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

mandag 31. juli 2017

Coral, by Derek Walcott

To end the month of July, I give you a short and beautiful poem of Derek Walcott, a poet whose verse always makes me think of the summer months back home in Norway.


This coral's shape echoes the hand
It hollowed. Its

Immediate absence is heavy. As pumice,
As your breast in my cupped palm.

Sea-cold, its nipple rasps like sand,
Its pores, like yours, shone with salt sweat.

Bodies in absence displace their weight,
And your smooth body, like none other,

Creates an exact absence like this stone
Set on a table with a whitening rack

Of souveniers. It dares my hand
To claim what lovers' hands have never known:

The nature of the body of another.

lørdag 29. juli 2017

Saint Olaf in Rome

Today is the feast of Saint Olaf of Norway, a day which in Norway is known as Olsok, coming for Old Norse "Olavsvaka", meaning the wake or vigil of Saint Olaf. To mark the day, I give you one of the more curious manifestations of the importance of Saint Olaf to the Norwegian imagination and the Norwegian identity, namely the painting of the altar of Saint Olaf in Rome.

This altar is found in the church San Carlo al Corso, dedicated to Saint Carlo Borromeo (d.1584). It was dedicated April 9, 1893, and the altar painting was carried out by the Polish painter Pius Welonski (d.1931). The altar itself was established on the initiative of Norwegian Catholics and was intended to mark that it was fifty years since Pope Leo XIII had been ordained as a bishop (although he would only become pope in 1878).

Olav, King of Norway
Painting in the church of San Carlo al Corso, by Pius Welonski
Courtesy of this website

The painting depicts Olaf with his axe and his royal orb, standing on a defeated dragon in a very Norwegian landscape. As such it fits in a tradition in the depictions of Olaf from the late fourteenth-century onwards, in which Olaf is positioned on top of a beast, often interpreted as a dragon. It is clear that Welonski had some very good directions for how Olaf should be depicted according to how late-ninteenth-century Norwegian Catholics expected to see him.

From the lower half of the left-hand side of the frame and to the lower half of the right-hand side of the frame, one can read the legend "S. Olavus Martyr Norvegiae Rex et Patronus", Saint Olaf Martyr, king and patron of Norway. This is perfectly in keeping with how Olaf was understood in the contemporary mindset. However, when seen from the angle of the medieval Olaf iconography and its development, it is noteworthy that the image fuses two separate stages in this development. On the one hand we see Olaf as patron and king of Norway, a presentation and interpretation of Olaf which appeared in the mid-twelfth century under the auspices of Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (reigned 1161-88). On the other hand, we see Olaf situated on top of a beast, which is a tradition that only emerged later in the Middle Ages, and possibly outside Norway, meaning that it might have its conception in stories of popular origin or stories which were generated outside the control of the Norwegian medieval church. This fusion of Olaf the patron and Olaf the dragon-stander had by the nineteenth-century become perfectly canonical to the Norwegian mind, and this is the version presented to the Catholics of the world who enter the San Carlo church. But this fusion hides a complex and long-winded evolution which has merged elements originating in very different milieus and at very different times, and made it the modern idea of the medieval Olaf.


Kari-Anne Bye, Å drepe dragen, MA thesis, NTNU, Trondheim, 2011

onsdag 26. juli 2017

The Summer Office

Academic summers are not like other summers, and for me who am now at the tail-end of my PhD work this summer has been particularly marked by the need to get thesis work done. I have eschewed conferences to gain more time, although I have allowed myself time off in the first two weeks of July. Now, however, I have had to resume my work, and since I am currently living in the house of my late grandparents, I'm making use of my grandfather's room as my office. I am very happy for this temporary office, as the room is bright and the desk - which I bought during my university days for my student apartment - is situated so that I can see the mountains descending into the fjord, the lake by the side of the house, and the ripening cherries which are just out of reach for anyone but the thrushes who feast on them.

mandag 17. juli 2017

To a tyrant - a poem by Joseph Brodsky

I am in my native village of Hyen for the month of July, and when I am home I have a selection of poets whose verse I especially enjoy as I think them particularly suitable to be enjoyed in this setting. One of these poets is Joseph Brodsky, whom I only read in Norwegian or English translations. Among those of his poems which have stayed with me the most strongly, is the poem "To a tyrant" from his collection A Part of Speech, and it is this poem I wish to present to you here. Although I first read this poem in a beautiful Norwegian rendition - and therefore always read it in this rendition - I here give you the translation into English as published in Collected poems in English, published by Carcanet in 2001. It is not specified which of the various translators of the volume who wrought the translation of "To a tyrant", or whether it was Brodsky himself who did all of it.

To a tyrant

He used to come here til he donned gold braid,
a good topcoat on, self-controlled, stoop-shouldered.
Arresting these café habitués -
he started snuffing out world culture somewhat later -
seemed sweet revenge (on Time, that is, not them)
for all the lack of cash, the sneers and insults,
the lousy coffee, boredom, and the battles
at vingt-et-un he lost time and again.

And time has had to stomach that revenge.
The place is now quite crowded; bursts of laughter,
records boom out. But just before you sit
you seem to feel an urge to turn your head around.
Plastic and chrome are everywhere - not right;
the pastries have an aftertaste of bromide.
Sometimes before the place shuts down he'll enter
straight from a theater, anonymous, no fuss.

When he comes in, the lot of them stand up.
Some out of duty, the rest in unfeigned joy.
Limp-wristed, with a languid sweep of palm,
he gives the evening back its cozy feel.
He drinks his coffee - better, nowadays -
and bites a roll, while perching on his chair,
so tasty that the very dead would cry
"Oh, yes!" if only they could rise and be there.