Apr 29 2017

Ireland in the Merry Month of May

Some final notes before I ship off to Dublintown:

The tourist busy season begins in May and reaches its peak in July and August.

On the mythology of May, starting with Robert Graves:

Five (V) was the number sacred to the Roman Moon-goddess Minerva. The month extends from April 15th to May 12th, and May Day, famous for its orgiastic revels and its magic dew, falls in the middle. It is possible that the carrying of sallow-willow branches on Palm Sunday, a variable feast which usually falls early in April, is a custom that properly belongs to the beginning of the willow month….[1]

The hawthorn, then, is the tree of enforced chastity. The month begins on May 13th, when the may is first in flower, and ends on June 9th. The ascetic use of the thorn, which corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Cardea must, however, be distinguished from its later orgiastic use which corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Flora, and which accounts for the English mediaeval habit of riding out on May Morning to pluck flowering hawthorn boughs and dance around the maypole. Hawthorn blossom has, for many men, a strong scent of female sexuality; which is why the Turks use a flowering branch as an erotic symbol. Mr. Cornish proves that this Flora cult was introduced into the British Isles in the late first-century B.C. by the second Belgic invaders; further, that the Glastonbury Thorn which flowered on Old Christmas Day (January 5th, New Style) and was cut down by the Puritans at the Revolution was a sport of the common hawthorn. The monks of Glastonbury perpetuated it and sanctified it with an improving tale about Joseph of Arimathea’s staff and the Crown of Thorns as a means of discouraging the orgiastic use of hawthorn blossom, which normally did not appear until May Day (Old Style)…. [2]

Christmas was merry in the middle ages, but May Day was still merrier. It was the time of beribboned Maypoles, of Collyridian cakes and ale, of wreaths and posies, of lovers’ gifts, of archery contests, of merritotters (see-saws) and merribowks (great vats of milk-punch). But particularly of mad-merry marriages ‘under the greenwood tree’, when the dancers from the Green went off, hand in hand, into the greenwood and built themselves little love-bowers and listened hopefully for the merry nightingale. ‘Mad Merry’ is another popular spelling of ‘Maid Marian’, and as an adjective became attached to the magician Merlin (the original ‘Old Moore’ of the popular almanacks) whose prophetic almanacks were hawked at fairs and merrimakes. Merlin was really Merddin, as Spenser explains in the Faerie Queene, but Robin Hood had taken his place as the May Bride’s lover, and he had become an old bearded prophet. The ‘merritotter’ is perhaps called after the scales (representing the Autumn equinox) in the hand of the Virgin in the Zodiac, who figured in the Mad Merry Merlin almanack: devoted readers naturally identified her with St. Mary Gipsy, for true-lovers’ fates tottered in her balance, see-sawing up and down….[3]

The main theme of poetry is, properly, the relations of man and woman, rather than those of man and man, as the Apollonian Classicists would have it. The true poet who goes to the tavern and pays the silver tribute to Blodeuwedd goes over the river to his death. As in the story of Llew Llaw: ‘All their discourse that night was concerning the affection and love that they felt one for the other and which in no longer space than one evening had arisen.’ This paradise lasts only from May Day to St. John’s Eve. Then the plot is hatched and the poisoned dart flies; and the poet knows that it must be so. For him there is no other woman but Cerridwen and he desires one thing above all else in the world: her love. As Blodeuwedd, she will gladly give him her love, but at only one price: his life. She will exact payment punctually and bloodily. Other women, other goddesses, are kinder-seeming. They sell their love at a reasonable rate—sometimes a man may even have it for the asking. But not Cerridwen: for with her love goes wisdom. And however bitterly and grossly the poet may rail against her in the hour of his humiliation—Catullus is the most familiar instance—he has been party to his own betrayal and has no just cause for complaint.[4]

From Frank O’Connor:

‘May Day’, so lovely that we have all tried our hand at translating it, exists only in one obscenely inaccurate transcript of which Kuno Meyer and Gerald Murphy have tried vainly to make linguistic sense. In spite of the fact that Meyer ascribed it to the ninth or early tenth century and Murphy to the eighth or ninth, I feel certain it was written by the author of the previous poem, scarcely earlier than the eleventh century, and that what Kenneth Jackson calls its ‘curious style’ is the deliberate archaism of an excellent scholar, who not only played with new metres, but omitted definite articles and the conjunction ocus.

Gairt cuí cruaid den
‘Is fochen sam saír!’
Suidid sine serb
I mbí cerb caill chraíb.

Cerbaid sam sruth snuad;
Saigid graig luath linn;
Lethaid fat fraích folt;
For-beir gort fann finn.

Fubair os scéith sciach;
Im-reith réid rian rith;
Cuirithir suan sál;
Tuigithir bláth bith.

Berait beich bec nert
Bert bonn bochtai bláth
Berid slabrai sliab,
Feraid seng sian sáith.

Seinm crot, caille ceol
Co ngrenn seol síd slán;
Sethair den do dinn;
Dethaid loch linn lád.

O’Connor’s translation:

The harsh, sturdy cuckoo calls, ‘Welcome, beautiful summer.’ The expanse of the heather’s hair spreads and the pale weak corn thrives.

The budding of the hawthorn threatens the deer; the sea tide runs smoothly; the sea goes to sleep and blossom covers the earth.

Bees of small strength carry a load of plucked blossom; the mountain sustains the cattle; the lean one sings a song of plenty.

The music of the wood is like harp-playing, a perfect peace of melody. The house is cleared of garbage, the flooded pool drops. [5]

From Jeffrey Gantz:

The first day of May, called Beltene, marked the beginning of summer; this feast has since given rise to May Eve[,] Walpurgisnacht and May Day. Beltene was a less important day, and consequently, less information about it has survived; the name seems to mean ‘fire of Bel’ (Bel presumably being the Irish descendant of the continental god Belenos) or ‘bright fire’, and there is a tradition that cattle were driven between two fires on this day so that the smoke would purify them. In any case, the rites of Beltene were probably directed towards ensuring the fertility of land and stock. The Welsh hero Pryderi is born on the first of May, and this fact coupled with the unusual circumstances of his birth (the concurrent birth of colts, the otherworld visitor) suggests that Beltene was also a day when the real and the fantastic merged.[6]

Owen Barfield on why the month of May is always “merry”:

Thus, when a Roman spoke of events as auspicious or sinister, or when some natural object was said in the Middle Ages to be baleful, or benign, or malign, a herb to possess such and such a virtue, an eye to be evil, or the bones of a saint to be holy, or even, probably, when Gower wrote:

The day was merry and fair enough,

it is true that these things were described from the human point of view, but the activity was felt to emanate from the object itself.[7]

Some May miscellany:

‘And now, Sally, I’m safe in bed. Stir the fire, my old darling.’ For although it was the first week in May, the night was frosty. ‘And tell me all about the Tiled House again, and frighten me out of my wits.’[8]

A shaven space of lawn one soft May evening. [9]

When I answered that I did not know, she said, “the month of May, because of the Virgin, and the lily of the valley, because it never sinned, but came pure out of the rocks,” and then she asked, “what is the cause of the three cold months of winter?”[10]

NOTES

[1] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. 1948. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Second Edition. 1975. p. 174.

[2] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 175–76.

[3] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 398.

[4] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 447–48.

[5] O’Connor, (A Short History of Irish Literature: a Backward Look. NY: Viking. 1967. pp. 77–78.

[6] Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. NY: Penguin. 1981. 1988. “Introduction” 13.

[7] Barfield, Owen. History in English Words. NY: George H. Doran Co. 1926. p. 159.

[8] Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. The House by the Churchyard. London: Tinsley, Brothers. 1863. Reprint. Dublin: James Duffey. 1904. “Chapter XI – Some talk about the haunted house—being, as I suppose, only old woman’s tales,” 54.

[9] Joyce, Ulysses. 1922. Random House: NY. 1946. XIV [“Oxen of the Sun”] 414.

[10] Yeats, The Celtic Twilight. 1893. “Happy and Unhappy Theologians.”


Oct 11 2016

A Non-list of Books to Read This Fall

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From Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), who taught, among others, Robert Graves (1895-1985) and C. S. Lewis (1898-1963):

Nor, lastly, do I urge you to try to be learned, or to read everything that anyone else has read. That way lies despair. Try to read good things. Read them over and over. Make them a part of you: and do not imagine you are wasting time, because you are not. Read the books that you like best. And if there are famous books, generally praised by good judges, which you do not appreciate, give them a fair chance. Try them from time to time, to see if you enjoy them or understand them better. For remember that in that inner world to which great literature belongs, a man may go on all his life learning to see, but he can never see all that is there; he can only hope to see deeper and deeper, more and more, and as he sees, to understand and to love.

(The Classical Tradition in Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1927. p. 146)


Mar 25 2011

Second of Three Proposals: Toward a Frankenstein-like Poetics

Continued from First of Three Proposals: Toward a Poetics of Ignorance

See also Third of Three Proposals: Toward Reconciling a Poetics of Ignorance with a Frankenstein-like Poetics

1.0 All books of power are made from prior books of power. A few of these books are elaborate tapestries, however, most are patchwork quilts. All books are literally scrapbooks: books made from the scraps of other books.[1]

1.1 These scraps, or parts of prior books, are also the prior parts of dead peoples’ thoughts, ideas, and memories—so these book-parts are no different than the lifeless limbs of dead men and women.

1.2 A writer reassembles, reanimates the dead parts of people to make a book, therefore: any book of power is a “Frankenstein” monster, a kind of zombie text.

2.0 The doubts expressed by a writer stimulate, reanimate the parts, and quicken the book to breathe before the reader.[2]

3.0 A library is a cemetery[3]––the writer is a ghoul, a grave robber, hence the truism: “All writers steal.”


[1] Heed the words of Harold Bloom:

“Each poem is an evasion not only of another poem, but also of itself, which is to say that every poem is a misinterpretation of what it might have been.” (Anxiety of Influence. 1975. Oxford UP. p. 120.)

Bloom bestows a schematic, but Robert Graves gives writers a method:

The method may be called “analeptic mimesis”: one slowly copies out the poem by hand, as if it were a first draft of one’s own. When the pen checks at a word or a phrase, one becomes intuitively aware of laziness, doubt, stupidity, or some compromise with moral principle.

(Oxford Lectures on Poetry. 1962. Cassell. p. 4.)

 [2] As De Quincy puts it:

Now, if it be asked what is meant by communicating power, I, in my turn, would ask by what name a man would designate the case in which I should be made to feel vividly, and with a vital consciousness, emotions which ordinary life rarely or never supplies occasions for exciting, and which had previously lain unwakened, and hardly within the dawn of consciousness— as myriads of modes of feeling are at this moment in every human mind for want of a poet to organize them. I say, when these inert and sleeping forms are organized, when these possibilities are actualized, is this conscious and living possession of mine power, or what is it?

 [3] See Jonathan Swift, Battle of the Books (1704), Samuel Johnson Rambler 02 (1750).