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Saturday, April 27, 2013

"La Belle Dame sans Merci"......

is a haunting poem by John Keates about an Arthurian knight put in thrall by a beautiful woman of magical powers. I love the medieval-style writing and way that both the natural world and the supernatural world are shown as being easily accesable to one another. It also holds forth a warning, to guard one's passions least they lead you astray......

La Belle Dame sans Merci

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

"And her eyes were wild....."

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

General James Wolfe......

    General James Wolfe is one of the most well-known and misunderstood British military commanders of the 18th century. His memory has been done a disservice by two opposing camps: one which would have him canonized, and the other which would have him demonized. The stiff-upper-lip Victorians saw him as a martyr for the Empire and made him into a secular saint for a state affiliated movement with all the trappings of religious fervor. Young lads were taught to grow up to be like Wolfe and to spread their race to the farthest corners of the globe. “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set…” This underlying concept turned into something of an obsession that became seriously unhealthy for Britain. For a time, it seemed as if many of her people were willing make her a “great” nation at the expense of keeping her a “good” one.

    But as the Empire gradually fell apart, things that people once viewed as heroic came to be looked down upon as inordinately jingoistic. The conquests of Wolfe fell into this line of thinking. But instead of handling the long overdue epiphany with balance, many historical “myth-busters” went on a campaign to tarnish Wolfe’s reputation totally and completely, transforming him into an always priggish, inately brutal, self-consumed, untalented military madman who could trace back all his successes to random strokes of luck. Disgruntled French Quebecers joined in the fray, defacing Wolfe-related monuments and trying to ridiculously rewrite history and call the Battle of Quebec a draw!

    Sadly, the real Wolfe, good and bad points present and accounted for, has all too often been overlooked. I personally find him to be a very intriguing character because he is hard to know, but when you finally get to know him, he comes off as a strikingly real individual full of depth and complexity. Reading the letters of James Wolfe from primary sources is a real eye-opener that starts the process of explaining what made the man a legend and what continues to make him worthy of respect and even admiration. It also shows the places where he went wrong and the thought process behind the misdeeds he did. Uncomfortable as it may be, different time periods held radically different beliefs, and that must be taken into account in all historical studies.

    The Wolfe presented in his letters is certainly not an eternal prig, and the claim that he had no sense of humor is clearly unfounded. While he may not have been particularly outgoing and could be reserved and chilly at times, he clearly let loose with those he was comfortable with, like his parents, his friends, and his sweethearts. He had a sharp and sarcastic wit, poking fun at this “slight carcass” and frail constitution in overblown lamentations. He joked about his efforts to better his education by taking mathematics lessons which he saw utterly no purpose in (I can sympathize!), learning to dance even though he was not particularly good at it (again, he has my sympathies!), and keeping up with his flute lessons (well…I’ve got a penny whistle, but it’s close!).

    When talking with his brother and friends, the conversation often turned to the ladies…sometimes in a rather naughty way! The claims that Wolfe was homosexual are clearly silly, as he wrote various letters to various people that all indicate a perfectly normal attraction to the opposite sex. For example, he teasd his brother going on home on leave to confine himself to going out with the girl who “stares in church” and then made a list of those young females who he designated as “his”! Also, he got into several flirtatious correspondences with young women of “good breeding”, replete with sugary language and chitty-chatty nonsense about embroidered waistcoats and the like.

    Then there was the intense side of Wolfe, revealing a moody and brooding young man given to long contemplations of the nature of life and death and the future of his career. Although he was not known for being particularly religious, he clearly believed in Providence. “You know the One I am referring to,” he would say when explaining his belief that there was someone who controlled the destiny of men and of battles. When death struck near to him, as it often did, he would sometimes ponder what had become of his deceased comrade. At one point, he mused that if there was a life beyond, then his dead friend must be at peace, for, in Wolfe’s estimation, he was as a good a man as ever lived. Sometimes his thoughts about God took a cheerier turn, like when he wrote an unusually elated letter to his mother about the beautiful springtime weather and how grateful he was to the Creator for letting mankind enjoy it.

    But it seems that beyond any religious feeling, Wolfe was grounded in his military career. Like the Victorians, Nationalism proved to be an easier place for him to channel his devotion and fervor than religion. While some of his love of country is quite admirable, some of it took a twist that grouped together all outside of his race and creed as barbarians and almost subhumans. “Canaille” was the word he used to describe the Highland Scots, the Colonial Americans, and the French Quebecers among others. He could be nasty and degrading in his language and bloody-minded in his actions. He seemed to have no problem taking part in the brutal suppression of the Second Jacobite Rebellion, justifying the subsequent slaughter by accusing the Jacobites of planning to massacre Government troops. No proof has ever been uncovered to support that claim.

    Later when stationed in Scotland, Wolfe came up with a shockingly ruthless plan to annihilate a rebel Highland clan by putting some of his troops in an indefensible position so they would be wiped out by the rebels, giving Wolfe the excuse to wipe out the rebels in response! “Can you believe I can be so bloody?” Wolfe challenged one of his horrified friends. Clearly he could be, and he meant to prove he was no milk-sop. He was a hardened military veteran, and to him, the ends of “getting the job” done justified any means. Later, in the French and Indian War, he willingly waged civilian warfare, destroying French Canadian villages and ravaging the countryside. He also took and threatened to execute civillian hostages if the French high command wouldn’t “play ball” with him during negotiations.

    However, it must be said that Wolfe was not alone in using the scorched earth policy. It was an accepted mode of warfare in the 18th century, and it was meant to deprive the enemy of resources and draw them into battle. In spite of the burning and plundering, Wolfe did not encourage his men to physically harm the civilians of French Canada. In fact, he was furious when one of his officers killed the inhabitants of a village, an act which proved to be one of the worst war crimes commited during the campaign. Also, Wolfe offered the French Canadians of the burned-out villages the option to surrender themselves to the British as opposed to starving to death in the woods. It may not sound like much of a break, but it did offer the desperate refugees some access to resources.
    It must also be said that Wolfe’s low view of other races and the inhabitants of other places usually improved with time. For example, Wolfe started by saying that the Highland soldiers were “no great mischief if they fall” to saying that the officers’ corps was “the most manly and gallant” he had ever seen. Likewise, he started off by calling the Americans “dirty, contemptible dogs” and moved to naming one of their regiments “Swift and Bold”! This held true for the civilian population of Scotland and the local recruits of small towns in England, as well. At least in some cases, Wolfe's bark was considerably worse than his bite.

    A final point that needs to be made about Wolfe’s legacy was his ability as a leader of men. As a folk singer myself, I cannot help but be moved by the emotionally stirring ballads about the relationship between Wolfe and his soldiers. That relationship, even more so than his audaciousness and courage on the battlefield, made Wolfe live on in legend. His letters clearly demonstrate that the bond between commander and men was very deep, and that he viewed his army as “a band of brothers” where every man, no matter how high or low his rank, was bound to do his duty out of honor. He urged the officers to observe the characters of their soldiers so that they would better know which ones to encourage and which ones to discipline. He also urged them to be concerned about the physical well-being of their men, inquiring after their health and assuring they were given what was needed to improve their condition.

    Wolfe practiced what he preached. He visited his soldiers often, inquiring after their health, taking a personal interest in them, and winning their undying respect and admiration. Ironically, it was the Highlanders who became particularly enamored with him, affectionately nicknaming him “The Red-Headed Corporal”, because of his flaming hair and the worsted badge he wore. They loved his hands-on leadership style, so much like the Celtic chiefs of old, and it was said they would have “gone through fire and water to have served him.” According to legend, one Highlander named Duncan McPhee became Wolfe’s self-appointed body-guard, much to the general’s bemusement!

    Just before Wolfe was killed at the Battle of Quebec, a British sergeant was shot through the lunges as the general passed along the lines decked out in his scarlet cape and silver walking cane. Wolfe paused, knelt beside the gasping man, and squeezed his hand. He then promised that if he survived the wound, he would be promoted, and passed on the message to another officer to assure that the promise would be carried out. Not long after, Wolfe himself was shot multiple times. “Don’t let my brave fellows see me fall,” he said to the soldiers who came to support him and bare him off the field. As “The Red-Headed Corporal” lay bleeding to death, the Highlanders charged the French and the battle was won by the British. Thus, Canada would come to bear British monarchs on her coins and the Loyalists of the American Revolution would have a place of safe haven to go to when they were exiled from their native land.  And thus it was also that at the height of victory, Wolfe’s soldiers wept for his passing.

    As I delve further into the life of Gen. Wolfe, I feel burdened to pray for the man’s soul. He was admirable and less-than-admirable in many ways, but there is no doubt that his actions have affected  innumerable aspects of our modern world. Perhaps I would be typing in French instead of English right now if not for his conquest. But besides that, he was a human being, not very different from the rest of us, who joked and pondered and flirted and dared to dream. When I sing about him now, I have a better sense of the depth of the songs and the man who inspired them. I will always keep his soul in my prayers…Won’t you join me? 

"The Red-Headed Corporal"

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Happy St. George's Day!!!

     Time to make some roast beef and Yorkshire pudding….It’s a great day for the English! Here’s a hearty cheer for all Anglo-Saxons from a Marylander with ancestors from Dorsetshire!  

     And here's a festive bit I submitted for "Open Unionism" (thanks for everything, Henry!):

    Who would have thought that thisYankee school girl would ever be doing saints posts for a British political blog in the grips of a pre-referendum crack-down? Who would have thought it???  

The Martyrdom of St. George

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"The Bluidy Stair......"

is a ballad written by Sir Walter Scott concerning a legend that took place at Rothesay Castle in the Isle of Bute off the coast of Scotland. Norsemen captured the castle, and Lady Isabel, the daughter of the deposed Lord of the castle, stabbed herself rather than be forced to marry one of the invaders. Typical cheery subject matter found in the poetry of the isles...;-)

The Bluidy Stair

Oh, Rothesay’s tower is round about,
And Rothesay’s tower is strang;
And loud within its merry wa’s
The noise o’ wassail rang.

A scald o’ Norway struck the harp,
And a good harper was he;
For hearts beat mad, and looks grew wild
Wi’ his sang o’ victory.

A dark-eyed chief has left the board
Where he sat as lord and liege;
And he called aloud amidst the crowd
For Thorfinn, his little foot-page.

“Go, tell the stranger Isabel,
That she stir not from the bower
Till darkness dons her blackest dress
And midnicht the hour.

“And tell the Lady Isabel,
To come when the feast is o’er,
To meet upon the chapel stair
The chieftain of Rory Mhor.”

When the feast was o’er, and a’ was hushed
In midnicht and in mirk,
A lady was seen, like a spirit at e’en,
To pass by the holy kirk.

She stood at the foot o’ the chapel stair,
And she heard a footstep’s tread;
For the wild Norse warrior was there,
Who thus to the lady said:

“I’m Rory Mhor, the island chief,
I’m Roderic, Lord of Bute;
For the raven o’ Norway flies above,
And the lion o’ Scotland is mute.

“I hate your kith, fair lady,” he said,
“I hate your kith and kin;
And I am sword to be their foe
Till life be dried within.

“Yet kiss me, lovely Isabel,
And lay your cheek to mine;
Though ye bear the bluid o’ the High Steward,
I’ll woo nae hand but thine.”

“Awa, awa! Ye rank butcher!”
Said the Lady Isabel,
“For beneath your hand my father dear
And my three brave brothers fell.”

“It’s I ha’e conquered them,” he said,
“And I will conquer thee;
For if in love ye winna wed,
My leman ye shall be.”

“The stars will dreip out their beds o’ blue
Ere you in love I wed;
I rather wad fly to the grave and lie
In the mouldy embrace o’ the dead.

“I canna love, I winna love
A murderer for my lord;
For even yet my father’s bluid
Lies lapper’d on your sword.

“And I never will be your base leman,
While death to my dagger is true;
For I hate you, Chief, as the foe of my kin,
And the foe of my country too.”

An eye micht be seen wi’ revenge to gleam,
Like a shot star in a storm;
And a heart was felt to writhe, as if bit
By the never-dying worm.

A struggle was heard on the chapel stair,
And a smothered shriek of pain –
A deadened groan, and a fall on the stone –
And all was silent again.

The morning woke on the lady’s bower,
But no Isabel was there;
The morning woke on Rothesay’s tower,
And blood was on the stair.

And rain may fa’, and time may ca’
It’s lazy wheels about;
But the steps are red, and the stains o’ bluid
Will never be washed out.

And oft in the mirk and midnicht hour,
When a’ is silent there,
A shriek is heard, and a lady is seen
On the steps of the bluidy stair.

Rothesay Castle, Isle of Bute, Scotland

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Rummaging, reading, and ruminating......

have taken up much of my time as of late. I suppose I have never officially announced this on the blog, but I have decided to take a stab at compiling a book of British history - although I doubt it could ever properly be called a "British history book"! The whole project is rather complicated since I am a person who adores myths, legends, folk songs, poetry, and juicy anecdotes, and I am determined to stuff them in the book somehow. But then that would definitely make it into something other than a strict history text. For now, I've settled on calling it a "romp" through British history and heritage, intending to weave together fact and fiction in an examination of the British cultural consciousness.

    For years now, I have been collecting golden nuggets of info from books, online print-outs, and tales passed on by word of mouth. I have scribbled things in notebooks, on sticky notes, and on napkins. Trying to track all this back and piece it together into something of an anthology is going to be quite a task, as I am now just beginning to realize! My current plan is to locate as much of the scattered data as I can, type it out on a Microsoft document, and then worry about organizing it later. Granted, the results may be rather frightening as King Alfred and Major Andre share page space, (to paraphrase the Duke of Wellington, “I don’t know what effect it will have on the reader, but it certainly scares me!"), but things will begin to get done, one step at a time. Speaking of the Duke, I am considering using another one of his quotes for the title of my "disaster-piece": “The Nearest Run Thing”. Yes, I know he meant it to refer to the Battle of Waterloo, but this project will be a close second in the history close calls!

    To start this massive process of unearthing buried treasure, I decided to dig out some of my worn and tattered folders that I have been compiling since I was 12, plus some of my ancient and dusty notebooks back from the early 2000's. It gives one a funny feeling, like taking a step back in time, viewing my messy handwriting and lovingly organized folders which my mom helped me label. Some of the labels read as follows: "British Biographies 1", "British Biographies 2", "British Biographies 3", "More British Biographies"; "British Battles"; "British Saints"; "History of Pipes"; "Maj. John Pitcairn"; "Catholic Loyalists", etc. There is something about the process of digging through old things that helps you better understand how you became what you are.

    Indeed, my writing lacked polish in the old days, and it was punchy and somewhat riddled with triumphalism. It was simplistic in tone and missed major historical points in favor of telling a good yarn. But it came from the heart, and it showed a burning love for the two things that I still love more than my life: The Catholic Church and the United Kingdom. Now that I have grown up and matured in my thought process and researching skills, I think I am ready to use the gifts God has given me and make use of the passions He put in my soul.

    But the sum total of my mission statement is a little harder to explain. After all, there is an abundance of British historical literature by learned authors, and quite a few good folk compilations. But I still feel a strong pull to retell the old tales in my own words and explain why I love the things I do about Britishness. I do not mean to make this book some sort of hagiography; I am fully aware and willing to discuss at length the bad as well as the good. Also, I want to seek the answers to some very important questions: Is the story of Britain one of wickedness and degeneration from beginning to end? Is the UK a lost cause because of her admittedly checkered past? Is there a case to be made for the intervention of Providence in history? Does moral virtue truly form the bedrock of sound leadership?

    I suppose this book, or draft, or file, or whatever you want call it, will be something of a philosophical study as well as an historical one. But then history is the story of man, and man is a thinking being. Not only thinking, but loving, hating, seeking, grasping, clinging, and capable of exerting great good or evil based on his philosophy of life. I feel the weight of this fact more and more as political developments and human behavior are increasingly corrupted by misplaced priorities and droopy-eyed indifference. I wish to express my concern for the international community, and Britain in particular, from the perspective of an American, an outsider looking in. Being what I am gives me certain excellent advantages, since I have the ability to view the many dimensions of a thing without being a part of it myself. This prevents self-consciousness from having an unhealthy affect on the project.

    But more importantly than my nationality is the fact that I am a Christian and a Catholic, and I will be writing with a Christian and a Catholic world-view. Unlike Anne W. Carroll, who wrote some strikingly propagandist Catholic text books for high school students, I will not seek to twist history to fit my chosen scenario or give two-dimensional accounts of persons and events to make the story more easily understood in a "good guy vs. bad guy" context. I will not seek to be overtly preachy or pushy, but rather let my faith shine through in a subtle way, as part of an author is always left behind in his/her work. As Tolkien did with his fantasy, so I will seek to do with my history. Now won’t my “Ringer” buddies be happy with that interpretation? ;-)  


Rummaging, reading, and ruminating......