Sunday, 24 August 2008

Memes go around like wake-up calls

My uncle once: busted his leg in drunken skipping.

Never in my life: have I had unprotected sex. I don't know how people can take that risk.

When I was five: I had an invisible friend called Bella.

High School was: not something I experienced - one of the many reasons I thank God I wasn't born in America.

I will never forget: crouching behind a door in the darkness, listening to John McCusker and Kate Rusby warming up on the fiddle.

Once I met: Matt Le Tis. Whoo.

There's this girl I know: who's afraid of cherries.

Once, at a bar: in Majorca, a guy just came up and asked me if I'd be his girlfriend. A complete stranger. And I was only twelve.

By noon: I'm not always up!

Last night: I ate Indian food.

If only I had: muscal talent.

Next time I go to church: I will try really hard not to be bored or to compare it with the vitality of church in Africa.

What worries me most: *shrugs*

When I turn my head to the right: I hope that it isn't in fact the left.

You know I'm lying when: I just can't hide it in Cheat.

What I miss about the 80s is: my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles jeans.

If I were a character in Shakespeare: please don't let me be Hamlet. Better Malvolio than Hamlet.

By this time next year: I will probably be planning my wedding.

A better name for me would be: Doris the New Forest florist.

I have a hard time understanding: geometry.

If I ever go back to school: I'll have to be a teacher as I'm quite old.

You'll know I like you if: I mock you.

If I ever won an award the first person that I would thank is: my parents.

Take my advice: under no circumstances.

My ideal breakfast is: Coco Pops and a monkey cabaret.

A song I love but do not have: "Let him go, let him tarry..." from the war film The Way to the Stars.

If you visit my hometown: you'll regret it. Though the shopping's not bad.

Why won't people simply: make me Queen of the World?

If you ever spend the night at my house you probably won't get any sleep because: I'll be up all night fidgeting.

I'd stop my wedding for: House, M.D.

The world could do without: mushrooms.

I'd rather lick the belly of a cockroach than: lick the penis of a cockroach.

My favorite blonde is: probably actually light brown. Most blondes seem to be.

Paper Clips are: fun to straighten out.

If I do anything well, it's: talk crap.

I can't help but stand up for: the National Anthem. Jokes.

I cry over: films that aren't even remotely sad.

My advice to my children is: when you're born, come out head first. Saves a whole lot of trouble.

Victorian Governesses

Celia's latest acquisition is a fully-functioning 1890's governess cart. She naturally intends to use it. Her pony, Dusty, is great with carts, actually. I'm travelling up to Maidenhead in a couple of weeks - we're going to plot some Medieval field maps - so I'll be sure to get a photo of the cart then.

Take a look at this painting by Redgrave:

Says a lot, doesn't it? Painted by a man, of course, but still.

This is by Rebecca Solomon:

It must have been a funny position: above the servants but below the family. Always with the family yet entirely excluded. Aways there and yet invisible. All the labour of a tutor's work without the respect.

Jane Eyre, of course, is about a governess, but, although it's wonderful and I wouldn't change a thing, it isn't the most realistic novel I've ever read. I got a far better insight from Anne Bronte's much-underrated Agnes Grey.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Victorian Ballerinas

A little picspam:

Credit to rockabillyvixen at Dark Victoria for the images.

And a few observations:

It seems to me that, actual blatant pornography aside, these images are pretty racy by Victorian standards. I've gathered a few photos for a future post which are actually supposed to be erotic, and they're surprisingly similar to these. Of course, the sexualisation of female singers/dancers/actresses is nothing new and is still going on merrily today, along with the sexualisation of just about everything else. But we have, thankfully, lost the idea of women on stage being somehow disreputable and the link with prostitution. Actually, I don't think we have lost it: I think it just slid, along with so much else, into the collective subconscious.

Another thing that struck me was how astonishingly healthy these girls look, in comparison with modern ballerinas. The third one perhaps excepted, these women display the female form in all its curvacous glory. They wouldn't last five minutes in modern ballet.

Natalia Sologub in the title role of Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella

I rest my case. I mean, look at her arms. Ech.

So why the change in the ballerina's physique? Is ballet more demanding? If so, why does that mean that ballerinas have to be skeletal as opposed to just having more muscle? Are the male ballet dancers not strong enough to lift a normal-sized woman? Did the Victorians have more respect for the female form? Apparently not, when you look at what some corsets did to people. And yet, isn't that just appreciation for curves with an additional dose of insanity?

I should probably do research. I'm really just thinking on my feet - or my fingers, as the case may be. Check back as research happens.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


I'm in the mood for a rant. About homosexuality, or, more accurately, homophobia. Note I used the word 'rant,' not 'debate.' I tend not to express my opinions on this topic in Christian circles too often, because it rapidly spirals into debate. Debate is good, but it's really something I have to be in the mood for. But some things do get on my nerves. It gets on my nerves that people assume because I'm a Christian, I must be homophobic. I understand why they assume that, but it's annoying nonetheless.

When I was in Mozambique, I spent a lot of time with various American missionaries, some of whom really put the 'fun' in 'fundamentalism.' The one who really stands out in my memory is Gary. Gary and I, despite our differences, got on like a house on fire. This is possibly because I tended to do more questioning and listening than talking, but still. Fundamentalists are not bad people, any more than homosexuals or anybody else. Just because I disagree, sometimes quite vehemently, doesn't make anybody evil. Gary was wonderful, in fact. I'd be washing my hands, listening to him sing 'Heart of Worship' as he peed. He would explain to me, so earnestly, all about how the world was 6000 years old and carbon dating was a lie. He thought my accent was some kind of revolution in speech. He and his wife introduced me to the wonders of cinnamon toast. But his opinions did make me sometimes want to weep.

George Bush, he would say, was the greatest Christian president America has ever had. Okay, okay, he would concede, as I related the story of George Bush and "the Israeli and Polystyrene people," he wasn't the greatest public speaker, but he had done things that nobody really knew about. Like what? Well, he would say, "you're probably not going to believe this, but there are some people in America who think that queers should have rights."

At this point I started to praise cinnamon toast very loudly.

I don't know whether homosexuality is right or wrong. I haven't given it tremendous amounts of thought, because I don't really care. I figure that it's my job to love people rather than to judge them. What other people do is between them and God, as far as I'm concerned. What consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes is so spectacularly none of my business. And if it is wrong, who am I to point the finger? Who am I to think less of people? I have been known to nick the odd bit of fudge out of the Pick 'n' Mix; that's wrong. Sometimes I speak in a way that's not respectful and honouring of other people. Sometimes I even do that to make myself look witty. I've got enough to worry about with my own behaviour, without overseeing other people's.

Rant over, I think. I feel better now.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

An Insight

My friend, Celia, makes driving whips for a living. She keeps them all in the kitchen area. I was staying with her the other week and, one day, I stood admiring one in particular.

"It's Victorian," she said. "What do you think it's made of?"

It was a creamy colour and a little like bone, only more flexible. I had no idea what it was made of so I listed every material I could think of and then gave up.

"I'll give you a clue," said Celia. "Men would present these whips to their betrothed on their engagement."

I pushed images of Victorian S&M as far out of my mind as possible.

The whip turned out to be made out of a bull's penis.

The little joke/coded message there is obvious: "I'm hung like a bull!" says our Victorian gentleman. Good for him. Men never change, do they?

I can't help wondering, though, what the lucky recipient of the bull's-cock-turned-driving-whip would have felt. Amused? Embarrassed? Erotic excitement? Supposing she was a virgin, would it not have been a little terrifying, to be presented with this thing, three feet long, with the unspoken assurance that your intended plans to rip you in half? It's hardly romantic, really.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Damn, blast and bugger

I was going to type up my journal of my trip to Mozambique. That was meant to be my next post.

However, last week, I put all my favourite belongings in a suitcase and left it on the train. Some things were easily replacable - toiletries, make-up, etc - though I could do without the expense. Some things are harder to replace because of expense or availability: my laptop, my Riverside Chaucer, my Kate Rusby traditional folk sheet music, my phone charger, my camera-to-computer link-up cable. And some things are irreplacable: an 80 page letter from a friend, the music and photos and documents on the laptop, most of my clothes, my beautiful Bible I bought in Johannesburg and, of course, the Mozambique journal. I've phoned every train company and station in the country, nearly, and it seems to have been stolen. So that's that.

The online journal (, for those who have been following it, is going to be inactive for a while. I'm going to leave it open because I anticipate future mission trips. In the mean time, All Things Jesus will be over at St. Pixels, the online church ( I have a blog there. I'm "Laura Mary" if anyone wants to find me.

This couldn't have come at a worse time. Depression has hit. I'm irritable; I don't want to see anyone or do anything; tasks are impossible; difficulties insurmountable; faith dead; suicide tempting (but not happening); sleep evasive... Blah. I feel very sorry for my family, living with me at the moment. The helpfullest things at the moment are my boyfriend's voice on the end of the phone and distraction, when I can manage it.

Ah well, I still have lots of unfinished, literary-type posts. This place won't go empty.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Poet's Job

Two perspectives on "the poet's job:"

"It's the poet's job to figure out what's happening within oneself, to figure out the connection between the self and the world, and to get it down in words that have a certain shape, that have a chance of lasting."
~Galway Kinnell

"But the poet's job is, after all, to translate God's poem... into words."
~Babbette Deutsch

What would you say was "the poet's job?" I'm quite tempted to say, "to write poetry, and hang the rest!" Do you think that the poet has a specific social responsibility? To educate and enlighten? To inspire compassion for others? To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable? To bring about social improvement, in a Lyrical Ballads kind of way? Is it legitimate to write only for oneself and to publish only for one's ego? And does that effect what you choose to write?

Saturday, 19 July 2008

In a puff of smoke...

... she reappears.

And, not only that, she reappears with photos of her trip: here, here and here.

Once I've typed it up, there will also be a Mozambique journal for your amusement.

I've been back over a week already. Sorry you've not heard from me - I had a month's worth of correspondence and so many little fiddly things to sort out. I was also dealing with culture shock and getting over a stomach infection. I'm okay now, though!

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

I'm Off

A quick note to let you know that I won't be posting for at least a month - I'm off to Mozambique! Just in case anyone pops by and wonders if I've died or something.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Reading Much

One thing I love about the holidays is the sheer unadulterated indulgence of reading for pleasure. I do it lots, when my studies are, for once, not clamouring for my attention instead.

The Medievalists among you may want to check out this review I wrote on one of my other blogs just now. It's my (totally unbiased) opinion on a book by a friend of mine, about East Berkshire from the fifth to twelfth centuries.

But here I wanted to write briefly about a couple of books I've read recently. I reread The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which I first read when I was 11 or 12. I thought it was underrated. I mean, it wasn't a Jane Eyre or a Wuthering Heights, but it was a good enough book in its own right. I think Anne Bronte deserves to have her achievements recognised a bit instead of always being in her sisters' shadow. I can see why Tenant was considered "coarse" and "brutal" at the time it was published, but I think Charlotte Bronte was wrong to call it an "entire mistake." It's controversial for all the right reasons: it highlighted the way in which Victorian women often were trapped and mistreated, by their husbands and by society. A bitter pill for society, no doubt, and little wonder it was shouted down, but I still feel it was a brave thing to write. That said, the book does have flaws. The ending is unsatisfactory and the character of Arthur Huntingdon has awesome potential but is sadly underdeveloped. Yet it was a good read.

I've also, since then, read The Favoured Child by Philippa Gregory, which is the middle installment of the Wideacre trilogy. I need to hunt down Wideacre and Meridon now. I chose The Favoured Child because it's set in my beloved 1790s. There are references to what was going on then, but, knowing the period as I do, I can't help feeling that more could have been made of it. One can tell that The Favoured Child was written earlier in Philippa Gregory's career. I loved it - some great invention - and, yet, I hated it at the same time. Everything was just too awful. It was one catastrophe after another and it turned into a depressing read - so much that I had to put it aside for a few days. It was painful, too painful, and it crossed the line where the empathy wasn't useful or helpful anymore. Plus it was that classic plot device of lots of secrets being kept for no real reason, secrets that only had to be told to make things a whole lot better. That makes me want to scream in frustration. I don't like secrets. I see how they propel a plot, but this was just ridiculous. That said, I enjoyed the little world of Wideacre and I want to know what happens in Meridon. Hopefully baby Sarah will have more luck than her mother and grandmother and pretty much her entire family.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Wish List

Walking in the footsteps of The Little Professor. Apologies for the haphazard capitalisation, etc - this is pasted from Notepad and was originally just a point of reference for me. I'm too lazy to sort it out.


ted hughes reading poems
sylvia plath reading poems
no, virginia by the dresden dolls
American Doll Posse by Tori Amos


the habit of being by flannery o'connor
the dead and the living/the wellspring by sharon olds
i wish someone were waiting for me somewhere by anna gavalda
the microcosm by maureen duffy
journal by katherine mansfield
angel by elizabeth taylor
the bone people by keri hulme
piece by piece by tori amos
Possible Side Effects - Augusten Burroughs
Finding Alice - Melody Carlson
Several Perceptions - Angela Carter
Unholy Ghost - Nell Casey
The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden - Joanne Greenberg
Touched by Madness - Kay Redfield Jamison
Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women - elizabeth wurtzel

band merchandise

Medieval baebes tambourine -
medieval baebes songbook -
medieval baebes shopping bag -
kate rusby shopping bag -
the dresden dolls companion -


amelie on dvd
cranford on dvd
new hard disk

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Well Done, Me

I sorted my blogroll out: deleted a lot of stuff. Go look! It's pretty much limited to friends' blogs, which is probably what a blogroll should be after all. Gosh, I love having free time to sort out all these little niggly things. I'm also in the process of making a new one, Miss Medieval, so I can get all my Medieval stuff together and focussed for next year, when it'll be half my degree, and the year after, when I may well be doing a Medieval Studies MA.

That said, spending pretty much entire days online isn't entirely healthy.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008


Hello. Guess what: my exams are finished. Woot. This means I can actually spend some time online and maybe even blog. I must sort out the blogroll here at some point. It's hideously out of date. I need some way to organise it into categories. Maybe I will have several blogrolls. I need a website, but I'd want a decent one and I haven't the know-how to make it.

With my new-found free time, I went to a conference today. It was on the Odyssey, "Homer to Hollywood," connected by video to two academics in Kentucky. You can see the advertisement here. It was really worthwhile but incredibly frustrating, having this fascinating debate going on all around and being unable to participate. Technically I was allowed to speak but it was near impossible. The only people who spoke were lecturers and one PhD student. I did wave my hand in the air tentatively a couple of times but this was either ignored or not noticed. Those who got a word in were the ones who had the confidence to just start talking loudly, quite often over someone who was already talking. I really didn't feel I had the authority to do that.

I also felt that it was sort of assumed that we wouldn't speak. There was just a hint of the academic snobbery that I've found to be quite prevalent in some places, the suggestion that only people with postgraduate degrees ever have thoughts or opinions worth listening to. I actually find that quite offensive. It's rather like the wicked looks you get as an undergraduate if you venture into the British Library and dare to occupy a seat. Nevertheless, the conference did make me think about the Odyssey in new ways and I enjoyed that. I'm going to go on to articulate some of the thoughts I had, things I would liked to have said. Blogging is a tremendous solace, you know, when you feel that no one's remotely interested in what you have to say. You just say it anyway. Who cares if anyone's listening?

Firstly, the weather and the seasons. Odysseus returns to Ithaca in winter and spring comes on as he enacts his revenge and restores order to the kingdom. The significance is obvious but it's an unobtrusive detail in the poem. Why, then, it was asked, does it turn up in pretty much every film of the Odyssey ever made? The simple answer, which Edith Hall said, is that weather's good in films. Doubtless whoever makes the films goes through the poem with a fine toothcomb, looking for things that will work well visually and atmospherically in a film. A discussion ensued about pathetic fallacy, all well and good. But one really vital thing that was left out was how the weather reflects not only the situation but what is happening inside the characters. On a simplistic level, someone did mention Tess of the d'Urbervilles: it rains when she cries, etc. But I was surprised that no one mentioned King Lear. The storm in Lear not only represents Lear's inner turmoil but is instrinsically connected with what it going on both inside Lear and in the kingdom. It is not merely a weather phenomenon: it is a process. The storm rages and calms. The seasons are processes in the same way. So, likewise, when Odysseus returns in the winter, the kingdom is barren, unfruitful and stagnated. The characters there are despairing. The coming of spring is a process, as is the re-establishment of a fruitful, ordered kingdom, the restoration of Odysseus' identity and the return to happiness of his friends and family. That's why it's such an important detail, and that's why film-makers are right to pick up on it. Not necessarily the same as why they do pick up on it, but relevant nonetheless.

Another question discussed was why is the Odyssey so influential to everything afterward, and why is it so culturally ingrained? Edith Hall and Ahuvia Kahane had a nice little argument about whether Joyce was influenced by Homer or Homer by Joyce (in our perceptions, I think he meant), which was quite entertaining to watch. I would argue, though, that it is not the Odyssey itself but its motifs, which are such an integral part of our collective human subconscious and so resurface again and again. These motifs - monsters, journeys, revenge, etc. - even in the quite specific forms that they take in the poem, predate Homer. The Odyssey just happens to be our earliest source for them. The interesting question, though, is why are these motifs a part of the human psyche, across all ages and cultures? I'd really like to put this to the chaps in Kentucky, who were very insightful and knowledgable, but I doubt I could find e-mail addresses. They may well tell me to sod off anyway. I'm only an undergraduate, after all ;o)

In spite of how much I enjoyed much of the seminar's content, I came away fairly disgruntled because of aforementioned frustrations. A friend of mine, who has been having a hard time lately and so is taking it out on anyone who comes within three feet, snapped at me for the fiftieth time today and I'm ashamed to say I snapped back and went off on one of my confrontational rants. After I stomped away fairly childishly and was struggling to deal with my feelings of anger, another frustration resurfaced. As I puzzled over how to express my anger in the least destructive way possible, I started thinking about how society makes it difficult for women to express rage. Anger in a woman is almost a taboo, it seems. Boys, when angry, are expected to have fights in the playground, but what is an angry girl to do? Women have been wrestling with this problem for centuries. I think it's why we have a reputation for bitching. I also think it's why self-injury and eating disorders are so much more common in girls. We turn our anger on ourselves because we have no outlet. Or at least I do.

This women's justice issue got me thinking about the dreadful case linked to on Rachel's blog. Although I'm not an especially ranty feminist type (I have my moments), I do agree that our culture is, to a large degree, a rape-apologist culture which thrives on blaming the victim. This I know from experience. We still have a long way to go for gender equality. Which sucks.

On a completely unrelated note, Julie Carter has just opened a new poetry forum. Looks like it's gonna be good.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

NaPo Questions

1) What made you want to do it?
It's become a yearly tradition. It's fun, in a perverse kind of way. And I like the comeraderie (sp?) of it, "we're all in this together" type thing. More importantly, though, speaking of someone who can go months without writing anything, it forces me to sit down and write.

2) What do you feel you got out of it?
A reassurance that I haven't "lost it" or outgrown writing poetry. And a few good poems-in-the-making.

3) Do you think the poems you produced are necessarily worse what you would normally write?
Some are, simply because they're stuff I would usually destroy but that I post to meet the deadline. But, usually, no.

4) Did it prompt you to write different kinds of poems to the sort you normally write? In what way?
Yes, I tried out the sevenling, because other people were writing them. I discovered a new form and I was happy.

5) Do you feel it goes against any principle of writing poetry, or definition of poetry, or somehow cheapens poetry or anything like that?
I'd never considered it, but, now I do, no.

6) What are you going to do with the poems you've written during the month?
Destroy some, and keep some for when I learn how to revise.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Still Alive

Just a quick note. It's exam time. Much crazy. Brain fried. NaPo incomplete again, but I was quite pleased with some stuff. I need to redo the links here at some point.


Discuss the treatment of one of the following topics in relation to a selection of the literature you have studied for this course: domesticity, power, the sublime, morality, emotion, restraint.

In order to discuss the treatment of the sublime, it is necessary first to define the sublime. The concept originated in the first century rhetorical treatise On the Sublime, attributed to Longinus.[1] Kant writes that the sublime “raises the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace.”[2] Blackburn describes it as “great, fearful, noble, calculated to arouse sentiments of pride and majesty, as well as awe and sometimes terror.”[3] While the sublime has been widely discussed over the centuries, particularly in terms of aesthetics, I have chosen to focus primarily on the definition outlined in Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), as it was enormously influential on the concept of the sublime as it was understood in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Ann Batten Cristall’s ‘An Ode’ (1795), Mary Robinson’s ‘Sonnet. To Liberty’ (1806) and Felicia Hemans’ ‘The Rock of Cader Idris’ (1839) typify the sublime according to Burke’s definition.

Burke’s understanding of the sublime is based largely on the idea of terror, on which he put a new emphasis.[4] He writes that one source of the sublime is “whatever is in any sort terrible”[5] because terror is “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”[6] Terror is very obviously apparent in ‘The Rock of Cader Idris’ in a number of different ways. The scene itself is terrible, as a “midnight of shadows all fitfully streaming” (line 5). The darkness here heightens the fear, as Burke writes: “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”[7] The visions, the phantoms, are, naturally, very frightening: they are described as “dread beings” (line 13) and their being “unearthly” (line 11) adds to their obscurity and thus their fearfulness. The narrator is very clearly afraid, but, more than that, he is overcome: “a strife was within me of madness and death” (line 16). Yet what typifies the sublime here is a strange enjoyment of this fear: “There was light on my soul, but my heart's blood was chill” (line 24). Terror is likewise apparent in ‘Sonnet. To Liberty,’ though implicitly, with its “tyrant tempest” (line 8) and “sanguinary demons” (line 9), although the subject is a positive one, thus proving how terror is seen in the sublime as to be perversely enjoyed.

Nature is also key both to the sublime and to ‘An Ode,’ ‘Sonnet. To Liberty’ and ‘The Rock of Cader Idris.’ The connection between nature and the sublime was described at length by Burke but established originally in On the Sublime, in which, as Baldick writes, the author “refers to the sublime as a loftiness of thought and feeling in literature, and associates it with terrifyingly impressive natural phenomena such as mountains, volcanoes, storms, and the sea.”[8] Cristall personifies nature and sees it as able to communicate directly with the individual: “strongly Nature's truths conviction bring” (line 9). Nature in this poem communicates on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, as the narrator is taken up in raptures: “Stupendous Nature! rugged, beauteous, wild!” (line 25), and describes himself as “impress'd with awe” (line 26). It is this awe as a human response to nature which characterises the sublime. In ‘The Rock of Cader Idris,’ the narrator’s vision of the phantoms is inextricably linked with his natural surroundings. The phantoms themselves are declared to be “the powers of the wind and the ocean” (line 17), which move like “the sweep of the white-rolling wave” (line 19). Nature is again personified, though interestingly not capitalised this time, and is tied into the sense of a glorious resurrection at the end of the poem: “what new glory all nature invested, / When the sense which gives soul to her beauty was won!” (line 31,32) In ‘Sonnet. To Liberty,’ liberty is seen as inseparable from nature, often wandering “by the billowy deep, / Scatt'ring the sands that bind the level shore” (lines 5,6). Nature is, in fact, the source of liberty, “born in the mountain's solitary crest” (line 2). Both nature and liberty are personified, as nature is described as liberty’s “nurse” (line 3), being that which nurtures it and makes its existence possible. The personification of nature, awe at its grandeur and intellectual engagement with it are, then, significant characteristics of the sublime in these poems.

The sublime, in these poems and in general, also has a strong spiritual element. Weiskel writes that this is because, in the sublime, “spirit and matter are differentiated in principle but not yet in the fact of perception or intuition.”[9] A key example of this is Mary Woolstonecraft. For her, the physical matter of nature, combined with human love, reveals the spiritual, God, as her essay ‘On Poetry’ describes: “Love to man – leads to devotion – grand and sublime images strike the imagination – God is seen in every floating cloud.”[10] As with Woolstonecraft, it is in nature’s “wondrous book” (line 26), that the narrator of ‘An Ode’ is lead to anticipate the spiritual “realm” (line 27) of Heaven. There are strong Christian references also in ‘Sonnet. To Liberty,’ with its “sanguinary demons” (line 9) and apocalyptic expectation: “'Till chaos reigns - and worlds shall be no more!” (line 14). The sublime, then, is both external, in that it is a response to natural surroundings, and internal, in that it is a spiritual and emotional experience.

One of the leading reasons for criticism of the sublime is that it can be seen as selfish and egotistical, focussing purely on the experience of the individual in response to his surroundings. As Jones writes, “The object of feeling, the focus of the ‘sublime’ experience, is dissociated from communal aspirations to become the exponent of personal, often nostalgic, emotion.”[11] However, Helen Maria Williams refuted the view that the sublime is essentially self-absorbed in 1798; she describes sublime meditation as “a tranquil rapture, remote from all that is selfish, or sensual… we forget ourselves, and have scarce a consciousness of existence.”[12] ‘The Rock of Cader Idris’ does seem to be excessively focussed on the self, though: it describes the sublime experience of an individual; tellingly, the first word of the first line is “I,” and the pronoun is repeated eleven times throughout the poem. Nevertheless, the narrators of both ‘Sonnet.To Liberty’ and ‘An Ode’ are far more concerned with society than themselves. ‘Sonnet.To Liberty’ begins “Ah! liberty!” and is focussed throughout on this subject, which was a contemporary social concern in light of the American and French Revolutions. ‘An Ode’ is concerned with the fate of mankind in general, pleading with God to “look with mercy on man's misery” (line 4) and expressing dismay that men “pierce the fraternal breast” (line 18). It is difficult to dismiss this kind of interest in universal human welfare as in any way selfish or immoral.
Returning to Burke’s definition of the sublime, he emphasises the importance of sound: “Sounds have a great power in these as in most other passions.”[13] The sounds heard by the narrator contribute greatly to his terror in ‘The Rock of Cader Idris,’ with the “voice of the mountain-wind, solemn and loud” (line 4) and “wild waves and breezes, that mingled their moan” (line 6). This is also the case with the frightening noises imagined in ‘Sonnet. To Liberty,’ such as “the desolating roar, / That bids the tyrant tempest lash the steep” (line 7, 8) and the animalistic “low’r” of the demons (line 9). The sounds are not only communicated because they are stated; they are recreated in the poems themselves. As Burke writes, “Descriptive poetry operates chiefly by substitution; by the means of sounds, which by custom have the effect of realities.”[14] The motion of the aforementioned “wild waves” is recreated sonically by the alliteration, and all three poems suggest a living, changing natural world with its own rhythms by employing regular rhyme schemes and metrical patterns. Impressions of the sublime, then, are as aural as they are visual.

In conclusion, the sublime as understood by Burke and others can be clearly traced in the three poems discussed. It is such a fascinating concept because, inspired by external stimulus but contained in the mind, it encapsulates so many contradictory ideas. It is pleasure in pain, both the pain of terror and of confronting an object, whether a mountain, a deity or an abstraction such as liberty, which exceeds the human capacities of perception. As Phillips writes, it includes “the sacred and the serious, the transcendent and the aristocratic, the privilege of an ‘incomprehensible darkness’ that reason cannot… dispel.”[15] It is thus supremely flexible, and lends itself to a wide range of subjects, and both to political commentary and aesthetic delight, a capacity of which these three poems take full advantage.


Baldick, Christopher, ‘sublime, the,’ in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Royal Holloway, University of London. 18 February 2008 (
Blackburn, Simon, ‘sublime,’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Royal Holloway, University of London. 18 February 2008 (
Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998).
Cristall, Ann Batten, An Ode [from Poetical Sketches, by Ann Batten Cristall (1795)] (
Drabble, Margaret and Stringer, Jenny (eds.), ‘sublime, the,’ in The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Royal Holloway, University of London. 18 February 2008 (
Hemans, Felicia Dorothea Browne, The Rock of Cader Idris [from The Works (1839)] (
Jones, Chris, Radical Sensibility: Literature and ideas in the 1790s, (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).
Robinson, Mary, Sonnet to Liberty [from The Poetical Works (1806)] (
Weiskel, Thomas, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976).

[1] Christopher Baldick, ‘sublime, the,’ in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. (
[2] Ibid.
[3] Simon Blackburn, ‘sublime,’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. (
[4] Margaret Drabble and Jenny Stringer (eds.), ‘sublime, the,’ in The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. (
[5] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998), p. 36.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 54.
[8] Christopher Baldick, ‘sublime, the,’ in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. (
[9] Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 54.
[10] Chris Jones, Radical Sensibility: Literature and ideas in the 1790s, (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 187.
[11] Ibid., p.12.
[12] Ibid., p. 158.
[13] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, p. 75.
[14] Ibid., p. 150.
[15] Adam Phillips, ‘Introduction’ in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke, p. xxii.

Tea and Cake with Homer

The Odyssey: Trace the use of type-scenes associated with hospitality and feasting.

“Type-scene” is a term invented by critics to describe what Clarke calls “recurring situations which are narrated according to a more or less fixed pattern”[1] in Homeric epic. These recurring situations are not random, but reoccur because they have a particular thematic significance in the poem. They are not entirely rigid: there is a certain amount of flexibility but it is limited. In Jones’ words, “the poet always keeps to the same order of events though he may choose to omit some.”[2] The minutiae of the poet’s variations on the type-scene in the Odyssey are worthy of inspection because they reveal a great deal about the values of Homeric society and the poem as a whole.

The type-scenes I will be discussing in this essay are concerned with xenia, which is the concept of hospitality. The type-scenes of hospitality in the Odyssey follow the observance of a standard protocol: the guest is greeted, shown in, seated, washed (usually the hands, though sometimes a bath and change of clothes is offered) and served food and drink. Only then is it acceptable for the host to question his guest. A bed for the night is then offered if it is needed. There is likewise a protocol for the guest’s departure: the guest excuses himself, the host urges him to stay but then concedes, a final meal is prepared and then the host gives gifts to the guest before he leaves.[3]

These hospitality sequences are central to the Odyssey. In terms of plot, they provide room for Telemachus to find out what happened to Odysseus, they enable Odysseus to get home and they provide a space for stories to be told, thus enabling flashbacks. They also reveal the attitudes behind the customs, expose a character’s true moral “worth” in how well he abides by them and are fundamental to Telemachus’ education. As Griffin writes, they have both an aesthetic and a moral aspect: Telemachus’ elders demonstrate to him how to behave in Homeric society,[4] as his father has not been around to teach him.

That said, the role of host seems to come very naturally to Telemachus, probably on account of his noble parentage. In one of the poem’s earliest scenes, Athene arrives in disguise and, despite being preoccupied, Telemachus jumps up immediately at the sight of a guest: “He made straight for the outer porch, inwardly vexed that a guest should stand at the door so long.”[5] Despite the inconvenience, Telemachus’ greeting is warm and friendly: “Greeting, friend; you shall be made welcome here; afterwards, when you have had your meal, you shall tell us what service you require.”[6] Telemachus adheres perfectly to the hospitality protocol, in spite of his inexperience: Athene’s hands are washed and she is fed before Telemachus starts to lament his situation or ask her anything.[7] Likewise, when she says she’s going, he asks her to stay for the traditional farewell rites of the final meal and giving of a gift, called a xeinon, to be passed down as an heirloom and symbolise the bond between the families.

The particulars of this hospitality sequence reveal far more than the fact that Telemachus has inherited his father’s sense of decorum. He shows a tremendous thoughtfulness and care for the comfort of his guest, seating her away from the boisterous suitors and seating himself lower in a show of deference.[8] The poet provides a stark contrast between this and the behaviour of the suitors, who ignore both the prince and the guest, seat themselves uninvited and help themselves to food and drink, flouting all conventions. This reflects their disrespectful attitude for which they are so sorely punished towards the end of the poem. Another aspect of hospitality conventions is also revealed. Athene says: “I claim guest-friendship with your family from days long past.”[9] This tells us that these bonds between families, based on xenia, could have been formed generations before. Jones elaborates: “They lose nothing of their hold over the xenoi because of this.”[10]

The second hospitality type-scene in the Odyssey is Telemachus as a guest at Nestor’s palace. This is, again, central to the poem’s themes: it contrasts the disorder of Odysseus’ kingdom in his absence with Nestor’s ideal, well-run kingdom, which is perfect in its hospitality and honours both the gods and the king himself. Telemachus arrives during a sacrifice to Poseidon. Everyone is preoccupied, as they were when Athene arrived at Odysseus’ palace. Yet at the first sight of a guest, the entire party gets ready to welcome him and integrate him into sacrificial feast: they “all flocked towards them with friendly gestures, bidding them be seated.”[11] We see in this scene that hospitality in the Odyssey is integrally linked with honouring the gods. The sacrifice is Athene which follows her flying off is described in exacting detail.

Nestor’s hospitality is indeed impeccable, and a perfect example to Telemachus. He is bathed and dressed by Nestor’s “lovely” daughter.[12] He is seated in the privileged position near Nestor himself and “on soft fleeces.”[13] Nestor tells Telemachus all the relevant information he has about the homecomings of the Trojan heroes, gives him advice and offers his chariot. Like Telemachus himself, he not only obeys the hospitality customs but demonstrates genuine interest in his guest and does everything to ensure his comfort.

Nestor also demonstrates one of the key aspects of Homeric hospitality: personal pride. He won’t hear of Telemachus’ returning to sleep on his ship, saying, “Zeus forbid – and the other deathless gods forbid – that you should go to a ship and away from me, as from some poor unprovided man who had not rugs and blankets enough in his house for guests and himself to sleep softly in.”[14] Zeus is especially important here because one of his names was “Xenios:” he was the patron of guests and supplicants. The Homeric hero was thus under a religious and moral obligation to treat guests and supplicants well.

Telemachus, accompanied by Pesistratus, one of Nestor’s sons, then goes on to stay with Menelaus and another hospitality type-scene ensues. Again, Telemachus arrives at an inconvenient moment, a feast for the wedding of one of Menelaus’ illegitimate sons and the bridal send-off of his daughter Hermione. Menelaus is told of Telemachus’ and Pesistratus’ arrival by Etoeneus, who suggests sending them away, but Menelaus, as a worthy Homeric hero and thus the perfect host, will not hear of it. He is even angered at the suggestion, telling Etoeneus, “You speak with the foolishness of a child.”[15]

The usual hospitality customs follow: the guests receive a bath and new clothes and are told, “When you have had your meal, we will ask you who are.”[16] Menelaus, like Telemachus and Nestor, takes a personal interest in the care of his guests, despite everything else that is going on, and goes beyond what is required of a host. He sees that Telemachus’ and Pesistratus’ horses are fed and stabled and gave them the food “that had been reserved as his own portion,”[17] thus making a personal sacrifice.

This pattern continues at the guests’ departure. Telemachus asks to go and Menelaus consents but, according to custom, asks to host a final meal and collect gifts.[18] He also offers an escort and displays the perfect host’s desire to oblige when he says: “Too much warmness to guests, and too much coldness, are both things that I blame in others. Measure is best in everything; to press departure on one who is loath to go, to hinder it for one who is loath to stay – either thing is as bad as the other.”[19] He offers gifts of horses and a chariot,[20] which Telemachus cannot accept as they are not practical on Ithaca’s landscape.[21] Menelaus is gracious rather than offended, and offers a mixing bowl instead.[22] Helen’s gift, a wedding robe for Telemachus’ future wife,[23] likewise displays the thoughtfulness which characterises the ideal Homeric host.

The hospitality type-scenes in the Odyssey become more varied when we see Odysseus as a guest of the “hypercivilised” Phaeacians. Everything here is done on a larger scale. Menelaus’ palace was grand, but Alcinous’ is magnificent. Odysseus is sat in Alcinous’ favourite son’s glittering chair[24] and, the following day, games and athletic contests are held in his honour. Odysseus impresses the king so much that he is offered his daughter, Nausicaa’s, hand in marriage.[25] The hospitality of the Phaeacians is excessive; even the parting gifts are incredibly lavish. Odysseus is given clothes and gold, amongst others things, by the Phaeacian elders, and everyone in Alcinous’ hall is told to give him a “massive” tripod and cauldron.[26]

Yet, at least initially, there is reluctance in the Phaeacians’ hosting of Odysseus. He is not immediately welcomed in, as Telemachus was, but must put his hands around the queen’s knees in supplication.[27] Even then, Alcinous does not immediately decree that Odysseus should receive the traditional hospitality sequence. This happens at Echenaus’ recommendation, and it is necessary for him to remind the king of the proper way to treat a guest: “It not decent, that a guest should stay sitting upon the ground, in the ashes by the fire.”[28] Alcinous calls an assembly of the elders in order to decide that Odysseus’ request to be returned home should be granted: he does not see it as a duty. Even the games in Odysseus’ honour are marred by Eurylaus’ taunts, and they seem to be more of an opportunity for the Phaeacians to show off than organised for Odysseus’ pleasure. It seems, then, that the Phaeacians, with all their wealth and grandeur, are not as civilised as first appears.

The hospitality sequence of the Phaeacians is starkly contrasted with that of Eumaeus, and the comparison is to Eumaeus’ advantage. Eumaeus is poor, yet his hospitality has all the eagerness which the Phaeacians’ lacked. He ushers in Odysseus, transformed into a humble and fairly unappealing beggar, and calls him “old friend.”[29] When Odysseus later suggests leaving to wander and beg, Eumaeus won’t hear of it and is “much hurt.”[30] Like Menelaus and Nestor, he takes a personal interest in his guest and becomes emotionally involved. Unlike Alcinous, he sees it as his duty to entertain his guest to the best of his ability. He puts down brushwood and his own goat skin coverlet for Odysseus to sit on,[31] and at night he gives him his own cloak and makes his bed by the fire.[32] Eumaeus’ personal sacrifice for the sake of his guest makes his hospitality more valuable. Yet he’s constantly apologising for not being able to offer more.[33] When the other herdsmen come, he tells them to slaughter the best hog on Odysseus’ account. The sacrifice here shows again the inter-relation between hospitality and religious duty in Homeric culture: Eumaeus “did not forget the Deathless Ones, for he was a right-minded man.”[34]

In conclusion, Homer goes to great length to provide variation among these formulaic type-scenes. We see the young, inexperienced but right-minded host amidst a kingdom in turmoil, Telemachus, the older hosts, Nestor and Menelaus, in their ordered and flourishing kingdoms, the luxuriant but reluctant hosts, the Phaeacians, and the humble but affectionate host, Eumaeus. The hosts, and the guests’ experiences, are dramatically affected by the wealth and state of order in their environment. We have also seen how complex and significant a theme hospitality is in the Odyssey, tied into ideas of personal pride and religious duty. These hospitality sequences, and the patterns they provide, are an essential part of the poem’s structure as a narrative.

Fowler, R. (ed.) (2004) The Cambridge Companion to Homer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Griffin, J. (2004) Homer: The Odyssey, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jones P. (1992) Homer’s Odyssey: A Commentary, Bristol: Bristol Classical Press.
Schewring, W. (trans.) (1980) Homer: The Odyssey, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] Clarke, “Formulas, metre and type-scenes” in Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, p.134.
[2] Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Commentary, p. 9.
[3] Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Commentary, p. 14.
[4] Griffin, Homer: The Odyssey, p. 86.
[5] Schewring, Homer: The Odyssey, p. 4.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 4-5.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., p. 5.
[10] Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Commentary, p. 13.
[11] Schewring, Homer: The Odyssey, p. 23.
[12] Ibid., p. 34.
[13] Ibid., p. 24.
[14] Ibid., p. 31.
[15] Ibid., p. 36.
[16] Ibid., p. 36.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., p. 179.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., p. 48.
[21] Ibid., p. 49.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid., p. 180.
[24] Ibid., p. 80.
[25] Ibid., p. 83.
[26]Ibid., p. 154.
[27] Ibid., p. 79.
[28] Ibid., p. 79-80.
[29] Ibid., p. 165.
[30] Ibid., p. 185.
[31] Ibid., p. 166.
[32] Ibid., p. 177.
[33] Ibid., p. 167.
[34] Ibid., p. 174.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Some Suggested Reading

This list is actually compiled for a friend of mine, but, hey, it needs to go somewhere and this is as good a place as any. I don't know if anyone else is interested, but she's a fellow Austen fan. This is basically some of the context (1780-1830), focussing especially on the French Revolution and the gothic.

Some Misc. Critical Works:

Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971).
Butler, Marilyn, Romantics, Rebels and Revolutionaries: English Literature and Its Background (Oxford University Press, 1981).
Clery, E. J. Women's Gothic from Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley (Manchester: Writers and Their Work, 2000).
Jones, Chris, Radical Sensibility: Literature and Ideas in the 1790s (London, 1993).
McCalman, Ian et al, eds., The Oxford Companion to Romanticism and Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1999). [This is excellent but far too expensive to buy. I don't know if you have any decent libraries near you.]

Influential Women Poets

Ashfield, Andrew, ed., Romantic Women Poets 1770-1838: An Anthology (Manchester University Press, 1995).
Curran, Stuart, ed., The Poems of Charlotte Smith (New York, 1993).
Kelly, Gary, ed., Felicia Hemans, Selected Poems (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2002).
Pascoe, Judith, ed., Mary Robinson: Selected Poems (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000).
Wu, Duncan, ed., Romantic Women Poets: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

There's also that biography of Robinson that I told you about, very readable and enjoyable:
Byrne, Paula, Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson (Suffolk: Harper Perennial, 2005).
And don't forget Ann Radcliffe's The Italian (or similar gothic novel) for Northanger Abbey.

As for the Revolution...
I'd recommend reading some of what was written about it at the time. There's Edmund Burke's famous Reflections on the Revolution in France (1791). And, for the other side of the argument: The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine; Vindication of the Rights of Men by Mary Woolstonecraft and Impartial Reflections on the Present Situation of the Queen of France by a Friend to Humanity by Mary Robinson.
Much of this is online.

Other fantastic web resources:
Romanticism on the Net:
University of Virginia e-texts:
The French Revolution:
And you'd love The Republic of Pemberley.

Books, though, can be cheaper than you think. There's eBay and Amazon, of course, but also Blackwells and where you don't have to pay postage (in the UK, at least - I don't know about the US).

Good luck!

Thursday, 27 March 2008


I'm afraid this is going to be one of those annoying drop-by-and-say-hey posts. My blogging, like everything else I do, is sporadic. So, yes, I'm still alive. I'm on Easter hols now, and revising my dutiful little socks off for exams whilst watching plentiful daytime TV. I have more essays to post but they're on my laptop which won't have internet for another month or so.

I made yet another blog; this one's for blathering, pointlessness, random crap and keeping up with the friends who use LJ. Here I feel obliged to be intelligent, and on Maybe Mozambique I feel obliged to be spiritual or Africa-related. To be honest, I'll probably set up a Medievalism blog next year as well.

I've set up this year's NaPo thread, fun and games there. But don't expect anything much: I'm not writing ambitiously anymore, just to please myself. And, on that note, I'm out. Will probably post at some point. And tidy this place up a bit in terms of links and stuff. Universal good wishes.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

The Fantasy of Being Thin

by Kate Harding

Once you’ve really started believing in fat acceptance — as opposed to thinking it sounds nice for other people, but you still need to lose X lbs. before you’ll be acceptable — it can be hard to remember how you thought about these issues before (just as it can be hard to imagine what it would really be like to accept your fat body before you’ve done it). I’ve written several times about how I spent ages in the cognitive dissonance phase, thinking it made perfect sense that the OBESITY CRISIS hype was way overblown, and even if it weren’t, dieting doesn’t work anyway — but still wanting to lose weight, still feeling like I, personally, needed to be a size 10, max, before I could really get started on my fat acceptance journey. The thing is, that memory is almost totally intellectual now; I don’t really recall what it felt like to believe those two contradictory things simultaneously.

But then, the other day, I got to thinking about a particular kind of resistance that shows up every single time anyone dares to say that dieting doesn’t work — the kind that comes from other fat people and amounts to, “DON’T YOU TAKE MY HOPE AWAY!” Those of us in the anti-dieting camp are frequently accused of demoralizing fat people, of sending a cruelly pessimistic message. I’ve never quite gotten my head around that one, since the message we’re sending is that you’re actually allowed to love your fat body instead of hating it, and you can take steps to substantially improve your health without fighting a losing battle with your weight. I’m pretty sure that message is both compassionate and optimistic, not to mention realistic. But there will always be people who hear it as, “I, Kate Harding, am personally condemning you to a lifetime of fatness! There’s no point in trying, fatty! You’re doomed! Mwahahaha!”

Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. *headdesk*

And then I started thinking about what it was really like before I’d actually made peace with my body. And what it was really like was this: The Fantasy of Being Thin absolutely dominated my life — even after I’d gotten thin once, found myself just as depressive and scattered and frustrated as always, and then gained all the weight back because, you know, diets don’t work. The reality of being thin didn’t even sink in after all that, because The Fantasy of Being Thin was still far more familiar to me, still what I knew best. I’d spent years and years nurturing that fantasy, and only a couple years as an actual thin person. Reality didn’t have a chance.
We’ve talked a lot here about how being fat shouldn’t stop you from doing the things you’ve always believed you couldn’t do until you were thin. Put on a bathing suit and go waterskiing. Apply for that awesome job you’re just barely qualified for. Ask that hot guy out. Join a gym. Wear a gorgeous dress. All of those concrete things you’ve been putting off? Just fucking do them, now, because this IS your life, happening as we speak.

But exhortations like that don’t take into account magical thinking about thinness, which I suspect — and the quote above suggests — is really quite common. Because, you see, the Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s “When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.” See also:
  • When I’m thin, I’ll have no trouble finding a partner/reinvigorating my marriage.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll have the job I’ve always wanted.
  • When I’m thin, I won’t be depressed anymore.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll be an adventurous world traveler instead of being freaked out by any country where I don’t speak the language and/or the plumbing is questionable.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll become really outdoorsy.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll be more extroverted and charismatic, and thus have more friends than I know what to do with.

Et cetera, et cetera. Those are examples from my personal Fantasy of Being Thin, but I’m sure you’ve got your own. (Please do share in comments!)

In light of that, it’s a lot easier to understand why some people freak out when you say no, really, your chances of losing weight permanently are virtually nil, so you’d be better off focusing on feeling good and enjoying your life as a fat person. To someone fully wrapped up in The Fantasy of Being Thin, that doesn’t just mean, “All the best evidence suggests you will be fat for the rest of your life, but that’s really not a terrible thing.” It means, “You will NEVER be the person you want to be! All the evidence suggests you will never find a satisfying relationship or get a promotion or make more friends or feel confident trying new things!”

So if that’s what you hear when I say, “Diets don’t work,” then yeah, I can see how that would be a major bummer.

Overcoming The Fantasy of Being Thin might be the hardest part of making it all the way into fat acceptance-land. And that might just be why I’d pushed that part of the process out of my memory: it fucking sucked. Because I didn’t just have to accept the size of my thighs; I had to accept who I am, rather than continuing to wait until I magically became the person I’d always imagined being. Ouch.

That is, of course, a pretty normal part of getting older. You start to realize that yeah, this actually is it, and although you can still try enough new things to keep anyone busy for two lifetimes, you’re pretty much stuck with a basic context. There are skills, experiences, and material things you will almost certainly never have, period. It’s a challenge for all of us to understand that accepting this fact of life does not necessarily mean cutting off options or giving up dreams, but simply — as in the proverbial story about the creation of the David — chipping away all that is not you. But for a fat person, it can be even harder, because so many fucking sources encourage us to believe that inside every one of us is “a thin person waiting to get out” — and that thin person is SO MUCH COOLER.

The reality is, I will never be the kind of person who thinks roughing it in Tibet sounds like a hoot; give me a decent hotel in London any day. I will probably never learn to waterski well, or snow ski at all, or do a back handspring. I can be outgoing and charismatic in small doses, but I will always then need time to recharge my batteries with the dogs and a good book; I’ll never be someone with a chock-full social calendar, because I would find that unbearably exhausting. (And no matter how well I’ve learned to fake it — and thus how much this surprises some people who know me — new social situations will most likely always intimidate the crap out of me.) I might learn to speak one foreign language fluently over the course of my life, but probably not five. I will never publish a novel until I finish writing one. I will always have to be aware of my natural tendency toward depression and might always have to medicate it. Smart money says I am never going to chuck city life to buy an alpaca farm or start a new career as a river guide. And my chances of marrying George Clooney are very, very slim.

None of that is because I’m fat. It’s because I’m me.

But when I was invested in The Fantasy of Being Thin, I really believed that changing this one “simple” (ha!) thing would unlock a whole new identity — this totally fabulous, free-spirited, try-anything-once kind of chick who was effortlessly a magnet for interesting people and experiences. And of course, the dark side of that is that being fat then became an excuse not to do much of anything, because it wouldn’t be the real me doing it, so what was the point? If I wouldn’t find the right guy until I was thin, why bother dating? If I wouldn’t have a breakthrough on the novel until I was thin, why bother writing? If I wouldn’t be the life of the party until I was thin, why bother trying to make new friends? If I wouldn’t feel like climbing a mountain until I was thin, why bother traveling at all?

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Accepting my fat really wasn’t the hard part. Accepting my personality — and my many limitations that have jack shit to do with my thighs — was. But oddly enough, once I started to do that, my life became about a zillion times more satisfying. I found the right guy, I took up yoga, I started taking my writing more seriously, I stopped apologizing for taking vacations in the U.S. and Canada instead of somewhere more exotic, etc. And lo and behold, things got a lot more fun around here. The thin person inside me finally got out — it just turned out she was actually a fat person. A reasonably attractive, semi-outgoing fat person who has an open mind and an active imagination but also happens to really like routine and familiarity and quiet time alone.

That was never who I expected to be — it was just always who I was.

So giving up dieting and accepting my body didn’t just mean admitting I would never be thin; it meant admitting I would never be a million things I might have been. (Which, I’m told, is a phenomenon sometimes known as “maturity.”) I am absolutely not one for settling — which is where the confusion about pessimism comes in, I think — but I am one for self-awareness and self-forgiveness. Meaning, there’s a big difference between saying you can’t be anything other than what you are right now, and you don’t have to be anything other than what you are right now. You will probably never be permanently thin, unless you are already, but other than that, the sky’s the limit. You can be anything or anyone you want to be, in theory.

The question is, who do you really want to be, and what are you going to do about it? (Okay, two questions.) The Fantasy of Being Thin is a really convenient excuse for not asking yourself those questions sincerely — and that’s exactly why it’s dangerous. It keeps you from being not only who you are, but who you actually could be, if you worked with what you’ve got. And that person trapped inside you really might be cooler than you are right now.

She’s just not thin.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Maybe Mozambique

New blog, mainly God-stuff, focussing on a mission trip to Mozambique I may be going on this summer. Check it out.

Achilles: Mummy's Boy

Discuss Mother-Son Relationships in the Iliad.

The mother-son relationships in the Iliad which I have chosen to examine are those between Achilles and Thetis, Andromache and Astynax and Hector and Hecuba. These relationships reveal a great deal about the values concerning motherhood in the world of Homeric epic. The aspects of this on which I have chosen to focus are those concerning maternal duty, the mother’s attitude towards her son, the mother’s identity and the desired behaviour of a son towards his mother.

The Iliad was one of the major pieces of literature to come out of its era and so would have been greatly influential on later Classical societies. Its values would often have been adopted because, in many ways, Homeric heroes and their female relatives served as role models, something to which men and women could aspire. Silk goes as far as to say that Homeric heroes were “not men like us” but were “remote from ordinary humanity” and “mightier.”[1] They were largely a product of Homer’s contemporaries’ belief in the decline of mankind, and their looking back to a so-called “golden age.” A “golden age” is naturally something that one would want to retrieve and so it is likely that the values of the Iliad would have been upheld and the behaviour of its noble characters ideally imitated.

The first aspect of maternal duty in the Iliad which would have been seen as so desirable is the mother’s sympathising with the son in his distress. Women in the Iliad are frequently seen as sorrowful characters, powerless victims of war and sharers in their sons’ troubles. Thetis is a prime example. She is seen weeping[2] and lamenting her son’s ill-fated life[3] in the first book; in the eighteenth she weeps because he will die soon.[4] She does not tell him of Patroclus’ death[5], despite telling him her prophecy about his own:[6] it is almost as if she cannot bear to do so. As Achilles mourns for Patroclus, we see Thetis in her cave mourning for Achilles’ grief.[7] Her words are particularly poignant: “he has / sorrows, and though I go to him I can do nothing to help him.”[8] This tenderness is also evident as, when Achilles is distressed and angry over losing Briseis to Agamemnon, Thetis “came and sat beside him as he wept and stroked him / with her hand.”[9]

Andromache shows a similar sympathy with her son’s plight. When Hector dies, she says: “and the boy is only a baby / who was born to you and me, the unfortunate.”[10] She goes on to enter imaginatively into Astynax’s future sufferings, picturing him having to work hard, begging, with his inherited lands taken away. She is unable to bear the contrast between this unhappy, inglorious existence and his privileged position when his father was alive.[11] She sorrowfully imagines Astynax’s future again at Hector’s funeral: she doubts that he will live to come of age, and pictures him in slavery at the mercy of the Greeks, who will not be inclined to show mercy after his father’s part in the Trojan War.[12]

Maternal duty in the Iliad requires that the mother does not merely passively sympathise with her son’s troubles but seeks to actively help him if she can. Andromache, like Hecuba, is unable to do anything for her son, but Thetis has the advantage of being a goddess and thus having influence over the other gods. Even Thetis is unable to alter her son’s final destiny, but she is tireless in her mission to help him wherever she can. It is she who suggests that she go to Zeus to plead Achilles’ cause,[13] and her eagerness to do so is reflected by her going “early / in the morning.”[14] She also gets armour for Achilles from Hephaestus.[15]

Behaviour of sons towards mothers in the Iliad is, however, more varied. Achilles tends to run to Thetis at the first sign of trouble and cry on her shoulder. After losing Briseis, the first thing he does is go to the beach and “many times stretching forth his hands he called on his mother.”[16] He then complains to her of what has happened[17] and provides a highly detailed, personalised account of events.[18] Later it is to her that he confides his pain at Patroclus’ death.[19] Achilles’ and Thetis’ intimacy is emphasised throughout the poem, but it comes with a sense that Achilles is a little spoilt. He is quick to grow impatient with his mother: “since you know why must I tell you all this?”[20]

Hector’s relationship with Hecuba, though her grief demonstrates that it was deeply loving, seems somehow more formal. He refuses the drink she offers politely, addressing her as “my honoured mother” and excusing himself on religious grounds.[21] This respect is clearly mutual, as she obeys when he tells her to go and make sacrifice to Athene.[22] Obedience between mothers and sons is a complex issue in the Iliad. Hecuba demonstrates that mothers are to obey their adult sons, and yet it is Achilles who obeys Thetis when she tells him to hand over Hector’s body.[23] Thetis, of course, has added authority because she’s a goddess and is acting on Zeus’ command. Thetis’ divinity makes her relationship with Achilles in many ways a special case.

The Iliad also provides models for the ideal mother’s attitudes towards her son. One of the chief characteristics of this is the mother’s putting the son before herself. Thetis is more than willing to humble herself in supplication[24] to Zeus for Achilles’ sake. Andromache’s putting Astynax first is reflected in the structure of her sentences when pleading with Hector. She says: “You have no pity / on your little son, nor on me,”[25] and begs him: “Stay here on the rampart, / that you may not leave your child an orphan, your wife a widow.”[26] In both instances, she refers to Astynax before herself. Another characteristic of the mother’s attitude towards the son in the Iliad is her sense of maternal pride. Thetis’ expressions of this are particularly moving: “the bitterness in this best of child-bearing, / since I gave birth to a son who was without fault and powerful… and I nurtured him, like a tree grown in the pride of the orchard.”[27] This maternal pride is tragic rather than joyful, since the mothers in the Iliad all see their sons killed or left fatherless by the Trojan War.

Finally, I would like to discuss the way in which a woman’s identity in the Iliad is largely based upon her male relatives, including sons. For this reason, a mother is dependent upon her son, even after he has grown up and ceased to be dependent upon her. In a sense, Astynax is so important to Andromache because, after Hector’s death, he is all the family she has. Hecuba describes Hector as “my glory in the town:”[28] the son determines the mother’s social identity, her status, and thus affects her interactions with everyone in her life. Crotty goes so far as to say that the Homeric woman is merely “a part of the warrior’s tragic conception of himself.”[29]

In conclusion, then, sons are an enormously significant part of the lives of the mothers of the Iliad. The sons’ appearance and behaviour affect the mother’s identity and how she is perceived by others. Mothers wholly share in their sons’ difficulties and sorrows, and help practically whenever they can. They have a strong sense of maternal pride and frequently put their sons before themselves. Sons, in return, treat their mothers with affection and respect. This state of affairs in the world of the Iliad gives us an idea of what may have been expected or encouraged in mothers and sons in Classical Greece and Rome, since the Iliad was so fundamental in their canon of literature.

Word Count: 1304


Crotty, K. (1994) The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Lattimore, R. (trans.) (1951) The Iliad of Homer, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Silk, M. (2004) Homer: The Iliad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wilcock, M. (1976) A Companion to the Iliad, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[1] Silk, Homer: The Iliad, p. 62.
[2] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 68. (1.413 )
[3] Ibid. (1.413-8 )
[4] Ibid, p. 377 (18.94-6 )
[5] Ibid, p. 365 (17.409)
[6] Ibid, p.209 (9.410-6)
[7] Ibid, p.376 (18.34-7)
[8] Ibid. (18.61-2 )
[9] Ibid, p. 68 (1.360-1 )
[10] Ibid, p. 448 (22..484-5 )
[11] Ibid. (22.486-507 )
[12] Ibid, p. 494 (24..726-39 )
[13] Ibid, p. 68 (1.419-27 )
[14] Ibid. (1.496-7)
[15] Ibid, p. 378-9 (18.136-44 )
[16] Ibid, p. 68 (1.351 )
[17] Ibid, (1.352-6)
[18] Ibid, p. 69-70 (1.366-412)
[19] Ibid, p. 377 (18.78-93)
[20] Ibid, p. 68 (1.365)
[21] Ibid, p. 160 (6.264-8)
[22] Ibid, p. 160-1 (6.269-312)
[23] Ibid, p. 478-9 (24.137-40)
[24] Ibid, p. 72 (1.500-10 )
[25] Ibid, p. 164 (6.407-8 )
[26] Ibid, p. 164 (6.431-2 )
[27] Ibid, p. 376 (18.54-7 )
[28] Ibid, p. 446 (22.433 )
[29] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 86.