“Look down, look down, there’s twenty years to go…”

When you’re young, it’s easy to miss the obvious. Skulking around the University of Delaware in days of yore, I wasn’t unaware of this building on Newark’s Main Street, just footsteps from the campus—but I didn’t appreciate its striking Gothic facade, and until last weekend I hadn’t really looked at…

…the canine gargoyles on either side of the entrance.

Now prospering as Newark Deli and Bagels, the storefront at 36 East Main Street began life in 1917 as the Rhodes Pharmacy. The building was designed by Richard A. Whittingham, an architect of the Maryland division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. (His other works include a now-gone greenhouse on the U.D. campus and the reviewing stand for William McKinley’s 1897 presidential inauguration.)

I’ve not yet found reason to believe that either Whittingham or his client, pharmacist George W. Rhodes, were gung-ho for Gothic architecture—but maybe this cool little building says it all. (It used to have parapets!)

By 1917, American Gothic was passing its prime among church architects even as it picked up steam among the designers of college campuses. Its use on a commercial building is rare enough to earn 36 East Main Street a spot on the National Register of Historic Placesbut I’m convinced that the gargoyles of Newark, Delaware, were influenced by a much grander building thousands of miles away.

Notre-Dame de Paris! Its gargoyles are iconic—especially the bitter critter on the cover of this book—but even many medievalists aren’t aware that he and 53 of his fellows aren’t medieval at all, but the products of an ambitious 19th-century restoration.

Michael Camille tells this story well in The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity. By the 1840s, Notre Dame was a ruin; the cathedral had been cursed as a symbol of medieval irrationality, denuded of royal statues and other symbols of féodalité, and wrecked by weather and time. In 1843, in the wake of Victor Hugo’s fictional tribute to the cathedral’s former glory, architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-de-Duc began restoring Notre Dame—which included commissioning sculptors to create the replacement monsters he dubbed chimères. Camille documents how these modern “chimeras” entered European and North American popular culture through engravings, etchings, photographs, postcards, paintings, and books—and how quickly the world forgot that they weren’t medieval creatures at all.

The 54 chimeras are a lurid lot. Partly inspired by France’s 19th-century fascination with Egypt, their fellowship includes demonic birds, a goat, an elephant, a pelican, a wild boar, a two-headed dog, a (now destroyed) unicorn, and (lamentably) a Wandering Jew. Most of them, though, are humanoid animals—which brings us back to the dog-faced beasties of Newark, Delaware.

Look at this fellow, and then consider a few of the chimeras from Notre Dame:

(Above left: Michael Reeve, via Wikimedia Commons; above right: Chosovi, via Wikimedia Commons.)

(Above left: vintage postcard of the “ape-satyr”; right: John Taylor Arms, “A Devil of Notre Dame,” c. 1929)

The Newark grotesques don’t look like any one of the chimeras on Notre Dame, but they’re arguably a loose composite of several of them. Those big, bent arms that allow the creature to lean menacingly forward are common to several of the chimeras, and we could easily build the (relatively tame) faces of the 1917 Delawareans from the ears, mouths, brows, and noses of some of these 19th-century forebears.

So did Richard Whittingham or George Rhodes dream, like Miniver Cheevy, of medieval glory?

Did they see the Notre Dame chimeras in illustrations of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame? Or in the paintings of Winslow Homer? In the photography of Alvin Langdon Coburn? On postcards from family and friends?

Are Newark’s chimeras barking in defiance of home-grown architectural forms? (Weirdly, these creatures came to life the same year the University of Delaware settled on Colonial Revival, a sensible but decidedly un-Gothic style that still predominates across the campus.)

Or maybe Rhodes considered his pharmacy a cathedral and saw his work as a sacred calling?

The fun thing about American medievalism is that there’s rarely a single reason for this stuff. Just as people in 2013 have complicated motives for studying, idealizing, or reenacting the Middle Ages, Whittingham and Rhodes might have offered explanations that combined the personal, the social, the religious, and the political.

Twenty years after ignoring 36 East Main Street for reasons I’ve long since forgotten, I’m glad I looked up. You never know when the place where you first met Charlemagne and Chaucer will reveal to you, just over your head, the bewildering traces of somebody’s medieval dream.

“Looking down on empty streets, all she can see…”

“The blog’s been quiet lately,” I hear yon straw man cry. “Why not head out to northwestern Maryland on a torturously cold morning to hunt for gargoyles?”

That’s the Allegany County Courthouse, designed in 1893 by local boy Wright Butler in “Richardsonian Romanesque”—the eclectic style popularized by Henry Hobson Richardson. (Butler’s design appears to owe more than a little to Richardson’s Allegheny County Courthouse in Pennsylvania.)

On a freezing Saturday morning, downtown Cumberland is abandoned. Markers and monuments festoon the courthouse grounds—including a statue of George Washington and a tribute to the Ten Commandments—but look up for a good view of the stony creatures large enough to catch the eyes of speeding drivers on nearby I-68.

Four porcine fang-bats haunt the corners of the courthouse tower. Were they this roughly hewn when they were raised into place, or have the mountain winds coarsened them in the past hundred years?

Like other architects of his era, Wright Butler had fun with his facade. He surrounded the main entrance with all sorts of carven vegetation, and it’s not unreasonable to look at his slim and pleasingly complex window bays and see hints of a cathedral, where modern-day windows might once have held saints.

Racing snow-clouds back to D.C., we pass through Hagerstown, stopping to gawk at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, built in 1909.

The church’s huge bell tower is home to four magnificent beasties. Photographed head-on, they look as if they just flew in from a Japanese movie…

…but they’re best seen in profile, howling across generations, thwarted, bristling, forever out of time.

“I can hear people singing, it must be Christmas time…”

Just seven weeks into the life of Looking Up, nearly 100 copies are already in circulation—a surprising and gratifying start for a small, strange book of formal poems about gargoyles with almost no press and a publicity budget of zilch. To everyone who bought a copy or who sent readers here via blog posts, Facebook, or Twitter: thank you!

Christmas is coming, and I need to sell a few more copies to break even and start earning money to donate to the cathedral, so if you’d like a copy—or several stocking-stuffable copies—now’s the time.

The most helpful way to get Looking Up is to order copies from me. You can go to the original post about the book and use the Google Checkout pulldown menu. You can also use Paypal: just check out the pricing based on quantity and destination in the pulldown menu and send the equivalent via Paypal to my email address, jeffsypeck -at- gmail dot com. I’ll ship your books by the next business day.

If you’re a check-or-money-order sort of soul, or if you have questions about ordering, no problem! Just email me. You can also find the book in the gargoyle section at the National Cathedral’s spiffy new first-floor gift shop—and, of course, at Amazon.com.

If you’re new to Quid Plura?, feel free to browse the first drafts of 50 of the book’s 53 poems or read the best posts from the past five years. This blog is about books, art, writing, and above all, discovering traces of the Middle Ages in unexpected places. I don’t update it as frequently as I’d like, but keep checking back. I’ll do my best to make sure there’s something worth reading.

Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles

I’m pleased to announce that Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles is now available—just in time for Halloween.

This 138-page paperback includes 53 poems accompanied by black-and-white photos of the gargoyles and grotesques. I posted drafts of 51 of these poems on the blog from 2009 to 2012; you’ll find a clickable list of them here. Two of the poems in Looking Up are new to the book. (The cover image is the work of photographer, tour guide, and all-around good guy Chris Budny.)

For the time being, I’m donating 75 percent of the net profits from Looking Up to the National Cathedral, to help repair damage from the 2011 earthquake. It’s my way of saying thank-you for the many quiet afternoons I’ve spent on the cathedral grounds.

I had fun writing these poems, and I’m glad so many of you enjoyed reading them. I’d no idea there was an audience for such unfashionable folly: three years of light, occasionally obscure, medieval-influenced neoformalist verse.

* * *

There are several ways to buy Looking Up:

Order it through Amazon (and its international variants: .de, .es, .fr, .it, .uk), Barnes & Noble (coming soon), Powell’s, or the online retailer of your choice.

Buy a copy at the National Cathedral Store, at the new shop on the ground floor, just off the narthex near the front doors, or the original shop down in the crypt. (You’ll find the book in the gargoyle section.)

Order it from me. Email me: jeffsypeck -at- gmail dot com.

If you buy the book from me, the cost within the United States is $14 (which includes shipping!), more if you’re elsewhere. Each additional copy is only $12, no matter where you live. Printing and shipping are exorbitant these days; I’ve kept the price as low as I can.

(I’m looking into e-book options, but I can either do the tedious line-by-line formatting required to make poetry presentable on some e-book platforms, or distribute a PDF that may misformat on many mobile devices. I don’t like either option. Stay tuned.)

* * *

Some books you plan to write; others simply happen. Looking Up definitely falls into the latter category. It’s a great surprise to me that it even exists; I hope you’ll find something pleasantly surprising in it as well.

“…and every time I wonder if the world is right…”

In 2009, after promoting my Charlemagne book and working on projects for other people, I was word-weary and exhausted. To make writing fun again—without worrying about marketability, editors’ impressions, or other people’s needs—I started composing poems inspired by the gargoyles and grotesques that adorn my friendly neighborhood neo-Gothic cathedral.

Three years and more than fifty poems later, this series is complete—and, to my amazement, the gracious folks at the cathedral have granted permission for their typically publication-shy beasties to show their faces in print. Later this summer, Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles will be available as a 138-page trade paperback. I’ll donate the bulk of the profits (whatever they may be) to the cathedral to help fund post-earthquake repairs.

Many of the poems will be freshly polished; here are links to the first drafts. (The final two poems won’t be posted here; they’ll appear solely in the paperback.)

A wild boar who wants to rule the world.
An octopus reappraising her lobster.
A bitter but alliterative Anglo-Saxon mother.
A Gollum-like monster on All Hallows’ Eve.
A creepy dragon with an Arthurian autumn elegy.
A tiger mother singing a Midsummer goblin song.
A bird and dragon, doomed to dance.
with angels.
A robot camera, conjuring a sprite.
An alligator, delaying salvation.
A rooftop-ruling monster.
A bellyaching, medlar-eating monster.
An insect with an identity crisis.
A skeletal beast decaying on Good Friday.
A unicorn with Easter dreams.
A caveman, soft on the inside.
A scholarly owl with stories to tell.
A dog on the trail of a thief.
Rilke, through raccoonish eyes.
A medievalist goat going all Carolingian.
A skeletal horse, mindful of Mother Goose.
A bird who celebrates Sukkot.
A snake with a taste for antiquarianism, and rabbit.
A smiling dragon.
A tradition-minded frog.
An indefatigable fish.
A monster, begging for silence.
A mouse with his eyes on circling skies.
A devil, exiled from the Garden State.
Two autumn rabbits, one thankful, one not.
A confused Boethian hamster.
Cerberus, barking mad.
A bat-creature, in Nordic disrepair.
A restless, bookish elephant.
An insecure, artsy deer.
The anecdotal basenji.
A lovelorn, molar-clutching monster.
A medieval-minded birdwatcher.
not even mostly dead.
Baby Pan,
undaunted by snow.
A rooster, resigned to vicissitude.
Some vegetation, sinning through the weeds.
An administrator on form and façade.
A fish who spouts one slippery riddle.
An angel on an Easter Vigil.
A monster, with a winter warning.
The bishop, recalling Chaucer.
A fallen angel, who knows his Chaucer, too.
A ghazal by a cicada…
…and a cockroach’s reply.

Thank you to everyone who linked, commented, or otherwise supported this project! I hope you’ll enjoy the resulting book.

“No ceiling bearing down on me, save the starry skies above…”


I saw on the strand     the strangest of sights:
A gleaming pageant     that passed from the sea,
Their foremost borne,     that fine-bearded king,
Through sculpted chambers      skeined with sea-weed,
Mute twirling trumpets      trailing his wake.
Sailing beside him,      his silent white lords
Were marred by the maulings     of millions of wars.
Light on the shoreline,    their lonely race
Watched and waited     wordless ages
For imminent signs.     Silence drained heaven,
Then a dry rustle     like rain in ascent:
The whitecaps boiled        bone-dry, leaving
deserts unplundered,     plains without end.
Long they beheld here     horrors of old:
Ravenous monsters,      maws ringed with arms,
Pried their bulk blindly   from beds of muck
As nobles sternly     stiffened their spines,
For all was lost.     The lords yielded,
Shedding their swords     and shields of gold,
Hurling their helms      hard on the dune,
Laying their war-gear     now lightly aside,
Once-bright armor         bristling with rust.
With no last cry      they cracked their spears;
No howling braced     their broken ranks;
Insensibly stone-eyed     as statues at dawn,
Their remnant sank      in the sand where they stood.
Then forth from the snare     of a fisherman’s nets
In their relics reborn      I rose to my shrine
To wait for water.     Their world is dust,
And so is this matter.     Now say what I am.

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

“Merciless, the magistrate turns ’round…”

This pair of grotesques has always struck me as eerie. Is their fecundity enough, or are we meant to wonder what they smother under stony vegetation?


No worm discerns the robin; we dispense
With blazing wing to herald your offense.
The slug secretes his shadow under chard
Where you malinger, lest your way be barred
By negligence that chokes your bolting plants.
We yet may cast you out, beyond the ants
That vainly pray for peonies to burst.
The mess you fell today you raised up first
In indolence. For fear of flaming brand
You hide with mites; we pluck you out. Now stand
As wordless witness wild around you breeds.
The wages of our mortal sin is weeds.

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

“The rebel and the teacher, the vandal and the saint…”

Since the August 2011 earthquake, this previously camera-shy angel at the National Cathedral has become a minor celebrity, as well as a herald of the restoration work to come.


No furling earth, no incandescent wing—
You know your ruin by what your ruin is not:
No bounding vault, no lapidary gate,
No corbels raised to frame the blazing glass,
No graven arch to turn the pilgrim purse,
No choristers to round the close with verse,
No patrons’ patient faces grazed with sun,
No pedestals for patronage to come,
No babbling pandemonium of spring,
No spindling girls to bind their loves with blooms,
No censer-swirling deacon, nor his drudge
To agonize the vetch that winds the thyme,
No mourning dove to peck on wispy rhyme,
No scaffold-clambered bishop overhead,
No winch-raw backs, no oaken arms to roll
The stones to where they fit, before they fall,
No nobler you to pace the slouching wall
And squat by stumps, gnaw spalls of scaly bread,
And mutter to yourself, and to the night,
To columns crowded round you how you wait
For herald, harp, and scroll,
For pinnacles set perfectly alight,
For furling earth, for incandescent wing—

Undaunted, in the purple light we meet
As spider mites anticipate the shade
And halos haunt the vestibule. We kneel,
Unwrap our roundest rasps, and raze away
The hundred thousand afternoons you woke
And strained to brace the battlements you broke.

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

“No hesitation, no heart of gold…”

Outdated technology has a grotesqueness all its own. It reminds us of old ideas, and what we once hoped to do with them.


Through moonlight, in my infancy, I traced
No sphere, no stars, but grids of perfect lines
Whose magnitude redoubled as I paced
And poked the air. A fading charm defines
My life: It came, unheralded by signs,
In blue oblique, a blur, a block of smoke
Divine; and being bound by my designs
It swayed, a silent, hexachromal cloak
Of nothing. I rejoiced in what I woke,
Unnumbered form, a notion turned to light,
And bowed, and laughed, and see now that it spoke
In evanescent noiselessness: Rewrite,
Return, recast, you never will excel
The devilry of this, your only spell.

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

“Singing, not necessarily sorted…”

The Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral is home to a medlar (Mespilius germanica, or die Mispel in German), a tree that was far more common in medieval gardens than it is now in North America. Its homely fruit are inedible until they “blett,” when they become little mush-balls that taste a bit like spiced apples and wine—but only after time and frost render them wrinkled and weird. This bellyacher knows that with medlars, timing is everything, even with noises that disregard sense but feel right on the tongue.


Til we be rotten, kan we nat be rype.
—Chaucer, “The Reeve’s Prologue”

In sawdust ruts, the roots encroach
On walls where wintered widows poach.
Hear sepals peep what reeves forgot:
Fast we ripen; first we rot.

A ritter rests. His jonquil dream
Shall reck in every rustling beam
What shrivling scops by lines allot:
Fast we ripen; first we rot.

A shovel drudge, his leafs mislaid,
Fears bishops, like their mispels, fade,
But sets aside the lightest plot:
Fast we ripen; first we rot.

A goblin sunders thist and thorn
By mispel moonlit shade, to mourn
One perfect pearl she misbegot:
Fast we ripen; first we rot.

Now pray we bless the bletted mess,
That fine and blither minds profess
To round the rinds that rime did not.
Let them ripen; let me rot.

The medlar in the Bishop’s Garden, autumn 2010:

Medlar fruit (harvested with permission of the cathedral), unbletted and bletted, December 2010:

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