In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle heads off to medieval America and the world of the sagas
Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, when he landed on mainland North America, thus sparking the colonisation of the continent by the Europeans.
This is the mainstream conception, and it’s entirely wrong. Columbus never landed on the mainland of the continent we now call North America. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have been the first European to do so. European settlement in North America had first occurred almost half a millennium before Columbus was even born. In around the year 1000, a group of Icelandic explorers made a series of journeys along the northern rim of the Atlantic, and attempted to found a colony somewhere along the Atlantic seaboard of the continent of North America, probably somewhere around what is now Newfoundland and the Gulf of St Lawrence. Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a classic poem about England
‘Oh, to be in England’: the opening line of Robert Browning’s poem praising England while abroad has become more famous than the poem’s actual title, ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’. Before we proceed to an analysis of the poem’s language and meaning, here’s a reminder of it.
Home-Thoughts, from Abroad
Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now! Read the rest of this entry
Classic poems about long flowing locks and keepsakes
Poets and hair: now that would make for an interesting literary study. There’s Lord Byron, of course, who, when he received requests from admiring young women for a lock of his hair, would send them some hair snipped from his dog. But many poets (Byron included) have written poems in praise of hair, or about the beauty of hair. Here are ten of the best poems on a hairy theme.
Gwerful Mechain, Cywydd y Cedor (‘Ode to Pubic Hair’). We begin our rundown of the greatest hair poems in fifteenth-century Wales: Gwerful Mechain was a Welsh-language poet who, after the eighteenth-century Ann Griffiths, is probably the most famous female poet to have written in the Welsh language. In this poem, as the blog Rejected Princesses summarises it, ‘she criticizes men for praising the other parts of a woman’s body, but not the genitalia. She declares herself “of great noble stock,” urges poets to “let songs about the quim circulate,” and ends by saying “lovely bush, God save it.”’ What more incentive do you need to read on?
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 68. Sometimes known as Shakespeare’s ‘wig sonnet’, this poem has been described by the poet Don Paterson in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets as ‘a tirade against wigs, by a baldie’, who goes on to note, ‘as much as some commentators would prefer it were otherwise, this is mainly a poem about wigs.’ In this sonnet, Shakespeare praises the Fair Youth’s beauty – and his fair hair – for its authenticity, harking back to a time before dead people’s hair was snipped off and plonked on the bald heads of the living. Read the rest of this entry