray, With speed put on your woodland dress, And bring no book; for this one day We’ll give to idleness.
We brought no books (well, okay, I had George Herbert in my backpack), but our group had read this poem and others the night before, so it was my hope that we at least had some academic framework for the experiences we’d have—or, to put it the other way around, we at least had some texts to put within the framework of the Lake District. (Wordsworth actually wrote the poem at Alfoxden in Somerset, but its tenor and atmosphere fit the environment of his northern home perfectly.)
I paused before teaching Wordsworth as a prelude to the trip. Wouldn’t it be more Wordsworthian to follow the lead of the invitational email—and of course the Wordsworth poem—to leave the academics, and simply go?
Maybe. Aside from the fact that my students’ trip was paid for by an academic program, however, I decided that there is no simply go.
Going is just not simple.
Both Windermere and Ambleside are now run on the same paradox that fuels almost any resort town: the allure is the natural beauty and the sense of “getting away from it all,” but the local economy is built on “having it all right here”—all of which attracts hordes of tourists (like us!) who are willing to pay to have it both ways.
You will find McDonalds and Starbucks most places. But they’re just selling the same old thing. The irony is most poignant in those upscale shops where the rugged, simple life itself—the “getting away from it all” ethos—is what’s being sold at exorbitant prices. The most popular business in both towns is easily the high-end hiking and climbing industry shops, where you can pay top dollar for a Yeti mug or a North Face jacket sold out of a rustic-looking nineteenthy-century stone building. The context is simple and quaint; the content is flashy and dear.
In fact, the Lake District is probably second only the Cotswolds as an epicenter for “cottage core,” the nostalgic aesthetic of pure, clean, simple country living far from the madding crowd—and copiously curated on Pinterest.
This paradox is not a twenty-first century invention. There is an irony, after all, in Wordsworth himself saying “bring no book” in a poem, in a book. There’s an irony at play here between the medium and the message.
The full original title of that poem is “Lines written at a small distance from my house, and sent by my little boy to the person to whom they are addressed.” It’s not a very good title by any means—it was later shortened to the more pithy “To my Sister”—but when Wordsworth first published the poem, it seems that he wanted to emphasize that the speech isn’t just a bookish fantasy: it was an event that first happened in the world of lived experience—and just happened to end up in a published volume.
Fair enough, but the only way we have access to it is through the book—which we did at least have the decency to read, discuss, and leave behind. (I doubt very much whether students thought much about our Friday night class during our Saturday afternoon on Lake Windermere.)
Machines in the Garden
The Machine in the Garden is the title of a landmark study of American literature, articulating the tension tension between pastoral ideals and the industrial revolution—especially the railroad, which quickly permeated the peaceful green landscapes of the North American continent.
Before the railroad existed in the United States, however, it crept into northwestern England, which is home to both the Lake District and to the world’s first inter-city rail line (the Liverpool-Manchester Railway).
We modern readers have one vehicle by which to access that day when Wordsworth asked his sister to join him, and that vehicle is a book—the very vehicle the poem itself rejects. Similarly, the access that many people had to the natural beauty of the Lake District was the railroad, which Wordsworth and other local Romantics fervently rejected.
There is a little stone church high up above Ambleside called the Chapel of St. Anne. I happened upon it and imagined generations of relatively rural English people flowing into that grey stone sanctuary to be baptized, married, and buried. But generations never did that. The church was built in 1812, but the railway into the areas was built in 1847 and brought so many tourists that the much larger St. Mary’s was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and completed in 1854. St. Anne’s was eventually de-consecrated (what a concept!) because of the railroad and tourists.
As all 46 of us slowly climbed the difficult path to the waterfall, students made so much noise talking and laughing—American students tend to be quite loud, especially outdoors—that they drowned out the sound of the river rushing down below. Somewhat started playing a pop song on a phone. Several started singing along. I picked up my pace. A group of 46 tourists is going to make a lot of noise, even without phones and group singing, and it occurred to me that we didn’t a rail line up to the waterfall. We were a 46-car train of tourists. We were the machine in the garden. The least we could have done would be to build a mighty church.
“The Rapid Communication of Intelligence”
The railroad was only a later manifestation of a phenomenon that worried Wordsworth well before trains began arriving in the 1840s. He saw industrialism, urbanization, and rapid communication as threatening not just to the natural environment, but to the internal faculties of the human mind. It’s important to recognize that Wordsworth’s anti-bookishness is not all-out anti-intellectualism—a position to which some strands of Romanticism are easily reduced. It’s not that simple, either. These lines from his 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads are quite arresting:
A multitude of causes unknown to former times are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.
Wordsworth’s concern here is “the discriminating powers of the mind,” not just raw feeling, and he sees those powers threatened by—among other things—an appetite for sensational news, a hunger that is made more and more ravenous by rapid information technologies.
I’ve heard students complain that TikTok isn’t as good in Britain—they have to scroll through more boring videos to find something better. And here I had no idea that Wordsworth was even on TikTok.
The very worst thing we brought into the Lake District was our phones—and that is quite a statement, given the extremely ill-advised footwear in which some students climbed a steep, slippery, muddy trail.
My own boots were okay, but I, too, was digitally driven. I discovered the history of St. Anne’s Chapel, outlined above, only because I was climbing higher and higher above the town, looking for a better and more “extraordinary” (to use Wordsworth’s word) view of the city to adorn this very blog.
Our boat had not docked in Ambleside before I had received 13 pictures taken by other people since we had left Windermere half an hour earlier. I had taken nearly as many pictures myself. Most of did not stop on the hike without taking a picture. Most of us did not see a striking bit of nature without putting a camera between ourselves and that thing. I know I didn’t.
Now from one point of view, these photos might be versions of the Wordsworth poem: events occuring in the world of experience, collected into (visual) texts for later consumption and distribution.
The sequencing, however, seems important. Wordsworth wrote a text in order to provoke a context: specifically, a note to tell his sister, Dorothy, to stop doing her chores and “come forth and feel the sun.” It was intended as a text to end texts, at least for the day, and create an opening for experience. For my students and me, our texts were perhaps the ultimate end of the context. We put the garden into our machines.
And doing so, it seems to me, made us less receptive to the scene. In some cases this was dangerously true: students seemed genuinely unaware that they could slip and fall into the small ravine. “Nature never did betray the soul that loved her,” Wordsworth famously promises in another poem. I’m not sure how many of these students really did love Nature, however, and some of the rocks on which they stood for selfies seemed to me slippery characters of the betraying kind.
I couldn’t help but think that we all—myself included—had lost some mental discrimination: between bad and good hiking shoes, safe and unsafe rocks, and even the ability to recognize the “shut off” features of our phones and when to use them.
I don’t know if Dorothy came out to play with William that day, and if he brought his pad with him and constantly wrote poems about waterfalls and daffodils instead of actually looking at them.
I like to think she did, and I like to think he didn’t.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
A 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.
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.
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.
Scientists struggle to get a good picture of the blue whale, the largest mammal on earth, because those enormous creatures of course exist only in the water, and if you get far enough away to frame the entire thing in your shot, the ocean obscures the image. If you’re close enough to get a clear image, you’re only going to capture a portion of the whole—and the awesome immensity of the whole whale is of course one of the reasons why you’re drawn to it in the first place.
Alas, I’ll have to try using words.
Here, too, frames fail. I’ll need more than one.
In our coursework, we’ve repeatedly observed that places gain meaning from the narratives that frame them, and here are two historical narratives—both factually true—that have given meaning to Durham Cathedral:
Narrative #1. Saint Cuthbert’s bones. Saint Cuthbert, the spiritual superhero of medieval Britain, died in 683, and his relics became a serious draw for pilgrims to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Although Cuthbert himself was revered for his simplicity, humility, and generosity, his cult brought considerable wealth and fame to Lindisfarne—which made it a prime target for invading Vikings in the following century. Fearing that the invaders would capture Cuthbert’s bones, the monks of Lindisfarne fled Holy Island and spent over a century moving them throughout northeast England, finally settling, in 995, in Durham: a safe spot high on a cliff formed by a hairpin turn in the River Wear. They built a small wooden church, and then a somewhat larger stone one, over his bones, which still lie in Durham.
As we were walking along the river to the cathedral, the student next to me said, “I like it here. It feels safe.” I was surprised, because that one word named exactly one feeling I’ve always had in the area, but I’d never really articulated. It must have been what the monks felt when they finally stopped here with Cuthbert’s bones.
So there’s that.
Narrative #2. Norman power. In 1066, William the Conqueror took control of England, but the northern regions—further removed from his power base in the south—gave him considerable trouble. William responded with “the Harrying of the North,” a grim military initiative that he himself regretted on his deathbed, and for which he is still hated by many in northeast England. William’s troops killed men. They killed women. They killed children. They demolished villages, slaughtered livestock, and burned the farmland. And shortly thereafter, they built a castle in Durham. It is a beautiful castle, but also preposterous, built as it is on top of an impossible cliff. It’s like building a skyscraper on top of a mountain: a deliberate statement of shock and awe.
And shortly after they began the castle, the Normans built the cathedral, replacing the one built by the monks for the shrine of Cuthbert. The bones of the saint were, and are, safer than they had ever been. But the Normans had now literally surrounded them in heavy stone, co-opting the myth and legend of this Anglo-Saxon saint in their own statement of prominence and power.
Realizing that he would need a strong presence in the north (not only to keep the northern English in check, but also as a defense against those menacing Scots), William gave the Bishop of Durham unprecedented power. The Prince Bishops, as they came to be known, could call their own parliaments, enforce their own laws, collect their own taxes, raise their own armies. Church and state effectively merged, and many observed that there were in fact two kings in England: the King of England and the Bishop of Durham, whose seat—by definition—is in Durham Cathedral.
So there’s that, too.
What is this place?
The problem, for me, is not in choosing between these two narratives; it’s the way in which the first one overpowers the second. Durham Cathedral seems much more like a shrine to Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede (whose remains lie at the opposite end of the building) than it seems like an architectural statement of colonialist aggression—which it undeniably was. Despite the superior physical and political power of the Normans, the narrative power of Cuthbert proves stronger still. How can this be?
It’s not because the Norman narrative has simply been forgotten. One of the novels we read before going to Durham was Frederick Buechner’s Godric, a 1981 retelling of the life of Godric of Finchale, an Anglo-Saxon hermit who was born the year before the Norman invasion. At one point in the novel, the old anchorite visits the newly finished cathedral, and his description of it—despite being written by a twentieth-century American—well captures an Anglo-Saxon’s view of this grand colonial architectural statement:
The aisles are vaulted now. The nave is done. Thick Norman columns stout enough to hold the welkin up support the high, dim vaulting in the roof. The columns have been carved around with deep-cut lines like garlands, serpents, crooked vines, each different from the rest. Behind the altar there’s a shrine to shelter Cuthbert’s bones they carted here, with many stoppings over many years along the way, from Lindisfarne.
Even the flames of many candles can’t light up this awesome dark, nor all the gathered throng of priests and monks and lords and common folk fill up this emptiness. The hooded monks chant psalms as we wend slowly down, but all their voices raised at once are but the rustle of the wind through trees, the call of owls, in this vast wood of stone. The towns the Conqueror razed when he came harrying the north, the crops he burned, the beasts he felled, the Saxon folk he slew, all haunt these Norman shadows. The silence is the sum of all their voices stilled. As long as these stones stand and this great roof keeps out the rain, Durham’s cathedral will be dark with death.
I invited students to revisit that passage after they’ve been to the cathedral. We’ll see what they make of it. Suffice it to say that this postcolonial reading of the building was readily available to all of us.
When I myself enter that space, though, the above passage from Godric is not the first that comes to mind. It’s Psalm 90, which our group reads aloud together every week. “You, O Lord, have been our dwelling place in all generations.” As one student observed early on, there are a lot of metaphors for God; it’s kind of weird to think of God as a house. But if I had to imagine a physical space that embodies that opening line of the psalm, a place sturdy and strong and holy and old—generations old—it would be the nave of Durham Cathedral.
I don’t know what it is. When I enter that space, my soul somehow settles down. I feel at home.
Telling (and not telling) the stories
In the museum attached to the cathedral—housed in a room that actually used to serve as the monastery’s kitchen—are several seventh-century artifacts, including Saint Cuthbert’s coffin and his pectoral cross (i.e., cross worn on the chest). The coffin is in pieces, so its fragments have been assembled around a box to retain its shape, and it’s easy to see the shattered casket as a statement that even death itself could not hold Cuthbert, whose tomb was opened years after his burial and whose body had not decayed in the slightest. The pectoral cross is small and broken and still—to me—deeply dazzling. This was a real man, with a real chest. A real heart.
So that’s one way in which Narrative #1 triumphs here: archaeological artifacts.
Still, the entire building is an archaeological artifact of Narrative #2. It’s a showy building. It towers over everything around it. So how does Narrative #2—Norman bluster—get overpowered by a crumbling casket and a teeny tiny piece of jewelry?
Both of our tour guides interestingly evaded the shadows of Godric’s Durham.
Our second tour guide—the one who showed us the coffin and the cross—chatted with me a bit as students explored the Chapter House (Professor McGonagall’s classroom in the Harry Potter films). She remarked in passing that there was sometimes tension when they had visitors from Jarrow, the location of the abbey where Bede had lived and worked. “They’re always suggesting that his bones ought to be there, and of course we have them here, so it’s a bit awkward, you know. It becomes a matter of how we work around that conversation.” I nodded appreciatively but couldn’t help thinking less appreciative thoughts about appropriation and the politics of dead men’s bones. That narrative is here. It’s being worked around.
Our otherwise thorough cathedral guide worked around it entirely. He told us all of Narrative #1, the journey of Cuthbert’s relics, but mostly skipped over Narrative #2, the Harrying of the North. In his telling, well, here were the Normans—no matter how—and weren’t they impressive? Whereas most cathedrals take centuries to build, they finished this one in forty years(!), which is why the building remains one of the finest examples of Norman (i.e., Romanesque) architecture anywhere. Our guide had once talked with a visitor from Normandy who, on a tour of an old cathedral in France, had been told that if we wanted to see the best, purest example of eleventh century French architecture, he’d need to go to Durham. This was clearly a point of pride for our tour guide.
He’s not wrong: those Normans were impressive. I’ve always felt that there was something, well, right and just about the place, and there’s a reason for that. The arches in the building are halves of perfect circles, no surprise there, but the round columns—I kid you not—are exactly as high as their circumference. You can measure them by the diamonds: twelve diamonds high, and twelve diamonds around.
And if you’re really analyzing one of the “diamond” columns and trace one of the diagonals, you’ll see that it ends at the top at the exact point where it begins at the base. Most of that doesn’t seem possible, but it’s undeniably true. That’s actually not a bad summary of faith itself.
From a postcolonialist point of view, however, here is how these tour guides come across. The Norman conquest is fully complete, reaching not only across eleventh and twelfth century England but also into the twenty-first, and even reaching down into the very narratives with which we define this place. The colonizer’s narrative has become the narrative; the Norman is the Normal. Alternate narratives have been appropriated into the Norman story, and if they cannot be, they have been suppressed, ignored, or (in polite British fashion) conveniently circumvented.
I think that’s truth. I’m not sure it’s the whole truth.
Narrative #3: Experience
You’re not going to really know a blue whale by seeing pictures or footage of it—from any angle. Or by reading about it. If you really want to know this thing, you’re going to have to swim with the whale.
I know the history; I mourn the history. Narrative #2 is always present in my mind when I enter Durham Cathedral. But Narrative #1 always eclipses it. Psalm 90 always eclipses Godric.
As I walked down the center aisle of the nave, I remembered that walk on my first visit, when a man in flamboyant liturgical vestments came billowing toward me. “I’m doing something wrong,” I thought. “I’ll say I’m sorry and step aside.” But just then a toddler started screaming off to my left, and his mother started desperately trying to shush him. The cleric stopped his stride, bent toward the child with a broad smile, and said, “That’s right, lad, you make a noise. This is your house, too.” That man, that lad, and that mother were with me in the cathedral yesterday.
The last time I had been in the cathedral was three years ago, with my wife and my son. I missed them. But they were present in their own way, too, and I smiled at the spot in the cloisters from which I had taken a picture of them.
It is difficult to quantify such things in heights and circumferences, but they are no less real.
What to do with all of this? How does a colonial power play become such a legitimate spiritual space—and in such a way that the power play itself becomes all but invisible?
Perhaps I’ve simply drunk the colonial Kool-Aid of the Normans. Or perhaps it’s reductive to characterize all Normans as brutal conquerors—however much they seemed so to the people they conquered. Or perhaps we might say that even selfish power plays can have inadvertently generous spiritual consequences. We have all known times in which gestures of love and kindness have had unintended effects of alienation and hurt; why might the reverse not also sometimes be true?
I cannot come to terms with Durham Cathedral.
I have now swum with this whale many times, but I cannot plumb the depths to which it swims.
I sure love these students. A couple of weeks into the program now, they’re finally showing me who they are—and they’re wonderful. They have some of the good basic qualities that every program coordinator would want: they show up on time; they keep track of each other; they’re flexible when things don’t work out. As they slowly showed up at Liverpool Lime Street Station for our train to Durham, I was honestly glad to see each and every one of them as they appeared. Every one of them is constantly on my radar, of course, but there is no one I’ve had to monitor or manage.
But more importantly, they’re curious and thoughtful. I’ve now spent a couple of days reading their first rounds of real writing, and I’m gratified by their intelligence and insight. We talked in person about suffering and responses to it in our class a couple of nights ago—a Friday night class from 5-8!—and even at that terrible hour, they spoke with real honesty and wisdom. I took lots of notes. It’s a blessing for me to work with them.
It takes a while to get into Chester Cathedral these days. Construction work has blocked off the main entrance in the rear of the church, so to enter now, you must ignore at least one sign that says “Entrance,” wind around the side of the building, snake through a couple of temporary corridors, and finally find yourself in the cloisters adjacent to the church. If you turn left, you’ll be blocked by a vaccination clinic. (“We can’t go around that way,” shrugged the tour guide, “because of all the jabbings.”)
So you turn right and find yourself in the grand old eleventh century nave of the church.
And, as with all churches, to get to the heart of the space—the altar—you must walk a long way forward, through the crossing beneath the great tower, through the quire with its ornately carved wooden benches on either side, and finally to platform and table where heaven and earth meet one another in the Eucharist.
As I followed that pilgrimage yesterday, I was reminded of George Herbert’s collection of poems, The Temple, which we had begun to read together the following evening. The book is not at all strictly allegorical, but it does begin by clearly signaling an architectural structure. First comes “The Church Porch,” a rather tedious 462 lines of very didactic instructions on Christian behavior. I usually skim it or skip it when re-reading The Temple; no such luck navigating the Church-Porch in Chester.
Then comes a very brief poem called “Superliminare” (literally, “above the threshold”) and then comes “The Church,” the section of the book containing most of Herbert’s lyrics. Once you’re past the threshold, you’re in.
And strangely, the first poem you come to in “The Church” is “The Altar,” one of Herbert’s most famous poems because of its shape:
It’s strange because Herbert has so clearly invoked the actual structure of a church up to this point, but the altar never appears right inside the threshold of a Christian church—not in Chester Cathedral or anywhere else. A Christian reader who has some knowledge of churches runs into this poem in The Temple and says, “Wait, I thought this was a building?” So why does Herbert put this poem right up front?
I’ve read a number of academic explanations of Herbert’s choice, and I’m still not sure what caused this sequencing. Its effect, though, jolts me every time.
All of a sudden, unexpectedly, “The Church” gets real. It’s personal. After a long series of Sunday School lessons in the second-person, bammo, the poet is talking about himself, and he’s not messing around. He’s getting right to the very heart of the Christian faith.
The British often marvel at Americans’ willingness to bare their souls to someone they’ve just met. Even the extremely gregarious Liverpudlians I’ve met have been slow to offer up anything personal about themselves. It takes several rounds of small talk to come around to that sort of thing.
Not for Herbert. The first poem in “The Church” is profound introduction to his deepest identity. As many have noticed, “The Altar” isn’t just in the shape of an altar. It’s also an “I,” and it raises several paradoxes about the nature of that “I”: is the altar broken, as it clearly says it is in the first line, or is it whole (as we can see it is without even reading the poem)?
Herbert ends the poem asking for a swapped identity with Christ, putting the exact nature of the “I” up for grabs. The following poem, “The Sacrifice,” (essentially an extended footnote on the word “sacrifice” in “The Altar”) plays with this exchange by also speaking in the first person—lots of “I”s in the poem—in the person of Jesus as he is arrested and crucified:
Lo, here I hang, charg’d with a world of sinne, The greater world o’ th’ two; for that came in By words, but this by sorrow I must win: Was ever grief like mine?
The meaning of “I” has shifted (one might say altered) from what it meant in “The Altar.”
In other words, “The Altar” is both a startling assertion of personal identity and a sudden subversion of that identity at the same time (although the term “superversion” seems more appropriate in this case).
The experience of running straight into Herbert’s “Altar” is both like unlike the experience I had of walking into Chester Cathedral. The first time you step into any grand old church, you are supposed to feel the ground shift a little bit. You are supposed to take a re-orienting moment to ask yourself whether you are in a heavenly space or an earthly one, or at least whether a space so vast still counts as an interior (“Wait, I thought this was a building?”). You should feel very small. Herbert does not have space—he has words on a page—so he creates a similar effect through other means.
And one of those means is by creating an experience unlike the distance one must travel from a church door to the altar. There is no time to breathe and look around inside Herbert’s “Church.” Sin and grace are in your face.
As it turns out, one of the things they’re doing in their construction work on the cathedral is to know out a large piece of the back wall(!), so that it can be replaced entirely by transparent glass. They want the nearby commercial district to have direct visual access to the center of the worship space.
Yesterday we journeyed to the ancient city of Chester, founded as a Roman fortress in 79AD and still surrounded by almost all of its (much rebuilt and restored) city walls.
I scheduled it as our first excursion partly because we’re marching through British history in our coursework, and Chester is such a beautiful, comprehensive historybook of a city—but also because it’s a mere 45 minutes from Liverpool, one easy station-to-station train ride and therefore a good introduction to British rail and how we’ll travel as a group.
I’m glad to report that everyone was (mostly) on time, and no one was lost or left behind.
We spent the first hour or so of our visit following a loquacious fellow in a Roman getup who called himself Crassus and gave us an informative and extremely entertaining account of the structures the Romans left behind and the kinds of lives that were once lived in them.
I worried a bit when I booked this tour, because when I looked at the dressed-up tour guides on the company website, I could hear my 11-year-old’s voice in the back of my head: “Too babyish.” Would a group of university students really go for this kind of thing?
They did. I did, too.
I don’t blame the man for putting on a bit of a show, because Roman ruins—let’s face it—aren’t always that impressive on their own, mostly stumps of stone that require a great deal of imagination to bring to life in the mind.
The present on top of the past
We spent a good deal of time hearing about Roman baths, and the various implements Romans used to groom themselves (examples of which Crassus kept in various pouches under his cloak). We went to the amphitheater and talked about combat games. Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the tour, however, was when Crassus boldly marched up one of the main streets of the modern city and led us straight into… a Pret A Manger.
In he went, in we followed, straight back behind the counter(!), straight down the steps to the basement, and into a room that contained the foundations of the original Roman principia or central building of the Roman fortress. We lingered for a few minutes in the shadows of the past, running our fingers over the old, weathered stones while tourists ate their hummus wraps in the shop overhead.
May we never see a Pret a Manger the same way again—or, for that, matter any modern city street.
Of course, the present and the past are rarely as neatly separated as we found them in the restaurant and its basement.
The present in place of the past
Often the present simply replaces the past, especially if old buildings were not built as strongly as a massive Roman principia. The real jewel of Chester is its medieval Cathedral, begun in the eleventh century. Actually, however, the eleventh century is when the current cathedral was begun, the Normans having demolished the wooden structure that apparently stood on the same spot for four centuries before that. Alas, we cannot go into the basement of the cathedral to see the old Anglo-Saxon church. It is lost to time—or at least to space.
The present adjacent to the past
The cathedral does, however, preserve much of its past since the eleventh century. Original stonework is still visible, including the rounded arches favored by the Normans long before the pointed Gothic style became popular in the thirteenth century. At that point, some—but not all—of the church was rebuilt and expanded in the new aesthetic, so that a few centuries of architectural history are evident side by side in the existing building.
In those cases, the present did not erase the past, as with the original church building, or preserve but eclipse it, as we saw in the Pret a Manger. Present and past sit neatly side by side.
The present disguised as the past
Most intriguing, to me, are the more baffling situations in which the present pretends to be the past. Many, many of the medieval-looking things in this genuinely medieval cathedral are actually nineteenth century. The Victorians were fascinated with Gothic architecture and imitated it wherever they could.
So when you enter the original cloisters of Chester Cathedral, for instance, you are confronted with several windows of old saints—a few of whom we’ve read about in Bede—in faux-medieval stained glass.
If you take the time to read the text in the dedications, however, you’ll find mostly dates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Puritans knocked out all of the original glasswork in the seventeenth century, and the Victorians (and moderns) replaced them with what, to an untrained eye like mine, look like medieval windows.
When we look at these windows, we are seeing actually two panes of history—the medieval and the Victorian—but it seems as if we’re seeing only one. We are seeing the present disguised as the past.
Also impressive were the massive biblical mosaics along the north wall of the nave, featuring nearly life-sized images of figures from the Old Testament. The enormous panels were completed in the late nineteenth century, at great expense, in Italian marble to imitate the style not of medieval Britain but of ancient Rome.
Which brought me back to our good man Crassus and his feathered helmet. Why would someone disguise the present as the past? Our tour guide and the Victorian glaziers at the cathedral would seem to offer two different answers.
Crassus wore his helmet, cape, and sword to emphasize the difference between present and past. The disguise is not intended to be a disguise at all. We weren’t really supposed to believe that he was a member of the Roman legion. I asked myself whether the outfit helped us to bridge the centuries and see ourselves back in the second century—and I decided that it didn’t. There were too many schoolboy puns, too many modern movie references. The whole point of the “disguise” was the incongruity. (I spent a lot of time watching passers-by as they watched Crassus, wondering whether Chesterfolk were used to guys like him on the streets. The way they gawked and pointed and laughed suggested that they weren’t—but I suspect that most of them were tourists, not locals.)
For the Victorians, it’s obviously more nuanced and complicated. They weren’t going for laughs. They seem to have imitated the medieval style not as a gimmick with a wink, not to emphasize the incongruity of past and present, but rather to… ?
That’s an ongoing question for us in Liverpool, which is almost entirely a product of the nineteenth century and later.
Exactly a week ago, I wrote about the slow process of arriving in Liverpool. At this, point we seem to have arrived. Only one student tested positive for Covid before leaving the States, and none have failed their arrival tests. We’re finding our feet, learning how to get places, and more or less adjusted to the local time.
Last night we had our first class session in one of the huge old restored buildings on the downtown campus, with a beautiful sunset over the Liverpool skyline outside the enormous windows. It’s always reassuring to find myself teaching or learning in a classroom. Those roles are familiar to me; classrooms are home. (I’m not sure the students would agree with me.)
Yesterday afternoon, before heading downtown for class, I was walking back from the grocery store to my literal home here in Liverpool, a cozy little flat on the main campus. Suddenly my eye was caught by a frenzy of motion from the shuttle bus stopped at the curb: a number of my students were in the front window of the upper deck, waving to me like crazy.
I was home before I got there. I had just a little ways to go before I reached my building (it’s the red brick building on the righthand side of the picture above) and was eager to put down my load, but there’s something very heartening about a familiar face in a strange city.