And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 31. juli 2016

Derek Walcott in the fjords

Being from a small town in a western Norwegian fjord has given me a deep-rooted affection for the sea. This affection has been nurtured since my childhood, and every summer I try to spend as much time as I can by the fjord to enjoy the wonderful fragrances of sea-salt, sea-weed and the intense greenery growing wild along the western side of my native fjord. I sometimes think that it is in large part because of this love of the sea that I have embraced the poetry of Derek Walcott, my favourite poet of all times and a native of the Caribbean republic Saint Lucia. To Walcott, the sea carries a great importance, both as a geographic feature, as a vehicle for poetic imagination, and as a receptacle of history. "The sea is history" is the title of one of Walcott's most powerful poems, and many of his works are dedicated to fleshing out this notion. But in the construction of the history contained by the sea, which erases all traces of history by its very nature, also takes on something of a mythopoeic dimension in the writings of Derek Walcott. This is perhaps most clearly seen in his book-length poem Omeros, where the history of Saint Lucia is built up around a homeric core.

The omnipresence of the sea in Walcott's poetry is perhaps particularly striking to someone who has grown up close to the sea, and whenever I read these verses I immediately think of the summer days spent exploring my native fjord. It doesn't matter that Walcott speaks of palm fronds, frigate birds and invokes the green night of Andrew Marvell's "Bermuda". Along my fjord, there are ferns and hazels as dominant as palms and just as green as any Marvellian vision of Bermudan forests, and the seagulls, cormorants, oystercatchers and herons are as deeply mythological as the Caribbean aviary of Walcott's poetry. Whenever I read Derek Walcott I envision my native fjord, and from time to time I bring a book of his verse to the fjord to get a more intense experience. I did this last week, and sat underneath a hazel ceiling while reading Midsummer while the scent of the sea mingled with the smell of the book's pages. It was marvellous.

In this blogpost, therefore, I want to juxtapose the poetry of Derek Walcott with some pictures taken on or by the fjord of my native village, Hyen. By doing so, I hope to convey some fraction of the sensation I experience when reading Walcott. Naturally, reading poetry is deeply emotional and therefore individual, so I do not have any expectations about this juxtaposition, beyond kindling the understanding that poetry about the sea is ultimately universal.

Hyefjorden, view from the bottom of the fjord

Missing the Sea

[From The Castaway and other poems, 1965]

Something removed roars in the ears of this house,
Hangs its drapes windless, stuns mirrors
Till reflections lack substance.

Some sound like the gnashing of windmills ground
To a dead halt;
A deafening absence, a blow.

It hoops this valley, weighs this mountain,
Estranges gesture, pushes this pencil
Through a thick nothing now,

Freights cupboards with silence, folds sour laundry
Like the clothes of the dead left exactly
As the dead behaved by the beloved,

Incredulous, expecting occupancy.

View from a boat going outwards, looking back towards the bottom of the fjord

The Harbour

[From In a Green Night, 1962]

The fishermen rowing homeward in the dusk
Do not consider the stillness through which they move,
So I, since feelings drown, should no more ask
For the safe twilight which your calm hands gave.
And the night, urger of old lies,
Winked at by stars that sentry the humped hills,
Should hear no secret faring-forth; time knows
That bitter and sly sea, and love raises walls.
Yet others who now watch my progress outward,
On a sea which is crueller than any word
Of love, may see in me the calm my passage makes,
Braving new water in an antique hoax;
And the secure from thinking may climb safe to liners
Hearing small rumours of paddlers drowned near stars.

Landfall, Grenada

[From The Gulf and other poems, 1969]

Where you are rigidly anchored,
the groundswell of blue foothills, the blown canes
surging to cumuli cannot be heard;
like the slow, seamless ocean,
one motion folds the grass where you were lowered,
and the tiered sea
whose grandeurs you detested
climbs out of sound.

Its moods held no mythology
for you, it was a working place
of tonnage and ruled stars;
you chose your landfall with a mariner's
casual certainty,
calm as that race
into whose heart your harboured;
your death was a log's entry,
your suffering held the strenuous
reticence of those
whose rites are never public,
hating to impose, to offend.
Deep friend, teach me to learn
such ease, such landfall going,
such mocking tolerance of those
neat gravestone elegies
that rhyme our end.

Brise Marine

[From In a Green Night, 1962]

K with quick laughter, honey skin and hair,
and always money. In what beach shade, what year
has she so scented with her gentleness
I cannot watch bright water but think of her
and that fine morning when she sang O rare
Ben's lyric of "the bag o' the bee"
and "the nard in the fire"
                           "nard in the fire"
against the salty music of the sea
the fresh breeze tangling each honey tress
                           and what year was the fire?
Girls' faces dim with time, Andreuille all gold...
Sunday. The grass peeps through the breaking pier.
Tables in the trees, like entering Renoir.
Maintenant je n'ai plus ni fortune, ni pouvoir...
 But when the light was setting through thin hair,
Holding whose hand by what trees, what old wall.

Two honest women, Christ, where are they gone?
Out of that wonder, what do I recall?
The darkness closing round a fisherman's oar.
The sound of water ganwing at bright stone.              

In a Green Night

[From In a Green Night, 1962]

The orange tree, in various light,
Proclaims perfected fables now
That her last season's summer height
Bends from each overburdened bough.

She has her winters and her spring,
Her moult of leaves, which in their fall
Reveal, as with each living thing,
Zones truer than the tropical.

For if by night each golden sun
Burns in a comfortable creed,
By noon harsh fires have begun
To quail those splendours which they feed.

Or mixtures of the dew and dust
That early shone her orbs of brass,
Mottle her splendours with the rust
She sought all summer to surpass.

By such strange, cyclic chemistry
That dooms and glories her at once
As green yet aging orange tree,
The mind enspheres all circumstance.

No Florida loud with citron leaves
With crystal falls to heal this age
Shall calm the darkening fear that grieves
The loss of visionary rage.

Or if Time's fires seem to blight
The nature ripening into art,
Not the fierce noon or lampless night
Can quail the comprehending heart.

The orange tree, in various light,
Proclaims that fable perfect now
That her last season's summer height
Bends from each overburdened bough.

Gulls screech with rusty tongues
- Derek Walcott


[From The Castaway and other poems, 1965]

Schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles,
one a hack's hired prose, I earn
my exile, I trudge this sickle, moonlit beach for miles,

tan, burn
to slough off
this love of ocean that's self-love.

To change your language you must change your life.

I cannot right old wrongs.
Waves tire of horizon and return.
Gulls screech with rusty tongues

Above the beached, rotting pirogues,
they were a venomous beaked cloud at Charlotteville.

Once I thought love of country was enough,
now, even if I chose, there's no room at the trough.

I watch the best minds root like dogs
for scraps of favour.
I am nearing middle

age, burnt skin
peels form my hand like paper, onion-thin,
like Peer Gynt's riddle.

At heart there's nothing, not the dread
of death. I know too many dead.
They're all familiar, all in character,

even how they died. On fire,
the flesh no longer fears that furnace mouth
of earth,

that kiln or ashpit of the sun,
nor this clouding, unclouding sickle moon
whitening this beach again like a blank page.

All its indifference is a different rage.

All these poems have been transcribed from Collected Poems 1948-1984, Faber and Faber limited, 1992.

For similar blogposts:

Ruins of a Great House

Two poems by Derek Walcott

The Prince


onsdag 27. juli 2016

Churches of Gloppen in Western Norway, part 1 - Vereide

In this blog I have written a lot about my adventures in England, Denmark, Spain and Italy, and I have now come to realize that it is high time I start writing more about the history of my own home region. This home region is Nordfjord in the western Norwegian county of Sogn og Fjordane, and I live in the municipality of Gloppen in the central part of Nordfjord. My home village is Hyen, one of the parishes of Gloppen. This blogpost is, as the title says, the first in a series on the churches of my home region, concentrating primarily on the churches of Gloppen municipality. The blogpost was made possible thanks to my friend Benny Aasen, the verger of this church and others, who gave me a guided tour. He is an avid outdoorsman and a great amateur photographer, and his blog can be found here.

It is fitting to begin with the oldest of these churches, that of Vereide (meaning the isthmus of the ram), which is situated on the northern side of Gloppefjorden. This is the only medieval church in Gloppen which was built in stone, and it is therefore the only one that has survived. Most of the medieval structure is still in use, but in the course of the 19th century the church has been extended in several stages. As can be seen when compared with the penultimate picture in this blogpost, the wooden tower has replaced the medieval porch built in stone, which suggests that in the Middle Ages the church had a belltower outside the church itself. Furthermore, there has been added a choir in stone and later a wooden sacristy.

We do not know the exact age of the Vereide church. A local fiction has given the year of its foundation as 1163, but this was heralded by the celebration of the octocentennial in 1963, and there seems to have been no prior argument about such an early date. The fiction, however, was continued in 2013 when the supposed 850th anniversary was celebrated. This is untenable based on written sources (starting late) and lack of any thorough examination. However, it is possible that the church was built in the late twelfth or in the thirteenth century, as the architecture of the nave is very similar to other Norwegian churches built in this period. The oldest written source, on the otther hand, with reference to a priest at Vereide, in 1303, is Bergens Kalvskinn, a rent-roll or urbarium of the bishopric of Bergen from the fourteenth century (Rinde 2014). In addition to this, there is a handful of references in various surviving medieval letters and wills. The content of these can be found in the form of summaries in the project Regesta Norvegica, a registry in Norwegian of the letters pertaining to Norwegian medieval affairs. In volume 3, entry 538, we read in a letter by Bishop Arne of Bergen that Sigvat, priest at Vereide was given five days to drive away his concubine and cease carnal commerce, or else Sigvat would be suspended from his office and benefice by the authority of that selfsame letter. This letter was dated 16th or 17th October, 1308, and it was written in Gimmestad, a parish at the southern side of Gloppefjorden. Sigvat, or Sigvard, was not alone in this, also four other local priests were mentioned as guilty of the same crime.

A later source, a note in the copybook of the Bishop of Bergen (vol. 4, entry 254), states that Vereide was one of the places where the bishop should reside during his visitation in 1322/1323. I don't know if the note specifically mentions the priest's lodgings as his place of residence, but it does suggest that Vereide parish was of some importance, or at least was well situated as a base from which the bishop could inspect the other local parishes.

In addition to these references, there are three letters of testimony where members of the local elites served as witnesses for financial transactions. These letters are from the turn of the fourteenth century. From these sources we learn that by August 13 1380 the priest at Vereide was one Torbjørn Andresson (vol. 7, entry 885) and that he was still in this office by March 12, 1386  (vol. 7, entry 1288) and July 27 1401 (vol. 8, entry 1019).

Torbjørn Andresson resurfaces in the sources in 1626, when a certain man called Skonvig documented the cemetery. The tombstone of Torbjørn was found by the cross pictured above, although the cross itself is considered to be far older and might have been moved from another location to serve as a grave marker for the priest. The design of the cross is also known from other medieval Norwegian crosses (Rinde 2014: 24).

When you enter the church, you do so through the modern porch in the modern tower, and when you open the door to the nave itself you see the altarpiece from 1604, situated in the choir which also is a nineteenth-century addition.

View from the pulpit

Hourglasses to help the priest keep track of the length of his sermon

Throughout Vereide church there are many small treasures from its long history. Many of them have been omitted here for the sake of brevity, but a handful of the can be seen in the picture below. The painting, of which a better picture can be found further below, shows the deposition of Christ. It was painted by the local artist Karl Kristian Uchermann (1855-1940), and is inspired by a painting on the same motif by Peter Paul Rubens, which Uchermann studied in Antwerp. He had been commissioned in 1880 to paint the new altarpiece for Verede Church, and this painting served this function until 1962 (Gundersen 2014C: 136).

Three other items in the above picture are noteworthy. The first is the little processional cross, which appears to be a minitature copy of the old stone cross shown above. This is carried in front of the procession in and out of the church. The second item is the stone on which the staff stands, as this is a piece of a type of conglomerate rock which is typical for Gloppen. The final item is the little statuette, which seems to be depicting Saint Sunniva, who holds in her hands a rock which also seems to serve as a church, presumably a nod to the monastic community which grew up at Selje, the place of her legendary martyrdom. This is a modern figurine, but it is suitable to a parish church within the Bergen diocese, as Sunniva serves as a patron saint for this region.

Vereide church also contains some underground rooms. My friend told me about these and it was indeed that conversation which prompted the tour in the first place. Two of these rooms are no longer possible to reach since they are covered by pews, but one of these rooms is still possible to go down into, and we did.

The room is accessible through a door hidden under the carpet, and it is one of two crypts in the nave. I do not know whether these two crypts go all the way back to the Middle Ages, although it is likely. When the church was renovated early in the 1930s, there were found several wooden caskets - probably early modern - and these were removed to the southern crypt (Eide 2014B: 62). The northern crypt is no longer accessible, as mentioned above. The rooms themselves are old, but the southern crypt has been modernized, the floor has been covered in concrete, the stair is new, and electricity has been put in place.

The southern crypt contains about a handful of adult caskets, and about the same amount of child caskets. Two of these caskets are open and contain mummified corpses. These will be shown below, so if you, dear reader, find that an unpleasant prospect, you are hereby warned. The quality of some of the pictures are not very good thanks to the poor light in the crypt.

As a final note of conclusion, I have added these following pictures. The first is a photograph of a painting from around 1879, which shows the medieval design more clearly. The second picture is an interior from before the addition of the choir.

Vereide church is a beautiful old artefact and a rare medieval survival in the Norwegian fjords. I'm very grateful to my friend for having shown me around, and I was elated to see so many treasures big and small both inside and outside this church.


For some of the details of this blogpost I have relied on chapters from the book Vereide Kyrkje - Kyrkjestad og kyrkjelyd gjennom 850 år, edited by Ove Eide and published in 2014 by John Grieg Forlag. The book is intended as a publication for the 850th anniversary and is a treasure-trove of anecdotes, pictures and useful information. In many respects it is a good book, but it has neither been written nor edited by trained historians and is very much a lay production. This can be seen in the careless perpetuation of some ideas which are not properly grounded in sources, or at least if they are these sources have not always been referred to. For all its shortcomings, however, it is a useful book, and I have relied on the following chapters.

Eide, Ove, "Kyrkje og kyrkjelyd frå 1600-talet til vår tid (56-110)

Rinde, Anders, "Vereidskyrkja i mellomalderen" (10-29)

Gundersen, Olaf Sigurd, ""Nedtakinga av Krossen"" (135-136)

tirsdag 19. juli 2016

Saints, Stained glass, and Serendipity

Created purely from glass the saint stands,
Exposing his gifted quite empty hands
- Geoffrey Hill,
In Piam Memoriam

Towards the end of June I arrived in England for an intense bout of conference activities, starting in York for a few days and then continuing to Leeds. It was a hectic period, but by a stroke of luck it all began just in time for me to catch the last performance of the 2016 York Mystery Plays. From the beginning of the performances on 26 May I had seen several favourable comments and many tantalizing pictures from people who had gone to see the plays. I became very envious, especially since I had seen a performance of the 2012 Mystery Plays, and I knew I was missing out. I was therefore very happy when I had managed to procure a ticket for the very last performance in the evening of 30 June.

This year, the Mystery Plays were performed in York Minster, with a stage arranged like the stairs of a temple, with three broader steps on which the action was performed. The top step was Heaven, while the bottom step served both as the entrance to Hell and the tomb of Christ. It was a masterful performance, and I might write more about it at some later point. In this blogpost, however, my focus is a very serendipitous detail of that evening.

Window from the south side of the cathedral

Since the stage of the mystery plays was arranged like a stair, the seating was arranged like in a stadium, and in order to get a good overview I had bought a seat very high up, which brought me level with the first row of stained glass windows. I had been inside the Minster numerous times since my first visit there in 2009, but I have never been that high up and I might never be again. I knew that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so before the play started I made sure to examine the glass of the south wall as well as I could. Suddenly, however, I realized that I had been more fortunate than I could ever have imagined.

Edmund to the left of me, Edward to the right

As I was standing by the railing, I saw that one of the closest windows contained stained glass depicting two saints with which I have become very familiar over the past few years, namely Edmund Martyr and Edward the Confessor. I knew that the two kings were to be found in the wilderness of stained glass in York Minster. I once wrote a blogpost about the iconography of these saints as found in York, and experts on the subject told me that they were there and provided me with details. But there I was, staring them in the face and for the first time seeing them in real life and with my own eyes. I spent a long time trying to take good pictures of the individual windows, and the best results can be seen below. Regular readers of this blog, or people who know me well enough, will know that I have something of an obsession with these two saints, and this obsession has its root in my academic career. I wrote my MA on the cult and literature of Edward the Confessor, and I'm currently working on a PhD thesis in which an examination of the cult material of Edmund Martyr is one of the three major parts.

Edward the Confessor is easily recognized in this right-hand panel. This is not the only depiction of Edward in York Minster, another stained glass window featuring the saintly king can be found in the chapter house vestibule, dated to the latter two decades of the 13th century. In both depictions, however, Edward is seen with the ring, which is perhaps his most famous attribute and the one which is most often used in representations of him in glass, sculpture, painting or illuminations. The ring is of great importance due to the miracle depicted in the stained glass window above.

The miracle of the ring appears first in Aelred of Rievaulx's Vita Sancti Edwardi, which was finished in 1163, two years after Edward's canonization and in time for his translation on October 13. According to Aelred, Edward had once met a beggar who asked for alms, and when Edward realized he had no money on him, he gave the beggar his ring instead. Later, two English knights in the Holy Land were approached by a man who said he was John the Evangelist, and gave them a ring which he asked them to bring to the king of England. This the knights did, and Edward recognized the ring understood the miracle. The miracle of the ring was so famous that it was included in the chapter on John the Evangelist in Legenda Aurea, but with Edmund Martyr in the place of Edward through some strange confusion.

Edmund Martyr is also found other places in the Minster. He is also found among the seven windows of the chapter house, and on a wooden panel once found in the chapter house ceiling (13th century), but now among the treasures of York Minster displayed in the crypt. Edmund is recognized by the arrow he holds in his hand, and this is his most common attribute. The arrow - or sometimes arrows - are the instruments of his torture. According to the first life of Edmund, Passio Eadmundi, which was written by Abbo of Fleury in the 980s, Edmund was seized by a group of Danish Vikings, tied to a tree like Christ on the cross and then pierced through with arrows like Saint Sebastian. When Edmund still refused to submit to the lordship of the Danish chieftain, he was decapitated and his head carried off, but that is another story.

Having worked this much with these two saints, it was a very pleasing serendipity to find myself on the level with these two otherwise inaccessible depictions, and that on the very last day it was possible for me to do so. Such instances of good luck can sometimes be found in the course of academic work, and they are always very welcome and very pleasing.

Similar blogposts

Edmund likened to a hedgehog

Edward the Confessor in the North of England

The miracle of the ring in Legenda Aurea

Edward the Confessor in Dringhouses, York

The cult of Edward the Confessor

søndag 10. juli 2016

That which is taken from me is not mine - epitaph for Geoffrey Hill

Dawnlight freezes against the east-wire.
The guards cough 'raus! 'raus! We flinch and grin,
Our flesh oozing towards its last outrage.
That which is taken from me is not mine.
- Geoffrey Hill, "I had hope when violence was ceas't", from
King Log (1968)

For years I have been an avid reader, and an avid re-reader, of Geoffrey Hill's poetry. I no longer remember when I became enthralled by his verse, but it must have been about six or seven years ago. At that time I had already studied one of his poems, "September Song", in an English course on poetry and drama, but I do know that it was not this poem which caught my attention. Rather, I discovered his verses while browsing through the Norton Anthology of English Poetry, whose fourth edition contains a selection of some of his greatest works, including excerpts from the sonnet cycle "An Apology on the Revival of Christian Architecture in England" (its title taken from a book by Augustus Welby Pugin from 1895), excerpts from Mercian Hymns, and his homage to Helen Waddell, "Veni Coronaberis". The poetry of these verses spoke to me, with their references, their sure sense of rhythm, with their evocative images and - for some - with their epigraphs, for which I have a big soft spot.

In the following years, I kept reading Hill's poems, and when I studied in York for the spring term of 2011, I bought a copy of edition of Collected poems from 1985 by Penguin Publishing. This volume contains the complete first four collections, in addition to two longer poems published separately in 1983 and 1984. This book became a constant companion on my walks around in York, and I would often read it in the Yorkshire Museum Garden while enjoying the peace and quiet of the surroundings and the sense of history which is so very strong in that particular place. As a consequence, Geoffrey Hill became a travelling companion as I explored the streets and history of York, and his poems became part of my understanding and comprehension of York itself. When I read some of my favourite verses, such as "The Laurel Axe" from "An Apology...", or "The Distant Fury of Battle", I immediately think of York in springtime, in its changing moods. It was also in York, in september 2011, that I bought and read his collection Clavics, which was a pleasant return to form for a poet whose verse - in my opinion - is at its best when rendered in verse.

It is fitting, therefore, that it was in York I learned of Geoffrey Hill's tragic passing. I received the news the day after, while accidentally overhearing someone at the University of York mentioning the fact to a colleague. I was in York to attend a conference organized by my job, the Centre for Medieval Literature, and during lunch I came to learn of the loss of one of the greatest poets of the English language. I still carried with me the volume bought in 2011, and I had read the entire "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England" on the day of his passing without knowing he was dead, and somehow it pleased me think of this unwitting homage. The day when I heard that he was dead, however, I again picked up the collection and read the beautiful magic realism of Mercian Hymns.

The poetry of Geoffrey Hill has meant a lot to me in the past few years. They have teased my historical imagination with their evocation of past epochs, they have satisfied my delight in rhymed verse, they have dazzled me with their lyrical and playful use of language and imagery, and they have opened up doors to other books and other literatures for me. To me, when talking about Hill's poetry, it will always be his earliest collections I think of with greatest admiration, when he relied chiefly on rhyme but not strictly so, and when he still wrote sonnets. Among his early poems there are many often overlooked gems, some of which are very short, which evoke in my mind an England which is that England of an ever distant past which is partly the reason for my abiding anglophilia - the dark sides of contemporary English culture and society notwithstanding. In a way, Geoffrey Hill's early poems are windows into a lost world - not a better world, but one which it is delightful to explore through these particular verses.

The front page of the collected poems by Geoffrey Hill
Oxford University Press, 2014
(Photo credits,

As a conclusion to this very personal epitaph, I will include one poem from King Log, whose opening frequently comes to my mind, and which is one of the most beautiful verses crafted by Geoffrey Hill.

The Imaginative Life

Evasive souls, of whom the wise lose track,
Die in each night, who, with their day-tongues, sift
The waking-taste of manna or of blood:

The raw magi, part-barbarians,
Entranced by demons and desert frost,
By the irregular visions of a god,

Suffragans of the true Seraphs. Lust
Writhes, is dumb savage and in their way
As a virulence natural to the earth.

Renewed glories batten on the poor bones;
Gargantuan mercies whetted by a scent
Of mortal sweat: as though the sleeping flesh

Adored by Furies, stirred, yawned, were driven
In mid-terror to purging and delight.
As though the dead had Finis on their brows.

For similar blogposts:

House of Solitudes

Containing "Veni Coronaberis"

The Herefordshire Carol

Damon's Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654

A selection of Geoffrey Hill's early verse