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Here we are in the hottest months of the year—the Shepheardes Calender year that is (uh, and the real year too, I guess).  I must confess, sometimes Spenser’s 16th century political allusions and classical references (and even his religious homilies and analogies) leave me confounded and sorely vex’d.  However in July, the poetic meter suddenly takes on a chantlike quality and the allegorical meaning of the text becomes more straightforward too (and more familiar to my Protestant Appalachian roots—in attitude if not in altitude).  Morrel, a somewhat grandiloquent and pompous goatherd has called down from a mountain to Thomalin a shepherd who lives on the plains. The goatherd wants the shepherd to come up to the loftier station, but the latter wants to stay close to his roots and avoid the excesses of pride.  Also Morrel’s guileful goats are running amok, whereas Thomalin dutifully keeps his sheep together.

This straightforward (yet somewhat contrived) set-up becomes a metaphor for the contest between Protestantism and Catholicism in England–an all-too-familiar theme for Spenser’s original audience.  Thus, as we proceed through the poem, we find ourselves mired in a theological controversy which runs the entire length and breadth of England. The pastoral frolics of sheep and goats transmogrify into a sly commentary on the politicians and theology of the day.  In Dante-esque fashion Spenser combines this with classical allusions, and personal grudges.  This little poem thus represents the spiritual, the natural, the personal, and the political–all mashed together in the form of two yokels shouting at each other on a hill.

This sounds amazing and it is–but it is also couched in Spenser’s faux Middle English, and the poem contains allusions to historical personages who are no longer well-known. Thus amongst the classical deities and Biblical personages we find the peculiar figure of Algrind—a not-very-subtle anagram of Grindal–who was the bishop of London at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign.  Fortunately for us, the bishop encounters another Ferrebeekeeper theme—a mollusk, dropped upon his head by an eagle.   It is enough to give the reader brain fever…or maybe that is just July’s heat….

At any rate, without further preamble, allow me to present:

july

The Shepheardes Calender: July

 Ægloga Septima.

 A R G V M E N T.

THis Æglogue is made in the honour and commendation of good shepheardes, and to the shame and disprayse of proude and ambitious Pastours. Such as Morrell is here imagined to bee.

THOMALIN. MORREL.

Is not thilk same a Goat-herd proud,
That sits on yonder Bank;
Whose straying Herd themself doth shroud
Emong the Bushes rank?

MORREL.
What ho, thou jolly Shepherd’s Swain,
Come up the Hill to me:
Better is, than the lowly Plain,
Als for thy Flock and thee.

THOMALIN.
Ah! God shield, Man, that I should clime,
And learn to look aloft
This Read is rife, that oftentime
Great Climbers fall unsoft.
In humble Dales is footing fast,
The Trode is not so tickle;
And though one fall through heedless haste,
Yet is his Miss not mickle.
And now the Sun hath reared up
His fiery-footed Teme,
Making his way between the Cup
And golden Diademe:
The rampant Lion hunts he fast,
With Dogs of noisom Breath,
Whose baleful barking brings in haste,
Pine, Plagues, and drery Death.
Against his cruel scorching Heat,
Where thou hast Coverture,
The wasteful Hills unto his Threat
Is a plain Overture.
But if thee lust, to holden chat
With seely Shepherd’s Swain:
Come down, and learn the little what,
That Thomalin can sain.

MORREL.
Siker, thous but a lasy Loord,
And rekes much of thy Swink,
That with fond Terms, and witless Words
To blear mine Eyes dost think.
In evil hour thou henst in hond
Thus holy Hills to blame;
For sacred unto Saints they stond,
And of them han their Name.
St. Michel’s Mount who does not know,
That wards the Western Coast?
And of St. Bridget’s Bow’r I trow,
All Kent can rightly boast:
And they that con of Muses Skill,
Fain most what, that they dwell
(As Goat-herds wont) upon a Hill,
Beside a learned Well.
And wonned not the great God Pan
Upon Mount Olivet;
Feeding the blessed Flock of Dan,
Which did himself beget?

THOMALIN.
O blessed Sheep! O Shepherd great!
That bought his Flock so dear:
And them did save with bloody Sweat,
From Wolves that would them tear.

MORREL.
Beside, as holy Fathers sain,
There is a holy Place,
Where Titan riseth from the Main,
To ren his daily Race:
Upon whose Tops the Stars been staied,
And all the Sky doth lean;
There is the Cave where Phoebe laied
The Shepherd long to dream.
Whilom there used Shepherds all
To feed their Flocks at will,
Till by his Folly one did fall,
That all the rest did spill.
And sithence Shepherds been foresaid
From Places of Delight;
For-thy, I ween thou be afraid,
To clime this Hilles hight.
Of Synah an I tell thee more,
And of our Lady’s Bow’r:
But little needs to crow my Store,
Suffice this Hill of our.
Here hen the holy Faunes Recourse,
And Sylvanes haunten rathe;
Here has the salt Medway his Sourse,
Wherein the Nymphs do bathe:
The salt Medway, that trickling streams
Adown the Dales of Kent,
Till with his elder Brother Thames,
His brackish Waves be meynt.
Here grows Melampode, every where,
And Teribinth, good for Goats:
The one, my madding Kids to smear,
The next to heal their Throats.
Hereto, the Hills been nigher Heaven,
And thence the Passage eath:
As well can prove the piercing Levin,
That seldom falls beneath.

THOMALIN.
Siker thou speakest like a lewd Lorel,
Of Heaven to deemen so:
How be I am but rude and borrel,
Yet nearer ways I know.
To Kirk the nar, so God more far,
Has been an old said Saw;
And he that strives to touch a Star,
Oft stumbles at a Straw.
Alsoon may Shepherds clime to Sky,
That leads in lowly Dales;
As Goat-herd proud, that sitting high,
Upon the Mountain fails.
My seely Sheep like well below,
They need not Melampode;
For they been hale enough, I trow,
And liken their Abode.
But if they with thy Goats should yede,
They soon might be corrupted;
Or like not of the frowy Fede,
Or with the Weeds be glutted.
The Hills, where dwelled holy Saints,
I reverence and adore;
Not for themself, but for the Saints,
Which hen been dead of yore.
And now they been to Heaven forewent,
Their Good is with them go;
Their Sample only to us lent,
That als we mought do so.
Shepherds they weren of the best,
And lived in lowly Leas;
And sith their Souls be now at rest,
Why done we them Disease?
Such one he was (as I have heard
Old Algrind often sain)
That whilom was the first Shepherd;
And liv’d with little Gain:
And meek he was, as meek mought be;
Simple, as simple Sheep;
Humble, and like in each degree
The Flock which he did keep.
Often he used of his Keep
A Sacrifice to bring;
Now with a Kid, now with a Sheep,
The Altars hallowing.
So louted he unto the Lord,
Such Favour couth he find,
That never sithence was abhor’d
The simple Shepherds kind.
And such I ween the Brethren were,
That came from Canaan;
The Brethren twelve, that kept yfere
The Flocks of mighty Pan.
But nothing such thilk Shepherd was,
Whom Ida Hill did bear,
That left his Flock to fetch a Lass,
Whose Love he bought too dear:
For he was proud, that ill was paid,
(No such mought Shepherds be)
And with leud Lust was over-laid;
Tway things doen ill agree.
But Shepherds mought be meek and mild,
Well eyed, as Argus was,
With fleshly Follies undefil’d,
And stout as Steed of Brass.
Sike one (said Algrind) Moses was,
That saw his Maker’s Face,
His Face more clear than crystal Glass,
And spake to him in place.
This had a Brother (his Name I know)
The first of all his Coat:
A Shepherd true, yet not so true,
As he that earst I hote.
Whilom all these were low, and leef,
And lov’d their Flocks to feed,
They never stroven to be chief,
And simple was their Weed.
But now (thanked be God therefore)
The World is well amend:
Their Weeds been not so nightly wore,
Such Simpless mought them shend.
They been yclad in Purple and Pall,
So hath their God them blist;
They reign and rulen over all,
And lord it as they list:
Ygirt with Belts of Glitter and Gold,
(Mought they good Shepherds been)
Their Pan their Sheep to them has sold,
I say, as some have seen.
For Palinode (if thou him ken)
Yode late on Pilgrimage
To Rome (if such be Rome) and then
He saw thilk Misusage.
For Shepherds (said he) there doen lead,
As Lords done otherwhere;
Their Sheep han Crusts, and they the Bread;
The Chips, and they the Chear:
They han the Fleece, and eke the Flesh,
(O seely Sheep the while!)
The Corn is theirs, let others thresh,
Their Hands they may not file.
They han great Store, and thrifty Flocks,
Great Friends, and feeble Foes:
What need hem caren for their Flocks,
Their Boys can look to those?
These Wizards welter in Wealth’s Waves,
Pamper’d in Pleasures deep;
They han fat Kerns and leany Knaves,
Their fasting flocks to keep.
Sike mister Men been all misgone,
They heapen Hills of Wrath:
Sike sirly Shepherds hen we none,
They keepen all the Path.

MORREL.
Here is a great deal of good Matter,
Lost for lack of telling:
Now siker I see thou dost but clatter,
Harm may come of melling.
Thou meddlest more than shall have thank
To witen Shepherd’s Wealth:
When Folk been fat, and Riches rank,
It is a Sign of Health.
But say me, what is Algrind, he
That is so oft bynempt?

THOMALIN.
He is a Shepherd great in Gree,
But hath been long ypent:
One day he sate upon a Hill,
(As now thou wouldest me,
But I am taught by Algrind’s Ill,
To love the low degree)
For sitting so with bared Scalp,
An Eagle soared high,
That weening his white Heat was Chalk,
A Shell-Fish down let fly.
She ween’d the Shell-Fish to have broke,
But therewith bruis’d his Brain:
So now astonied with the Stroke,
He lies in lingring Pain.

MORREL.
Ah! good Algrind, his Hap was ill,
But shall be better in time:
Now farewel, Shepherd, sith this Hill
Thou hast such doubt to clime.

PALINODE’S EMBLEM.
In medio Virtus.

MORREL’S EMBLEM.
In summo Felicitas.

nicholas

In myth and in legend there are those who rise from the dead.  Most of these entities are forsaken monsters and vampires who dwell in darkness and unending hunger.  This past Halloween, we visited some of these undead creatures (namely lamiae, draugar, and hopping vampires).  However, not all of the undead are ghouls or fiends: a few of the entities that shook off the prison of mortality are transcendent beings—saints, saviors, benefactors, & gods.

In the third century AD, Nikolaos of Myra was born in the city of Patara, which is now Turkey but was, at the time, a long-standing part of the Eastern Roman empire.  His parents were wealthy Greeks who died of a plague when he was a small child. Little Nikolaos had no brothers or sisters, but his uncle was the bishop of Patara, and the bishop took in the orphan.  Nikolaos proved to be a devout and ardent Christian.  Under his uncle’s tutelage, he quickly rose through the church ranks, first being tonsured as a reader, then ordained as a priest, and finally consecrated as bishop of Myra, a port town in Asia Minor (in fact, some sources claim he was elected as bishop before being raised to the priesthood–a very rare career leap).

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas

In 325 AD Emperor Constantine the great, “the thirteenth apostle”, convened all members of the episcopacy from across Christendom to attend the Council of Nicaea.  The Christian church in the early fourth century was being torn apart by competing ideas about the fundamental nature of divinity.  Followers of the theologian Athanasius believed that the son was begotten by the Heavenly Father from His own divine essence.  Followers of the popular presbyter Arius believed that Jesus was created from nothing—as were animals, spirits, and humans.  The church aristocracy convened to decide which of these opinions was dogma and which was heresy (and to settle certain other central affairs and credos of the universal Christian church).

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Bishop Nikolaos was not one for learned theological argument.  Early in the counsel he stormed up to Arius and slapped (or maybe “punched”) him in the face—and Nikolaos was promptly expelled from the proceedings.  After weeks and weeks of harrowing canonical debate, the church fathers decided exactly the same thing as Nikolaos.  Arius was excommunicated and his ideas were found to be heretical. The Arians either changed their opinions or went into exile.  Nikolaos became a folk hero for his rash actions which seemed to take on the quality of foresight considering how the counsel ended.

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

Nikolaos returned to Myra as a famous figure, but he was troubled by the great temple to Artemis which was there.  Myra was sacred to Artemis and her temple in the town was reputed to be the most stunningly beautiful and magnificent construction in the entire part of the world.  Nikolaos used his newfound influence to have the structure destroyed and to forcibly convert the remaining pantheists into belief in his one stern god.

The Death of Nikolaos

The Death of Nikolaos

He died as a revered figure in 343 AD.  Symeon the Metaphrast movingly describes the death of Nikolaos in the following florid manner:

Now after he had long lived in this manner, renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace. When he came to the very advance age, full of days both heavenly and earthly, he need must comply with the common law of nature, as is man’s lot. He was ill but a short time. In the grip of that illness, while rendering those lauds and thanksgivings to God which are said in death, he happily yielded up his spirit [for while he desired to remain in the flesh, Nicholas equally desired to be unyoked from it]. He left this brief and transitory life to cross over to that blessed everlasting life where he rejoices with the angels while more clearly and openly contemplating the light of Truth. But his previous body, borne by the holy hands of bishops and all the clergy with torches and with lights, was rested in the crypt which is at Myra.

Such is the story of the life of Nikolaos of Myra, orphan, acolyte, then orthodox churchman.  But for Nikolaos, life was only the beginning.  After death Nikolaos, or “Nicholas” to use the Anglicization of his Greek name came back stranger and stronger. His shadowy figure appeared throughout the land and stories began to circulate of miracles and transfigurations performed by the Saint.  His post-life supernatural journey would take him across thousands of years and see him transformed from being a (dead) ascetic bishop in the Levant into one of the most beloved religious figures in all of the world.  Tune in tomorrow for part two of the strange odyssey of Saint Nicholas, the symbol of generosity, compassion, and Christmastime.

The Tomb of Nikolaos

The Tomb of Nikolaos

One of life’s disappointments is the dearth of fine art concerning outer space.  Outer space is vast beyond imagining: it contains everything known. Indeed, we live in space (albeit on a little blue planet hurtling around an obscure yellow star)–but cosmic wonders do not seem to have called out to the greatest artists of the past as much as religious or earthly subjects. There are of course many commercial illustrations featuring the elements of science fiction: starships, ringed planets, exploding suns, and tentacled aliens (all of which I like) and there are also didactic scientific illustrations, which attempt to show binary stars, ring galaxies, quasars and other celestial subjects.  Yet only rarely does a fine artist turn his eyes towards the heavens, and it is even less frequent that such a work captures the magnificence and enormity of astronomy.

Fortunately the Dutch artist MC Escher was such an artist.  His space-themed engravings utilize religious, architectural, and biological elements in order to give a sense of scale and mystery.  The familiar architecture and subjects are transcended and eclipsed by the enormity of the cosmic subjects.  Here are two of his woodcuts which directly concern outer space.

The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) (M.C. Escher, 1935, wood engraving)

The first print is a wood engraving entitled The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) shows a fallen bishop stretched on a catafalque as a huge otherworldly praying mantis stands on his chest (the whole work is a sort of pun on the mantis’ taxonomical name Mantis religiosa “the religious mantis”.  The buildings arround the bishop and the bug are dissipating to reveal the wonders of the night sky. The bishop’s world of religious mysteries and social control are vanishing in the face of his death.  Greater mysteries are coming to life and beckoning the anxious viewer.

Another World (M. C. Escher, 1947, colored woodcut)

The colored woodcut “Other World” shows a simurgh standing above, below and in front of the viewer in a spatially impossible gazebo on an alien world.  The simurgh is a mythical animal from ancient Persian literature and art which combines human and avian elements.  Sufi mystics sometimes utilize the simurgh as a metaphor for the unknowable nature of divinity.  Yet here the simurgh is dwarfed by the craters beneath him and by the planetary rings filling up the sky above.  A strange horn hangs above, below, and to the side of the viewer.  Perhaps it is a shofar from ancient Judea or a cornucopia from the great goat Amalthea.  Whatever the case, the viewer has become unfixed in mathematical space and is simultaneously looking at the world from many different vantage points.  A galaxy hangs in the sky above as a reminder of the viewer’s insignificance.

Above all it is Escher’s manipulation of spatial constructs within his art that makes the viewer realize the mathematical mysteries which we are daily enmeshed in.  The multidimensional geometric oddities rendered by Escher’s steady hand in two dimensions characterize a universe which contains both order and mystery.  Giant bugs and bird/human hybrids are only symbols of our quest to learn the underpinnings of the firmament. Escher’s art is one of the few places where science and art go together hand in hand as partners. This synthesis gives a lasting greatness to his artwork, which are undiminished by popularity and mass reproduction.

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