The Celtic Twilight: 100%

View from our Dublin hotel room, at the end of May 2019. It was nearly 10pm, a much later twilight than I am accustomed to in Southern latitudes.

So, I finished W.B. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight on my Serial Reader app a few weeks ago, but haven’t had the opportunity to share anything about it until now.

Overall, it was a mostly fun and light-hearted read, especially after slogging through ALL The Canterbury Tales. While most of The Tales felt undeniably real, the essays in The Celtic Twilight had an ephemeral quality to them. Case in point, in “The Friar’s Tale,” the devil in his green suit seemed like someone I could easily meet today. The faeries and “Sidhe” that Yeats wrote about felt as shimmery and fleeting as you’d expect such otherworldly creatures to be.

A few noteworthy items I took from The Celtic Twilight:

  • Yeats wrote about Ben Bulben, a mountain in County Sligo: “…the mountain in whose side the square white door swings open at nightfall to loose the faery riders on the world.” I love this idea. If I ever return to Ireland, I would love to go hiking there.
  • In an essay entitled “Dreams That Have No Moral,” Yeats lays out a rambling history of a young man named Jack and a series of giants who cry, “Fee-faw-fum, I smell the blood of an Irishman.” A little different from how I learned Jack’s story, and this tale had no beanstalk.
  • I’ll wrap this up with my favorite quote from The Celtic Twilight:

“Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear.”

Chaucer and Virginia Woolf

London was one thing they had in common. Photo by Hugo Sousa on Unsplash

So, I finished all The Canterbury Tales. And I did watch A Knight’s Tale again. Here are a few concluding thoughts:

  • The paperback version of Canterbury Tales had the following comment from Virginia Woolf regarding Chaucer (she was the only female amongst 21 commenters): “Chaucer was a poet; but he never flinched from the life that was being lived at the moment before his eyes. A farmyard, with its straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and its pigs of mythological origin. . . . He will tell you what his characters wore, how they looked, what they ate and drank, as if poetry could handle the common facts of this very moment of Tuesday, the sixteenth day of April, 1387, without dirtying her hands.” (from The Common Reader)
  • I love this idea of poetry handling the everyday “without dirtying her hands.” It made me think of another quote from Virginia Woolf, one of my favorites: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” While I’m sure there are plenty of valid arguments to the contrary, I have found a certain personal truth to the statement. As long as writing fiction is not my sole livelihood, I feel a sense of freedom in it, whose absence might be suffocating.
  • Finally, in re-watching A Knight’s Tale, I had a better understanding of one of my favorite lines from the movie. It comes from Paul Bettany’s Chaucer: “I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every pimple, every character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.” He says this to a pardoner and a summoner, neither of whom come off very well in the Tales.

All of this has had the effect of softening my memory of the experience of reading all The Canterbury Tales. Even if my only takeaway is a deeper knowledge of the state of our world over 600 years ago, I consider myself richer for that insight.

The Canterbury Tales: 82%

I’m on track to finish Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales via my Serial Reader app in just about a week’s time, so this is likely my last post regarding the collection of 14th century stories.

It’s been a slog, I have to admit. Serial Reader contains all the tales, including several that were omitted from the paperback version Tim and I have been sharing. I can understand the choice to omit. One tale in particular, “The Tale of Melibeus,” felt particularly long and boring. The teller of this tale is the narrator himself, named, coincidentally (or not), Chaucer. The whole thing is a drawn-out dialogue between Melibeus and his wife, Prudence, as she tries to convince him to take her advice regarding a matter of revenge against his rivals. I swear, she has to mention Solomon at least a hundred times. Yes, the Solomon from the bible, the guy who advised splitting a baby in two.

The tales all seem filled with biblical and medieval religious references. Two particular ones were recently familiar to me, meaning, I’ve encountered them in the past year or so (and not during my own ancient school days). They are both from “The Monk’s Tale,” another story that’s not in our paperback. It’s basically a laundry list of mighty folks through the ages who have fallen when fortune takes a turn against them.

  1. In recounting how Belshazzar of Babylon met his fate, “mene, mene, tekel” popped up. I wrote about this in a post last year: The Writing on the Wall. A quick recap of that post — it’s about this phrase’s original meaning, how Belshazzar had been weighed and measured by God, found wanting, and his kingdom would be divided. And how the phrase is referenced in Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and, perhaps not surprisingly, in the movie A Knight’s Tale.
  2. There’s a bit about Ugolino, Count of Pisa, and how he and his children starved to death while imprisoned. But it gets more gruesome when Dante’s Inferno is referenced. Dante’s fiction puts Ugolino in the second circle of hell with his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri, the one who supposedly caused his starvation in real life. In Inferno, Ugolino gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull for all eternity. I remember this reference in The Count of Monte Cristo, it comes up when Edmond Dantes is held at Chateau d’If, before he meets Abbe Faria.

So, bottom line, I feel like I’m getting a better understanding of a lot of ancient stories and their contexts. And that feels worthwhile. But I’ll also be happy to take a break from all this heaviness soon.

Maybe it’s time to watch A Knight’s Tale again.

The Canterbury Tales: 50%

So, I’m about halfway through Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales on my Serial Reader app. And this time, Tim is reading along, not on Serial Reader, but via the tome featured in the picture above. Kind of a summer reading project for us both. A few observations thus far:

  • The hard copy book features both the original Middle English text and the translation to Modern English. The Middle English is pretty cool to look at, and it’s also pretty cool that The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the first works of prose to be composed in English. (Or maybe not prose, but poetry. In any event, I think Chaucer was among the first to take the type of stuff written in French and Latin at the time, and write it in English.)
  • The Canterbury Tales was unfinished when Chaucer died. (And, interesting fact, he died 40 years before the printing press was invented.) There’s no way to determine how he meant the finished work to appear. I’ve discovered that the order and inclusion of the individual tales varies, depending on the version you’re reading.
  • So far, I’m not loving the subject matter. Murderous in-laws cast a poor woman out to sea (“The Man of Law’s Tale”), there’s unthinkable spousal emotional abuse (“The Clerk’s Tale”), and, spoiler alert, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” ends with a rapist living happily ever after. I realize times were different 600 years ago, but that doesn’t make the cruelty any more palatable. In fact, it offers some unsettling insight into our human history.
  • All this leads me to prefer to think of Chaucer more like Paul Bettany’s portrayal of him in the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale. It’s wildly anachronistic, but the character’s eloquence, motivations, and overall humanity are worthy of 21st century admiration.