The whole service is a kind of precautionary exorcism of the terrors of the night

From Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence – an edited compilation of letters he wrote in the 1950s while staying in retreat at a few monasteries. This is from his time at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Wandrille. The translations are mine so no blame attaches to Fermor.

Compline, the office that finishes the monastic day, belongs more than any of them to the world of the mediæval church. Only one lamp is lighted, enough for the monk who reads aloud from the Rule of St. Benedict or the Imitation of Christ. “Fratres,” a monk intones, “sobrii estote et vigilate, quia adversarius vester diabolus tanquam leo rugiens circuit quærens quem devoret: cui resistite fortes in fide! [Brothers, be even-minded and watchful since your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, circles about seeking whom he may devour]” The faces of the seated monks are hidden in their hoods, their heads are bowed; and they themselves are only just discernible under the accumulation of shadows. The solitary voice reading aloud seems to issue from an inner silence even greater than the silence that surrounds them. The reading comes to an end; the single light is extinguished; and the chanted psalms follow one another in total darkness. The whole service is a kind of precautionary exorcism of the terrors of the night, a warding-off of the powers of darkness, each word throwing up a barrier or shooting home a bolt against the prowling regions of the Evil One. “Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi,” the voices sing; “et sub pennis ejus sperabis.” [With his shoulders he will protect you and under his wings you will have hope]

“Scuto circumdabit te veritas ejus; non timebis a timore nocturno,

“A sagitta volante in die, a negotio perambulante in tenebris, ab incursu et daemonio meridiano.”

[as a shield his truth will surround you; you will not fear the night’s terror, the day’s flying arrow, trouble roving in the shadows, assault, and the noontide demon.]

One by one the keys turn in the wards, the portcullises fall, the invisible drawbridges touch the battlements…

Procul recedant somnia
Et noctium phantasmata.
Hostemque nostrum comprime
Ne polluantur corpora.

[Let dreams withdraw far off
and nighttime’s phantoms.
Restrain our enemy
So our bodies not be made unclean.]

The windows are barred against the lurking incubus, the pre-eighth-century iambic dimeters seal up any remaining loophole against the invasion of the hovering succubi. Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor, lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor [Sprinkle me, lord, with holy water and I will be cleansed, wash me and I will be white beyond snow] . After a long, silent prayer, the monks were roused by a soft tap from the Abbot, and the rustle of their habits as they left the church was the last human sound, until, again in pitch darkness, they reassembled at four o’clock for Matins.

Daemonio meridiano I’ve taken here as ‘noontide demon’ to connect it to accedia. There’s a truly worthwhile book on the history of this idea in European culture as it passes from its monastic origins to a secular/psychological sense – Reinhard Kuhn’s The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Green Diary pt.2

A continuation of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Green Diary

It doesn’t do to go prodding as critic into details and timelines of Fermor’s actual journey but there’s no foul play in observing bits of the transformation process in order to better appreciate the end product.

It is on the way through Slovakia that (old author) Fermor mentions recovery of the diary now digitized by the National Library of Scotland.

So I headed north-east instead of south. I was still on the wrong side of the Danube and getting further from the river with every step and deeper into Slovakia. My new plan was to make a wide Slovakian loop, strike the Danube again about a hundred miles downstream and cross into Hungary by the Parkan-Esztergom bridge.

Meanwhile, an important change has come over the raw-material of these pages.

Recently—after I had set down all I could remember of these ancient travels—I made a journey down the whole length of the Danube, starting in the Black Forest and ending at the Delta; and in Rumania, in a romantic and improbable way too complicated to recount, I recovered a diary I had left in a country house there in 1939.

I must have bought the manuscript book in Bratislava. It is a thick, battered, stiffly-bound cloth-backed volume containing 320 closely-written pages in pencil. After a long initial passage, the narrative breaks off for a month or two, then starts up again in notes, stops once more, and blossoms out again in proper diary form. And so it goes on, sporadically recording my travels in all the countries between Bratislava and Constantinople, whence it moves to Mount Athos and stops. In the back of the book is a helpful list of overnight sojourns; there are rudimentary vocabularies in Hungarian, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Turkish and Modern Greek and a long list of names and addresses. As I read these, faces I had forgotten for many years began to come back to me: a vintner on the banks of the Tisza, an innkeeper in the Banat, a student in Berkovitza, a girl in Salonica, a Pomak hodja in the Rhodope mountains… There are one or two sketches of the details of buildings and costumes, some verses, the words of a few folk-songs and the alphabetical jottings I mentioned two chapters back. The stained covers are still warped from their unvarying position in my rucksack and the book seemed—it still seems—positively to smell of that old journey.

It was an exciting trove; a disturbing one too. There were some discrepancies of time and place between the diary and what I had already written but they didn’t matter as they could be put right. The trouble was that I had imagined—as one always does with lost property—that the contents were better than they were. Perhaps that earlier loss in Munich wasn’t as serious as it had seemed at the time. But, with all its drawbacks, the text did have one virtue: it was dashed down at full speed. I know it is dangerous to change key, but I can’t resist using a few passages of this old diary here and there. I have not interfered with the text except for cutting and condensing and clearing up obscurities. It begins on the day I set out from Bratislava.

Of the two days he prints, March 19 and 20 of 1934, I’ll give only the end of the second since it is a favorite scene of mine. First is the final Time of Gifts version:

At last we got there. The Schloss—the Kastely (pronounced koshtey) as the boy called it in Magyar—stood in a clump of trees. Only a few windows were lit. The baron’s housekeeper Sari let us in and gave the boy a drink. She was a dear old thing with a kerchief tied under her chin. Hand kissed for second time! I found Baron Schey in his library in a leather armchair and slippers reading Marcel Proust.
“I’m on the last volume,” Baron Pips said, lifting up a French paper-bound book. It was Le Temps Retrouvé and an ivory paper-knife marked the place three quarters of the way through. “I started the first volume in October and I’ve been reading it all winter.” He put it back on the table by his chair. “I feel so involved in them all, I don’t know what I’ll do when I’ve finished. Have you ever tried it?”

And now the same section from the Green Diary:

Only a few windows were lit up and the baron’s housekeeper, a sweet old thing, with a neckerchief tied Hungarian fashion, over(?) her head, with the rest under the chin. I found Baron Schey in his library, reading Marcel Proust in an easy chair and bedroom slippers. He greeted me warmly and we were soon sitting down to eat dinner in a little table in the corner of the room. He told me he had lived here quite alone all the winter, reading all the works of Marcel Proust volume by volume and said that he was the most wonderful author.

There’s rearranging of the material – the published version splits the introduction to Baron Pips with a description of his house and library where those passages entirely follow the introduction in the Green Diary – and some dialogue padding but the core of everything is in place.

Some bonus sketches from the diary:

pg 226

pg 235

pg 254

All this sounds sadly like gluttony

Some Patrick Leigh Fermor found in Felipe Fernandez -Armesto’s Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food (originally from “Gluttony,” Sunday Times, December 31, 1961)

Cannibalism is a problem. In many cases the practice is rooted in ritual and superstition rather than gastronomy, but not always. A French Dominican in the seventeenth century observed that the Caribs had most decided notions of the relative merits of their enemies. As one would expect, the French were delicious, by far the best. This is no surprise, even allowing for nationalism. The English came next, I’m glad to say. The Dutch were dull and stodgy and the Spaniards so stringy, they were hardly a meal at all, even boiled. All this sounds sadly like gluttony.

I struck the board, and cried, “No more;  I will abroad!” 

The Collar by George Herbert.  The opening lines appear as an epigraph to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time For Gifts – alongside the Petronius poem (He that disembarks on distant sands, becomes thereby the greater man.) I included a few days back.  I owe introduction to Herbert to Fermor.

I struck the board, and cried, “No more;
I will abroad!
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it,
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
All wasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away! take heed;
I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s-head there; tie up thy fears;
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need
Deserves his load.”
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied My Lord.

He that disembarks on distant sands, becomes thereby the greater man.

Petronius, poem 78 in the Loeb edition.  The politely archaizing translation is Michael Heseltine’s from the same edition.

Linque tuas sedes alienaque litora quaere,
o iuvenis: maior rerum tibi nascitur ordo.
Ne succumbe malis: te noverit ultimus Hister,
te Boreas gelidus securaque regna Canopi,
quique renascentem Phoebum cernuntque cadentem:
maior in externas fit qui descendit harenas.

Leave thine home, O youth, and seek out alien shores: a larger range of life is ordained for thee. Yield not to misfortune; the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind, and the untroubled kingdoms of Canopus,2 and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting: he that disembarks on distant sands, becomes thereby the greater man.


This poem is one of three epigraphs – along with verses by George Herbert and Louis MacNeice –  to one of my favorite books, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel narrative of walking across Europe in the 1930s, A Time of Gifts.  Of its personal significance he says the following in his introductory letter to that work:

During the last days, my outfit assembled fast. Most of it came from Millet’s army surplus store in The Strand: an old Army greatcoat, different layers of jersey, grey flannel shirts, a couple of white linen ones for best, a soft leather windbreaker, puttees, nailed boots, a sleeping bag (to be lost within a month and neither missed nor replaced); notebooks and drawing blocks, rubbers, an aluminium cylinder full of Venus and Golden Sovereign pencils; an old Oxford Book of English Verse. (Lost likewise, and, to my surprise—it had been a sort of Bible—not missed much more than the sleeping bag.) The other half of my very conventional travelling library was the Loeb Horace, Vol. I, which my mother, after asking what I wanted, had bought and posted in Guildford. (She had written the translation of a short poem by Petronius on the flyleaf, chanced on and copied out, she told me later, from another volume on the same shelf: ‘Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores… Yield not to misfortune: the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind and the untroubled kingdom of Canopus and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting…’ She was an enormous reader, but Petronius was not in her usual line of country and he had only recently entered mine. I was impressed and touched.