“I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave…”

Twelve hundred years ago tomorrow—January 28, 814—the Franks lamented the death of a tall, paunchy, mustachioed king whom they already knew was one of the most important people in European history: Karl or Charles the Great, Karolus Magnus, Charlemagne. His biographers cataloged the omens that presaged his death, and poets insisted that all the world wept for him. But they mourned too late; the old man they interred in the cathedral had long been lost to legend and myth.

The Charlemagne most of us know is a literary creation: a chivalric ancestor, an Arthur-like figure encircled by heroes, an enigma whose name legitimizes fundamentalist prophecies, spurious movie quotes, heavy-metal concept albums, and (mirabile dictu) overpriced shower gel. Across centuries, Karl’s propagandists can rightly claim victory—but as someone suspicious of power, I’m interested in a different judgment of the man, one that shows how some people felt about him when he wasn’t yet cold in his tomb.

In 824, on the island of Reichenau, a book-obsessed monk named Wettin fell ill. He crawled into bed and suffered terrifying visions: First, he saw an evil, robed spirit looming over his bed with torture devices; then he went on a vivid tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven led by his own guardian angel.

From his deathbed, Wettin recounted his revelations to a monk named Haito. Two years later, one of Wettin’s former students, Walafrid Strabo, rewrote the account as a long poem, “The Vision of Wettin.” Walafrid later tutored Charlemagne’s grandson and served as abbot of Reichenau. His flair for poetry and his love of gardening have earned him a tag on this blog and a poem in the gargoyle book, but when you’re assessing Charlemagne, one scene from his “Vision of Wettin” really stands out.

Here it is, hastily translated (by me) from Latin into metrical, alliterative lines:

 Casting his eyes over the landscape,
He beheld the late king of the high-born Romans
And all of Italy unable to move,
Rent by a beast that ravaged his genitals;
Left free of ruin was the rest of his body.
“Explain this!” cried Wettin, witless with horror.
“Many things fell to this man in his life:
Attempting to nourish a new age of laws,
Goading the teachings of God to prosper,
Nobly protecting his pious subjects,
Eventually reaching that rare summit
Where upholding virtue invites sweet praise,
But here he is held under horrid conditions,
Enduring great pain and punishment. Why?”

“This torment engulfs him,” his guide replied,
“Because he disfigured with filthy pleasures
His noble deeds, and doubted not
That his sins would be subsumed by his goodness,
Ending his life in the usual sordidness.
Even so, he will toil to attain splendor
And delight in the honor his Lord has prepared.”
(MGH Poetae II 318–319, ll. 446–465)

Make what you will of the prospects for Charlemagne’s soul; after his death, people grew comfortable recording in writing what they’d likely been saying for years. Heirs and hangers-on had reasons for praising or damning the actual man—but before long, medieval people were more interested in letting the real Karl rot while recasting “Charlemagne” to suit their own needs. In the year ahead, we’ll rediscover how true that still is.

Tomorrow’s anniversary kicks off the “Karlsjahr,” a flurry of Karolocentric commemorations, exhibitions, symposia, and other events coinciding with the septennial Catholic pilgrimage to Charlemagne’s cathedral at Aachen. The city will host three major exhibitions of artifacts and art; an artist will install 500 Charlemagne statues in a public square; and a new Aachen Bank card will show off the famous reliquary bust. The town of Ingelheim will host an exhibition, and the abbey church in the Swiss village of Müstair will serve up a display about Carolingian architecture, a “collage-opera” about Charlemagne’s imperial coronation, and a comedy performance, “Karl and the White Elephant”—and these are only the events I’ve discovered so far.

For 1,200 years, Europeans have crafted a Karl for all seasons. Later medieval kings grafted him to their family trees, Crusaders invoked him, the French made him an icon of education, and Napoleon and Hitler believed they were continuing his work. His latest incarnation is also explicitly political: When the 1957 Treaty of Rome created the European Community, the six signatory nations covered almost the exact same territory as his empire. The EU’s headquarters in Brussels, the dull Charlemagne Building, enshrines him as the patron saint of European unity—and someday, perhaps, of murky bureaucracy. Statues rise, stained glass dazzles, and the source of the legend is lost.

In Becoming Charlemagne, I likened Karl’s tiny capital to the king himself: “almost civilized and unexpectedly alive: ambitious, forceful, clearly Christian, slightly cruel.” He once slaughtered helpless Saxon captives, an atrocity that shocked his contemporaries, and it wasn’t always propitious to be his relative. His failings, both personal and political, were as great as his ambitions.

But take a second look: There’s a remarkable, complex person beneath centuries of rhetoric and legend. It’s the rare leader indeed who can smile at endless flattery, enjoying obsequious poems praising him as a second David, yet still demonstrate, through his actions, that he knows he isn’t the apotheosis of his civilization—that the future needs books, buildings, and institutions that endure.

At this, Karl failed—but 1,200 years later, individuals, nations, and vast institutions still clamor for a piece of him. This summer, through music, theater, religion, and art, his heirs will convene in the shadows he cast. The Christian emperor, the lustful king, the cold-hearted brother, the egomaniac, the mourning father, the blood-spattered warlord, the pragmatic diplomat, the debatable saint, the barely literate patron of learning—there are myriad Charlemagnes to remember, and nearly as many we choose to forget. The story goes on, and the “Karlsjahr” in Europe is about more than the past, so look closely: Amid all the tourists, new Charlemagnes rise.

“Golden toddy on the mantle, broken gun beneath the bed…”

In an 8th-century poem by Alcuin, an aged shepherd decries winter as rerum prodigus atrox, a “terrible squanderer of wealth,” but spiky-haired, personified Winter defends himself by listing his seasonal pleasures: feasting, resting, and a warm fire at home. To that list, I’d only add: terrific links about books, medievalism, history, and poems.

Cynthia Haven (mostly) likes the BBC’s “Hollow Crown” retelling of Shakespeare.

Tolkien scholar Jason Fisher enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug.

Arrant Pedantry enjoyed the pronunciation of /smaug/.

Nancy Marie Brown is writing a book about the Lewis Chessmen.

Burnable Books debunks words not invented by Shakespeare.

Marly Youmans unveils seven new, myth-infused poems.

Dylan pens a ghazal about coffee.

In light of a Joyce Carol Oates story, Harvard magazine reconsiders Robert Frost.

Stanford hosts a “code poetry slam.”

Diana Seneschal rescues Wordsworth from a Common Core lesson gone wrong.

When it comes to English departments, George notes that today’s liberation may stultify tomorrow.

In Rome, the Cranky Professor finds a lot of scaffolding.

Bill Peschel remembers Peter O’Toole as a writer.

Steve Muhlberger is “ensorcelled” by the study in intimacy (or lack thereof) that is the BBC’s “Sherlock.”

Kevin is ambivalent about Apple’s new Walt Whitman adverts.

Six Words for a Hat reads Dickens with Ruskin in mind.

The Box Elder offers a meditation on the death of trees.

Cancer, baggage, marriage proposals! Asking Anna, a novel by my friend Jake Seliger, is out.

“…laughing as they glance across the great divide.”

When the windows glaze over with ice and snow and every spare word goes straight into projects that pay, this blog gets quiet—but in recent days, I’ve been thawing out drafts of old work while testing the view through my latest willfully outmoded lens.

Behold: a Polaroid Land Camera 230. After toying with someone else’s before Christmas, I found this one at an antique shop in Savannah and decided to make it my own. Fuji still makes film for it, but if you’re fond of the total control that digital photography gives you, then you won’t enjoy lugging this clunker around.

The Land Camera, you see, needs warm temperatures, its light and aperture settings are limited, it doesn’t zoom, it spits out chemical-drenched litter, the photos take hours to dry, and you need to time the development down to the second—and that’s after you clean the rollers, modernize the battery chamber, scrub away corrosion, and master the art of yanking the paper tabs without stranding the photos inside. “And besides,” a neighbor chided me, “the pictures from those things were never really great.”

True, the photos I’ve taken so far are not impressive, but the first round of peel-and-reveal was a thrill, and there’s plenty of online evidence that under good conditions, with the right light and a fitting subject, even a 50-year-old camera can work the occasional wonder. You just have to accept its many constraints and embrace their necessity. I’m ready; it’s a lesson that poetry already offers.

“I really did struggle writing dreadful free verse for a long time,” poet and classicist A.E. Stallings told an interviewer a few years back. Stallings began publishing her work only after she saw possibilities in traditional forms, having discovered the value (and fun) of using old tools to your advantage:

Form opens up all kinds of possibilities. Rhyme often leads you to write things that surprise you. A meter may help you tap into a forgotten emotion. With form, certain decisions have already been, arbitrarily, made for you—a certain number of lines, a designated meter with a particular pattern of rhymes. That frees you up to think about other, more interesting choices in the poem.

Billy Collins, an erstwhile Poet Laureate who’s hardly known as a formalist, has praised formal poetry as a teaching tool:

I started to appreciate the bravura aspect of still-life painting, where you have a chandelier reflected in a mirror. You start to see that Vermeer is essentially bragging. So I try to encourage students to look at the challenge of formal poetry, to see, for example, that the fewer the end rhyme sounds the more difficult the poem is. Frost has a poem called “The Rose Family,” I think it’s twelve or fourteen lines, it has just one rhyme: rose, goes, suppose, knows. He’s bragging: I can write a fourteen-line poem with A-A-A-A-A-A. Can you?

Others have noted that art often springs from a challenge. Recalling a classroom exercise in sonnet-writing, religion professor Debra Dean Murphy saw form give rise to unforeseen complexity:

In the end, writing a sonnet wasn’t easy but it was surprisingly freeing.  The constraints of the form were not, after all, limitations to creativity but their necessary precondition. Once the boundaries were acknowledged not as confinements but as “inducements to elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning”  . . .  it was possible even to strive for and discover beauty: in choosing this word and not that one, in making the rhyme scheme work, in finding a fitting image or metaphor.

Of course, a Land Camera isn’t so adaptable; it’s a machine cleverly devised to meet certain needs within the limitations of its time. In that sense, it’s more like a poem than a form—an archaic sonnet whose vocative O!s and hammy Ah!s threaten to obscure its virtuosity.

Like A.E. Stallings, I once filled pages with dreadful free verse—until I translated 75 difficult 13-line rhyming, alliterative Middle Scots stanzas into modern English and chased that project with 53 gargoyle poems in dozens of forms, from Japanese tanka to the Old Norse dróttkvaett. Poetry need not (and generally does not) have practical value, but writing in difficult forms teaches lesssons—discipline, patience, honing your tools, acquiring terms of art—that carry over to other parts of your life.

Technology turns obsolete in ways that poetic forms can’t, but learning to make the most of this Land Camera feels like that first foray into form. Flip up the viewfinder, extend the bellows, set the shutter, slide the focus bar back and forth—and celebrate if even one shot in a stack of wan images surprises you with something more.