Sunday, November 28, 2010

Six Jesuits (one dead) and Me

A few weeks ago I wrote an essay on Gerard M. Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland, a sharply-wrought, uncomfortable, ecstatic poem. Hopkins had given up poetry when he joined the Jesuits, until he read of the sinking of the Deutschland in 1875, which so affected him that it wrenched open his cellar doors and propelled this beautiful monster out:

THOU mastering me
God! Giver of breath and bread
World’s strand, sway of the sea

going on to create the most radical poem of the nineteenth century. Hopkins was a student at Balliol, and I sneaked around on the internet and discovered that his juvenilia, fragments and devotional writings are housed in Campion Hall, the Jesuit Private Permanent Hall. (A PPH is not one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford). So I wrote to ask if I could take a look at them. The Bodleian, fairly, refused my request to see the mature poems.

Father Philip Endean kindly agreed to let me come to take a look, so I skived off the Decadent Victorian Gothic lectures I so look forward to with the wild-haired purple-vested Dr. Methven, and took a trip down St. Aldate’s.

Campion Hall is tucked on Brewer Street past Dorothy Sayers’ birthplace and the Christ Church Cathedral School, with rich and simple wood-paneled interiors and devotional sculptures on every way. The library is not nearly as ornate as our HMC Tate library with all of its stained-glass and smugly sitting James Martineau, but it is gravely snug, very wooden and cozy, wall to wall books (as libraries should be). Father Endean - a tall, kind and hasty man, with black button eyes and eyebrows that tend towards raised-ness - and I were joined by one, then two, three, four Jesuits. Three were students, and one a very distinguished-looking older gentleman who I thought must be a classicist. Spot the odd one out: the Protestant female in a circle of Catholic priests-to-be in this sanctum of celibacy. (What would Hopkins have said had he known how close my profane fingers were to be to his private writings?)

Father Endean started by opening an early school notebook, an intricate drawing of the battleship positions from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian war, with all the Greek and Persian ships geometrically aligned and perfectly labeled. Hopkins clearly had a mania for order and specificity (very evident in his choice of poetic language). His handwriting is miniscule, and as he is comfortable slipping into Latin, Greek and French, he demonstrates his good education. His ‘d’s’ look like lower-case deltas. In his early journal and notebook, both bound volumes each about the size of a fist, his handwriting shrinks to the microscopic.

“Even a moderately competent priest would have known to burn these,” Father Philip tut-tutted, handling Hopkins’ miniature notebook of confessional prompts. He cheerfully confessed he would have. “Though they’re for Anglican confession, so I suppose it doesn’t count.” (laughing.)

We were shown Hopkins’ sketchbook, his sermons, his personal notes on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and a draft of his vow. Father Endean left the room to collect another manuscript, and, the vow being in Latin, all Jesuits began to read it, debating the true definition of one or another of the words, ordination practices etc. When I asked awkwardly if anyone would be willing to share a translation or paraphrase, the distinguished classicist kindly jumped forward and began to translate on the spot this beautiful and moving vow for the priesthood. It was a moment to remember: the dry and locked-up words of a man long dead suddenly revived into the closeted air of that rich library.

Father Endean came back and nervously stood behind the desk, watching our nearness to the manuscript, and eventually “Fingers, Father, fingers!” When the reader paused to consider the wording of the last few stanzas, Father Endean could supply them from memory, as he is editing these manuscripts for publication.

In the last notebook we were shown, a compendium of notes, marks (for the university students in Dublin he taught in his later, most miserable years), and comments, we found an early draft of his poem 'Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves' and read in quiet admiration:

Disremembering, disremembering all now. Heart you round me right
With: Our evening is over us; our night whelms, whelms, and will end us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I've just received an email to say that the Bodleian library has been closed. There have been increased student demonstrations and riots across Britain in the last few days - the first in Oxford were two weeks ago - protesting the budget cuts in university education (tuition will double within the next few years). There have been student activists inside the Rad Cam all last night. This is no Paris yet, but we'll see how it breaks down.

When I stood outside the Rad Cam in the freezing afternoon air, the police were pacing back and forth, the student newspapers were crowding in for pictures ("And get someone to ask the police how much money it's costing to keep them here all night..." in a suitably journalese voice), and everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen.

Meanwhile, I've heard from a few irate third-years protesting the means of protesters, displeased to lose time on their Final Honours papers. What are the protesters doing inside, one wonders? Apparently (citing Facebook) they are videoing themselves having dance parties on the desks of the Lower Rad Cam. Activism at its finest.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sound & (non)Sense

Last December when I had my phone interview for Oxford, the British accents from the three academics on the other end of the line – so far away in this magical, unreal city that rained books and fellowships – the contrasts between their voices (which seemed to me like the poshest of posh Oxbridge accents) and the voices I heard every day in the bookstore (on the bus, on the streets, in my apartment) made the event even more surreal and unnerving.

It was only after weathering the first few days here that my ear began to pick up the nuances. My tutor now had an unmistakeably Scottish coloring in his voice.
The system is far more developed than I (should have) realized. I have very little idea what makes a Newcastle accent different from a Nottingham accent (if there is a difference). The different shades of Londonish don’t tell me who is from Croydon and who is from Hampstead (again, if there is a difference, and I think there is). I can tell the difference between Irish and Scot (thanks in part to my friend G and that academy award winning film Leap Year and Matthew Goode’s ‘Trow it in the wash an that’ll be grand’), but can’t articulate the difference between Brummie (Birmingham dialect) and Scouse (Liverpool). To carry on the Harry Potter references, I’ve been told that Hagrid is not North England, as I anticipated, but very likely some version of Somerset (or summer-sayt).

Today in Dr. Helen Barr’s lecture on reading verse (or perhaps, as she said, sounding verse), she mentioned the Leeds-born poet Tony Harrison, who is a example of someone with a bifurcated tongue: who grew up in a particular social environment, but was well-educated. As a result, Harris had to speak two languages, and writes about and within this peculiar form of dislocation. He intentionality uses rhyme to subvert – in his poem 'Book Ends', his rhymes privilege the North English accent and ‘lock’, as Dr. Barr said, the privileged tongues out.

Of course there is the typical Oxford rah. I went to attend a history society at Christ Church at the beginning of term, and – big surprise, no conforming to stereotypes here – I have never seen such a collection of peacockish old fogeys in my life. The tweed blazars, beardless faces and heavy-rimmed glasses (all carefully stylized to look Auden-and-Larkin-esque) have not been seen in such profusion since 1968. If you thought the Oxbridge accent was satirical it’s not. “Oh you,” said someone in a starched shirt as I was swept from my conversational partner, “I simply have someone I must introduce to you.”

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I thought working in a bookshop made me a panicked reader. I brought my favorite books with me in the hope that a life devoted to reading - at least for the next three years - would allow me to more engage with the writers I hoped to enjoy and be educated by. Instead (big surprise) this rollercoaster of non-stop reading is rather (strangely enough) course related. This term I have dedicated myself to those funny people the Victorians. Aside from (or maybe in light of) their quirks, their categorization, their love of the miniature, their strange hobbies and anxieties, their advances and retreats, their observations and wrecks - I have found the Victorians to be an intriguing bunch. But as my tutor says, I must be warned not to lump them all into a big pot. The nineteenth century was a complex age, and just as the modern era, social attitudes changed throughout the century in small oscillations and wide leaps. Though tempted, one cannot summarize and say 'The Victorians were like this' (re: Foucault's writing on the Victorian approach to sexuality).

My weekly essays are largely self-determined. Each Friday at nine, when I go to my tutorial I am given the option of choosing the next week's study. So far it's been Browning, George Eliot, the sensation fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and now Trollope. I thought I should (as they say) curl up in bed with a Trollope, and so I picked The Way We Live Now. The last page was numbered close to 500 so I thought I could accomplish it despite its deceiving girth. Once I started reading it I realised that it was in two volumes and, in actuality, runs near to 1000 pages. I have only myself to blame. All week I sank into it. And now - now that it is over - I'd like to look around and read more Joscipovici or Geoffrey Hill or Bolano, all of which are in a pile by my bedside lamp and fill me with desire. Instead, I realize that it's not over. It's never over. There's the contextual information, the secondary sources, the essays and journal articles.

Even going down to the JCR for a coffee break to read the arts sections of the Guardian and the Times is overwhelming - there's simply no time to read all of this. It's a sad day when one has one of these What's-the-point?-I-forget-everything-I-read-I'm-just-a-needle-in-a-haystack-of-books kind of days. The only solution? More coffee, and the inevitable grim return to the stack on the writing desk.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Seasons of Mist

In the last two days the temperatures have dropped to around or below freezing, and we’re suddenly puffing frosted breaths. This sudden chill is accompanied by a mist that has hung low over Oxford yesterday and today. It is not uncommon, I suppose, for mist in the morning, but yesterday the mist stayed until two in the afternoon, when it lifted for a sudden shout of blue sky, and then descended heavily two hours later. The same happened today. I made sure to get up earlier this morning and document the mist.

Here's Arlosh Quad in the morning:

En route to the square:

The Rad Cam, looking entirely fake.

The High.

The mist in conjunction with our Friday lectures on decadent Victorian Gothic and Jack the Ripper most recently has caused speculation as to which familiar face will soon loom out of the mist in a heavy coat, collar turned up, knife in hand. I have a few theories.

(Anna and Gerard on Holywell.)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

If you need a bit more Oxford in your life (let's face it, who doesn't?), check out this wonderful blog: Oxford Daily Photo. I'm a horrible wuss when it comes to stepping up and taking photos of things - it makes me feel conspicuous - and am so grateful the little things are being recorded.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


I posted about Harold Pinter’s Old Times a few weeks ago – I was over-the-moon when in a lecture on Tuesday on reading drama at the end of the class the lecturer asked three students onto the stage, where they read the first ten minutes of the play culminating in Anna’s monologue about London. The first read-through was done with a dominating man, a passive woman, and an ecstatic Anna; the second time was done with an anxiously affectionate husband, a laughing wife, and a dominating, deeply knowing Anna. I struggle to control my facial expressions when watching any acting (film or theatre), so I have no doubt I looked like a slaw-jawed child at Chuck-E-Cheese.

Theatre is becoming an increasing interest of mine; it’s something that’s popped up inexplicably with more and more frequency. It all started with the Tom Stoppard rash earlier this year. I saw Michael Gambon in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape on Saturday night (see photo; more later), and I’m thinking of doing a paper on Beckett in Trinity (spring) term. I’ve been reviewing plays for the Oxford Theatre Review, which is an online review (free plays, sign me up!) and saw Sir Arnold Wesker read two weeks ago. And the famous South African playwright Athol Fugard spoke in Oxford this evening as the Humanitas Professor of Theatre (more later) with the playwrights Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Her Naked Skin). And – I may be starting a theatre company with two ladies, depending on whether the play we’d like to put on next term gets selected for the Burton-Taylor theatre to stage. It’s all so sudden.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Remember, remember

On bonfire night it rained. It started to spit when Anna and I went to buy jumpers to keep us warm for the evening around the fire (they wouldn’t keep out the wet). A large group of people were excited about the venture to the Isis tavern in Iffley: a long walk into the wooded area, along the river, and then the pub with its bonfire, sparklers, mulled wine, and live music. It was spitting as we left (umbrellas and raincoats on). The rain increased. We were soaked. I like being wet or dirty when it’s an outing or a story to tell later so I was quite happy by the dampness, the wet feet, the plastered hair, the wind, the splashing buses, the grim gargoyles gurgling above us, everything. It was like captaining a ship in a fine gale: a brisk trot headed south for the river, all in shipshape and thoroughly soaked.

On the Magdalen Bridge half of our number went back. Yes, they abandoned the drenched woods, the lit river, and the bonfire on the fifth of November for another evening at the college bar. Because it was raining. (I’m revoking their English cards.) Onward six intrepid travelers down the Iffley road, through quiet streets, interrupted by bangs! from sporadic hardcore fireworks enthusiasts. The clouds were so low that they reflected the city lights into the water – a clouded surface on which the ducks swam happily, uncaring of the hour or the wet weather. A puddled path. The smell of wood?

The rain was coming down so hard at this point that a bonfire – the main draw – could not be depended upon. But we got to the Isis, and surely enough there was a bonfire - a pile of large embers superficially flaming, but a bonfire nevertheless. The inside was horrendously packed (visitors sadly misunderstanding the queue system) and the mulled wine ran out three times, but eventually we had our drinks and stood under the marquee and around the fire, dripping, sizzling, sparklers in hand, and victorious. Later, in the room where the music was playing, listening to some man sing Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights in falsetto (video here for the uninitiated, like me), knowing we’d have to go back outside into the unstopping rain, not knowing how much like an eel I looked (as Inman says in Cold Mountain: Ah’m wetter than a feesh. I cain’t get much wetter), happiness.

(Picture actually of Isis from the other side of the Thames. We were round the back)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Song for a Saturday Night

Joni: I drew a map of Canada, Oh Canada, with your face sketched on it twice

After midnight on a bus, whispers from a couple in the fourth row sharing seats. Dark fields, sheep gathered in, no winding road, lonely twinned streetlamps suddenly go. Legs aching like all the rest, strangers asleep with wide open mouths. Drenched in guitars, the sound of deserted bars.

Joni: Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine, taste so bitter, bitter and so sweet -

Thursday, November 4, 2010

For all those cat people

I have to share this wonderful poem, which I was given in a lecture today. I'm not naturally a cat person, but living with two cats has won me over. This is a part of a poem called Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart, a man who wrote it while incarcerated in Bedlam for insanity (or what we would call a mental breakdown). Without further ado:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.

This last line is the best ever.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Hallows

To those tempted to think that classical music is a dull, afternoon affair with sentimental violins beloved by old women with tea cozies – listen to Mozart’s Requiem. For a mass on behalf of the dead, for all its frequent pleas to rest in peace, this Requiem is a seething, tense, and dramatic exploration of the distance from the bowels of hell to the heights of the sublime. This is gut-wrenching music; music that moves you physically. Indulging in Mozart lore, one can imagine the composer scribbling furiously as the grim reaper approaches with his calling card; Mozart tossed into a pauper’s grave without the reception of his masterpiece.

The Commemoration of All Souls Requiem Eucharist at Merton College Chapel began with the Introit and Kyrie as the ministers processed in. It’s a piece that stacks up the intensity, beginning with the winds, adding strings, then the basses, tenors, altos and sopranos until what began as a whistle has become a vibrating mass of sound. The ministers entered the nave at the opening heights and the censer swung in step with the moving bass, the incense ascending with the sopranos, the timpani entering with a roll. This is high drama.

I sang the Mozart Requiem five years ago and its surprising how little of it disappears. The choice Latin phrases spring up “solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybilla…” and the gyrating eighth notes that appear and disappear in each voice part, twisting around each other in urgent counterpoint; the quick breaths - it’s a sport. And this is what happens when you’re commanded to bounce around to your seat to the subdivisions by your conductor – years later you can’t help bouncing around in your seat surrounded by strangers who wonder if you suffer from a twitching disease.

I’ve heard the Requiem performed several times, but never listened to it as a part of a service. It was organic the way the music wove in and out of the service proper. The congregation sat in dark wooden pews facing each other, eyes to the colorfully tiled floor, or up to the painted wooden ceiling with clumsy angels and scriptural figures, all the cold stonework at the altar softened by candlelight. Elegant men with canes and famous chins; scholarship recipients identifiable by their proudly-worn full-sleeved gowns; token autumn coughing attacks; ten minutes of hearing the names of the dead recited; and free wine afterward.