The Chaucer of Monaghan: Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1975; first published 1938)

This is I suppose an autobiography, but it reads like a novel or loosely linked sequence of short stories or vignettes about the growth of a young poet in rural Ireland.

The frontispiece gives this account of the ‘facts’ about him (in this post-truth world that translates as ‘opinions’):

PK was born in Enniskeen, Co. Monaghan in 1904, the son of a cobbler-cum-small farmer. He left school at the age of thirteen, apparently destined to plough the ‘stony-grey soil’ rather than write about it, but ‘I dabbled in verse’, he said, ‘and it became my life.’ He was ‘discovered’ by the Literary Revival veteran AE (George Russell) in 1929 and his poems began to appear in Irish and English journals. In 1936 his first book of verse, Ploughman and Other Poems, was published.

The Green Fool followed in 1938. He published several more volumes of poetry and prose before his death in 1967.Kavanagh, The Green Fool

So what does his autobiography add to these bald facts? A great deal. We are given an intimate view of what it was like to be raised in relative poverty, from his infancy in a cradle made from an onion box through childhood learning (badly) his father’s trade as cobbler-farmer, to young adulthood as an aspiring poet.

Each of the 32 short chapters relates a different anecdote, building up a sort of collage portrait of the artist as a young man. Unlike Joyce, Kavanagh is intent on doing so with more wry humour and quirky character sketches than socio-cultural perspectives.

This means the account often veers too close to whimsy. But the warmth and charm of the narrative voice just about prevented me from giving up on it. I liked ch. 6, ‘Pilgrimage’, about Paddy’s first trip to the Lady Well, a sacred pilgrim site for ‘the people of Monaghan and Cavan and Louth. It was one of the many holy wells of Ireland.’ Every year all his neighbours made the journey and returned with bottles of its holy water:

These waters were used in times of sickness whether of human or beast. Some folk went barefoot and many went wearing in their boots the traditional pea or pebble of self-torture.

Kavanagh’s account of the piety of his people is neither patronising nor reverential. This is just the way things were, he suggests – though he maintains a healthy scepticism about the many miracles attested to by the locals – ‘on whatever feeble evidence founded.’

The scene that follows reads like a prose version of Chaucer’s pilgrim tales: some were ‘going on their bare knees’ as in medieval times –

some others were doing a bit of courting under the pilgrim cloak. There was a rowdy element, too, pegging clods at the prayers and shouting. A few knots of men were arguing politics. I overheard two fellows making a deal over a horse.

The priests didn’t like this well or these demonstrations of popular piety:

They said it was a pagan well from which the old Fianians drank in the savage heroic days. The peasant folk didn’t mind the priests. They believed that Saint Bridget washed her feet in it, and not Finn MacCoole.

It’s characteristic of Kavanagh’s generous spirit that the chapter ends with the family so ‘fagged out’ when they return home at 4 a.m. that they forget all about the holy water – but the narrator concludes that Our Lady ‘was not displeased’ despite the ‘doubters’ and ‘cynics’ and ‘vulgar sightseers’ among the pilgrims:

She is kind and no doubt she enjoyed the comic twists in the pageant round Lady Well.

There’s the note of whimsy I mentioned. A shame, because this is an entertaining, heart-warming account of the growth of a poet’s mind (without Wordsworth’s transcendental portents) despite the hardships and human foibles to which young Paddy was exposed. His long walk to the hiring fair, looking for a farmer to take him on helps persuade him he’s maybe not cut out for the agricultural life. But his much longer walk to Dublin to seek out his literary heroes is far more disappointing for him.

He learns to plough his own furrow.

Poe and Marginalia

I intended posting today about the book I recently finished, Patrick Kavanagh’s autobiographical The Green Fool, but I’ve been busy on other tasks, such as preparing classes on the Romantics and nature, doing the laundry, supervising the gasman (boiler service) and keeping tabs on delayed trains for my homecoming spouse.

Instead, so that the end of November doesn’t slip quietly into oblivion on Tredynas Days, here’s a little something that I hope will be of interest: the Marginalia of Edgar Allan Poe.

‘In the United States Gazette and Democratic Review of November 1844, volume XV, pages 484-94, Poe published the first of the seventeen installments of the Marginalia, a word that he invented for this collection of observations and brief essays…they took shape as a “farrago”… of remembered bons mots, puns, excerpts from his past reviews, and new observations on matters of literature, social events, personalities, psychology, and the arts in general. Many might be shown to contain the germ of his own creative efforts and sometimes those of his readers, such as Baudelaire and Valéry…The allure of the “form” of the Marginalia for Poe must have been the “abandonnement” as he terms it…, or the relaxed ease of the short discursive essay, so different from the neat and predetermined construction that he had always demanded for the tale and the poem.’ (from the online introduction to his 1985 edition by Burton R. Pollin).

Poe in 1898 (from WikiMedia Commons)

Poe in 1898 (from WikiMedia Commons)

The electronic text contains almost 300 ‘articles’ and many more ‘instalments’. In an old notebook of my own such ‘marginalia’ I found this item, published in the online Works of Poe in the Introduction to his own jottings; the symmetry of sentiment with which I like to make such jottings chimed pleasingly with Poe’s cheerful words:

IN getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste.

This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. “Ce que je mets sur papier,” says Bernardin de St. Pierre, “je remets de ma mémoire, et par consequence je l’oublie;” — and, in fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered…

just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal Note.

I’ve posted before on ‘obiter dicta’ and other such random notes. It’s long been my habit to make such jottings and marginalia, for reasons very like Poe’s stated above. What he whimsically calls their ‘helter-skelter-iness’ is also what appeals to me.

Do you do this? If so, what form do your marginalia or jottings take? Do you revisit them, or, as Poe suggests, do they slip quietly out of mind, never to be revisited? And do you commit the ultimate horror of annotating books in INK not pencil? (let alone glueing in slips of paper, as Poe confesses. I’m reminded of reading about a visitor’s horror at the sight of Wordsworth cutting pages of newly delivered books with a greasy butterknife at the breakfast table.)

 

 

The sensuous Celtic type: DH Lawrence, ‘Samson & Delilah’

It’s been a busy time at work, and emotionally fraught (a serious family illness), but I don’t want Tredynas Days to languish. Here then is a short piece based on notes compiled for a course I’m teaching on ‘Sense of Place’: it follows on from several recent posts on DH Lawrence’s letters written in Cornwall,mostly from a rented cottage at Higher Tregerthen, near the village of Zennor, west of St Ives.

Lawrence’s story ‘Samson and Delilah’ tells of a Cornish miner who, like many others in the late Victorian period when tin and copper prices fell, emigrated to America, abandoning his wife and new-born baby. Some 15 Years later he returns to the

Tinners Arms

The Tinners Arms as it looked back in August this year

fictionalised Tinners Arms (called in the story ‘The Tinners Rest’) at Zennor, where his wife is landlady. At first she doesn’t recognise him, but when he insists on staying, and that she is his wife, she calls on some soldiers, stationed there – the story is set early in WWI – to restrain him. He escapes and resumes his attempts to win her over, telling her he has amassed £1000 – a fortune at that time (remember he paid an annual rent of £5 on the Higher Tregerthen cottage!)

Probably written in 1916, it was published in March 1917 as ‘The Prodigal Husband’ in the English Review; a revised, retitled version appeared in a collection of his stories, England, My England (1922 in the US, 1924 in the UK) – Online text here; it was made into a short TV play in 1959 and a short film in in 1985. A longer version was an episode in the ITV ‘Play of the Week’ series in 1966.

img_4302Here at the start of the story the protagonist, Willie Nankervis, arrives in the desolate, economically deprived mining village – a hint at why he left there years earlier – on the Penzance to St Just bus:

Tall, ruined power-houses of tin-mines loomed in the darkness from time to time, like remnants of some by-gone civilization. The lights of many miners’ cottages scattered on the hilly darkness twinkled desolate in their disorder, yet twinkled with the lonely homeliness of the Celtic night… The houses began to close on the road, he was entering the straggling, formless, desolate mining village, that he knew of old.

After ordering drinks at the bar Willie encounters a girl working there; we later discover this is his daughter. Note the characteristic ambiguity in the depiction of the Cornish people (in a letter he’d venomously dismissed them as vermin, insects, in response to what he perceived as their passive acceptance of militarism and ‘King and Country’).

She disappeared. In a minute a girl of about sixteen came in. She was tall and fresh, with dark, young, expressionless eyes, and well-drawn brows, and the immature softness and mindlessness of the sensuous Celtic type…

 

She replied to everybody in a soft voice, a strange, soft aplomb that was very attractive. And she moved round with rather mechanical, attractive movements, as if her thoughts were elsewhere. But she had always this dim far-awayness in her bearing: a sort of modesty. The strange man by the fire watched her curiously. There was an alert, inquisitive, mindless curiosity on his well-coloured face.

‘I’ll have a bit of supper with you, if I might,’ he said.

She looked at him, with her clear, unreasoning eyes, just like the eyes of some non-human creature.

‘I’ll ask mother,’ she said. Her voice was soft-breathing, gently singsong.

Not very complimentary about Willie’s womenfolk, is it. But much of the story is narrated from his skewed point of view – but even his ‘alert, inquisitive…curiosity’ is ‘mindless’, to match the girl’s ‘unreasoning’ gaze. None of these Cornish characters emerges with much dignity. Later the focalisation changes to Willie’s wife. Does she really fail to recognise him, like some kind of inverted form of Penelope, faithless to the returning anti-hero who’d abandoned her and her baby?

The story’s title encourages this interpretation, for it draws attention to the central theme of betrayal by the wife of her husband, who is captured by the military; this act deprives him temporarily of his manhood and independence.It’s about one of DHL’s familiar concerns: the struggle, as he put it in a letter from Cornwall, between the old Adam and the old Eve.

It’s a slight story, but interesting as one of his rare pieces of fiction set in the locale where he spent nearly two years 1916-17. Ch. 12 of his novel Kangaroo (1923) is called ‘Nightmare’, and provides a fictional account of those Cornish years, which culminated in his being arrested with Frieda on suspicion of spying for the Germans and banished from the county. His love affair with the Celtic wildness of Cornwall was over for ever. His ‘savage pilgrimage’ across the world began.

Anastasia the Pharmakolytria, or deliverer from potions

I posted yesterday on the word ‘demonifuge’ – a substance or medicine used to exorcise a demon. Today I came across a note I made a couple of years ago that has some bearing on that.

St Athanasia of Sirmium is known as PHARMAKOLYTRIA, meaning ‘deliverer from potions’. The website Christian Iconography has this account of her:

St Anastasia

Byzantine icon from late 14C, now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Medieval lives of St. Anastasia, including the one in the Golden Legend, conflate elements from the stories of two different saints of the same name and same century. One is Anastasia of Sirmium, who was burned at the stake. The other is Anastasia of Rome, a disciple of St. Chrysogonus who was crucified and then beheaded. The conflated Anastasia in the Golden Legend and the Roman Martyrology is a Roman noblewoman who was both “tied to poles” and then burned at the stake, apparently an attempt to reconcile the different deaths in the two stories.

She acquired her name because of her practice of visiting Christians who’d been incarcerated for their faith during the persecutions of Diocletian, and using her medical knowledge to tend to their illnesses and wounds. Legend has it that she protects those who invoke her name from poisons and other harmful substances.

St Anastasia

From a Book of Hours, Liège, late 13C; the saint holds a book and palm of martyrdom

Later legends introduced hagiographical tropes such as the miraculous protection of her three Christian serving girls: when the pagan prefect locked them in a kitchen and tried to molest them sexually,

In his folly he thought he was grasping young women as he kissed and embraced the pots, pans, kettles, and the like. When he was sated, he left the room with his face all sooty and his clothes in tatters.

(the Golden Legend); Anastasia was herself protected from malicious sexual advances by her cruel pagan captor by his being struck blind; she survived 60 days of starvation in prison, was delivered miraculously from execution by drowning, etc. When her corpse was burned after execution finally succeeded, it remained unscathed.

Her relics are preserved at the cathedral named for her in Zadar, Croatia. She is commemorated in the Roman liturgy on December 25th (22nd in the Orthodox church) though her feast-day is January 15th.

St Anastasia

Fresco at the Gesù, Rome. Image from Christian Iconography site, which attributes the photo to Richard Stracke

The iconography site above states that she’s normally depicted holding a flame, either in a bowl, as in the image left, or in the palm of her hand (presumably an emblem of her mode of martyrdom in some legends).

Sirmium, the saint’s home town, was in the ancient Roman province of Pannonia, modern-day Serbia.

Compare the legend of the Holy Unmercenaries, Cosmas and Damian, another pair of Eastern saints associated with medical aid, about which I wrote a while ago HERE and HERE

Images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated.

Demonifuge

Asides

OED online sent me a while back this ‘word of the day’:

demonifuge, n.

Etymology: classical Latin daemōn demon n. + i- connective + -fuge comb. form used in nonce-words to signify ‘driving away’, from Latin fugere ‘flee (from)’ – a nice example of folk etymology paying scant heed to semantics. It means the opposite of ‘driving away’. Here’s the OED online definition:

A substance or medicine used to exorcize a demon; (also more generally) anything thought to give protection against evil spirits.

The citations that follow this definition include incense and holy water as examples.

Cf ‘demonagogue’: A medicine used to exorcize a demon (the entry adds).

Lamia

The daemon Lamia, as painted by Herbert Draper, 1909 (Wikipedia image)

Must try to slip this into conversation soon.

When I googled the word I discovered it’s also a name of a character in a lurid sequence of graphic novels, which seem in turn to be spin-offs of online ‘ultragothic’ games, set in the ‘Warhammer 40,000’ future world, in which the ‘Adepta Sororitas’ called splendidly Ephrael Stern, a sort of witchy superheroine, so far as I can tell, goes back to planet Parnis to rediscover her past, which she seems to have forgotten. She was once ‘a seraphim’, though I’d always thought that was a plural noun.

They’re a strange lot, these gamers. No stranger, I suppose, than football fanatics or people who watch dramas about the English (ie German-Greek) royal family, as in the newly released Netflix series (here in the UK) ‘The Crown’.

My wife will shoot me for this, but I hate this type of thing. Downton Abbey is in a similar category, for me: that soap-opera formula which encourages – invites –  a deferential reverence for the privileged classes among those of us from the proletariat. They’re just like us, really. Of course.

 

 

November pigs in calendars

Calendar pages for November

Those wonderful people at the British Library regularly feature on their ‘Medieval Manuscripts’ blog relevant ‘labours of the months’ and other beautiful materials from illuminated MS calendars in their collections, so here’s a flavour of some items for this month, November.

The London Rothschild Book of Hours (aka the Hours of Joanna I of Castile – a tenuous ownership connection; more detail at this link)

Rothschild Hours Nov

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is BL Add MS 35313, f. 6v: entry in Digitised Catalogue, with full apparatus on contents and links to images. Here’s their blog entry description of the scene:

Threshing and winnowing is taking place: in the background, a male figure wields a flail, beating wheat to separate the grains from the husks.  Two peasants in the foreground are beating flax to break down the stem fibres, while a woman to the right in the background is using a stick known as a ‘swingle’ to ‘scutch’ or dress the flax.  A woman is pouring swill out for the pigs, while doves and pigeons gather in the dovecote and on the thatched roofs of the barns waiting to feed on any loose grains. This month, marked by the Zodiac symbol of the centaur for Sagittarius, saw the celebration of several important festivals in the Christian calendar, each illustrated in the roundels to the left…

Here’s a link to a Jan. post on the BL blog which gives more background information on this MS and its provenance.

A comment on the blog post for Nov. finds a similar scene in this page (f. 12v, another calendar, made in Bruges c. 1515) from Morgan Library MS 399, which shows more clearly men working inside a ring of flax for beating, and behind them a woman engaged in the scutching process. In the village street behind, pigs and chickens feed – a seeming visual reference to the usual ‘pig-feeding’ image for this month.

The images on this site appear to be copyright, so I’ll simply provide a link here – but I’d urge you to take a look – there is clearly an iconographical pattern here which painters of illuminations for such scenes followed carefully – as did visual artists of hagiographical scenes – ie devotional images of the saints, many of which would be found in the relevant pages of calendars, as well as in stained glass windows, other devotional texts like legendaries, etc.

This image was tweeted today by @melibius, who kindly supplied the relevant link to the BL catalogue entry; it’s from BL Add MS 21114, the Psalter of Lambert le Bègue (‘the Stammerer’) of Liège, 1255-65 (though he died 1177; its provenance is the Béguine house of S Christophe, which he founded). Interesting departure from the usual pig-feeding scene here; less fun for our porcine friends this time – one’s been slaughtered, and the outlook for the other doesn’t look too good.

bl-nov-cal-pg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image from the BL catalogue for the November page from the famous Bedford Hours also wouldn’t load when I tried it, so here’s a link to the BL blog dated today, in which this MS page is shown in full, with glorious marginal decorations, plus an enlarged detail of the pigs-with-acorns scene (and a centaur).

It follows the usual iconographic practice of showing a peasant knocking acorns from trees while pigs cheerfully snuffle them up under the branches. What the happy pigs don’t realise is that they’re being fattened up for slaughter in the winter. The borders are intricately and beautifully decorated with twining vines, with stylized leaves and flowers.

I’ve posted on previous months (links for October here

And April and May here)

In those posts I’ve shown the calendar pages from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry. Here’s the November page, which also shows the traditional pig-feeding scene for that season:

Berry November scene

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda