King Charles

On 27 March 1625, King James I of England (and VI of Scotland) died. On 3 April 1625, the Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne delivered a sermon in memory of the former King, and in honour of the new King Charles. Only today, as the Service of Prayer and Reflection for Queen Elizabeth II at St Paul’s is about to start, do I realise the monumental significance of the moment which Donne was witnessing and in which he participated.

In this sermon, Donne focusses on foundations and on building. “The Commonwealth, the State, the Kingdom is a House”, Donne states. The death of a monarch shakes the foundations of that house, and today have many of us (most of us who do not recollect any other monarch of Britain than Queen Elizabeth II) realised the momentous shift that is taking place at such a moment.

John Donne had witnessed another monumental shift a quarter of a century earlier, with the death of the previous Queen Elizabeth in 1603. Then the Elizabethan era had been replaced by the Stuarts, yet of the same Tudor line through the eldest daughter of the first Tudor King, Henry VII. In 1625, the transition was politically more peaceful, with the crown passing to the son of King James. Then, too, like today, a King Charles was ascending the throne.

While deeply saddened by the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I find solace in the way the circle is closing once again. After all, this royal family carries the same Tudor/Stuart legacy as the Queen and Kings of Donne’s time. There is “a faithfulnesse required in every man”, Donne states in his sermon to King Charles in 1625, “in all the house of God, not in any one roome; a disposition required to doe good to the whole Church of God every where, and not onely at home.” Today’s world requires an openness, an inclusiveness, and a sensitivity, which the new generations of the royal family will surely master with grace – or with “a promise with destiny kept”, as expressed by King Charles III, referring to his mother and predecessor in his first public speech as monarch today.

God bless Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, may she rest in peace. God save the King.

In what torne ship soever I embarke, / That ship shall be my embleme of thy Arke;”

— John Donne, “A Hymne to Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany” (1619)

(The image is of HMY Britannia, in which HM Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Helsinki in May, 1976.)

Good Friday

Easter and Passover are of the times of year when historical and scientific explanations seek to find ways to support, or contradict, magic and faith. Numerous documentaries are aired on Western television during the holidays, with the purpose to see the Judeo-Christian narrative within the context of historical evidence and scientific proof. Validity and belief lock horns. Religious texts are set against historical documents and tried through scientific process. When could the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn really have created the illusion of a great star? What was the role of Egypt, for the people of Judea, and for the family of the carpenter Joseph? What did Caesar Augustus really decree? What was the plan of Herod? – What happened that Easter around AD 33 in Jerusalem?

The twilight zone between the two parties of the debate is the vast semantic field of the metaphor. Ancient prophesies can turn into substantial future events, or they can be seen realised in symbolic form. The “great light” (Isaiah 9:2) can be searched as a great “star in the east” (Matthew 2:2), or as illumination on a broader scale. Where the blood of a slaughtered lamb as a sign on the door-post saves from illness and the death of the oldest child (Exodus 12:6–11), the blood of the metaphorical sacrificial lamb keeps returning as a life-giving force in Christian narrative thousands of years later.

The poet John Donne (1572–1631), together with the other Metaphysical poets, developed the art of the poetic conceit into the most prominent composition of prophecy, metaphor and image. On Good Friday 1613 (then, too, on the 2nd of April, like this year), Donne returns to one of his most favoured puns, expanding and exploding it into a most profound Christian metaphor – and into a rather intriguing philosophical image. While riding Westward, Donne writes, were he to turn around and face East, he “should see a Sunne, by rising set, / And by that setting endlesse day beget;” (ll. 11–12). The sun rises from the east, yet this is also where, in the narrative of the Christian Donne, the Son on God is raised on the cross to his death; by dying, then, he is creating everlasting day — life — to mankind. While the full interpretation of redemption and mercy is restricted to a Christian reading, the ”Cosmographers” (whom Donne tempts in another poem, ”Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse”, l. 7) must find the image rather ingenious, too.

* The quotations, as well as the image of the poem, are from the 1921 edition of Herbert J.C. Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of The Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press), the centenary of which is celebrated this year as one of the key inspirations for the revival of Donne and the other Metaphysical poets for the modern reader.

“Vaggad till ro…” — om körsång i pandemitiden

Kören sitter utspridd i det stora, höga kyrkorummet. Vi sitter inte bredvid varandra, vi rör inte vid varandra. Med munskydd och social distans försöker vi skydda oss själva och varandra. Ändå ger körsången en social närvaro som inte kan raderas av ett undangömt leende eller av tomma stolar och bänkrader mellan oss. Det är annorlunda än förr, men också lika. Akustiken i kyrkan gör att vi hör varandra ändå, kan sjunga tillsammans ändå, kan göra gemensam musik ändå.

Men jag hör också mig själv lite mera nu, på gott och ont. Jag får lov att jobba lite mera. Jag är mera lyhörd att korrigera — en ton, ett intervall, en fras. Tyget framför ansiktet följer mina andetag, och jag är mer uppmärksam på när och hur jag andas inom sångens rytm.

Jag koncentrerar mig också mera på texten nu. Jag hör mitt uttal, hur vokalen låter, var konsonanten i slutet av frasen ska placeras. Texten kryper närmare, betydelsen markeras, orden vaknar till liv.

Tiden stannar upp lite då. Jag hinner urskilja detaljer i musiken, lägga märke till tonspråk, dröja kvar vid en språkbild. Körövningen blir till en meditation av text och ton. Musiken vilar i ett fermat, stämmorna möts på ett ackord, bildar en gemensam klang men förverkligar ändå varje enskild föreställning om sången.

Jag kommer att tänka på den engelska poeten John Keats (1795–1821) som i sin “Ode till en grekisk urna” (1819) beskriver föremålets skönhet och betydelse. Keats fascineras av hur bilden på den grekiska urnan för alltid stannat i stunden och aldrig kan förintas. “En ohörd melodi mer skönhet har / än den vi kan förnimma”, skriver Keats och uppmuntrar musikanterna på urnans blanka yta: “spela på, / o stumma flöjt, en sång så underbar / av tystnad, som blott själen kan förstå”. Trots att körsången i kyrkan inte är stum, känner jag att den är på samma sätt utspänd i tid och rum, och alla klockorna har stannat.

Det är annorlunda att sjunga i kör i pandemitiden, speciellt nu i väntan på julen när så mycket av det traditionella firandet också kommer att se annorlunda ut. Hela världen rör sig lite långsammare, lite försiktigare. Vi är oroliga, kanske rädda. Då är det skönt att kunna vila i musiken, sakta ner i den trygga enskildhet som uppstår i den delade tonen och texten. Gemenskapen är annorlunda — och ändå så lika.

Melodin ljuder kvar inom mig när jag går hem, en fras följer mina steg och upprepas om och om igen i den mörka kvällen. ”…att den största kärlek vi skåda må.”

* John Keats, “Ode till en grekisk urna” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”, raderna 11–14, svensk översättning av Gunnar Harding, ur Texter: från Sapfo till Strindberg, 2006, red. Claésson, Fyhr & Hansson, Lund: Studentlitteratur, s. 912).

“this crown of prayer”

Or, The day of a Donne scholar in the age of corona: a university lecturer applying 21st-century methods of distance learning to early modern poetry


In the mornings, my worries are technical: will the program work, will the video contact and sound work, can I hear the students, can they hear me? We gather around our computers, with a variety of domestic scenes in the background, sometimes a family member, or a pet, passing through the room. The students tend to be more computer savvy than me, but then that is hardly surprising; I try to create an atmosphere of inquisitiveness and learning with text, in a situation where I cannot meet my students in class. Four-hundred years ago, John Donne (1572–1631) asked, in one of his Holy Sonnets: “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

During my coffee break, my mind is concerned with first-world problems: the trips I had planned to take, the concerts I had wanted to attend, an exhibition I really had wanted to see. I am annoyed by the inconvenience to my every-day life, and to my selective life-style. What if the world changes for good now? What if I can never again travel and move freely, like I am used to. Donne envisions his world that has expanded considerably just recently: “West and East / In all flatt Maps… are one”.  Yet, what if this is the end of life as we know it? “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

In the twilight, I think of family and friends: the luncheons and coffees planned, the book waiting to be returned, and the one I had promised to lend. Now, we are asked not to touch, not to shake hands, only to meet through the safety of windows, and the telephone. Donne writes: “But glasse, and lines must bee / No meanes our firme substantiall love to keepe…” Yet, we are forced to social distancing that challenges our social needs. — I also think of academic conferences: grateful for the ones that I attended, sorry for those now cancelled. After all the digital prowess I have developed recently (and much faster than I would ever have believed), these encounters really require face-to-face presence. Only in a random conversation during the lull in a busy conference-schedule did that project come about, was that book planned, did those great minds think alike. “Learning were safe; in this our Universe…” But what about now? “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

In the darkness of the night, I fear for the health and life of loved ones, and of myself: we have not experienced this kind of a world-wide plague in our life-time. I think of the sweating sickness of the Tudor era, of the relapsing fever endured by John Donne, of the Spanish flu that killed my great-grandmother and the twins she was carrying. “Tis the yeares midnight…” They, too, were filled with fear, and for all our health insurance and western medicine, so are we. While the vernal equinox has passed, dawn is still hours away. “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

Westminster Abbey, London; at night

*All references to Donne’s poetry are from the John T. Shawcross edition (1967).


Six months ago I visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. I had been to Scotland before, and I am especially familiar with its regal history. But it was only on this latest visit to the royal Scottish residence, at a time of looming Brexit, that the historical heritage involved in present-day politics struck me the hardest.

As a Tudor scholar, I am greatly invested in the history of the marriage of the first Tudor Princess, Margaret (1489–1541), to King James Stewart IV of Scotland (1473–1513). The purpose of the union was to create perpetual peace on the isles, and although this peace was hard to attain at first, it was nevertheless a powerful move toward the union of the crowns.

The story of Margaret’s granddaughter, Mary Stuart (1542–67), and Elizabeth Tudor (1533–1603) (rekindled again last year in a spectacular albeit not quite historically accurate film), is often portrayed merely as a tragic history of two monarchs fighting for power. Yet, it is much due to the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots (and once also Queen of France) and Queen Elizabeth I of England that events eventually led to the Stuart succession on the English throne in 1603. A century later, this resulted in uniting the two countries into one kingdom, making Britain truly great.

Unions are formed and resolved with time, that is a historical reality. However, change is never easy, and it is always both an uncertainty and a challenge. Without any reference to modern-day politics as such, on the eve of possible Brexit, this change will affect the union which was the ancient Arthurian dream of the Tudors and which cost the Stuarts so much bloodshed before their final peaceful accession. If Brexit breaks that union, it is this late-Medieval dream of a shared future that is breaking. And my heart.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, March 2019

English Studies in/for the World

(One of the great challenges of the Humanities is to increase the awareness of these different disciplines in today’s increasingly economics- & technology-based world: to show why the different studies in Faculties of Arts are elemental to the well-being of society, to the development of civilization, and to the survival of humankind. The following text is based on my deliberation on this, mostly in two presentations earlier this term, from the point of view of my own vocation in language and literature in general, and in English studies in particular.)

English is a world language, a lingua franca of the Internet, of popular culture, and of much of international politics. In the western world, English is often an expected and presumed second-language skill whatever the native language(s) of a country. In a number of contexts, English has reached the status of the the designated language of communication (e.g. in civil aviation). These are choices of safety, practicality, and circumstance.

In a world with this language set-up then, what is the role of academic English studies?

All language study is study of communication, of people’s minds and of their emotions. In the English-speaking world today, we need to study and understand phenomena like Brexit, Backstop, and “fake news”, and, on an even larger scale, we need to work through challenges like nationalism, prejudice, and environmental issues. This is why we study language.

Furthermore, the academic study of languages is more than the study of contemporary language. In the case of English, it is the study of a language in the continuum of centuries of Judeo-Christian western tradition. In order to understand the language of today, we need to study the language of the past, and the literature created in that language, by the writers who saw the world change, and sometimes made that change happen. “Study our manuscripts, those Myriades / Of letters, which have past twixt thee and mee, / Thence write our Annals, [—]” prompts the poet John Donne (1572–1631) in one of his poems.*

Taking John Donne as an example, then: He lived in the London of Renaissance Humanism, harbouring the legacy of his great-uncle and the friend of Erasmus, Sir Thomas More (1478–1535); he suffered, and later embraced, the aftermath of the English Reformation; and he saw the Elizabethan era come to an end and the Tudor rule turn into the reign of the Stuarts that eventually open the way to the creation of the United Kingdom.

John Donne was also involved and interested in the exploration of and travel in the new world(s): he partook in naval campaigns with men like the Earl of Essex (1565–1601) and Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618); he was highly intrigued by the expedition of the Virginia Company; and he had a great personal engagement with the work of Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). All these expansions of the known world — and of the mind of man — are reflected in Donne’s language and writings.

In the English-speaking world of today, we need to study writers like John Donne — as well as other writers of other eras — in order to find out how the world we know was formed and why. By understanding how the people were thinking and why they made their choices, we can make sense of where and who we are in England and in Europe today. Other scholars do the same in other languages and for other cultures. Together, eventually, we can hopefully make the future a better place.

* “Valediction on the booke” (ed. John T. Shawcross, 1967)

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 the English poet, 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.