Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Nativity of Christe

As I mentioned in a previous post, the poetry of St Robert Southwell is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. Here is his wonderful poem on the Nativity of Christ: 

Behold the father is his daughter's son,
The bird that built the nest is hatch'd therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.

O dying souls! behold your living spring!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears attend what word this word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this word, this joy repairs.

Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God's gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

Man alter'd was by sin from man to beast;
Beast's food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh;
Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press'd,
As hay the brutest sinner to refresh:
Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!

Or, to be more accurate, that was his poem with spelling and punctuation updated. More lingusitically interesting and almost equally comprehensible is what he actually wrote:

Behoulde the father is his daughters sonne
The bird that built the nest, is hatchd therein
The old of yeres an hower hath not outrunne
Eternall life to live doth nowe beginn
The worde is dumm the mirth of heaven doth weepe
Mighte feeble is and force doth fayntly creepe

O dyinge soules behould your living springe
O dazeled eyes behould your sunne of grace
Dull eares attend what word this word doth bringe
Up heavy hartes with joye your joy embrace
From death from darke from deaphnesse from despayres
This life this light this word this joy repaires

Gift better then himself god doth not knowe
Gift better then his god no man can see
This gift doth here the giver given bestowe
Gift to this gift lett ech receiver bee
God is my gift, himself he freely gave me
Gods gift am I and none but God shall have me.

Man altered was by synn from man to best
Bestes foode is haye haye is all mortall fleshe
Now god is fleshe and lyves in maunger prest
As haye the brutest synner to refreshe.
O happy feilde wherein this foder grewe
Whose taste doth us from beastes to men renewe.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Burning Babe

There is something of a resurgence of interest in St Robert Southwell at the moment, with his Collected Poems and a major critical study (reviewed here) being published recently. Both books build upon the solid foundations laid by Alison Shell in Catholicism, controversy, and the English literary imagination, 1558-1660 and what they demonstrate is that there is clearly a lot more to Southwell than the much-anthologised 'The Burning Babe'. In later posts this Advent I shall draw attention to other Southwell poems that could be used in the classroom but I'm going to start with 'The Burning Babe'. It may be widely anthologised but that's partly because it is a great poem:

As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

'The Birds of the Air' - Alice Thomas Ellis

If you are looking for some Christmas reading then you could do a lot worse than Alice Thomas Ellis's The Birds of the Air. All the constituents of a traditional British Christmas are there - family arguments; embarrassingly drunk relations; the Queen's speech - but there is also a lot of comedy too, especially once you get beyond the first fifteen pages.

The Birds of the Air was written at a time of great personal anguish for its author. Her nineteen-year old son, Joshua, had recently fallen off the roof of Euston Station while trainspotting and died and yet grief does not overwhelm this novel. Indeed what is most striking about it is how funny it is.

Arguably the book's most interesting character is Mary Marsh who, like Ellis, was struggling to come to terms with the loss of her son. Though she shuts herself away in her room, she is also given a strange freedom by her grief. No longer obliged to maintain social niceties, she says what she thinks, thinks what she likes, and does what she wants. On one level she is not coping (to use a verb neither she nor Ellis would have had much time for) but, on another level, she is the most lively and amusing of all the characters in the book.

What keeps her going is the hope, or even expectation, of the resurrection. Besides this great hope, ordinary life seems utterly petty and irrelevant and so humour, and satire in particular, begins to seem like a perfectly reasonable response to the tragedies of life. And this book, which is very much in the tradition of Waugh, Spark and O'Connor, is very funny.

Mrs Marsh, Mary's mother, is a wonderful comic creation. She is a quintessential busybody who is torn between wanting to keep her family together and wanting to keep her suburban house clean and tidy. She is quite upset when her children leave "the washing-up brush on the wrong side of the sink" and when a neighbour suggests that she draw up a little list to help her prepare for Christmas she replies, "I could paper the kitchen with little lists."

The social satire is wonderful: both academia and suburbia are roundly mocked but Ellis also targets other quintessentially British institutions: "Winnie the Pooh vied with the Queen (God trailing in the distance) for the forefront of the mind of the English middle class," she writes. We don't get much Winnie the Pooh in The Birds of the Air but the Queen, the royal family and Church of England bishops are mercilessly satirised.

Ellis captures the tone of the Queen's speech perfectly when she writes that, "the monarch let it be known that, among other things, it would give her, personally, much pleasure if people would stop killing each other."

However, there is more to this short novel than mere social satire. The Catholic faith of Mrs Marsh's dead husband hovers on its edges, even though Mrs Marsh herself, "as a rule, ... avoided all mention of Catholicism in public, considering it, even after her years of marriage to her dear John, not quite nice."

In particular it is impossible to forget Jesus's words, "Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they?" because birds hover over every aspect of the book. You cannot escape them: every type of bird, every type of avian pun, is here. The birds are a constant reminder to Mary (and Ellis herself) that she will see her son again.

‘There is no reciprocity," Alice Thomas Ellis once said in a newspaper interview. "Men love women. Women love children and children love hamsters." The love of women for their children lies at the heart of this novel but the love of God for men, women, children and, I suppose, hamsters lies even deeper.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

From Euthanasia to Assisted Dying with the OED

The Oxford English Dictionary is a great teaching resource, especially now that it's online and free to use  if you have a county library card. (See this website, for example.)

Tracking the history of certain contentious terms can be a profitable activity. Take "euthanasia", for instance. Its primary meaning, according to the OED, is "a gentle and easy death" and the first citation is from 1646 when Bishop J. Hall wrote in Balme of Gilead: "But let me prescribe, and commend to thee, my sonne, this true spirituall meanes of thine happy Euthanasia."

"Euthanasia" only came to mean "the action of inducing a gentle and easy death used esp. with reference to a proposal that the law should sanction the putting painlessly to death of those suffering from incurable and extremely painful diseases" in the late 19th Century.

"Assisted suicide" (meaning "suicide effected with the assistance of another person; esp. the taking of lethal drugs, provided by a doctor for the purpose, by a patient considered to be incurable") first appeared in print in 1976.

"Assisted dying", the currently favoured term of those lobbying for a change in the law, has not yet entered the OED.

Why these changes have taken place is, of course, not a matter for the writers of the OED but the question could provide the basis for a highly profitable classroom discussion.