Monday, 28 February 2011

Learning from the French (and a couple of Americans)

I recently picked up a battered secondhand copy of French Literature and its Background: the Twentieth Century, which contains, among many other interesting chapters, an essay on 'The Novel and Christian Belief' by the book's editor, John Cruickshank.

Cruickshank, who was Professor of French at the University of Sussex, argued that François Mauriac,  Georges Bernanos, and Julien Green "all managed to command a wide readership while producing a considerable body of work in which they have written consciously as Catholics." Even if they hadn't influenced various English writers (Graham Greene most notably) they would still be of considerable interest in their own right.

The "avoidance of naive religious didacticism, notable in Mauriac' best work as well as in the novels of Bernanos and Green, goes some way towards explaining the considerable appeal of all three to a largely secular-minded public. They are not concerned to illustrate religious dogmas but to respond to their faith in imaginative and human terms," according to Cruickshank.

So which novels are particularly worth reading? I'll post some reviews another time but here are the ones Cruickshank recommends.

Among Mauriac's "more orthodox, charitable, and explicitly Christian novels of his 'second period'", he praises The Knot of Vipers and The Woman of the Pharisees(I'm giving the English titles though he gives the original French ones.)

"In some ways, Nouvelle Histoire de Mouchette is Bernanos's most satisfactory artistic achievement with its deeply compassionate account of an unloved, and superficially unlovable, child. The religious significance is implied rather than stated positively, yet implied with both delicacy and boldness, as the suffering of a fourteen-year-old girl points to Christ's passion," according to Cruickshank. However, he also recommends The Diary of a Country Priest and Monsieur Ouine.

As for Julien Green: "The main novels written by Green the believer are Moïra (1950) and Chaque homme dans sa nuit (1960)."

So we can learn from the French but what about the Americans? Well, Cruickshank's comments about Bernanos's use of 'Realism' to mean "responsiveness to the life of the spirit as well as of the flesh", a responsiveness which "must encompass both the seen and unseen worlds" reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's claim that, “All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.” ('The Grotesque in Southern Fiction')

And the other American? Julien Green himself. One of the greatest writers in French in the Twentieth Century was actually an American citizen.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

An Introduction to English Poetry

James Fenton’s An Introduction to English Poetry is an interesting book, though I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it. For a start the title is quite misleading: this is a book about the structure of poetry rather than a book about English poetry per se. Now a book about structure is just what some students need so the misleading title shouldn’t bother us too much. However, much more disturbing for the Catholic English teacher is the artificial time constraint Fenton places upon himself. In his first chapter on ‘The History and Scope of English Poetry’ he is quite open about the fact that English poetry, or at least English poetry as discussed in his book, began in c1500. 

There are, as he explains, all sorts of good, practical reasons for limiting his book to the last 500 years of English poetry but surely there are big problems too in ignoring the first thousand years of English poetry, a millennium when, incidentally, England was, for the most part, solidly Catholic. Pope Benedict was not thinking of English poetry when he spoke about a hermeneutic of continuity but his insights can certainly applied to the world of English Literature. It’s easy to ignore this country’s greatest Catholic poetry if you start your analysis at the time of the Reformation.

Not that James Fenton can ignore the pre-Reformation world altogether. He rightly reminds us that “Poetry carries its history within it” but, having considered and then rejected Chaucer (pp.1-2), he is later forced to acknowledge his influence on W.H. Auden (p.68). The way Auden was influenced by Elizabethan poetry is analysed (p.4) but the influence of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse on his work is ignored completely. Surely this is a peculiarly lopsided analysis.

Pre-Reformation poetry (my phrase: not his) is not considered in Fenton’s book essentially on the grounds of incomprehensibility but even here Fenton ties himself in knots by arguing that “the really striking thing about, say, the recent film of Romeo and Juliet is the effectiveness with which the poetry communicates, and does so when delivered at great speed. Leonardo DiCaprio did not slow down in order to get a complex point across. He simply made sure that he understood the point and assumed that his understanding would be enough to carry the audience with him.” Absolutely right but why should this argument apply to Shakespeare and not to other great authors from earlier centuries?

I am not arguing that Fenton is consciously anti-Catholic – far from it – but it surely is the case that our choice of poets shapes our whole understanding of the shape and scope of English poetry. And James Fenton’s choices are, at best, idiosyncratic: John Fuller gets four mentions while Dryden, Hopkins and Wordsworth don’t get that many between them.

There is much that’s worth reading in this book - I shall be recommending the glossary and chapters 5 and 6 (on iambic pentameter), 14 (on the longer stanza: irritatingly, the chapter on the shorter stanza is much less useful), 15 (the sonnet), and 20 (writing for the eye) to my students - but reader beware: there is much that is missing too. 

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Doing God in Education

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's Director of Communications and Strategy, once famously said that the Blair Government didn't "do God". Well, times are now a-changing and we're hearing plenty about "doing God".

Michael Gove, the current Secretary of State for Education, has written an interesting article in this week's Catholic Herald, for instance, while the latest report from Theos, the public theology think tank, is entitled 'Doing God in Education'. I don't agree with everything either Michael Gove or Trevor Cooling, the author of the Theos report, have to say but certainly some of what they argue could usefully be applied to the teaching of English in Catholic schools. At least the debate has now started.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Guess the poet

So which poet do you think wrote this poem?

Mother, whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied;
Woman, above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature's solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost; 
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon
Before her wane begins on heaven's blue coast;
Thy image falls to earth.
                                       Yet some, I ween,
Not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend
As to a visible power, in which did blend
All that was mixed and reconciled in thee
Of mother's love with maiden purity,
Of high with low celestial with terrene.

Yep, it was William Wordsworth. Congratulations if you recognised one of his 'Ecclesiastical Sonnets'. To see some more poems addressed to Our Lady by the most unexpected of poets, ranging from John Milton to Lord Byron, from John Donne to Thom Gunn, see In Praise of Our Lady, edited by Elizabeth Jennings.  

Friday, 18 February 2011

Susanna Tamaro - Il Grande Albero

The award-winning, best-selling, Italian Catholic author, Susanna Tamaro, (whose official website, in Italian, can be found here) recently published what looks like a charming fable about a great tree, Il Grande Albero, in which Pope John Paul II has a cameo role.

To hear a news report about the book click here and to hear Susanna Tamaro discussing it in Italian (but with English subtitles) click here.

It's available as an App but it's not yet available in English translation. Any translators out there? Any English language publishers?

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Les Murray

I can't quite make up my mind about Les Murray. As a Catholic poet who could well be in with a chance of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, he certainly can't be ignored.

You can read a number of his poems here; there's an interesting interview, in which he talks about his faith (among many other things), here; there's a review from Standpoint here and a profile from the Guardian here.

Although I like Murray's emphasis on what he calls "presence", I am not quite convinced by some of his bolder claims. 'Distinguo', for example, is a fascinating poem but is it really true that prose is protestant-agnostic and poetry Catholic? And what do we make of (the last stanza in particular) of this poem? Murray routinely dedicates his books "to the glory of God" but don't turn to his poetry if it's the Australian equivalent of Hymns Ancient and Modern that you're after.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Poem of the Week

I have a Poem of the Week in my classroom and normally I put pretty accessible stuff on display. However I also try to widen my students' poetic range, so this week I've gone for one of the earliest poems in the English language and the first by a poet whose name we know. You can read more about Caedmon and his poem here and you can hear the poem (in Old English) by clicking here.

Poems like this remind us that, as G.K. Chesterton put it, "English literature was English a long time before it was Protestant" but they also give us a useful way into discussions about so-called regional literature, rhythm and structure. Caedmon's poem also reminds us that, far from inventing Middle-earth, Tolkien tapped into a rich and largely forgotten tradition of (Catholic) English literature.

Caedmon's Hymn: Northumbrian Version
Verse Early Anglian
Nu scylun hergan         hefaenricaes uard,
metudæs maecti         end his modgidanc,
uerc uuldurfadur,         sue he uundra gihuaes,
eci dryctin,         or astelidæ.

He aerist scop         aelda barnum
heben til hrofe,         haleg scepen;
tha middungeard         moncynnæs uard,
eci dryctin,         æfter tiadæ
firum foldu,         frea allmectig.

Caedmon's Hymn: West Saxon Version
Verse Early Saxon
Nu sculon herigean         heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte         and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,         swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,         or onstealde.

He ærest sceop         eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,         halig scyppend;
þa middangeard         moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,         æfter teode
firum foldan,         frea ælmihtig.

Cædmon's Hymn

Now let me praise the keeper of Heaven's kingdom,
the might of the Creator, and his thought,
the work of the Father of glory, how each of wonders
the Eternal Lord established in the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator,
then Middle-earth the keeper of mankind,
the Eternal Lord, afterwards made,
the earth for men, the Almighty Lord.

          In the beginning Cædmon sang this poem.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Model United Nations

I have just returned from a Model United Nations conference with some of my students and was delighted to see that the Holy See was represented. It is easy for the Catholic voice to be ignored entirely and so having the Holy See as one representative among many at such conferences is very welcome. 

The presence of the Holy See at the UN upsets some but it's important to remember that, as the official website of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations puts it, "The Holy See enjoys by its own choice the status of Permanent Observer at the United Nations, rather than of a full Member." The Vatican is not muscling in on the international community; on the contrary, it does not insist on what might be regarded as its right to full membership.

To find out more about the Holy See and the UN click here. To read Pope Benedict's speech to the General Assembly of the UN in 2008 click here and to read the Vatican's views about reform of the UN (from 2004) click here. 

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Tolkien's Ring of Words

Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating and beautifully produced book which deserves a place in any school library. To hear the authors talking about their book and, more widely, about Tolkien's lexicographical research and its impact on his writing click here or follow the links at Oxford University's list of podcasts.

Unfortunately, Tolkien's strong Catholic beliefs only get a passing, and slightly disparaging, mention in the entry about waybread or lembas: "Spiritually minded etymologists," the authors inform us, "might also discern here a scholarly link with the word viaticum. In Roman Catholic practice, this is the consecrated bread of the Eucharist administered to someone who is dying or in danger of death." 

They do, to be fair, finish with a more balanced set of comments: "Tolkien acknowledged the comparison between lembas and the Eucharist as miraculously sustaining forms of bread: the waybread provides food for Frodo and Sam on a journey that, to the best of their knowledge, leads to death. He comments that 'far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with lesser things of a fairy-story' (Lett. 213 25 October 1958)."

However, The Ring of Words takes us only so far. We need to look elsewhere if we are to discover what Tolkien believed about the Eucharist and, therefore, what he was doing in creating lembas in The Lord of the Rings.

Part of the answer is given in a fascinating paragraph, only part of which (sadly) is given in Humphrey Carpenter's collection of Tolkien's letters : "Out of the darkness of my life," Tolkien wrote to his son, Michael, in 1941, "so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament..... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires."