Thursday, December 28, 2017

My Official Christmas Message

Accept no imitations.

Apologies for the crooked collar, which I didn't fix even when I tried. My inability to straighten out my collar drives everybody crazy. I don't think there's anything Chestertonian, intellectual, artistic or clever about it. It's just me being a doofus. I'll try harder.



If I do expand beyond the written word, podcasts might actually be the best option, as I'm not sure how to upload any video longer than a very short one like this.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Nollaigh Shona Duit

Happy Christmas to all my readers! Thank you so much for visiting the blog, for commenting, for answering my prayer requests, for emailing me, and for all the other kindnesses you have shown me in the last year, and indeed before that. Thank you. I hope you all have a good Christmas.




So here's another Christmas repeat...I posted a link to this video before, but it's appropriate to post it again on Christmas Eve, since it comes from Christmas Eve 1986. (The relevant section, which is a short religious meditation called Night Light, begins around 2:05). It fills me with an overwhelming nostalgia for something I can barely remember myself.






Only thirty years ago, a priest could come on Irish national television and speak confidently about "our profound faith in Jesus Christ" as a nation. Note also how the supernatural aspect is the first aspect he draws out. Even the "tradition of hospitality" isn't put in overtly political terms. Today the entire thing would simply be more open borders propaganda.

But I don't want to dwell on the negative. I like the kindness and gentleness in this priest's eyes.

Isn't that kindness and gentleness the essence of Christmas? The paradox of God Almighty as a little baby never loses its power over the human imagination. This atmosphere is nowhere better expressed that in G.K. Chesterton's famous meditation upon the Nativity scene, in The Everlasting Man. (The reference to the "inner room in the very heart of his own house" is particularly appealing to me, since I've always been fascinated by the idea and the metaphor of discovering a hidden room or passage in one's own home, and indeed I've dreamed about it at least once):

No other story, no pagan legend or philosophical anecdote or historical event, does in fact affect any of us with that peculiar and even poignant impression produced on us by the word Bethlehem. No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. It is either too cold or too frivolous, or too formal and classical, or too simple and savage, or too occult and complicated. Not one of us, whatever his opinions, would ever go to such a scene with the sense that he was going home. He might admire it because it was poetical, or because it was philosophical or any number of other things in separation; but not because it was itself. The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man.

It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over some-thing more human than humanity.


Nollaig shona daoibh go léir!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Repeat

It's become a Christmas tradition for me to blog about "The Burning Babe" by St. Robert Southwell S.J.

I'm going to reproduce my post from last year, and then add some extra thoughts.

So last year I said this:

I do so much rhapsodising about tradition on this blog, how can I fail to observe the blog's own traditions? One of which is posting 'The Burning Babe' by St. Robert Southwell at Christmas. (OK, maybe I've only done it once before, but twice makes it a tradition.)



St. Robert Southwell was a Jesuit priest in the reign of Queen Elizabeth who came to England (having been trained on the continent) fully expecting to be martyred-- as indeed he was. He was also a poet, and wrote this classic poem.

I love sentimentality, and I love Christmas sentimentality. But there's something even better than sentimentality, and that's awe. Fire imagery has always appealed to me, and this poem is full of it, as the title indicates.

It's also (in my view) a rare non-tedious example of a conceit. A conceit, as the reader may well know already, is an extended metaphor. Conceits are the reason I find John Donne and the Metaphysical poets nigh-on unreadable. However, the conceit works here, perhaps because the poem is a short one.

The theological density of the poem is also very impressive. I wonder if anyone has ever compiled an anthology of poetry by saints?

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I calléd unto mind that it was Christmas day.


Well, welcome back to 2017. I'll just add a few comments about fire imagery. I really do love it! Right now, I'm listening to "Burning Love" by Elvis Presley, whose lyrics are full of such imagery.

The stories that move me most in the Bible often involve images of fire or intense light; the burning bush, Pentecost, or the Transfiguration.

I've often written about the poem "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon on this blog. My favourite line of that poem, and quite possibly my favourite line of poetry of all time, is the line: "The fingers of fire are making corruption clean." That line sets my imagination alight!

Another reason I love this poem is because nothing jars in it. This may be a "negative" reason to love a poem, but it's good enough for me. None of the similes are incongruous or ridiculous, and the metre is smooth throughout. I like "smooth" poetry-- Tennyson, Yeats, Swinburne, Larkin and Christina Rossetti are outstanding proponents of smooth, polished verses. It's rare to find such smoothness in an Elizabethan-- whether that's due to changes in pronunciation over the centuries, or whether it was as true than as it is now, I don't know.

Edit, later in the day: I've been memorizing this poem, or rather re-memorizing, in order to recite it. Memorizing a poem may be the best way to savour it! I'm struck even more by how well-constructed it is.

It has one line that, in my view, is very awkwardly phrased:

As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.

This doesn't trip off the tongue-- rather, it trips the tongue up, so to speak. And that's a fault in poetry, in my view.

But the rest of the poem does trip off the tongue. The lines all fit neatly in the verse structure-- enjambment is sometimes a worthwhile technique, but I think it should be used rarely. There's something very satisfying in parallelism such as this:

Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns; 
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals, 
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,

"The Burning Babe" wouldn't be in the front rank of my favourite poems-- it couldn't rival "Ulysses" or "Locksley Hall" by Tennyson, or "To Helen" by Edgar Allen Poe, or "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon. But it's pretty good!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Ride Like the Wind

Three years ago, at this very time of year, I was visiting a house of a couple I'd never met before. They seemed nice, but they turned out to be complete and utter jerks, and to have a very baneful influence on my life. I like to boast that I'm the fairest-minded person I've ever met. It's a joke, but it's also kind of true. I really do try to see things from every perspective, and to take criticism seriously. I'm easy meat for jerks like these. As they got to know me better, both became extremely critical of me-- "candid friends", that kind of thing-- and it took me a long, long time to realise nothing they said was true, fair or reasonable.

That's all by the by. They had music on. It was on some kind of computer programme, and the titles of the songs appeared on the screen as each song played. One particular song that was playing took my fancy, and I made a note of the title; Slow Boat to China.

However, when I sought it out later on, I couldn't find it. The song I heard wasn't Slow Boat to China. The songs and titles must have been out of synch.

All I knew of the song was the refrain: "Ba-ba-ba-ba, ba ba BA ba!". Bashfully, I tried humming this to various people, pop culture savants who I thought might recognize it. None of them did. I tried searching on the internet, but I had no luck. (To be honest, I was rather pleased I couldn't find it. In our information overloaded age, it's nice NOT to find something.)

Then tonight...I heard it, completely at random! The song is "Ride Like the Wind" by Christopher Cross. It's a song about a convict fleeing to Mexico. I was surprised at the subject matter, as the tune itself is quite jaunty.

Of course, I was very pleased to hear it. And I can't help hoping it's an omen. The entrance of these jerks into my life heralded a steep dip in fortunes. They can't take all the blame for that, but I do associate them with it. I can't help hoping, now, that some kind of curse is broken.

I have these fancies all the time. I don't want to see ET, which I've never seen, because I didn't watch it on the last day of school in 1988, when it was being shown in one class-room. (It was an undisciplined day when we were allowed to wander from classroom to classroom, and I chose not to watch it.)  As long as I haven't seen it, I feel that both the eighties and my childhood aren't entirely over.



Wistfulness

Today was the last day of work, and it always makes me feel melancholy. All those goodbyes. Next time we see the library Christmas trees and decorations they will be taking them down.

I got four Christmas cards this year. One from the president of my horror club, thanking me for all my help and positivity, and encouraging me in my writing. One from my office mate, including four Christmas-themed puns on philosophers' names. One from my philosopher friend Harvey, looking forward to more deep discussions over coffee next year. And one from my old sort-of-Anglican friend Paul, with a barebones message. (He's not much of a writer.)

(I got some very kind Christmas gifts, too.)

It's funny how much Christmas cards mean....to me, anyway. I know not everybody likes them, because one member of my horror club let it be known that he didn't want any. But I like them.

Even free e-cards...you know, like these ones.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

In Defence of the Hippy Priest...Well, Not Quite

Here is another article from my Catholic Voice column, which appeared fortnightly for about two years in 2014 and 2015.

I'm posting this for two reasons. One is that I've been preoccupied with other things recently, and I want to keep the blog ticking over, so people won't stop coming back to it. The more relevant reason is that I've recently been encountering a lot of very bullish Catholic conservatives-- the sort who seem to delight in shocking other Catholics with their rigorourism, who strive to be as uncompromising as possible, and who are constantly denouncing modernism, liberalism and relativism.

I'm a conservative Catholic myself and I'm acutely aware of the ravages of liberalism, modernism and relativism in the Catholic Church. However, I think we have to guard against overreactions. And I think that, despite all its perversions, there's a core of merit in the philosophy of the "hippy priest". Bear with me...

A Dire Decade

I grew up in the Ireland of the nineteen-eighties. It was a pretty crummy period of Irish history by any standards—unemployment, emigration and the Troubles leap to mind. It didn’t really have much going for it culturally or intellectually, either. Even the triumphs of the Irish international soccer team lay in the future.

But nostalgia is irrepressible. My dawning consciousness of the drama of human life occurred against the backdrop of nineteen-eighties Ireland, and I can’t help getting ‘the warm fuzzies’ when I encounter (or simply remember) some of the images of that time—like the video montage over which RTE television used to play the national anthem every night, before the end of broadcasting.

As for the Irish Catholic Church of nineteen-eighties, it’s pretty easy to see that it was in a very sorry shape, despite high Mass attendance and the continuing influence that it enjoyed over social attitudes (overstated though that influence undoubtedly was, and is). It was the era of the ‘hippy priest’, not to mention the ‘hippy nun’.

Charlie Haughey, Irish Taoiseach of the eighties
Mary Kenny describes it very well in her book Goodbye to Catholic Ireland:

“The Irish bishops’ pastoral, from 1978 onwards, also emphasised justice as the primary virtue, although it is most infrequently invoked in the New Testament. The Trócaire agency, widely supported by the clergy and the hierarchy, was set up to aid the poor in Third World countries, displaying a distinctly Marxist flavour in its crusades. Gone was the time when “Ireland’s spiritual Empire” emphasised the saving of souls and the need to bring Christ to the poor. Now the objective, according to Trócaire’s advertising hoardings, was the defeat of white South Africa’s expansionist designs on Mozambique, and the moral wickedness of trading with Johannesburg at all…

“The letters columns of the newspapers were so full of denunciations from priests and nuns of the wickedness of President Reagan that one Jesuit wrote wondering why no one seemed to suggest saying prayers for the poor, misguided President’s soul…

“And throughout the 1980s there was a growing view among the more influential clergy that prohibitions—notably sexual ones—had been overemphasised in the past and that we should be less exercised by the peccadilloes of the flesh…by 1981 Father Ralph Gallagher was writing in praise of the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

It’s a familiar landscape to anyone over the age of thirty-five, I would guess.

Religious education suffered especially. Though self-quotation is an obnoxious practice, I’m going to indulge in it now. This is something I wrote elsewhere about my own religious education at a Catholic secondary school—in the early nineties rather than the eighties, admittedly:

“The religious instruction we received was poor, apart from our first year, where an old and intensely loveable nun taught us about the mysteries of the rosary, the Fatima apparitions, the story of Maximillian Kolbe, and other solid fare. After that, religion class became, more or less, a succession of inspirational videos (mostly feature films like Shadowlands and Not Without My Daughter) and pop psychology.”

Well, you get the picture, and I don’t think any readers of The Catholic Voice need convincing about any of this, anyway. The Catholic Church in nineteen-eighties Ireland definitely took a lurch towards the over-politicised, the worldly and the trendy. (Of course, it had been steering in this direction for some time already.) Sin was soft-pedalled. The call to repentance tended to be replaced by a message that God loved you just as you were. We were all going direct to Heaven.

Along Came the JPII Generation…

"Here I come to save the day...."
Things have changed. There are fewer Irish seminarians today, but they tend to be more orthodox than their predecessors—more orthodox than some of their professors, even. More recently ordained priests are much less likely to be ‘hippy priests’. Young people who take their Catholic faith seriously know they are swimming against the tide, and have quite consciously chosen the Holy Spirit over the spirit of the age. And the Irish bishops are showing an increasing willingness to speak out on those matters where Catholicism comes into collision with modern culture, rather than sticking with vague, safe denunciations of greed and consumerism. (The very week that I write this, the bishops issued a robust defence of marriage, ahead of the same-sex ‘marriage’ referendum next year.)

All of this is wonderful, and I rejoice in it. I have heard the term “JPII generation” being used quite a lot, along with the similar term “Generation Benedict”. I would definitely consider myself a card-carrying member of both generations, if such a thing were possible. Catholics who grew up, or who discovered their faith, during those two pontificates—if they were paying any attention at all—witnessed two very important things; one was the devastating consequences of the Catholic Church’s attempt to pander to secular society, while the other was the inspirational witness of two great counter-cultural Popes. The ‘JPII generation’ and ‘Generation Benedict’ are unlikely to repeat the mistakes and follies of the recent past— God be praised!

And yet, and yet, and yet….

And yet, as I mull over memories of my childhood and adolescence, and of the Church of that period, I can’t help feeling a sneaking regard for its ‘hippy Catholicism’, in some respects.

Images come to my mind. One particular image—one that made a profound impression on me, one that I’ve never forgotten—is from the day that I collected my Junior Certificate results. We collected them at our school, in the morning, and were let off for the rest of the day. I remember walking home, a little way behind a larger group of my classmates. And I remember a Catholic priest, in his clerical garb, standing on the Ballymun Road and shaking the hand of every school child who passed. I noted particularly that he did not ask any of them about their results. He just said ‘well done’ to every one of them in turn. He was plainly standing there on the street just so he could do that.

To a teenager beleaguered by endless talk of results, and college places, and the points race, the point he was making was loud and clear—“You are not your results, and your worth is not measured by success or failure, or by any exam.”



Was he a ‘hippy priest’? He may not have been, for all I know. But his little act of charity and encouragement seemed to be very typical of Irish Catholicism at that time. It expressed the same message that was dinned into us over and over in religious retreats in school that resembled encounter groups; on TV shows like A Prayer at Bedtime; in newspaper opinion pieces by priests with names like Fr. Eddie or Fr. Des; by posters in chaplain’s offices that showed sun-rays illuminating cornfields; by happy-clappy multilingual chants led by guitar-playing nuns dressed in cardigans and pleated skirts. The message was that God loved us with a love that was deeper than we could ever imagine, and that this love was utterly unconditional.

The problem was not that too much emphasis was placed upon this message. God’s love and God’s mercy can’t be over-emphasised. The problem was that other truths were neglected almost completely—such as the truth that, although God’s love is indeed unconditional, the darkness in man’s heart is such that we can (and do) deliberately shut ourselves off from His love—and that we are in peril of shutting ourselves off from Him for all eternity.

There was a certain naivety to it all, too—a naivety both charming and fatal. The mental world of the ‘hippy priests’ seemed to posit only two choices—there was ‘consumerism’ and ‘the rat race’ on the one hand, and there was Catholicism on the other. There was little or no call for apologetics, for the rational defence of God’s existence. There was no need to assert the truth of Catholicism over and against that of Evangelical Christianity, or Marxism, or Buddhism, or Mormonism, or atheism. Religion was essentially a matter of the heart, and the heart would not lead you astray—sure, didn’t everybody really believe in God and Christ deep down, anyway? As long was we were as gentle as doves, there was really no need to be as wise as serpents.

In all this, the hippy priests (and the hippy nuns, and the hippy religion teachers) were taking for granted Irish Catholicism’s spiritual and intellectual capital, the legacy that previous generations had built up at such tremendous sacrifice. It never seemed to occur to them that one day that capital might run out. But that is exactly what happened—and quicker than anyone could have anticipated.

Feel the Love

And yet, as I say, my purpose here is not to denounce this hippy Catholicism. My purpose is to render due honour.

One particular reparation that I feel I should make concerns my religious education. As mentioned, I have been publicly critical of it, and with good cause. I have complained of the lack of solid catechesis, the preoccupation with pop psychology, the reliance upon inspirational feature films.

I wrote those complaints several years ago. Since that time, I’ve realised how much my religious education at secondary school lingers in my memory, and how much I left out of my previous description.

For one thing, there was the charitable and community activities that it involved. I remember that we visited a local ‘special’ school, and had the students from the ‘special’ school visit us in turn. We played basketball together. I remember, too, we visited a local old folks’ home and spent an hour or so chatting to the people living there. (I remember how awkward and wretched I felt there—I was intensely shy—and I’m sure it did me a power of good.) I remember we spent several weeks before Christmas studying the issue of homelessness, and making a charitable collection for the homeless. Such lessons in practical Christianity can only be a good thing, and I think that this kind of social consciousness was also typical of ‘hippy Catholicism’.

Besides this, the very ‘inspirational feature films’ that I mentioned so disdainfully have, quite often, also lingered in my memory, and have had (I think) an enduring influence. We watched films such as Shadowlands, The Killing Fields, On Golden Pond, Rain Man, and Ironweed. The very fact that we were watching them with a moral purpose, in a serious way, impressed me deeply. Silly as it sounds, some part of me has never left that video screening room. And, once again, this seems to me typical of hippy Catholicism—there was a rage for relevancy. And these screenings did, indeed, impress upon me that contemporary life, pop culture and the ‘adult’ world all had a spiritual aspect to them.

So, if I am not holding up ‘hippy’ Catholicism as a model—and I am most certainly not—what is it that I think we should salvage from it?

This one thing, if nothing else—its fervent affirmation of Christ’s declaration that “the very hairs on your head are all numbered”. For all its failings, hippy Catholicism had a profound commitment to this idea that every human being is precious. Its imagination was gripped by it. And it did convey it very vividly.



I realise that many people think there is no need for such a doctrine today, that we live in an ‘I’m OK—You’re OK” society where self-esteem and self-congratulation are all-too-prevalent—that we need knocking down rather than building up.

I don’t agree. I believe that, though we may not be weighed down with a sense of sin, many of us are crushed by a sense of our own worthlessness, even by sheer self-hatred. I think the prevalence of suicide and self-harm attest to this, as does our mania for self-improvement and self-help books, as does the popularity of that awful word ‘loser’. I think our urge towards self-affirmation and ‘self-esteem’ actually points to this inner emptiness. And I think it is a malady that can only be healed, not by acquiring the body beautiful, or by ‘getting ahead’, or by self-improvement of any kind, but by the knowledge that we are truly created in the image and likeness of God, and that God loves us with a love that knows no bounds. Let us be no less fervent than any ‘hippy priest’ in proclaiming that truth to the world. It is needed now more than ever.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Regarding Cultural Christianity

One of the debates that keeps swirling around amongst Christians in our post-Christian society is what attitude we should take towards secularization. There are Christians who believe that secularization is a good thing, since power and influence are inherently corrupting, and it's better for Christians to be swimming against the tide than sunning themselves in the world's favour.

On the other hand, there are Christians (nearly all of whom are Catholic or Orthodox) who seem intent upon a restoration of Christendom. They formulate blueprints for a Catholic society, and don't seem in the least bit put out by the unlikelihood of these blueprints being actualised any time soon. Talking to them can be quite disorientating; for them, it seems, the High Middle Ages were only yesterday, and everything that's happened since is simply (to quote Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreations) a mistake.

I take a different view from both of these. I don't think secularisation is a good thing. But I don't pine for a restoration of Christendom, either.

I think the crucial distinction here is between religion itself and the social order. To welcome secularisation itself, or even to be indifferent to it, is to accept that human beings-- who are, as the Catechism tells us, inherently religious beings-- are frustrating their own deepest nature. That can't be good, can it?

On the other hand, I see no reason to believe that the social order which accompanied a particular era of Catholic history is replicable in today's world-- even if every single person in a given society were to become Catholic. The realities of technology, the economy, and the international order have changed drastically.

Yes, there is such a thing as Catholic social teaching, but (as Pope Benedict put it in Caritas in Veritate) "The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim to interfere in any way in the politics of states.” Thinking in terms of a Catholic social order is, I think we can say, a mistake. Rather we should think in terms of the Catholic principles (solidarity, subsidiarity, human dignity) which can pervade any number of different social orders.

And surely it's a good thing for these principles to pervade society? Accepting that Christians usually fall short of their ideals, even egregiously so, surely any attempt to live up to that ideal is good in itself? For instance, it seems silly to argue that Christianity had no buttressing effect on the institution of marriage, throughout the centuries it dominated European and American society. And the same applies to abortion, euthanasia, indecency, and so forth.

As well as this, I think it's fair to say that Christianity has an ennobling effect on culture. Even the darkest product of Christendom, such as Matthias Grunewald's depictions of the Crucifixion, never descend to the depths of nihilism and cynicism seen in post-Christian art and entertainment.

From a purely spiritual point of view, I think it's also desirable for Christianity to pervade society as much as possible. The argument is often made that bad Christianity will drive people away from religion altogether. I've seen examples of that. But I believe that it's much more important that people should hear about God, Jesus, the soul, sin, grace, and all the other concepts of Christianity. And not only hear about them as one piece of general knowledge amongst many others, but with all the prestige and grandeur which attaches to those concepts in a Christian society.

The parables and words of Jesus are so powerful that they tend to take hold in the imagination, if they are given sufficient opportunity. This is why even militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan often proclaim themselves Christians, in a non-supernatural sense. It explains, too, how even an anti-Christian philosopher such as Friedrich Nietzsche or an anti-clerical author such as James Joyce can draw on Christian themes and imagery so extensively.

The more Jesus is a presence in any society, I believe, the more likely it is that any given person will be drawn to him, and to his Church.

For all these reasons, I am a defender of cultural Christianity. It's not real Christianity, of course, but it's an atmosphere amenable to real Christianity. And its loss is a great loss.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Novel Suggestion

Early this year, I got rather absorbed in writing a novel, a novel with a religious theme. I wrote about six or seven chapters, I think. I was very enthusiastic about it at the time, but then I began to doubt anyone would want to publish it or read it.

A friend who kindly read the chapters as I wrote them was also enthusiastic about it. In fact, he's been strongly urging me not to abandon it-- which is very nice of him.

I'd like to know what other people think. If anyone feels like giving the existing chapter a read, just get in touch with me at Maolsheachlann@gmail.com.

And no worries if you don't. I know people are very busy and have lots to read. I won't be bothered in the least if nobody takes me up. It's just a thought.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Dying of the Light

Recently, on the Irish Conservatives Forum, there's been a bit of discussion about the spiritual life of England-- more particularly, how healthy it is, whether it still exists, and whether (assuming it's moribund) it has any hope of revival.

This is an article I wrote for the Catholic Voice some years ago. (I jumped when I re-read the reference to being thirty-six!) It was written for an Irish readership, so there are some Irish cultural references that non-Irish people are unlikely to get. But not many. I'm not sure why I listed I'm Alan Partridge among shows I've never watched, since I've often watched it and know some scenes almost off by heart. A slip, no doubt.

My writing style grows more fastidious with the years-- sometimes I wince when I read something I've written even as recently as this. I would never talk about a "trunkful" of anything now, unless it was actually filling a trunk.

The Light of Faith

“Once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim”. These beautiful words are taken from Lumen Fidei, the last encyclical written by Pope Benedict XVI (with some finishing touches from Pope Francis). I believe in their truth with all my heart. I see evidence of it everywhere. And I think it’s a point that Christians should make insistently and forcefully, in our efforts to re-evangelise the Western world.


Pope Emeritus Benedict has often written of the boredom that afflicts modern man when he rejects God, and when he rejects the transcendental dimension of life. (From his Introduction of Christianity: “In the leaden loneliness of a God-forsaken world, in its interior boredom, the search for mysticism, for any sort of contact with the divine, has sprung up anew.”)

‘Boredom’ is a strange word to use, perhaps, in describing a godless society. We tend to reach for words like ‘emptiness’, or ‘meaninglessness’, or ‘alienation’, instead. Perhaps, in envisaging a society that has turned its back on God, we picture neon lights and nightclubs and dancing girls, or similarly heady images. But boredom? Surely not boredom.

And yet, I think that Pope Benedict—profound and original thinker that he is—has got it exactly right, in this instance as in so many others. When a society rejects God, it becomes a boring society. And not only boring, but banal. The banality of post-Christian society is perhaps the worst thing about it. And if not the worst, it’s certainly the most pervasive.

A post-Christian society is boring, and bored, because only the sacred and the otherworldly can satisfy the human capacity for awe and wonder.

I am thirty-six years of age. I grew up in a post-Christian society. I never experienced a world where Christianity was simply assumed to be true. Matthew Arnold had written about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “sea of faith” even before my grandparents were born. (Like King Charles II, God has been “an unconscionable long time dying”.)

So I cannot claim to have witnessed Ireland’s transition from a Catholic to a post-Catholic nation. But I suppose I came in at the end, and caught the last act of the drama. And it seems glaringly obvious to me that even the difference between a residually Christian society (like the Ireland of the nineteen-eighties) and a predominately secular one (like the Ireland of today), is quite substantial.

Take any example. Take the most trivial example you can think of. Take, for instance, the difference between The Late Late Show of Gay Byrne and The Late Late Show of Ryan Tubridy. Or take Charlie Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald, as opposed to Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny. Or the comedian Dave Allen as opposed to Tommy Tiernan.


Now, these are all deliberately trivial examples, and I’m certainly not expressing wild enthusiasm for any of the first set. But isn’t there a perceptible decline in class, in depth, in gravitas, even here? Isn’t even a Church-bashing comedian like Dave Allen, coming from a more Christian context, a lot classier than a Church-bashing so-called comedian like Tommy Tiernan? Isn’t even a liberal like Garrett Fitzgerald, reared in a strongly Christian atmosphere, more intellectually serious than a political opportunist like Enda Kenny?

I firmly believe that even this small difference—as well as the much greater difference between the Ireland of W.B. Yeats and John McCormack and Walter Macken and all those other luminaries, and the Ireland of today—comes down to Christianity. “Once the light of faith goes out, all other lights begin to dim.” A Christian culture is saturated with ideas of the sacred, of the sublime, of the eternal, of mystery. Even the village atheist (and Ireland certainly had her share of village atheists) can’t help absorbing these ideas—and reflecting them.

But, though the banality of secularism has entered deeply into the soul of Ireland, I would venture to say that the process is far from complete. The sun may have set but the evening light lingers in the sky. I think we have to look across the Irish Sea—to the country that Matthew Arnold was writing about in his poem ‘Dover Beach’, which I quoted above—to see the banality of secularism in its full glory.

There’ll Always Be an England?


But before I start writing about England, I want to make one thing clear. I have been an anglophile all my life. I can’t remember a time when my imagination was not stirred by the land of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, P.G. Wodehouse, Lord Tennyson, John Betjeman, Hammer horrors, Carry On movies, Keith Waterhouse and Tom Sharpe. Even the rugged beauty of place-names like Sussex and Brompton and Halifax speak to something deep in my soul.


So I take no pleasure at all in the claim that I am going to make here; that the soul of England has perished, and that this is because it has so completely rejected its Christian heritage.

The Church of England had to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Only about six per cent of the UK’s population go to church. Back in March, The Daily Mail reported that just 800,000 people attend Church of England services on an average Sunday. This in a nation of fifty-six million souls. It’s true that attendance is higher amongst Catholics, and that Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are growing. But these have made very little impact on the surrounding culture.

The idea has even grown up that England is an intrinsically irreligious nation, that the muddle-headedness of Anglican theology is simply the proper spirituality of a people who hate dogma and are embarrassed by anything as earnest and emotive as religion.

A funny notion, really, for a nation whose Civil War, only a few centuries ago, was close to being a war of religion; for the land of St. Thomas More, St. Thomas Beckett, John Milton, Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley and Guy Fawkes, The Canterbury Tales and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

I cherish this refrain from a medieval English drinking song: “Bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale, for our blessed Lady’s sake, bring us in good ale.” In those few words are expressed the deeply Christian soul of ‘Merrie England’.

So how can I say that the soul of England is now dead? For one thing, because it’s not just me saying it. In recent times, there has been almost an industry of books lamenting the death of England. The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens is the best I’ve read, while England: an Elegy by Roger Scruton follows close behind. Similar titles (which I haven’t read) include The Death of Britain? by John Redwood and Anyone for England? by Clive Aslett.



If you want to see evidence of the death of England, just turn on your television and tune in to the BBC or any other British channel. There is a deeply depressive, nearly nihilistic undertone to almost every broadcast. I see this in many of the British shows which (I hasten to add) I don’t watch, but snippets of which I’ve seen. Shows like The Inbetweeners, I’m Alan Partridge, Teachers and The Royle Family reflect such a bleak view of human nature and of human life that it’s staggering. Characters are rude to each other as a matter of course. Everybody seems to be miserable all the time. Most of all, nobody seems to believe in anything—not just in God, but in anything.

This is true even of good English TV shows. I watched the comedy series Rev, which follows a Church-of-England vicar who shepherds a vanishingly-small inner-city congregation in London. The show is notable for taking religion seriously, but it’s almost relentlessly downbeat. The reverend Adam Smallbone’s best friend is a down-and-out who smokes cannabis (Adam sometimes joins him) and reads pornographic magazines. The handful of people who turn up to church are eccentric and directionless. The Archdeacon who makes Adam’s life a misery is a snobbish careerist. London is presented in the dingiest and grungiest light possible.

Or take the very successful show The Office, which was a ‘mockumentary’ set in a paper office in Slough, and won a trunkful of awards. I loved it when it came out, but since I’ve become a fan of the later American version, I can’t watch the English version anymore. The American Office is more or less upbeat, warm-hearted and life affirming. The English Office is almost sadistically bleak. I believe that the difference is down to the fact that America is a Christian country and England is not.


Contemporary English entertainments that do take a romantic view of life tend to be either set in the past—the endless proliferation of costume dramas and period detective mysteries—or else in an imaginary world that draws on the past, such as the Harry Potter series, which owes so much to Enid Blyton-style school stories of yesteryear.

No More Beer and Sandwiches

I see the same absence of any kind of deep belief, any source of unabashed idealism, when I read the opinion pieces of English newspapers. Any discussion of religion, or of English national identity, or of any other ‘high-flown’ subject, is inevitably conducted in an infuriatingly flippant manner. Public intellectuals like Terry Eagleton, Will Self and Simon Schama seem to wear a perpetual simper, and to trade in an all-embracing irony.

It was not always thus. I was deeply surprised, not long ago, when I learned that a ‘National Festival of Light’, in protest against the permissive society and the increase of sex and violence in the mass media, had been held in England in 1970. Its leading figures included Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Whitehouse and Cliff Richard. Amazingly, almost half a million people joined its rally in London, and a hundred thousand people took part in smaller rallies around the nation. Four decades later, this is impossible even to imagine.


It isn’t just Christian idealism that seems to have disappeared from English life. Where is the beer-and-sandwiches socialism of the working men’s clubs and the night schools? Where are all the port-drinking, Punch-reading High Tories? What vision of human life animates English souls today? None that I can think of. And, in their absence, the nation seems to have sunk into an atmosphere of all-pervading cynicism at worst, of ironic world-weariness at best.

It’s true that a certain gloom has always been a part of the English psyche. Eeyore, of the Winnie the Pooh stories, is a typically English creation. English culture, from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf to the paintings of L.S. Lowry, has always shown a rather Eeyorish streak.

But the point is that, for a millennia and a half, this was offset by the joy of the Christian Gospel. In every culture it meets, Christianity takes whatever it encounters, purifies it, and ennobles it. The sun of Christianity, shining on the soil of England, gave the world the poetry of William Blake, the paintings of John Constable, the ghost stories of M.R. James, the fussy vicars of Anthony Trollope, and ten thousand other cultural treasures besides. But now—in my opinion, at least—that England is dead and gone. And our own nation seems to be well along the same path.

Truly, when once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim.

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Christmas Carol by George Wither

In putting together a library display of Christmas books, I came across this seventeenth century Christmas carol by George Wither. This is the version as I found it, but I see from the internet that the carol itself is much longer (too long, I'd say).

It's full of the spirit of "Merrie England" that I love so much. Also, I'm a fan of lyrics and poems that end with the same line, or a variant thereof, in each stanza.

Here it is. I hope some readers like it.

O, now is come our joyful Feast;
Let ever man be jolly.
Each room, with Ivy leaves is dressed.
And every Post, with Holly.
Though some churls at our mirth repine.
Round your foreheads Garlands twine,
Drown sorrow in a Cup of Wine.
And let us all be merry. 


Now, all our Neighbours Chimneys smoke.
And Christmas blocks are burning;
Their Ovens, they with baked-meats choke.
And all their Spits are turning.
Without the door, let sorrow lie:
And, if for cold, it hap to die,
We’ll bury ’t in a Christmas Pie.
And evermore be merry. 


Now, every Lad is wondrous trim,
And no man minds his Labour.
Our Lasses have provided them,
A Bag-pipe, and a Tabor.
Young men, and Mayds, and Girles & Boyes,
Give life, to one anothers Joys:
And, you anon shall by their noise
Perceive that they are merry. 


The Client now his suit forbeares,
The Prisoners heart is eased,
The Debtor drinks away his cares.
And, for the time is pleased.
Though others purses be more fat.
Why should we pine or grieve at that ?
Hang sorrow, care will kill a Cat.
And therefore let ’s be merry.'

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Triple Standard

In the past few weeks, my daily reading has been guided by what I call my "triple standard" (the term just popped into my head). This is a resolution to read a bit of Irish language material, a bit of poetry (especially long poetry), and a bit of Scripture every day. It's actually not that hard and I've usually fulfilled this aspiration by noon.

I'm endlessly fascinated by the idea of going against the tide. "Fascinated" isn't even a strong enough word; electrified, transported, captivated, might be better words. There is something about going against the tide, or walking uphill, or fighting against superior odds, that seems to me like a sort of primordial drama. After all-- as I have said in my posts on contrarianism-- every single moment of life is a victory against the inertia of death. Every heartbeat is a sort of contrarianism. (I've sometimes wondered if growing up hearing stories of the 1916 Rising also influenced me in this. Irish people of a certain background grew up thinking that execution by firing squad was the happiest possible ending to a life.)

So, in these three literary pursuits, it's "going against the tide" more than anything else that motivates me.

Catholics are notorious for their reluctance to read the Bible. As is well know, it was a sin punishable by excommunication for a layman to even open the Bible until the Second Vatican Council. The reluctance has lingered. Whereas Baptists and Presbyterians can rattle off chapter and verse from Scripture, Catholics prefer to read Thomas Merton or G.K. Chesterton.

OK, that's an exaggeration, but there's an element of truth to it. The Bible is a difficult book to read. It's repetitive, laden with genealogies and lists of rules, and dense. This is especially true of the Old Testament, and it's mostly the Old Testament I struggle with. I'm fairly familiar with the New Testament, but there are whole tracts of the Old Testament which are more or less terra incognita to me.

And yet, this very denseness and difficulty is part of the appeal. The Bible has always captured my imagination, even when I was non-believer. A line from the Bible seems more potent than any amount of words from most other sources. I recently mentioned my trip to Kingston-upon-Hull in Yorkshire, some ten years ago. I visited an enormous aquarium, which contained a bewildering variety of marine life. And yet the thing that struck me most were the words over the entrance: "And the spirit of the Lord moved over the waters." Even at the time, this struck me as extraordinary. When I used the word "potent" earlier, the association with liquor was entirely appropriate. I think of Scripture as fire water. In fact, I think the same of poetry.

Here's another example of the potency of Scripture: many years ago, I was watching the classic horror film From Beyond the Grave, with my father. One scene, set in a bedroom, shows the framed text: "The wages of sin are death". "But the gift of God is eternal life" said my father. I was impressed at the way the Scriptural quotation gave the scene such gravitas. And it works the other way, too: when I read the Bible, or hear it read, the fact that so many lines and passages are familiar from quotation and allusion gives it an added power, as though it is the cradle of our entire culture.

Another thing that impels me towards the Bible is a sadness and shame at the loss of Scriptural knowledge in our culture. You only have to read a little to notice this. In fact, I think the decline is ongoing. I remember reading this joke in a recently-published kid's joke book when I was a boy: "Jenkins, who knocked down the walls of Jericho?" "I don't know, sir, but it wasn't me".

I suppose I can say that I want to read more Scripture to push against secularisation, I want to read more Irish to push against globalisation, and I want to read more poetry to push against rationalisation.

Of my "personal traditions", poetry is older than everything except horror. I've been an evangelical poetry lover since my teens, and I've resented the tyranny of prose for much of that time. As I return to reading poetry in a disciplined way, this old feeling revives. We should always be somewhat ashamed of prose. Poetry is literature; prose is good enough for instruction and entertainment. Honestly, is a novel much better than a game show as a form of diversion? What annoys me especially is novels (especially detective and thriller novels) that take their titles from poems. That kind of putting on airs is odious.

Admittedly I'm being provocative here, but that doesn't mean I'm kidding. And I could expand my argument to a more general level. My whole traditionalist conservative outlook is really nothing more than the desire to make society less prosaic and more poetic.

As for the Irish language, I wrote a lot about that last year. I want to be able to say legitimately that Irish is a part of my daily life. Every now and again, I feel such a wave of indignation at its decline that I feel like refusing to ever use English again. I realise even as I feel it that I will do no such thing. Irish is one of those causes that can't be given up, no matter how impossible its revival seems. Perhaps the tide of history will change some day.

In any case, my triple standard gives me a pleasant feeling of pushing against the tide, on three fronts, every day.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Craving for Solemnity

On this blog, and in my writing in general, and indeed in my life in general, I keep coming back to one particular theme, from many various angles. It's not my only theme but it's a pretty prominent one, and it runs through all the others.

Out of one thousand, six hundred and twelve posts on this blog, the one that means the most to me (other than my poem to Michelle) is this one, A Short History of my Priggishness.

In that post, I expressed something that has haunted me for as long as I can remember; a life-long craving for the solemn, the elevated, the refined, the special, the poetic. Not just in my life, but in the life of society in general. I'm going to use the phrase "solemnity" even though it's not exactly what I mean. It's only part of it.

Another post where I touched on the same theme was this verse-essay, In Praise of Solemnity, which got quite a good response.

This craving for solemnity is one of the reasons I'm a cultural nationalist, and a romantic nationalist. I elaborate on that in this post.

This craving for solemnity makes me bonkers for tradition, since even fun traditions are satisfyingly solemn. I've written at great length about my love of tradition on this blog, but especially in this series: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Since, in our post-modernist society, solemnity is often dismissed as "kitsch", and tack is often celebrated as ironic, I wrote a blog post on kitsch and tack, defending the former and blasting the latter.

My little purple notebook is full of moments where I glimpsed the kind of world, or the kind of atmosphere, I crave.

My post on the phrase "the dark side of the moon", and everything this evokes for me, explores the same territory.

The post I recently wrote about my teenage hankering for the fantasy city of Amber is, perhaps, my latest expression of this theme. I'm sure there are many more I've missed, though.

A friend once asked me how, given my love of solemnity, I'm not a devotee of the Latin Mass. I've puzzled over this, and come up with the answer: Mass is already the most solemn thing in modern life, even if it's the Ordinary Form. It's the most solemn thing by far. I don't need Mass to be any more solemn. That would be bringing coals to Newcastle (or sand to the beach, as Americans say). I need the rest of life to be more solemn.

This theme has been on my mind recently, as I've been reading long poetry-- Idylls of the King by Tennyson and Night Thoughts by Dr. Edward Young.

When I read poetry, it makes prose seem so flaccid to me. I become somewhat disdainful, not only of prose, but of everything prosaic. I want all writing to strive towards poetry, and all life to strive towards the poetic. The existence of Terry Pratchett novels, hen parties, and TV shows like Top Gear seems almost unbearable.

This craving for solemnity isn't just directed towards the outside world, though. I yearn to embody this in myself, and indeed I do try.

What value has all this? I'm not sure. This craving leads me towards the sacred, so it seems valuable in that regard. Whether the more aesthetic aspect has any value is not something I can really argue impartially. I'd like to think it does. In any case, this craving is so deeply-rooted in me, I imagine it's impossible to quench, even if I wanted to.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

To Hull and Back (Sorry)

Eleven years ago, I went to Hull for five days, on a holiday. Remarkably enough, this visit was recalled to me today for two reasons. One, that I happened to look at a Youtube video about the Martime Museum in Hull, which was the highlight of my visit, and probably the best museum I've ever visited (although I also liked the Jewish museums in Dublin and London); and two, because somebody commenting on a previous post asked if I had ever "written up" my visit. I never have. So here goes. I'm going to make it quick, since it's near my bedtime.

When I tell people I went to Hull on holiday, the reaction is nearly always the same: "Why on earth would you go to Hull?". Well, it was mostly to garner that very reaction. I've always been something of a contrarian. I dislike the idea of travelling to beauty spots or historic centres. I wanted to go somewhere utterly mundane.

People kept pushing me to travel. I was very anti-travel. I regret this now. I wish I had travelled more in my youth.

My choice of Hull wasn't completely random. At this time, my admiration for the poet Philip Larkin was at its peak. He spent his best years as the librarian in the university of Hull (and he died there). Larkin, like me, was a lover of the mundane and the provincial, so Hull suited his temperament. It also kept him a safe distance from admirers and journalists.

At this period of my life, I was posting a lot on the now-defunct Philip Larkin Society Forum. It was a real den of miserabilists and curmudgeons, though I look back on it with some nostalgia and affection. I even wrote an article for the Larkin Society magazine, which you can read here. I wish I had the paper copy for my archives. I also sent them my poetry, but it was rejected. This was a real blow.

The commenter asked my impressions of Hull, so I will be impressionistic.

What I remember most is the amount of pedestrianisation in the city centre, how clean everything was, and a kind of orangey--brick colour that predominated.

I remember how portly many of the people of Hull were. But they seemed to be a jolly kind of fat.

I had breakfast in a café on several occasions, and the big greasy sausages were both delicious and consistent with the amount of portliness in evidence.

I went to a pub called The Admiral of the Humber for dinner. I had spaghetti bolognese. The barman, who looked like Chris Finch from the Office, addressed me as "young man". I was flattered by this even back then. I remember there was considerable joviality in the pub, which I don't remember closely but I do remember was very nice.

I went to the Deep, which is an underground aquarium-- Europe's biggest, or the world's biggest, or something like that. The thing that struck me the most was a caption over the inside entrance, from Genesis-- the one about God's spirit moving on the face of the waters. This surprised me, and stirred my imagination, although I was still an agnostic at this time. Alongside the escalator leading down to the aquarium is (or was) a timeline on which the scale of evolution is pictured. That sticks in my head, as well.

The Deep itself was rather overwhelming-- as I walked around it, I realized I wasn't going to retain even a fraction of the information all around me. This always gives me a sense of futility. I remember seeing a small shark. I remember reading an information panel that told me the weight of plankton in the seas exceeded the weight of all the other creatures on earth-- I think.

I was very struck by the name of a little street in the city centre, which was The Land of Green Ginger. I wondered if this was a dinky, quaint, made-up name. I learned subsequently that it's not. Nobody knows where it comes from, which makes it a real name. The street contains the smallest window in the British Isles-- I think.

I never went to the University of Hull, or saw Larkin's grave, though I did visit a graveyard.

I was stopped by a market researcher on the street and participated in market research for some sports drink. She said she loved my accent. I was also stopped by a radio crew asking me how much I would spend on a first date. I declined to answer.

Simply Red, the blue-eyed soul band from Manchester (who I quite like) were scheduled to play in Hull soon after my visit. A huge screen somewhere in the city centre had a short video on constant loop, advertising it. "Simply Red are coming back to Yorkshire" was how it began.

I remember there was an indoor shopping centre which used nautical terms as the names of its malls. (Hull was a whaling city for a long time.) There was a sign on the bathroom saying: "Be aware a female cleaner may clean this bathroom". The only internet access I could find was an internet café which had just opened in this mall.

I was surprised by the popularity of rugby league (a variety of rugby, distinct from the more popular rugby union). I got the impression, from headlines and radio and so forth, that it was the most popular sport of the city. However, it might simply have been that there was a big rugby league game coming up at the time.

Another thing that struck me was the sense of nostalgia which pervaded the city. The local newspapers all seemed to have columns about Hull in the old days. These obviously weren't aimed at tourists, but at locals. I seem to remember there was a lot of books about Hull and Hull history, as well.

I was disappointed that there were more Yeats books than Larkin books in the local Waterstones. I prefer Yeats to Larkin, but I felt Larkin should have pre-eminence in his hometown.

I saw a book with the title Goodbye Hessel Road, written by a local author. This sticks in my mind as the title is (in my view) incredibly evocative. Hessel Road is a place in Hull, of course.

I can't remember much more. I spent a lot of time tramping the streets. I've written a post about my impressions of the Maritime Museum, which you can find here. It includes a poem I wrote about it.

As I mention in that post, Hull was voted the worst place to live in the UK the very week I visited it. When I got back to Dublin, I wrote a letter to a Hull newspaper defending it, and they published it. This led to a Hull gentleman called Sid contacting me-- he was a man in his eighties, or his nineties, who had lived quite a tragic life. His parents had lost their business in the Blitz. He was in love with a woman in his youth but he had never married her-- I don't remember why. He kept sending me letters and we spoke on the phone once. I found it hard to speak to him on the phone (I hate speaking to anyone on the phone) and I stopped responding to him eventually. I feel very bad about this now. God bless his soul, I imagine he is no longer with us.

I'm glad I went to Hull. It's "my" place in a way that Rome or Venice or New York could never be. People tell me about it when they hear about it on the news, and I (rather casually) follow Hull City in the soccer results. I'm pretty sure I'll never go back, though.

Finished Idllys of the King

Well, I've achieved a personal goal in finally finishing Lord Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King, a long poem I've intended to read for many, many years. I embarked on it several times in the past but never saw it through. I've read a lot about the poem, as well-- there is quite a wealth of critical writing devoted to it. This pleases me, as I love commentary of every kind.

I wrote a "report" on it for the "Whatcha Reading?" thread on the Irish Conservatives Forum, and I give a slightly amended version of that here.





From at least my early teens Tennyson has been one of my favourite poets. I've always loved "Ulysses", "The Chorus of the Lotos Eaters", "Locksley Hall", and (most relevant here) "The Passing of Arthur". "The Passing of Arthur" is a blank verse account of King Arthur's end which Tennyson wrote quite early in his career. Over many years, he added other stories to this to make Idylls of the King, which is a series of twelve narrative poems, set against the background of King Arthur's foundation of Camelot and its subsequent decline. Each of the Idylls tells a different story, and there is a narrative thread through them all, but it's not written as one continuous tale. The basic narrative thread is this: King Arthur, with the help of Merlin, founds the order of the Round Table and the city of Camelot in order to bring peace to a chaotic Britain, which is torn between the Roman legions (which he finally expels) and pagan tribes. The Idylls describes the Round Table's foundation, flourishing, and ultimate decline and dissolution.

It's hard to believe that the Idylls were an enormous success at the time of their publication (they were published over a period of years). It seems like nobody reads this kind of long poetry now, other than academics. I must confess I made several efforts in the past to read them and gave up. I'm glad I persisted.

The story is a very dark one. It's much more concerned with the fall of Camelot than with its splendour. As most people will know, Arthur's queen Guinevere commits adultery with his foremost knight, Lancelot. This original act of disloyalty spreads moral contagion through Camelot, and one by one almost all the characters are corrupted in one way or another.

The actual delineation of this corruption is very subtle. Here is one example. In one of the later idylls, "The Holy Grail", many of the knights of Camelot take a vow to seek the Grail, the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper, which a nun has seen in a vision. But this, too, is a symptom of degeneration, since King Arthur (who is absent when these vows are made) berates his knights for seeking spiritual excitement rather than following the knightly vows they had already taken. And, indeed, the Grail Quest is a terrible failure-- only a third of the knights return, and most of them never see the Grail.

Throughout the Idylls, King Arthur is blamed by various characters for demanding ideals which are too lofty, and which are even described as impossible to fulfill. Indeed, Arthur himself wonders at times if this is the case. Guinevere tells Lancelot that she falls in love with him, rather than the King, because Arthur is almost inhuman in his idealism; "For who loves me must have a touch of earth". It's interesting that the Idylls were written at the height of the Victorian era, since Victorian England has often been lambasted for its hypocrisy and double standards. This is a debate that seems to recur throughout history, in many different contexts: should we adopt exalted standards which are difficult to attain, and run the risk of hypocrisy, or should we be more realistic? As a romantic I am more on the side of King Arthur than his critics.

The poem dramatises the backlash against idealism when one of the Round Table's most idealistic knights, Pelleas, becomes so horrified at the corruption within Camelot that he embraces nihilism. He reinvents himself as the Red Knight and creates an anti-Camelot whose vows are all the opposite of Camelot, and declares war on King Arthur.

An even more interesting departure from Arthur's idealism is the knight Tristram, who is a proponent of naturalism and realism. I think Tennyson's insight into human nature must have been quite deep, because I've noticed that Tristram-like figures very often come along, in human history, after a period of idealism. The speech in which he admits his lack of belief in King Arthur's ideals is often quoted by critics. It reminds me of the fall from idealism after the winning of Irish independence, when the Irish people essentially gave up on the Irish language and other ideals of cultural renewal, and just concentrated on bread and butter issues:

[Arthur] seemed to me no man,
But Michael trampling Satan; so I sware,
Being amazed: but this went by--The vows!
O ay--the wholesome madness of an hour--
They served their use, their time; for every knight
Believed himself a greater than himself,
And every follower eyed him as a God;
Till he, being lifted up beyond himself,
Did mightier deeds that elsewise he had done,
And so the realm was made; but then their vows--
First mainly through that sullying of our Queen--
Began to gall the knighthood, asking whence
Had Arthur right to bind them to himself?
Dropt down from heaven? washed up from out the deep?
They failed to trace him through the flesh and blood
Of our old kings: whence then? a doubtful lord
To bind them by inviolable vows,
Which flesh and blood perforce would violate:
For feel this arm of mine--the tide within
Red with free chase and heather-scented air,
Pulsing full man; can Arthur make me pure
As any maiden child? lock up my tongue
From uttering freely what I freely hear?
Bind me to one? The wide world laughs at it.

This is reminiscent of Kevin O'Higgins, a very hardheaded Irish politician of the post-independence period, who insisted that the idealistic programme of the first Dáil was "mostly poetry."

In fact, it's reminiscent of the Irish people's attitude to the Irish Revival in general. The unspoken view common amongst the Irish people seems to be that cultural nationalism and Gaelic romanticism was appropriate to the struggle for independence-- "the wholesome madness of an hour"-- but is no longer relevant today, now that we have our own government. I just can't accept that. If Ireland doesn't continue to seek the ideal of Patrick Pearse and Eamon De Valera-- by which I mean a Gaelic, Catholic Ireland, reverencing and reviving its traditions as far as possible-- I don't know what the point of independence was in the first place.

Does it seem silly to apply the poem to twentieth century Irish history, since it was written in the nineteenth century? Just like Tolkien with Lord of the Rings, Tennyson insisted that Idylls was not a straightforward allegory. When asked if critics were right who interpreted the "three fair queens" who appear in one passage as the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, he said: "They are right, and they are not right. They mean that and they do not. They are three of the noblest of women. They are also those three Graces, but they are much more. I hate to be tied down to say: 'This means that', because the thought within the image is much more than any interpretation."

The sheer lyricism of the poem is a great part of its appeal. There are sublime passages throughout, but the best one to quote is probably the most famous, the exchange between the dying King Arthur and Sir Bedivere, the only other surviving knight of the Round Table, after everybody else has been killed in a battle against the traitorous knight Mordred and his supporters. Much in this passage is very relevant to conservatives:

  Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

   And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

I'm very pleased that I've finally read the Idylls-- but I don't intend to simply put them on the shelf now. No, I hope to revisit them in the future, and to get to know them better over time.