Monthly Archives: October 2016

Not local, but state issues, at least…. (updated)

I thought I’d share my current views on various Oklahoma ballot initiatives, for information and commentary (I’ve already had my mind changed on one of these, and my information corrected on another, so do please help).

776: No. It makes no sense to separate what has, by a strong tradition in Anglo-American law, always been closely associated: the passing of a sentence and the presence of specific means for carrying out that sentence. Nobody should be sentenced to “death by some means or other,” and no judge or jury should be able to separate “death” from the act of killing by some specific method. Reforms to the death penalty that make sense in Oklahoma include a blanket moratorium and a prohibition on methods of execution that do not require some specific person to knowingly carry out a sentence of death by means known to be ordinary, swift, and effective. 776 weakens and distorts the law in an effort to protect Oklahoma from its own incredibly bad record of botched executions and poor administration of justice. No, no, no.


777: No. I’m for farming and ranching. This is facially ridiculous. A constitutional “right to farm”? What would such a positive right even mean in any natural law schema? What is it even meant to accomplish when viewed simply as an adjustment of burdens and scrutiny? Nope.

779: Nope. Millions for defence, but not one penny for a failing prison–er, education–system that should be disestablished and disassembled. Wow. I don’t have enough words for the amount of NO, here. Amend the Oklahoma constitution to create a slush fund to put increased taxes in (on a percentage basis) to create a one-time, flat-rate increase in pay for teachers. And of course this won’t result in decades of renegotiation, raiding, and corruption. Of course it won’t. Regulator and administration power grab disguised as “help the teachers and not the superintendents.” Corrupt balderdash. Quelle surprise! No, no, no, no, and NO.

[UPDATE:  Corrected responses to 780-81–FURTHER update to change views on 780. Removed previous strikethrough updates.]

780: Hesitant Yes. I started at a hesitant No, or Abstain.  I am convinced overcriminalization is a problem, and that these reforms are pretty much steps in the right direction, subject to a little fine-tuning.  It seems, however, that this ought to be a matter for the legislature to debate and reform, and I am tentatively persuaded that “No or abstain” is the default option for popular initiatives.  However, I have been persuaded that this is more urgent, or that the institutional barriers in the legislature are more intractable, than permits this better option, so I will vote Yes.

781: Somewhat less hesitant No.  I do not like the pathologization of crime or politics, and do not think “involuntary” and “mental health treatment” actually work together well.  I also think legislators should be required to take responsible positions on such things.  Should I be persuaded that adequate barriers to involuntary “treatment” and treatment of dissidence or criminality as pathology have been put in place, I could hesitantly move into the Yes column.

790: YES. Emphatically YES. I don’t give a rip whether a Ten Commandments monument ever graces our Capitol (and, yes, if asked I would vote for it and against Satanic, Russellite, and Donatist statues; but I’d be fine if most of you said “No” to all of the above, too). The Blaine Amendments have got to go. They are a grave injustice “baked in” to the Oklahoma regime, a legislated lie about the meaning of religious liberty.

792: YES. Buying wine for dinner should not mean going to a liquor store; I shouldn’t need to shop at two places to make a gin & tonic. Easy call.

Outcomes or Objectives, or whatever you call them this week

When I hope I’m in a stable teaching situation where I can actually make things fairly clear to my students and expect support from my administration, I really do like to work things out fairly completely for them.  Here’s an example from a past phase of my Rhet/Comp instruction.  Specifically, this was developed out of my Belhaven College experience (especially during the time I was trying to revise the Rhet/Comp approach to integrate remediation before the first Comp course, so as to avoid the race-to-the-bottom problem in Comp, and interviewing at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s College of the Liberal Arts and Houston’s College of Biblical Studies at the same time) and with an eye to establishing a uniform structure across my Belhaven and CBS teaching, with an eye to some Houston Baptist U work.

I’m increasingly uncertain those detailed rubrics work very well for grading, but they’re pretty decent for explaining the norms:















Beowulf Translation Notes

When I presented on the comparative translations project in our Old English class (the second one), these were my notes on the project:

Beowulf Translation Project
OE Literature—Denton

Beowulf 2152-89: Comparative Translations

Problem Spots

2156: initially wanted “certain words,” but it’s singular
“by a particular word”? seems awkward

  • Waterhouse: Gave me; and in particular he bade
  • Chickering: wise and generous; he asked especially
  • Lehmann: the keen commander then requested me
  • Garnett: The crafty chief, bade with some words
  • Heaney: he instructed me, my lord, to give you some account

2157: “that I tell you first about his gift”
“est” = the gift? or the process by which it comes to be given? (cf. Jack)

  • Waterhouse: That first I tell thee of its history.
  • Chickering: that I first tell you the history of his gift. (both ways)
  • Kennedy: Bade tell the tale of his friendly favor.
  • Lehmann: to tell you truly of his treasured gifts.
  • Garnett: That I of its origin first should thee tell,
  • Heaney: of why it signifies his special favour.

2164: “occupied” or “followed” + “track, way, path” = ?
“occupied the aisle” (i.e., the path down the center of hall?)
“followed closely” (idiomatic—“kept in the tracks”)

  • Waterhouse: I heard that four swift horses followed close
  • Chickering: exactly matching, followed that treasure,
  • Kennedy: As I’ve heard the tale, he followed the trappings
  • Lehmann: matched dabbled bays remained with the trappings.
  • Garnett: Exactly alike, in their tracks followed,

2168: “cræfte” cognate craft, skill; but at 2181 seems clearly “strength”
“secret craft” vs. “hidden strength”

  • Waterhouse: “secret guile”
  • Chickering: “of evil in secret” (merges with “inwit-net” from 2167)
  • Kennedy: “weaving in secret the wiles of malice” (merges 2167)
  • Lehmann: “secret skill”
  • Garnett: “secret craft”
  • Heaney: “planning in secret” (free association based on 2167-8)

Specific Points of Interest in Translation

2179: druncne—who’s drunken, and what’s the narratorial POV?

Thus Ecgtheow’s son showed himself brave,
a man familiar with battle [and] with good deeds,
[a man who] worked for glory, not at all [a] drunken [one who] slew
hearth-companions; his heart was not savage,


Thus did the son of Ecgtheow prove his worth,
The man renowned for battles and high deeds
Strove after fame; nor slew his hearth-companions
In their cups; his spirit was not fierce


Thus did Ecgtheow’s son exemplify honor,
known for battles and for noble deeds.
He behaved fairly, harmed no drinkers,
killed no comrades. His was no cruel heart:


So the son of Ecgtheow bore himself bravely,
Known for his courage and courteous deeds,
Strove after honor, slew not his comrades
In drunken brawling; nor brutal his mood.

2174: Wealðeo or Hygd—who’s the prince’s daughter?

I have heard that he gave Hygd that neck-ring,
splendid wonder-jewel, that Wealhtheow gave him,
the prince’s daughter, along with three horses

Compare Chickering, who omits the detail altogether:

I also have heard that he gave Queen Hygd
the golden necklace, that Wealhtheow gave him,
wondrous treasure-ring, and three sleek horses

or Lehmann, who attempts to maintain the OE verse ambiguity:

I heard he tendered the torque, the treasured marvel,
as a gift to Hygd, given to him by Wealhtheow,
a prince’s daughter, with a present of steeds,

2158: Hiorogar cyning—untangling syntax

cwæð þæt hyt hæfde Hiorogar cyning,
leod Scyldunga, lange hwile.
No ðy ær suna sinum syllan wolde,
hwatum Heorowearde, þeah he him hold wære,
breost-gewædu. Bruc ealles well!

[he] says that king Heorogar had it,
chief of the Scyldings, a long time;
yet to his son [he] would not give–
to bold Heoroward, though he was loyal to him–
the chest-piece. Use it all well!

Compare Garnett, who reads “breost-gewædu” as an epithet:

Said that it had Hiorogar king,
Prince of the Scyldings, for a long while:
Not to his son sooner would he it give,
To the brave Heoroweard, though to him he were dear,
The defence of his breast. Use thou it well!

2183: Hean wæs lange—syntax
(I can’t make good MnE syntax out of this without inverting 2185-6)

2183 Hean wæs lange
2184 swa hyne Geata bearn godne ne tealdon,
2185 ne hyne on medo-bence micles wyrðne
2186 drihten We[d]e[r]a gedon wolde;

2183 the battle-brave one contained. Long was [he] lowly,
2184 as the sons of the Geats deemed him no good;
2186 (85) the lord of the Weders [had] not wished to make
2185 him a greatly esteemed one at the mead bench;

Evaluation of Other Translations

Chickering: “disappearing daughter” (2174) good example of gaps in translation with no real poetic gains from attempt to replicate verse structure. Why do half-lines if they have no clear relation to the original half-lines, and no real internal music?

Heaney—idiosyncratic vocabulary (e.g. “gorget” translating “heals-beah” at 2172), lineated prose. What is so poetic about his use of language? How would it be different if it was printed as below?

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour and took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers. He had been poorly regarded for a long time, was taken by the Geats for less than he was worth: and their lord too had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.

Garnett—quite literal, seems to try to reproduce lines (as I have) and even, where possible, word-order. Metrically sound: balanced isochronic lines with even stress and much alliteration (though alliteration is not necessarily metrically significant). Does occasionally leave some very awkward syntax (e.g. 2175).

Lehmann—like Chickering, attempt to mimic verse shape leaves words scrambled. Generally closer to text than Chickering, though. Similar idiosyncratic vocabulary to Heaney (“claymore”), clumsy alliteration.

Kennedy—rollicking, rather loose, “alliterative” only loosely (not metrically).

Waterhouse—blank verse changes the poetic idiom, but reads well in MnE.

Translating Metrics—Discussion

Iambic vs. Strong-Stress Meter in MnE (Halpern): Halpern argues, “of the four ‘syllable-stress’ meters in English—iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic—only the iambic has devloped in a direction radically different from the native accentual tradition [i.e., Anglo-Saxon verse]; that the other three, as characteristically used in English poetry, are simply variants of the strong-stress mode.” If this is so, then iambic poetry is essentially different in its relationship to the natural speech patterns of English from all other types of verse. This means that blank verse translations such as Waterhouse’s, and even the iambic elements of the verse William Morris invented for translating Germanic and Norse poetry, will have a very different character from other sorts of metrical translations.

Signifying Function of Speech-Sound Pattern (Wimsatt): Wimsatt argues, applying an idea from C. S. Pierce to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, that “[for Hopkins] the origin of the nascent poem is in a prepossession of feeling that becomes embodied as inscape of spoken sound, not spoken words. The phonetic pattern of the realized poem provides an objective correlative to the prepossession. Comparably to pitched music, then, its verbal music conveys an originary emotional significance that is over and above its grammatical, historical, and logical meaning.” In other words, the sound-patterns formed by speech are themselves signifiers in a manner independent of the discursive content of the speech.

It follows, then, that to the extent a poem’s speech-pattern is altered by translation, the poem’s meaning is changed. Faithful translations of OE poetry should adapt to MnE as faithfully as possible not only the semantic and, where, possible, syntactic relations of the words and phrases, but also the aural cues, phrasing, and ordering by which the poem signifies non-discursively.

Iambic translations, rhyming translations, and free-verse translations are less capable than strong-stress, non-syllable counting, metrically alliterative translations of re(as)sembling the full significance of the poem’s OE form; while any approach to the text will be limited by the irreducible differences between OE and MnE, reproducing more features of the original will result in a closer approach to meaning. This is, in large part, my reason for preferring the closest cognate that does not do violence to the semantic relations within the poem.

Repeated Words: In attempting to reproduce as faithfully as possible all features of the text, the translator will also wish, where possible, to recognize patterns existing within the text other than the dominant metric pattern. Within this passage, I identified a number of possibly significant repeated words; in most cases (for instance, “hold,” translated “loyal”) they were already translated with the same word. In cases where they weren’t I attempted to find a reading that preserved the repetition:

2168 dyrnum cræfte, deað ren[ian]
2181 ac he man-cynnes mæste cræfte,

2168 with hidden strength to prepare death
2181 but the greatest strength among mankind,

Compare, for instance, Lehmann:

of evil in secret, prepare the death
that God had given him, the greatest strength

or even Waterhouse:

With secret guile, nor set the snare of death
Though he, valiant in fight, the greatest strength

Beowulf Translations

So, this is fun.  I took two semesters of Old English (or Anglo-Saxon; the difference is whether it’s spoken in England or on the Continent, roughly), and in the second one we got to do a comparative translations project, analyzing multiple translations in light of our own.

Oh, maybe you’re reading this and wondering why we have to translate English?  Basically, the Modern English that you and Shakespeare speak is what happened to the Middle English that developed when the French-speaking Vikings (the Normans) eventually decided their children should learn the language of the people they had been ruling since 1066.  Yes, English had pretty much ceased to be a written language for a century and a half or so when French-speaking folk started to speak English with their English-speaking subjects, and the result by the time Chaucer wrote (middle 13th Century) was what we call Middle English:  English mechanical words, basic syntax, and verb forms, but about half the vocabulary straight from the French.

Anyway, to help you out, here’s the original at RPO with interlinear translation.

And here’s my direct translation, followed by my poetic translation and the same passage from several other translations.  At some point in the future, I’ll put up the notes I had comparing these, too.

2152            [He] commanded then that the boar’s-head-sigil be carried in,
2153            the helm towering in battle, the gray byrnie,
2154            the splendid war-sword, following the speech [he] uttered:
2155            “Hrothgar gave me this battle-suit,
2156            the wise king; by a particular word [he] commanded
2157            that I tell you first about his gift;
2158            [he] says that king Heorogar had it,
2159            man of the Scyldings, a long time;
2160            yet to his son [he] would not give–
2161            to bold Heoroward, though he was loyal to him–
2162            the chest-piece. Use it all well!”
2163            I have heard that with those adornments four horses,
2164            swift [and] similar, followed closely,
2165            apple-dark ones. He bestowed his gifts,
2166            horses and treasures–thus should a kinsman give,
2167            not at all weave a deceit-net for another,
2168            by hidden strength to prepare death
2169            for a close companion. To Hygelac was
2170            [his] nephew very loyal, [loyal] to the one hard in battle;
2171            and either [was] mindful of the other’s good.
2172            I have heard that he gave Hygd that neck-ring,
2173            splendid wonder-jewel, that Wealhtheow gave him,
2174            the prince’s daughter, along with three horses
2175            graceful and bright-saddled. Ever after [ ],
2176 (75)      following the ring-giving, [her] breast was adorned.
2177            Thus Ecgtheow’s son showed himself brave,
2178            a man familiar with battle [and] with good deeds,
2179            [a man who] worked for glory, not at all [a] drunken [one who] slew
2180            hearth-companions; his heart was not savage,
2181            but the greatest strength among mankind,
2182            the liberal gift that God gave him,
2183            the battle-brave one contained. Long was [he] lowly,
2184            as the sons of the Geats deemed him no good;
2186 (85)      the lord of the Weders [had] not wished to make
2185            him a greatly esteemed one at the mead bench;
2187            Mostly, [they] thought that [Beowulf] was sluggish,
2188            a feeble prince. Change had come
2189            to the glorious man from each of [his] afflictions.

Epps (accentual verse)

He called then to bear in the boar-headed sigil
with the helm tall in battle, the mail-shirt of gray,
and the war-sword most splendid, as he said the word:
“It was Hrothgar who gave me this warfaring outfit;
the wise king gave orders that I say these words,
to tell you about what he gives you today:
He says that the king had it, Heorogar,
that man of the Scyldings, a very long while;
and despite all he would not give to his own son—
to bold Heoroward, be he never so true
—even the chest piece. Enjoy it all well!”
And then I have heard, with those beauties, four horses
All swift and well-matched, filled the floor of the hall,
four apple-dark roans. He gave all his gifts,
the horses and treasures—so all kinsmen should give,
not at all to weave snares of deceit for another
by practice in secret, devising the death
of a close-knit companion. To Hygelac was
his nephew most loyal, to the one hard in battle,
and either was mindful of each other’s good.
And then I have heard that he gave Hygd the neck-ring,
that grand gem of wonders Wealhtheow gave him,
the prince’s own daughter, along with three horses,
bright-saddled and graceful. And from that day forward,
Because of that ring-gift, her breast was adorned.
Thus Ecgtheow’s son showed that he was a brave one,
Familiar with battle and also good deeds,
one who worked for his glory, no drunkard who slew
the friends of his hearth; no, his heart was not savage [. . .]

Mary E. Waterhouse

He bade them bring the boar-wrought banner in,
The helm that towers in fight, the corselet gray
And splendid battle blade, then made this speech:
This battle-garment Hrothgar, the wise prince,
Gave me; and in particular he bade
That first I tell thee of its history.
He said Heorogar, the king and chief
Of the Scyldings, long possessed it; none the less
He did not wish to give the coat of mail
Unto his son, the valiant Heoroward,
Dear though he was to him. Enjoy it all well!”
I heard that four swift horses followed close
Upon the war equipment, dapple gray
And all alike; he did his liege lord honour
With steeds and gifts. So should a kinsman do,
Not spread a net of malice for his kindred
With secret guile, nor set the snare of death
For his companions. To Hygelac, the brave
In battle, was his nephew very dear
And each was mindful of the other’s good.
I heard that he bestowed on Hygd the necklace,
The rare, wrought ornament which Wealhtheow,
The prince’s daughter, gave him, with three steeds,
Graceful and gaily saddled; ever after
That jewel-giving was her breast adorned.
Thus did the son of Ecgtheow prove his worth,
The man renowned for battles and high deeds
Strove after fame; nor slew his hearth-companions
In their cups; his spirit was not fierce
Though he, valiant in fight, the greatest strength
Of all mankind possessed, the generous gift
God granted him. He had been long despised,
For Wedermen did not account him brave,
Nor would the ruler of the Geats regard him
As worthy of much honour on the mead-bench;
They rather deemed the prince was indolent
And full of sloth. Compensation came
To the illustrious man for every trial.


He ordered brought in      the boar’s-head standard,
high-crowned helmet,      great iron shirt,
ornamented war-sword,      then said this speech:
“All this battle-gear      Hrothgar gave me,
wise and generous;      he asked especially
that I first tell you      the history of his gift.
He said King Heorogar,      the Scylding’s leader,
had owned it long.      No sooner for that
did he make it a gift      to brave Heoroward,
the iron chest-guard      for his own son,
loyal though he was.      Enjoy it all well!”
Then, as I’ve heard,      four swift horses,
exactly matching,      followed that treasure,
apple-dark steeds.      With good heart he gave
both treasure and horses.      So ought a kinsman
always act,      never weave nets
of evil in secret,      prepare the death
of close companions.      With war-bold Hygelac
his nephew kept faith,      his man ever loyal,
and each always worked      for the other’s welfare.
I also have heard      that he gave Queen Hygd
the golden necklace,      that Wealhtheow gave him,
wondrous treasure-ring,      and three sleek horses
under golden saddles.      After that gift-giving
the shining necklace      adorned her breast.
Thus Ecgtheow’s son      had shown great courage,
famous in battles,      renowned for good deeds,
walked in glory;      by no means killed
comrades in drink;      had no savage mind:
brave and battle-ready,      he guarded the gift
that God had given him,      the greatest strength
that man ever had.      Yet his youth had been miserable,
when he long seemed sluggish      to the Geatish court;
they thought him no good;      he got little honor,
no gifts on the mead-bench      from the lord of the Weders.
They all were convinced      he was slow, or lazy,
a coward of a noble.      A change came to him,
shining in victory,      worth all those cares.

Charles W. Kennedy

Then he bade men bring the boar-crested headpiece,
The towering helmet, and steel-gray sark,
The splendid war-sword, and spoke this word:
‘The good king Hrothgar gave me this gift,
This battle-armor, and first to you
Bade tell the tale of his friendly favor.
He said King Heorogar, lord of the Scyldings,
Long had worn it, but had no wish
To leave the mail to his manful son,
The dauntless Heoroweard, dear though he was!
Well may you wear it! Have joy of it all.’
As I’ve heard the tale, he followed the trappings
With four bay horses, matched and swift,
Graciously granting possession of both,
The steeds and the wealth. ‘Tis the way of a kinsman,
Not weaving in secret the wiles of malice
Nor plotting the fall of a faithful friend.
To his kinsman Hygelac, hardy in war,
The heart of the nephew was trusty and true;
Dear to each was the other’s good!
To Hygd, as I’ve heard, he presented three horses
Gaily saddled, slender and sleek,
And the gleaming necklace Wealhtheow gave,
A peerless gift from a prince’s daughter.
With the gracious guerdon, the goodly jewel,
Her breast thereafter was well bedecked.
So the son of Ecgtheow bore himself bravely,
Known for his courage and courteous deeds,
Strove after honor, slew not his comrades
In drunken brawling; nor brutal his mood.
But the bountiful gifts which the Lord God gave him
He held with a power supreme among men.
He had long been scorned, when the sons of the Geats
Accounted him worthless; the Weder lord
Held him not high among heroes in hall.
Laggard they deemed him, slothful and slack.
But time brought solace for all ills!

Ruth P. M. Lehmann

Then he had brought inside      the boar’s head standard,
the high helmet for war,      hauberk of gray,
costly claymore,      and recounted his tale:
“This rich war-gear      Hrothgar gave me;
the keen commander      then requested me
to tell you truly      of his treasured gifts.
He said it had been carried      by King Heregar,
lord of Scyldings;      long he had owned it,
but he was loathe to leave      that linked corslet
to his own offspring,      able Hereward,
though a loyal son.      Luck attend it!”
I heard that four horses,      in fleetness alike,
matched dabbled bays      remained with the trappings.
Steeds and riches      he bestowed on the king.
So ought kin to do,      not kindle malice
by secret skill,      nor send to death
his close comrades.      He had kept the faith
with Hygelac his prince,      hardy in battle;
each with a careful regard      for his kin’s welfare:
So should a sister’s son      who sought his uncle.
I heard he tendered the torque,      the treasured marvel,
as a gift to Hygd,      given to him by Wealhtheow,
a prince’s daughter,      with a present of steeds,
high-stepping horses      with handsome saddles.
Then was her breast adorned      the better with the necklace.
Thus did Ecgtheow’s son      exemplify honor,
known for battles      and for noble deeds.
He behaved fairly,      harmed no drinkers,
killed no comrades.      His was no cruel heart:
a fearless fighter,      he kept in full the gift
that God had granted,      the greatest vigor
man could be given.      Many despised him;
young Geats thought him      a youth unready
nor would the chief choose him      for choice bounty
in the feasting hall.      Him they firmly believed
a passive prince,      unpromising,
a slothful soldier.      But a sudden change
from former affliction      came to that famous man.

James M. Garnett

He bade then bring in the boar’s-head-sign,
The battle-high helmet, the hoary burnie,
The war sword ornate, his word then uttered:
“This cuirass to me Hrothgar then gave,
The crafty chief, bade with some words
That I of its origin first should thee tell,
Said that it had Hiorogar king,
Prince of the Scyldings, for a long while:
Not to his son sooner would he it give,
To the brave Heoroweard, though to him he were dear,
The defence of his breast. Use thou it well!”
I heard that to the armor four horses too,
Exactly alike, in their tracks followed,
Yellow as apples: he to him gave possession
Of horses and jewels. So shall a friend do,
Not at all cunning snares weave for another,
With secret craft death for him prepare,
His hand-companion. To Hygelac was,
In battle brave, his nephew devoted.
And each to the other mindful of kindness.
I heard that the necklace he to Hygd gave,
The curious treasure which Wealhtheow gave him,
The prince’s daughter, three horses likewise,
Slender and saddle-bright: to her after was,
After the ring-giving, the breast adorned.
So bravely bore him Ecgtheow’s son,
The man famed in wars, by his good deeds,
He did after right, not at all slew the drunken
Hearth-companions: his mind was not cruel,
But he of mankind with greatest power,
The mighty gift, which God him gave,
The warlike one kept. Long he was despised,
As him the Geats’ children did not reckon good,
Nor him at the mead-bench as worthy of much
The lord of the people would then esteem;
They weened very strongly that he was slothful,
An unwarlike prince; a change after came
To the glory-blessed man of each of his sorrows.

Seamus Heaney

2152      Then he ordered the boar-framed standard to be brought,
the battle-topping helmet, the mail-shirt grey as hoar-frost
and the precious war-sword; and proceeded with his speech.
“When Hrothgar presented this war-gear to me
he instructed me, my lord, to give you some account
of why it signifies his special favour.
He said it had belonged to his older brother,
King Heorogar, who had long kept it,
2160      but that Heorogar had never bequeathed it
to his son Heoroweard, that worthy scion,
loyal as he was.
Enjoy it well.”
I heard four horses were handed over next.
Beowulf bestowed four bay steeds
to go with the armour, swift gallopers,
all alike. So ought a kinsman act,
instead of plotting and planning in secret
to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange
the death of comrades. The warrior king
2170      was uncle to Beowulf and honoured by his nephew:
each was concerned for the other’s good.

I heard he presented Hygd with a gorget,
the priceless torque that the prince’s daughter,
Wealtheow, had given him; and three horses,
supple creatures, brilliantly saddled.
The bright necklace would be luminous on Hygd’s breast.

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor;
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantage; never cut down
2180      a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper
and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding
natural powers. He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth: and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed.


Even Close Reading is Vanity, Perhaps

Update:  I should point out that this piece, like my article on Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” is an example of an early version of my Religion & Literature specialization.  At this point, I consistently described my major research interest as “Biblical backgrounds to English literature,” and it’s still an important element in my approach to scholarship.

And here’s a brief close reading of a poem put together for the Metaphysical Poetry and Prose seminar I took with Dr. Robert Ray, who literally wrote the book on Donne and Herbert.  Not much preface required, except to warn you that the conclusion is a bit dull, to be honest:

All is “Vanitie,” Saith the Poet

Like most of The Temple, George Herbert’s “Vanitie” (1) contains a knife-edge balance of Biblical context, personal reflection and public statement, reinforced by careful word choice and using both thematic and aural shifts of tone. Whether by deliberate allusion or incidental similarity of thought, Herbert’s deeply Christian language sends the attuned reader scurrying through the pages of his Bible (or, in this age of marvels, a search engine) for the passage that just eludes the memory. In line 5, for instance, Herbert uses a commercial image to represent the thoughts of the “fleet Astronomer” about the “spheres” he “surveys” so that he “knoweth long before” others what they will do. This image of a planned commercial venture resonates with James 4:13-16, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go . . . and make a profit’ . . . you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow . . . you boast in your arrogance.” The similarity of image reinforces the argument against pride that will appear in the following stanzas, and occurs in the only clearly ironic phrase of the stanza.

Another important cluster of Biblical allusions occurs in the last stanza, where God is depicted as putting the law “in us” (cf. Romans 2:14-15 “Law written in their hearts”); “mellowing the ground / With showres and frosts” (cf. Matthew 5:44-45 “he . . . sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”; Psalm 147 on “frost”; and passim, especially the Matthew 13 parable of the soils, on the human heart as “ground”). The weight of all these (and more) come to bear on the single word “death” (see Proverbs 14:12 “its end is . . . death”) followed by a pregnant caesura (one can almost hear a sob in the space after the comma) and the phrase “but missest life at hand.” The idea that the secret of life is immediately available, “at hand,” invokes a Biblical passage that ties together much of the poem: Deuteronomy 30:11-15 (which is quoted in Romans 10:9-10). In the passage, God speaks to the people through Moses, saying,

this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity.

The passage lies closely parallel to the entire poem, particularly the last stanza, in its concepts and even in its images—the word is not “out of reach” (i.e., it is “at hand”) but “in your heart” (i.e., “embosome[d] in us”), it is not “in heaven” or “beyond the sea” (i.e., no “Astronomer” or “Diver” is required). It is a choice of “life . . . and death” in which “man [has] sought out and found” “death, but missest life at hand.”

The public statement in “Vanitie” is among the sharpest in The Temple, especially when it is understood that Herbert’s imagery represents a critique not only of those seekers of secrets the “fleet Astronomer,” “nimble Diver” and “subtil Chymick,” but also of the thoughtless pride of the rest of humanity. This broader critique is carried out in three stages, with a crux in the second stanza. The first stage is so simple as to be easily missed. In line 6, the “Astronomer” is said to know the “aspects, and . . . glances” of the spheres “long before.” “Before,” however, is a preposition demanding an object—and loudly demanding it, for it is left hanging at the end of a short line with a comma to emphasize the resounding silence that follows the word. The stanza is logically and grammatically incomplete, and leaves the reader with the question, “before what?”—a question never fully answered in the first stanza.[ The closest possibility to a first-stanza solution would be “dances,” treating the action content of this noun as if it were verbal (i.e., “knoweth long before [they dance]”). This, however, seems a bit of a stretch; and the reiteration of “before” in line 20, with a completion logically related to the content of lines 5-7, seems a much stronger thematic link.]

This gap is widened in the second stanza, where we find not only the “nimble Diver” and “God” but also an unnamed lady who “wears” the “dearly-earned pearl” which is “her own destruction and [the Diver’s] danger.” The appearance of this extra person begins to hint at a fulfillment of the “before” question of the stanza; there are more people in the poem than the seekers of secrets. The others are represented by the lady just as the “Astronomer” and “Chymick” are represented by the “Diver” in the second stanza’s complex conceit. The interpretive crux of the poem is thus reached in line 14, when it becomes clear that the lady is at least as much the object of criticism as the secret-seekers: for the secret wrested out by the “Diver” is not only “danger” to him but “destruction” to her, a “destruction” she “wears” “with excessive pride.”

It is unsurprising, then, to find the completion of the “before” of the first stanza in the end of the third stanza’s climactic trope. “The subtil Chymick” is to the microcosmic universe what “the fleet Astronomer” is to the macroscomic; both are represented by “the nimble “Diver” of the second stanza. The missing object in the first stanza, represented by the lady in the second, now appears in the form of the “ordinarie suitours at the doore.” The “before what?” becomes “before / They appeare . . . / To ordinarie suitours,” and the parallelism is perfected: the outwardness of “dances” meets the inwardness of “bed-chamber” in the form of the “suitours” who are neither at the dance nor in the bedchamber; who do not see the “secret glances” nor the “naked . . . principles” with which the “Astronomer” and “Chymick” dally.

The first three stanzas, in fact, are a self-contained whole: by the end of line 21 all the conceits have run their course and the characters of the secret-seekers as well as the mass of mankind who pride themselves on following them stand indicted of pride and presumption. It is in the fourth stanza, however, that Herbert moves from public to personal reflection, leaving the violent words (“bore,” “piercing,” “cuts,” “devest,” “strip”) for warmer words of entreaty (“deare,” “glorious,” “embosomes,” “mellowing,” “poore”). The stanza becomes aurally softer and metrically smoother (note the abundance of resonants and round vowels) than the clipped, hurried pace of the first three. The two questions maintain the tone, requiring no downward inflections at all until the end of the stanza; while the lengthy enjambed phrase “thou searchest round to finde out death” (with three repetitions of “ou” and to “d-t” combinations to further slow the pace) ensure a lengthy pause after the climactic word, “death.”

This careful, gentle control of the emotional setting through metrical and aural effects allows Herbert to poignantly express the frustration of watching those to whom every good has been given who still fall short, as well as the contrition of recognizing oneself in that portrait. The poem’s final utterly anti-climactic verb “missest,” as if failure to respond to all God has done were a mischance, creates a striking irony in light of the three stanzas of sharply-worded indictment with which the poem began. The ability to create and control such striking juxtapositions that marks Herbert as one of the prime exemplars of the metaphysical tradition in poetry.

Snakes and Ladies

Back to posting some bits of my past scholarship. Here’s a reading of the first portion of Spenser’s Faerie Queene that sketches in the relationship of Error, false Una, and Duessa to the lamia as found in Burton and, later, in Keats. What is lacking, here, is the solid connections back to Keats that would “cash out” the parallel in really fruitful criticism. Also, I think Dr. Hunt thought that treating succubus and lamia as variants of the same thing was mistaken. Nonetheless, here you have my first extended exercise in reading in terms of proper allegory, rather than the coarser Bunyanesque labels-and-discourses sort. Thanks to Dr. Hunt for getting me started down that path!

Here, then, is “What Dreams May Come”:

Preliminary Paper
(Short Presentation)
Dr. Maurice Hunt
November 8, 2000

“What Dreams May Come”: Spenserian Succubi in Book I of The Faerie Queen

He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.[. Milton, Aeropagitica.]


Beauty is truth, truth Beauty.[. Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”]


Led with delight, they thus beguile the way,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But wander too and fro in wayes vnknowne.[. FQ, 1.1.10.]

When Spenserian heroes enter the magic woodland of Renaissance lore, they do so with considerably more baggage than their counterparts in Shakespeare’s bright comedies; coming in love or in service of quests, they find themselves in an allegorical dreamland where only by becoming masters of the story–by usurping the poet’s pen and the reader’s eyes–can they hope to survive with their virtue, the very essence of their allegorical being, intact. Keats longed for a life of allegory, and Milton refused his praise to “fugitive and cloister’d virtue,” but for Spenser’s characters, the exercise of virtue is survival. In Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, the Red Cross Knight (RCK) and Una find themselves in a veritable wonderland of doppelgangers and doublings, in which what “seemde” wise and safe a moment ago may turn into deadly danger without warning–except those who, like the reader, hold the key to discernment, the text, in their hands. The order and characteristics of the RCK’s female adversaries reflect the classical myth of the lamia, using it as a recognizable structure by which the reader (and the Red Cross Knight) lay hold on the truth needed to “prefer that which is truly better.”

The lamia, generally held to be a Greek variant of an old Sumerian legend, arrived in English literary culture through two paths: the classical mythologies, with their incubi and succubi, and medieval Jewish thought, which features the legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, and of the many liliths often held to be her spawn (among other demons). Both branches share the same essential elements, though with significant variants. The medieval Jewish variant explains the existence of liliths and glosses the Genesis account of Creation by postulating an original wife for Adam who was created from dust, as was Adam, and who, refusing to be subordinate to Adam, fled the garden and became the consort of Satan. She is most feared as a killer of infants, but also comes to men in their dreams in order to breed demons from their nocturnal emissions. As both infanticide and succubus, her effect on the victim is a vampiric wasting as a result of lost body fluids and the suffocating of the spirit. As consort of Satan, she also bears him demonic children, among whom are other liliths.[. Filomena Maria Pereira, Lilith: The Edge of Forever (Las Colinas, TX: Ide House, 1998), 80-81 and passim.] The classical variant includes the general idea of the succubus, as well as the more sustained illusion referred to by Burton:

Lycius, a young man . . . met such a phantasm in the habit of a fair gentlewoman, which, taking him by the hand, carried him home to her house in the suburbs of Corinth, and told him she was a Phoenician by birth, and if he would tarry with her, “he should hear her sing and play, and drink such wine as never any drank, and no man should molest him; but she being fair and lovely would live and die with him, that was fair and lovely to behold.” The young man, a philosopher, otherwise staid and discreet, able to moderate his passions, though not this of love, tarried with her awhile to his great content, and at last married her, to whose wedding, amongst other guests, came Apollonius, who, by some probable conjectures, found her out to be a serpent, a lamia . . . when she saw herself descried, she wept, and desired Apollonius to be silent, but he would not be moved, and thereupon she . . . vanished.[. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy,]

Burton’s recounting of this lamia encounter recorded by Philostratus provided the source material for Keats’ narrative poem Lamia; it also provides a suggestive context in which to examine Spenser’s use of serpent and dream imagery in portraying RCK’s female enemies. While it is difficult to verify the likelihood that Jewish myth directly affected Spenser’s writing, it is certain that both the Jewish and the classical milieus contribute to the lamia legendary, so that both should be remembered in readings of The Faerie Queene (FQ).

When RCK and Una enter the forest, they do so “with pleasure forward led” into what “seemes” a “faire harbour.”[. FQ, 1.1.7-8.] The experienced reader of Spenser knows that “seemes” is an immediate warning that the characters have misread the descriptive passages, that they do not understand their surroundings; but the characters themselves have not yet learned by experience the way to distinguish truth from appearances, and the naive reader projected by Spenser’s “fashioning” project will only discover the danger of what “seemes” in retrospect. A more direct warning comes when Una, or Truth, warns RCK that the place “breedes dreadfull doubts.” Having plunged in thus far, however, to their walk into allegorical dreamland, the forested dark which starlight cannot penetrate, RCK and Una do not turn back; instead, they press forward, and immediately encounter the first lamia figure in Book 1, the female serpent-fiend Error.

Given the analogic structure of allegory, Error is best seen as a representation of the outcome of RCK’s and Una’s choices: to ignore the textual (scenic) clues to their danger, to be led on by pleasure, and to press on even when the nature of their mistake becomes apparent. Etymologically, “error” derives from the Latin erro, “to wander”; RCK and Una err (exercise bad judgment) when they err (wander about). Given that RCK is a knight errant, as are all of the primary heroes in FQ, it is significant that the tendency to wander and to misjudge is the first adversary he must overcome.

Error’s lamia characteristics are obvious; she is a disgusting creature, “Halfe like a serpent” and half woman.[. FQ, 1.1.14.] While RCK is portrayed as awake, the shift to interior action as RCK, belatedly and ineffectually warned of his wanderings by Truth, confronts Error suggests that the darkened wood is also RCK’s darkened–whether by sleep or by moral confusion–consciousness. Error’s nakedness is so blatant as to be unattractive, and while there is definite sexual potential in her entwining of RCK, it is thoroughly diffused by her entirely beastly behavior, including her use of vomiting as a defense mechanism. Error is the lamia stripped of seduction, a naked but hideous creature (much like the syphilitic Lust portrayed in the House of Pride) whose assault is through venom and suffocation, and whose children glut cannibalistically on body fluids until they burst.[. FQ, 1.1.25-6.]

Una congratulates RCK on his victory, and the episode ends with their escape from the woods. Having defeated the obvious Error, however, the RCK has yet to learn how to distinguish truth from error–no great compliment to RCK, as he is travelling with the beautiful lady Truth herself, and has seen hideous Error face-to-face. Una, as Truth personified, is placed in an unenviable position; like truth presented to the human mind, her ability to act her role is completely dependent on the ability of the reader–and RCK as reader–to distinguish her from false appearances. Should RCK fail to recognize Truth when presented with a choice, Una herself is left helpless, subject to being used (or abused, which for a person is very much the same) by any who have the power to bend her to their will. This vulnerability, hinted at in the Error episode, becomes the major problem with which both RCK and Una must grapple throughout the rest of the book.

Upon leaving the forest of Error, RCK and Una encounter the hermit, known to the experienced reader as Archimago but appearing to the naive (hence to RCK) as a “holy father” who “seemed . . . sagely sad, / . . . as one that did repent”[. FQ, 1.1.29-30.] RCK and Una have not learned that what “seemed” right in the Error case and “seemes” right about the Hermit will inevitably turn out to be false appearance; their ability to “read the text aright” is impaired by their inexperience, and they are prevailed upon to sleep at the Hermitage. Una, Truth herself, is used by Archimago to persuade RCK to stop, despite his hesitancy;[. FQ, 1.1.32.] it is RCK’s duty to make the distinction, and his inability to do so leaves Truth free to be manipulated by the deceiver. Sleeping at the Hermitage, RCK encounters the second lamia figure, the false Una conjured by Archimago.

The false Una, because of her brief appearance and specifically sexual appeal, is the most obvious succubus to the reader, though not to RCK. In the middle of troubled dreams of error and temptation, which RCK does not awake to confront, the false Una is introduced. Posing as Una, and attempting (as Venus and Juno do for Dido) to give the ambience of marriage without the fact, the false Una directly attempts to seduce RCK, who is already morally compromised: in true lilith fashion, the lustful “sprite” so works in his dreams that “nigh his manly heart did melt away.”[. FQ, 1.1.47.] RCK has learned the true face of Error, though; confronted directly with the seduction, he “start[s] up” and avoids the deed itself; to him, the idea of “doing ought amis” is as shocking as Error’s vomit assault.[. FQ, 1.1.49.] The first lesson has been learned, it seems: RCK will not be “with pleasure forward led” even by Una herself. The second, and harder, lesson, however, has yet to be learned: RCK does not know Truth sufficiently well to distinguish her from an impostor, and not only cannot differentiate between the false Una who seduces him and the Una he knows but is deceived by Archimago’s shadow-play into believing that Una had left seducing him only to go on to another sexual encounter.[. FQ, 1.2.5.] The total effect of this lamia encounter, both in sleeping and in waking dreams (for Archimago’s sprites are but temporarily embodied dream-creatures), is once more consumptive: RCK “did his stout heart eat, / And wast his inward gall with deepe despight, / Yrksome of life, and too long lingring night.”[. FQ, 1.2.6.]

RCK’s failure to note the use of the word “seemed” with reference to the Hermit’s godliness and his concomitant failure to recognize a false appearance of truth lead to his abandonment of Truth altogether. Fleeing the scene of what he can only perceive (given his faulty perceptions) as a humiliating betrayal, RCK leaves Una “wandring in woods and forests”;[. FQ, 1.2.9.] without a discerning reader, Truth herself becomes lost in the maze of error. Una’s misadventures with the false RCK, Archimago in disguise, and her subsequent captures and rescues, demonstrate the vulnerability of Truth when unaccompanied by a reader able to recognize her.

RCK, having abandoned Truth, soon encounters Duessa, the third lamia of Book 1.[. FQ, 1.2.13.] Whereas Error was raw, with no seductive cover, and false Una was an imitation of Truth, Duessa’s appearance as Fidessa is a complete fiction. With Una as a basis for comparison, Fidessa’s duplicity would be readily visible; having abandoned Truth on the basis of appearances, however, RCK is now vulnerable to mere appearances with no resemblance to Truth; mearly calling “false Duessa” by the name “Fidessa” is sufficient to change her entire character in his eyes, and he is unable to correctly read the repeated clues in such lines as “Her seeming dead he found with feigned feare, / As all unweeting of that well she knew.”[. FQ, 1.2.44-5.] He continues acting on the basis of his quest, but his actions are now entirely inappropriate for the actual conditions masked by the waking dream cast by Duessa. The Fradubio and Fraelissa episode underscores Duessa’s lamia nature, as Duessa is shown in a typical succubus role (“false witch”), enchanting the lover’s vision so as to win him away from his true love, before revealing her true appearance as another, more hideous Error–loathsome woman above, misshapen monster beneath. Duessa’s final treatment of Fradubio–the dream-potion and poison–is one more variant on the classic lamia / vampire motif; Fradubio and Fraelissa both become undead creatures themselves, condemned to “waste” away while “Banisht from liuing wights.”[. 1.2.34-42.] Despite all that has gone before, however, at the very end of Canto 2 RCK has been rendered “all passed feare”;[. FQ, 1.2.45.] as it was the “wonted fear of doing ought amis” resulting from his encounter with Error which woke RCK from the dream of false Una, this sudden fearlessness is ominous.[. FQ, 1.1.49.]

Duessa’s treatment of RCK is reminiscent of the story from Philostratus recounted by Burton; the victim, a noble youth who is of good judgment except in affairs de coeur, is led to an enchanted home by the lamia, where he lives in careless pleasure (though RCK’s encounter with Error has inoculated against openly allying himself with Lucifera and Satan, he does not withdraw from Duessa when she does so).[. FQ, 1.4.2ff.] The entire House of Pride episode, like the confrontation with Error, is so structured that it must be viewed not only as a scenario in which RCK is one character, but also as a display of RCK’s internal conflicts upon his abandonment of Truth. He is humiliated and enraged at Una’s apparent betrayal, and abandoning Truth he is deceived by appearances which have no relation to truth–they are chimeras out of his psyche, realized by Duessa’s ability to enter sleeping dreams and create waking dreams. Duessa clearly reveals her close affiliation with Hell through her appeal to the gods of the underworld to save Sansjoy, and also adds another level to the allusion to Scylla that runs throughout the lamia characterizations in FQ.[. FQ, 1.5.19ff.] As in the lamia story from Philostratus, RCK is only alerted to the danger when another character (the Dwarf here serves for Apollonius) sees the grisly reality behind the charade and warns him to flee: as in the case of Error, the Dwarf correctly realizes that “this is no place for liuing men.”[. FQ, 1.1.13.] Stirred once more to fear, RCK escapes the final evil.

RCK, however, is still vulnerable to the lamia. Lying down to rest after the escape from the House of Pride (where he has done deadly battle with Sansjoy), he is once more overtaken by the illusion of Fidessa, and lulled by her enchanting conversation and the pleasures of nature, is won back to friendship with her in a startlingly short period–little more than a single stanza. Duessa’s lamia behavior now becomes even more clear; having come to him in sleep, she leads him to a pool which causes the familiar consumptive symptoms–chills like fever, frailty, and emasculation–suffered by victims of a succubus.[. The scene strongly suggests, in fact, similar passages in Keats, attesting once more to the influence Spenser has exerted on English poetry.] Duessa is finally successful with this treatment; exhausted, and having repeatedly escaped positive moral or physical destruction, RCK is unable to prevent his capture by the giant Orgoglio.

Arthur’s reuniting of RCK with Una and his stripping of Duessa–rendering Duessa the raw, naked Error that Fradubio perceived her to be too late–resolves the narrative plot; but one of the most important lessons of Book 1 lies in its education of RCK, and of the reader, to the importance of noticing the textual features–in the narrative, the scenery and characterization–for the protectors of Truth from false appearance that they are. Only if RCK–and the reader–learn to distrust all that is introduced with “seems” and to look instead for Truth; only if the reader–and RCK–truly espouses truth in a way which foils Archimago’s use of a false Una and prevents future rudderless encounters with the powerful Duessa can the reader, or the Knight–and in the end, Spenser considers them one and the same–hope to survive life or poetry with intact virtue.


  1. Milton, Aeropagitica.
  2. Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
  3. FQ, 1.1.10.
  4. Filomena Maria Pereira, Lilith: The Edge of Forever (Las Colinas, TX: Ide House, 1998), 80-81 and passim.
  5. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy,
  6. FQ, 1.1.7-8.
  7. FQ, 1.1.14.
  8. FQ, 1.1.25-6.
  9. FQ, 1.1.29-30.
  10. FQ, 1.1.32.
  11. FQ, 1.1.47.
  12. FQ, 1.1.49.
  13. FQ, 1.2.5.
  14. FQ, 1.2.6.
  15. FQ, 1.2.9.
  16. FQ, 1.2.13.
  17. FQ, 1.2.44-5.
  18. 1.2.34-42.
  19. FQ, 1.2.45.
  20. FQ, 1.1.49.
  21. FQ, 1.4.2ff.
  22. FQ, 1.5.19ff.
  23. FQ, 1.1.13.
  24. The scene strongly suggests, in fact, similar passages in Keats, attesting once more to the influence Spenser has exerted on English poetry.

You Better Watch Out

A brief reflection:  so, here’s the thing.  Your besetting sins, that is, the ones you will struggle with over years and years, with increasing victory and surprising onion-peel moments where you discover there is more rot to get rid of and more virtue to grow?  They aren’t necessarily going to be obvious.  They are going to be tangled up with your greatest virtues.

Consider this:  you have been wronged, over many years, and you cry out for justice.  You begin to lose hope, and you become desperate; then you begin to strike out.  You discover that this can be a strategy.  You discover that you are relying on anger and vindictiveness to achieve your goals.  You rationalize this as pursuit of justice.  Because this is rationalized revenged, egged on by every evil influence, you are not in fact just; you are far in excess of the virtue of justice.

Ashamed when you are unjust, and attracted by virtue, and desiring to mend, you reason still more closely about justice and truth; you seek love, and shelter in Christ.  You become more just, and in fact you are likely to be somewhat more careful in your thinking about justice than some.

But here’s the trick.

From outside, your reasoning can be evaluated and corrected; in good society, you improve.

From the inside, however, there is a basic problem:  on each level of complexity and responsibility you gain, each level of friendship with God and care of others you are drawn to by love and suffering, you will still discover a basic problem:  until you reason carefully and prayerfully about it, vindictiveness and justice look the same to you.

Alcoholics know what I mean.  A basic part of your “automatic sensors” has been burned out, and you have to keep learning how to go on “manual override.”  You will have to sacrifice some of your autonomy to others who will correct you, leave a great deal at the altar of one who suffered more and sacrificed infinitely, in order to gain your freedom again.

And He gives more grace.

And giveth.

And giveth again.


Whatever yours is–whatever it is–it’s not just “the temptation is strong.”  It’s the material of your holiness.  And it’s going to take careful thought and earnest prayer to see the difference between your potential for heroic virtue and your besetting sin.

Many may drive life on automatic (but probably that’s just how it looks from the outside).

You are driving stick.


Pop the clutch.

Brief Note on Essence and Accident

I’m up too late in a futile effort to finish some grading, and so very briefly before I get a few hours’ sleep in and rise to finish the job early in the morning:

My piece on “intensive” and “extensive” claims touched briefly on the way that breakdown parallels some of the other basic categories of existing things and of bodies, as organized in various metaphysical systems.

One application of the same argument should be noted specifically:  There is a tendency to confuse “essence” as in “what makes a thing what it is” with “the real thing,” and “accident” as in “what is particular to this instance but does not make this thing what it is” with “something optionally added to the real thing.”  I apologize for the coarse definitions, but getting into the fine definition of “essence” involves a lot of careful work that is beside the point, for now.

But what happens is that anything, once called “accidental” rather than “essential” is, in our discourse, simply dismissed as “unnecessary” or “wholly optional,” a feature that can be changed at will or omitted.

This is plainly silly, as a moment’s reflection will show.

I am six feet tall.  My height is not essential to my humanity, but accidental; many people are human with less, and somewhat fewer with more, height.  Being six feet tall, or 5’4″ tall, or 6’10” tall, does not make anyone inhuman; it does not make anyone more human.

So, my height is accidental, and so is yours, to my humanity.  Would it follow that we could discard height, or treat it as irrelevant?

Obviously not.  To be a human is to be embodied, and a bodily creature is extended in space, and a human creature’s extension in space has height as well as thickness and width.  To be human is definitely to have some height; what is accidental is my height, or yours, as measured.

Similarly, many things can change in certain ways, to some extent, because their exact measure, their specification, is accidental; this does not mean they can be dismissed, because at least some of these things are precisely the accidents proper to that kind.  Indeed, most essential characteristics (“must have at least some height”) are known to us only by observation of their accidental specifications (six feet, &c).

If we dismiss the accidents because they are not essential, we miss something about each separate being; we also risk distorting our understanding of what is essential, or missing it entirely.

Intensive Statements are not Extensive Statements, and vice versa

Some years ago, I read a discussion  in Stephen Prickett’s Words and the Word that stuck with me.  Now, his discussion is quite erudite, and in what follows I am not actually digging into the background of his discussion; nor am I doing his discussion justice.  I am simply bringing one tiny corner of a complicated apparatus to bear on a problem which is simple but perennial:  the illegitimate conversion of “intensive” and “extensive” claims.

When I criticize “not…but…” statements that treat “both/and” situations as “either/or” situations because the speaker believes one term is “deeper” than the other, I have several reasons in mind.  One is the problem that such errors commonly happen because of a hidden dualizing habit, a habit that leads us away from reality and tends to create scope problems:  we attempt to affirm a univocal truth out of scope, or treat an analogical truth as though it must be expressed univocally, and in so doing we tend to create conflicts over equivocations (or false agreements by equivocations, which are arguably worse).  Another reason is that frequently this failure to observe the proportions of things happens because intensive and extensive claims are being illegitimately converted.

Very roughly speaking, then, “intensive” claims describe things according to their purpose; “extensive” claims describe things according to their present condition.

“Intensive” claims, when I think about them very rigorously, must finally refer to final causation (the end intended by the one who effects the change), but may more roughly be thought of has having do do with instrumentality (describing a thing in terms of “how it can be used”).

Similarly roughly, “extensive” claims describe things according to their extension in space and time; they answer “to what extent” questions.  “Extensive” claims have to do with the present condition of things, and by themselves do not indicate any direction of change.

A common example of an illegitimate conversion of “intensive” and “extensive” claims is the majoritarian fallacy.  “Why should I vote for Snookums?” asks the skeptic.  “10,000,000 people voted for him!” answers the enthusiast.

Now, the enthusiast may be relying on an enthymeme, here, with a suppressed premise like “Do you believe you are wiser than all of them?” or “Surely you must be able to discover the reasons so many support Snookums!”  But this argument is, in default of available evidence, at an impasse; there is no proper support for “This is the [correct] end to pursue” from any act of counting things.  Similarly, “But there were no good reasons to vote for Snookums!” is not a meaningful effort to answer “Did Snookums get enough votes to win?”  Now, a lack of [good] rationale may be a reason for opposing such a result, but it does not help us to determine whether the result occurred.

The urgent and emphatic point, here, is that there is no question of one kind of claim being more relevant than the other; they are incommensurable precisely because they are coordinate.  “Intensive” claims are necessary to proper description no more and no less then “extensive” claims are.  Even apart from any larger metaphysical question, we can find this type of description in the language of chemistry:

An extensive property is a property that changes when the size of the sample changes. Examples are mass, volume, length, and total charge.

An intensive property doesn’t change when you take away some of the sample. Examples are temperature, color, hardness, melting point, boiling point, pressure, molecular weight, and density. Because intensive properties are sometimes characteristic of a particular material, they can be helpful as clues in identifying unknown substances.

(source: General Chemistry Online)

The application is specific to chemistry, but the principle is clear:  the qualities by which something is what it is–what would be the “design features” for someone making that substance–are “intensive.”  The extent of the manifestation of those qualities here and now–the size of the body, so to speak–are obviously “extensive.”  These categories are quite stable, and end up being reconceptualized as every richer or more impoverished metaphysics finds itself tasked to account for them:  we are very nearly speaking of “form” and “matter,” or in another case of “essence” and “accident,” and pretty exactly speaking of “substance” and “extension” (a la Descartes), when we use this language of “intensive” and “extensive.”

[And, in fact, a robust understanding of this relation does require that we think in terms of analogy, for it is only by analogy that we conclude that the intensive and extensive qualities inhere in one being (the tacit analogy of our “common sense,” that is, our “coalition” of various senses in one perceptual field, “within” which we locate ourselves and our body parts).]

So when we speak of iron, we would know that both hardness and magnetism and conductivity count; we would know that whether iron can be magnetized does not depend on how much we have, but also that the effective strength of the magnet does depend on its mass.  We would know that you cannot make a sword or a rail if you do not have a sufficient mass of iron, and that you cannot do either if iron is not hard, either.

Similarly, we know that both butter’s reactions in heat and the flavors it contains depend on other factors than the size of the stick of butter, but we would regard as preposterous a chef who told us, “It doesn’t matter how much butter you use–it’s all about getting the butter with the most perfect fat content.”  Similarly, a shoe salesman who offered papier-mache shoes that fit perfectly would be no more likely to get repeat customers than one who claimed that, provided the leather and stitching were of the highest quality, the width was irrelevant.

In other words, when we are talking about things that can be described in this way, it is precisely the analogy of being–the understanding born of our own mode of consciousness, warranted by our common creaturely relation to a Creator whose Being is partially manifested by our being’s participation with Him–that fuses these disparate features into one object of consideration or perception for us.

Why, then, do we seem to constantly replicate these same silly “not…but…” structures in talking about humane and religious subjects?

A recent example:

One can make a long list of them:

  • “Not head knowledge but heart knowledge”
  • “Not a religion but a relationship”
  • “Not a destination but a journey”
  • “Not an organization but an organism”
  • “Not a proposition but a Person”
  • “No creed but Christ”

And so on and on, ad nauseam.

Yes, of course, I am familiar with the rhetorical trope called “antithesis,” and I quite understand that one might say something like this in a broader context, where it would be otherwise well-understood, for added emotional effect.  I would suggest it is still a poor choice, because any of these situations can be confronted with a more precise and more effective figure.  For example:

  • “Knowing facts about someone is not the same as knowing that person, let alone befriending him”
  • “When your religious practice has less effect on your schedule and your budget than your child’s soccer team and your cell phone bill, what kind of friendship with God do you expect to have?  What are you teaching your children?”
  • “Stop building your life around Aerosmith lyrics.  Grow up.”

…and so forth.

But the larger problem is not merely one of too much reliance on one rather stale and imprecise rhetorical figure, but of the way that figure reflects and builds the plausibility structures, the “conventional wisdom” or “institutional lore,” that shape our ways of teaching and living together.  When a whole approach to group learning, or to evangelistic method, or to liturgical planning, or even to theology, begins to reflect a rhetorical flourish as though it were a crucial insight, we can be sure that some influence in our formation makes us find such a conversion acceptable.  We would not, for example, accept a similar use of raging hyperbole as a legitimate foundation for arguments and teaching plans:  “We’re failing if every child that graduates from this school doesn’t end up canonized” might be the sort of thing an enthusiast would say, but nobody would write it down and sell books attempting to lay out a plan for it.

And again, we can lay some of this off on an excessive love of paradox, a common affliction among teachers and other intellectuals.  Miseducation in “critical thinking” has everything to do with this, as does a loss of contact with the wisdom traditions that properly surround aphoristic learning.  But this does not account for the consistency with which this “not… but…” emerges as an effort to move specifically from one kind of claim, taken as a weak or superficial or static or rigid one, to a different kind of claim, taken as vital and deep and supple and refreshing. In other words, these “not… but…” structures assert a generic difference.

So what makes this structure seem plausible, and why do I think it is corrosive of sound reason, especially where religion is in view?

What happens is this.

First, attempts to justify some discernable reality, like the hard work of learning an ancient language, “cash out” that reality in terms of the particular aims & desires most current between the speaker and audience, like better job prospects. Note that this reinforces the idea that there is some separation between the “extensive” and the “intensive” description of language learning. Someone might say, “Learning a language is worth it because it will look great on your resume.” Another will then intensify this claim:  “Don’t just learn a language to be learning a language; learn a language to get a great job!” In short order, this can even become inverted, as “Be sure to learn the language that will get you the best job!” becomes “Don’t waste your time on a language that won’t get you a great job.”

And so a thing (learn a language) and its opposite (don’t bother) end up apparently warranted by one and the same backing claim: that the “cash value” of language learning is resume padding. Perversely, the more successful the original defense of language learning was, the more any effort to adduce additional intrinsic value or extrinsic benefits will be met with accusations of “changing the subject” or “moving the goalposts.”

This last accusation is highly motivated, because it arises from the second stage of this illegitimate conversion.  Because the effort to “cash out” the extensive features of the reality in terms of one intensive feature–“learn a language because you want a job”–underscores the separation of those features in the minds of speaker and audience, the intensive feature’s measures tend to be taken as the extensive features of a new (mis)understanding of the original reality. Where “fluency in conversation with native speakers” or “comprehensive description of the features of the language” or “ability to translate scholarly prose” might have been measures of language learning, extensive claims compatible with a wide variety of aims and desires and particular targets (intensive features), after the “cash out” in terms of “better job” gains currency this will change. Someone will ask that the language:job link be measured, another that the fluency: job link be measured, and as this fresh set of extensive claims preoccupies language learners, extensive claims about language learning as such will be seen as abstruse and unrelated to the new project.

The same thing happens when “not a head knowledge but a heart knowledge” becomes current, so that some specific display of “heartfelt belief” or “vulnerability” or “repentance with tears” or “holy laughter” or “praying through” ends up being first a proxy measure and then a narrowed, reductive replacement for the reality of the faith, received and lived, infused and participated, really intended and concretely enacted.

We have a responsibility to help people integrate their lives into the Life of the Body of Christ; let us not create stumbling blocks with bad rhetoric.

Thanks Again, Archbishop Chaput!

I know that many, many good people have labored very hard in their evangelization efforts over the past few decades, sometimes with great results, and their sacrifices need to be honored.

But as a Church I think we’ve made a basic mistake in underestimating the gravitational pull of consumer culture, the power of new technologies to shape the appetites and thinking of our young people, and the corrosive effect of American materialism on our memory as a believing community, and on our ability to experience the sacred and transcendent.

At the same time, we’ve overestimated the compatibility of Catholic faith with American liberal democracy.  As voices like Stanley Hauerwas and the late Avery Dulles warned us years ago, we’ve tried too hard to fit into a culture where we don’t finally fit.  And the results are predictable.  What can the words “Jesus Christ is Lord” or “Christ the King” mean to a young person raised in a culture committed to personal autonomy and deeply suspicious of authority and hierarchical structures?  What kind of influence can biblical revelation have in a culture where only science and technology count as real knowledge?

There’s a deep vein of practical atheism coursing through American consumer life that deadens the soul to a desire for holiness and discourages the hope for anything beyond the horizons of this world.  But it’s a problem we can easily miss because we imagine that the religious roots of our country still help to determine its course.  In 2013 Gallup polling, 75 percent of Americans surveyed voiced their support for a greater influence of religion in national life.  And that sounds wonderful.  But many of the same people who responded so positively on the survey had no personal interest in religious faith.

In other words, “Americans want religion,” as one headline read, for “everyone but themselves.”

(source: Achbishop Chaput–National Catholic Diocesan Vocations Directors Conference)

Helpful Clarity from Canada and Canon Law

As I noted in some detail in 2009, persons who kill themselves in accord with civil law perform a number of public, verifiable steps that—if the laws are being applied as they are written—all but eliminate any ‘pious presumption’ of diminished culpability for one’s self-murder. The ‘benefits of the doubt’ that we want to accord to ‘traditional suicides’ can hardly be offered to those who kill themselves under civilly-approved circumstances. To accord to such persons ecclesiastical funeral rites indistinguishable from the liturgies the Church grants to the faithful who die natural (sometimes even heroic!) deaths cannot but give scandal to the faithful. Indeed, to use the sacred rites of the Church for such ends is, I suggest, to commit a grave liturgical abuse, one savoring of sacrilege (CCC 2120).


Finally, ‘assisted suicide’ is, along with ‘legal abortion’ and ‘compassionate infanticide’, one of the three heads of that cerberus known as the Culture of Death. Precisely insofar as the modern death cult is cultural, it permeates everything and can appear anywhere. It must be quickly recognized for what it is and confronted wherever it manifests itself. If that means, in part, invoking the salutary admonitions of canonical discipline against manifest sinners and protecting the faithful community from the danger of scandal, so be it.

That’s what the law is there for.

(source: Time to head off confusion in Canada | In the Light of the Law)

Handy guide to Analogy

This is hardly the last word on the subject, but it seemed useful to provide a clear example, so that I wouldn’t confuse myself and everyone else when we talk about the distinction between analogical and univocal predication.


Key thing here:  as I hope you can see, this does not mean we resign clear definitions and prefer vague metaphors.  It does mean that we pay attention to the metaphysical “facts of life” that found and bound our ability to understand and discuss an intelligible universe.


God, Freedom, and what we moderns don’t know about Will

Pretty decent question from a student on Reddit:

I am doing an undergraduate exposition of the Free Will of God, as examined by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa, Question 19.3. I have been reading this over and over again, as well as looking into other questions of the Summa. Does anyone have a simple explanation, and/or some links to articles, books, or lectures written on this subjects?


To which I reply as follows:

Make sure you carefully understand the response to I.19.1 before you try to deal with 19.3, among other things. It sounds like you’re wrestling with this the right way. The challenge is that almost every relevant term is defined differently in the “default” philosophy of our day than in St. Thomas’s work.

Look at

Notice that will follows intellect, and is analogous to the “natural appetite,” that is, the tendency for everything to be what it is. Rocks are rock-like by “natural appetite,” that is, they tend to be rock-like as long as something else does not supervene on their nature and convert their rock-like-ness into something else.

Intellectual natures are more complicated; they have a “natural appetite” to consider their circumstances and habits and choose things that may alter them, so they may in many cases be capable of “converting” themselves, though not so as to cease to be that kind of intellectual being.

When an intellectual nature, with all this “natural appetite” for considering and choosing and potentially converting, acts according to that nature, it does so according to that nature; moral freedom is not a rupture of nature, but the act proper to an intellectual nature.

With God, the situation is even more interesting–at once more complicated and far, far more simple.

For God, the contemplation and the choosing are all perfect in their beginning, so that when God contemplates He is not really considering before acting, and only acting when the consequences are predictable; rather, God contemplates and actualizes all things (including all the contingencies and the natures according to which those contingencies are resolved, in almost endless complexity) in the same act as God exists. God, just in being God, also considers all possibilities and also actualizes all actualities, and is never in any of His considerations balked or given reason to convert any of His perfect habits in any way.

And therefore God is absolutely free, as He considers and actualizes all things according to His own act of being God, and in that same act of being a God who is good considers and actualizes what is best, including all the layers of possibility and contingency (and folded within those all the back-and-forth of Creation, Fall, Redemption, calling, conversion, Heaven, Hell) that resolve themselves according to the participation of some natures in that freedom of God.

Our own freedom is far less than God’s, because it is essentially the portion of God’s total freedom that He has, because it is perfectly in accord with His considering and actualizing all good things, allotted to us; He has decided that, whatever we make of it, our degree of participation in His freedom is an essential good of creating us. This does not constrain His freedom; it is His freedom, in making us, participated by us as our more limited and contingent freedom.

And we cannot have this freedom except as participation in His freedom, which means that when we choose to abuse His gift of opportunity to cooperate with Him, to enter freely into His friendship, we choose the loss of continued capacity to choose and a gradual descent into a more merely, almost subhumanly, appetitive and irascible state of being.

Hope that helps. Also, I’m going to blog this, so be honest with your prof when you work on your paper.

Plurivocity, not Equivocation

Just to help folks keep their bearings, here’s what Thomas has to say about the four senses of Scripture.  Note how they relate to “equivocation” and also to the “literal sense”:

On the contrary, Gregory says (Moral. xx, 1): “Holy Writ by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.”

I answer that, The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says (Hebrews 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Dionysius says (Coel. Hier. i) “the New Law itself is a figure of future glory.” Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense. Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses.

Reply to Objection 1. The multiplicity of these senses does not produce equivocation or any other kind of multiplicity, seeing that these senses are not multiplied because one word signifies several things, but because the things signified by the words can be themselves types of other things. Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one — the literal — from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense.

(source: Summa Theologica I.1.10)

brief excursus on modern and postmodern (from Analogy discussion)

Here is the terribly important point:  disregarding the fundamental role of analogy and insisting on univocal discourse generally leads us to equivocate, and we either end up pushing opposing “not…but…” statements whose opposition is founded in an equivocation; or we end up agreeing on apparently univocal utterances that are founded on an invisible equivocation that we all assume without examination.

The epistemological project common to most Enlightenment philosophy, most Protestant hermeneutics, Modernism (classical liberalism in theology), Fundamentalism, and almost all modern critical theory is founded on an assertion that univocal expression across all domains of knowledge is (or ought to be) possible and necessary for “truth” to be intelligible; the failure of that project is the foundation of the critical consensus commonly called “postmodern,” and is the true significance of conversations about “destruing” and “deconstruction” at Heidegger and Derrida (downstream from the European love affair with Hegel of the early 19C and the ugly breakup that led to movements as various the 1848 revolutions, modern anarchism/Satanism/nihilism, the Kulturkampf, the works of Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dialectical Theology, the search for the Historical Jesus, phenomenology, and a great deal more).

Whatever its faults, this postmodern line of critical thought has correctly insisted that the “not…but…” structures that are founded upon invisibly agreed-upon equivocations but purport to be foundations of wholly univocal systems of understanding and explanation are at the very least important and, where they betray such systems into harmful errors and violence, cry out to be re-examined.  Insofar as this is their project, our postmodern critical theorists are doing morally serious work.  Insofar as they insist that this problem is unavoidable, universal, and systemic and requires perpetual revolt against settled understandings as the only morally serious path, they are of course wrongheaded and destructive–they lead to harmful errors and violence, and so their own agreed-upon equivocations cry out to be examined.