Heroic/Homiletic (you choose) Addendum


(Following on from the previous post, I’d expanded slightly on the enigmatic reference at the end to my own writing, but realised in that context it was digressive. Here, however, it’s part of the estranged brew of published, unpublished, retro- and prospective thinking that makes blogs creative – and aligns them so strongly with the original understanding of the essai. As Montaigne says on all our behalfs, ‘I distrust my present thoughts hardly less than my past ones and my second or third thoughts hardly less than my first.’

These paragraphs are pointers to projects past and future – I wrote about a quarter of a verse novel called The Book of the Wedderburns over ten years ago, then set it aside for a few months… I have the intention of one day being good enough at Greek – or lucky enough to meet the right Cretan – to translate a few fragments from the Erotokritos. I have an idea for a tetrabiblio, four-books-in-one, that might hold the way I want to work on the ‘Monolog Recreatif’ chapter from the Complaynt – one of the overlooked masterpieces of Scottish prose – you know how it is, but sometimes it helps to set how it is down…)

I’ve been strongly engaged by two late medieval/early Renaissance texts, The Complaynt of Scotlande, probably written in Dundee in the 1540s by Robert Wedderburn, the vicar of Dundee, and the Erotokritos, an heroic verse romance written on Crete in the 1580s by Vitzentos Kornaros, a nobleman of Venetian descent.

In both cases, the texts represent a lost world: Wedderburn’s Catholic bishopric, not untouched by the traces of Lutheran reform which converted both his brothers, eventually sending them into exile, was about to swept away by Knox’s Reformation.

He lived through not only the occlusion of his faith, but the sack of Dundee in 1548, in which his loyalties were tested by the demands of the invading forces of Henry the Eighth for ‘assurances’ from the local authorities to help maintain order. He therefore experienced a crisis of aesthetics and ideology that we tend to associate with twentieth century figures like Shostakovich or Mandelshtam.

The Cretan Renaissance, exemplified by Kornaros’s work, and the work of the dramatist Giorgios Chortatzis, and latterly by icon painters like Emmanuel Tzanes, would be swept away by the Ottoman invasion of the island in the 1640s, and the eventual fall of Candia (modern day Iraklio/Heraklion) after the extraordinary phenomenon of a twenty year siege. Its exemplars, like Wedderburn’s brothers, went into exile in Venice and elsewhere.

In both cases, then, what intrigues me creatively is the impulse to construct alternative histories, to supplant fact with fable: the ‘what if’ scenario that characterises the defeated or secondary culture, be that the Hellenes of the late and post-Byzantine era, post-1204, post-1453, post-1669, or the Scots and indeed the Scottish language, post-1560, post-1603, post-1707, post-2014.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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