The Song of Roland

(La Chanson de Roland)

anonymous (Turold?)

late 11th century

(The mightiest and noblest of Charlemagne’s crusading knights is betrayed, but his companions stand fiercely by him as the Saracens attack.)

BattleOfRoncevaux Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778). Sir Roland’s death. From a fourteenth century illuminated manuscript, that can be found at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (Library of the Arsenal), a department of the National Library of France.

The year is 778.  The brave knight Roland and his army, led by eleven of the noblest warriors in Christendom, watch in horror as an army five times larger than their own approaches through the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. Roland’s friend Oliver urges him to call for Charlemagne’s aid with his famed olifant horn.  Roland will not.  He will trust to God, to France, and to his sword Durendal.  He shouts a rallying speech to his men– this is their day to shine.  They banish fear and meet the Saracens. This is an anthem of a book—a mighty, direct, vibrant punch of a poem. It is simple, stylized, yet well balanced; powerful, but not without subtlety. It is short, as epics go– slim and to the point, forget the historical backgrounds and love stories.  This is the earliest surviving and the best of its genre—the “Songs of Deeds”, or Chansons de geste, of medieval French literature, of which there were hundreds. In style, in its portrayal of the values of chivalry, in its composition, and in its spirit it is the supreme knightly adventure poem.

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Apology of Socrates

(Απολογια  Σωκρατους)

Plato

4th century BC

(An innocent man delivers an inspiring speech to the court before he is executed.)

David_DeathOfSocratesJacques Louis David’s neoclassical masterpiece The Death of Socrates (1787), which can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Socrates is a bit of a mystery, if you insist on being a real evidentiary hardliner.  He wrote nothing himself, so we have to rely on others’ characterizations of him.  Xenophon paints him as the conventional wise man of the day.  Aristophanes deems his philosophizing empty and ridiculous.  Plato’s conception, the fullest and most detailed, is of a man worthy of admiration, even awe, both for his intellect and his noble spirit.  Plato’s Socrates seeks truth despite fashion or convention; he is imaginative, reverent, humble, perceptive, eloquent, and sharp as a razor.  I’ll go with Plato, not just because his picture is most complimentary, but because Xenophon’s is simplistic (in fact it suggests that Xenophon—with all due respect—knew Socrates only casually, but wished to write as though he knew him well); and Aristophanes did nothing more than exploit a famous name, attaching it to a caricature for effect.  In fact there were many philosophers in Athens who were very much like those “Sophists” Aristophanes pillories in his play The Clouds.  Socrates was the most famous philosopher around at the time, and he certainly would have associated and debated with the general run of them.  His was probably a household name, to be thrown about as representative of the lot of lounging jabberers even though– to one who actually listened to him– he towered above the rest.

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“The Judgment”

(“Das Urteil”)

Franz Kafka

1912

(After treating a needy friend superficially for years, Georg finally pays the price.)

CharlesBridge_PaulCookCrop of Charles Bridge (2009), by Paul Cook.  Charles Bridge (Karlův most) lies over the Vitava River in Kafka’s hometown of Prague.

 

This is an existentialist horror tale about a man Georg who treats a distant friend superficially, then pays for this crime with his life.  The distant friend is sick, poor and unmarried.  Georg cannot think of what to say to him, so he writes only trivial things.  He offers no advice or heartfelt consolation.  He conceals his own prosperity and even (for a while) his own engagement.  His father, meanwhile, behind his back, has been revealing the truth about Georg to the friend, and has been lying in wait for Georg to raise the situation in conversation.  When Georg finally does broach the subject, his father condemns him as a betrayer of his friend and a selfish cold-hearted bum, and orders him to drown himself.  As elderly as the father is, he is stronger of will than his son, who feels himself urged out of the room and to a nearby bridge.  Georg flings himself to his death.

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Lyrical Ballads, and other early poems

William Wordsworth

1785-1799

(A poetic sage takes lessons on goodness and beauty from nature.)

WilliamHavellTinternAbbeyCrop of Tintern Abbey (1804), by William Havell.  Hikers laze above the abbey in the Wye Valley, just as Wordsworth did with his sister before composing his most famous poem.  This painting is at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford.

 

A man of wisdom, a poet of nature, is Wordsworth.  These are the goals to which he aspires, goals that are discernable in his work from a very early age.  He wrote many of his greatest poems in the years covered here, before he reached 30.  Wisdom, or more specifically a yearning for and contemplation of goodness and beauty, suffuses his poetry.  Thus he is keen to deliver moral advice, and almost seems to teach or prophesy rather than reflect.  But it is the deepest and most profitable kind of reflection, I can almost hear him replying, whose results teach the reflector something.  And since he insists in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads that he writes each poem with a purpose, and with the intent of delivering objective truths rather than ideas that one may take or leave as a matter of preference, we must prepare for a slight didactic or pedagogical flavor now and then.  For Wordsworth, though firmly against elitism in poetry, is aware of his own wisdom, and is driven to share it with others.  The topics range from attitudes towards people (as in “Matthew”), to attitudes towards nature (as in “Lines Written in Early Spring”), to a straightforward exhortation to be good (as in “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”).  He imparts his values on social matters as well, regarding for instance the evil of slavery (at the end of “Descriptive Sketches”), the necessity of legislated charity (at the beginning of “The Old Cumberland Beggar”), and thoughts on education (e.g. “Expostulation and Reply”).

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Pearl

The West Midlands Poet

14th century

(A father struggles to recover faith and peace after losing his baby daughter.)

 PearlIllustration2Illustration of the vision of the narrator of the Pearl poem, from its only manuscript: Cotton Nero A.x.  Courtesy of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project at the University of Calgary

 

Diversity of structure is one of the wonders of poetry.  Today’s poets often celebrate freedom from structure, which has its own beauty.  The medieval mind cherished a different kind of beauty, one that is neither extinct nor obsolete today, just overlooked.  It is the elegant euphony of placing what one wishes to convey into a strict, unifying framework.  Rather than delivering a point casually or even haphazardly as we may do in everyday life, the medieval poet would conform ideas to a predetermined scheme of alliteration, rhyme, stress, mid-line breaks (caesurae), and a multilevel organization of lines into stanzas and groups of stanzas, interconnected by strands of repetition.  Surely it is a handicap to expression—but this is part of its charm!  The skill required to create a meaningful poem that has a detailed or complicated structure is so great that its demands separate the geniuses from the dabblers.  Modern poetic sensibilities may balk at this comment, but in this age where much art and poetry is still very polarized into distinct “high” and “low” forms, I think these sensibilities are a little hypocritical.  It seems in fashion today both to create art that only a fraction of society can understand, and at the same time to repudiate notions of hierarchy, including hierarchy of understanding, wherever they appear.  Generally the medieval mind, cultivated within the feudal economic and political system and a strongly hierarchical Church, was more candid about social stratification.  Medievals did not tend to preach egalitarianism except under God, which would be realized only in another world.  This perspective characterized their art as well as society.  Thus, I would argue that the structured medieval poem’s handicap to expression is in itself, aside from its resulting euphony or atmosphere, a badge of excellence.

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