On the Summer Solstice

With today being the summer solstice, my thoughts naturally turned to . . . William Dunbar’s “A Meditation in Winter.” Why wouldn’t they? Thanks to my brain chemistry, the longest day of the year–about fourteen and a half hours where I live–should be, if not my happiest, at least my least miserable. That doesn’t bode well. This fact, along with my having written about Dunbar recently, reminded me of the poem.

In “A Meditation in Winter,” Dunbar appears to describe what today we call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or winter depression. With SAD, many think, the lack of sunlight causes a decrease in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that improves one’s mood. Thus, the less serotonin, the more depression.

Dunbar’s poem begins with “dirk and drublie dayis” (dark and murky days) and “mystie vapouris, cluddis, and skyis” (misty vapors, clouds, and skies), a recipe for depression for many people. Nothing, even “sangis, ballattis, and . . . playis” (songs, poems, and plays), can cheer him up. He connects this feeling with winter’s short days, mentioning that “the nycht dois lenthin hours” (the night does lengthen [in] hours).

Despair, the first of several personified concepts, tries to motivate him by warning him of the “trouble and mischeif” he will experience if he doesn’t pull himself together. Patience and Prudence try to reassure him, but Old Age ominously offers his hand and reminds him that he “hes compt to mak” (has a reckoning to make) of the “tyme [he] spendit heir” (time he spent here), presumably on earth. On cue, Death opens his “gettis wyd” (gates wide)  and reminds him of his–and everyone’s–ultimate destination.

Nothing–not even “gold in kist, nor wyne in cowp,/ No ladeis bewtie nor luiffis blys” (gold in chest, nor wine in cup, nor ladies’ beauty, nor love’s bliss”–can stop him from thinking about death. Fortunately, as time passes, the “nycht begynnis to schort” (night begins to shorten) and his “spreit” (spirit) finds comfort. The poem ends on an optimistic note: “Cum, lustie Symmer, with this flowris, / That I may leif in sum disport” (Come, joyful Summer, with your flowers, / So that I may live in some enjoyment).

“Joyful Summer” is here indeed. Just as the long nights of winter pass to make way for the long summer days, though, eventually summer will pass, and we’ll find ourselves in winter again. Let’s enjoy the summer while it’s here.



What a Headache!

After I narrowly avoided a migraine this evening, my thoughts naturally turned to Scottish poet William Dunbar. Dunbar, who wrote during the reign of James IV (1473-1513), was a prolific poet whose works include “On His Heid-Ake.”

Dunbar begins by explaining that “yester nicht” (last night) his “heid did yak” (head ached) to the extent that he could not “mak” (create [poetry]) the next day. (NB: I am putting aside the question of authorial intent and following the apparent convention of assuming that in this case, the speaker is the poet.) More specifically, he states that the headache was a migraine. It feels like it is “perseing [his] brow as ony ganyie” (piercing his eye like an arrow,” and he “scant” can “luik” at “the licht” (can hardly look at the light), feelings that a modern day migraine sufferer also may experience. He tries to write, but he has trouble; he is “unsleipit” (sleep-deprived) and “dullit in dulnes and distres” (made dull by heaviness and distress). He is deprived of his “curage” (spirit), which cannot be revived even by “mirth . . . menstrallie . . .  play, / . . . din . . . danceing [or] deray [disorder].”

Of course, in the course of explaining why he is unable to write a poem, he writes a poem, demonstrating that  what seems to hold one back can actually motivate one to proceed in an unanticipated direction. After all, without the migraine Dunbar still could have written a poem, but it would not have been the one he ended up writing.


Thanks to The Dictionary of the Scots Language for help with a few of the Middle Scots words.


My Hero

It’s been over a month since the 1145th anniversary of his coronation, but Alfred the Great is on my mind. It’s probably because my semester has just ended, and I’ve been reflecting on the past school year. I welcome any wisdom that can help me reflect, and where better to look for wisdom than in the rule of King Alfred?

Alfred the Great, born in 849 and crowned King of Wessex in 871, is known for many things, including uniting the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms,  defending them against the Vikings, improving the navy, and issuing a legal code, as well as promoting education and the use of English. Although the Vita Alfredi (Life of Alfred), written by the Welsh monk Asser, is surely not unbiased–Alfred had invited him, and other men of the Church, to help him in advancing his own education, and they benefited from their positions–surely it possesses grains of truth or, at the very least, reflects Alfred’s values.

According to Asser, Alfred possessed a “sapientiae desiderium” (“desire for wisdom”*), particularly in the “liberalem . . . artem” (“liberal artes”**). His mother, Osburh, encouraged his love of learning when she showed a book to Alfred and his brothers and promised it to whichever son could memorize it first. Alfred, the youngest, won. Years later, he passed down this tradition of learning by providing teachers for his own children and “omnibus pene totius regionis nobilibus infantibus et etiam multis ignobilibus” (“all the noble children in the entire region, and also many common ones”). Making education available to “common” children anticipates much later movements toward universal education.

The young Anglo-Saxon students “utriusque linguae libri, Latinae scilicet et Saxonicae” (“read books in both languages, namely Latin and Saxon [English]”). Alfred was painfully aware of how important both Latin and English were. Although he had read English from a young age, Latin came only later and with the help of “magistros” (“experts”) from “ultra mare” (“beyond the sea”)–whom he rewarded with “magna potestate” (“great power”)–as well as, ultimately, “divino instinctu” (“divine inspiration”).

He knew that he was not alone in his ignorance of Latin. In the preface to his translation of Pope Gregory’s Regula Pastoralis (Pastoral Rule, known more commonly as Pastoral Care), he famously wrote, “S clæne heo wæs oðfeallenu on Angelcynne ðæt swiðe feawa wæron       behionan Humbre ðe ðiora ðeninga cuðen understondan on Englisc, oððe furðum an ærendgewrit of Lædene on Englisc areccean; ond ic wene ðætte noht monige begiondan Humbre næren” (“So thoroughly had it [learning] declined in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services in English, or even translate a written letter from Latin to English; and I think that there were not many beyond the Humber”***). After this demonstration of England’s state of educational disrepair, Alfred points out the dangers of an educational and religious system that relies on a little-known language to transmit knowledge and enjoins the reader to  

“[g]eðenc hwelc witu us ða becomon for ðisse worulde, ða ða we hit nohwæðer ne selfe ne lufodon ne eac oðrum monnum ne lefdon” (“remember that punishment then befell us in this world, when we neither loved it [learning] ourselves nor passed it down to other men”). The “punishment” to which Alfred refers is undoubtedly the Viking attacks in which “hit eall forhergod wære ond forbærned” (“it all was ravaged and burned”) and before which “ða ciricean giond eall Angelcynn stodon maðma ond boca gefylda” (“the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books”). Alfred points out that people had received “lytle fiorme (“little benefit”) from those books, though, because the books “næron on hiora agen geðiode awritene” (“were not written in their own language”). The suggestion is, of course, that the inability to read and the ignorance it fostered were responsible for decades of suffering at the Vikings’ hands.

Although today most would not blame the Viking invasions on God’s anger at the state of education in Anglo-Saxon England, we can still admire Alfred’s prescience and intellect. His life and career reveal that learning was no less important than–and inexorably connected to–other aspects of kingship and citizenship, including military savvy and prowess. This lesson, certainly, is as valuable today as it was in the ninth century.


* The Latin is from The Latin Library’s “Asserius: Life of Alfred.” The translations are mine. My Latin was never good, and now it’s beyond rusty. If you see any errors, please point them out gently.

** These are not the liberal arts as we know them today. An explanation will be the subject of a future post.

***The Old English is from the University of Calgary’s King Alfred’s Preface to His Translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.” The translations are mine. My Old English is better than my Latin, but if you do see any errors, please (again) point them out gently.

All Hail!

SPOILER ALERT (even if you’ve read and / or seen the play)

I had been anticipating the US wide(r) release of Justin Kurzel‘s Macbeth from the minute I saw the first trailer, and my excitement only increased once I saw the second trailer. Having just finished reading the play with four classes, and having taught it for twelve of the fourteen years I’ve taught high school, I spent much of my viewing time noticing what was kept, changed, and cut in the translation from page to screen. (Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, of course, were wonderful.) I intend, therefore, to see it again, this time with (presumably) a different set of eyes.


Rather than risk turning this entry into some sort of source study, I shall focus on the movie’s end. In this version, rather than decapitating Macbeth offstage and returning with the dead king’s head, Macduff stabs him onscreen and abandons the corpse on the battlefield. In a departure from the play, Fleance–Banquo’s son, who escaped the men Macbeth hired to murder him and his father–returns, takes Macbeth’s sword, and runs off with it.

Kurzel’s version is not the first to have added a scene to the end of the play. Roman Polanski, for one, did so to great effect. Polanski’s film ends with  Donalbain–the younger son of the murdered King Duncan–visiting the witches who arguably had set in motion the series of events leading Macbeth to regicide, the Scottish throne, and so on. Thus, the cycle of violence continues, presumably ad infinitum . Such a dark interpretation is not surprising, of course, given the fact that Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, had been murdered by members of the Manson family only a year before Polanski directed Macbeth.

This latest Macbeth, then, seems to impart a different, and much more hopeful, message. Upon Fleance’s return, at least few of us expected (hoped?) the young man would use Macbeth’s sword to perform the decapitation we had been expecting. The subversion of this (as I maintain) reasonable expectation points to an alternative to Macbeth’s violence, another option for Scotland and thus for all humanity.

Whose perspective–Polanski’s or Kurzel’s–is more accurate remains to be seen. What do you think?

Oh, the Humanities!

(Many thanks to The Big Bang Theory for providing me with this entry’s title.)

I recently found myself, as I often do, defending the role of the humanities in public secondary education. (I will not discuss the context of this defense, but please trust that my words were relevant and heartfelt.) In the past when I’ve done such a thing I’ve been asked, “What do you mean when you talk about ‘humanities’?” I’ve wanted to answer, “The same thing that any educated person means when she uses that word,” but instead I explained what the humanities are: areas of study such as literature, history, philosophy, and religion that shed light on the human condition.

The humanities are part of the liberal arts, which also include art, natural and social science, and math. The word “liberal” is used in the original sense of “free”—meaning, in ancient Greece, the subjects appropriate for a free person, subjects that would help him participate in politics and society. In ancient Rome, the liberal arts consisted of the Quadrivium—arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music—and the Trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

I (and I’m not the only one) worry that many people see secondary schools as well as colleges and universities as places of vocational training only. According to these folks, the purpose of education is to prepare people for jobs, not to teach them to think for themselves about the world around them. Therefore, it follows that schools should focus on STEM skills, and history and language arts departments exist to serve the study of science, technology, engineering, and math.

The thing is that many CEOs and other successful business people disagree with these claims, as is evident here and here and here. They want employees who can think and who can communicate and who can entertain multiple perspectives.

Lest I seem to value the humanities to the extent that they serve the market, let me that this is not the only (or even the main) reason they should play a larger role in education. I agree with Stanley Fish and David Brooks when they say that the humanities are valuable in and of themselves.

Sadly, it is those who are diminishing the role of the humanities who need them the most.

Published in: on June 1, 2015 at 10:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

To See or Not to See . . . What Those Words Mean

The other day, I went to the mall, and as I was passing Forever 21, I had to stop. In the window was a shirt with Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy printed on it. I stopped not because the typeface was difficult to read, although it was, but because I was confused as to why someone chose to put that particular speech on a cheap piece of clothing. The obvious answer, of course, is “to make money,” but that answer raises the question of why the designer thought these words would do the trick:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–

No more–and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–

To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. There’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprise of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.

To be clear: Hamlet is contemplating suicide. This internal conflict manifests itself in the soliloquy’s very first line; Hamlet must determine whether he’ll continue “to be” or decide instead “not to be.” He really couldn’t be any clearer. Should he “suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or “take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them”? The “sleep of death,” he says, would “end / The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to.” He notes, however, that “in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.” After all, he figures, there must be a reason people “bear the whips and scorns of time, / Th’oppressor’s wrong,” and so on, when they could simply end it all instead. It must be “the dread of something after death,” he says, that “makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of.” In other words, it’s either the devil we know or the devil we don’t, and Hamlet chooses the devil he knows.

To recap: Hamlet is contemplating suicide, and the only thing that prevents him from committing it is the fear that whatever world comes after death will be even worse than this one.

Why would anyone want to wear that sentiment emblazoned across her torso?

I mentioned my soliloquy sighting to my two classes who read Hamlet earlier this semester. They were as appalled as I and explained that people might wear such a shirt so that others would think they were smart. (For the record, these students are not elitists by any means, unless they’ve been hiding it extremely well.) Maybe I should be happy that people want to be perceived as smart or educated, although I’d rather they want actually to be smart or educated.

A step in the right direction may be seeking to understand words instead of simply flaunting them.

Published in: on May 1, 2015 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

ældo undereotone

Being “iced out” of work for four days has led me to think of “The Ruin,” an Old English poem written in the eighth century. It appears in the Exeter Book which also contains, among other works, “The Wanderer” (a personal favorite) and “The Seafarer.” Much of the poem has been lost due to a fire, but it remains poignant. It describes the ruins of a city–possibly Bath–and ponders the transient nature of the works of our hands and, by association, ourselves. This week’s ice reminded me of this passage:


Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

hrimgeat berofen hrim on lime

scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene,

ældo undereotone.


Roofs are collapsed, towers in ruins,

The frosty gate destroyed, ice on mortar

Chipped off, torn, crumbled,

Undercut by old age.         (Translation mine.)


Not a cheerful image, but not one without value.

Published in: on February 14, 2014 at 5:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , ,

My students are working on a poetry project, and I will do one, too. Each students chose a poet, but no two students could choose the same poet. They are doing some background research, finding three poems that they, like, and then finding criticism on one. They will then create presentations, which they will share with the class.

I have chosen William Dunbar, a fifteenth century Scottish poet. For some reason, I had been thinking about his “Lament for the Makaris,” and the refrain, “Timor mortis conturbat me,” has been stuck in my head. (A “makar” is a poet, and “Timor mortis conturbat me” means “The fear of death disturbs me” and comes from the Catholic Office of the Dead.) For my three poems, I will probably choose “Lament for the Makaris,” “Meditatioun in Wyntir” (“A Meditation in Winter”) and “On His Heid-Ake” (On His Headache”). I’m not sure what my presentation will entail. I’d love to do a video in a cemetery, but I’d have to work out the logistics. If I do it, I’ll post it here. I am also, of course, open to any suggestions.


Published in: on February 11, 2014 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Trailing. . . .

Today I saw Catching Fire with my family. The movie was great, but the trailers were . . . not. Apparently a Justin Bieber movie is coming out. I had an issue with it, but that’s a story for another time. Another as-yet unreleased film is I, Frankenstein. I had several problems with that trailer. First of all, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, “Frankenstein” is the name of the man who created the creature–not the creature itself. I thought that was common knowledge. Also, in Shelley’s novel, the creature is huge (despite having been made from the parts of average-sized men) and hideous with yellow skin. The creature (I cannot call him “Frankenstein”) does not fit that description. That’s not the end of it, though. At the end of the book, the creature self immolates, making his reappearance centuries later problematic, to say the least. Of course, I allow for the possibility that the movie addresses all of these issues, but that possibility did not prevent me from getting a headache.

Published in: on November 30, 2013 at 3:38 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

My Brush with Allen Ginsberg

My visit to City Lights Bookstore reminded me of my encounter–or almost-encounter–with Allen Ginsberg. I was in college, and my boyfriend at the time and his friend and I ventured into the city to see a punk show. As usual, we–the only people who could get lost, repeatedly, in Manhattan–were late when we found the venue. We weren’t even sure it was the venue. When we entered, we saw not a band but an old guy sitting on a stool, reading Beat poetry. Good English major that I was, I said, “Hey, that old guy reading Beat poetry looks like Allen Ginsberg.” It didn’t occur to me that is was Mr. Ginsberg until he finished and the “emcee” mentioned his name. I stood in disbelief as the guys tried to convince me to speak to him, if only for a minute. They said I should introduce myself to him but, alas, I chickened out.

It turned out that we were in the right place. Years later I found out that Mr. Ginsberg sometimes read at punk shows, giving us at least two common interests: poetry and music. He was probably very nice; maybe we would have talked for more than a minute. Maybe we would have exchanged addresses. Maybe . . . but I’ll never know. I was shy and intimidated, probably for no reason, and I missed an opportunity I would never have again. Mr. Ginsberg passed away a few years later, and although I don’t remember any of that night’s music, I’ll never forget the really cool encounter that wasn’t.


Published in: on July 30, 2011 at 2:28 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,