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Conference Travel, Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Study Abroad

Byron: A Hero Across Time

Sarah Pavey is in her second year of her English Masters at St. Thomas and is a recipient of a travel and a research grant. This spring she traveled to Greece to participate in a literary conference on Lord Byron where she presented her research on Byron and disability studies.

Sarah at Zonars, a recently revived 1930s café.

Γεια σας!

Yassas in English, like aloha, means hello and goodbye. In light of the warm welcome I received in Greece this May, it’s appropriate that you can’t say goodbye without saying hello. Once you’ve made a connection with the people of this incredible country, you can’t truly say goodbye forever. So many people have asked me what the most memorable part of my trip was and I keep finding myself saying “the hospitality.” In a world that seems to become more fractured and divided by viewpoints on civil rights on a daily basis, the kindness and hospitality in Greece was something that I found surprising and often very moving.

After much planning and anticipation, Dr. Young-ok An and Dr. MacKenzie and I headed east for the 12th International Student Byron Conference. Accustomed as I am to international travel, covering a distance of over 5,000 miles in one fell swoop is still rather tiring but it was well worth the effort considering our destination. After an 8 hour Delta flight to Paris, a 2 hour layover, a 3 hour flight to Athens, and a 3 hour taxi ride, we reached Messolongi, the municipality where Lord Byron spent his final days. Our hotel was by a lagoon, and surrounded by a picturesque scattering of stout palm trees. The air was humid, and gentle breezes alleviated the sting of an often blinding Mediterranean sun. Each day after presentations discussing Byron and nature we went on tours of museums, a monastery, churches, and archeological sites organized by the Messolonghi Byron Society. In addition to the Byron-related locales, we saw places of natural beauty including Trichonida, the largest lake in Greece as well as the local salt works, which viewed from high up in the hills looked like a patchwork quilt made of glass. It was easy to see how the landscape of Greece set the stage for Byron’s experiences there.

Frankly speaking, I am neither a Romanticist nor a Byronist, and though I knew Lord Byron was considered a hero by the Greeks I wasn’t aware of just how much he was idolized and respected. In 1823, Byron decided to support the Greeks in their fight to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire, sacrificing a great deal of money and time, even selling his estate in Scotland for over £11, 000 which equates to about $1.6 million today. Before he was able to lead an attack against a Turkish fortress, Byron became ill. Poor medical practices led to a violent fever and his subsequent death on April 19, 1824. Ultimately, Byron’s death drew more attention to the cause and with it more participation in the Greek War of Independence and his generosity and courage remains his legacy. From the Messolonghi Byron Research Center dedicated to studying him to his great marble statue in the Garden of Heroes and even a pavilion in the town square, Byron is honored everywhere in this welcoming city. It is with his same level of devotion that the Greeks remember him. And of course, all of us who attended the International Student Byron Conference traveled thousands of miles to honor and appreciate the life and work of a man who’s been dead for nearly two centuries.

The conference was a very unifying experience. I learned so much about Byron and why other writers and academics love his work. I met so many wonderful people from Lebanon to York, London to Kentucky. As one professor said to me “birds of a feather…” and it’s very true. We all came to Greece for the love to literature and learning and I am so thankful for the wonderful experience. Literature opens doors and puts people on planes and gets you meeting people you won’t otherwise meet. I was a little melancholy to part from my new found friends.

After the conference came to a close, we headed to Delphi, a magnificent sanctuary and small town on the southwestern side of Mount Parnassus. The walk to the the Delphi Archeological Museum afforded a breath-taking view of the valley of Phocis (not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights and I mean that sincerely). Beyond the museum was the archeological site which included the famous Temple of Apollo. One thing is for certain, the ancient Greeks knew about prime real estate. The stray (and often feral) cats certainly appreciate the locale, sunning themselves on the hillside and ancient stones. It didn’t really feel like I was there in any specific era, as if time paused there just to see the view.

Our final stop on our journey through Greece was the capitol. It was hot, busy, and mildly confusing, but it grips you. The electric twang of the tram cables sounded above my head as I walk through the bustling streets. The sound of Greek voices, mellow and musical, floated around me. If someone was watching me they would have seen me in the process of learning, trying to memorize the streets. Luckily for me or anyone else who wasn’t fluent in Greek, the street signs on most buildings had convenient translations into Latin characters so we could make passable pronunciations if it was necessary to ask for directions. Though I picked up several words of salutations, Google Maps averted the need to bother some innocent local on the street about where various tourist attractions were located. But there’s far more to the city than museums and statues.

You can’t turn a corner in Athens without seeing graffiti over every abandoned or chained up storefront, laid waste by economic hardship. Although graffiti is often dismissed as a defacement of public property, this art form functions as a protest against the oppressive forces weighing people down. The written word is not limited to books; it is people souls bared on walls and an expression of political distress. The graffitied messages encompassed not only the current economic struggle of the country but also issues we face at home in the U.S.; women’s healthcare, issues in gender, and the threat of fascist elements in government. The more I wandered the city, the more attention I paid to the graffiti itself. The styles and similar use of fonts, anarchist symbolism, the use of stenciled messages; at one point I even saw a euro symbol = a swastika. This is not your average intercity artistry on a train carriage, and though not necessarily more or less significant, the graffiti in Athens is hardcore. It felt as if the graffiti was screaming out to me, needing to be read, to be understood. I was often moved by those words I couldn’t even read because of the energy, color, and artistry in which they were emblazoned all over the city.

On our first night out in the city we went for a meal after our long journey. As we sat down I looked to my left and suddenly saw the Parthenon, illuminated in the distance. Acropolis essentially means upper city in Greek and it’s a glorious sight, those ancient buildings poised above a city whose nightlife teems below like some sort of dark human ocean. The Parthenon was even more splendid and unbelievable up close in an all consuming blaze of sunlight. Your eyes are drawn too it and the soft looking white marble soothes your gaze. The remains of great structure and power that have influenced our own culture still stand. Damaged. Broken. And yet it’s being reconstructed and valued; millions of tourists per year come from around the globe to see it. The great columns, like books, reach for some semblance of immortality.

By happy accident, early one morning on the way to our information-packed tour of the Acropolis, I was sitting on the bus and a restaurant facade caught my bleary eyes. Zonars. The name and the building was very familiar to me. I realized that this very swanky restaurant was mentioned by British novelist Olivia Manning in her semi-autobiographical work The Balkan Trilogy, the first of two trilogies that document the journey of an English lecturer and his wife through war-torn Europe. Businessman Karolos Zonaras (1873-1968) started up the café/pastry shop in 1939 and it quickly became an important cultural center in the city, attracting the rich, important, and famous from politicians to writers. As if simply sitting in this grand establishment wasn’t literary enough, I stayed for quite some time, making margin notes in Ford Madox Ford’s tome of a tetralogy Parade’s End sipping one of the best cappuccinos money can buy. As Manning’s character Prince Yakimov would say, “Bit pricy…But convenient. After all, one has to go somewhere.”

Journeys like this trip are never just for the conference; it’s for paying homage, for honoring the past. We didn’t just go to modern Greece, we went to Byron’s Greece. His love of the people, the landscape, and the country inspired him and he left his mark in return. When you’re inspired by a writer, their inspiration becomes yours and it’s only natural to reach back into the past and bring it into the present.

Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Student Research

Grace Under Pressure – an Essay on Letting Go

Rachel Busse, alumna of the St. Thomas English Department and current graduate student, traveled to Havana, Cuba, this January on a Graduate Research Grant. Rachel was researching Ernest Hemingway, who spent nearly 30 years in Cuba.

Rachel in front of Hemingway’s Finca Vigía just outside Havana, Cuba.

I am a planner. I am an itinerary-making, checklist-having, research-doing goody-goody. In the eighth grade, I went on a class trip to Washington, D.C. and filled an entire binder with background research as though we didn’t already have an extensive schedule. Before I went to my first coffee shop (2007, Caribou, Rosemount, MN) I studied the menu online to ensure I’d be able to order a campfire cooler with grace and gravitas. I still get disappointed when a restaurant doesn’t put their menu online and I relish Yelp posts that include photographic clues to the layout of a place. This is a form of sleuthing, and if I had another life to live I’d likely join the ranks of Philip Marlowe or Nancy Drew.

This is not to say I am always organized (for I am often far from it) but rather that I like to be prepared. Information is power, and I rarely find good reason to concede control or clout. So I hoard facts and plans like knickknacks that might come in handy one day—my mind can best be likened to my grandmother’s cluttered basement.

Hemingway’s bedroom at Finca Vigía.

This is all well and good until it isn’t. That is, until planning becomes unreasonable, irresponsible, or even impossible. This worked, I mean to say, until I traveled to Cuba. I went to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigía, which is just outside of Havana. He lived there for nearly a third of his life, and I wanted to find out why. I was able to make this trip thanks to a generous grant from the University of St. Thomas English department, but it was a quick turnaround. I submitted a proposal at the end of November, found out I’d been awarded the grant in early December, and a month later I was in Havana for a week, accompanied by my friend Margaret. This was the first trip I’d taken where I had next to no concept for what to expect. I knew about as much as to expect cigars, classic cars, and maybe a beach—but the idea of hitting a country’s highlights and retiring to a resort at night is way too voyeuristic for my tastes. I wanted to do this responsibly, and for that, I needed details, or so I thought.

For starters, American travel to Cuba was only recently made accessible; President Obama was the first sitting president to visit Cuba in over 90 years when he and his family went last year, and there wasn’t even a US embassy in Cuba until 2015. Restrictions on travel to Cuba were loosened under the Obama administration, but before that, American travel in Cuba had been banned since 1963. This restriction was older than my parents.

The internet wasn’t much help. There was plenty of advice out there from intrepid Americans who had visited illegally by traveling through Mexico or Canada, but like I said, I’m not much of a rule-breaker. Because the restrictions on legal travel were loosened so recently, there was a fair amount of conflicting information even from official sources. We were essentially watching these changes be implemented in real time, which meant that questions about how to get a visa, what kind we needed, and whether we were required to prove the nature of our travel were all hard to answer. As it turns out, you self-certify; this is frustratingly vague, but it means you pick one of the 12 approved reasons for travel, you create an itinerary (which not a single person asked us for), and you buy a tourist visa in the airport before your flight. That’s it. And if you’re me, you also spend hours checking and double checking that it’s really that easy.

Rachel with Hemingway’s Pilar (fishing boat)

And that’s just getting there. When it comes to how you’ll spend your time once you’re past customs, all the research has to come before you leave the US. While websites like TripAdvisor do have a fair amount of information, there’s no guarantee of their accuracy, as most places in Cuba do not keep an active web presence. Within Cuba, internet access is extremely limited and pricey as all get out; once you’re there, navigating Havana can feel a bit like learning to swim while you’re already in the pool. Sink or swim, sink or swim.

When we hopped off the plane, our first concern was finding our homestay, or casa particular. Our casa, owned by a woman named Mónica with her mother Aida, was in a neighborhood called Vedado, just west of Habana Viejo, or Old Havana. This meant our actual first priority was exchanging money in order to pay for a cab—another snag of the recently relaxed regulations is that American cards don’t work in ATMs (or anywhere, for that matter). You have to come holding all that money you might need in cash and exchange it there. This is stressful. Plus, we were tired—we’d gotten to our hotel in Miami after a long drive back from Key West at 1:30 am and left for the airport at 6:00 am. We spent a while after landing wandering wide-eyed through this airport until we got up the courage to ask for a taxi. We requested the driver take us to one of the few places we could remember that was near our neighborhood: Plaza de la Revolución.

Rachel’s friend Margaret standing in Plaza de la Revolución.

As it turns out, Plaza de la Revolución is an odd place to be dropped off coming from the airport. We imagined something highly-walkable, but what we got was essentially a big parking lot in between two government buildings (adorned with Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos), a huge monument to José Martí, and four lanes of traffic. Suffice to say, we looked naive bringing our luggage there.

Havana was not the sort of place I fell in love with fast. The city is loud and sputtering with rumbling old engines all peppered with honking horns. The hot, wet air is laced thick with exhaust and the alternating smells of trash and traffic. Our first venture out of the casa was both confusing and unsettling, which is funny considering we went for ice cream from the famous Coppelia. This visit involved being ushered by a security guard into a dingy upper-room specifically for convertible-peso carrying turistas, where we were served icy ice cream by a man with a coke nail.

But if there is one trait I have that’s stronger than my propensity to panic, it’s stubbornness. I hate admitting defeat, so even if it means white-knuckling, I hold on. This persistence—to which Margaret is also a subscriber—payed off. After Coppelia, we ended up wandering the idyllic University of Havana campus and enjoying a long lunch of dados a la piña and cervezas nacionales. After climbing a steep spiral staircase, we sat out on the restaurant’s bright blue balcony and looked out at the busy street. On this block, and so many others we walked that week, some buildings crumbled while others received fresh, pastel paint jobs. Savvy stray dogs ran loose, narrowly avoiding the steady stream of cars. We watched for tourists, placing bets on where each group was from. My fondness for this place was earned and learned, a slow and sustained burn I didn’t anticipate. That afternoon was one of starting sparks.

I went to Cuba primarily to see Hemingway’s home, which I took to mean not only his house, but the city too. I’d heard it claimed that Havana is “frozen in time,” and though I wasn’t naïve enough to really expect that, there is something alluring about the idea of a paused history. So much of what we do as readers and researchers is to try to understand the past, especially when it surrounds our favorite writers. There were parts of Havana that did feel out of a time capsule where it was easy to imagine Hemingway wandering on a steamy Havana afternoon, like the National Museum of Fine Arts or in in one of the many European-style squares. And of course Hemingway’s ghost lingers still in his favorite bars—La Bodeguita del Medio and La Foridita—where his favorite drinks—the mojito and the daiquiri, respectively—are still served as they would have been in the 1950s.

But these are places that exist specifically to preserve that time period, and to suggest Havana has remained unchanged erases the long and hugely significant history of Revolution in Cuba, which happened just around the time Hemingway left the city for the last time. The glamour of 1940s and 50s Havana still exists, but is rarely left untouched by evidence of revolution. One of the few grocery stores we found (with a queueing system left over from the days of rationing) had tiles at the entryway announcing it was once a Woolworths. An evening walk through Havana’s Chinatown (which has noticeably few Chinese people, as most left around the time of the revolution) featured a peek into the now-decrepit but once-elegant five-story Fin de Siglo department store. The Habana Libre hotel is perhaps one of the best examples of the faded glitz of the past—this huge hotel was opened as a modern, chic Hilton in 1958 and was the largest and tallest hotel in Latin America at the time. After the revolution in ’59, the Cuban government took control of the hotel, and the entire top floor was converted into Fidel Castro’s headquarters. The physical history of revolution in Cuba is also visible on the walls of the Museum of the Revolution. Housed in what was once the presidential palace, this lavish building is now scarred with bullet holes from the ousting of Batista. The place is full of propaganda, and it’s fascinating to see how the Cuban government tells its own story.

Hemingway’s connection with Castro is often wondered about, but was by most accounts relatively unsubstantial—the famous picture of the two together, taken at a fishing tournament held in Hemingway’s honor, depicts what was likely their most extensive interaction. Hemingway was against the Batista regime, and is believed to have been sympathetic to Castro’s calls for change. But Hemingway died before his allegiances were ever really clarified.

Regardless of his opinions on Castro or any of the other revolutionaries, Hemingway loved Cuba—he spent more time there than anywhere else in his short but well-traveled life. He considered Cuba his home, and even kept a bust of José Martí, the “apostle of Cuban independence” in his writing studio at Finca Vigía. For the record, I looked for one of my own, but instead found only a myriad of Che t-shirts, which I declined to buy.

Hemingway’s writing studio at Finca Vigía

The aforementioned writing studio is one of the few places at Hemingway’s home where you can see all the way to the city, as the home is about 15 km outside of Central Havana. It takes about 20 minutes to drive out by car; we took the bus back which took a while longer but allowed us to see the route more slowly. Both there and back, we snaked our way out through a more industrial cityscape than we’d previously seen and into busy suburbs. But Finca Vigía, which means lookout farm, is set up in the hills and away from the sounds and smog of the city. It is easy to imagine this as a place for a writer to come after spending time ambling around the comparatively chaotic Havana.

You can’t actually go into the house, but all the doors and windows are open to peer through, and in a way, that feels right. The house is stately but not excessively large, and seems like the sort of place you’d want to keep the windows open, at least through the cooler winter months. Every room had a window, even the closet where Hemingway’s war correspondent uniform was hanging. The ceilings are high and open, leaving plenty of room for the tall bookshelves that line almost every room, including the bathroom. This monstrous collection has simply been sitting there since Hemingway left in 1960, and aside from some digital cataloging done by researchers from Boston, they are untouched. There are also magazine, newspapers, literary journals like The Dial, and an impressive collection of records. All this media seems like a natural accumulation for someone so steeped in the arts, and it feels, for lack of a better word, homey. Down to the daily weight records Hemingway kept on the bathroom wall, this feels like a very personal place designed for those who lived there. This is not to say it isn’t stylish, but rather that there is a lived-in elegance to the place. The more public rooms—the dining room and the living room, for example—are a bit heavier on the taxidermy-reliant design that shows up throughout the house.  But the furnishings are generally less flashy that you might expect, given that Hemingway was a celebrity with many famous friends. This understated beauty is not at all unlike the prose Hemingway is so famous for.

Hemingway’s library at Finca Vigía

We spent several hours wandering the grounds, seeing every nook and cranny of the house we could while being sure not to miss the large pool (where Ava Gardner reportedly swam nude), Hemingway’s famous Pilar (his beloved fishing boat) and the cemetery for his dogs (Black, Negrita, Neron, and Linda). This pastoral setting is such a stark contrast to the heart of Havana, where there is little nature to be found unless you’re walking along the Malecón, the wall that separates Havana from the sea—it’s a local favorite, and a good place to drink rum with friends at night.

But Hemingway loved the city, too. He lived in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, in Habana Vieja, for about a year before moving to Finca Vigía. The hotel features one of the best views of the city from its rooftop and is in walking distance from both of his favorite bars. Though we enjoyed Hemingway’s haunts, we found our own favorites, too—our most frequented destination was the Museo Del Chocolate, which sells simultaneously rich and refreshing chocolate milk for the low low price of one dollar. I think we went four times. It made up for Coppelia.

Rachel (right) and Margaret at the ballet

Little things began to flower up and bloom for us. We got to go to the ballet, which is Cuba’s most renowned arts organization. It was The Nutcracker—or Cascanueces, if you prefer—and we sat next to the proud father of a little girl performing in the children’s choir (I cried). We spent a pleasantly humid evening on the terrace of our casa, leafing through outdated guidebooks we found on the bookshelf and sipping pineapple soda. But more broadly, we surprised ourselves with adaptability, and I am proud of our ability to walk the city with a confidence we didn’t bring with us. For the record, Havana is the type of place you walk almost everywhere to avoid paying for cabs—we walked 15 miles on our last day there. And when it did come time to pay for taxis, we got pretty good at negotiating fares in Spanish, which is something I’m not even comfortable doing in English.

Hemingway famously said that “courage is grace under pressure.” For a long time, I liked how that sounded but didn’t feel I’d really had an opportunity to test it out—I’ve almost always got a safety net, and it’s usually pretty sturdy. Cuba is a safe place, so we were never really too worried, but there were always more questions than there were answers. We had to learn to do things a lo Cubano, to handle the unexpected with grace and patience. And at the end of the day, there was something kind of magical about going in with very few expectations and letting the city click for us. This can come in finally feeling like you don’t need to bury your face in a map, successfully chatting with some local people in the museum, or even over the best glass of chocolate milk you’ve ever had. This click lets you sink in and feel your surroundings with confidence and courage, if only for a moment or two. I’d never advocate skipping your due diligence—basic research is important and responsible—but going in to fulfill all the expectations you came with seems irresponsible in its own right. No one likes a box-checker. At the end of the day, we saw Havana through pseudo-journalistic eyes, hungry to learn and keeping our cool along the way—a bit, we hope, like Hemingway.

Conference Travel, Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Student Research

Research Grant for “Paradise Lost”

Each year the graduate program awards at least one $1,000 research grant to support student research. This summer, graduate student Mark Van Dusseldorp traveled to San Marino, California, to visit the Huntington Library to research John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Mark was gracious enough to write about his incredible experience. Mark graduated this summer with a Master’s Essay titled “The Suburbs of Eternity: Dreaming in Paradise Lost.”

Paradise LostAs the story goes, a friend and student of John Milton’s named Thomas Ellwood made a visit to the poet and read the manuscript of Paradise Lost, after which he said: “Thou hast said much of Paradise lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise found?” Some attribute Ellwood’s question as the inspiration for Milton’s brief epic Paradise Regained. Whether a factual anecdote or not, it’s a nice story, and I thought of this and Milton’s Eden as I walked around the 120 acres of garden at the Huntington library in San Marino, California, completely alone.

I arrived at the Huntington on a Tuesday, the day the grounds are closed to the public, so before I began days of research in a windowless room I took my “solitary way” through the twelve gardens, a lush oasis in a sadly parched part of the country. It was, in Milton’s words, “A happy rural seat of various view.” This turned out to be the perfect setting for Miltonic research because it felt like one could read portions of Paradise Lost at the desk, then simply walk outside to do laboratory research in Eden itself. In truth, there were only two reasons I was able to distinguish between this Southern California manmade garden and pre-fallen Paradise. (1) Alas, there was neither a Tree of Life nor Tree of Knowledge (despite my earnest searching), and (2) the roses had thorns. (According to Milton’s epic, the rose grew its thorns only after Sin made its horrific debut when Adam and Eve fell. Keep in mind that Paradise Lost was published 192 years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.) It would be best to quote Milton at length here, who knew well how short words and artifice fell in the face of perfection:

Groves whose rich Trees wept odorous Gumms and Balme,
Otheres whose fruit burnisht with Golden Rinde
Hung amiable, Hesperian Fables true,
If true, here only, and of delicious taste:
Betweixt them Lawns, or level Downs, and Flocks
Grasing the tender herb, were interpos’d,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Another side, umbrageous Grots and Caves
Of coole recess, o’re which the mantling vine
Layes forth her purple Grape, and gently creeps
Luxuriant. (IV.248-254; 257-260)

5But like Adam and Eve, I was driven out of Eden for more laborious tasks. For a week I took my seat in the Ahmanson Reading Room to page through rare books, first editions, and manuscripts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My Master’s Essay was on dreaming in Milton’s Paradise Lost, so the goal of this research trip was to find out a bit more about how early modern people thought about the dream. This is pre-Freud, of course, so all the typical notions we have about dreams are going to be quite different in this period, or at least written about in unfamiliar ways. For example, in a moment that anticipates Freud, Sir Thomas Browne writes that dreams “intimately tell us our selves.”

I looked at first editions of many books, which was an exciting experience in itself (though in a non-fetishistic sort of way), being able to handle the original printed materials of Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Nashe, Sir Philip Sidney, and others. The first edition of Paradise Lost from 1667, for example, is quite interesting. The copy I handled was a rather plain artifact, a small quarto in nearly perfect condition. It has subtly raised bands on the spine and a brown Morocco-leather binding that shows off the beautiful but modest gilding. What is really fascinating about this first edition, however, is that the poem has line numbers. Now we are all familiar with the newer, annotated paperbacks that include line numbers for students who need to easily reference parts of a poem. But isn’t it odd that a first edition would have line numbers? I haven’t quite figured this out, and perhaps it is not unusual, but it seems to me that a printer or Milton himself expected Paradise Lost to be studied like Renaissance scholars studied line-numbered versions of Homer and Virgil.

untitled3Perhaps the most fruitful parts of this research were the other books and pamphlets written by authors that were unknown to me. I found in some of these writings a passionate appeal to the dream world because it has the ability to tell us truths outside of our waking rationality and hint at transcendence. For example, Thomas Tryon writes, “Now ’tis no wonder if a Discourse of such sublime Subjects, as the Entertainments of our Souls (during the Body’s Nocturnal repose) when they having shaken off for a time the Fetters of the Senses, are upon the Wing, in the Suburbs of Eternity.” Likewise, a preacher named Philip Goodwin argued that dreams revealed the certainty of God’s being: “a free concession to, and due cognition of Divine Dreames, may draw out much of the manifold Knowledge of God.” Writing about dreams at this time would not be an innocuous endeavor. Society was fundamentally Christian, and dreams often present an individual with sinful realities. Thomas Nashe writes that in dreaming “the table of our hart [sic] is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemne us.”

William Prynne was a rather cruel fellow who did, in fact, use dreams as a text to condemn Archbishop William Laud, a clergyman Puritans hated for his Catholic tendencies. Prynne oversaw the eventual trial of Laud, and for evidence Prynne confiscated Laud’s dream diary that was meant to prove, among other things, that Laud was most certainly a Catholic. The most incriminating dream was one that read, “I dreamed last night that I was reconciled to the Church of Rome.” I was able to look at this pamphlet which was titled “A breviate of the life, of William Laud Arch-bishop of Canterbury: extracted (for the most part) verbatim, out of his owne diary . . . as a necessary prologue to the history of his tryall.” The key words here might be “for the most part.” Perhaps Prynne took some creative autonomy to ensure Laud’s execution, but this vindictiveness may have been motivated for good reasons. About a decade earlier, Prynne had found himself in a bit of trouble after printing a book that admonished stage-plays, actresses, and playgoers. The untitled2Queen herself was an actress, and the King a fervent playgoer, so perhaps inevitably, Prynne was punished: his Oxford degree was revoked and both his ears were cut off. He blamed Laud.

My trip to the Huntington Library was thoroughly enjoyable, and I learned a great deal about archival research in the process. It was also a treat to work beside some professional scholars, including a famous Miltonist who was working on a new Oxford edition of Paradise Lost.

It’s also worth mentioning that I recently made a stop at Milton’s former church, St. Giles-without-Cripplegate in London. After I took communion I found myself standing on Milton’s grave. I had a nice chat with the parishioners and took this photo of a Milton statue by the coffee percolators

Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Student Research

George Herbert Research Grant

Each year the graduate program awards a $1,000 research grant to support student research. This June, second year graduate student Adam Burchard traveled to England to visit Salisbury and Bemerton to research George Herbert. Adam was gracious enough to write about his incredible experience.

Adam Burchard and his son Lewis with Peter Webstser, member of The George Herbert in Bemerton Group.

Adam Burchard and his son Lewis with Peter Webstser, member of The George Herbert in Bemerton Group.

Over three days in early June, the Graduate English Student Research Grant gave me the opportunity to explore the last years of George Herbert’s life in Salisbury and Bemerton as part of a trip with my family to England. My wife Ginny also had a grant to study ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent so we combined our two research trips and added a stop in Butleigh to see an old friend and mentor of Ginny’s and a few days in London. Traveling with our son Lewis, who was nearing one year old, was far less stressful then we thought it would be. I think this was because he likes the constant movement and chaos rather than sitting still, and also having a small child broke the ice with a lot of people. Everyone we stayed with, and strangers as well, tended to be a bit more trusting and open because of him.

The view of Salisbury Cathedral from the summer cabin.

The view of Salisbury Cathedral from the summer cabin.

The evening we arrived in Salisbury was spent in the town and in and around the cathedral. We stayed at a Summer cabin in what’s called Salisbury Close, a walled area around the grounds of the cathedral made up of beautiful old buildings, shut in at night by two gates that are closed and locked every night at 11PM.  Our landlady gave us the key to these ancient gates, but we were never out late enough to use it because of Lewis.

Staying so near the cathedral we overcame its intimidating first impression and had the opportunity to get really accustomed to it over our three days of being there. I remember the cathedral now as having a more comfortable, lived-in feel than you might expect from pictures of it. People picnic on the grounds, play frisbee or golf and for the most part do those usual recreational things people do at parks, though there are signs reminding you that what you are standing on is actually a graveyard, so don’t do anything too disrespectful. While we were there the grounds were filled with some modern sculptures and performances were going on in the afternoons as part of an art festival. As in Herbert’s time, music still plays a large part in what goes on at the cathedral, and in the late afternoon, while sitting and paying with Lewis outside underneath the huge stained glass windows we could hear the choir practicing for the different processions and rituals.

Herbert is mentioned to have come here twice a week to play his lute with other musicians, and though we mostly know him as a poet, in Salisbury his presence as a devoted priest and musician seems to be have remained more established. When I mentioned his name a few times to local people they answered with: “Yes yes, George Herbert. Wonderful music!” Though his poems as far as I know were only set to music after his death. Herbert’s presence is subtle but prevalent in Salisbury, as I ran into his name more than a few times, found posters mentioning various events about him and found a display of drawings of him by local students.

Student pictures of Herbert

Student pictures of Herbert

Before the trip I had been emailing with members of the local group responsible for organizing most of the Herbert events in the area, called The George Herbert in Bemerton Group. One of their members, Mr. Peter Webster agreed to meet with me the day after our arrival at the home-base for Herbert’s memory, St. Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, a parish church across from Hebert’s residence. My plan was to follow Herbert’s twice-weekly general track from Salisbury to Bemerton on foot, which is only about a three mile walk, though very meandering. The next morning, after the evening of exploring the town and the cathedral, all three of us started from the cathedral, and somehow found our way there.

Salisbury sits at the convergence of five rivers. To utilize this wealth of water a system of gates and sluices and reservoirs were in engineered in the early 17th century, which permitted controlled flooding of large parcels of land right next to the city, creating a system of extremely lush pastureland known as the Water Meadows. Herbert’s trajectory from St. Andrews took him directly over this area which is characterized by its abundant life, running and stagnant water and rich humidity. Today there are public footpaths between the two locales that also go through the meadows and on to Bemerton, that allow for frequent views of the cathedral, grazing sheep and many little picturesque  scenes of small bridges over rushing streams, blooming pasture and dense forest. Some of these paths were rough on our stroller, and I’m not totally sure how we found our way out into Lower Bemerton on time.

Peter greeted us at the church porch of St. Andrew’s. He is an extremely knowledgeable, well-spoken and admirable person, and I was not ready for the breadth of his knowledge concerning Herbert. He was able to answer questions about nearly every physical feature of the church (except for the mysterious “hagioscope”), and was very happy to show my family and I around. The experience of St. Andrew’s and the cathedral were remarkably different. Unlike the momentous, almost theatrical atmosphere you find in the cathedral, there is more a sense of the structure’s practical utility. St. Andrew’s is tiny, and extremely tidy, and each object or architectural feature gathered into it seems to have a distinct ceremonial use. The connection with Herbert is unmistakable and all over, and not ostentatious in any way. The walls bow out at an angle away from each other in a way that Peter told me was intentional at the time they were built. They are held in suspension by the intricate network of trusses holding them from falling out, which gives the interior the appearance of ancient upside down boat.

Adam with Peter and Canon Judy Rees, another member of the Herbert group.

Adam with Peter and Canon Judy Rees, another member of the Herbert group, inside St. Andrew’s Church.

We were soon joined by another member of the Herbert group, Canon Judy Rees, who was also extremely knowledgeable and kind, and has been a major part of organizing events concerning Herbert. She let us know she had talked to the owner of the house next door, which had been the rectory and Herbert’s home (known as “the Old Rectory”), and been given permission to allow us inside to see. This was really a very nice thing to do. We had no idea and it came as a surprise. So all five of us walked across the street, advised to keep quiet as the owner of the house, the author Vikram Seth, was in the middle of writing.

Part of the facade of the Old Rectory had been extended out towards the road long ago, but a substantial part of the building has been left in its original form. Mr. Seth greeted us all and indeed had the bright, distant eyes of having been recently concentrating on something very hard. He asked about what we were researching and was very kind and congenial. Upstairs we made our way to the room where Herbert presumably died, looked out on the view of his last days, and then looked down at the original ash floorboards he once padded across. Out of respect for Mr. Seth’s privacy we didn’t take any pictures, but his home is so wonderfully decorated and serene, with such a feeling of tranquility and the passage of time, that you immediately sense a veneration for the space and for the lingering presence of the poet.

Judy and Peter led us outside and we walked down through the yard to where the River Nadder, one of the main rivers of the Water Meadows, flows unconstrained under a nearby bridge. The cathedral was there in the southeast rising out of the Meadows, which was somewhat of a relief because it helped to get my bearings after the winding foot path out. With the parish church behind and the cathedral ahead you really got a sense for the spatial proportions of Herbert’s home, a sense for some of the consistent landmarks that helped orient him as he woke every morning. For me, Herbert is a poet ultimately concerned with how to deconstruct the ordinary structures of daily life to unveil, or at least point the way towards, new spiritual understandings. Getting a sense for where and how he lived on a day to day basis, made this more tangible and less alien.

George Herbert sculpture at Salisbury Cathedral

George Herbert sculpture at Salisbury Cathedral

After talking and walking around in Seth’s backyard we went back to St. Andrew’s and said goodbye and thank you to Judy. Then Peter and I dropped Ginny and Lewis off at a nearby park. For awhile longer I talked with Peter and he showed me another church in the area that was built in recognition of Herbert and also to provide more room for the congregation than St. Andrew’s could provide. But with the congregation fallen in recent years, the church, St. John’s, had to find a new means to sustain itself and so was being remodeled to accommodate classes for a nearby school and act in general as a community center. As in other places we visited in England, this place was beautiful and historically significant, and a challenge to figure out what to do with after its original use had gone.

We met back up with my family and Peter offered us a ride back to town, which at first I resisted because I wanted to go through the Meadows again, but then I thought how that might really annoy Lewis and perhaps Ginny, who had both been very patient with my navigation skills on the way over. So Peter kindly dropped us off halfway, at Harnham, at an inn built into an old mill right in the middle of the Meadows. Lewis fell asleep right away, while we ordered two ciders because it was hot out and the bartender was adamant about how inappropriate it was to drink Guinness in this type of weather. It was evening at this point, and the air was filled with the sound of the rushing water and the smell of sheep and grass. Early the next morning we caught our bus to London where we stayed a few more days before coming home.