And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 31. januar 2018

From an elegy by Nicolás Guillén

In a previous blogpost, I talked about my excitement in discovering that I could read a collection of poems by Octavio Paz in Spanish, only relying on an English translation for the odd word I did not know. Incited by this literary triumph, I decided to venture further into Latin-American poetry, and while searching for poets from Cuba I found the name Nicolás Guillén (1902-89) and found, to my delight, that there existed a dual-language edition of one of his works. The work in question is the poem "En algún sitio de la primavera: Elegía", a poem in fifteen parts that was made public shortly after Guillén's death, and edited with a facing-page translation by Keith Ellis in 1994. It was a pleasure to read this poem, and although it was more difficult than the shorter sentences in Paz' work, I felt able to enjoy it in its original language, which heightened the enjoyment significantly. In the present blogpost, I give you one of the poem's fifteen parts plus translation, taken from Ellis' edition from 1994, titled New Love Poetry and published by University of Toronto Press.

En algún sitio de la primavera: Elegía


La forma de la muerte no es una calavera.
Es tu ausencia
como una llanura calcinada.
Una llanura a sol y fuego por el día,
reverberante y sin un árbol.
Una llanura damasquinada por la Luna,
una extensión metálica
en la frialdad nocturna.

Si grito, no me oyen.
Si llamo, nadie viene.
En qué planta estoy viviendo?
Ah dios, si lo supiera!
Estoy muerto,
tendid al sol y al cielo,
un cadáber sin ojos
picoteado de pájaros.

Me oyes, me estás oyendo?
Ayer no más, el mismo,
el tuyo para siempre.

Ni aun el viento.

In Some Springtime Place: Elegy

(translated by Keith Ellis)


The form of death is not a skull.
It is your absence
like a scorched plain.
A plain burned by sun and fire by day,
shimmering and treeless.
A plain
mottled by the Moon,
a metallic expanse
in the nocturnal cold.

If I shout, they don't hear me.
If I call, nobody comes.
What planet am I living on?
Oh God, if I only knew!
I am dead,
laid out under sun and sky,
an eyeless corpse,
picked over by birds.

Do you hear me, are you hearing me?
Only yesterday, hte same,
yours forever

Not even the wind.

tirsdag 30. januar 2018

Working with liturgical manuscripts, part 6 - Penmanship practice from pages past

As mentioned in previous blogposts, I'm currently engaged in a projects researching manuscript fragments in bindings from a book collection formerly at Herlufsholm School at Næstved, and purchased by the university library of University of Southern Denmark in 1968. In these relics there are many little details that provide interesting and curious glimpses of the past lives who have at various points been engaged with these books, either with the manuscripts before they were cut up for binding, or with the books in their manuscript bindings. One such case is Jacob, presumably a young boy who studied at Herlufsholm School (founded in 1565 and treated more extensively here), who seems to have practiced his penmanship, and his Latin, in a scrap of residual vellum on the inside of the covers of one of these books.

Inside of the back cover
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA Musik L 43

The book in question is a booklet of musical notation and lyrics by various composers, and its estimated date of print is sometime in the 1580s. It is one of several collections of songs that were kept at the school. We do not, to my knowledge, know how these books were used in the the study of music, whether they were handed out to students or not, but it is clear that young Jacob did have this book in his possession for long enough - and sufficiently out of sight - for him to practice writing his name, first in Latin and then in Danish, both of which were presumably taught at Herlufsholm.

Of Jacob nothing more is known to me at least, although I am sure his name can be located in school registers, and possibly also in other books throughout the collection, serving as evidence for his efforts to write his own name correctly in two languages.

torsdag 25. januar 2018

Working with liturgical fragments, part 5 - Dead ends

As every academic will know, in any given research project, no matter how big or small, there's always a risk of seeing signs in the material that point enticingly somewhere, which in the end turn out not to go anywhere at all. Excursions or leads such as these are very rarely written about because they do not yield any positive information. After following these leads we are only able to say that this is not going anywhere. And since it is not going anywhere, the time, the energy, the mental ingenuity spent following the lead to its uttermost possible dead end rarely get accounted for. In the humanities, at least, it is only natural that these dead ends are not made part of a research report, an article or a presentation. These are only dead ends, they do not contribute to our understanding of the material we have been researching.

Most of the time I follow this practice myself: Dead ends go unrecorded, failures are not written down. Recently, however, I ended up in a dead end myself, and the realisation that the lead I had been preparing to follow would not go anywhere was a significant blow to the enthusiasm and excitement that had been building up in the past days. The realisation itself came in the wake of a very basic check of the source that I was researching, and had I had the wherewithal do so so earlier in the process I would not even have started to prepare for the journey down the dead end.

In this case, however, I had already managed to build a great deal of castles in the air from a very insubstantial amount of material, and I have decided to write this blogpost to present those thougths and explain why it was so easy to go down this road. I write this perhaps in part to vent about what amazing results could have been if reality had been different. But I also write because I think there is something of an important methodological consideration to be found in cases like these, namely that it sometimes is possible to build reasonable hypotheses on very scant material, and that this is sometimes what we as researchers have to do. In this particular case, however, I had source material that demonstrated conclusively that my ideas were wrong, but if I had not been in possession of this material I could easily have written extensively about something that would have been incorrect.

Fragment from Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, MS. 58.2
Photo by Jakob Povl Holck

The material in question was a fragment from a book cover that belongs to the collection of old books at the university library of University of Southern Denmark, Odense. This collection was purchased in 1968 from Herlufsholm School in Næstved, Sjælland, a school that was founded in 1565 by admiral Herluf Trolle (1515-65) and his wife, the noblewoman Birgitte Gøye (1511-74). After the admiral's death in the year of the school's founding, Birgitte Gøye was the overseer of the school until 1567. This school accrued an impressive library from the very beginning, a library that was amplified by donations from book collectors at different periods, and these books are now being researched by the university library in Odense. My part in this job is to examine the fragments that have been found so far.

The fragment that led med down this dead end is MS 58.2. This fragment is unforunately mostly hidden behind the cover of the fragment carrier, and all that remains visible of the manuscript fragment at this stage are the folds on either side of the front and back covers, as shown in the picture above. As these folds are not very thick, it has so far only been possible to identify three of the texts of the original manuscript.

What we know so far, however, that the fragment comes from a breviary and contains chants for the feast of Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), the founder of the Poor Clares and the sister of Saint Francis (1181/82-1226). I was very excited when it became apparent that these chants belonged to the feast of Saint Clare (August 11). In the material from the book collection that I have so far investigated, there have been very few cases where the liturgy does not belong to an old saint either from the Bible, the apocrypha, or the first Christian centuries. The reason why I was so excited about a newer saint was that a newer saint might make it possible to say something about the manuscript's provenance. The old saints were venerated throughout Christendom and could not provide any indication as to where the manuscript came from. In the case of Saint Clare, however, it became possible to make some more accurate suggestions.

It should be stated, however, that Saint Clare was also venerated widely as her cult spread quickly with the Franciscan Order and the Poor Clares, reaching Denmark in the 1230s and in 1257 respectively. Nonetheless, an office for the feast of Saint Clare would most likely have been commissioned or produced by the mendicants and it was this that opened up for the great, exciting possibility.

Fragment from Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, MS. 58.2
Photo by Jakob Povl Holck

As stated, Herlufsholm School was situated in Næstved. In this town there was also a Franciscan friary, which had been established sometime in the mid-thirteenth century and was eventually dissolved in 1532 during the Reformation, a dissolution that was chronicled in the anonymous De expulsione fratrum minorum, the thirteenth chapter of which details the dismantling of Næstved friary. In the process of the dissolution of the monasteries in Scandinavia, an immense amount of manuscript were confiscated and recycled as, for instance, book bindings. This was also the case in England and in the German counties were the Reformation was carried through, and this is, as we see, what happened with the breviary in MS. 58.2.

Since MS 58.2 was most likely a document from a Franciscan house, and since there had been a Franciscan house in the same town as the school, I quickly fell for the tantalising possibility that this fragment might originate from the Næstved friary. After all, this was a very real possibility, as discarded manuscripts were often gathered locally in Denmark, and if the fragment carrier had been printed near Næstved it would at least merit an article outlining the possibility that we were here in possession of a manuscript fragment that could reasonably be linked to Denmark. This is rarely the case for the manuscript fragments that we have investigated so far in the book collection, and if MS 58.2 could be linked to Næstved it would be possible to connect it to the wider history of medieval Denmark. I fantasised about the article I could write based on this, and I went on an ordering spree at the university library, borrowing books on the Franciscan order, the liturgy, on Denmark in the Middle Ages.

I let this fantasy stir in my head for a few days, building all kinds of wonderful imaginary roads down which my hypothesis could be pursued. It was only a few days later, however, that I realised that the manuscript fragments belonged to a book, and that the provenance of this book could easily be checked by looking at the frontispice. This I did, and it was then that all my imaginary roads and castles fell abruptly to ground, because it turned out that the book was printed in Frankfurt, and so the manuscript must have come from a nearby Franciscan friary, a long way away from the Danish context I had been hoping for.

It was a frustrating discovery, but not an unusual one in my experience with researching the Middle Ages, and it is an inevitable part of this kind of engagement with a past that comes down to us in fragments and which we often meet in lacunae and in silences. It shows how easily we can misinterpret the facts we do have, and it shows that many of our ideas of aspects of the Middle Ages are precarious and in need of constant revision, reinterpretation and rethinking.   

søndag 21. januar 2018

First reads, or Excerpts from a personal history of reading

In the learning of languages there are certain milestones that remain indelibly in your memory as great achievements signalling that a threshold in the learning process has been overcome. For my mother tongue, Norwegian, I have vivid memories of reading aloud to myself a Donald Duck story written by Carl Barks when I must have been five years old. I remember the closing panel of the comic, the room where I had placed myself in solitude, stomach on the floor, to read in peace, and I remember the feeling of triumph that followed what was my first read, the proof that from now on I had a command of my language that would open up the world of texts for me.

I've had experiences like these in every language that I have made an effort to learn (I'm here not including Swedish and Danish, as these are sufficiently close to Norwegian and have been part of my upbringing in ways that have made it easy for me to internalise them). For English, this sensation of the first read came when I laboured through Alistair MacLean's suspense novel Bear Island,  which I by that time had already read twice in Norwegian and which remains one of my favourite novels. This was at the age of fourteen, I think, and I worked my way through MacLean's beautiful but complicated prose by having two editions side-by-side on the table, one in English, the other in Norwegian. Granted, I had read coherent texts in English before this in school, but this was the first time I aimed for a text that was beyond the expected level, and that I had chosen of my own volition.

Triumphs such as these have followed in the various languages I have attempted to learn. These triumphs do not indicate fluency or completely literacy in the language in question. Rather, as they mark the threshold that divides basic knowledge from literary coherence in the learning process, these triumphs come at an early stage in the learning process itself. Also, it should be emphasised that one language might hold several first reads, as each marks a different level of difficulty. I presume these first reads are common to anyone who engages consciously in the learning of languages, and they are absolutely wonderful thresholds to pass.

I recently had one such first read in my learning of Spanish. This is a language I started learning in senior high at the age of seventeen, and which I took up again three years ago in order to become a fluent speaker. My first read in Spanish was a comic book in the series of Mortadelo y Filemón by Francisco Ibañez, and this happened on a flight back from Spain in 2015. Since then I have read more albums of Mortadelo y Filemón, and I have consciously tried to become a more advanced reader. This happened last week, when I had sat down with a bilingual edition of the collected poems of Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate. I had borrowed this edition because I was not confident in my own ability to read Spanish poetry (previous experiences had taught me that Spanish poetry can be immensely difficult). However, I was delighted to find that the reading went very smoothly, and that I only occasionally cast a glance at the English translation in order to find the meaning of words that were new to me. Much of this owes to Octavio Paz' simple syntax and clearly flowing verses where sentences often consist solely of subject and verb, or subject and adjective. In not to long, therefore, I had finished reading his poetry collection Salamandra, which has become yet another first read for me in Spanish. In celebration of that, I am here sharing one poem from this collection with you.


Pensamientos en guerra
quieren romper mi frente

Por caminos de pájaros
avanza la escritura

La mano piensa en voz alta
una palabra llama a otra

En la hoja en que escribo
van y vienen los seres que beo

El libro y el cuaderno
repliegan las alas y reposan

Ya encendieron las lámparas
la hora se abre y cierra como un lecho

Con medias rojas y cara pálida
entran tú y la noche


Warring thoughts try
to split my skull

This writing moves
through streets of birds

My hand thinks out loud
a word calls to another

On this page where I write
I see beings that come and go

The book and the notebook
unfold their wings and rest

The lamps are lit the hour
opens and closes like a bed

With red stockings and a pale face
you and the night come it
- From Salamandra, translation published in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz 1957-1987, chiefly translated by Eliot Weinberger with additional translations by Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Lysander Kemp, Denise Levertov, John Frederick Nims, Mark Strand and Charles Tomlinson. Printed by New Directions Press, 1987.

søndag 31. desember 2017

Star - a poem by Derek Walcott

I woke up this morning remebering the faint outlines of a dream whose only feature that stayed with me was an imagined reading of poetry by the late Derek Walcott, my favourite poet of any language. This dream left a yearning in me to hear his voice read poetry, and after looking for videos and recordings I came across this hauntingly beautiful reading of his poem Star, the first of his poems that I learned by heart.

Although I find this poem suitable for any time of the year, and for any year, there is something about its quietly sought-out yearning for normalcy, plainness, the ordinary, which resonates perhaps particularly strongly now at the tail end of 2017, a year that has seen so much reversal of precariously sustained progress in our constant quest for the peace of plain days that are denied the majority of us. This year, the poem also resonates particularly strongly with me because of my own trajectory that has taken me through a lot of work, great personal grief, exhaustion, and the conclusion of a three-year engagement as a PhD candidate. I look back at a year that has been filled with both sadness and personal accomplishments, and some treasured moments of intense happiness, and I long for a year that is less chaotic, that is more calm, and that does not leave me as tired and as confused as 2017.


If, in the light of things, you fade
real, yet wanly withdrawn
to our determined and appropriate
distance, like the moon left on
all night among the leaves, may
you invisibly delight this house;
O star, doubly compassionate, who came
too soon for twilight, too late
for dawn, may your pale flame
direct the worst in us
through chaos
with the passion of
plain day.

- From the poetry collection The Gulf, 1970

torsdag 28. desember 2017

Wild Swans

Early on the feast of the Holy Innocents (technically yesterday), there were two swans feeding in the lake righy by the house where my grandparents used to live. We had seen these swans, together with four others, a couple of days ago in flight up the valley where my parents live, and then again, though possibly not the same ones, at a different part of the lake shortly after that. It was a beautiful sight to see them dive for food and then float nonchalantly on the surface, defying the cold and the ice that slowly spreads in shards across the lake. It reminded me of the poem The Wild Swans at Coole, by William Butler Yeats, which I include towards the end of this blogpost.

The Wild Swans at Coole

(courtesy of this website)

The trees are in their autumn beauty, 
The woodland paths are dry, 
Under the October twilight the water 
Mirrors a still sky; 
Upon the brimming water among the stones 
Are nine-and-fifty swans. 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me 
Since I first made my count; 
I saw, before I had well finished, 
All suddenly mount 
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings 
Upon their clamorous wings. 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, 
And now my heart is sore. 
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight, 
The first time on this shore, 
The bell-beat of their wings above my head, 
Trod with a lighter tread. 

Unwearied still, lover by lover, 
They paddle in the cold 
Companionable streams or climb the air; 
Their hearts have not grown old; 
Passion or conquest, wander where they will, 
Attend upon them still. 

But now they drift on the still water, 
Mysterious, beautiful; 
Among what rushes will they build, 
By what lake's edge or pool 
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day 
To find they have flown away? 

mandag 25. desember 2017

Norwegian Christmas Ale

One of the many traditional preparations for the Christmas celebration here in Norway, is the brewing of the Christmas ale. In my family, and in families throughout my native village, this is usually started three-four days before Christmas Eve, so that the flavour settles properly in time for the main feast (which in Norway is on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day). The Christmas ale usually goes by the name "sukkerøl", sugar ale, as it is very sweet. It is brewed on a syrup made from boiled juniper twigs, which is then mixed with water that has been boiled. The mixture then cools down a bit, and then we add a malt syrup, sugar water that has boiled but cooled down, and yeast. Some also use hop instead of malt.

The ale is then kept at a certain temperature for the yeast to do its work, and it is then left overnight to ferment a bit. The purpose of the sugar ale, however, is not to make strong ale, and for that reason we stop the fermentation on the evening after we started the process, meaning that we only let it ferment for about 24 hours. We then put it on glasses and bottles, which is done by putting a plastic hose into the ale container and the ale is then tapped. This is the part where I feel most like an alchemist when brewing.

This year we ran into an unexpected problem, as my father - who is the main hand in the hole brewing process - had accidentally shortened the hose, so that we couldn't get it all the way to the floor. There needs to be a certain fall between the ale level and the bottle for the tapping to go smoothly, and this year - as can be seen below - we had to improvise. In the end, when the level had sunk from about twenty to ten litres, we were left with no other option than to pour the ale onto glasses and bottles through a funnel covered by a cloth to keep out the dregs - an option that we usually seek to avoid as it is both heavier work and less precise.

In the end, however, we were left with around twenty litres of ale. We had consciously reduced the volume a bit, because we rarely manage to drink all of if in the course of the Christmas season, not even when we give to neighbours and guests. Today being Christmas Day, I have already tasted several bottles of the ale, and I'm happy to say that we've managed to hit the right flavour this year too.

Merry Christmas!