Posts Tagged ‘cultural studies’

Thomas Traherne,  1636 or 1637 – c. 27 September 1674)

English writer, Anglican cleric. Taken from Centuries of Meditations 1:29

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars.”

“Vous ne jouissez jamais du monde correctement, jusqu’à ce que la mer elle-même coule dans vos veines, jusqu’à ce que vous soyez revêtu des cieux et couronné d’étoiles.”

“Non godi mai del mondo bene, finché il mare stesso non scorre nelle tue vene, finché non sei vestito dei cieli e coronato di stelle”.

“Nunca disfrutas bien del mundo, hasta que el mismo mar corre por tus venas, hasta que te vistes de cielos y te coronas de estrellas”.

Be still,” I answered, “do not wake the child!”
 — For so, my two-months’ baby sleeping lay
In milky dreams upon the bed and smiled,
   And I thought “He shall sleep on, while he may,
Through the world’s baseness: not being yet defiled,
   Why should he be disturbed by what is done?”
Then, gazing, beheld the long-drawn street
   Live out, from end to end, full in the sun,
With Austria’s thousand; sword and bayonet,
   Horse, foot, artillery, — cannons rolling on
Like blind slow storm-clouds gestant with the heat
   Of undeveloped lightnings, each bestrode
By a single man, dust-white from head to heel,
   Indifferent as the dreadful thing he rode,
Like a sculpted Fate serene and terrible.
   As some smooth river which has overflowed
Will slow and silent down its current wheel
   A loosened forest, all the pines erect,
So swept, in mute significance of storm,
   The marshalled thousands; not an eye deflect
To left or right, to catch a novel form
   Of Florence city adorned by architect
And carver, or of Beauties live and warm
   Scared at the casements, — all, straightforward eyes
And faces, held as steadfast as their swords
   And cognizant of acts, not imageries.

From CASA GUIDI WINDOWS, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1851

The excerpt describes the entry of the Austrian army into Florence at request of the Duke of Florence, an Austrian, on the collapse of attempts to re-unify Italy: the Risorgimento. The three leaders most identified with this were Guiseppi Mazzini, Carlo Cattaneo, and Guiseppi Garibaldi.

The imagery here is startling: the pregnant storm-clouds, and connected with those the flooded river carrying away fallen river banks still cohering around trees. 
The image of destruction is compounded by the silent, contained, aspect of relentlessness: the soldiers as images of Fates. 

The measured language and form of the poem contain and constrain huge energies. Within that containment is a huge emotional sweep.

Wiki tells us:
… exiles were deeply immersed in European ideas, and often hammered away at what Europeans saw as Italian vices, especially effeminacy and indolence. These negative stereotypes emerged from Enlightenment notions of national character that stressed the influence of the environment and history on a people’s moral predisposition. Italian exiles both challenged and embraced the stereotypes and typically presented gendered interpretations of Italy’s political “degeneration”. They called for a masculine response to feminine weaknesses as the basis of national regeneration and fashioned their image of the future Italian nation firmly in the standards of European nationalism.

Notions like these also constrained English gender relations.
And yet, as evidenced here, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her writing, was far from the standard image of the fragile, weak, female.

I bought this collection two or three years ago. I find listening to the them deeply enjoyable. They have come to mean a great deal to me.

J’ai acheté cette collection il y a deux ou trois ans. Je trouve leur écoute profondément agréable. Ils sont devenus très importants pour moi.

Ho comprato questa collezione due o tre anni fa. Trovo ascoltarli profondamente piacevole. Sono diventati molto importanti per me.

Olivier Messiaen écrit

Each piece is written in honour of a French province. It bears the title of the bird-type of the chosen region. It is not alone: the habitat neighbours surround it and also sing (-)… its landscape, the hours of day and night that also change this landscape, are also present, with their colours, their temperatures, the magic of their perfumes.

His elegant, minimalist and wholly practical solutions need to be widely appreciated.
This is a start.

Marie de France and the Poetics of Memory, by Logan E Whelan.

Catholic University of America Press, 2008.

We usually come to the memory arts through Frances Yates’s pioneering book The Art of Memory, 1966. (Bodley Head, ISBN 1847922929.)

What she presents us with there are the fully developed Renaissance systems, great visual wonders of concept. Was the Renaissance theatre of memory a working model, or the ultimate aim?

It is the tracing back of these arts that is most fascinating. 
We come to Cicero’s writings on rhetoric as one main source. The Ad Herenniumanother important source, has not yet been decisively tied to Cicero as author.

The Hispanic author Quintilian, first century AD, has also ben included in sources for development of the rhetorical arts that include memory techniques. He was a devotee of Cicero’s work, and yet his legal writings focus on the use of figurative language, as memory figures.
And here we see two possibly distinct paths: Cicero’s use of visual elements: the classic positioning of objects in space to deliberately trigger recognition and selected memorized content, and the use of figurative images in language. It is tempting to say that one is designed for the speaker to navigate his/her argument, and the other for the hearer to remember an oration.
The Latin writers call back to Aristotle’s Poetics, also.

That is all very well, for Renaissance scholars. But when we come to eleventh and twelfth centuries in Europe (yes, I include Britain here) then these classical sources were not yet available.
What then?

I, like many, have presumed that there was a well-defined path of transmission of these rhetorical arts from the Latin writers onwards, to the Renaissance.

Logan E Whelan throws all my confident presumptions to the wind. And what falls with certainty, is… well, let’s see.

Logan E Whalen makes very convincing arguments that writers of these periods did use memory arts. It was a time of a flowering of the arts, illustrative as well as textual.

Chretien de Troyes works, as we have them, show many instances of memory techniques. As do the works of his near contemporary Marie de France. 

Throughout her Prologues and Epilogues to The Lais, Marie de France constantly calls on the need for memory and remembering. This is even more explicit in her more popular, that is, more plenteously recopied, Fables.

And so, what are their sources for memory arts, and what systems do they employ?

Logan E Whelan draws our attention to the wide a well-developed use of pictorial language of the period. Look at, he says at one point, the Bayeaux tapestry.
The skills and level of skill development tell of a long practice; and those skills and arts would continue in use for a great many generations to come. We find, then, also a well-developed knowledge of picture-reading. 
Similarly, with the recently burgeoning use of illustrative missals and psalm books. Earlier than these were monastic carvings and stained-glass windows. For the unlettered these were pictorial sermons writ large.

So much remains unknown about the person of Marie de France. Was she an abbess, as many suggest? And if so, at what part of her life? That is, before, during, or after producing her writing.
Nevertheless, this wide use of visual imagery to be read by congregations was a well-established practice. 

‘Throughout the Lais,’ writes Logan E Whelan, ‘Marie de France makes frequent use of vocabulary that supports a narrative program designed to call attention to certain textual elements.’ He gives an example of De Deus Enfanz where the introductory remarks constantly refer to the lai’s setting in Normandy.
It is clear…’ he continues after further investigation, ‘that Marie wanted her immediate audience to remember her story…’ He cites here the use of repetition. This is especially apparent in the lai, Lanval .
She also employs, he states, use of verbal, nonverbal, and quasi-verbal objects.  
These objects are more often than not the key to retention of the themes of the lai that contains them…. In other words, to memorise and remember the object and its attributes is to memorise and recall the lai as a whole.’ (page 77) 

I wrote an examination of two of the Lais of Marie de France in my Gifts of Gold and Ringsebook. 
Equitain, I found, is a very tightly structured work, based on ring-structure, and structural chiasmus.
But where did they learn such techniques?

Mary  Douglas, in her seminal book on ring-structure texts, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition (The Terry Lectures), suggested that the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, has been a rich source for such structuraltechniques. That is not something I have looked at; I cannot say more.

The pointed arch of window or door of the period is a lesson in itself of interdependence of relationships. The lock that holds the arch in place is the central keystone, on the pinnacle of the arch. Each arm of the arch is held by the side pillar and the keystone.
In the ring text the central event is the key to the whole piece. The build up of the tale to that point is mirrored in the second half, mirrored but changed by what occurs in the central part. Each arch/story arch ends where it began, but all has changed.
This is most clearly explicit in the structure of the lai of Equitain.

Her laisexalt chivalry and the role of honour. We can read here a valuing of balance, idealised relationships, behaviour. This relates back to the idealising of the Arthurian values that she explores in some lais, and that French writers were to work up into great webs of tales of traditional honour and chivalry. 
This all attempts to lift contemporary times out of its cold, hard, greed-and-grab practicality.
You could almost say the real and the idealised mirrored each other, in their antipathies.
And the keystone? 
The text.

This explains why the Chronicles of later writers became so valued: Froissart, Chastellain et al. They gave the gloss to petty, sordid, dealings.

They gave it memory. Value.

There is far more to this book than I have indicated here. His reasoning is admirable, sources varied, research deep as well as wide. It is altogether a book of admirable scholarship, and goes a long way to re-evaluating the wonderful work of Marie de France.

In the Egyptian section of my small local museum I came across two odd little objects.  
These are artefacts from the Marianne Brocklehurst Ancient Egyptian collection.

There are unglazed ceramics, quite crudely made at first glance. But when you look closely they are full of detail – there is an outside stair to the roof, on one; another has domestic details.

Both has a dark chamber behind pillars. This is what caught my imagination: imagine if… souls exist, if a soul still dwelt there!

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I looked up some background details on this objects.

From Egyptian prehistoric times to the Vth Dynasty (Old Kingdom 2750-2625 or 2494-2345BCE) for the wealthy merchants and inhabitants, there was a mat laid on the grave, and on the mat a sort of flat pan for food offerings.

Running concurrently with this was the use of a carved stone table for offerings (III Dynasty, 2980-2900 or 2686-2613).

The stone table was copied in the form of a pottery tray (X Dynasty, First Intermediate Period, 2445-2160 or 2181-2160)

A shelter was added, copied, it has been suggested, from the form of  a Bedawy tent.

A shelter on columns was added (?)

The shelter gained columnar foreground.

A ‘hut’ was put into the portico.

Chambers were added.

Wind openings were added

It gained roof courts.

Verandahs were added to the roof.

It became a complete two-storey house/building.

Furnishing and furniture were added: couch, chair, stool, fireplace, water jars. It even gained the figure of a woman making bread.

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There were two Death books in ancient Egypt: what we know as The Book of the Dead, which is a collection of coffin texts, spells and incantations. The other is an earlier piece known as the Book of the Two Ways. These two ways were two means by which the soul (ba) or spirit (ka) negotiated the after-death existence. In one the ba could take residence with the sun during the day, but must return to the tomb at night. The other was far more dangerous, here the ka travelled through the night land with the sun on its journey back to day. It had to negotiate dangers and challenges, monsters and evil spirits. The end of this was a paradise, a ‘field of offering’ from where the spirit could possibly be accepted to spend eternity with the great spirits.

In each case the families of the deceased had to leave offerings of food, as well as grave goods. The food offerings had to be regularly renewed. The ka and ba partook of the essence of the food to sustain it on its journey, and through its travails.

This also demonstrated that the family of the deceased were of sufficient quality, had respect for tradition, and the deceased, and sufficiently wealthy to keep up the food offerings through the lean parts of the year, and periods of scarcity.

Soul houses were then the constructs of wealthy merchants; they became the desirable resting place of what could be called more upwardly mobile people.

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I cannot check, as yet, what period(s) the ones on display are from, or from what vicinity.

I do wonder, though, whether they should be returned to Egypt. Copies can be made, though perhaps not that easily.
As for the inhabitants… do the souls of the dead, long dead, recognise territories? Would they not recognise, instead, the family, its devotions? Families can travel anywhere/everywhere; devotion to a memory/ancestor travels with them.

And after all this time, is not that soul’s traverse of the underworld now completed, no longing needing the sustenance of offerings?

The Mabinogion’ as we now have it comprises of three parts. There are the Four Branches: Pwyll Prince of Dyfed; Branwen, Daughter of Llyr; Manawydan Son of Llyr; and Math Son of Mathonwy.

Then there are the Four Independent tales: The Dream of Macsen Wledig; Lludd and Llefelyn; Culhwych and Olwen; and The Dream of Rhonabwy. Lastly there are Three Romances: The Lady of the Fountain; Peredur Son of Efrawg; and Gereint Son of Erbin.

The stories that make up ‘The Mabinogion’ are to be found recorded in two books/manuscripts: ‘The White Book of Rhydderch’, and the ‘Red Book of Hergest’. ‘The White Book (…)’ was written sometime between 1300 and 1325AD, whilst ‘The Red Book (…)’, between 1375 and 1425.

 Portions of the tales also have been found in manuscripts. It is estimated that the tales of the four branches were complete from 1050 onwards.

The title ‘Mabininogion’, however was a nineteenth-century coinage of Lady Charlotte Guest. Her version of 1838-45, also contained The Tale of Taliesin.
She was a phenomenal woman. Certainly worth looking up.

The current, possibly best, translation, is by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones.

Pwyll Prince of Dyfed.

Part 1 

Pwyll rode out hunting. He came across another’s pack of hounds which had brought down a stag. He drove them off and ‘baited’ his own hounds on it. The other hunter rode up; it was Arawn, King of Anwm (the underworld), and was incensed: Pwyll had broken protocol and dishonoured them both. The only way he could repay was to change places for one year (and a day). They each took on the form of the other and took each other’s place. After the year, on the last day, Pwyll was to meet Arawn’s rival King Hafgan at a tryst. Pwyll was to strike one blow, no more.

Pwyll spent the year in pleasantry, hunting and fine talk; each night with the queen, though, was spent chastely. At the time of the tryst, Pwyll ordered the retinue that under no circumstances were any to aid him against Hafgan. The blow was dealt, and King Hafgan pleading innocence of any wrong, died. Pwyll took over Hafgan’s province alongside the one he was already looking after.

The two re-exchanged forms and places, the debt of honour was paid.

Part 2

Prince Pwyll was still unmarried. Amongst his retinue was tale of a mysterious mound nearby, where anyone who spent the night was either set upon or found some marvel. They set out to test it. On the first night a woman came past on a horse, finely arrayed. Pwyll sent a follower to see who she was. Try as he might though, and although her horse ambled he could not catch up with her. The next night the same. On the last night he himself resolved to do the job. He could not catch up her with either, so hailed her, at which she stopped for him. She was Rhiannon, daughter of Hefydd the Old. She was to be betrothed against her will; her heart was set only on Pwyll. Pwyll was agreeable. They set off for her father’s house to discuss the matter. A feast was ordered. A young man came, greeted Pwyll; Pwyll greeted him as honour demanded. The man asked a favour of Pwyll; he agreed to grant it. But it was Rhiannon’s hated betrother. Pwyll, on his honour had granted a favour without asking who he might me. He had to delay his marriage to Rhiannon for a year, whilst she spent it with the man, such was his request; but chastely. After that year they must meet at a tryst.

At the tryst the man was tricked and captured, and only let go once he agreed to releasing Rhiannon. He did so, and the marriage was allowed between Pwyll and Rhiannon.

Part 3

After three happy years Pwyll’s retinue became uneasy; they needed an heir, and there did not seem to be any appearance. Put her by and find another wife, they said. He asked for another year. During that time a boy was born. The six midwives watching mother and baby fell asleep. Upon waking they could find no child. To save themselves they made it look as if Rhiannon had eaten the child in the night. She was distraught, sought counsel. As no body was to be found they advised her to take penance, over punishment. It was to last seven years: at the town gate she had to tell who would listen her tale, and offer to carry them in on her back.

In another part of the country lived Teyrnon Twryf Liant, Lord of Gwent Is-Coed. He noticed that whenever his prize mare foaled the foal disappeared. He resolved to discover what happened to them. His mare was ready to foal, so he spent the night with her. As she foaled a claw came through the window and grabbed it. He cut off the arm with his sword and he heard a great howling; he looked saw no one only a baby in fine covers that had been dropped. They looked after the child; he grew prodigiously. It was only when the child was at age of four they heard the tale of Rhiannon and her child. Seeing the resemblance, they took the child to court and returned him to his mother. They would take nothing in return: they had done the honourable thing.

There are here three episodes of loss: Pwyll of his Princedom, of his marriage, and of their child.
The first and third Parts depict the loss by magical/otherworldy means: Pwyll must enter the otherworld for a year; the child is abducted by otherworldly means. Both are returned at the end of a set time: four years for the child reflects the three years of marriage before the child’s birth and possibly the year previous spent apart. Alternatively the fourth year reflects the last year allowed by the retinue for the birth before more steps would be taken to procure an heir. 

There are two trysts which decide the fate of Pwyll’s fortunes. Can we expect a third such bond or agreement in the last Part to complete a pattern? There is no tryst, nor need of one. What there is though, and this proves the intent of the whole, is Lord Teyrnon and wife returning the child they had given a name to and raised for four years – as the honorable thing to do. 

Honour is the key to the whole tale: it is lack of honourable conduct allows Pwyll to bait his hounds on another’s kill. Restitution proves Pwyll’s readiness to rule: he acts out Arawn’s kingly role in the otherworld, including adapting chastity, and also wrests another realm from King Hagfan.
Honour without wisdom brings about the calamity of the marriage betrothal in Part two: Pwyll acted honourably to his guest, but not wisely in granting a stranger a favour.

The tale opened with Prince Pwyll; his first act was to go out hunting.
Part three echoes the seeking a wife of Part two. This raises the question of whether the stag hunt is to be read as, in chivalric texts, the seeking/hunting of love. Otherworldly agency occurs also in the central Part: Rhiannon’s horse cannot be caught up with, no matter how strong the pursuing horse.

In Part one Pwyll spent a year chastely with the wife of Arawn – in two, Rhiannon spent a chaste year also.
The symbolism of the deer hunt that opens Part one is repeated in the supernatural capture of Pwyll by Rhiannon and her magic horse in two. In both parts one main character must spend a year in shadow, as it were.
There is a similar repeat of images in Parts two and three.
What is the central theme of Part 3? Is it… Justice, perhaps? Or Self-Sacrifice?

What of the midwives? The midwives are shown as scheming, and willing to implicate Rhiannon, queen, in the cannibalistic murder of her new born. There is clearly some cultural theme being alluded to here. Midwives were connected with witchcraft; the implication, I think, is in the part played by luck, good fortune, in a good birth – these are chance elements, and birth an event of chance, mysterious and beyond control. By implication midwives must have transactions with the realm of chance, and mystery, both of which are otherworld elements. Murder, cannibalism, mystery; and luck/fortune/chance. Arawn’s realm by contrast differs not a jot from the known world. It is woman: Rhiannon with the mystery of speed, who embody the real otherworld; until, that is, Rhiannon took up residence in the ordinary world. There she lost her special abilities, and became subject to chance like any mortal. This also accounts for why midwives were considered to be witches/ witchlike in the terrible witch times. The midwives in the tale are portrayed almost with the qualities of bacchantes; we clearly have a call-back to orgiastic rites, later connected with the debasement of the Satanic mass; either that, or a contemporary figurative re-conception of true evil. 

The mysterious claw which seizes the baby/foal, and loss of the arm, immediately calls to mind Grendels’ arm in the hall of Heorot in ‘Beowulf’. The theme of honour, and honour combined with wisdom, as the true epithets of a ruler, are also pertinent to ‘Beowulf’. We can only speculate that the composer or transcriber of this tale was equally au fait with aspects of the ‘Beowulf’ tale.  

Wisdom would seem from this tale to be a virtue of the capacity of sight: the young man was not recognised in Part two, and so calamity befell Pwyll and Rhiannon’s betrothal.
Because Teyrnon recognised the child’s resemblance to Pwyll in three, he could be restored to his place and parents.
Greek Athena, goddess of, yes, hunting, as well as wisdom was known for her keenness of sight, an ability of super-natural penetration. 

On a more contemporaneously culturally-accessible level there are many Biblical references to sight and wisdom, mostly connected with the omnipotence of God and his all-seeing. Especially-keen sight, second-sight, and all-sight are epithets of the divine/supernatural/otherworldly; that none could recognise Pwyll or Arawn in their opposite forms in Part one is important in this respect.

Wisdom comes with honour, but also, and especially, with experience of both the natural and super-natural; it is also shown here that wisdom is an epithet of royal lineage, and that it is a part of good rule, respect and stable government.
Not necessarily age, note. 

The Oxford World Classics series publishes an edition of an ancient Egyptian collection of tales, ‘The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems. 1940-1640 BC

The structure of the title piece caught my eye. First recorded in written form in circa 1875BCE, it was much copied in the preceding three hundred years. The book jacket remarks on the respect with which the Tale was held, for its dramatic scenes and use of a variety of narrative styles. 

‘The Tale of Sinuhe’ itself is a relatively short piece, of little over three hundred lines.

After years of civil war and unrest, coup d’état, of wars against the competing claims of Nubians and of Wawat, there followed a settled golden age, where literature also flourished. ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’ is generally regarded as the best of the texts from this middle period, the Twelfth Dynasty. Toby Wilkinson suggests (The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt) that Sinuhe was a commissioned piece to commemorate the settled rule of King Senwosret. It succeeded.


The Tale consists of five sections, clearly marked, and roughly equal in length. The range of writing styles in the piece enriches the reading. By this I mean that the narration embodies the cultural signifiers of the time, and we can begin to share these as we juxtapose our knowledge of our own time with that of our knowledge of the period of the Tale.

Part One opens with what seems to be a funerary inscription, an autobiographical account of the dead man’s life. It tells us that Sinuhe was a ‘Follower’, that is, Retainer, of the Egyptian Royal household.

We then encounter a narrative by Sinuhe that is dated Year thirty, Month three, Day seven; it tells how he was part of the King’s son’s party returning from the lands to the West, that is the north African coastal regions. A messenger from the Royal Court arrived, and Sinuhe overheard the news that the King was dead. The king’s son immediately returned to Court leaving the party behind, uninformed. But Sinuhe had heard, and fled in a panic.

It was nightfall, he hid, travelled South, then East, then North. At one point a man recognised him, but he avoided him, hid again. He made his way to the eastern border of Egypt, travelling by night. Suffering badly from thirst he was rescued by a Syrian who also recognised him. He took care of him, took him in. They travelled up to Byblos, Qedem. He spent six months travelling with the Syrian group, when he was carried off by Amunenshi, another Syrian of higher rank. But he was a Syrian, a non-Egyptian, in fact a barbarian, or so he is also titled, an Asiatic.

Part Two consists of a question and answer section. Amuneshi asked him Why did you come here? Sinuhe replied, and told a wary version of his tale. He reassured Amuneshi that he was no fugitive, he had not been disgraced, was not a wanted man. 

Amuneshi’s next question was So how is that land (Egypt)? Sinuhe entered into a huge sell of all the righteous wonders and virtues of Egypt, its culture, and its claims to supremacy. Amuneshi’s reply to this was practical and down to earth.

We are then regaled with a description of all the riches of fruits, oils, cattle, grains of Sinuhe’s new settlement in the land of Iaa. He was honoured, his abilities recognised; he was given Amuneshi’s eldest daughter.

In Part Three we find he had lived there many years, his children grown into tribal warriors; the ruler of the adjoining land of Retjenu relied on him as chief warrior to subdue recalcitrant tribesman. He was very successful; his life was good and he was richly rewarded. And yet, as the Notes point out, he was an outsider, to some extent an inferior. Then the greatest warrior of the land challenged him to a fight for supremacy. Sinuhe won the battle, killed the challenger with the man’s own axe. He was allowed as with all such acts, to seize the man’s cattle, goods, enslave his people etc.

There is a richness of wordplay in the text here, in the use of homophones. The imagery is of cattle as plunder, but also as representing the nomadic people he found himself living amongst.

Following this again, he reminisced: we have moved on many years, and he felt age upon him, and also a desire to return to Egypt. He wondered if the new King would allow him home. The Notes give another clue to structure; the central settings, descriptions and events of the Tale emphasise change in fortunes and health that find parallels with Sinuhe’s collapse earlier. 

Part Four consists of letters of correspondence between the King of Egypt and Sinuhe, and Sinuhe and the King. The King remembered him, had no blame for his flight; told of Egypt, how he was remembered, and would welcome him home. Sinuhe in turn effused and offered the King the land of Retjenu, which he had claimed through conquest.

In Part Five we see Sinuhe return to Egypt in splendour, be received with honour, and given an honoured residence, food from the Court, and in time, a tomb according to his rank prepared for him amidst the Royal pyramids.

R B Parkinson in his Introduction emphasises the use of repeated phrasings and events within the Tale. The parallels between the Parts are clearly drawn, and the turn in Part Three well constructed. Throughout Sinuhe’s exile one constant thread is the conflict between the Delta Man: Egyptian, and the barbarian: Asiatic. When Sinuhe killed the challenger, using strategy, skill, he records he asserted his Egyptian identity, whilst the audience cheers sounded more like the cries of beasts, cattle. There are many disparaging comments on the behaviour and ways of the Asiatics – who were after all his wife’s people, and who saved him from death and dishonour. Before the fight the Retjenu ruler commented that his people and the Nile people were never in accord with each other. And so, in Sinuhe’s reply to the King of Egypt he has no hesitation in saying, Retjenu: it is yours. In other words Sinuhe has conquered it for the King. The area of Iaa and Retjenu seem to coincide with modern Lebanon, Syria; in effect Sinuhe has added to Egypt’s dominion lands.

The paralleled contrasts between Part One, his journey out like an outcast, hiding, travelling by night, and Part Five his journey home in splendour are clearly drawn; as also are the use of the question and answer of Part Two, with the use of Royal correspondence in Part Four. Both cover similar grounds: Why are you here? What is it like there (itself a rather dubious question: in times of conquest and expansion, such a question could only mean, Is it worth my having/Have I anything to fear?).

There are many similarities of phrasing between the Parts that also tie them together. In his flight from Egypt (Part One) he recorded how he ran and behaved like a beast and hid from sight, of how he travelled only at night.
In the central Part Three, he began a series of, almost, homilies, about how a fugitive, a man who leaves his land, a man who runs off, behaves, and how he himself by contrast was an honourable man. Sinuhe’s running off was not an act of dishonour, subterfuge; he was not an outlaw, he was out of his mind. He cannot account for his behaviour, either to Amuneshi, or the King.

Several Parts are connected with repeated phrasings, references: in One he mentions how he set out for Byblos and Qedem; in Four the place names are referenced again. Parts Three and Five are linked with references to linen: the clean linen of Iaa, and then the linen of his clothes that are returned back there upon his return to Egypt. In Part One there are two references to being recognised as he fled, this contrasts with being recognised and welcomed by the Royal household (Part Five).

It can be seen from this that there is a complex system of linking images and phrases, rather than a system of straight equivalences. We now begin to see why the Tale was so esteemed.

Part Three opens some years later, with Sinuhe in his prime, his sons grown, and himself the chosen warrior and subduer for the ruler of Retjenu. The section closes after the challenge, again some years later, but with Sinuhe past his prime, declining in years, health and potency. It is a structural paralleling, and as such a well used device. 

Sinuhe’s prostration and raising in Part One is neatly paralleled by his prostration before the king in Part Five.

The full referencing of the beginning and end of the tale occurs at the central point. What we have in the challenge is Sinuhe’s felling the challenger with the man’s own axe; the Notes then comment how Sinuhe called on his Egyptian gods. This is sufficient, I think, when we consider that these motifs, images were placed there to be picked up by the listeners to the tale.

There does seem good cause to read each section as a complete sequence in itself, in fact one that is chiasmic in nature, whose beginning and end find common phrasings and/or situations. 

Part One begins with a lead-in to the tale. We also find this device used as a lead-out at the very end of the tale also: the funerary inscription mode.
The tale proper begins after this. Part One begins with Sinuhe as part of a company returning – from the Libyan lands.
The end of the sequence of Part One finds find him once more part of a company, and a company that returns to its own territory.

For Sinuhe it is not a return but a departure, the reverse of his first action. The central part seems to occur when Sinuhe is saved from dehydration by the Syrian; he is raised up and revived.

Part Two like Part Four is a complex sequence of seven parts. There is a question and answer sequence which seems to take the form of the ‘Negative Confession’.
The turn around seems to occur in part six, where after Sinuhe’s veiled threats about the might of the Egyptian king, and how it would be wise for the Syrians to pay homage, send conciliatory messages. Amunenshi’s response is not what Sinuhe counseled. In the Notes R B Parkinson comments the response is more down to earth – that is, re-contextualises for him, it emphasises Sinuhe’s delicate position. 

Part Three is the well-framed sequence of Sinuhe’s sojourn in Iaa, his marriage and fatherhood, that is, growth to maturity. This is contrasted with his later acknowledged sense of decline in health. The main event is the challenge from the regional warrior.

Part Four we see the epistolary sequence; this is also a quite complex piece where personal, internalised thoughts, and open and external responsibilities and desires play out. The centre here is the acceptance by the new King of Sinuhe’s request to return. The sequence begins much as Part Two with a negative admission, a sequence repeated at the end of the section.

Part Five is full of symbolic and resonant imagery: Sinuhe’s triumphant return to Egypt, to the royal Court, to his rightful place. The turn here is paralleled with Part One’s near-death episode: this time it was the opposite, he was raised up by the King himself.

One of the strongest contrasts drawn is between the events of the night and of the day: it is by night he travels as he flees the country, whilst he disembarks in Egypt on his glorious return at dawn. By night he scurries away, avoids people. By day he is recognised by the Syrian, and saved from dying of thirst; in the daylight he takes on, and conquers, the challenger.

There is also a very striking contrast between the description of the riches of the land of Iaa, and those of Egypt. Iaa.
Iaa is in effect an earthly paradise. He is able to prove his prowess there; his abilities are recognised. Egypt is first described by alluding to the supreme worthiness of the new King, of his might, how he can subdue all others. It is as though Egypt was the residence of the Gods on earth. The earthly paradise pales against the actual paradise of the King.

These last are important points, because they allow us to understand the panic, the flight of Sinuhe. For the people of Egypt at that period it was commanded that they value the King as supreme, and the source of reason; and as the offspring of the Gods, to whom he will return in due time. And so when the King died (the Notes suggest it was an assassination, and that this would be a given reference for the readers) then reason was suddenly extinguished. Sinuhe’s flight was a panic, a consequence of loss of reason. It is as though his wits had been disordered. It is almost a King-Lear-on-the-blasted-heath moment. 

He describes how in his flight he crossed a river like a boat with no steering. It was, as we have seen, mostly an act of the night, of chaos, where order and clarity are obscured. Truth, balance, order, morality, law and justice, as one source has it, were the attributes of the goddess Maat. It is at the border of the kingdom he crosses a lake dedicated to Maat. In effect then, by crossing the border he leaves the ordered world behind.

His eventual return is at dawn, where reason and order are restored. Although he and his sons were tribal leaders and warriors amongst the Asiatics, his return to the Royal Court is to be placed once more amongst the children of the King where he began. 

Being of ‘common’ stock, this apparently was the highest position he could command in the supreme hierarchy of the King and his Court. The constant referrals to Maat in the text point to these positionings: Maat is often glossed as ‘truth’; the Introduction says that Maat has many meanings, but the most important is that the name expresses the cohesion of the people and their beliefs.

Not a lot of humour, here. And certainly no place for women.
In the Gilgamesh tale, approximately similar time period, women’s roles are crucial to the story.

It is also worth nothing that neither this nor the Gilgamesh tale exist in complete forms, but only as fragments. It may well be that no period’s tale of s readers would recognise the patched-together tales as we now have them.

New Collected Poems, Tomas Transtromer. Translated and Introduced by Robin Fulton

Robin Fulton in his Introduction to the Bloodaxe edition of Tomas Transtromer’s ‘New Collected Poems’ (2002), writes of the poem sequence Baltic’s ‘arch-like patterning of themes.’ Page 15, Introduction, ibid.
Instantly I was paying attention.


In the nineteen-seventies Tomas Transtromer published his poem sequence ‘Baltics’.
It is based, we are told, on the writer finding (inheriting?) his grandfather’s ship’s log. He was a sea captain, and sailed the archipelago of islands from Stockholm to the Baltic regularly.
His home was one of the islands of the archipelago. From this grew an exploration of the writer’s family history, and its repercussions and interrelations with history and events.

If we look at ‘Baltics’ for its structure and thematic patternings we can see many interesting features.
It is a sequence of six poems of varying length. Poem Three has a striking structure, the beginning and ending sections enclosing an isolated word in capitals. In the first part of the poem we encounter a 12th Century church font; the writer imagines it revolving in his memory. Immediately prior to the last isolated word (MANDRAKE) we have an image as of a rotating lighthouse: ‘The strategic planetarium rotates. The lenses stare into the dark (…).’

This central division is critical to the sequence as a whole, treating as it does of transition from heritage issues and memories to a more contemporarily responsive approach.

The whole sequence begins with the grandfather in poem one, with the list of all the ships he has worked on; it is in effect a log book and also the diary of a man unused to recording his inner life.
The last poem in the sequence, poem VII, concentrates on the grandmother, and emphasises her unwillingness to dwell on or explore the past of her life. This attitude frees her, we read, ‘to catch what was new/ and catch hold of it.
The grandfather disappeared from sight, the grandmother remained, if only in the writer’s memory.

Many have argued that this sequence marked a turning point in Tomas Transtromer’s writing, from more closed and structurally conservative modes to more open and free-ranging modes.


Images of wind and water recur in many guises throughout the sequence. We open with fog, a combined air and water image, as the grandfather seaman edges his way through the Swedish archipelago into the Baltic. The air/wind image is taken into the next poem, where the grandmother shows concern for seafarers whenever the wind blows, even inland on her island.
Here it is contrasted with the image of free-flowing life the child surmises the wind to be. The wind can fan the flames, or blow them out.
It is in this poem we encounter the theme of the unknown threat. The threat is turned into a benign image: the sea mine was made safe, used as an ornament. The threat is from outside, whether as here the devices of a nation at war, or later where an imposed political totalitarianism brings in the contemporary reference to eastern Europe in the depths of the Cold War.

This water image recurs in the next poem as an image of peace and safety: the church font depicts carvings of battles fought, the threat theme recurring again, but once more made safe in the use of water as a placid element. In the central section the steamer continues the water and danger themes until, ‘a hundred year’s later’ and shore-based, the threat is made safe once more. The poem is top and tailed with the image of religion paralleled with the superstition surrounding the mandrake. Both are assumed to have magical properties. The writer includes the font water into this assessment by implication. By doing so he smudges any strict demarcation of paralleled elements to great effect.

Poem Four is a short but interesting piece. It is paraphrased in the first line: ‘From leeward/ close ups.’ We encounter Bladderwrack seaweed, a Bullhead fish, then the shore-based rock face on the lee-side.

We again meet the image of water, the Baltic Sea, and picking up on the previous image of the font water as placid, a calm endless roof of sea. The sailing image returns: the flag we sail under washed-out, sun-bleached – a wonderful image of sailing under all flags and none; the parochial and national identity has broken down: the close-ups have given us a sense of perspectives: near and far as a necessary relationship, inter-dependent and mutually productive.
As a poem this too falls into two contrasted halves. Note that they are not opposed but made safe by being put into a mutually reciprocal relationship. Is it another chiasmus? A chiasmus of an order we have not come across before?

Poem Five gives us an influx of jellyfish, they are not a threat so much as a curiosity, a symptom even.
Air recurs as a wordless condition, a mis-condition of the brain – aphasia (Aphasia as a rewriting of history: what was known is devalued, overwritten).
We find here that there can be style without content, there can be language without words. In poem One the grandfather attempts conversations in a kind of English, attempts communication using whatever means he can.

Threat recurs; we have seen the danger of fog at sea, of war and the sea mine, here we have the totalitarian regime that denounces the Conservertoire Director. His response after eventual rehabilitation is aphasia: danger, and its consequences. The close-up of a snail in the grass opens up the vista a time: Franciscans brought them here as a food. The influence from outside again, but this time benign.

Poem VII gives us the grandmother’s story. And it is harrowing: TB and the loss of one’s family, it also looks at the meaning of family: another close up. Family as blood-kin can also mean being used as an unpaid servant. The grandmother refuses to look back, to be caught up in the recriminations and self-recriminations that are inevitably produced by this. 

The poem moves with the narrator whose memory keeps the grandmother alive. The archipelago reappears. This time the narrator uses an island fisherman’s cottage. Wind and water recur as potent images, this time of a sense of time moving on, and of perspectives opening up, newness becoming possible.


The patternings tie together the poems, rather than opposing them as we might expect with a chiasmus. Nor do we find structurally reversed placing of theme or image between first and latter half of the sequence as a whole.  

Transtromer has noted that ‘Baltics’ marks the writer’s ‘most consistent attempt to write music’, that is, to structure the sequence thematically as a musical piece.
Helen Vendler remarked on Tomas Transtromer’s abiding concern with music in his work, particularly the work of Schubert, Grieg and Liszt, which he could play himself very competently ( poetry-inexplicit). It has been suggested that his return to piano helped him over a critical period in his life, aged fifteen.

Schubert’s last sonatas in particular make great use of recurring themes and modalities; we find here similar arching structures to what we see in ‘Baltics’. Musically they are called ‘ternary’ structures, and generally have the pattern of ABA, or extensions on that, ABBA  etc.

Commentators on the Bach Cantatas WebsiteBach Contatas Website:, have gone into some depth discussing what constitutes a chiasmic structure in music, and how it differs from a palindromic structure.
These are literary terms applied to music. The chiasmic structure, according to the Bach writers, must needs have more than one term between first and middle part, in each half of the whole; all else is a palindrome.

To apply a musical term in turn, we can say then that a ternary structure does have similarities to a chiasmic structure. In practical terms things are much more complex: tonality and melodic elements are the elements of the structure. Schubert even introduced intermediate tonalities that had only distant relations with the general key of the piece.

Tomas Transtromer’s sequence fits more comfortably with the less oppositional structure of, say, Schubert’s last sonatas, than with strict chiasmus and ring.
His psychological concerns here with conflict-resolution, appeasement of danger, the untying of heritage-issues and parental demands does seem to have accord with Schubert’s possible last accounting and valuing that went into how and by what means he structured those last sonatas.

The title phrase ‘Cid’ is from an Arabic word sidi/sayyid, ‘Sir.
Nor are the Moors in the tale portrayed as badly as in ‘The Song of Roland’. There are many examples of the Cid taking and being received by Moors as friends. There is a lot of in-fighting amongst the Muslim inhabitants in the tale: towns held by the Cid earlier on are grateful to him for his releasing them with property and lives intact as he moved out to take on the bigger rulers, the ones who also had laid burdens on the smaller towns.

We see in the history of the Alhambra in Granada how the delightful gardens witnessed much slaughter and bloodshed by rival Muslim rulers. It is important here to distinguish between the Umayyad Arabic rule, based at Cordoba, and the new incursions of warlike Berbers from North Africa. The Berbers overthrew the settled Muslim rule and threw Muslim Spain into chaos as they vied for power and control amongst themselves (Introduction, Night and Horses and the Desert – An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, by R Irwin).

One source states, that the entire work was divided into three parts in 1910. This has significance; although the text itself does divide into sections by explicitly stating ends and beginnings in the places the cantares are introduced. The only ambiguous one is the last one: the cantare begins with the humiliation of the Infantes in the ‘lion episode’, whilst the Penguin Classics edition begins it on the marriage betrothal of the Cid’s daughters, prior to this, and where the Infantes come into the story fully.

In the first cantare we meet the Cid, his devoted friends, his family – he had just been banished from Castile. We don’t know why, because the first page of the ms is missing, and no copy has yet turned up.

He left his family at the monastery, had a dream of greatness, and then had to go out from Castile. None were allowed, on pain of death, to sell him food, or allow him a bed for the night.
He had to plan a ruse to raise money to fund his foray, and support his followers.
Once outside of Castile he first of all planned and executed raids on Muslim townships along a river course. Each was successful, through the Cid’s use of tactics. He was able to send back his first gift to King Alfonzo. Following this he planned a much more difficult raid among a bigger series of towns. This raid involved planning, trickery and subterfuge; he gained great prestige and booty from this.

We see the cantare begin with the Cid’s banishment from Castile, and it end with the restoration of the Count of Barcelona to his freedom and region. The high point of the cantare must surely be the presentation of the first gift to King Alfonzo. It followed from this act that the Cid’s’ followers were pardoned for their part in helping him, and allowed home.
Home is the hidden theme here, that informs beginning, middle and end of the cantare.

The second cantare has three main raids: one in the Levantine, the second in the towns surrounding Valencia, including the lengthy siege of the city. Then he settled the city as a reconquered Christian city.
The emir of Seville was defeated in battle, and much booty gained.
The Cid set up a Christian bishopric, and was henceforth allowed restitution of his family. They all settled in Valencia.
The last battle was with King Yusuf of Morocco.
This was by far the greatest. The spoils were magnificent. He sent back his greatest gift to King Alfonzo, and won his own pardon.
His renown as a great and wealthy warrior was settled.

The two main battles book-end the seizure of Valencia, whose capture depicted a very prolonged siege as a battle of wills between Spain and Moor. The battle with the emir of Seville ran concurrently with the winning of Valencia.

This is surely the centre of the poem. All changes from here; from now on the whole tone of the poem is different. The latter part of the poem is concerned with justice under Spanish law, whereas the first parts were concerned winning prestige – is there a hint of injustice in his exile? – wealth and a reputation for loyalty and honesty. That is, of winning back his place in the Spanish sphere of civility and legality.

Throughout, the poem set out to prove the Cid’s loyalty and honourable character.
One under-theme image is the beard of the Cid; he vowed never to cut it (or have it travestied) until he won restitution. All through the poem are references to his beard: well, the poem does take years to run the story’s course: even the King was outclassed by the Cid’s beard! Ok, but the point being the beard is a mark of the Cid’s commitment to the cause, and an emblem of his prestige.


The first cantare saw the Cid banished, cut off from family and legal recourse. He fought three campaigns against the Moors of Henares, the Jalon River, and the Jiloca River. At each he won bounty and wealth.

In the last cantare of the poem we saw three legal challenges to the treachery of the Infantes whereby the Cid reclaimed his generously given wealth; and also three duels – one duel per campaign. He won back, by recourse to Spanish law, his position and prestige.

We began (despite the lost first page) with the Cid realising his banishment from Castile (a metonym for Christian Spain), and end with the Cid helping unite Spain through marriage. The central event also echoed in this, where we saw the Cid settle Valencia and environs for Christian Spain, but also establish a Christian bishopric there under battling Bishop Jeronimo.

The reverse order of events is encapsulated in the court case: the lawsuit, the duels, the marriages (laisses 135-52).

So, yes, it does work. We have a ring of the whole poem, and as in true classical style, the three smaller rings of the cantares.

But where did Per Abbad learn of the structure? So little has come down from pre-Moorish Spain. But what of Mozarabic Spain? I may have to hunt out Arabic sources, but also perhaps Sephardic as well.


We see in the Penguin edition of ‘The Cid’ what has been called the prosification of the poem. The term is relatively self-explanatory; the implications, however, are not. With prosification goes the break-down of the line; epithets and formulas are lost, as their function in the line is lost.
As we know from chiasmic and particularly ring construction, these play an important structural role, indicating a parallelism, point of special notice or as rhythmic notifier.
Benjamin Smith notes the symmetry that chiasmus gives to a work is important to its message. He examples the interior chiasmic form in the lines 2402-3, ‘Los de mio Çid a los de Búcar de las tiendas los sacan,/ sácanlos de las tiendas, cáenlos en alcazas’, as the form  A B C C B A. This is a particularly interesting chiasmus because it is the only instance where we bridge two stanzas, 117 and 118.
The translation has it: ‘The Cid’s men drove Bucor’s men out of their tents.// When they had driven them out they fell to the pursuit.’
What we see here, what we can say the chiasmus is drawing out attention to, is how the poem is skillfully structured to emphasise an ongoing action that changes as the fortunes of the two parties change. The Cid here encounters Muslim King Bucor outside Valencia, and the battle turns in the Cid’s favour.

 We begin to see here how richly textured the text is in the original Spanish. This written text also appears to be richly structured, with many inner treasures and smaller rings. Perhaps this implies the poem was also a part of a national treasury, for which read a cultural heirloom of sorts.