Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

My children and I have been reading this book together over the course of Advent. We finished the fifth and final chapter just after Mass on Christmas Day. It has been a delightful source of meditation and conversation for the whole family throughout this sacred season. I see an annual Advent reading of Dickens’ masterpiece becoming a family tradition.

I believe the great power of this book lies in its subtlety, as the presence of Christ, the “reason for the season,” as the cliche goes, remains the dominant force in the book while working in and through the background. There are several instances, for example, in which his name is nearly said, yet remains unstated. Bob Cratchit, for example, reports to his wife, upon returning home after a Christmas church service, Tiny Tim had told him he was happy to be at church so that he could be a reminder to others of He who healed the crippled, like himself. Similarly, Peter, Bob’s eldest son, is seen reading a book from which he recites the words “let the little children come unto me,” a reference that Scrooge recognizes but can’t quite place.

All of these subtle reference to the real personality at the heart of the story culminate in one of the greatest understatements in English literature (and English literature is rife with such understatements) when Dickens tells us that, having risen in the morning after his various visions of Christmas spirits, Scrooge “went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying too and fro, and patted the children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.” He went to church stands at the head of the sentence and is clearly the referent to everything that follows it in the same breathless list of Scrooge’s (quite Christ-like) activities. In only four simple single-syllable words, Dickens has gotten to the heart of things. Scrooge has turned himself to the Savior whose birth we are called to celebrate and, no doubt, communed with him in his Body and Blood, uniting himself with Christ and thereby becoming Christ-like.

The new Scrooge is not merely a kinder, gentler version of the old Scrooge. He has not become “nice.” He has been converted. He has become altogether a new man, born again on Christmas Day by being born into that child born so many hundreds of years ago in Bethlehem.

Translating The Owl and the Nightingale

I have been considering for some time trying my hand at writing poetry, something I did a bit in my late teens but fell away from. I have also been working lately on improving my Old and Middle English. To advance both ends, I have decided to work on a translation of the 12th/13th century Middle English poem The Owl and the Nightingale. If you’re unfamiliar with it, there is a good introduction to it at Wikipedia. To put it shortly, the poem is a debate between an owl and a nightingale over who is better and, by implication, which of the lifestyles each represents is better.

As I add to and change the translation, I will be posting my work on this page, which is also accessible in the link bar at the top of the page. My goal with this translation is to remain faithful to the meaning of the text as well as its rhythm and rhyme. To this end, I will attempt to remain consistent with the iambic tetrameter and aabb rhyme scheme (that is, four-beat lines arranged in couplets) of the original. The text I am working from is that published by E. G. Stanley, which you can find online here. I welcome any comments and corrections you might have to offer along the way.

Book Review: Bede’s History of the English Church and People

The Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People is an interesting read, though not one I’d recommend for those who do not have a relatively intense interest in the subject matter contained in the title. Bede’s history often reads as a record of English folktales about monks and various holy man more than it reads like history in the sense most modern people attach to that word. In fact, it might make better religious reading than it does historical or literary reading. Unless you have a real interest in the primary sources for medieval English religious thought, it would be best to stick to more modern academic writing on the subject of English history.

What I found most interesting about the book is the tension it exhibits between an incipient nationalism on the British Isles and the Christianity notion of catholicity as the universality of faith in the Church. The question of the legitimacy of practices native to or at least antecedent of the Roman practice in Britain frequently arises. Bede is fairly charitable, especially given the climate of the Church at that time, but always sides with the Roman practice as evincing a catholic nature over the more local, even if older, practices.

It was this tension between nation and Catholic Church, of course, that eventually led the English Church to schism from the Roman Church in the 16th century. That such a tension existed at even this early point, albeit in quite different forms, makes for some often fascinating reading, for one so intellectually inclined.

Book Review: The Elizabethan Renaissance by A. L. Rowse

This, the first volume of Rowse’s multivolume exploration and explanation of Elizabethan England, is quite a treat. It is a book that distinguishes itself in a number of ways from its contemporaries and analogues. Most works of non-fiction, especially historical works, written in the past 40 years or so are arid exercises in intellectual masturbation by out of touch academics bound in moribund and minuscule areas of specialization. Rowse’s work is none of this.

He is frequently witty, offering a smattering of snarky asides and summarizing comments. He is always entertaining, continually parading out the most interesting examples of whatever area of Elizabethan life he is discussing. And he is a man who clearly loves his subject and, as such, brings it to life for the reader, offering not only a perspective into but an authentic appreciation for the Elizabethan Age.

There is, in addition, the rare combination of depth and breadth to Rowse’s erudition, as he discusses widely disparate aspects of life in the Elizabethan Age in detail while linking each aspect to the others. In this volume, for example, he explores such diverse subjects as class and occupation, sex, food, clothing, religion and sports (in the same chapter!), and beliefs about witchcraft, magic, and astrology. As he explores each of his subjects, he brings to fore the ways in which they are all connected to each other and together form the whole of Elizabethan life.

If you are interested in a modern historian who is not boring, and especially if you are interested in the Elizabethan Age and the great men, such as Shakespeare, which it produced, I recommend that you make Rowse an early stop along your journey.

Book Review: The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

This is a book that I have been looking forward to reading for sometime. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed at all.

In this masterpiece of Christian literature, Bunyan returns to an earlier tradition of allegory in English storytelling while continuing in the new vein of more realistic portrayals of persons. While Bunyan adopts the earlier tradition of providing each character with a nomenclature clearly indicating the virtue or vice he or she represents, he nonetheless endows each with a certain complexity that reflects later developments in English literature. The result is a delightful study of human nature and the Christian life.

As the pilgrim, Christian, and, later, his wife, Christiana, advance from their homeland, a city doomed to destruction, to the eternal city, each encounters set of characters and places representative of the various obstacles and supports along the path of the Christian life. Each encounter provides some insight into the nature of the Christian life and the way it is to be lived.

This is essential reading for anyone interested in English and/or Christian literature.

Book Review: Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

In this classic play, Marlowe takes up the story of a German scholar who sells his soul to the devil in order to attain worldly pleasures. The story existed before Marlowe and would be treated, in a work far more famous, by Goethe somewhat later, but Marlowe enters into this story in a way that is enthralling and thought-provoking.

Marlowe uses the story of Dr. Faustus to explore themes such as the relationship between knowledge in worldly things and ennui, the tension between will and fate, and the nature of sin. Each scene of the play is like a short meditation upon one of these subjects.

Of particular interest to me is Marlowe’s relationship to Shakespeare. Thought Shakespeare would, by the time this play was first published in print, far exceed Marlowe in the quality of his dramatic works, Marlowe was no doubt an early influence on Shakespeare. Thought Marlowe’s influence waned with time, one can find elements of this influence throughout Shakespeare’s corpus.

I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for good literature that does what literature is supposed to do: provide insight into the human.

Review: Shakespeare: The Perspective of Value by Robert E. Fitch

As the back cover assures us and as the author states several times in various ways: “A great deal of Shakespeare criticism is an effort to force the bard into categories into which he will not fit.” Of course, much the same could be said of nearly any great work of literature and its misuse and abuse by modern critics. The interpretations of the proponents of the various modern literary theories — existentialist, Marxist, queer, feminist, whatever the case may be — are all attempts to force the works of the great authors of the past to fit into their own box and support their pet ideologies. As for Shakespeare himself, I have seen just in the last month new articles which claim he was, among other things, a Catholic, a Calvinist, an atheist, and gay. Truth be told, he was almost certainly none of the above. And this is where Robert E. Fitch’s tour de force of Shakespeare’s worldview via his dramatic and poetic achievements comes in.

Fitch, as the subtitle has it, sets out to examine Shakespeare from “the perspective of value.” In other words, Fitch desires to get to the root of Shakespeare’s ideas about God, about man, and about the world; he wishes to discern Shakespeare’s principles and values, as well as how these might have changed during the course of his literary life. And this he does with vigor, with force, and with charm.

Fitch’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare is on full display throughout. Any time that he makes a claim about a value Shakespeare might have held, Fitch is able to immediately muster to his defense references from every piece of Shakespeare’s repertoire. In so doing, happily, he avoids the tortuous mental gymnastics so many modern critics must adopt in order to find a way to force the Bard into their box. Instead, he allows Shakespeare to speak for himself, often in his own words.

A helpful companion to this volume might be Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture. There, Tillyard expounds upon the worldview common to most Elizabethans, including such ideas as the Great Chain of Being, the four elements, the moral order, and the primacy of man. All of these ideas are, of course, the ideas Shakespeare would have been immersed in, even when he finds himself questioning some of them. Fitch is able, however, to explain all of these ideas well enough in the course of his examination of these principles and values in Shakespeare’s work specifically that Tillyard’s volume is not necessary to understanding Fitch’s but rather helpful.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in getting at the real Shakespeare, the man himself and what he believed. It will be a real treat for those who, like myself, greatly enjoy Shakespeare’s plays, but also helpful to anyone interested in literature and intellectual history in a more general way.