Skip to main content


Showing posts from November, 2012

Utopia and the 'Respublica Literaria'

Thomas More's Utopia is a text that begins to get away from you as soon as you note the slippage between Thomas More (the signature of the author) and 'Thomas More' (the name of one of the characters in the dialogue). It's a text of such slips, of course: between eutopia and utopia (and thus between idealism and fantasy); between English and Latin (the puns on names which subtly undermine their bearers); between a severe critique of Europe and a set of purported solutions; and between an appeal to empirical fact and the play of a fiction. It has been read as everything from a serious political tract advocating radical solutions on matters of property, labour and law to a cutting satire on the impracticality of such radicalism. Inventing the genre of utopian fiction, virtually as it goes along, one can make valid claims for it being as dignified as a Platonic dialogue or as freewheeling and anarchic as as a jeu d'espirit like Erasmus' The Praise of Folly. The po…

Wordsworth, Futurally

I suppose I've always thought of Wordsworth's spots-of-time primarily in terms of a tension between memory and the present. Here (at length) are their first appearance, in the 1798 'Two-Part' Prelude:
Twilight was coming on, yet through the gloom
I saw distinctly on the opposite shore
Beneath a tree and close by the lake side
A heap of garments, as if left by one
Who there was bathing: half an hour I watched
And no one owned them: meanwhile the calm lake
Grew dark with all the shadows on its breast,
And now and then a leaping fish disturbed
The breathless stillness. The succeeding day
There came a company, and in their boat
Sounded with iron hooks, and with long poles.
At length the dead man' mid that beauteous scene
Of trees, and hills, and water, bolt upright
Rose with his ghastly face. I might advert
To numerous accidents in flood or field,
Quarry or moor, or 'mid the winter snows,
Distresses and disasters, tragic facts
Of rural history that impressed my …

'Non May Hyden His Harme': Gawain and Lying

A student of mine pointed out this week, quite correctly, that the two courts in Gawain and the Green Knight are mirror images of each other. Camelot and the castle of Bertilak are fundamentally parallel places: constituted by rounds of feasting and revelry and ornamented with lavish finery and beautiful ladies. The rules - the codes of behaviour - are the same. This is, after all, the place that Gawain himself seeks in the wilderness, a place of refuge, prayer and restoration: 'if he my3t keuer to com þe cloyster wythinne / to herber in þat hostel whyl halyday lested'. After the facing bitter cold and violent foes, he wants the familiar: he desires a court and its hospitality. 

Why this is important, I think, is related to an ambiguity that first appeared with the Green Knight himself. Bearing the distinctly mixed signals of holly and axe, he is (as every Oxford undergraduate used to know) both 'inside' and 'outside' chivalry, familiar and alien, courteous yet …