Thursday, August 29, 2013

Edmund Spenser (1552? - 1599)

The Shepheardes Calender (1579)

On-line texts:

Spenser's poetry is still pretty much the preserve of book-readers. On-line texts are, all too often, the unchecked manglings of OCR programs.

Much the best one I've found is Risa S. Bear's on-line edition
, notwithstanding the glaring omission of Iune 43b. It doesn't provide any line numbers, and I could live without the hyperlinks to E.K.'s notes, but it looks good and is a pleasure to read.

Be warned that David Hill Radcliffe's interesting repository Spenser and the Tradition: English Poetry 1579-1830  (
presents Spenser's poems in the wretchedly inaccurate text of John Hughes (1715). For example, the "winding witche" of Iune 20 (discussed below) appears in Hughes as a "winding Ditch"!


“Of the Shepherd’s Calendar as poetry we must frankly confess that it commits the one sin for which, in literature, no merits can compensate; it is rather dull.” Thus begins C.S. Lewis’ account in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954). That's a jejune kind of criticism, no doubt; so was Lewis's source in Henry James' "The Art of Fiction": "The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting." It hadn't taken modernists very long to problematize James' bourgeois category of interestingness.

It's a little jejune, and besides Lewis was, as he always was, stitching together an ideological myth. This one is about the great conservative poet who had not yet found his true voice. (Lewis's myths are always about the early twentieth century as well as the sixteenth century.) In his youth, the future conservative poet risks the left-wing temptations of coterie poetry and smart young forward-thinkers. Only later will his true, inner, spiritual and timelessly conservative vision be allowed to glide forth without being hindered by his clever friends. The place of dullness in the Lewisian myth of the young Spenser is therefore complex. On the one hand it is a hit at coterie productions in general: the Shepheard's Calender was supposed to be the sensational Next Big Thing, but it turns out to be a bit dull. On the other hand, the dullness is also a gentle prefigurement of Spenser's future greatness; it is a mark of his seriousness, his inability to be "turned". He will never be smart or sexy; he will never be the most brilliant or lovable of personalities. But when he does become great, the greatness will be of a quieter and more enduring kind. That, more or less, is Lewis' myth.

But there was also some truth to what Lewis said; it wouldn't have much power as a myth if there wasn't. If you want to know whether it would be more exciting to read Venus and Adonis, or The Pardoner's Tale, or [Insert your own choice of thrilling poem] - well, there’s no more to be said. You do not come to the Shepheard's Calender to be enthralled in that sort of way.

But still, you get a new job in Bedfordshire (or Cambridgeshire, perhaps?) - and then it’s no longer useful to be told about how dull the landscape is. These things happen and you’re going to make the best of it and you want to know how to live there and how to feed your imagination. You’re optimistic and you know that, once you’ve managed to adjust, your imagination will survive the shock, and dullness is going to turn out to be, really, rather interesting. You don’t have the choice of extinguishing Bedfordshire; it just exists. And therefore there is a way, not perhaps an instantly obvious way, of becoming absorbed in it.

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another day in the excited

Here's a good article I just read about "motivated reasoning".

Within each of us is an identity-protecting impulse which will not allow our most central identity-defining beliefs to be changed except under extreme duress.  There are many topics on which we cannot reason freely.  Instead we can only rationalize the belief we will continue with.


38Degrees is agonizing over whether to have some kind of petition about the Syrian crisis, it sounds like something too important to not be involved in, but they don't really know what their public think. I read a lot of Facebook comments, but none from people with Arabic-origin names. There was a lot of distrust of the information we're receiving. There was a lot of distrust of the motives of western governments. Predominantly people seem to be saying oh God don't let the US/UK get involved in another Middle East country, they'll only make it worse. Leaving aside the conspiracy theories this distrust is perhaps a modest acknowledgement that there are limits to what Mr or Ms Anyone in the democratic international (western) community can be expected to contribute in the way of wise advice about a horrible situation that they're not involved in and whose issues they don't understand. But that doesn't mean that no-one understands it. It doesn't mean that no-one can make peace. But should we, then, stand back and let the specialists get on with it? Or is that a dereliction of duty? So a painful competition of good conscience is a tragicomic sideshow to the death tolls within Syria.


"The world is on the brink of an enormous economic crisis. One that dwarfs any other previous dips in the world markets. The establishment/mainstream networks would rarely discuss the situations going on behind the “fake scenery” they would prefer you gaze upon; but the truth is governments around the world are buying precious metals like it’s going out of fashion. The levels of private and public debt has hit even more unsustainable levels than..." 

This apocalypse unexpectedly showing up on the JustArsenal fansite, in the context of the club's perceived inactivity during the transfer window.


Ron Silliman usefully linked this entertaining and lucid Yale lecture (by Paul Fry) on structuralism and Roman Jacobson:  It's part of a larger "Theory of Literature" series that I feel I could really learn a lot from.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170 - c. 1217): Parzival

Portrait of Wolfram from the Codex Manesse (see note 2 below for
 more details)

Parzival was begun around 1198 and completed around 1210. It is a narrative poem of 24,810 lines in 16 books divided into 30-line sections made up of couplets, and it looks like this:

‘nû habet iuch an der witze kraft
und helt in alle ritterschaft.’
der site vuor angestlîche vart.
der knappe alsus geborgen wart
zer waste in Soltâne erzogen,
an küneclîcher vuore betrogen,
ez enmöhte an einem site sîn:
bogen unde bölzelîn
die sneit er mit sîn selbes hant
und schôz vil vogele die er vant.
swenne aber er den vogel erschôz,
des schal von sange ê was sô grôz,
sô weinde er unde roufte sich,
an sîn hâr kêrte er gerich.
sîn lîp was klâr unde fier:
ûf dem plân an dem rivier
twuoc er sich alle morgen.
er enkunde niht gesorgen,
ez enwære ob im der vogelsanc.
diu süeze in sîn herze dranc:
daz erstracte im sîniu brüstelîn.
al weinde er lief zer künegîn.
sô sprach si: ‘wer hât dir getân?
dû wære hin ûz ûf den plân.’
er enkunde ir gesagen niht,
als kinden lîhte noch geschiht.     (from Bk III, Sections 117-118)

‘Now use your wits and keep all knighthood from him.’ The custom travelled an anxious road. The boy thus hidden away was brought up in the forest clearing of Soltane, cheated of his royal heritage except on one count: with his own hands he whittled himself a bow and little arrows and shot many birds that he came upon. But whenever he shot the bird whose song was so loud before, he would weep and tear his hair – and his hair came in for grief. His body was fair and proud. Every morning he washed in the stream by the meadow. Of sorrow he knew nothing, unless it was the birdsong above him, for the sweetness of it pierced his heart and made his little bosom swell. Weeping he ran to the queen, and she said, “Who has hurt you? You were out on the meadow.” He could tell her nothing, as is still the way with children. (transl. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage, 1961)

[The meter is 4-stress. Most of the lines are basically like English tetrameters, but one line-type unknown to English is the one that ends in two syllables that are both stressed, though the last only secondarily – as above in the lines ending with mor´-gen` and sor´-gen` . The penultimate syllable must be long (presumably to delay the arrival of the final stress, an interesting metrical combination of quantity with accent). Editors of MHG texts use the circumflex symbol to indicate a long vowel.]

The earliest written account of the Percival story is Chrétien de Troyes’ Li contes del graal, which is his longest poem but was left unfinished, presumably at his death, some time around 1190. There are many unfinished narratives in the world but this one causes more anguish than most. Chrétien was undoubtedly drawing on Celtic oral tradition, but no writer other than Chrétien appears to have known how the story was meant to end, and perhaps the Percival legend had not achieved much fixity apart from certain key features, e.g. the hero’s naivety, his upbringing in isolation, his visit to the Grail castle and his failure when there to ask about the elephant in the room, i.e. the king's wound. 

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Mediterranean sea carrot

Today's random pix were taken on the Costa Blanca coast in June. This is some sort of wild carrot. Since there is only one member of the genus that is native to Europe, Daucus carota,  I'll assume this is one of its many variants, which include the Wild and Sea Carrots of the UK as well as the cultivated carrot, which is thought to derive from one or more Mediterranean varieties.

Look at the curious deep-red flower in the middle of the umbel. This single flower has a complete umbellule to itself (the central terminal one), as well explained by Agnes Arber.

I always imagine that this deep-red flower is designed to mimic a visiting insect and thus to persuade other insects that this is a good place to visit.

Similar to those stooge customers that cafes employ to nurse a long coffee and lure passers-by into walking in. (Nobody wants to be first into an empty cafe. They anticipate the irritable stupor of the staff, the fake over-attentiveness, the deadly silence while trying to choose a cake, and so on.)

I don't know if this stooge-customer thing is a job that really does exist but I feel Laura and I could be well fitted for it because we always look very happy and interesting when we're in a cafe.

According to Wikipedia the plant is known as "Queen Anne's Lace" in N. America and the red flower represents a drop of blood shed by the queen when she pricked her finger while sewing. That may be so, but it doesn't explain why "Queen Anne's Lace" is a common name for Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) in th UK. .

 The bushy mass in the background (below) is an amazing and unique kind of grass, very common in SE Spain,  called Albardine (Lygeum spartum)in which the few fluffy spikelets are contained within a spathe-like bract.

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Saturday, August 03, 2013

Hairy-brome (Bromopsis ramosa)

Bromopsis ramosa

Hairy-brome, a distinctive, drooping grass of woodland and shady lanes. Now named Bromopsis ramosa; older books call it Bromus ramosus. The genus Bromus is now reserved for smaller annual bromes of the lop-grass type. Anisantha contains the larger annuals such as the ubiquitous Barren Brome. The perennials are in Bromopsis: this species, the much scarcer Lesser Hairy-brome, and the very different-looking Upright Brome.

Bromopsis ramosus has fairly lax leaves, rather like the leaves of the very common False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), but it's a much taller grass, the leaves are broader and the flowerhead is a panicle not a simple raceme. [Compared to the fine specimen here,  individuals in woods are often "starved", i.e. much slighter and with fewer spikelets. ]

My fondness for this plant is mainly to do with it flowering so late. By August there are not many new plants to see around Frome; it's a good time of year for getting up a mountain, or down to the coast. But that's not always possible, so the local newbies (Perennial Sow-thistle, Woolly Thistle,  Common Fleabane) always get a lot of my attention.

Bromopsis ramosa, panicle

Bromopsis ramosa, spikelets

Bromopsis ramosa, leaf-sheath

As if the drooping panicles weren't enough to identify it, the hairy sheath below the blade is pretty distinctive too.

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