Scholars in the Cloud(s)

Flying back from yet another scholarly conference overseas, I am struck by the specific power of learned discourse and academic camaraderie experienced at these meetings. There is a particular attraction in gathering into a room, listening to papers presented, engaging in vivid conversation about a detail, and elaborating a point late into the night. It seems, somehow, that the nature of scholarship in the Arts, is one of real-life (RL) communication: of chairs gathered around in a hasty circle, of sketches of thought and interrupted sentences, and of real eye-contact. These add to the intellectual discourse of our daily lives, and make us return home refreshed, enthusiastic, and renewed.

The emphasis of this latest conference was on the digital aspects of research and teaching in the Humanities, and we ended up (courtesy of the polar vortex) with even more digital encounters than we had initially planned. In one of these encounters we learned that the digital beginnings of our flagship project in the 1980s had been nothing short of groundbreaking. Ever increasingly today, scholars in the Humanities benefit greatly from the tools provided by digital resources. The possibilities of analysing old texts with amazing new methods, making searches on the computer in seconds (rather than spending months in the library), and sharing the findings to colleagues around the world without anyone leaving their study — all this opens up countless new scenarios for research and collaboration. The magic of seeing a fragile, centuries-old text opening up for detailed delibertion on a high-resolution screen is a true time-machine.

Although sometimes drawn to more traditional forms of research, and perhaps wary to meet the challenges presented by those sciences more readily heeding to the calls of efficiency and profit, we need to employ all the available methods to engage in the core purpose of the Humanities: to find out were we come from and who we are as human beings, and to show how to make the future a better place. This latest conference clearly showed the power of digital tools and methodologies for developing our research. At the same time, it is in these personal encounters, in far-away conference venues and on the road to and from distant airports, that our passion is born and our excitement can grow. It is in the twilight zone of jet-lag and in the secret gardens between time-zones that scholars of literature — of the language and communication between people, peoples, and over the centuries — set the foundation for a future of kindness, of tolerance, and of peace. Nothing less.

Memories in Stone

There is a border town in a neighbouring country, a town that up until the end of WWII was the second largest city in my native country. Today, it is foreign land, a venue for short trips and historical excursions, slipping day by day further into the life and routines of new generations of its new inhabitants. Other people call this home now.

Solid medieval walls and towers have endured centuries of possession and battle, winters of snow, and pale summer nights. Their rough surface carries the memories of our tradition, of my country. Perhaps even more poignant are the buildings completed in the 1930s, just before the war, built for a purpose they hardly had time to fulfil before being left behind the new border. Letters and patterns carved in stone, suggesting a trade, representing a company, or celebrating an architect, talk about the future that never came. Whenever I visit the town now, I am not visiting the foreign country, really. Rather, I am taking a trip back in time, searching for traces of days past, looking for that which once was, listening for the sound of my grandmother’s footsteps. Touching the cold stone walls, I close my eyes, and the birds sing in my native language once again.

I am reminded of Rupert Brooke (1887—1915), who in his poem ”The Soldier” envisages a moment when he may fall in battle on foreign soil and remain buried there. Then, Brooke envisions, there will be ”some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England”. The presence of the bones of the fallen soldier will mark the land as part of his homeland, forever. (Rupert Brooke did indeed die on a military expedition heading for battle in the Mediterranean, and he is buried on a Greek island.)

In the same way, these walls and buildings are casualties of war, too, left behind the foreign border, buried in foreign soil. These forts and towers make that corner of the foreign land, in our hearts, forever also ours. Underneath the stone surface, beats the warm heart of my tradition, my past, and my soul. Perhaps this town, with the hopes of its new inhabitants, intertwined with the tender memories of another people’s past, can carry ”[h]er sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; / And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, / In hearts at peace, …” *

* Rupert Brooke: “The Soldier” (1914)

Two World Leaders

In June 1520, two young European monarchs, King Henry VIII of England (1492–1547) and King Francis I of France (1494–1547) met at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, an area between English and French territory on the Continent. The summit was largely orchestrated by King Henry’s close advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1478–1530), and it was one of the early attempts to create a political European brotherhood to ensure peace and prosperity to all parties.

This was a stately affair. The two monarchs were rising European Renaissance princes, known for their learnedness and art as well as skills in both diplomacy and combat. Wherever a king went, on progress or for a political encounter, streets were closed, houses were taken over by the royal entourage, people gathered by the road cheering, some protested – and it was always an honour to be associated with the king, in one way or another.

William Shakespeare’s (1564–1616) play King Henry VIII (1613) gives us an account of the events in the words of the Duke of Norfolk, who refers to the encounter as a “view of earthly glory” continuing that:

“… The two kings,
Equal in lustre, were now best, now worst,
As presence did present them; him in eye,
Still him in praise: and, being present both
‘Twas said they saw but one; and no discerner
Durst wag his tongue in censure. When these suns—
For so they phrase ’em—by their heralds challenged
The noble spirits to arms, they did perform
Beyond thought’s compass; …”

(Act I, scene i)

The two glorious monarchs were later known for other things than youth and splendour. (Francis suffered a number of military setbacks, and Henry carried his duty to fulfil his Tudor legacy to the verge of tyranny.) But the meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold was a significant signpost for European policy and political mind-set at the time. Different accounts and interpretations of the final outcomes of the meeting have been presented in chronicles and histories, and the attempt for further European liaison, and even for world peace, has been an endeavour ever since the days of King Henry and King Francis. Each age will decide the significance of each individual encounter. So also, eventually, of the Helsinki Summit of today.

I wonder, though, how much we have learned from the past, and how history will eventually report this latest meeting. Watching the black carcades drive towards the summit venue under a warm Helsinki sun today, nearly five-hundred years after the event in France, I recall the words of the Duke of Norfolk/Shakespeare on the first encounter of the two Renaissance princes:

“I … saw them salute on horseback;
Beheld them, when they lighted, how they clung
In their embracement, as they grew together;
Which had they, what four throned ones could have weigh’d
Such a compounded one?”

Two leaders, in their unity worthier than four kings. Quite a challenge.

King Henry VIII, by an unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist (c. 1535–40), painting possibly originally in the possession of Henry’s personal chaplain Anthony de Bellasis, displayed to show loyalty to the monarch in times of religious and political turmoil. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Princesses and Generals

I am of the generation of women who have seen their princesses turn into generals — or, well, at least one: Princess Leia. In the Star Wars films of my youth, Princess Leia was very much the damsel in distress, albeit a sassy and outspoken one, rescued in turn by her brother Luke Skywalker and by the rogue Han Solo (and sometimes rescuing them back). Seeing the character then enter the scene decades later as the down-to-earth and unobtrusive, yet authoritative and respected General Organa, leader of the galactic resistance movement, with life, experience, and pain clearly visible in her expression, was a powerful narrative moment.

The Star Wars saga is a violent story of interstellar war, of good vs. evil, of heroes and witty droids fighting stormtroopers, dark lords and destruction. As such it is a classic narrative, not unknown to any genre from the Bible to Medieval ballads, from Renaissance drama to post-modern fantasy. While war is traditionally a male topic (and not a topic endorse as such, I may add), yet, the development of this one science-fictional female protagonist gives me pause. The Princess who became General.

This plot, however, is not unprecedented in fiction — nor is it unparalleled in history. In the genre of the early English novel we meet heroines who mature from princesses (or rather: young society girls) into strong, independent women making their own choices. With Jane Austen (1775–1817), for example, we far too often focus on the female protagonist’s pursuit to marry – preferably well and for love. But if we look to the continuum of Austen’s writing, from her early juvenilia and her first published titles, to her latter three novels, we can see how she eventually develops her heroine into a woman mindful of the social structures of her time (Mansfield Park, 1814), searching for her place in the world (Emma, 1815/16), finally finding herself beyond the choices made for her by others (Persuasion, 1818). Although it may seem that the victories of even these later Austen heroines are ultimately mostly romantic and thus perhaps trivial in the larger scheme of things, yet, set in the social context of the times, the manner in which these victories were achieved was indeed revolutionary. (And, to be fair, also Princess Leia gets her prince in Han Solo.)

On a professional level, Jane Austen had the good fortune to be born in a family that encouraged and supported her literary pursuits, but even then, becoming a published female author in late-18th-century England was not uncomplicated. Growing from a clergyman’s daughter with a vivid imagination and a gift for story-telling into one of the most influential female writers in England, Jane Austen shows, with her own example, what determination and resoluteness in pursuing your vision can do.

In English royal history, perhaps one of the most powerful tales of female endurance can be found in the legends of Eleanore of Aquitaine (1122–1204), Duchess in her own right and then queen, first of France, then of England. Having admittedly (and not unlike Princess Leia) inherited a title and wealth, which gave her a standing in life as well as made her the most eligible bride in Europe of the time, Eleanore also led armies and participated in crusades. Adventuring her life and freedom (and ending up imprisoned by the king for sixteen years), she took to arms to defend the legacy of her sons, and she lived to see and support two of them become kings.

What the story of General Leia Organa has in common with as well the fictional later Jane Austen heroines and both the celebrated author herself and the legendary Queen Eleanore, is showing that the true Force lies in perseverance, stamina, and faith. It is the perspective of time in each of these stories, be they fact or fiction, that helps us connect to the narrative and learn from the plot development. These women all had to struggle to follow their calling, and they may have come to share the conclusion that “God never gives us more than we can handle, so if He gives you a lot, take it as a compliment”* — and they all prevailed. Maybe these heroines, then, both fictional and real, can lead the way and show us that it is worth pursuing a dream and fighting for a cause, and that the tomorrow which we seek, whether in the area of love or labour, is out there to be reached — not only a long time ago, or in a galaxy far, far away…

Jane Austen (1775–1817), ‘The Beautifull Cassandra’, one of her first known stories, in Volume the First: autograph fair copy, 1793, MS. Don. e. 7, pp. 116–117, displayed at “Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared’, exhibition at Weston Library, Oxford, March 2018.

*Carrie Fisher (1956–2016), The Princess Diarist (2016), p. 245.

Ristin merkki

Pääsiäisen alla Kirkko ja kaupunki -median esittämä #silmätristissä-kuvahaaste herätti lukijat hahmottamaan ristin kuvia ympäristöstään. Kampanja oli kekseliäs ja ehkä hieman provosoivakin, onhan uskonnollisten tunnusmerkkien pitäminen esillä ja niistä puhuminen tullut nykyaikana yhä kyseenalaisemmaksi. Pohjoismaisessa kulttuurissa uskontoa on kauan pidetty jokaisen yksityisasiana, ja nyt haluamme mielellämme soveltaa samaa yksityisyyden periaatetta myös muualta tuleviin kansalaisiin ja heidän uskonnolliseen ilmaisuunsa. Samalla tämä periaate kääntyy meitä itseämme vastaan: Keskustelemme joka vuosi soveliaisuudesta järjestää koulujen perinteisiä joulu- ja kevätjuhlia; kauppaketju poistaa etelämaalaisesta mainoskuvasta kirkontornien ristit, suvaitsevaisuuden merkiksi.

Keskustelu ei kuitenkaan ole uusi. Samoin oli 1500-luvun lopun Englannissa. Vuosisatainen roomalaiskatolinen perinne oli saanut väistyä protestanttisen kuningattaren tieltä, ja puritaanisimmat kannattajat halusivat uuden kirkon kieltävän myös ristin kuvan ja ristinmerkin. Moni vangittiin ja tuomittiin sääntöjen rikkomisesta. Runoilija John Donne (1572–1631), joka oli syntyperältään katolinen, otti kantaa ristikeskusteluun. ”Kristus itse otti ristin kantaakseen; / kuinka minä saatan tämän kuvan kieltää?” Donne kysyi runossaan.*

Uskova näkee vakaumuksensa tunnusmerkit joka puolella maailmassaan. John Donne tietää tämän myös: ”Kuka voi kieltää minulta vallan ja vapauden / levittää käteni ja olla niin oma ristini?” Donne kysyy edelleen ja jatkaa kuvaamalla, kuinka uimari jokaisella vedollaan muodostaa ristin, kuinka linnut taivaalla liitävät ristin muodossa, kuinka koko maailma pituus- ja leveysasteineen (tämä oli uutta tiedettä Donne aikana) on toisinto ristin kuvasta. Donne ottaa runossaan jo neljäsataa vuotta sitten osaa #silmätristissä-kampanjaan.

Oma isoäitini oli herkkä merkeille maailmassa. Hän varoi visusti jättämästä aterimia, narunpätkiä tai tulitikkuja pöydälle ristiin — kuoleman merkiksi. (Tämä oli yleinen pahaenteinen uskomus hänen aikanaan. Minä kulutan ihmiselämän verran aikaa päästäkseni irti tuosta perimästäni taikauskosta.) Uskonnollisten merkkien voima on suuri, ehkä ne siksi pelottavat.

Mutta kuva ei kieltämällä katoa. ”Kuka voi peittää ristin, tuon, / jonka Jumala kasteessa minuun piirsi?” Donne kysyy. Samoin on kaikkien uskonmerkkien kanssa: pelkkä kuvan tai tunnusmerkin piilottaminen ei poista vakaumusta. Todellinen suvaitsevuus ja yhteisymmärrys voidaan saavuttaa ainoastaan hyväksymällä uskon rauhanomainen ilmaiseminen, jokaisen oman vakaumuksen tarinan kertominen. Uskon ulkoinen tunnusmerkki, oli se sitten riipus, päähine tai tapa tervehtiä vastaantulijaa, ei pohjimmiltaan ole ulkoinen uhka vaan sisäinen oman uskon vahvistus.

”Tämän ristin menetys / olisi minulle uusi risti,” John Donne sanoo runossaan ja jakaa samalla myös useiden eri uskoa tunnustavien nykyajan ihmisten tunteen. ”Mikään kärsimys, / mikään risti ei ole niin raskas, kuin olla sitä ilman.”

”Marttyyrien risti” kadussa Englannissa Oxfordin Broad Streetillä vuosina 1555–56 teloitetun kolmen protestanttisen piispan muistoksi.

*John Donnen runon ”The Crosse” lainaukset suomennettu tätä tekstiä varten (MS).

Poems and Science

While we often want to experience and discuss poetry and scientific phenomena in completely separate contexts, and indeed as far from each other as possible, there was a time when the twain did meet — and in doing so created the most moving and engaging verse imaginable.

This is the form of English verse that (in the words of Samuel Johnson almost two centuries later) was to be called Metaphysical poetry. The term refers to verse originating in the 1590s and, most specifically, with the poet John Donne (1572-1631). Other poets included in this group of writers are, most significantly, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, and Andrew Marvell.* Some scholars also include, for example, Thomas Carew, Abraham Cowley, and Richard Lovelace, as well as some earlier, pre-Metaphysical poets like Ben Jonson, Walter Raleigh — and even William Shakespeare.**

The common denominator for Metaphysical poetry is its strong focus on complex imagery and use of diligent linguistic precision. (In the terms of rhetoric, this is referred to as Metaphysical conceit.) The poets were learned men of intelligence, and of wit (another central term for this poetry), and they were eager to demonstrate their refinement through linguistic artfulness. The poems are primarily concerned with passion, or with God — or with combining temporal and celestial love; later, closer to the mid-17th-century and the revolution, political topics were introduced into the discourse. Strong lines resolutely carry the significance of meaning.

The imagery used in this poetry is always purposely rather far from the topic discussed, and the metaphors are elaborated upon extensively to create complex and multilayered constructions of meaning. The narrative is not complete without covering the entire semantic field of the image, on all levels of meaning. (For example, in one of his poems Donne presents a flea as the metaphor for an encounter where, on one level of reading, the love can be seen as romantic, pure affection, whereas, on another level, the content is highly erotic.)

Very often the Metaphysical conceit introduces imagery from the realm of exploration or scientific discovery. This was a world very new for the writers of the time, and the new worlds and universes presented endless possibilities for fantastic encounters — with oneself, with a lover, and with God. Donne frequently elaborates on the image of the sun rising and setting, and he uses it as a poignant homophonic metaphor for the son of God rising on the cross to die and setting in the grave to save mankind. Other metaphors include maps to new worlds, cosmological spheres — and, most famously perhaps, the drawing compass.

Here the Metaphysical poetry of the 1590s and the early 17th century meets the Science Fiction of today. In both genres the writers seem to employ the metaphors of the most developed thinking of their day, to reach to the limits of that understanding — and to venture beyond the known world. Writers in both eras and genres use the most elaborate research of their time as a springboard for their creative minds, and build new universes with which to illustrate the intricate workings of mans body, his mind, and his soul.

The ’Lothian Portrait’ of John Donne, c. 1595. National Portrait Gallery, London.

* See e.g. Joan Bennett, Five Metaphysical Poets (1964)
** See e.g. Helen Gardner, The Metaphysical Poets (1957)


De senaste veckorna har man igen några gånger kunnat se solen med något av en en ljuscirkel omkring, och på båda sidorna av den egentliga solen syns var sin, oftast mindre, reflektion. Det blir en uppenbarelse av tre solar, inte bara en. Och att solarna inte bara äger rum som spektriska fenomen på himlen ser man genom att samtliga ”solar” ofta också reflekteras till exempel i vattenytan, liksom en riktig sol. Fenomenet heter parhelion (också: vädersol) och det har en meteorologisk förklaring.

Men då det här fenomenet syntes på himlen i februari 1461, strax innan yorkisten Edvard skulle mötas i strid mot kung Henrik VI vid Mortimer’s Cross i västra England, fick det en mycket stor betydelse. Många hade sett det och man försökte sig på att tyda meningen med att naturen (eller Gud) visar tre solar i stället för en. (Sannolikt var reflektionerna större och starkare än de vi vanligen brukar se och de jag lyckats få på bild.) Man var då övertygad om att de ”tre solarna” representerade den helige treenigheten, och många ansåg att Gud så visade att han var på den unge Edvards sida. Och visst segrade Edvard och blev strax därpå kung Edvard IV av England.

Det tolkades vidare att de tre solarna också representerade de tre bröderna i familjen York (Edvard och hans yngre bröder George och Rikard), och att släkten York så skulle vinna rosornas krig. Framgången höll inte i sig så länge, men tecknet om ”the three suns/sons of York” lär nog ha hjälpt till seger en tid framöver.

William Shakespeare skriver om det meteorologiska fenomenet över hundra år senare i sin pjäs Konung Henrik den sjätte, tredje delen, då Edvard utropar:

”Hvad ser jag? Trenne solar där på himlen!”

Och den yngsta brodern Rikard svarar:

”Tre klara solar, en och hvar en hel;
Ej sönderskurna utaf lätta strömoln,
Men hvar för sig de stå på ljusblå himmel.
Se, se, de nalkas, kyssas, smälta hop,
Som om hvarann de svuro helig tro,
Och äro blott ett sken, ett ljus, en sol.
Med detta förebådar himlen något.”

(akt II, scen I, sv. övers. C.A. Hagberg, 1848).

Och visst känner historien till tre konungar York: Edvard IV, Edvard V och Rikard III. Trots Edvard IV:s (1461–83) segerrika strid och maktövertag fick han visserligen ge tillbaka tronen för en kort tid till Henrik VI under vintern 1470–71, men för det mesta var hans regi en framgång för landet. Sonen Edvard V (1483) var endast tolv år gammal då han ärvde tronen, och han hann aldrig bli krönt till kung. Trots det finns han med på samtliga förteckningen över engelska regenter. Efter att den unga konungen Edvard V och hans bror, den nioårige prins Rikard flyttat in på fästningen Towern i London och senare år 1483 spårlöst försvunnit, övertog Edvard V:s farbror och förmyndare Rikard av York makten. (Edvard IV:s andra bror George hade omkommit redan år 1478.)

Den yngsta av de tre bröderna York, Rikard, blev därmed kung Rikard III (1483–85) och den tredje ”son of York” på den engelska tronen. Rikard blev efter sitt korta styre ökänd för att ha varit både halt och oformad, och dessutom för att – så har man senare kommit till – fängslat och sedan mördat sina två brorssöner. Det vet dock ingen med säkerhet. Det som man nog vet är att Rikards korta tid vid makten var en tid då utbildning, välfärdsstöd och kyrka utvecklades starkt i England. Detta banade väg för den europeiska renässansen att verkligen blomstra i landet. Trots att dessa tre solar York slocknat skulle arvet efter deras sken med tiden leda upptäcktsresanden och sjöfarare i formandet av ett brittiskt imperium där solen aldrig gick ner.


(Texten är baserad på mitt välkomsttal till Sjunde januari soaréen på Riddarhuset i Helsingfors, lördagen den 20 januari 2018.)

Efter att ha lämnat Finlands självständighetsjubileumsår bakom oss, har landet ett annat hundraårsminne framför sig. Året 1918 är betydelsefullt i Finlands historia på många plan, och detta jubileum har också sina mörkare undertoner. En tid på hundra år gör att upplevelser och minnen har övergått i berättelser och historia. Just nu når en av dem oss speciellt nära: flera historieskrivningar tolkar att det var just för hundra år sedan, den 20 januari 1918 som kriget började i Viborg. Bara två veckor tidigare hade det troget hållits ”en musikalisk soirée med bal” i rådhussalen, en (fortfarande pågående) årlig välgörenhets- och kulturtradition. Det var en januarimånad med många olika känslor i Viborg. Året 1918 var på alla sätt ett motsatsernas årtal, ett motparternas och olika synsätts årtal — och framför allt var det ett årtal för olika berättelser. Händelserna i Viborg såväl som på andra håll i det nyligen självständiga Finland har under hundra år berättats från olika synpunkter i historieböcker och inom skönlitteraturen.

Så har historieskrivning alltid fungerat. Ofta har segrarna fått det sista ordet, men olika versioner av samma händelse eller samma historiska person kan ha uppkommit mycket tidigt. Ett bra 1400-talsexempel är den engelska kungen Rikard III (1452–85), som vi idag främst minns för hans vanskapta kropp, hans förlust mot Henrik Tudor i slaget på Bosworth Field samt att han troligen mördade ”prinsarna i Towern”. Under Rikards livstid beskrevs han dock som en ansvarsfull och samvetsgrann regent, och det var först historieskrivningen under Tudor-kungarnas tid som målade upp bilden av den grymma tyrannen. Den nya regimen måste backas upp av falska berättelser. Men ännu över hundra år senare fanns det också de som bar vidare en annan version av historia de ärvt.

Också när det gäller vår egen historia är det viktigt att vi är varsamma med våra berättelser. Vi måste minnas det goda utan att undangömma det onda. Utan det goda mister vi allt det värdefulla i vår historia, men utan det onda lär vi oss inte av våra misstag. Vi Viborgsvänner idag finns till för att hålla berättelsen om Viborg levande, att mötas i nuet för att knyta band mellan historia och framtid. De äldre delar med sig av sina minnen till de yngre, och det är framför allt för de yngre generationerna vi ska bära vårt Viborg vidare. De berättelser vi berättar om historiska händelser formar den bild vi har om varifrån vi kommer och vem vi är. Men framför allt hjälper de oss se mot hurdan framtid vi är på väg. Historia handlar inte bara om gårdagen; den hjälper oss se framåt, göra val och välja riktning. Förhoppningsvis hjälper den oss göra vår värld bättre, vänligare och tryggare.

Kung Rikard III (1452–85), National Portrait Gallery, London.


Victorian Christmas

When settling into the form that we now most closely associate with the quintessential Victorian novel, the aim of prose writing was to inform, delight, and move its audience (in the true vein of the docere, delectare and movere of classical rhetoric). After its by-ways via imaginative travel-narratives and Gothic ghost-tales, the novel had found its form of realistic description as well as historical, social, and moral, close-reading. This development gives us classics like Charles Dickens (1812–70), William Thackeray (1811–63), George Eliot (1819–80), and the Brontë sisters.

In their various narratives, all these authors sooner or later include Christmas scenes in their stories. True to the mission to educate and affect, the descriptions of the seasonal festivities are no strangers to the realities of the times in which they occur, and often the joy and expectations of Christmastide are purposefully contrasted with the less favourable circumstances of the life of lower or middle class Victorians. Like when “the merry Christmas bringing the happy New Year” reminds Lydgate all too well about the expectations of debts to be paid in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–72; chapter LXIV); or the efforts to acquire new clothes and food for little Georgy for Christmas in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847–48; chapter XLVI). Or when Cathy, in Emily Brontë’s (1818–48) novel, is arriving home to Wuthering Heights for Christmas, in an attire of “a grand plaid silk frock” (Wuthering Heights, 1847; chapter VII), strongly in contrast with her domestic environment; and when it is clear that Mr Pumblechook’s gift of a bottle of sherry and another of port to Mrs Joe (in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, 1860–61) is a generous gift at the humble home (chapter IV). Sometimes Christmas becomes a metaphor: For Charlotte Brontë’s (1816–55) protagonist a moment of loneliness and desolation is referred to as a “Christmas frost” and a “December storm” (Jane Eyre, 1847; chapter XXVI). And, of course, the Christmas-theme is epitomised in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” (1843), where a complete scenery of the goodness and evil of man is being portrayed before the reader in a fairy-tale-cum-ghost-story. In all these narratives, even the moments of joy include a reminder of the realities of every-day life.

The Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-94), too, seems to illustrate her pilgrimage to the manger in a setting of her own contemporary landscape. In the “bleak midwinter” where, “frosty wind made moan, / earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone”, she is asking: “What can I give him, poor as I am?” This poem survives as a well-known Christmas carol. Indeed, another Victorian legacy that we encounter each holiday season is the service of Nine Lessons and Carols. This service from the late 19th century, celebrating the birth of Christ and anchoring it to the Old Testament prophesies, survives in a variety of Christian denominations today.

The music and lyrics intertwined with the biblical texts of the carol service represent a mixture of tunes and texts from the medieval times onwards (and later even especially commissioned post-19th-century works and arrangements). At the same time, however, the service also gives us a special insight into the Victorian era. Like Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot and the Brontës, the texts of the carols, while telling the story of the nativity, also refer to the life of the Victorians. The “little town of Betlehem” with its “dark streets” could much more naturally be a scene in 19th-century London. Also, “the poor, and mean, and lowly” we encounter in “royal David’s city” may just as well have wandered the streets of London in the 1800s. For the Victorians, in devotional music as well as in literature, the celebration of Christmas is closely related to their own social circumstances.

Although originating in a stable more than two thousand years ago in Betlehem, Christmas has always been a festivity anchored in the here-and-now. In a carol service earlier this month (appropriately, as a memento of Victorian London, in the very church where Charles Dickens’s parents were married in 1809), the texts and sermon talk of Christmas today: they include John Betjeman’s (1906–84) poem contrasting Christmas shopping in London with the “most tremendous tale of all”, as well as poignant references to the on-going refugee crisis in the Middle-East and the especially topical discussion on the escalated situation in and about Jerusalem. These Christmas narratives of today all suggest that Christmas, as in times past, must be made happen every year all over again. In the words of the preacher of the service: “It is in this real world, not in a fantasy world, that Christmas is celebrated.” Like in Victorian London, or on the fictional pages of a great novel, Christmas challenges us, every year, all over again, to share “a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares” (Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”).

St Mary le Strand, London, venue of the Christmas Carol Service on 8th December 2017, address by the Revd Lucy Winkett.


When terror takes over, time and time again, and fear sweeps over city after city, our tomorrow never seems as safe as yesterday, anywhere. This year has been especially hard like that. Some incidents have us glued to the news reports and the internet; sometimes we barely have the strength to open the television. All these incidents make our world shudder, and they turn it into a darker place. At the same time, we know that we should not give in, should not let evil, hatred and fear win.  

When contemplating the untimely death of a young girl, John Donne (1572–1631), too, felt similar helplessness in the face of the events and the cruel world around him. “[W]hen thou knowest this,” he concludes three times in his despair:    

“Thou knowest how poore a trifling thing man is.
[—] Thou knowest how lame a cripple this world is.
[—] Thou knowest how ugly’a monster this world is”    

Every death, every violence, shakes us to the core, and we may, like Donne, see the world “a cripple” and “a monster” and resign to our own insufficiency. It feels that all we want to do is to hide and to protect our loved ones as best we can. Seems like the best thing to do.  

In 1529, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1478–1530) had to step down as Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII (1491–1547). His main successor as the king’s trusted advisor was Thomas Cromwell (1485–1540). In his play about Henry VIII (1613), William Shakespeare (1564–1616) gives Wolsey a moment to pause when leaving office, and Wolsey gives a long, moving speech to Cromwell. At the time of writing the play, more than eighty years after the event, Shakespeare already knew that the world Wolsey was leaving behind was to face turmoil and even terror, and Cromwell, too, was to meet a violent death. Yet, in the play, Shakespeare lets Wolsey instruct his follower – as well as the audience – on how to encounter the world:

Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee; 
Corruption wins not more than honesty. 
Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace, 
To silence envious tongues. Be just, and fear not:   

These are heavy challenges on a day when the news are again filled with violence and terror. Yet, even in hindsight, Shakespeare deemed it more productive to go with “honesty” and with “gentle peace” – and to encourage us to “fear not”.  


St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on the night of the terror attack on 22nd March 2017. 

* John Donne: “An Anatomy of the World”, ll. 183–4, 238, 326, ed. by John T. Shawcross, 1967; William Shakespeare: King Henry VIII, Act III, scene ii