Jan 17 2020

Arcadia and Middle-Earth: Prose Plus Poetry in Sidney and Tolkien

After finishing C. S. Lewis’s (1898–1963) English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) (1954) last autumn, I was curious to then read Sir. Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580): a strange work of mostly prose, but interspersed with much poetry. I’d read Sidney’s Apology (1580) several times and mostly understood it, but the Arcadia was more ambiguous. When reading it, sometimes (at least the older version) felt like a medieval romance (like the first part of the Roman de la Rose [c. 1230]). At other times, the Arcadia felt like an ancient epic (the Argonautica (c. 200 BC) comes to mind). Either way, Arcadia is definitely not a novel, though it is a fantasy.

And it also reminded me much of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (1892–1973) works—another fantasy world told mostly in prose but containing much poetry. Both authors take these old literary forms and add something fresh to them by mixing them together. They are “fun,” even when their tones turn toward things serious. In this regard, they have mirth.

This freshness of song and speech also reminded somewhat of Miguel Cervantes (1547–1616) Don Quijote (1605, 1616), which contains a few handfuls of sonnets, and along these lines we might add Johanna Spyri’s (1827–1901) Heidi’s Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) (1880) and Heidi Kann Brauchen, was es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (1881) as well as John Bunyan’s (1628–1688) The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) with their Protestant hymns and songs intermixed with prose tales.

But the going-back-and-forthness between prose and poetry in Sidney’s Arcadia and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mostly reminded me of classic Hollywood musicals. (I’m a South Pacific (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964) kind of guy.)

Post Scriptum

Finally, with feelings more of somberness than sadness do we wish Christopher Tolkien (1924–2020) and his kin the best as he now journeys westward toward the Grey Havens. His task as steward to his father’s work is now complete. And I expect the father to soon say to all around him, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

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First edition…. RIP Christopher Tolkien

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Dec 28 2019

Heidi and Sidney: Two Views of Arcadia

typewriter

The title character of Johanna Spyri’s (1827-1901) Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre (Heidis Years of Wandering and Learning) (c. 1880) and its sequel Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881) lives in a true Arcadian paradise along the slopes of the Swiss Alps:

By now the sun was ready to go down behind the mountains. Heidi sat on the ground again and gazed at the bluebells and the rock-roses glowing in the evening light. The grass seemed tinted with gold, and the cliffs above began to gleam and sparkle….[1]

May had come. From every height the overflowing brooks were rushing down into the valley. Warm, bright sunshine lay on the mountain. It had grown green again; the last traces of snow had melted away, and the first little flowers were peeping up out of the fresh grass. The spring wind blew through the fir trees and shook off the old, dark needles, so that the young, bright green ones could come out and dress the trees in splendor. High above, the old robber-bird was swinging his wings in the blue air, and around the Alm hut the golden sunshine lay warm on the ground. [2]

Yes, as Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) has taught us beforehand, Heidi’s world is founded in that literary setting of poetic pastoral that so often can become (as Americans say) “tacky” with its kitsch motifs, followed by the inevitable banality in meaning behind them. As Johnson puts it:

In consequence of these original errours, a thousand precepts have been given, which have only contributed to perplex and confound. Some have thought it necessary that the imaginary manners of the golden age should be universally preserved, and have therefore believed, that nothing more could be admitted in pastoral, than lilies and roses, and rocks and streams, among which are heard the gentle whispers of chaste fondness, or the soft complaints of amorous impatience. In pastoral, as in other writings, chastity of sentiment ought doubtless to be observed, and purity of manners to be represented; not because the poet is confined to the images of the golden age, but because, having the subject in his own choice, he ought always to consult the interest of virtue. (Rambler no. 37, July 24, 1750)

Johnson is almost always right about this sort of thing. Still, it is good for children to read about the world Heidi lives in, for though it is a beautiful world, it is certainly not a paradise. Through her innocence and innate goodness, Heidi “was never unhappy, for she could always find something about her to enjoy.”[3] But those around her must struggle (and it’s important for children to read about this contrast, for depicting it is one of the things good fiction, for any age, tends to do).

There is, for example, the goatherd boy Peter, who has literally never eaten is fill, and a grand moment where he marvels when Heidi gives him some of her leftovers as they share a mountainside lunch.[4] And there is Heidi’s friend from Frankfurt, Clara, a girl (temporarily?) lame, perhaps from polio. Life is certainly not a paradise for Clara, which is one reason while Heidi comes to visit her. [5] There is the doctor who suffers melancholy and finds relief in the mountains. [6] And finally, there is Heidi’s grandfather, whom she loves dearly, but is someone who remains stubborn (for reasons never quite explained) in his unforgiveness toward the town beneath his mountain cabin.

But the Arcadia of the Heidi books is quite different from the original Arcadia (1580) by Sir Philip Sidney (1584-1586), which is a work that paints a world without children, but also a world full of young love and (occasionally) lust, as readers find at the end of Book III:

    Thus hath each part his beauty’s part;
But how the Graces do impart
To all her limbs a special grace,
Becoming every time and place,
Which doth e’en beauty beautify,
And most bewitch the wretched eye!
How all this is but a fair inn
Of fairer guest which dwells within,
Of whose high praise, and praiseful bliss,
Goodness the pen, heav’n paper is;
The ink immortal fame doth lend.
As I began, so must I end:
    No tongue can her perfections tell,
    In whose each part all pens may dwell.[7]

Upon encountering Sidney’s fictional work, I expected (as Johnson has taught me) green pastures and white sheep abounding. But here Sidney’s prose fiction rarely has anything to say about landscape. Instead there is a wild variety of poetry sprinkled throughout this strange prose creation, some of it beautiful, but some of it too rugged (in its style and structure) to be recited aloud with ease.

And I don’t know how reading these two highly contrasting works will ever make me a better writer (or reader), but after having read them, I do feel both better informed and thoroughly refreshed from the workaday world of Austin, Texas. As the doctor says to Heidi after recovering from his melancholy:

It is good to be on the mountain. Body and soul get well there, and life becomes happy again.”[8]

Happy New Year,

Christopher / Bookbread

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Picturesque at the family farm

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NOTES

wood

[1] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) in Heidi, illustrated Arthur Jameson, trans. Helene S. White [?], (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1944) I, iii, p. 36.

[2] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881) in Heidi, illustrated Arthur Jameson, trans. Helene S. White [?], (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1944) II, vi, p. 183.

[3] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, iv, p. 40.

[4] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, iii, p. 32.

[5] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, vi.

[6] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) II, iii.

[7] Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia (The Old Arcadia) (c. 1580), ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones, (New York: Oxford UP, 1973; 2008) 210–11.

[8] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) II, iii, p. 164.


Mar 25 2011

A Welcoming to Welsh Ways (A Dialogue)

For all impractical purposes let us examine the divisions of poetic persona by interrupting a scene from Shakespeares As You Like It. In our take on the play, Audrey, an American country dame, continually questions Touchstone, a European clown of the court. The two banter back and forth in the forest of Arden.

Touchstone: When a mans verses cannot be understood, nor a mans good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room. Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical. (As You Like It III, iii)

Audrey: I do not know whatpoeticalis. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?

Touchstone: Are you implying, then, that you cannot understand my verses, Audrey? Come on. I know you have more than a mere child’s understanding of the world, even if it doesn’t include comprehending “poetical” things quite as well as I.

Audrey: If you say so.

Touchstone: Come, Audrey, don’t be confused. There’s nothing wrong with a child’s understanding when it comes to things poetical. Some have said that it’s a good thing—and not just Martha Stuart. Take a contemporary of our creator Shakespeare: Sir Philip Sidney, and how he observes in his Apology to Poetry (1595):

If then a man can arrive, at that child’s age, to know that the poet’s persons and doings are but pictures of what should be, and not stories of what have been, they will never give the lie to things not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively written.[i]

So all I mean, Audrey, is that you must learn to arrive at a childs age, that is, if you are to someday know the nature of things “poetical” and not give in to the lies of literalists who have no understanding for what is allegorically and figuratively written.

Audrey: You may know what you know, but because you talk so much, I hear everything that you know as well as otherwise. And though I am but a country hick compared to you, tall, terrible Touchstone, understand, my man, that I still hear all things from all beings.

Touchstone: Well, stop with all the hearing and start listening to me, for I will speak of things poetic. I think it best to begin with the pre-origins of the English language poets, those found in the persona of the ancient Welsh bard.

Audrey: But why Welsh?

Touchstone: Because I am specifically interested in how the historical personage of the Welsh bard compares to the English poet—a cultural archetype sometimes called “the good writer.” I am interested in whatever functions, obligations, and responsibilities are required of the modern “good writer” and how they compare to those of the ancient bard. And if that is not enough to inspire indulgence in the subject of bardism, then for no other reason, Audrey, let us be led in the same scholastic spirit as J. R. R. Tolkien:

For myself I would say that more than the interest and uses of the study of Welsh as an adminicle of English philology, more than the practical linguist’s desire to acquire a knowledge of Welsh for the enlargement of his experience, more even than the interest and worth of the literature, older and newer, that is preserved in it, these two things seem important: Welsh is of the soil, this island, the senior language of the men of Britain; and Welsh is beautiful.[ii]

Touchstone: Welsh as an adminicle of English philology contains some compression of thought, Audrey: “adminicle” is fairly rare according to my searches through both the Oxford English Dictionary and Google. It principally means supportive, so we might take Tolkien to mean that the study of the Welsh language is supportive of the original study of English philology. But adminicle has another meaning—that of the decorative graphics that surround the main figure on a coin.

Audrey: So then, we can interpret Tolkien for our purposes to say that Welsh is a kind of decorative graphic, an ornamental interlacing that surrounds the main (and more important) figure of English? And yet both are embossed on the coin of philology (or what today we call linguistics)?

Touchstone: In so many words, Audrey, yes. And from this same essay, “Welsh and English” (1955), Tolkien adds:

If I may once more refer to my work, The Lord of the Rings [1954], in evidence: the names of persons and places in this story were mainly composed on patterns deliberately modeled on those of Welsh (closely similar but not identical) [particularly “Arthurian romance”]. This element in the tale has given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it.[iii]

Audrey: So Tolkien is a modern bard, The Lord of the Rings is his song, a song supported by the decorative graphics found in Welsh tales of Arthur, the most notable I suppose, being found in the Mabinogion. Therefore: the Mabinogion functions as an adminicle to Lord of the Rings, or so Bard Tolkien tells us, and this adminicle is what gives readers the most pleasure.


[i] Sidney, Philip. An Apologie for Poetrie. (1595). Ed. John Churton Collins. (1907). Clarendon, Oxford. p. 39. GB. The original Elizabethan spelling reads:

If then a man can ariue, at that childs age, to know that the Poets persons and doings are but pictures what should be, and not stories what haue beene, they will neuer giue the lye to things not affirmatiuely but allegorically and figuratiuelie written.”

[ii] Tolkien, J. R. R. English and Welsh. (1955). O’Donnell Lecture Series. October 21, 1955. In The Monsters and the Critics – the Essays of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. (1983) (2006) Harper Collins. p. 189.

 [iii] Ibid. p. 197, n. 33.