Ye goode olde dayes.

Myles_Birket_Foster_-_The_Country_Inn

The Country Inn: Myles Birket Foster

Born on this day in 1859 AE Housman was too old to serve in Flanders Field but he was a poet ahead of his time.  The sentimentality of his poetry conjures up the nostalgia of a bucolic idyll of an England that never was.  His verse was the poetic equivalent of the chocolate box art of John Constable and Myles Birket Foster.  His nostalgia for a simpler and more wholesome life is reflected in JRR Tolkien’s image of the Shire from Lord of the Rings.  I like the lyric from the Kinks “Muswell Hilbillies” which says “Take me back to the black hills where I ain’t never been”.

World War One began with the Jingoistic and Triumphalist doggerel of music hall verse singing of the glories of adventure:  It’s a long way to Tipperary!

It then moved towards sacrificial verse like Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” and of Housman which said “This is what we are fighting for”.

Eventually it descended into the true war poets like Sassoon, Owen and McCrae who expressed the absolute futility of young lives thrown away.

 

A Shropshire Lad 53; by A.E. Housman

The lad came to the door at night,
when lovers crown their vows,
and whistled soft and out of sight
in shadow of the boughs.

‘I shall not vex you with my face
henceforth, my love, for aye;
so take me in your arms a space
before the east is grey.

‘When I from hence away am past
I shall not find a bride,
and you shall be the first and last
I ever lay beside.’

She heard and went and knew not why;
her heart to his she laid;
light was the air beneath the sky
but dark under the shade.

‘Oh do you breathe, lad, that your breast
seems not to rise and fall,
and here upon my bosom prest
there beats no heart at all?’

‘Oh loud, my girl, it once would knock,
you should have felt it then;
but since for you I stopped the clock
it never goes again.’

‘Oh lad, what is it, lad, that drips
wet from your neck on mine?
What is it falling on my lips,
my lad, that tastes of brine?’

‘Oh like enough ’tis blood, my dear,
for when the knife has slit
the throat across from ear to ear
’twill bleed because of it.’

Lockdown Week 1

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It has been nothing short of bizarre this week and reminds me a lot of the Phyllis McGinley poem below.  We now have the subject matter for a hundred such poems.  Phyllis was born on this day in 1905 in Ontario, but was not a Canadian.  There is a town called Ontario in Oregon, USA.  There’s a trick question in there for a table quiz!

I worked from home all this week, with a break on Tuesday which was St. Patrick’s Day.  The Irish national holiday passed free of parades, with pubs and restaurants closed.  Tourists stranded in Dublin by the rapid pace of events wandered empty streets like lost souls.

Our heating broke down.  We spent the day shuffling a hot air blower and an oil filled radiator from room to room to alleviate the cold.

The plumber did come and spent the day with us on Thursday fixing the system.  He was pursued about the house by Louise wielding anti-bacterial sprays and sterile wipes in case he had been repairing a heating system in an infected house.

The three kids are working/studying from home also.  Esha sat her first exam of the semester, remotely from her bedroom on Friday.  It’s at times like this that you recognise wants from needs; electricity, wi-fi, heating.

Today Jerry and I did the weekly shop.  A bizarre experience.  Supermarkets filled with socially distanced shoppers.  None of the usual friendly chat and greetings.  No touching.  Everyone super polite, standing back to let others pass by.  No rushing at the checkouts.

You know instinctively that all this distant politeness will come to a violent end if the supply lines dry up.  The most important thing today for goverments the world over is to continue to provide confidence to citizens that the food, and drink, will continue to arrive on the shelves.  A hint of panic and there will be blood in the aisles.

 

Daniel At Breakfast; by Phyllis McGinley

his paper propped against the electric toaster
(nicely adjusted to his morning use),
Daniel at breakfast studies world disaster
and sips his orange juice.
the words dismay him. headlines shrilly chatter
of famine, storm, death, pestilence, decay.
Daniel is gloomy, reaching for the butter.
he shudders at the way
war stalks the planet still, and men know hunger,
go shelterless, betrayed, may perish soon.
the coffee’s weak again. in sudden anger
Daniel throws down his spoon
and broods a moment on the kitchen faucet
the plumber mended, but has mended ill;
recalls tomorrow means a dental visit,
laments the grocery bill.
then having shifted from his human shoulder
the universal woe, he drains his cup
rebukes the weather (surely turning colder),
crumples his napkin up
and, kissing his wife abruptly at the door,
stamps fiercely off to catch the 8:04

Paraskevidekatriaphobia

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You will hear lightweights describe a fear of Friday the 13th as Triskaidekaphobia, but that is only the fear of the number 13.  So the proper name for fear of Friday 13th is the title of this post.

This year the scary thing is not the psycho killer in the hockey mask from the movie franchise.  This year you can fear people in a different mask. Like this!

Image result for coronavirus masks

Yes folks if you are reading back over this post in years to come you can say “I survived Covid-19” because this is the year of the Coronavirus.  We are in the midst of an official pandemic.

Here in Ireland we are experiencing the first day after the announcement last night of total school closures, university closures and creche closures.

Everyone who can do so, including yours truly, is working from home.

The Government spokespersons announced that there was no need to panic, the supply chain is healthy and there is absolutely no need for panic buying.  Indeed stockpiling will only create issues.  The nation responded by panic buying.  Supermarket shelves were cleared.  Pharmacies were emptied.

Bizarrely the opposite has happened in Hospital emergency rooms.  For the last 2 years we have had a running count of the “trolley problem” where we constantly had too many patients for the hospitals to cope.

Overnight the trolley problem was solved.  The “less sick” who were congesting the hospitals decided that it is safer to “self isolate” at home, and the hospital Accident & Emergency depts are coping with the greatly reduced load.

So this Friday 13th remember to sneeze in your elbow, or your tissue.  Don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth.  Wash your hands.  Sing Twinkle Little Star as you do.  And try to practice social distancing with that guy in the hockey mask with the machete.

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Heard about the Horde Hoard?

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In the early 5th Century a horde of barbarians were led by their King, Alaric, to the City of Rome.  These were the Goths.  Just to be clear the Goths did not look exactly like the people in the photograph above, but I looked online for a representation of the Barbarian Goths.  Most of the images of the Sack of Rome are romantic fantasies of the 19th century.  They are about as accurate a depiction of Alaric and his people as the photo above.  So if you can’t be historically accurate then at least be funny.

So you have now heard about the horde, but what of the horde hoard?  When the Goths sacked Rome in 410 AD, it was on August 24th, about 2:30 PM and it was not at all the barbarian rampage that the romantics like to conjure up.  Alaric and his people were largely if not wholly Christian, albeit Arian Christians, who were considered to be heretics by the Niceans.  But let’s not go there.

Anyhow, Alaric told the Romans, and his own folk, that Christian Churches were safe.  Any Romans hiding in a Christian Church were safe.  But private residences and pagan temples were fair game.  So the Goths went methodically through the city and amassed a hoard of treasure worthy of Smaug; the dragon from the Hobbit.

Then Alaric decided to march south to Calabria.  He had the idea to sail his people to Africa and create a Gothic Kingdom there years before the Vandals got the idea.  But he was unlucky with the weather and his fleet of ships was wrecked.  Alaric himself picked up an illness and died shortly afterwards in the town of Cosenza, and here is where the tale of the treaure hoard gets really interesting.

Laden down with treasure the Goths wanted to honour Alaric with a grand tomb.  But they felt that the locals would loot any mausoleum the moment they marched North.  So they hatched a plan.

They enslaved a work gang of local Italians and forced them to change the course of the river Busento.  The riverbed was excavated and a tomb was built into the bed of the river.  Alaric was placed in the tomb with his burial treasures piled high around him.  The tomb was sealed, the river was returned to its course and hey presto the treasure was hidden.

The Goths then slaughtered the slaves to ensure the location of the tomb was never revealed, before marching off to a new home in Southern France.

To this day the tomb of Alaric has not been found.  Where is Indiana Jones when you need him?

Alaric_entering_Athens

Dodgy depiction of Alaric and his Goths

 

A hateful son

apocalypse

Now that the Covid-19 media apocalypse is upon us here in Ireland I am taking a moment to think about the boy who gave us the name for next month.

The painting above is the Benjamin West 1795 “Death on a pale horse” which depicts the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, riding successively horses coloured white, red, black and pale.

In the ancient world disease killed more armies than battle, and was a constant companion of any assembled army.  Famine followed in the wake of every army as they stripped the land bare of food, like a plague of locusts.  Death of course is the bride of war.

So it is interesting to look at the parallels between the apocalyptic horsemen and the earlier Greco-Roman depictions of the Roman Mars (for whom we name March) and his Greek origination as the God Ares.

Homer, in the Illiad, quotes Zeus as calling Ares the god most hateful to him.  Such a thing to say to your own son!

The Greeks, for all their warlike tendencies, had a suspicion of unbridled passion.  They saw Eros (uncontrolled love) as a form of madness.  In Ares they saw the passion needed to succeed in battle, but they also saw the brutality.  Untamed aggression was achieved by letting slip the reins of mental discipline.

Like the later four horsemen Ares travelled in a gang of four.  Himself, the God of war, accompanied in his chariot by his two sons Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror) and his daughter/lover Enyo (Discord).  Indeed it was Enyo who started the Trojan war.  But that’s a different story.

Ares had four sure-footed, gold bridled, immortal horses who pulled his chariot; Aithon, Phlogios, Konabos and Phobos (same name as his son).

The Greeks saw Ares as a destabilising force, and saw war as a necessary evil, both to be avoided if possible.  Ares is often ridiculed or embarrased in Greek mythology.

Rome took a different line.  Rome placed Mars in the top 3 of their Gods.  The Romans viewed War as the means to Peace and they treated their god of war with reverence and dignity.  Instead of being incestuously linked to Discord like Ares the Roman Mars is married to Nerio, the Goddess of Valor.

So we can see that the four horsemen of the bible have more in common with the Greek god of war than they do with the Roman Mars.

And now back to the painting.  In a twist of fate it carries its own apocalyptic tale.  When the first American Academy of art burned down a volunteer fireman cut the painting from its frame and saved it from the conflagration.

Bloody Valentines Poem

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The Church stories about St. Valentine are a mish-mash of the lives of up to three different clerics who were martyred at any given time.  This is reflected in the relics of St Valentine, with bones from him in Santa Maria Cosmedin in Rome, Whitefriar St. Church in Dublin and St John Duns Scotus in Glasgow.

The most widely accepted version of the story is that he was a Bishop of Terni who was imprisoned on a visit to 3rd Century Rome during the reign of Claudius Gothicus.  The judge, Asterius,  had a blind adopted daughter and Valentine invoked the power of Christianity to cure her.  Asterius then had all his family converted and released his Christian prisoners instead of feeding them to the lions.

On his way home Valentine continued evangelising and was again arrested and this time he was beaten to death with clubs.

While in captivity he penned the first ever Valentines Poem to the formerly blind girl who of course could not read.  She brought it to Asterius who was horrified by the low quality of the poetry he had unleashed upon the world.  In a desperate attempt to right his wrong he had Valentine beaten to death.  But too late.  The story of the tormented poem to unrequited love circulated in the girls schoolyard and then every girl wanted one.

As a result generations of awkward callow youths have been condemned to the practice of translating their inchoate emotions into execrable verse ever since.

Amongst genuine Roman scholars the events described are referred to as “The Crisis of the 3rd Century” and they represent the beginning of the decline and fall of Roman Classical Poetry.