“…und auch das größte Wunder geht vorbei…”

Poems, novels, short stories—we expect creative works to be labors of love, but it’s easy to forget how personal a work of scholarship can be to its creator, and how much is riding on the most arcane and specialized tomes. In an atypically personal blog post, Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar Michael Drout remembers the low point in his career, when his love for his work was fizzling out:

In 2001 I had been stuck. The success of Beowulf and the Critics was combining with the difficulty I was having in putting together my first monograph on Anglo-Saxon to pull me away from the field. Kalamazoo that year had been a big, depressing disappointment. What other people seemed to find exciting did nothing for me, and the terrible job market had caused a number of my friends to leave academia altogether. The intellectual spark had gone out.  Anglo-Saxon studies was following a path that led only to insignificant but all-consuming quibbling. The field was entangled in miserable thickets of personal and institutional politics, and those who–through the positions they occupied, if not the work they were no longer doing–should have led were instead dissipating the hard-won intellectual inheritance of our titanic forebears (not on debauchery, more’s the pity, but on orthodoxy, groveling, scheming). It was just a radical change from my feelings of immense excitement at ISAS ’95 at Stanford or ’97 at Palermo or ’99 at Notre Dame. I wanted out, to be away from this whole field that I had loved so much.

I clearly remember sitting on the floor of O’Hare airport at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday morning exhausted (having gone to bed at 3:00 and gotten up at 4:30), bored, and with a five-hour wait ahead of me, thinking that this was going to be my last Kalamazoo. I would focus on Tolkien, get my tenure in a couple years, and spend my energies on my 1-year-old daughter.

What changed Drout’s life and restored his faith in his field? A book about what he calls “[p]ossibly the most boring set of ‘texts’ in the history of earth.” Whether you’re a scholar, an academic refugee, or a writer itching with doubt, check out Drout’s tribute to a scholar whose meticulous research and logical arguments gave his own work new direction—and “brought the dead to life.”

“You say, ‘ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn…'”

If you’re wont to ask, “Where can I see plays that have rarely been staged for 400 years?”, then hie thyself posthaste anon to Staunton, Virginia, where the American Shakespeare Center reanimates old scripts in a reconstruction of London’s Blackfriars Theater, and under truly humbling conditions: The actors perform in as many as five plays at a time, with multiple roles in each.

We popped down to Staunton this weekend to see The Two Noble Kinsmen, an adaptation of Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” by John Fletcher with an assist from William Shakespeare. The play is supposedly “deeply flawed,” but a dozen actors (who directed themselves) made it engaging and sharp. They earned a standing ovation—and propelled the Canterbury pilgrims through the 17th century and onto the sidewalks of a small Virginia town.

With my own ful devout corage, I did what I do in any new place: I hunted for further medievalism. After good finds in other Virginia towns—Williamsburg, Richmond, Annandale, and the imaginary Swallow Barn—I knew Staunton would come through, and it did, just up the hill from the theater.

Welcome to Thornrose Cemetery, designed by Staunton’s own Thomas Jasper Collins, who built eclectic homes and churches throughout his adoptive hometown.

Although Collins never visited Europe, he did (according to James Madison University) study Gothic Revival architecture in Baltimore, Richmond, and Norfolk. Just inside the cemetery gates is a monument to his medievalism: a stocky little keep.

When Collins went medieval by the cemetery walls, his work was striking, if too weighty to be whimsical.

Collins also designed the lovely Effinger family mausoleum, which looks like a stone drawer pulled from the facade of a Gothic cathedral.

One of the weirder corners of Thornrose leads to a monument to the Confederate dead. There’s good reason to associate faux-medieval castle ramparts with Southern chivalry, but look:

A huge neoclassical urn! A chuppah with square stone pillars and Tudor half-timbering! Civil War artillery! The committee-driven incoherence is wonderfully American.

Like Staunton itself, Thornrose grows ever more eclectic. Its wind-worn headstones aren’t lurid or sad; there’s a matter-of-factness here that harks back to The Two Noble Kinsmen:

This world’s a Citty full of straying Streets,
And Death’s the market place, where each one meetes.

A few blocks away, on a gloomy Sunday morning, you might spot the fellows who play Chaucer’s knights leaning into freezing rain and muttering lines that have only been heard from a handful of actors in 400 years. Later, on stage, they’ll offer up a fine reminder for the week before Easter: not everything that dies is gone for good.

“Cool winds wash down your hope, and you slipped…”

When I was teaching, and books like Beowulf and The Faerie Queene hove into view, my students gamely kicked around a question: Does America have an epic?

Lonesome Dove. The Godfather. Roots. Each book or movie they floated was a lengthy, multigenerational take on an ethnic or regional experience. Other students brought up Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, and one of them argued, with rare passion, for Stephen King’s Dark Tower/Gunslinger series. In the end, no one was satisfied. Ours, they sighed, is an epic-less nation.

But if we don’t currently have an epic, the people who will live here someday may. That’s the premise of Marly Youmans’ eerie and beautiful Thaliad, a 24-book poem about seven children who survive a fiery apocalypse—and how one of them becomes the founding matriarch of a lakeside tribe in upstate New York.

Recounted 67 years later by Emma, a teenaged librarian who roves the wastes with sword and gun in search of unrescued books, the Thaliad fuses several out-of-vogue elements—formalist verse, narrative poetry, classical epic—to a familiar science-fiction trope. What grows from this grafting is a weird, fresh, magical thing: the story of a new world rooted in the ingenuity and optimism of “one who / Was ordinary as a stone or stem / Until the fire came and called her name.”

Like any classical epic, the Thaliad states its purpose: “to make from these paper leaves / A book to tell and bind the hardest times / That ever were in all of history.” Emma even invokes a muse, but in a nice teen-angst twist, she prays for inspiration from the dream husband she’s sure she’ll never have. “And so I am now married to the quill,” she vows with the melodramatic certainty of youth, recording the origins of her people in a tale that glows with mystical visions, prophetic messengers, and the hard bargain of a divine covenant.

What makes the Thaliad most compelling and real is a certain cheekiness in Marly Youmans’ choice of setting. The children who survive the unexplained holocaust migrate north, as Youmans did, and end up where she lives: Cooperstown, New York, with its nearby Glimmerglass Historic District and Kingfisher Tower, a (yes!) neo-Gothic folly on Otsego Lake. What fantasist hasn’t looked around and wondered what familiar streets and settings might someday become? In that sense, Thaliad recalls Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, and Youmans is at least as skilled as Le Guin at using mythic elements to solidify and universalize a story, from hints of Beowulf in the raising of funeral mounds to fateful echoes of Ophelia and the Lady of Shalott.

Because epic must be larger than life, Thalia and her fellow children are preternaturally articulate, as is their historian-poet, sometimes in amusing ways. When Emma praises Thalia’s ancestry, we learn that her mother was a doctor, while her father

           was unknown, donor of seed,
Impregnator without shape, a formless
Father of the mind who though a mortal
Receives immortal honors from our kind.

By crafting lofty language to describe an immaculate scientific conception, Youmans reminds Thaliad readers that we’re seeing everything in this poem through the eyes of a teenager and the distorting lens of epic—but also that we’re half-blind to the wonders of our own world. Three generations on, Emma doesn’t think much of us:

Then beauty was abolished by the state
And colleges of learning stultified,
Hewing to a single strand of groupthink.
It was a time bewitched, when devils ruled,
When ancient ice fields melted, forests burned,
When sea tossed up its opal glitterings
Of unknown fish and dragons of the deep,
When giant moth and demon rust consumed,
And every day meant more and more to buy.
Some people here and there lived otherwise,
But no one asked them for any wisdom,
And no one looked to their authority,
For none they had, nor were they like to have
The same—no one expects the end of things
To come today, although it must some day,
And so no one expected the great flares…

Fortunately, Youmans doesn’t rest on easy social criticism. Through unsettling depictions of cruelty, negligence, and loss, she argues that despair in times of horror is a choice, not an inevitability. Even as the Thalians struggle to preserve scraps of civilization, the stars over Cooperstown offer another chance for humanity to get things right. Keen to reinvent the constellations, Thalian poets gaze at a sky

Where unfamiliar constellations rule
A dazzling zodiac—the Nine-tailed Cat,
The Throne of Fire, the Fount of Anguishing,
Un-mercy’s Seat. I might go cruelly on,
But I have brooded for too long on fall
And desolation, hidden history
Of world’s end, thing unwritten in the books,
Its causes and its powers scribed on air
And seen out of a corner of the eye
Or not at all. Better to dream and say
That sparking zodiac shows sympathy
For trial and weariness, presenting Hope
In Silver Feathers, Gabriel in Light,
The Mother’s Arms, the Father’s Sailing Boat,
The Seven Triumphant Against the Waste.

To Youmans, whether you like what you see when you look heavenward depends entirely on what you want to see.

Youmans’ hopeful epic has a recent precedent: Frederick Turner’s brilliant science-fiction poem The New World, in which the learned citizens of a 24th-century Ohio republic fend off fanatics in bordering lands. Maybe two poets don’t represent a trend, but a few clever souls have begun to look beyond short, personal lyrics to rediscover the potential of narrative poetry. Christopher Logue’s retelling of Homer is one of the coolest long poems in decades, and Dana Gioia’s most recent book includes a ghost story in syllabic verse.

By writing an epic, Youmans is endorsing a poetic renaissance that has its detractors. Since the 1980s, dyspeptic critics have argued that neoformal poetry is too obsessed with poetry itself (at the expense, they say, of looking out at the world) and that neoformalism “decontextualizes” poetry. Of course, people who point out the same problem with the past century of visual art get dismissed as reactionary cranks, so I’m content to mutter “de gustibus…” and move on. Youmans’ poem is a call to restore old and beautiful forms of literature—that’s what Emma, librarian and historian, literally does when she speaks of the past:

It was the age beyond the ragged time
When all that matters grew disorderly—
When artworks changed, expressive, narcissist,
And then at last became just tedious,
A beetle rattling in a paper cup,
Incessant static loop of nothingness,
When poems sprang and shattered into shards,
And then became as dull as newsprint torn
And rearranged in boredom by a child
Leaning on a window seat in the rain.

Even so, the Thaliad isn’t just literature about literature. By building a plausible world in fiction, Youmans, like any good science-fiction writer, makes us more aware of the weirdness of the real world, where we should look for life in all sorts of seemingly dead things:

We found a sourwood tree that had been killed
By something, but the leaves still drooped in place,
Though every one had faded into brown.
When we came closer, leaves burst into wings—
The tree was green, the death was butterflies,
Alive and pouring like a waterfall
But upside down from us…

Not remotely a formalist novelty, the Thaliad is a remarkable book about surviving a crisis of faith.

Although the Thaliad runs only 102 pages, it’s a rich poem, and I couldn’t find room in this post for half of my notes. Detecting influences ranging from Milton to Cavafy to A.A. Milne, I reacted just as Dale Favier did:

But having finished, I turn at once to the beginning, to read it again, which is of course what one always does with a genuine epic. They begin in the middle of things because they understand that everything is in the middle of things: they’re structured as a wheel, and its first revolution is only to orient ourselves.

If they’re willing to take a chance, fantasy and science-fiction fans and even the “young adult” crowd might all find much to love here. The Thaliad is rare proof that verse need not be difficult or obscure—and that even now, narrative poetry can still leave readers, like Thalian children eyeing strangers in their orchard, “[e]nchanted into stillness by surprise.”

“Success or failure will not alter it…”

“A thousand skeptic hands won’t keep us from the things we planned,” Alcuin wrote to Theodulf of Orleans at the dawn of the ninth century, “unless we’re clinging to the things we prize.” Despite Alcuin’s optimism, life keeps me from updating “Quid Plura?” as often as I’d like, but here’s an enlightening array of late-winter links.

Return to Prydain with Jared Crossley’s 69-minute documentary about Lloyd Alexander, now out on DVD. (Disclosure: I did a small amount of unpaid work on this project.)

Looking for a lurid novel in the heavy-metal club scene? Warren Moore’s headbanger noir Broken Glass Waltzes is now out for the Kindle.

Erik Kwakkel looks for the oldest photo of a person with a medieval manuscript—and finds a heck of a shot from Ohio instead.

Speaking of minuscule, the Classical Bookworm finds wonderful tiny libraries (including one built from Lego).

Lingwë delves: Did Tolkien coin the plural “dwarves”?

Nancy Marie Brown turns back to half-forgotten fantasist E.R. Eddison.

So Many Books digs The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.

Sarah Werner suggests that in the humanities job market, you make your own luck.

Writer and professor Ann Boesky recalls her life as a Sweet Valley High ghostwriter.

Wuthering Expectations cracks open “the most boring and mendacious author in the whole of German literature.”

Jake Seliger reads the urban-planning book Planet of Cities.

Steve Donoghue explores Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.

Cynthia Haven fondly remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay.

First Known When Lost honors four-line poems.