09 June, 2007

On the marvellous

I'm sitting in our bright new flat in Cricklewood. The early June is quite cold. That I shall take with me—the American quite. Panama, lizardskin boots, bolo tie. Every other memory of Arizona is but a dream of an ancient and unreal past. The sun is setting dully over the suburban gardens, over the trampoline, the koi pond and overwrought fountain, and the brick shed with stained glass in the windows, in a vaguely art nouveau style, to match the front doors so common in northwest London. I can still taste my dinner—a little ham and mature cheddar, and tapas olives soaked in garlic and chili. On the table is a copy of Rabelais and his World, purchased today for a mere 4 quid from a shelf of books formerly belonging to Angela Carter. Sadly it lacks annotations. A thousand ideas clamour in me, ideas for posts, let us call them essays, some requests, from the likes of Mencius and Goodwin—the only Valver who, bless his heart, condescends to read the Varieties—requests which I have been admittedly impunctual in fulfilling, but which I have not forgotten.

You know this Seamus Heaney poem, don't you?
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
'This man can't bear our life here and will drown,'

The abbot said, 'unless we help him.' So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
(No? Well, it's very famous.) The poem is part viii of his poem 'Lightenings', from the 1991 collection Seeing Things. You know it because Heaney chose to read it when he was given the Nobel Prize a decade or so ago. He evidently considers it very special. Others consider it special too. Apparently there's just something, well, marvellous about it.

The poem is based on traditional Irish materials from the late Middle Ages; the earliest hint of the story comes from the Annals of Ulster for 748. But compare another account of the legend, this one from a Briton in France—Gervase of Tilbury's Otia Imperialia, written for Otto IV around 1215, contains this splendid passage (book I, ch. 13):
A strange [supereminentiam] event in our own times, which is widely known but none the less a cause of wonder, provides proof of the existence of an upper sea overhead. It occurred on a feast day in Britain, while the people were struggling out of their parish church after hearing high mass. The day was very overcast and quite dark on account of the thick clouds. To the people's amazement, a ship's anchor was seen caught on a tombstone [lapido tumulo] within the churchyard walls, with its rope stretching up and hanging in the air. They were advancing various opinions on the matter to each other, when after a time they saw the rope move as if it were being worked to pull up the anchor. Since, being caught fast, it would not give way, a sound [uox] was heard in the humid air as of sailors struggling to recover the anchor they had cast down. Soon, when their efforts proved vain, the sailors sent one of their number down; using the same technique as our sailors here below, he gripped the anchor-rope and climbed down it, swinging one hand over the other. He had already pulled the anchor free, when he was seized by the bystanders. He then expired in the hands of his captors, suffocated by the humidity of our dense air as if he were drowning at sea. The sailors up above wasted an hour, but then, concluding that their companion had drowned, they cut the rope and sailed away, leaving the anchor behind. And so in memory of this event it was fittingly decided that that anchor should be used to make ironwork for the church door, and it is still there for all to see.
Now, whose story is more interesting? Heaney's ending is a damp squib—it lacks power, lacks guts. I was flicking through Seeing Things today, and found it consistently gutless. It is weak to explain the meaning of one's own wordplay, as Heaney does at the end of 'Lightenings'. And tone-poem haikus hardly seem impressive from so established a poet. Likewise, 'So / They did, the freed ship sailed' is pure bathos. There is no tension, in Heaney's poem, between the world of the celestial sailors and the world of men; there is a lack of ideas.

In Gervase's version the people of our world are far less benign. It is telling that the anchor catches not on 'altar rails' but on a tombstone or burial mound. The bystanders do not aid the celestial visitor, but seize and hinder him. Tension between heaven and earth is established by the fact of the sailor's death—suggested as a possibility by Heaney, but daringly actuated by Gervase. It is, for the mediaeval, a dumbshow retelling of the life of Christ himself. Heaney feels the need to make the metaphor obvious—'he can't bear our life here'—but Gervase is happy to remain at the level of the literal; that is the quiet strength of his tale.

Gervase tells the story for a reason. He is attempting to justify the mediaeval doctrine of the 'upper water', follwing Genesis 1.7: 'And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so'. The upper water was, one presumes, originally suggested by the phenomenon of rain. But ever since Augustine's commentary on Genesis, theologians had been hammering away at it. Bede, thinking of the Milky Way, postulated that the water was frozen, for the purpose of cooling the fire of the stars, appearing to us as a 'stretched hide'. William of Conches, writing around 1150, dismisses Bede's theory for the simple reason that fire melts ice; for William the Milky Way is a mere trick of the light, and the upper water is just vapour. Robert Grosseteste summarises more views about the two waters in Part One of his Hexaemeron (1230). But Gervase isn't so interested in the subtle disputations of his forebears; he prefers to tell fables, poetic articles of faith. The story of the celestial sailors is followed by an anecdote in which a seaman drops a knife overboard, and back home, halfway around the world, his wife sees the same knife fall through a skylight onto the kitchen table. This is the marvellous as Gervase knows it.
In huius itaque rei memoriam de ancora illa ferramenta ostii basilice illius prudenti consilio fabricata sunt, que et publico patent conspectui.
Stuck in the world is a remnant of the beyond, reused as 'ferramenta ostii basilice', ironwork for the church door, woven into the fabric of a spiritual architecture, as befits such a fragment. I like to imagine a triple play between ancora (anchor), ancorita (monk) and ancora (hanc horam: still, yet). In Gervase's world—in mine, I think—the sublime must leave a trace of itself, token and totem, in the realm of experience—else it would remain only a dream of an ancient and unreal past. Indeed, the world is itself as a continual accretion and fashioning of the shells of the marvellous, extinct embers of the most divine and most eternal fire. This, therefore, is what I want: a poetry of ideas.

Update: J. J. Cohen, professional academic and founding member of the mediaevalist blog In the Middle, links. Fancy, two posts on Gervase's sailor-mirabilium in the space of a week! Cohen writes: 'When "our" previously invisible air becomes weighty enough to function as someone else's sea, then "our" skies become the currents by which the medieval archipelago exuberantly connects difference to sameness in unanticipated ways.' I have no idea what this means, but it sounds grand, doesn't it?

Update #2: Ray Davis condescends too.


Mencius Moldbug said...

Funny, I thought that was the British quite. Maybe it originates on some sunken seamount, or something.

I admire your gall in gutting Heaney! Of course he has gutted himself, he is a gutless man for a gutless age. The flaps of his belly flap in the wind, the steaks of the back are clean to view. Strangely, there is no hint of a spine... What's terrible is that Heaney thinks of himself as tough and gritty. And so do others.

There are many awful things about contemporary verse, but the most awful has to be this type of ending. It is intended to make the audience go "ah," in a sort of warm NPR way. In fact it is pure sentimental Christianity, diluted 1000:1 and flavored with a little corn syrup and lemon juice. Ah, the world is so lovely, the people in it are so nice! Fuckers.

Whereas Gervase's version, to me, is science fiction in the best sense of the word. His sailors are real sailors, they do what they do when a real anchor gets stuck. And they drown like men as well.

To me this is exactly the difference between multiculturalism, in the form of Heaney's latest brand of pastoral Ossianistic leprechaun cant (every revolting trope of condescending Third Worldism is anticipated in the Anglo-Celtic intersection), and a genuine respect for others and (heaven help me) Other.

To Heaney the "marvellous" exists only to give the abbot an opportunity for his Yoda-like utterance. In fact Clonmacnoise is presumably a sort of Catholic Tassajara, with Tibetan singing bowls and tasteful, understated landscaping.

In Gervase the drama is entirely transferred to the sailors of the upper ocean, who are as ignorant of our world as we are of theirs. The lesson is that the universe is large and scary, and we know nothing of it - no less true now than it was then.

Persephone said...

I believe you are being unfair to Heaney in this instance, Conrad. He is drawing specifically on the Irish manuscript tradition of this legend, not the work of a "Briton in France" (would Gervase have identified himself as a Briton, I wonder?)

The Annals of Ulster (year 749) merely state that "ships with their crews were seen in the air above Cluain Moccu Nóis." The Book of Leinster (12th century) gives the tale a secular setting - King Domhnall sees three ships in the air over Tara. The narrative receives increasingly complex embellishment over time. The seventeenth-century historian Geoffrey Keating repeats the tale in his Foras Feasna (based on an Irish version of Nennius):

"xxiii. Congalacha, son of Mailmithigh, was at the fair of Taillten on a certain day, and he perceived a ship in the air. He saw one of them the crew cast a dart at a salmon. The dart fell down in the presence of the fair, and a man came out of the ship after it. When his head came down it was caught by a man from below.

Upon which the man from above said, ‘I am being drowned’, said he. ‘Let him go’, said Congalach; and he was allowed to come up, and he went away from them, swimming in the air, afterwards."

Eventually, the setting became monastic, the king a monk, the spear an anchor. Nowhere in the Irish tradition, so far as I can tell, is the otherworldly crewman held captive and drowned. And since Heaney is specifically interested in reperforming the Irish tradition in his poetry, and he's been quite clear about his allusions (he cites the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which I don't have access to right at the moment) in my opinion, a purely formalist interpretation would pretty much miss the point. (Hmm . . I think you've heard critiques like that before.)

There's an Irish tradition of a world below the sea as well. A gloss in the Liber Hymnorum tells the story of a ship whose anchor gets caught on the tower of an underwater oratory. A young monk shimmys down the chain to release the anchor, but is left behind in the underwater city for one year. When the ship goes back to pick him up, he brings with him a bell from the underwater church (now on display at the convent of St. Brigid, come all ye pilgrims...)

John Cowan said...

I quite agree with you, Persephone, and with O'Malley too, and whether that's British or American I cannot tell, being an American (of the Hiberno-Deutsch variety) who has read way too many books from t'other side the Pond.

As for Gervase, he was certainly not French nor British, but Norman, Norman on either side of la Manche.

Lastly, I think the poem is an instance of what GKC called Mooreeffoc, meaning that it is us, our world, that is "the marvellous" to the sky-sailor; he is returning home to the familiar ship, the familiar stratosphere, out of the inconceivable wonders of a monastery in 9th-century Ireland.

John Cowan said...

Oh yes: supereminentiam is not 'strange' but something like 'surpassingly famous', though the literal meaning of the verb superemineo is given by Lewis & Short as
'to overtop, to appear or be above, to rise above'

Conrad H. Roth said...

Cowan: Lewis and Short are not glossing 13c. Latin. Of course, I only meant 'Briton' in the sense, 'born in [what is now] Britain'. Quite=very is American; quite=rather is British.

Persephone: Thanks for this response. The thought of being unfair to Heaney rather delights me, but in this instance I don't think I am. I'm aware of the tradition; while I'm certainly glad for you to share the history, I think it was reasonably encapsulated in my brief statement ("based on traditional Irish materials from the late Middle Ages"). This article contains some of the history, as well as notes on 748 / 749 for the Annals.

Now, it is true of course that "Heaney is specifically interested in reperforming the Irish tradition in his poetry", and true (as far sa I know) that in the Irish tradition there is no drowning. But I'm not evaluating Heaney's poetry based on his intentions; I have no interest in them. What I'm interested in is purely whether 'Lightenings viii' is a good poem. And it is a less good poem for being based on Irish sources than it would be if it were based on, say, Gervase. The fact that Heaney is Irish doesn't mandate him by law to follow Irish tradition! The Gervase, a more interesting version, was available to him, and yet he chose the version whose ideas are weaker. Why is mine not a reasonable criticism, then? I'd be curious to know if you thought Heaney's story more interesting than Gervase's.

Mencius: I completely agree with all of your statements.

Persephone said...

There is no disputing taste, Conrad. If it takes a human sacrifice to make a poem interesting to you, well, there it is.

What I find interesting is the Anglo-Norman reflex of what was obviously a fairly established idea in the 13th century. I wonder if that's the first attestation of the legend in A-N culture, and if there's a historical or literary context that might fruitfully be examined in relation to this particular variant. But then, that's a reflection of my own taste, isn't it?

While I appreciated your presentation of Gervase, and would not disagree with your standards for the marvellous - and you are certainly entitled to your opinion about Heaney - I wonder if you aren't comparing apples to oranges here? A value judgment based on a comparison between a twentieth-century poem and a thirteenth-century history - linked only by theme - can be qualified in so many ways that it seems to provide an foundation of quicksand for your argument, or rather, your opinion.

Thanks for the article citation - very interesting. I was familiar with the Carey essay which it cites in the beginning. This was a fun post, and I enjoyed it.

paul said...

Conrad: "Quite=very is American; quite=rather is British."

Wandering from the poetry, but I had to think about your distinction. I tend to use 'rather' as a near-synonym to the American 'quite'. I'd perhaps choose 'rather' as a slightly less-intensive alternative to 'quite'...but only slightly.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Paul; OK, I hadn't considered that. Try "quite=reasonably" for British. A silver ring is quite (UK) nice; a gold ring is quite (US) nice. There's a difference in emphasis too: the British phrase stresses the noun, the American the 'quite'.


"I wonder if that's the first attestation of the legend in A-N culture"

According to Gervase's editors, it is. (And apparently the first attestation of the legend in this form anywhere.)

"can be qualified in so many ways"

I'm intrigued by your quicksand foundation. Perhaps this would be an interesting discussion? How would you 'qualify' my judgment (other than, of course, disagreeing with it)? How, specifically, are Heaney and Gervase incomparable? They have different aims, intentions, contexts, milieux, of course; does that make it worthless to compare them?

The fact that I have given an opinion does not, in this case, mean that I have provided no reason for it.

Persephone said...

I didn't say that you had provided no reason for your opinion, Conrad, but rather that I did not find your reasoning particularly convincing. (Though stylistically, your post is very fine: "extinct embers of the most divine and most eternal fire"? Very nice.)

You are making a comparison between two literary objects that differ not just in intention and context, but also in the essential qualities of genre and language.

I believe your judgement can be qualified by a closer look at Heaney's poem - specifically the relationship between form and meaning, which I think you give short shrift in your discussion (also, I'm not as familiar with Gervase - but though you read his account beautifully as an allegory for what the Welsh call awen - loosely, the divine spark which animates poetry and gives it power - I can't help dwelling on the tediously common deployment of such mirabilia by various ecclesiastical centers as tools for gaining political and economic advantage. "A beautiful theory murdered by a gang of brutal facts" to my mind.)

To return to Heaney - you seem to read the poem as if it were prose - as if the ending, or narrative resolution were somehow the point (which I would argue, of course, it is not.) It is not enough to dismiss Heaney's characteristic triplets as "tone-poem haikus . . . hardly impressive from so established a poet." Nor do you explain your reading of it as bathetic, and your point about the weakness of his rhetorical strategies is simply wrong (with all due respect, look again - Heaney's definition of 'lightening' is not an explanation, but an extension). In short, in your eagerness to "gut" Heaney and set him up as an antithesis to what you see in Gervase, I think you impoverish your own point - a point that I think has the potential to be even more interesting.

Conrad H. Roth said...


"You are making a comparison between two literary objects that differ..."

What I am essentially comparing is two stories. A narrative is a narrative; just as a Picasso can be more beautiful (or uglier) than the Great Pyramid, so can a 1215 prose marvel be more or less beautiful (or interesting) than a 1991 poem.

"common deployment of such mirabilia by various ecclesiastical centers as tools for gaining political and economic advantage"

This may be true--I was hoping you would elaborate. How might the story of the sky-ships be turned to political advantage? (And how does it relate to the overt religious context of the 'upper sea'?) Do you think it turns on any relationship between the 'Britain' of the story and the world of Otto IV? And if it does have a political subtext, does that invalidate it aesthetically?

"narrative resolution were somehow the point"

What, then, is the point? I was not, incidentally, referring to these triplets as 'tone-poem haikus'--I was referring to his actual, bona fide tone-poem haikus, 17 syllables and all. I would quote one, but I don't have the book to hand.


There is a 'marvellous' or sublime set-up: ten slow lines devoted to the establishment of the 'problem', the situation. This problem is resolved in little more than one line (So. . . climbed back). The last line being a sort of punchline. The quickness of the change of narrative pace is uneasy--not in a clever, modernist way, but in an annoying way, as if he didn't have control of it. (That is an 'as if', mind.)

I'd love to hear from you a concrete defense of this poem: a serious explanation of how its narrative and verbal rhythms combine and interrelate to make a point, or serve some other purpose.

My ears, and mind, are open.

bhikku said...

There's another example of this kind of thing (involving a man in a balloon) in The Third Policeman (Irish again!). In this version the people on the ground are dangerous, too.

Persephone said...

I appreciate your openness - that is why this is fun.

But first, maybe you could clarify something. Are we interested here in whether Heaney has written a good poem (in which case we must take both form and meaning into account, yes?) or in evaluating which is superior, Heaney's choice of thematic emphasis or Gervase's? Not to be simple, but doesn't a call for a "poetry of ideas" require a consideration of both the form such poetry might take as well as the quality of the ideas? (In which case, indeed, narrative resolution might not be the point at all.)

(I'll address your other questions in a bit, I'd like to keep the various issues separate in the interests of clarity. Not to mention brevity!)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Bhikku: thanks, I had forgotten about this.

"I heard of a man once that had himself let up into the sky in a balloon to make observations, a man of great personal charm but a divil for reading books. They played out the rope till he was disappeared completely from all appearances, telescopes or no telescopes, and then they played out another ten miles of rope to make sure of first-class observations. When the time-limit for the observations was over they pulled down the balloon again but lo and behold there was no man in the basket and his dead bod was never found afterwards lying dead or alive in any parish ever afterwards. . .

But they were clever enough to think of sending up the balloon again a fortnight later and when they brought it down the second time lo and behold the man was sitting in the basket without a feather out of him if any of my information can be believed at all."

Sort of an inversion of the Gervase / Heaney story, I suppose.

Persephone: I think we're interested in both, unless that's too tall an order. We can agree that form and idea-quality are both important. Feel free to keep separate 'Heaney is good' and 'Heaney's narrative is better than Gervase's', although they are of course related.

John Cowan said...

Well of course L&S don't do Mediaeval Latin, Conrad; I took the trouble of looking at Ducange as well. But it's quite interesting that the literal sense (which never quite dies) has to do with overflight.

As for quite, the American dictionaries agree with the OED that there are three senses in both British and American English: 'wholly, completely', as in quite finished, quite alone, not quite ready; 'positively, really', as in quite positive, quite sure; and lastly 'to a considerable degree, rather', as in quite soon, quite tasty. So it seems clear that your supposed British/American distinction is not founded in fact.

You are pleased to evaluate Heaney's poem as lacking in greatness; for myself, I am interested not in comparative greatness but in positive goodness or genuineness. But I quite (that is, entirely) deny that there is any lack of tension between the two worlds; the tension between them is precisely the tension between the mundane and the marvelous, reciprocally arrived.

As for the word bear, it's all about the high pressure here at the bottom of the atmosphere; it's quite true that the stratospheric sailor wouldn't be able to bear it.

Persephone said...

Ha, so I've been given an assignment, have I? I can't promise I'll get to Heaney vs. Gervase, especially since everything I know about Gervase comes from reading the "Varieties"! (I'll see if I can get it done tomorrow - other obligations need to be attended to in the meantime, and unlike some lucky insomniacs, I actually need to sleep now and again.)

"How might the story of the sky-ships be turned to political advantage? (And how does it relate to the overt religious context of the 'upper sea'?) Do you think it turns on any relationship between the 'Britain' of the story and the world of Otto IV? And if it does have a political subtext, does that invalidate it aesthetically?"

Well, these are exactly the sorts of questions I find interesting - and I don't have any answers for you, given my limited encounters with Gervase (who sounds more and more fascinating). Bhikku's contribution is interesting, because it reminds me that we haven't mentioned the oral diffusion of the motif through folktale - in all its variations - that's probably the main reason it keeps cropping up in the work of Irish writers in particular. (Irish folklore is full of encounters with the otherworld - there is lots of to-ing and fro-ing of objects and people. Every hole in the ground or well has its story, never mind the great churches and monastaries.)

Interesting that Gervase would incorporate a thinly christianized legend in order to consider the religious question of the upper sea. I'm not sure I have a secure grip on the political situation between Britain and the Holy Roman Empire - or if that's even relevant to the adoption of an Irish legend. Otto IV was closely related to the Plantagenet kings, and they were his allies in his struggles for imperial power, weren't they? I suspect a discussion of the historical background of the text could only enrich one's contemplation of its aesthetic satisfactions - but that's merely my opinion.

Maximilian said...

I think this poem is much more interesting than you make it out to be. Though it certainly lacks the drama of the Gervase, in narrative and ideas, still I detect here an insidious irony reminiscent of Robert Frost at his darkest.

You take the Abbot’s warning as a clumsy and overbearing reference to Christ, “bearing” the cross. This seems plausible, at first sight. Yet this otherworldly sailor is very clearly not a Christ figure precisely because he cannot “bear our life”. He is more a petty angel than a Messianic figure. Yet this phrase warrants closer inspection. What is “our life” to which the Abbot refers? The poem begins with a brief description: monks huddled in a cramped oratory, praying. Is it surprising that a heavenly presence, accustomed to the subtler atmosphere of higher realms and swashbuckling on the bosom of the air, should suffocate in such a setting? But the abbot is a keen man and a clever one, the only man to discern the degraded situation he inhabits; yet he is a compassionate man too, so he exhorts his fellows to help the sailor live. “So / They did”, says the poem, in what I take to be a marvelously succinct moment of mockery: the monks give the situation no second thought, they simply comply so they can return to their futile prayers.

What, then, is this “marvelous as he had known it”? It is “our life”, the stale, dry, and ultimately deadly world of prayer. Also, it is of poetry, which self-consciously straddles these two worlds. It is this poem itself, in fact, which mundane readers all the world over find so “marvelous”. And just as finer spirits find our life’s marvelous intolerable, some of us, too, find poetry’s marvels quite unbearable.

Persephone said...

Oh, bravo!

(I withdraw, Conrad. I don't think I can add to this - Heaney has found a far abler defender than I!)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Cowan, always my foil:

"As for quite..."

Well, this is one of those situations when dictionaries aren't too helpful. It is true that English uses the "American" quite in phrases such as 'quite enough', etc. But these are set phrases, and pronounced differently: 'that's quite enough, thank you'. If an American, in my expericne, says something is 'quite good', he means something stronger than a Brit saying the same thing. It is a matter of emphasis and frequency, not black and white--but the difference is there.

In Heaney's poem, as opposed to Gervase's account, there is no real interpenetration--the sailor arrives, 'can't bear it', and leaves, helped by the earth-men. The fact that he 'can't bear' the atmosphere does not indicate any genuine poetic tension between his world and the men.

"I took the trouble of looking at Ducange"

Is this a joke? Or did you find it online? (It was at the BNF last time I looked, but very difficult to access and organised in images rather than text).

Max: an eloquent defense, as before of Keats, but there is one problem with it. I never said that Heaney is allegorising Christ; I said that:

"It is, for the mediaeval (ie. Gervase, not the Abbot), a dumbshow retelling of the life of Christ himself."

Christ, who is murdered by the men to whom he descends. (If this was unclear to others, apologies.) I don't regard the Abbot's insight as particularly clever: he sees the sailor gasping for air presumably, and helps him.

"a marvelously succinct moment of mockery"

Interesting that you detect mockery here; I see no trace of mockery whatsoever. The fact that this angelic being cannot bear the lower atmosphere does not, to my mind, imply that Heaney is making any critique of the monks, nor of their prayers, which are never suggested to by 'futile'. Quite the opposite: the monks are helpful, and disinterestedly aid the traveller to continue his voyage. They are 'just doing their job'.

I also don't remotely accept that 'our life' is identified with poetry--after all, the retaling of this marvel is the poetry--the poetry is both that world and this, or rather a detached picture of either. I see nothing in the poem to implicate itself (either the poem or poetry in general) in any critique--a critique which I don't really think exists in the first place.

I appreciate that by adding these layers you make Heaney's poem more interesting--but that is a virtue of yours, not Heaney's.

Raminagrobis said...

I've found this online version of Du Cange the easiest to access:


John Cowan said...

Thanks, 'grobis. That's a lot more convenient than what I did, which was to download several volumes as PDFs (there was no indication of which words are in which volume, so I had to guess).

Persephone: Though I agree with almost everything you say, I do demur at the term "human sacrifice". "Lynching" would be more like it. Perhaps I'm too American (and too much the science-fiction reader) to see anything of interest in tales of lynchings.

Maximilian: I think the sailor of the upper sea is just what Heaney calls him, a man: not a petty angel, not "heavenly" in the metaphorical sense that has dominated the meaning of "heaven" since the Norse borrowing "sky" came into the language so long ago. His life is a material, mortal life.

And as for "stale, dry, and deadly" as the life of prayer, you should (I speak as one who doesn't know if Anyone is listening, and doesn't believe you do either) not knock it before you try it. I agree with Conrad: I see no trace of condemnation of the monastics by Heaney in the text itself.

Anonymous said...

The anchor coming out of the sky, hooking on a tombstone, and the drowning of the sailor coming down to untangle it are mentioned a few times in William Gaddis' The Recognitions. I don't think anyone either helped or hindered the sailor, just watched.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, I'll have a look for it. (I've only read--well, sort of--JR.)