Thursday, July 31, 2008

Someone liked Dark Knight...

Status on Facebook today: "[Meredith's friend] thinks that Thomas Aquinus should make Christian Bale the sixth way."

It's better than the Ontological Argument, anyway... uh oh, I hope St. Thomas will save me from St Anselm.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Not one, but two instances of Dr. Who and liturgical robots.

On HWTN:" recent Vatican news, Pope Benedict XVI ended speculation about Cardinal Arinze's replacement, announcing the new head of the Congregation for Divine Worship was an invincible Dalek warrior from the planet Skaro. Benedict explained this move would mark the beginning of a new era of decisiveness. When asked his opinion on the future of ICEL, the extraterrestrial prelate responded, 'Exterminate! Exterminate!' Commentators cautioned at reading too much into this statement, considering that is about the only thing Daleks say, until, when questioned about the USCCB, the new prefect responded 'Ineffable! Infeffable!'

And then at Chaucer's blog:

But wait, I heard a rumor that Thomas Usk didn’t actually die, but instead was saved at the last minute by Dr. Hwaet and his beloved companion Wat Tyler? They replaced Usk with a robot that looked like a person but could really only walk and recite basic liturgical formulae.

This CDW robot must be the real deal!

Monday, July 28, 2008

My latest ripoff...

This is the first stanza of Johann Moser's "Winter in Panchavati," which is itself inspired by the Ramayana (a great epic which I have never read):

"Lordly, these forests in the winter, o Rama,
And the Godavari, droning in its deep mountain gorges;
Lordly, these sun-bright uplands and arch-blue skies
And red jungle blossoms nodding in the breeze;
Lordly, all these tranquil days and starlit, frosty nights,
When by the warm brazier we blend the fragrant wine -
And we remembered you, Ayodhya, gracious city of flowers,
Gracious city of the jeweled hills beyond the mountains;
We longed to stand once more at the threshold of your glory."

This stanza has no rhyme and its rhythms are irregular. But the next two stanzas repeat the first stanza's form, placing triple adjectives and formulas and names of cities in the same places. I was struck by this way of giving form to verse, and I tried imitating it last Christmas... but I ran out of interest and put the poem aside until today, when I finally filled in three missing lines. I had made the form harder for myself by adding rhyme, and the poem became very hard to control. The matter of the poem is the Lent and Easter I spent in Rome. ("Morning stations," i.e. the station churches, were the best penance I have ever done because I hate getting up early but once you get to the church, it is wonderful.)

Roman April

Daybreak: the aquaduct pours light, o Roma,
   Bare-headed dawn in the metro waits, lonely and shy.
Daybreak: the streets are empty for archangelic hours,
   And the dark domes rise in rank on the tide of wonder.
Daybreak: everlasting fountains flash like bells
   When we take our morning stations, armed with our youth.
And we remembered you, Zion, quiet city of sunrise,
   Quiet city of perfect waters and white courtyards;
We longed to wake in the sweetness of your gaze.

Afternoon: the slow discordant chime, o Roma,
   And the long walk home, under a silver sky.
Afternoon: the Appian Way walled with antique flowers,
   And the heavy heat come to a head of rose-red thunder.
Afternoon: our fear of judgment wells
   When we feel the April tempest's gleaming tooth.
And we remembered you, Zion, fearful city of lightnings,
   Fearful city of victorious beauty and everything in an instant;
We longed to walk in the triumph of your praise.

Midnight: the Paschal fire shines, o Roma,
  The shades of night are holy where they lie.
Midnight: now awake in every tower
  The bells are dancing over Egypt's plunder.
Midnight: water falls from brazen shells
   When we sing the new-born lambs in their field of truth.
And we remembered you, Zion, espoused city of glory,
   Espoused city of singing gates and gardens of dancers;
We longed to live in the wedlock of your ways.

I like the first stanza best, but as it progressed the poem came to feel rather gushy. I don't think that this kind of complexity is very profitable, and I still prefer complex chiming and other stuff that happens within one line to overarching schemes that aren't readily apparent to the ear. Thoughts?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Exiles and the real Hopkins

Today I caught up with InsideCatholic's discussion of Exiles, which went on for thirteen pages and included Ron Hansen's own comments at the end! Having read the whole thing, I have decided to write a more specific review of the novel than I planned. It will be from my perspective as a student of Hopkins.

I have been in love with Hopkins' poetry since I was 15, and I managed to write a Classics thesis on his Latin poetry. So naturally I ordered Exiles before it was even published. I wasn't sure what to expect, but as I read, I began to understand that Exiles is a novelized biography, not quite a novel. Hansen imposed some very strict limits on his invention, which he summarizes here:
Tackling the subject, various boundaries and limits were ethically imposed. I would never be at variance with the history, insofar as I could determine it. I sought to give life and personality to Gerard M. Hopkins, S.J., while avoiding the harmful and presumptuous conclusion that I had figured him out, which is something I cannot claim for either my family or friends.
This is admirable. There are so many people who love to fill in the blanks in Hopkins' biography with homosexual crushes on the one hand and the dark night of the soul on the other, things which no one really knows and probably never will. Hansen succeeds as a biographer in areas where Norman White and Robert Martin fall short. He refuses to interpret what is ambiguous and unsaid, but he takes the known events of Hopkins' life and discerns an order to them where other biographies find a dull and disorderly progression of largely wasted years, crowned by a meaningless death. Hansen uses the story of the five nuns on the Deutschland to bring out the hidden shape of Hopkins' life.

And yet... this wasn't the only road he could have taken. He could have fashioned a character called "Hopkins" who would fit within the limits of the primary sources, and yet be created from all the imaginative resources at a novelist's command. Just as there is the real Virgil, so mysterious with his reticent biography, and then the "Virgil" of Dante or Hermann Broch - so Ron Hansen could have created his own Hopkins and represented a fascinating inner life, from the inside. In some ways he can't help doing this already. "Why pray?" asks Hopkins when asked why he is writing a poem that he thinks few will want to read. These are not Hopkins' own words. And then there is Hopkins' imagined last confession, where he confesses shutting off the grace of poetic inspiration. Both of these invented scenes reconcile prayer and poetry to a degree which the real Hopkins probably didn't. It's difficult to call them "inaccurate," but they do go a little beyond the explicit facts. In an interview on NPR, Hansen was asked how he reconciles his own belief that writing can be a form of prayer with Hopkins' conflicting and conflicted beliefs on the matter. His answer: "I think Hopkins was wrong." And he says that he thinks Hopkins came to see that he had been wrong... but there it is, an interpretation based on the author's desires. I don't think that this is a bad thing. But it hints at a different kind of novel, a more novelistic novel, and one that I would actually rather read. (Though as I said, Exiles is a good way to learn about Hopkins' life.)

But who in their right mind would feel able to write something like "The Death of Virgil" about Hopkins? The problem for anyone who would write a novel about Hopkins is that he is "Hopkins noster." He is one of those people who can go from historical character to beloved friend and guide once you make his acquaintance. I think of him still as Father Hopkins. And as attractive as a more interior novel about Hopkins would be to me, I think that I would be overcome by shyness and protectiveness, just as I would if someone wrote such a novel about one of my friends. And so Exiles succeeds as a biography. It is the best introduction to Hopkins' life for someone who has been dazzled or bewildered by his poetry, while knowing relatively little about him. Hansen says that he wrote the book with a non-Catholic audience in mind, and non-Catholics have given it some of the most positive reviews I've read.

I actually read Exiles at the worst possible time: just a few weeks after I had turned in my senior thesis on Hopkins. Hansen explains the style of his book like this: "[F]or those familiar with Hopkins, I scattered lines from his poetry, letters, and journals throughout the book as a sort of treasure hunt, while hoping that my own prose would provide the gingerbread base for his candies." These scattered lines are indeed as pervasive as gumdrops on a gingerbread house. And I was too familiar with Hopkins, having immersed myself (and nearly capsized myself like the Deutschland) in the same sources that Hansen consulted. It was too much. I could see every borrowing with my research-crazed x-ray vision. My knowledge of these "scattered lines" suggested some fascinating possibilities, though. The landscapes that Hopkins sees are described in his own words - but so are the landscapes that the nuns see. Sister Henrica writes a poem of her own for Mother Superior, and it's dreadful, treacly stuff - but later Hansen puts one of Hopkins' aesthetic judgments in her mouth:
Under each curl [of wave] shone a bright juice of beautiful green. Sister Barbara asked Sister Henrica how she would describe that color, and she gave it thorough consideration before saying, "Chrysoprase."
Sister Norberta scowled. "What on earth is that?"
Sister Henrica gently told her, "A mineral used for gems. The green of leeks mixed with gold."
Even though Sister Henrica is no poet, she sees exactly what Hopkins sees. Why? This is just one of the many subtle mysteries of Exiles, which are also the mysteries of our still triumphantly mysterious Hopkins.

Learn More:

NPR interview (via America)

Image interview with Paul Mariani, Catholic Hopkins scholar and friend of Ron Hansen whose biography of Hopkins will be published this October.

Reviews of Exiles:

A tortured Victorian and his art, reimagined (

God's cold, dark waters (Los Angeles Times)

A novel reason for rapture (Washington Post)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Latin in Lexington!

I'm leaving for Kentucky tomorrow morning for UK's Conventiculum Latinum. I'll be speaking nothing but Latin for a whole week.

Last month I was a counselor for Christendom's first Latin Immersion week. Thirty high school students were willing to spend a week of their summer at a little Catholic college, learning to speak Latin. They made a huge amount of progress - at the end of the week we went to DC, and they were chattering in Latin on the metro. (This got us a few confused looks.) Then they celebrated by having a toga party back on campus and mobbing the little convenience store up the road to buy ice cream. The cashier decided that they were speaking Spanish. I'm excited about going to one of these events as just a student, and I hope to get some direction from it as well as a whole lot of Latin. Valete in proximum!