“The eyes all rollin’ round and round into a distant gaze…”

From English churches to Gothic synagogues, I’ve found plenty of medievalism in Georgia—but when I trekked deeper into the state two weeks ago to visit Flannery O’Connor’s farmstead, I expected to encounter the Middle Ages only as an abstraction. At Andalusia, O’Connor read medieval saints’ lives and studied St. Thomas Aquinas, but it seems she wasn’t the only medievalist in the history of Milledgeville, Georgia. Before spending a quiet afternoon on O’Connor’s farm, I drove into town for lunch and was startled to spot a huge and wholly tangible monument to the South’s obsession with the medieval: castle, cathedral, and parliament all piled up into one.

This handsome but peculiar building housed the Georgia legislature from its construction in 1807 until 1868, when the state capital moved from Milledgeville to Atlanta. Destroyed by fire in 1941 and later restored, it’s now the heart of the Georgia Military College campus and the home of Georgia’s Old Capital Museum.

Tourism websites claim it was the first Gothic Revival public building in the United States, and they may well be right. This castle-capital was indeed ahead of its time, both in the South and nationwide: John Adams is on record as reading Sir Walter Scott only later, in 1820; theaters in New Orleans adapted Scott’s work for the stage in the decade that followed; and the medieval-ish tales of Washington Irving thrived in the 1820s and ’30s and beyond. I’d love to know what specifically moved Major General Jett Thomas, who would go on to fight in the War of 1812, to make the Georgia statehouse a castle, but chivalry was surely on his mind, and this building shows just how early a militaristic medievalism took root in the South.

The shorter north and south sides of the building, with porticoes added in 1835, show its layered insistence on medieval roots: Gothic windows, tracery, niches, and castellated battlements with pinnacles that scream “the Middle Ages” even if they don’t quite belong there.

The rest of the campus flaunts the medieval with an unwavering sense of mission: even a dumpy little mail building has a castellated roof. Most striking, though, are the campus gates. Blind arches, skinny niches for absent statues, give them an almost religious air…

…which makes sense. “So redolent indeed with historic associations is the atmosphere of this ancient seat of hospitality that the very streets of this old town are like fragrant aisles in some old cathedral,” declared a 1913 guidebook to Georgia landmarks. Antebellum Southerners of high social standing treated the medieval with just that sort of reverence, and Louisiana even built its own castellated capitol building in Baton Rouge four decades later, much to the chagrin of Mark Twain.

“Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building,” Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi in 1883, “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.” I can’t find any thoughts by Twain on the Milledgeville capitol, but I don’t doubt he would have deplored it as another example of Southerners’ obsession with chivalric tournaments, romantic tales, and a mythologized past they never doubted was their heritage.

Today, Milledgeville is sleepy on a Sunday afternoon, but the students who scurry past the old capitol building on weekdays are a living legacy of 19th-century medievalism. Georgia Military College includes a middle school, a high school, and a junior college where students can earn a commission in the Army, so when you pass through those gates you’re entering a shrine to old chivalric virtues. New knights will pair patriotic faith with military might; empty niches wait in solemnity to honor them as saints.

“A concert of kings, as the white sea snaps…”

A few months ago, I got an email from Katie Holmes, a classical guitarist and music student at Columbus State University in Georgia. She had read my book of poems inspired by the National Cathedral gargoyles and was hoping I’d be okay with her setting some of them to music.

I told her to go for it. Her YouTube channel showed that she’s a talented and promising musician with an impressive formal education, and I was eager to see what she’d do.

Ms. Holmes debuted her first composition inspired by Looking Up on April 3—and, to my delight, she did much more than merely set a poem to music. Instead, she took “An Octopus Reappraises Her Lobster,” one of the earliest and most popular poems in the series, and committed a riskier act of artistic interpretation, turning it into a composition for…voice and marimba!

[Go to this YouTube link if the video doesn’t work.]

Just when I think life is low on surprises, there it is: a trained vocalist takes the stage to sing, with all due solemnity, “I hear the hot breath of the lobster I love.”

Without the cathedral and its grotesques to put it in context, this piece of bittersweet light verse becomes a surreal new work of art, a echo from an eerie, alien, inverted world well beyond my imagining. It’s its own weird beastie, and I love it.

As I wrote to Katie, I’m glad she felt free to make this poem hers. We all long for readers, listeners, and fans, but having an interpreter—essentially an artistic collaborator—is a rare and unexpected gift.

* * * * *


I hear the hot breath of the lobster I love;
The trees wilt below us; there’s nothing above.
You snore and I shudder, for sleepless I know
The oath of adventure we swore long ago:

“Between us, our limbs number eighteen in all;
Let’s creep from this tank and slip over the wall
And forever be free! Let’s aspire to perch
On a spire of our own on the loftiest church.”

You clawed at my tentacle, tender and green,
Like the first awkward kiss of a king and his queen.
You scuttled, I swam; through the garden we went.
Where grass gripped the stones, we began our ascent.

A lobster lives long, as no octopus can,
But a lobster has in him but one perfect plan.
I longed for longevity; no girl expects
To ask of her lobster, “So what happens next?”

You curl up contentedly, dreaming of me;
I cling to my cornice and scarcely feel free.
“I won’t let you down,” you once vowed, and I sighed.
I love that you’re honest; I wish you had lied.

“The walls are white, and in the night…”

“Perhaps I have created a medieval study,” wondered Flannery O’Connor in 1960 after a professor of medieval literature penned a piece in a Catholic magazine that likened her novel The Violent Bear It Away to the movie The Seventh Seal. Sharing the essay with a friend, O’Connor was bemused: “Which reminds me, have you seen any films by this man Ingmar Bergman? People tell me they are mighty fine & that I would like them. They too are apparently medieval.”

I wonder, then, what O’Connor, a rigorous Catholic, would have made of the news that the Episcopalians just made her a literary saint:

This week, Flannery O’Connor was inducted into the American Poets Corner at St. John the Divine, the “only shrine to American literature in the country” (or so a church representative told me). Upon entering the cathedral for the small induction ceremony, attendees were greeted by two gigantic, sparkling sculptures suspended from the ceiling—they are phoenixes, part of an installation by the Chinese artist Xu Bing, but at first glance you might mistake them for peacocks, like the ones that O’Connor raised on her family’s Georgia farm, Andalusia . . . Those who spoke during the ceremony stood in front of a shining cross, towering choir stalls, and giant pillars illuminated with glowing yellow lights. A booming echo made them sound like somewhat unintelligible voices from beyond. The effect was fitting, evoking simultaneously O’Connor’s keen sense of the ominous, the numinous, and the ironic.

I don’t know if O’Connor visited the magnificent cathedral when she lived in New York City for a while in 1949. As a Catholic, she might have found modern Protestant cathedral-building a marvelous, misguided quest for transcendence, but the vast Gothic interior also might have engaged her intellect and gladdened her soul. After all, O’Connor grew up across the street from a gargoyle-festooned cathedral in Savannah and later lived on a farm called Andalusia, a name she encouraged her mother to restore. It’s been a while since she was seen only as a “Southern Gothic” writer; she also deserves to be remembered as a committed American medievalist.

By the time O’Connor attended college in 1942, her medievalism was apparent. She wrote poetry only briefly, but her later dismissal of her own juvenalia is knowing and sly. “All of my poems sounded like ‘Miniver Cheevy,'” she quipped, recalling the pathetic drunk in E.A. Robinson’s 1910 poem who wishes he’d been born in an age of chivalry. As an adult, she had little interest in romance and legend: Her philosophy professor would recall how much she hated the irreligious dismissal of the Middle Ages in the textbook he assigned, how passionately she studied the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, and how keen she was to debate with him when he argued, from an anthropological perspective, that medieval Christianity was polytheistic.

“She knew Aquinas in detail, was amazingly well read in earlier philosophy, and developed into a first-rate ‘intellectual’ along with her other accomplishments,” George Beiswanger later wrote. “It soon became clear to me that she was a ‘born’ writer and that she was going that way.” Beiswanger took such pleasure in their sparring that he recommended her to his alma mater, the University of Iowa, and helped her land a scholarship for graduate school.

In 1948, while wandering the grounds of Yaddo, O’Connor described herself to other artists at the colony as “thirteenth century” as she immersed herself in a book on scholasticism and medieval art by French Thomist Jacques Maritain. “Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian”—she underlined that passage in Maritain’s book, and when she visited the Cloisters during her stint in New York City the following year, she was amazed to find support for Maritain’s exhortation in a Virgin and Child statue that showed both figures laughing—”not smiling,” she emphasized to a friend, “laughing.”

While writing her first novel, O’Connor read the lives of three female saints—Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, and Teresa of Avila—and was irked when the public found the resulting book pessimistic rather than comic. “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist,” she told a friend, “whereas I would like to create the impression over the television that I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” Fascinated and challenged by the prolific saint, she joked about applying Thomist principles to the least events in daily life, including her mother scolding her to go to bed during her nightly readings:

If my mother were to come in during this process and say, “Turn off that light. It’s late,” I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, “On the contrary, I answer that the light, being external and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,” or some such thing.

Soon after she was diagnosed with the lupus that would destroy her kidneys, O’Connor made two commitments: the first, to write like mad; the second, less formally, to St. Thomas Aquinas himself. In 1953, O’Connor purchased the 690-page Modern Library volume of selections from his work—and settled in for the rest of her life.

As she hobbled around Andalusia on the crutches she called “flying buttresses” and immersed herself nightly in Thomistic theology, O’Connor did what other medievalists do, from malevolent nationalists to benign reenactors: She redacted the Middle Ages down to the aspects that gave her full purpose and strength.

As for being enshrined as a poet by Episcopalians in an unfinished Gothic cathedral in Manhattan, O’Connor was too Southern to have told them that she was anything but flattered but also too Catholic not to have issued gleeful theological challenges to priests who would have stammered and sought for rejoinders in vain. Then, in private, mindful of her favorite statues, she would have laughed, and let her amusement linger long after the light went out.

“When I was their age, all the lights went out…”

If you’ve barreled through Georgia on I-95, you may have noticed a strange sight on the east side of the highway: a B-47 Stratojet bomber in front of what appears to be a medieval English church. Rejected cover art for A Canticle for Liebowitz?

Not hardly. You’re catching a glimpse of the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum. The 8th Air Force was activated in Savannah in 1942 before being sent to England to join the RAF in bombing runs over Germany. The museum, just outside Savannah in Pooler, tells the Mighty 8th’s story in the context of the air war in Europe.

Inside, thoughtful and thorough exhibitions give you a harrowing sense of what life as a bomber crewman was like, especially when you turn a corner and behold a B-17 being painstakingly restored by volunteers.

On the grounds, countless plaques and monuments are sobering reminders of the dead. Among them stands an unlikely medievalist sight.

The American vogue for neo-medieval churches faded in the early 20th century, so I was surprised (and delighted) by how recently the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles was dedicated: May 2002. According to the firm that built it, the chapel is based on no one church but generally evokes medieval English styles:

The design for the non-denominational chapel is based on English parish church architecture, which generally developed between the fifth and sixteenth centuries. The design reflects both the traditional site orientation and building elements consisting of a west facing tower, central nave, and east facing chancel. The stonework and interior finishes are typical of country churches as they evolved through the centuries.

I’d like to imagine that Gothic window tracery left a vivid impression on the men of the 8th Air Force, but the chapel’s stained-glass tribute to All Saints Church in the Cambridgeshire village of Conington hints at more pressing concerns.

According to a Conington-area historical society, “a red light was installed on one of the pinnacles of the Church tower to help guide the planes back from their missions during World War II.” Appropriately, the village sign at Conington shows the church tower beneath the silhouette of a B-17.

After all these years of chasing down medievalism in America, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a pseudo-medieval chapel on a Georgia interstate—but I was. Yes, medievalism is everywhere, but the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles represents a use for it we don’t often see. Unlike many of their countrymen, the vets of the 8th Air Force weren’t dreaming of castles and chivalric frills. Instead, they imagined, and sanctioned in stone, a monument to Anglo-American friendship.

“Wheel in a wheel, way in the middle of the air…”

Savannah is famous for its gorgeous and walkable squares. One in particular, Monterey Square, was the site of drama in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—but when I tromped through the square during Christmas week, I was drawn instead to a Gothic Revival church…

…that’s not, in fact, a church. Behold: Temple Mickve Israel! Dedicated in 1878, it’s the third home of a congregation founded in 1733 when 41 Jewish colonists, most of them Sephardic, sailed to Georgia (where Catholicism was illegal, but Judaism wasn’t) with the support of Jews in London.

Last week, I heard a passing tour guide announce that the congregation chose the Gothic Revival style to honor the cathedrals of their Spanish and Portuguese hometowns. That claim is specious; this building was dedicated nearly 150 years after the colonists arrived. According to the docents, the 19th-century Jewish congregants, like their Christian neighbors, simply got caught up in the Gothic Revival craze. Boy, did they ever.

For a synagogue, Mickve Israel is a weirdly pure model of a neo-Gothic church. It was designed by English-born Henry G. Harrison, a renowned Episcopalian church architect and a disciple of Gothic Revival master A.W.N. Pugin. Harrison’s background shows: Mickve Israel has a basic cruciform shape with a nave and transept; pointed arches; stained-glass windows with tracery; quatrefoil designs everywhere; buttresses; pinnacles; and a castellated multi-story tower. The ark is also neo-Gothic, as are the chairs alongside it.

The big difference, of course, is the swapping-out of a steeple with what the authors of Synagogue Architecture in America call “a Middle Eastern element hinting at the true Jewish nature of the building.”

I’d say it does far more than hint. That cupola insists, with confidence and grace, “Our roots are European, the Gothic style is ours to use—but we’ll top it off with a sign of our deeper origins and our present difference.”

A surprising schmeer of myth adheres to this synagogue: that the Jewish congregation bought it from the local bishop; that it’s based on a specific Spanish or Portuguese cathedral; and that the choir loft was once segregated seating for women.

Those tales aren’t true—but it is true that while other Gothic Revival synagogues used to exist, and while others still standing can boast neo-Gothic doodads, Mickve Israel is (as far as I can tell) the only remaining full-on Gothic Revival synagogue in America.

Today, this 200-family congregation reveres its medievalist gem, a building that bravely (but not brashly) asserted that Judaism belonged in a Southern city in the 19th-century—and well beyond. In 1927, when a fire destroyed the tower, the people of Mickve Israel rebuilt it…

…just as it was, and probably always will be: Gothic reverie, Middle Eastern memory, persistent American dream.

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

Medievalism is intertwined with the history of the American South. In cities like Richmond and New Orleans, where magazines helped popularize Sir Walter Scott novels and promote chivalric virtues, Gothic revival architecture felt right—but Savannah, where I’m spending Christmas, went its own wonderful way. Here, in a city with countless monuments but surprisingly few statues, you’re more likely to find Georgian, Italian, Federal, and Colonial styles, intermingled but insistently American beneath layers of picturesque moss.

So when you’re the new guy in Savannah, exploring the city’s public squares on foot on Christmas Eve, the search for medievalism seems downright futile…

…but after all these years, I know when to heed the signs. They’re rarely as obvious as this one on Liberty Street.

And so we trudge from moss-bedecked square to moss-bedecked square, wondering as we wander…

Is a lamppost resembling a bishop’s crozier the most medievalism the streets of Savannah can offer?

“No,” says a monstrous sconce on Bay Street. “Look lower, fool!”

Any Jesuit will tell you this totally counts as a gargoyle…

…as does this Seussian goof on the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, though his architect spared him the spitting.

But what’s that in nearby Troup Square?

A neoclassical armillary sphere!? Isn’t there anyone in Savannah who knows what medievalism is all about?

“Sure, Charlie Brown,” says one of six bronze turtles in tiny Santa caps, “I can tell you what medievalism is all about.”

Yep, along this square is the Unitarian church where J.P. Morgan’s uncle served as minister when he published “Jingle Bells.” (Until today, it had never occurred to me that anyone had actually written “Jingle Bells,” or that controversy would attend upon its provenance.)

Amusingly, in the 1850s, Pierpont’s church wasn’t in this square, but a few blocks away. During a low point for Savannah Unitarians, the building was bought by African-American Episcopalians, who industriously rolled it away and set it down here.

So yes, it’s a cosmic treat to stumble around Savannah on Christmas Eve and find a neoclassical Christmas turtle that points you to the relocated church whose minister composed “Jingle Bells”—but what’s medieval-ish about an overplayed ode to the secular sleighing culture of 19th-century New England?

Aha! The composer’s church itself—castellated, Americanized neo-Gothic! Its discovery is hardly a miracle, but the sight of it is fitting end to a charming quest—and a fine way to wish “Quid Plura?” readers a merry (and hopeful, and gargoyle-rich) Christmas.