As an instructor at the University of Toronto at Mississauga Department of English and Drama this past year, I taught introductory literature courses in Narrative and Forms of Literary Expression. As an instructor at the Mount Allison Department of English I've taught Literature, the Arts and Humanities and Literary Periods 1800–Present, and as an instructor at the University of Toronto Department of English, I taught Old English Language and Literature and Chaucer. I also have a particular interest in Old Norse literature, other areas of Middle English literature (in particular the Pearl-poet), and medieval Latin literature, as well as other areas of English and European literature. Below are the the blog entries I've written on a variety of literary topics.

July 11, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part III)

(This is a continuation of these two posts.)

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

With the 19th century we enter the modern era, and the biggest technological advance which changed seagoing was the steam engine. Suddenly ships were no longer dependent on wind at all. Even if there wasn’t any wind, a steamship could still go. The technological progression of the square sail to the triangular sail is completed with the advent of the steam engine. This is dramatically demonstrated in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in which just such an incident happens. When the winds die down, the steam engines are fired up, and at one point Phileas Fogg nearly burns up the ship itself in an attempt to win his race against time. This is the ultimate expression of man’s desire to control his own fate. Fogg overcomes all obstacles thrown in his way in order to win the bet, and that includes the obstacles of the natural world and the elements. This is reflected of the Victorian elevation of man’s ability to control his world. In this world-view man has a special place in the world, he is at its pinnacle. He even sought to have mastery over nature — nature was something to be tamed or controlled. And it is in the late 19th century that science is really beginning to challenge religion, with the realisation that the geological age of the earth is vastly longer than the Bible accounts for, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory challenges the Biblical creation story. The Victorian man did not adapt to his surroundings, he adapted the surroundings to suit himself, and this is subtly commented upon in Verne’s novel with the description of the British Empire which sought to impose its customs and organization (often unsuccessfully) upon the world. Furthermore, there is a shift from the age of exploration to an age of tourism. The world has been largely explored by Europeans, and Fogg is really more of a tourist than an explorer. The world is a much smaller place, and this makes man’s stature seem the larger. Instead of defining himself in relation to the world, man redefines the world in his own image.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness stands out as the most striking example of the travel and exploration metaphor. But now, instead of a journey outwards, it is a journey inwards. Instead of defining his place in the world, man is defining himself. Man’s relationship with his world becomes his relationship with his own inner psyche. Man’s attempt to control nature and the world around him becomes his attempt to control human nature and the world within him. But his sense of control is an illusion since he has no real self-control. Yet again the metaphor is redefined for a new era which is so self-referential and solipsistic.

And so I leave you with this little bit of obscure though apropos verse which explains the post-colonic part of the title:

Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,
All you will to do:
But if you would succeed, you must
Paddle your own canoe.
Posted by Mark at 07:28 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 10, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part II)

(This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.)

But back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, we can see a similar metaphor, only the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the homiletic implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only course to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Man of Law’s Tale, Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her, puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject.

Known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, the Vikings, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment. Here’s a picture of a Norse knarr (click to enlarge):


They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan, and Christian in the Vinland Sagas.

As for the advance in sailing technology, in the late middle ages or early renaissance, the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. Here’s a picture of a lateen sail:


The triangular sail, of course, works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. And so by tacking in a zigzag pattern ships can sail go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is wind, as seen here (click to enlarge):


(You can read a good explanation of all this here.) Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These along with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery. Here’s a picture of the complete package:


Note both the square sails and the triangular lateen sail.

These advances too are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is of course the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than purely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, perhaps most famously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact learns about his own country in the process. Mankind defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, through its own ability to direct its own course in the world. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

(Continued tomorrow)

Posted by Mark at 06:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 09, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part I)

I’ve recently become interested in the relationship between science and technology on the one hand, and literature and culture on the other, and I’ve been working this into my lectures a bit. Here’s an example of a kind of neat idea I came up with for one of my classes. Since this has turned out to be a very long post, I’ve divided it up into three segments, so check back for the continuation. First a little background:

One of the courses I taught this past year was Narrative. There weren’t many stipulations for this course other than that we were to consider narrative from fairly broad terms. I was quite excited at the prospect of teaching this course, since my own research was moving in this direction, what with my work on discourse analysis and pragmatics, and having just given a paper at the Narrative Matters conference I was full of ideas. I decided to divide the course into two parts. First we would survey the major narrative genres of western literature — myth, folktale, legend, etc.; epic and saga; romance; the novel; the short story — and then we’d spend the rest of our time on thematic units. I wanted to consider narrative broadly speaking as a way human beings tend to organise information and make sense of their world. Starting off with myth was a particularly good way of introducing this idea. We compared parallel stories such as creation myths, destruction myths (like flood myths), and so forth from the Bible, Greek myth, and Norse myth. This also gave us the opportunity to do a bit of comparative mythology and consider the differences in religious beliefs and some of the different world views these reflect, for instance the very personal relationship between humans and God in the Judeo-Christian world and the relationship based on fear in the Greco-Roman world.

I also wanted to spend some time on some of the fundamental narratives of western culture, and the first thematic unit that I settled on was travel and exploration. As I was prepping my lectures on this topic it occurred to me that there was an interesting parallel pattern between the travel and exploration literature and the world views reflected by this imagery on the one hand, and the development of sailing technology on the other. I suggested to the class that the travel and exploration metaphor could be seen as reflective of cultural change from the ancient world to the modern. This narrative metaphor often describes man’s relation to the world in which he lives — the narrative is symbolic of man’s place in the universe. And the use of this narrative metaphor changes over time to reflect different beliefs about man’s place in the world.

In the Odyssey, one of the oldest recorded travel narratives in western literature, we see human beings at the mercy of the elements, and by extension the gods. Odysseus and his crew are constantly driven about against their will by the elements. And as we had already discussed in our mythology section, this reflects a common idea in Greek mythology that humans are at the mercy of capricious gods — a common Greek view of man’s place in the universe. This of course is entirely consistent with ancient sailing technology. The ancients had square sails. Here’s a picture of a square sail:


Ships with square sails are not very manoeuvrable. Essentially you go in the direction that the wind blows you. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, you were out of luck, so you’d have to wait for a favourable wind. Sure, you had oars to row, but that wouldn’t take you very fast or very far. If a storm blew up, you’d use the oars to row quickly to shore, as happens at one point in the Odyssey. Thus sailors were at the mercy of the wind, hence the sense of helplessness in the Odyssey.

As a side note, it’s interesting to compare the attitudes towards sea travel in Homer and in Virgil. While Odysseus is certainly trying to get home, he appreciates his journey and learns many things along the way. Aeneas, on the other hand, is much more focussed on the final destination. While the Greeks were a seafaring culture who lived on a peninsula with many small islands and relied on sea travel for their economy, the Romans were a much more land-based culture who hated and feared the sea, though they were practical enough to become proficient at it when required to do so.

It’s also interesting to see what later writers did with the Homeric story of Odysseus. The same story has three different meanings for Homer, Dante, and Tennyson. Homer’s Odysseus is simply at the mercy of the gods. While he does take some interest in the things he sees along the way, his journey is not his will — in fact he’s against it. His journey and his life is determined by the Fates and the prophecies about what will happen to him. In the Greek mythological world, man can’t control his own fate. In the Divine Comedy, in contrast, Dante places Ulysses in hell. For Dante, Ulysses journey was an act of will — Dante wasn’t familiar with Homer first hand. From Dante’s Christian viewpoint willfulness is sinfulness. Man shouldn’t try to control his own fate, as that was up to God. And finally, for Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses”, the hero’s journey is also an act of will, but it is more positive. Tennyson exalts his purposefulness and striving. Man should try to control his own fate. Thus for Dante sailing out into the ocean is bad and Ulysses is placed in hell for it, but for Tennyson it is good and he is lionised for it.

(Continued tomorrow)

Posted by Mark at 02:29 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 20, 2006

Amicus Curiae

A quick look at my reading list in the side bar and my reading post archive will indicate how far behind I am in blogging about my reading, so I’ll try to catch up a bit.

First of all, there are some new books on my bed-side reading pile. For my birthday, my wife gave me the three follow-up books to Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization (about which I have yet to write): The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea. She also gave me Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen as a Father’s Day present. So I have a lot of reading to do!

Next up, Jeffrey Miller’s Murder’s Out of Tune, one in a series of mystery books about a crime-solving cat named Amicus Curiae (‘Friend of the Court’). Having the narrative centred around the cat was in interesting technique, though it seemed a bit precious at times. I’m not sure if Tigger was inspired to go around solving crimes with me either. The novel is set in Toronto, and while I at first found it fun to catch all the Toronto references, I think Miller overdid it a bit — he seemed to revel in the local detail. The plot revolved around the murder of a member of a jazz quartet obviously based on the Dave Brubeck Quartet. The fictional quartet was led by the piano player who received all the fame in spite of the fact that the alto sax player wrote their most famous number, a relationship clearly modelled on Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. I found the writing style a little distracting at times, a little too self-conscious. So all in all, I don’t know if this book is for everyone. If you like cats, if you live or have lived in Toronto (especially if you know the Toronto legal buildings), or if you’re a jazz fan, you might get a kick out of this book, but otherwise I don’t think it will change your life.

The next couple of books on the list, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and M.A.C. Farrant’s Altered Statements, were for one of the classes I was teaching this past term. I hadn’t actually read Mrs Dalloway before; as an undergrad I read To the Lighthouse and some of the Virginia Woolf selections in the Norton Anthology. And I had never heard of M.A.C. Farrant before. Though I didn’t find Mrs Dalloway personally resonant, it’s an excellent book for exemplifying early 20th century prose fiction style and stream of consciousness writing, and I certainly intend to continue to use it in survey classes. As for Farrant, she is a British Columbia-based post modernist writer. Altered Statements is a collection of short narrative pieces bordering on the surreal, sometimes funny, sometimes shocking. While it was an interesting example of post modernism, again I’m not sure that it resonated with me.

Well, that’s all for now. I’ll write more about my reading later.

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April 17, 2006

Beowulf & Grendel

I finally managed to see the recent Beowulf & Grendel movie. My first reaction was that it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Be warned: there may be spoilers here…

First of all, it looked beautiful. Filming in Iceland was a brilliant idea—it substituted well for a pristine medieval Denmark. And the sets and costumes (though one can certainly pick out anachronisms) were effective—not bad compared to most Hollywood-medieval. Certainly they shouldn’t have had stirrups, but they were riding little Icelandic ponies instead of huge stallions. And I enjoyed touches like the Thor’s hammers the Danes were wearing and the Anglo-Saxon glassware (known as claw beakers), though I may be one of the few who notice such things.

The performances were generally good, and they really brought out the sympathy for Grendel that I always thought was there—indeed I always bring up the point when teaching the poem.

As for the plot and the script, naturally some changes had to be made in order for the story to work on the screen. It didn’t really bother me that Grendel’s attacks were drawn out, rather than having Beowulf defeat Grendel on the first night he tries. That’s just the way movies often work in order to build the tension.

As for some of the other changes, although they weren’t necessarily problematic, I have to ask why. I didn’t quite see why it was necessary to give Grendel the motivation of revenge for the killing of his father, rather than the simpler sour grapes for being excluded and the fact that trolls or draugar or whatever he is just act that way. It had the effect of turning the plot into that of an Icelandic saga with a blood feud. I suppose to some extent that’s already implied in the plot with Grendel’s mother seeking revenge. But does Grendel really need to have a father? Still at least this detail is not inconsistent with Germanic legend.

The element that bothered me most was the addition of the character Selma. Besides the fact that I thought she was unnecessary, she kind of stood out like a sore thumb, and was a bit irritating with her moral self-righteousness. She provided insight into Grendel’s character for Beowulf, but he really isn’t supposed to have that insight—Grendel is supposed to be too far removed from the world of man to be understood.

Well, I could go on, but it would soon descend into a lengthy discourse on my reading of Beowulf, so I leave it at that. Any Anglo-Saxonist ought to see it if given the chance, whatever one thinks about it. It might even be interesting to see what students thought about it, comparing it with the original text.

And oh yes—Andy Orchard was given special thanks in the credits…

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February 07, 2006


Following up on my previous post on Stephen Colbert, here are more postings on Language Log on the word ‘truthiness’:

The birth of truthiness?
Truthiness: a flash in the pan?
Truthiness in journalism

Interestingly, it appears that Colbert hasn’t been truthful (or is that truthy?) about the pronunciation of his name. I’m so disillusioned.

Equally interesting, and a testament to how fast things move these days, there’s not only an entry on Stephen Colbert in Wikipedia, there’s an entry on the word truthiness. He may not have received the recognition he thought he deserved from the American Dialect Society, but the Wiktionary entry for truthiness does mention Colbert.

More recently, Stephen Colbert appeared on the cover of Newsweek (in the top right-hand corner). Of course the article mentions the whole truthiness bruhaha.

All this talk of the word truthiness makes me reflect on my favourite medieval English word: truth. Yes, I know it’s a modern English word to, but the particularly interesting thing about the word in medieval English is the range of meanings the word had. Not only did it have the obvious meaning of veracity (that is, not being false), and the less obvious though perhaps still present moral sense of fidelity or faith, the word was also at that point undifferentiated from the word troth, meaning a promise, as in betrothal or to plight one’s troth. This range of meanings is particularly important in Middle English literature, where truth is often represented as one of the chivalric virtues (a bit like Superman’s truth, justice, and the American way, I suppose). As a chivalric virtue it implied both a moral rectitude and the keeping of one’s word. Chaucer, in addition to mentioning the quality numerous time in the Canterbury Tales, also wrote a short poem called Truth.

In a more religious context, in William Langland’s Piers Ploughman, when the question is asked what is the way to heaven, the answer is that truth is the best.

And in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the quality of truth is Sir Gawain’s most fundamental virtue. Indeed the trials Sir Gawain undergoes are a test of his truth. In the end, Sir Gawain passes with almost a perfect grade, demonstrating his truth. King Arthur, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to fully take the lesson to heart, perhaps only displaying truthiness.

Posted by Mark at 05:56 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 02, 2006

Tæcende boccræft

Well, I promised an entry on my English teaching at Mount A, so here it is.

Last term I taught a course called Literature, the Arts and Humanities. It’s a first year course aimed at students not (necessarily) intending to continue on in English, and relates literature to other areas of the arts and humanities, such as history, philosophy, music, or what have you. Beyond that I had no other limitations in terms of what I included in the course, so it was very fun to teach. And given my background in medieval studies, I’m quite in favour of interdisciplinary approaches. Basically the way I approached it was to teach what I thought the students should know if they took no other English course, which I think accords well with Mount A’s quasi-liberal arts set up. I covered the literary periods in turn from Anglo-Saxon through modern, and gave special attention to the ways in which the literature reflected the cultural world in which it was produced. I found it particularly interesting to make the connections between trends in literature and other areas of the culture. And in general I encouraged the students to look for the connections and patters, the way all things are interconnected, adopting the symbol of Sir Gawain’s pentangle, the endless knot. I’ll write more of this soon, as I’ve been thinking very much along these lines lately.

Some of the major works we looked at include Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Faerie Queene, The Tempest, Paradise Lost, Gulliver’s Travels, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey, The Lady of Shalott, and The Goblin Market. But equally interesting was to include texts not traditionally referred to as literary, which provide interesting insight into the periods and the other more major texts. Thus, for instance, Robert Hooke’s (of the Royal Society) writings on observations with a microscope adds depth to the size-distorting descriptions in Gulliver’s Travels. I find the Longman Anthology of British Literature quite good for this sort of thing.

This term I’m teaching a second year course called Literary Periods 1800—Present. I wasn’t originally supposed to be teaching an English course this term, but due to an emergency I’m stepping into this class already three weeks in. Since I didn’t start the class off, I didn’t initially create the syllabus (though I’ve slightly adjusted the readings), which will make the class somewhat more challenging than it might otherwise have been, but it should be an interesting experience. And useful to have the chance to teach something so far removed from my area of specialisation. I’ll write more on this class once I get into it a bit.

In the spring session (May/June), I’ll be offering Literature, the Arts and Humanities again, should there be any takers, and I have some further interesting plans for the course…, but more on that later as well…

Posted by Mark at 06:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 25, 2006

Happy Robbie Burns Day!

For your reading pleasure, here’s a Robbie Burns poem for you. I think I’m going to go and have a single malt myself.

Address To A Haggis

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin was help to mend a mill
In time o’need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin’, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Bethankit! hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckles as wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ blody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ hands will sned,
Like taps o’ trissle.

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!
Posted by Mark at 08:47 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 09, 2005

Dreamas and deaþ

I started this entry a while back in the midst of teaching Chaucer’s dream vision poems. Here’s the completed entry…

Reading all these dream vision poems by Chaucer recently has made me really want to teach a class in medieval dream visions more generally, starting with the Old English Dream of the Rood and including the Middle English Pearl, one of my all-time favourite poems, and William Langland’s Piers Ploughman. One could also include excerpts of various saintly dream visions (such as from Bede) and various background texts such as Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. One could even get into medieval dream theory a bit, looking at Macrobius’ commentary on the Somnium Scipionis and other medieval treatises on dream theory.

Another grouping of texts that would make a good seminar class is poems dealing with death and bereavement in the Middle Ages. It would include Old English elegies like The Wanderer and The Seafarer as well as Middle English poems such as Pearl and Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. It’s kind of a depressing idea, I suppose, but it would be very interesting. I wonder what other texts would be good for such a grouping…

NB — A cookie for the first person to point out the problem with this entry’s title.

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March 10, 2005

The lyf so short, the crafte so longe to lerne

As I posted earlier, I’m also currently teaching Chaucer this year for the first time. This has been a very rewarding, if very busy, experience. It’s been a lot of work, but I’ve now built a Chaucer course, so the dividends should continue to pay off.

As it turns out, those dividends will be paying off this summer, as I’ll be teaching Chaucer again here at U of T as a summer evening course (Tuesdays and Thursdays 6 to 9). I’m quite looking forward to this, since I’ll already have most of the hard work done and can enjoy myself and the texts more. Chaucer students seem to be really good at in-class discussion.

Of Chaucer’s literary works, The Canterbury Tales was what I had the most experience with prior to this course — actually I’ve probably worked most with Chaucer’s translation of Boethius, but one doesn’t usually teach such a text in an undergraduate course. We covered the Tales in the first term and this term we started off with Troilus and Criseyde, a poem which fascinates me greatly, both in terms of its Boethian content and its generic manipulation, as well as for many other reasons. More recently we’ve been working through the dream vision poems. We recently finished The Book of the Duchess and are now in the middle of The House of Fame.

I have to say that The House of Fame is the Chaucer poem that I feel least able to make a final pronouncement upon. Sure I have plenty to say about it, but I don’t know if I have a final statement about it. This may in part be because the poem is in fact unfinished, but it’s also a complex and slippery poem. I guess my take on it is that it is Chaucer’s anxiety attack. Welcome to the wonderful world of Chaucer’s neuroses! In addition to the more minor sources of anxiety such as the classification of dreams — which it must be admitted is likely a merely rhetorical stance on Chaucer’s part — Chaucer seems to be deeply concerned with dealing with inconsistant or potentially ureliable sources. The dreamer/narrator in the poem is taken to the House of Fame to learn “tidings” to use in his poetry, but true and false tidings are mixed up together, and how can one distinguish them? The poem exudes uncertainty and anxiety, and I think this adds to my own uncertainty about it. It’s funny but I find this poem more troubling than some of Chaucer’s longer and ostensibly more complex works such as the Tales or Troilus and Criseyde. I think I’m going to have to live with this one for a bit longer before I fully come to terms with it.

Soon we’ll be on to The Parliament of Fowls, which can be seen as almost a sequel to The House of Fame, as Chaucer continues his quest for some sort of knowledge or information about love for his poetising.

Posted by Mark at 05:10 PM | Comments (1)

March 04, 2005


I haven’t yet posted on my teaching since my blog rose from the ashes a few weeks ago, so now seems like a good time. As I posted a long time ago, I’m teaching two full year courses this year, Old English again and Chaucer, and both have gone quite well. Today I’ll post about the Old English class and soon I’ll do another about the Chaucer class.

I tried out a new Old English grammar textbook this year, Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English. While I like the idea behind the arrangement of the book, I’m not entirely satisfied by the execution. The main problems with the old standard textbook for Old English, Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English, are that it isn’t user friendly, it presumes that the students already have some grounding in at least modern English grammar if not another inflected language like Latin, and it isn’t arranged in a pedagogically useful manner. Thus, it is up to the instructor to provide the necessary structure and explanation, as I did last year when I used the book. Baker’s book, on the other hand, is an attempt to make up for this lack. The material is arranged in such a manner so as to allow the students to progress through the grammer in a somewhat graduated fashion, while slowly introducing them to simple short texts. Unfortunately, there are a number of errors in the book and some of the explanations are rather vague or incomplete. Perhaps these issues will be addressed in future editions, but I don’t think I’ll use this textbook again. Instead, I would go back to Mitchell and Robinson, which is far more reliable, and supplement this with a photocopied package of materials which I would put together myself. This proposed package would include what is essentially an interface to Mitchell and Robinson, arranging the material in a pedagogically sound manner with accompanying readings and exercises. This way I would have the reliability of Mitchell and Robinson’s treatment of the grammar with an arrangement more like the old warhorse Latin texbook by Wheelock in graduated sections. Well, it’s a bit of a pipe dream now, as it would be much work to put such a thing together, but I do think it would be worth it.

Otherwise the class is going well. The enrollment dropoff is a little higher than in recent years, but those who are sticking with it are talented and keen. We just finished with The Wanderer, which seemed to really catch the students’ interests and produced some good class discussion. Before that we looked at The Dream of the Rood. I become more and more fascinated by the poem every time I read it. One of these days I’m going to have to sit down and put together an article on it. Now we’re on the Deor, which is always fun because it gives me the opportunity to tell all the stories behind the allusive (and often elusive) references to Germanic legend in it. By the way, it’s interesting to note that my entry from exactly one year ago today has much the same comments.

Posted by Mark at 03:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 14, 2005

Sanctus Valentinus

As today is Valentine’s Day, for your reading pleasure I give you a stanza of Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,
Of every kynde that men thynke may,
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
(PF 309-15)

If you’d like a translation, I’ll include one below in the extended entry. The tradition is that on Valentine’s Day, birds choose their mates for the coming year.

For an account of how my wife Aven and I are spending our Valentine’s Day, read her entry here.

As promised, here’s a translation of the stanza from Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there to choose his mate,
Of every kind that men may think of,
And so huge a noise they began to make
That the earth, and air, and trees, and every lake
Were so full that scarcely was there space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.
Posted by Mark at 04:58 PM | Comments (0)

August 02, 2004

All the world's a stage...

And now for the conclusion of my account of my father-in-law’s Toronto visit and our “typically” Toronto activities. Again, those not interested in these types of blog entries can stop reading this rather long entry now, though this entry also has a decidedly literary focus…

On the Monday of his visit, Ian entertained himself with some tree-seeing at Mount Pleasant Cemetery and other family visiting while my wife and I caught up on some work, but on the Tuesday — Ian’s last day in town — we had a number of activities. Since it was Ian’s birthday, we took him out for a sushi lunch — certainly a typically Toronto activity — to New Generation Sushi, our favourite sushi restaurant. It seems, at least amongst our friends, that people break down into different camps depending on which Bloor Street sushi restaurant they prefer. One group prefers Sushi on Bloor, while my wife and I prefer New Generation. (There are also a number of other sushi restaurants on the Annex stretch of Bloor; anyone else want to name a favourite?)

After lunch, Aven and I got to work on the provisions for our evening activity, to wit we made a picnic dinner to bring with us to the Dream in High Park production of As You Like It. The main dish was Coronation Chicken from Great British Cooking by Jane Garmey. The dish, a cold, curried chicken invented in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, is purported to have been enjoyed by the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting in a stolen moment during the rather long ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Since the recipe calls for cooked chicken, we poached some chicken breasts which we then cut up into small pieces. The sauce was made by sautéing onion and curry powder in some olive oil, and then adding chicken stock, tomato paste, lemon juice, and mango chutney and simmering. We then puréed the mixture in the blender, and completed the sauce by adding mayonnaise and cream. The side dish we made was a mango salad that also contained raisins, cashew nuts, mint, coriander powder, asaphoetida powder, and powdered chilli, and the chicken was served on basmati rice:


Here’s a picture of Ian and Aven enjoying our picnic dinner in the Dream in High Park amphitheatre before the show:


It was only later that we realised we perhaps more appropriately could have made something from Eating Shakespeare by Betty & Sonia Zyvatkauskas, a cookbook containing various renaissance dishes. Nevertheless, the dinner we did make was excellent and always one of my favourites.

Our time was only slightly dampened by a brief rain shower, which is quite fortunate given the severe thunderstorm warning. And most fortunately the rain had mostly passed by the time the show started.

The play itself was very good. (You can read my wife’s brief account here.) The acting was quite good, particularly the female lead Allana Harkin in the role of Rosalind. Also worthy of special mention is the fun music in a 50’s style — the play was reset in a 1950’s setting which also made for good costuming options — composed by Marek Norman. I thought perhaps more could have been done with the homosexual undertones of the play. There is, of course, always an interesting irony in Shakespearean plays which feature cross-dressing in the plot since all the female characters were played by cross-dressed boys in Shakespeare’s time. In current productions, which feature female actors, it seems a good opportunity to explore these sexual undercurrents in a different way. Then again, perhaps such heavy handed directing would be out of place in a play written for light entertainment (though there are definitely not-so-hidden depths, for instance the character Jaques). In any case, it was a thoroughly enjoyable production and quite appropriately staged in High Park due to the thematically important setting of the Forest of Arden. Here’s a picture of the beautifully lit stage:


Is it really geeky of me to be quite interested to know more about Shakespeare’s sources, which apparently draw heavily on Robin Hood material?

Posted by Mark at 01:56 PM | Comments (0)

July 08, 2004


Although I’ve been rather busy over the last month or so, I have still been managing to find the time for pleasure reading. The last book I wrote about, Invisible Forms, is making the rounds of a number of my friends, so perhaps I’ll hold off on writing more about it until they’ve read it.

Recently I read (or rather re-read) Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green, a book my sister gave me years ago. I was in the mood for Norse mythology, but I also wanted something fairly lightweight, so I pulled this one off my shelf instead of going to the original texts. As Green states in his introduction, “This book is an attempt to present the surviving myths of the Norsemen as a single narrative.” Thus Green draws on the various mythological poems and sagas, often following them word for word, and combines them into one continuous narrative. It’s a good way to get a general sense of the Norse myths, and I would certainly recommend the book for anyone who was looking for just that. Of course there is nothing that can replace the original texts (either in Old Icelandic or in translation), but this is a much easier read. It’s quite a moving, fun, and interesting set of stories, but I’ll not say too much about particular details in case anyone is convinced to read Green’s book (it’s only about 200 pages after all).

People generally know quite a bit about Greco-Roman mythology; it’s very often portrayed in popular forms of entertainment, and it’s a popular course in university (and more often than not, it seems, is taught by my wife). However, few seem to know much about Norse mythology (and no, the Thor comic books don’t count). How many Norse gods can you, dear reader, name?1 I’d love to teach the subject one day, and I think it’s time someone made one of these big-budget films with these stories. Of course it would probably be botched in such an endeavour, but the classicists have put up with that for years, so I’m sure we medievalists can too.

1 Post your answers as a comment and win a cookie!

Posted by Mark at 05:43 PM | Comments (1)

May 28, 2004


As Rethabile has rightly surmised, the past few weeks have been very busy — thanks for the kind words, Rethabile, it’s nice to know I’ve been missed. I do still plan to catch up the past few weeks with a series of posts, but for now, this brief post about today will have to do.

Today my wife and I went to see the movie Troy. You can read my wife’s more learned and informed comments, but for my part I found that the film really captured the feel and scope of epic in a way no other film adaptation of epic poetry, at least as far as I’ve seen, has. Whatever ‘inaccuracies’ or changes there may have been, I think that’s the main point. Now if only film makers would treat medieval epic as successfully.

Though romance not epic, there is a film about the Arthurian story coming out this summer, but from what I can tell from the previews I’ve seen so far, I’m not very optimistic. It seems that they’re claiming to be telling a the story behind the myth, a more realistic ‘historical’ story, but instead they seem to be using the stories from the later Arthurian legends and just stripping away all the magic and mysticism. Rather than giving an accurate portrayal of Roman Britain in the time of the Germanic invasion, they’ve included elements of the Arthur stories which are clearly borrowed from later French tradition (such as the whole Lancelot part of the story). But I should hold my judgements until I’ve actually seen the thing.

Anyway, I’m off to a barbeque with friends tonight, but hopefully I’ll blog again tomorrow with further updates and perhaps an account of this evening’s gastronomic delights.

Posted by Mark at 06:35 PM | Comments (3)

May 02, 2004


I’ve just finished reading Kevin Jackson’s Invisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities, a book about paratexts such as introductions, titles, dedications, epigraphs, footnotes, and so forth. It’s quite an interesting and very entertaining read. Jackson is a very witty writer, and his book is quite well researched. Many of the chapters are filled with meta-humour (lots of footnotes in the chapter on footnotes, the chapter on marginalia covered with seemingly handwritten comments). It’s definitely a good book for anyone interested in writing, whether it be for academic purposes or otherwise. I should have read this book while writing my dissertation.

What with all the end-of-term grading I have to do and the upcoming Kalamazoo conference, my head is just not into writing a lengthy post on this very interesting book right now, but perhaps I’ll write a fuller response later.

Posted by Mark at 11:55 PM | Comments (3)

May 01, 2004


Last night I went to see the David Hein Band — David being one of my oldest and dearest friends — compete in and win the latest round of the Emergenza Music Festival. Hooray! I guess the next stop is the Canadian finals.

The band was fantastic and I heartily recommend you check out the website which has online tunes and information about upcoming events.

At the pre-show party, I was lucky enough to win a door prize, a copy of The Live of Pi by Yann Martel, which I’ve had recommended to me many times. I love getting books either through chance like this or as gifts! My pile of books for the summer grows!

Posted by Mark at 11:51 PM | Comments (1)

April 24, 2004

Se Ceap

Here is a picture of my cat Tigger:


Perhaps this explains Tigger’s many injuries.

(Thanks to one of my students for the link.)

Posted by Mark at 11:58 PM | Comments (0)

April 16, 2004


In the last week of term, I covered riddles with my Old English class. I figured it would be a fun way to end the term. We started with the a couple of basic riddles from the textbook and then moved on to some riddles that I prepared as a handout. Mitchell & Robinson’s A Guide to Old English doesn’t contain any of the double-entendre riddles, riddles which seem to suggest a rather salacious solution but in fact have a perfectly ordinary and polite solution, so I had to make up a mini-edition of some good ones (with glossaries) to use in class. I think the class quite enjoyed them and were only a little traumatised by the experience.

The riddles are also quite interesting for a variety of reasons in addition to the use of humour in Anglo-Saxon literature, as they give an insight into the Anglo-Saxon cultural commonplaces and reflections on the natural world.

Here for the entertainment of my readers are (translations of) some of the riddles we looked at in class. A cookie to the first one to guess the solution to each of the riddles. The first two are polite riddles, the second two are suggestive:

Riddle 46
A man sat at wine with his two wives and his two sons and his two daughters, beloved sisters, and their two sons, noble firstborn; the father of each of those two young men was there with them, uncle and nephew. In all there were five of those men and women sitting there.
Riddle 86
A creature came going where many men sat in an assembly, wise in mind; it had one eye and two ears, and two feet, twelve hundred heads, a back and a belly and two hands, arms and shoulders, one neck and two sides. Say what I am called.
Riddle 44
A wonderous thing hangs by a man’s thigh, under the man’s garment. In the front is a hole. It is firm and hard, it has a good place; then the man lifts his garment over the knee, wishes to touch with the head of his hanging object that familiar hole which he regularly before often filled.
Riddle 45
I heard something grows in a corner, swells and is erect, raising its covering; a bride groped that boneless thing with proud hands, the lord’s daughter covered the swelling thing with a garment.
Posted by Mark at 01:06 PM | Comments (2)

April 05, 2004

Awendednesse Beowulfes

In answer to this question from Blinger I can recommend three translations of Beowulf, actually.

For a very literal, accurate translation, the one in S.A.J. Bradley’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry, which contains translations of the majority of Old English poems, is a quite reliable prose rendering. Bradley is usually the first translation I reach for for Old English poetry.

On the other hand, for a more entertaining verse translation, there is always the recent version by Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s version is quite interesting as a poem in and of itself, but he does take some liberties with the text. There is a handy dual language edition with facing page text of the original Old English poem. Or there is a critical edition from Norton, which has a number of useful extras such as commentary and a collection of important Beowulf scholarship.

R.M Liuzza’s verse translation is quite a successful compromise between these two ends of the spectrum. I quite like Liuzza’s version, actually. It is an accurate representation of the text, and it is interesting to read. It also contains a slew of useful materials in appendices, such as translations of various analogues to the poem and sample passages for a number of Beowulf translations for comparison.

It’s quite interesting comparing these three versions. Bradley and Liuzza are both Old English scholars, and Heaney, of course, is a famous (Irish) poet. Heaney has certain goals in his translation which he explains in his introduction. One of the essay topics I set for my Old English students was to compare two different translations of an Old English text. In addition to the translations of Beowulf there are some quite interesting versions of Old English poems by otherwise famous English poets, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Battle of Brunanburh and Ezra Pound’s The Seafarer. I’m quite looking forward to what my students come up with.

For those who have read any of these translations, what did you think?

Posted by Mark at 09:46 PM | Comments (0)

April 03, 2004

Tacen sweotol

Over this past week in my Old English class, we’ve been reading parallel passages from Beowulf and Judith (as I’ve mentioned in a previous posting), specifically dismemberment passages: Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and the tearing off of his arm (ll. 809-836), Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother (ll. 1557-1590), and Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes (ll. 94b-121).

In the first passage, in a fight with Grendel, Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel by ripping his arm off; Grendel then flees the hall to die in private. Beowulf then puts the arm on display in the hall Heorot (Hart House, anyone?) as visible evidence — tacen sweotol ‘visible token’ — that he defeated Grendel.

In the second passage, Beowulf cuts Grendel’s mother’s head off with a special ancient sword he finds in her underwater abode. He then proceeds to mutilate the already dead body of Grendel, cutting the head off. Beowulf does this for two reasons, for revenge and so that he can bring the head back with him to Heorot. When Beowulf arrives at the hall, he shows it to the Danes tires to tacne ‘as a token of glory’, again, visible evidence of his victory.

In the final passage we looked at, Judith saves her people, the Hebrews, from Holofernes and his invading army of Assyrians. The Assyrians have beseiged the city of Bethulia, and Judith uses feminine charms to gain access to the enemy camp. The wicked Holofernes holds a banquet and becomes very drunk. Deciding to have his way with Judith, he orders her brought to his bedchamber, but then passes out from all the alcohol. Judith takes this opportunity to cut Holofernes’ head off, though it takes two blows to do it, and then sneaks out of the camp bringing the head with her. When she returns to her city, she orders her handmaiden hyt to behðe blodig ætywan ‘to show it, bloody, as a sign’ to her people. And she says, “Her ge magon sweotole … on ðæs laðestan hæ&eht;enes heaðorinces heafod starian” [‘You may clearly gaze on the head of that most hated heathen warrior’]. Having seen this visible evidence of Holofernes’ death, the people of Bethulia are enheartened and attack and defeat the now leaderless Assyrians, who panic and flee.

I find this all very interesting, the need for visible evidence, the motives for dismemberment, the thematic implications. I should also point out that both these poems are found in the same manuscript, so drawing parallels between the two is very tempting.

Posted by Mark at 05:55 PM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2004

Wit oððe we, unc oððe us

A student in my Old English class asked me an interesting question today. We were reading Wulf and Eadwacer and pondering the use of pronouns in the poem. In the refrain line (Ungelic is us ‘It is different with us’, or something along those lines), the speaker uses the plural pronoun us, and it is not clear who this ‘us’ is or how many people it refers to. Later in the poem the speaker refers to Uncerne earne hwelp ‘our wretched whelp’ and uncer giedd geador ‘our song together’ using the dual pronoun uncer.1 It’s still unclear who the pronoun refers to — there seems to be a love triangle in the poem, so it refers to the speaker and one of the two men, Wulf or Eadwacer — but it is clear that it refers to only two people. It has been suggested (though I don’t know if it has been universally accepted) that the plural refers to the speaker and one of the two men, and the dual refers to the speaker and the other of the two men.

My student asked me if the use of the dual pronoun implied greater intimacy. I wasn’t really sure how to answer this. Is the dual pronoun ever used to refer to two antagonists in Old English? I suppose one could say that the dual pronoun is sometimes used when the dual number of the referent is specifically regarded, not only because of intimacy. Sometimes the dual is conspicuous by its absence; for instance Adam and Eve are not refered to using dual pronouns in Ælfric’s translation of Genesis.

But what of other languages? I know that Old Norse also preserves the dual pronouns. What other languages do? Is there any special implication in the use of the dual in those languages (other than simply number)?

1 Old English has dual-number forms of the 1st and 2nd personal pronouns:
wit, unc, uncer ‘we two, us two, etc.’ and git, inc, incer ‘you two, etc.’, as opposed to the plural we, us, ure ‘we, us, our’ and ge, eow, eower ‘you, you, your’.

Posted by Mark at 03:26 PM | Comments (6)

March 10, 2004

Werlic cynn and wiflic cynn

It occurs to me that I haven’t blogged about a linguistic topic in a while, so I thought I’d write about the issue of gender in language as it became an issue in both my English Writing class and my Old English class this week.

The grammar topic I covered with my English Writing class this week was agreement (subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent), and this brought up the problem of the lack of a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in English. Of course it has become pretty much standard usage in spoken language to use they for this purpose as in: ‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in their waiting room.’ I had to convince my students that it wasn’t correct to use their that way in written language.

My students weren’t terribly happy with the rather clunky solution of using he or she or s/he (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his or her waiting room’), but there really isn’t any way around that is there (suggestions welcome).

Historically, most languages (or at least the Indo-European ones I know) use the masculine gender to cover both (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his waiting room’), but this no longer as acceptable, not only for the sake of political correctness, but also for logical correctness; with respect to my sample sentence, a hundred years ago one might be more or less safe in assuming that all doctors are male but that’s certainly not true now.

While it isn’t correct to use they as a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in written English now, I’m sure that in a hundred years or so it will be (unless some other pronoun is developed to fill that void). I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might be able to enlighten me as to how other languages not familiar to me handle this problem.

On a related topic, I find it stunning how often scholars have tried to interfere with the gender expressed in the Old English poem The Wife’s Lament. The poem is a first person monologue, with no name given for the speaker. It is clear from the first sentence of the poem that the speaker must be female because of two adjectives referring to the speaker which have unambiguous feminine endings (geomorre and minre sylfre). A surprising number of Old English scholars have suggested emending those inflectional endings so as to take the speaker as male. It is a testament to the systematic misogyny of 19th century scholars, I suppose. What is perhaps even more surprising is that even as late as the 1960s such arguments were still being floated. And it is remarkable the lengths that these scholars went to explain away the gender expressed in the text and how inventive some of their arguments were. It’s a shame, because it is such a compelling poem and such a powerful female voice.

As a final note, if you enjoy reading about language, click over to On English (also linked to on the sidebar), a very entertaining and interesting blog written by Rethabile Masilo, who enjoys punning neologisms as much as I do.

Posted by Mark at 10:31 PM | Comments (1)

March 04, 2004


It occurs to me that I haven’t writting anything about teaching my Old English class yet. This week we finished up the poem The Wanderer and are now in the middle of Deor. Reading these poems again, I was again struck by how fascinating they are (though for very different reasons). I’m enjoying teaching these poems immensely.

For a poem ostensibly about a wanderer or eardstapa (literally ‘earth-stepper’), it’s striking how solipsistic The Wanderer is. Certainly the poem contains much description of the physical realities of the wanderer’s situation, but so much of the poem is about his internal psychological state. Indeed the poem is quite a sophisticated examination of the psychology of despair and consolation, it seems to me.

Deor, also a poem that examines despair and consolation, is fun to teach because it gives me the opportunity to talk about Germanic heroic legends (as well as Classical mythological analogues). And while some scholars back away from the suggestion that there is Boethian influence on the poem, I find the parallels quite striking, particularly when taking into account King Alfred’s translations. Aside from the passage that parallels the refrain in Deor, most of the legends referred to in the poem are also referred to in Alfred’s version or are paralleled by a Classical analogue.

But the main reason why I’m enjoying teaching this stuff so much is how keen my class is about it. They seem to be as fascinated by it as I am. It’s very encouraging to get that kind of response.

Posted by Mark at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

February 28, 2004


Last night I attended an interesting lecture given by Roberta Frank, a former professor of mine. The talk was entitled “Not Much is Worse than a Troll”: A Norse Poem from Medieval Orkney and discussed the Old Norse poem Málsháttakvæði (which means ‘proverb poem’). This poem is filled with proverbs such as “Not much is worse than a troll”, “Dragons often rise up on their tail”, “Easily grasped are the crimes of a hog”, “The living man always rejoices in a cow”, and “To love another’s child is to cherish a wolf”. Roberta’s talk stressed the importance of philology and how close attention to language informs our understanding of medieval Northern Germanic literature and culture, and was both interesting and entertaining.

Following the lecture was a reception and then an enjoyable performance of early music from Scandinavia by Ensemble Polaris. Among the many talented musicians in Ensemble Polaris are the multitalented Kirk Elliott, who played violin, harp, bowed psaltery, accordion, and Swedish bagpipes, and Ben Grossmann, who played the hurdy gurdy and jew’s harp. I always enjoy hearing unusual and/or early music instruments being performed. The performance was recorded by CBC Radio 2 for future broadcast on Music Around Us, so give it a listen when it comes up.

All in all, a nice way to spend an evening.

Posted by Mark at 12:40 PM | Comments (3)