Archive for May, 2012

I brought this book to read on a recent family trip to Provence, but my readaholic nephew purloined it. I thought that odd, but put it off to the fact we had few books in English. Now that I’ve read Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone, I see what hooked him. This is not a book about courtly love or pomp. This book roils with war, intrigue, the crusades, and the machinations of 13th-century medieval Europe. The queens (four daughters of the Count of Provence) are almost like chess pieces, married off to forge alliances between different fiefdoms. In turn, they become the queens of England, France, Germany, and Sicily. Reminder, they are queens, not pawns, and each manages to exert influence into the politics and wars of her realm.

Four Queens opens in 1219 with the marriage Raymond Berenger V, Count of Provence, to Beatrice of Savoy–the parents of the four queens to be. Provence was then one of many feudal territories vying for power and was technically allied to the Holy Roman Emperor (Frederick II off in Sicily) not to the then French king. France consisted mostly just of the environs around Paris, and the ‘king’ was more of a glorified count.

In fact, Raymond’s grandfather had also been a king, Alfonso II of Aragon (in Spain), and Raymond was the first of the line to rule Provence locally rather than from Aragon. I found this fascinating that Provence had closer ties to Aragon and Barcelona than to their neighbors in Languedoc, with whom they were almost continually at war. But for a few different marriages (and perhaps the Pyrenees), Provence might have been swept up by King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile when they merged all of their lands into what became a unified Spain in 1492. Meanwhile, the nearby Duchy of Gascony was controlled by the English crown for most of the 13th century. This cross-pollination of feudal interests made for ongoing turf wars, which were continually redrawing political borders.

Using the marriages of the Four Queens, Goldstone traces the rise of France as an emerging power that swallowed up other fiefdoms. Raymond’s eldest daughter, Marguerite, married King Louis IX of France, but that did not stop the king from waging war against King Henry III of England, who had married her sister, Eleanor. I didn’t understand how entrenched English holdings were in France at the time—not just claims in Normandy, but also Poitiers, parts of Bordeaux, and, again, as far south as Gascony (thanks to Henry II’s wooing of Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152). The Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope (who were by then rivals) also held claim to several vassals and territories. All the while, they were all also launching bloody Crusades into the Holy Lands.

Goldstone dishes out the schemes, betrayals, and battles like a sophisticated, real-life game of Risk. Beatrice of Savoy’s shrewd uncles became huge power brokers, masterfully playing the Pope, The Holy Roman Emperor, and the Kings of England and France, against each other. Savoy (now mostly a ski and tourist region divided between France and Italy) back then held quite the trump card. They controlled key passes in the Alps which France, Italy, and Germany needed for trade and for troop movements.

Medieval King & Queen.
Image: Clker.com

Goldstone brings to life this pivotal era as it sets the stage for the Hundred Years’ War—into which I now have new insights. She maintains a scholarly, if slightly dry, tone, weaving in details about the courtly troubadours, the lives of the Queens, and the drama of the battlefield. She also includes fun trivia such as the origin of London’s Savoy Hotel, a French queen’s cameo in Dante’s Purgatory, and the inconsequential rise of an unknown Rudolph I, the first of the Hapsburgs.

I appreciated that Goldstone highlights not only the Four Queens from Provence, but also other savvy female players of the era. Their mother, Beatrice of Savoy raised her banner men to fend off unwelcome invasion by ambitious ‘suitors’ after her husband Raymond died. She then adroitly negotiated with the Pope and Louis IX to marry her namesake daughter Beatrice to the king’s brother Charles of Anjou. Nor did she shrink from scheming against said daughter, when she felt that Beatrice and Charles usurped her interests in Provence. Henry III’s mother Isabella of Angoulème was a power hungry manipulator who even schemed against her own son. Ultimately, Isabella lost out to Louis IX’s formidable mother, Blanche of Castile, who basically orchestrated her own son’s rise to power and oversaw his consolidation of the French territories. Known as “The White Queen,” Blanche was the daughter of Alfonso VIII, King of Castile, and also a granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England, so she had rather imperial aspirations.

Overall, I found Four Queens engaging, readable, and very educational. While not as racy as Tudor biographies, I’d call it a must read for anyone interested in European history. As an aside, I read this right after I finished GRR Martin’s A Clash of Kings. Martin has cited the Crusades, the Hundred Years War, and the Wars of the Roses as inspirations for his books. I definitely could feel that influence reading these two books so close together.

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A few roses are starting to come in a month early this year. Though they are pink, not white, I cannot but think of that wonderful quote by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “For if I wait … ‘till time for roses be, what glory then for me?” Here it is in the full context of the poem she wrote in honor of the early rose.

A Lay of the Early Rose

‘ . . . discordance that can accord.’
Romaunt of the Rose.

A ROSE once grew within
A garden April-green,
In her loneness, in her loneness,
And the fairer for that oneness.

A white rose delicate
On a tall bough and straight:
Early comer, early comer,
Never waiting for the summer.

Her pretty gestes did win
South winds to let her in,
In her loneness, in her loneness,
All the fairer for that oneness.

‘For if I wait,’ said she,
‘Till time for roses be,
For the moss-rose and the musk-rose,
Maiden-blush and royal-dusk rose,

‘What glory then for me
In such a company? —
Roses plenty, roses plenty
And one nightingale for twenty!

‘Nay, let me in,’ said she,
‘Before the rest are free,
In my loneness, in my loneness,
All the fairer for that oneness.

‘For I would lonely stand
Uplifting my white hand,
On a mission, on a mission,
To declare the coming vision.

‘Upon which lifted sign,
What worship will be mine?
What addressing, what caressing,
And what thanks and praise and blessing!

‘A windlike joy will rush
Through every tree and bush,
Bending softly in affection
And spontaneous benediction.

‘Insects, that only may
Live in a sunbright ray,
To my whiteness, to my whiteness,
Shall be drawn as to a brightness, —

‘And every moth and bee
Approach me reverently,
Wheeling o’er me, wheeling o’er me,
Coronals of motioned glory.

‘Three larks shall leave a cloud,
To my whiter beauty vowed,
Singing gladly all the moontide,
Never waiting for the suntide.

‘Ten nightingales shall flee
Their woods for love of me,
Singing sadly all the suntide,
Never waiting for the moontide.

‘I ween the very skies
Will look down with surprise,
When below on earth they see me
With my starry aspect dreamy.

‘And earth will call her flowers
To hasten out of doors,
By their curtsies and sweet-smelling
To give grace to my foretelling.’

So praying, did she win
South winds to let her in,
In her loneness, in her loneness,
And the fairer for that oneness.

But ah, — alas for her!
No thing did minister
To her praises, to her praises,
More than might unto a daisy’s.

No tree nor bush was seen
To boast a perfect green,
Scarcely having, scarcely having
One leaf broad enough for waving.

The little flies did crawl
Along the southern wall,
Faintly shifting, faintly shifting
Wings scarce long enough for lifting.

The lark, too high or low,
I ween, did miss her so,
With his nest down in the gorses,
And his song in the star-courses.

The nightingale did please
To loiter beyond seas:
Guess him in the Happy Islands,
Learning music from the silence!

Only the bee, forsooth,
Came in the place of both,
Doing honor, doing honor
To the honey-dews upon her.

The skies looked coldly down
As on a royal crown;
Then with drop for drop, at leisure,
They began to rain for pleasure.

Whereat the earth did seem
To waken from a dream,
Winter-frozen, winter-frozen,
Her unquiet eyes unclosing —

Said to the Rose, ‘Ha, snow!
And art thou fallen so?
Thou, who wast enthroned stately
All along my mountains lately?

‘Holla, thou world-wide snow!
And art thou wasted so,
With a little bough to catch thee,
And a little bee to watch thee?’

— Poor Rose, to be misknown!
Would she had ne’er been blown,
In her loneness, in her loneness,
All the sadder for that oneness!

Some word she tried to say,
Some no . . . ah, wellaway!
But the passion did o’ercome her,
And the fair frail leaves dropped from her.

— Dropped from her fair and mute,
Close to a poet’s foot,
Who beheld them, smiling slowly,
As at something sad yet holy, —

Said, ‘Verily and thus
It chances too with us
Poets, singing sweetest snatches
While that deaf men keep the watches:

‘Vaunting to come before
Our own age evermore,
In a loneness, in a loneness,
And the nobler for that oneness.

‘Holy in voice and heart,
To high ends, set apart:
All unmated, all unmated,
Just because so consecrated.

‘But if alone we be,
Where is our empery?
And if none can reach our stature,
Who can mete our lofty nature?

‘What bell will yield a tone,
Swung in the air alone?
If no brazen clapper bringing,
Who can hear the chimed ringing?

‘What angel but would seem
To sensual eyes, ghost-dim?
And without assimilation
Vain is interpenetration.

‘And thus, what can we do,
Poor rose and poet too,
Who both antedate our mission
In an unprepared season?

‘Drop, leaf! be silent, song!
Cold things we come among:
We must warm them, we must warm them,
Ere we ever hope to charm them.

‘Howbeit’ (here his face
Lightened around the place,
So to mark the outward turning
Of its spirit’s inward burning.)

‘Something it is, to hold
In God’s worlds manifold,
First revealed to creature-duty,
Some new form of his mild Beauty.

‘Whether that form respect
The sense or intellect,
Holy be, in mood or meadow,
The Chief Beauty’s sign and shadow!

‘Holy, in me and thee,
Rose fallen from the tree, —
Though the world stand dumb around us,
All unable to expound us.

‘Though none us deign to bless,
Blessed are we, natheless;
Blessed still and consecrated
In that, rose, we were created.

‘Oh, shame to poet’s lays
Sung for the dole of praise, —
Hoarsely sung upon the highway
With that obolum da mihi!

‘Shame, shame to poet’s soul
Pining for such a dole,
When Heaven-chosen to inherit
The high throne of a chief spirit!

Sit still upon your thrones,
O ye poetic ones!
And if, sooth, the world decry you,
Let it pass unchallenged by you.

‘Ye to yourselves suffice,
Without its flatteries.
Self-contentedly approve you
Unto HIM who sits above you, —

‘In prayers, that upward mount
Like to a fair-sunned fount
Which, in gushing back upon you,
Hath an upper music won you, —

‘In faith — that still perceives
No rose can shed her leaves,
Far less, poet fall from mission,
With an unfulfilled fruition, —

‘In hope, that apprehends
An end beyond these ends,
And great uses rendered duly
By the meanest song sung truly, —

‘In thanks, for all the good
By poets understood,
For the sound of seraphs moving
Down the hidden depths of loving, —

‘For sights of things away
Through fissures of the clay,
Promised things which shall be given
And sung over, up in Heaven, —

‘For life, so lovely-vain,
For death, which breaks the chain,
For this sense of present sweetness,
And this yearning to completeness!’

More on Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Poetry Foundation

More on Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Poets. Org

The Browning Society–promotes appreciation and awareness of the two poets

Casa Guidi–the Brownings house in Rome

The Armstrong Browning Library–for the research and study of the Brownings and Victorian poets

Post-Poetry Month Withdrawal

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Has anyone else been dragging a bit this week? Perhaps it’s the five straight days of grey Dickensian mizzle, but also, I am missing the fanfare of Poetry Month. It seemed that every morning there was something fun on twitter or in the news about poets and poetry. (OK, there still is if you follow the #poetry and #poem hashtags, but last month’s pop was exponential.)

One thing I learned is that reading (and writing) poetry is good for the brain. Not a revelation, but still gratifying to hear that the time I spend idling about poetry websites can be chalked off as mind-sharpening. Writer Alan Heathcock also argued that poetry is important for one’s mental health in a piece for NPR’s All Things Considered.

So if you too are suffering from Post-Poetry Month depression, here are some ways to put some poem in your routine. The USPS has just issued Forever stamps that honor ten American poets: Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. So now we can all be a little bit inspired when we mail our letters, or at least when we pay the electric bill.

Three of my favorite websites offer a poem-of the day:

Poetry Foundation
The Writer’s Almanac

All three also have wonderful twitter feeds. Also on Twitter, there is a delightful tweep called @Pomesallsizes, who samples poets ranging from Charles Bukowski to Rainer Maria Rilke. Last Tuesday featured a translation of “Venice in Winter,” by Bakhyt Shkurullaevich Kenzjejev—a Kazakhi poet whom I’d never read.

Finally, the Poetry Foundation offers an amazing free mobile app with an extensive searchable database, as well as a very cool, interactive, spinning poetry roulette that clusters poems via themes like love, youth, frustration, joy, and grief. After all, in the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, “poetry is life distilled.”

USPS just issued Poets “forever’ stamps.

‘A Mad Obsession’: Poetry on the Brain

A Poem A Day: Portable, Peaceful, and Perfect

Poetry Foundation


The Writer’s Almanac

@Pomesallsizes on Twitter

Poetry Mobile App for iPhone and Android

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