“My words trickle down, from a wound that I have no intention to heal…”

When the earthquake shook the National Cathedral on August 23, this bat-like beastie was damaged by falling stone. He clearly isn’t thinking straight; jilted, he may yet lose his head.


rote & firmly formal,
first among the versed, we
spake no revolt, spelt our
spensings sans offenses.
dare we spect how dear my
dignant lord rewards me?
knife-stook bashes neck, &
never! I vow [bowing].

The broke-necked gargoyle on August 26, shot from the parking lot with a zoom lens…

…and photographed intact last summer from the observation deck:

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)

“Look, a golden-winged ship is passing my way…”

Few cathedrals never know an earthquake. Most, like Lincoln, survive, with spires left unreplaced; others, like the cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, wearily face demolition after one earthquake too many. Tuesday’s quake gave Washington National Cathedral its first real rattle, knocking spires off the central tower, cracking buttresses, raining rubble onto the south transept steps, damaging a gargoyle, and probably causing damage yet unknown.

The rueful consolation of architectural history, both medieval and modern, is that it certainly could have been worse. In A.D. 1248, a busy year for crusading, church-state sparring, and all the usual duecento brouhaha, an earthquake hit England. Tallying up the year’s events in his Chronica Majora, the prolific monk Matthew Parris recorded the damage done to Wells Cathedral, around 20 miles southwest of Bath.

Here’s the original, for you Latinists:

Eodemque anno in Adventu Domini, scilicet quarto die ante Natale Domini, factus [est] terraemotus in Angia, ita ut, prout haec scribenti enarravit episcopus Bathoniensis, quia in ejus diocesi evenit, dissipatae sunt maceriae aedificorum, et lapides de locus suis avulsi in muris hiatus fecerunt patulos et rimas cum ruinis. Tholus quoque lapideus magnae quantitatis et ponderis, qui per diligentiam caementariorum in summitate ecclesiae de Velles ponebatur, raptus de loco suo, non sine dampno super ecclesiam cecedit; et cum ab alto rueret, tumultum reddens horribilem, audientibus timorem incussit non minimum. In quo etiam terrae motu hoc accidit mirabile; caminorum, propugnaculorum, et columpnarum capitella et summitates motae sunt, bases vero et fundamenta nequaquam, cum contrarium naturaliter debuit evenire. Et ille terraemotus tertius fuit, qui in triennio citra Alpes evenit; unus in partibus Sabaudiae, et duo in Anglia, quod ab initio mundi est inauditum, et ideo terribilius.

And here’s a quick translation:

That same year, during the Advent of the Lord, specifically on the fourth day before the Nativity of the Lord, there was an earthquake in England in which—as the bishop of Bath, in whose diocese it occurred, told this writer—the walls of buildings burst, and stones torn from their places left holes and cracks in ruined walls. The vaulted roof of the cathedral of Wells, set in place atop the summit through the diligence of masons and made of stones of great number and weight, was torn from its place, not without damage. It fell on the church, collapsing from on high and making a terrible crash that struck not a little fear in those who heard it.

During this earthquake, a wonder occurred: The peaks and summits of chimneys, ramparts, and pillars were dislodged, but the bases and foundations were not, although naturally, the contrary should have occurred.

This earthquake was also the third in three years to occur on the near side of the Alps, one in Savoy and two in England, a thing unheard of since the beginning of the world and thus that much more terrible.

Wells Cathedral survived, but its architectural future wasn’t placid. In the early 14th century, just a few decades after the earthquake, a new central tower cracked and seemed ready to collapse until a mason named William Joy invented a solution: scissor arches.

For nearly five years, I’ve written blog posts about the National Cathedral, finding Charlemagne’s heirs in the Bishop’s Garden (and butterfly amour there too) while taking autumn snapshots, looking into bloomin’ Arthuriana, admiring the spires draped in whimsical light, and tracing the building’s architectural kinship with a facade across the street. Then, of course, there are those nearly 40 poems about the gargoyles.

If you’ve enjoyed any of this stuff, please consider making a donation to help fix my favorite medievalist neighbor. The repairs are expected to cost millions, and structural engineers are “daunted by the idea of finding a way to repair such massive pieces so high up.” I suspect that like William Joy before them, these modern architects and masons will find ingenious solutions, but their work won’t be covered by insurance, so please drop a coin or two in the collection plate; you’ll be helping to restore a monument to the enduring influence of the Middle Ages. And if you’re feeling cheeky, you might insist that a gargoyle sent you.

“All around the world, statues crumble for me…”

Contrary to CNN’s breathless claims an hour ago, today’s earthquake did not cause gargoyles to fall off the National Cathedral. However, the spires on the main tower sustained some damage. In the photo below, note the blunted spire on the left and the cockeyed one on the right; the building lost at least three pinnacles.

I spotted what may have been a section of broken stained glass, some rubble on the stairs where part of a spire reportedly fell, at least one other missing piece of ornamental stonework, and cathedral administrators anxiously surveying the foundation for signs of more serious damage.

The yellow-tape perimeter grew larger between 2 and 4 p.m., but the gargoyles all seem to be intact, which isn’t surprising; there’s at least as much unseen stone anchoring each one to the building as there is sticking out of the side.

Those of us for whom the cathedral is indispensable hope that the damage doesn’t extend beyond what we can see.

UPDATE, 10:55 p.m.: The Atlantic Wire has photos of damage at the higher levels and inside the cathedral.

UPDATE #2, AUGUST 24, 2011: The cathedral has a website devoted to earthquake damage; they’re soliciting funds to help with repairs.

“Catch the mist, catch the myth…”

Mark Twain was beguiled by medieval minds. Most Americans remember his satiric use of medieval spolia in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain returned to the Middle Ages with telling regularity. He celebrated the jubilee of Queen Victoria by writing in the voice of a noble at a 1415 Agincourt victory parade, and he considered Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc his favorite of his own books. Like many late 19th-century Americans, even non-Catholics, Twain was obsessed with the French saint, finding “no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character” and calling her “easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”

Later, Twain taught his children medieval English history by linking pictures to pathways in his yard, and he even journeyed to Bayreuth, where his only mild appreciation of Wagner’s Tannhauser and Parsifal made him feel “like a heretic in heaven,” even as he declared the pilgrimage “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”

As Twain knocked around Europe, he sometimes grumbled when the Middle Ages intruded on his vision of a more rational world. In Switzerland, after hearing a tale about a skeleton who testified in a medieval trial, he spat that it spoke of “a time so remote, so far back toward the beginning of original idiocy, that the difference between a bench of judges and a basket of vegetables was as yet so slight that we may say with all confidence that it didn’t really exist.” Still, even Sam Clemens, hostile to notions of nobility, could get swept up in the romanticism of Europe’s medieval past, provided it stayed on the far side of the Atlantic.

I pondered Twain’s medievalism last week while passing through Baton Rouge, a city he knew from his riverboat days. In Chapter 40 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain revisits the city, alive with magnolia blossoms: “For we were in the absolute South now—no modifications, no compromises, no half-way measures.” Like Twain, I found “a tropical sun overhead and a tropical swelter in the air,” and one of his more memorable rants still hanging in the August haze:

And at this point, also, begins the pilot’s paradise: a wide river hence to New Orleans, abundance of water from shore to shore, and no bars, snags, sawyers, or wrecks in his road.

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances.

The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it.

It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[. . .]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

* * *

That’s Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, designed in a “castellated Gothic” style by New York-born James Harrison Dakin in 1847 and open for business (albeit 400 percent over-budget) by 1850. The designer of several neo-Gothic churches and college buildings, Dakin hated the idea of another derivative neoclassical statehouse and opted for a Capitol with “a decided distinctive, classic, and commanding character.”

Since the Civil War, the Old State Capitol, occupied and almost accidentally burned down by Union troops, has been stuck in a cycle of abandonment, decay, destruction, renovation, and rebirth. Although Twain recalled a “whitewashed castle,” Louisianans who picked up Life on the Mississippi between 1883 and 1902 knew a bolder folly, painted red and festooned with iron turrets that even I find excessive.

The people of Louisiana appear to have adored the Old State Capitol, but one political giant shared Twain’s hatred of the place: Huey Long. As governor, Long left the building’s fire insurance unrenewed, believing—perhaps hoping—that “it was about to fall down, and there was nothing left to patch,” according to Carol K. Haase. “He said there wasn’t another building in the whole country that was such a disgrace and that he wouldn’t pay twenty-five dollars for the whole thing.”

By 1932, a new capitol, an art-deco skyscraper, loomed over Baton Rouge. Twain would have been pleased. Infuriated by the stubborn Southern medievalism exemplified by plantation owners’ obsession with the works of Sir Walter Scott—more on that in a future post!—he wanted to see Americans spell out their culture in a homegrown, progressive idiom, shorn of courtiers and kings. After sighting the emperor’s daughter-in-law in Bavaria in 1891, Twain found her beautiful, kind, and humane, which troubled him all the more. “There are many kinds of princesses,” he sighed, “but this kind is the most harmful of all, for wherever they go they reconcile people to monarchy and set back the clock of progress.”

Browsing Life on the Mississippi and The Complete Essays in recent days, I’ve been impressed by the breadth of Twain’s knowledge and insistent rationality—but I’m also struck by also by how badly he misjudged the grip of medievalism on the American mind. Even as Twain mocked, in that same chapter of Life on the Mississippi, an advertisement for a Tennessee finishing school that played up its “resemblance to the old castles of song and story, with its towers, turreted walls, and ivy-mantled porches,” the United States was on the verge of a 40-year “collegiate Gothic” building binge that makes Twain seem far from prescient about his era and the culture of the century since. Were Twain to hear my four-year-old niece swooning over the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, he’d be despondent. “It’s like a real castle, where princesses live,” she gushed to an amazed friend. “I wish I could go back tomorrow. I wish I lived there.”

Like many Americans, Twain wandered the medieval world of his own imagination; it’s both humanizing and absurd that he thought he could write new lives for saints and kings without stirring the waves of medievalism that ceaselessly lap at American shores. His ambivalence also shows that you don’t need to like the Middle Ages to be a medievalist, as long as you fancy yourself that rare, rational aesthete who can thrill to monarchical pageantry without endorsing monarchies themselves. “One can enjoy a rainbow,” Twain claimed, suppressing a romantic twinge, “without necessarily forgetting the forces that made it.”

“A place where nobody dared to go…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

In 2005, fifteen years after penning the fifth Vesper Holly book, Lloyd Alexander concluded the series with The Xanadu Adventure. Vesper’s first-generation fans were grown by then, many with kids of their own, but Alexander gave them a book that respects their maturity—a book that, like the 2002 novel The Rope Trick, is friendly to children but feels written for wistful adults.

Although fifteen years passed in the real world, Alexander starts The Xanadu Adventure just months after The Philadelphia Adventure. It’s still 1876, and our narrator, Professor Brinton Garrett, remains vexed by a cloying houseguest, the rambunctious young scholar he nicknames “The Weed.” Readers of the Vesper Holly books long ago learned not to trust their well-meaning but stuffy narrator, but Alexander implies far more than familiar humor when “Brinnie” fails to apprehend the way 20-year-old Vesper beams at the boy.

At first, no crisis drives The Xanadu Adventure. The whole gang—Vesper, The Weed, Brinton Garrett, and the professor’s wife, Mary—sail to the Mediterranean to indulge their various interests: Minoan inscriptions, Etruscan history, sightseeing in Turkey and Greece. Unsurprisingly, the Rasputin of this series, Dr. Desmond Helvetius, resurfaces, undiminished in his ruthlessness. As one of Vesper’s new friends, a Romanian archaeologist, exclaims: “He assaulted me! With a violence I thought existed only in the realms of higher education.”

Although Helvetius isn’t a substantive character even after six books, his schemes grow ever funnier. From his newly constructed Xanadu in Asia Minor, he plots to usurp the Ottoman Empire and monopolize the world petroleum supply to build a terrible new explosive, the humbly named “Helvolene.” He’s also keen to discredit Heinrich Schliemann‘s claim to unearthing “Troy”—and, in his most dastardly plan of all, he intends to sit down and compose a proper ending to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” (“I could not allow this to pass unchallenged,” insists Brinnie Garrett, outraged.)

Throughout The Xanadu Adventure, Alexander foregrounds this sort of eye-twinkling wit. As our heroes escape Xanadu through an air duct, Brinnie and Vesper share what could be their final moments. Their exchange is the banter of dear friends:

“Dear girl,” I said, as Vesper prepared for her turn, “should aught go amiss, if we are doomed to fail, one day we all shall meet in a brighter, happier place.”

“Philadelphia?” she said.

Alexander wrote only one more novel after The Xanadu Adventure, and this final Vesper Holly book, with its wistful dedication—”for adventurers, home at last”—is steeped with a pensive sense of endings. Without spoiling the book, I’ll say only that at 81, Alexander lends a very convincing voice to an aging narrator who helplessly watches his beloved ward become an adult and move on with her life.

The Xanadu Adventure abounds with references to classical literature and Shakespeare that promise a celebratory, comic ending, but misleadingly; this is still, in part, a novel about aging by an old man who survived war and mourned the loss of loved ones. One Amazon reviewer gripes that at the end of this book, Vesper Holly’s life suddenly moves at breakneck speed, without discussion or reflection, but perhaps that’s how the world seemed to an elderly Lloyd Alexander. I suspect he came back to the Vesper Holly series not only to conclude it, but also to point out that genuine endings are bittersweet in ways that children may yet comprehend.

“…’til the whippoorwill of freedom zapped me right between the eyes…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

From 1986 to 1990, Lloyd Alexander published five Vesper Holly novels. While he clearly loved writing these slender adventures about an absurdly brilliant teenage polymath from 1870s Philadelphia, the third and fourth books fell back too easily on the formula established in the first, with an infallible heroine battling her nemesis in a world without any true danger. Fortunately, in the fifth book, The Philadelphia Adventure, Alexander tweaks the premise: Instead of sending Vesper and her guardian abroad to unravel the plots of the evil Dr. Helvetius, he sees fit to lure the villain to Vesper’s—and his own—hometown. 

“For these past few years, Miss Vesper Holly has adventured in imaginary places that seem real,” Alexander writes in an author’s note. “Now she adventures in a real place that seems imaginary, even fantastic.” With its cutthroat sailors, irritable Quakers, and disgruntled Civil War vets, Philadelphia is a worthy setting for a Vesper Holly adventure, even if Alexander embellishes his beloved city. Recalling his childhood perceptions of the Philadelphia suburbs, he turns Aronimink into an impenetrable wilderness, Kellytown into a pirate haven, and his own Drexel Hill into a jungle:

[By] late afternoon, we plunged into the harsh embrace of the Drexel Hills.

Our majestic Alleghenies may surpass the Drexel Hills in altitude, but not in spitefulness. For that, they can only be compared to the ghastly Haggar Mountains of Jedera. Most of the Haggar is bleakly devoid of life. In the Drexel Hills, there is entirely too much of it, mainly in the form of malicious biting and stinging insects, including an especially savage wood louse, unique to the area, almost as big as my thumbnail. Even the bramble bushes and wild barberry seemed possessed of malevolent lives of their own, plucking at us with their sharp talons. We were in constant danger of twisting our ankles on stones thrusting up like dragon’s teeth. Garter snakes the size of young anacondas slithered across our path…

Alexander’s Philadelphian grotesque, while funny, also strikes a necessary note of tension. When Vesper Holly and Dr. Helvetius finally come to blows, their fistfight on the banks of the Schuylkill recalls Moriarity and Sherlock Holmes—and the adult reader begins to wonder if death, in one of its innumerable forms, looms over this series at last.

Naturally, The Philadelphia Adventure has a wild Vesper Holly plot: President Ulysses S. Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil implore Vesper to ransom two royal Brazilian toddlers while saving the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition from the sabotage of Dr. Helvetius, who plans to use George Henry Corliss’s steam engine to blow up Grant, his Cabinet, and the Brazilian imperial family so he can install a puppet leader in America and raise a Brazilian-American empire from the chaos. All of this unfolds as a Vesper Holly book must, with demonstrations of language skills, displays of expert horsemanship, affirmation of scientific wisdom, and the musings of an affably fallible narrator, Dr. Brinnie Garrett, who seems surprised when decency wins in the end.

Of course, how a Vesper Holly book ends is less important than the gentle didacticism that drives each adventure to its closing page. The Philadelphia Adventure offers a quick snapshot of the troubled Grant Administration; it brings readers to the 1876 Expo; it shows Brinnie Garrett taking pride in the Etruscan history he never quite finishes, and a scholar nicknamed “The Weed” exploring yoga and Minoan inscriptions; and it introduces readers to Browning’s “How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix,” Whittier’s “Centennial Hymn” (which Brinnie mishears as “bloodcurdling shrieks and dreadful wailing”), and Wagner’s “Grand Centennial March.” Meanwhile, Vesper’s carriage horses are named Horsa and Hengist. At one point, Max Schmidt rows by, straight out of Eakins.

I could gripe that after five books, the Vesper Holly cast, never very substantive, still seems slight, but The Philadelphia Adventure is a lively read, all the more so because it reinvigorates the series; without scolding us to eat our peas, Alexander makes clear that science, literature, history, and music can be sources of pleasure and joy. The romp wrapped around that message lets young readers know that success begins with cultural and scientific knowledge properly applied and buttressed by human decency—a formula Alexander might properly credit to brotherly love.

“It must be summer, ’cause you’re never around…”

Wherever you wander this weekend, languor will likely beset you—so why not cool off with these fine Friday links?

Jonathan Jarrett explores what it meant to call yourself a “Goth” in tenth-century Spain.

What did the Norse call Constantinople? The Ruminate expounds.

George writes of window restoration, skepticism, and New York Times trend pieces.

For August, Harper Perennial (disclosure: my paperback publisher) is offering 20 e-books for 20 bucks.

The New York Times points out that for archiving and preservation, digital stinks.

Cynthia Haven wonders if visual clichés affect how we write.

Hats & Rabbits wants to know if you’re living in the now.

First Known When Lost looks at the later poetry of Wallace Stevens.

Jake Seliger reviews Slam by Nick Hornby.

Jake also pointed me to this: the gargoyles of Albany, New York.

As a Linguist asks why some language errors bug us, while others don’t.

Interpolations echoes Bellow: “Visions of geniuses become the canned goods of intellectuals.”

Ephemeral New York spots an Iroquois canoeing in Central Park.

Friend-of-this-blog Steve Muhlberger discusses medieval warfare in the latest Chivalry Today podcast.

ZMKC remembers childhood loneliness.

“You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m goin’ back to my plough…”

It’s a sluggish season for blogging, but here at “Quid Plura?,” we’ve been called away from things online by the ageless yawp of agriculture.

Two weeks ago, I inherited a local garden plot. Although abandoned by humanity, this desperate parody of circumcrescence was dearly beloved of weeds, roots, seashells, rotten bamboo, and countless plastic shards. The very sight, especially so late in the summer, was dispiriting; even Gerard Manley Hopkins might have let fly a guilty dream or two about the glorious symmetry of the lawnmower.

So I turned for inspiration to Walahfrid Strabo, the 9th-century abbot and scholar memorialized at the National Cathedral garden (and remembered there by at least one gargoyle). In De Cultura Hortorum, his famous gardening poem, Walahfrid recounts the nettled disaster he faces each spring, then calmly resolves to tame it:

So I put it off no longer. I set to with my mattock
And dug up the sluggish ground. From their embraces
I tore those nettles though they grew and grew again,
I destroyed the tunnels of the moles that haunt dark places,
And back to the realms of light I summoned the worms.
(trans. Raef Payne)

And so, ten days ago, buoyed by the spirit of Walahfrid, I set about turning this…

…into this.

In his little garden, Walahfrid raised bountiful herbs alongside vegetables, flowers, and fruit. While cautioning that hard work trumps book-learning in these sorts of labors, he offers, across twelve centuries, a mote of hope:

If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
Then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.

We’ll soon see if this modern hortulus can bring forth plants that a sensible human will want to smell, admire, or eat. If so, I’ll be thankful for Walahfrid, and grateful, too, for the promise of applied medievalism.