Tremit Absens

Just having dipped into Paulinus a blog post or two ago, I thought I’d crowbar in a reference to his friend Ausonius. Here he is writing of the way the vineyards of the Moselle are reflected in the river:

…tota natant crispis iuga motibus et tremit absens

pampinus et vitreis vindemia turget in undis…

And again it is Helen Waddell who brought this to a more recent readership, in the Medieval Latin Lyrics and in her novel Peter Abelard. Here it is from the latter, late in the story, where Heloise ( a good brief biography here) , spiritually empty and missing the husband who cast her off is meeting the linchpin character Gilles de Vannes:

“Yet a man’s palate should have no patria.”

“Are you sure, Gilles? I think you used to quote me a lovely line, about a vine. Tremit . . . tremit——”

“What did I tell you? ‘Tremit absens!’

“Trembles the absent vine and swells the grape

In thy clear crystal.””

Although I have given three examples of it before, absence in the literature of Helen Waddell’s medieval world seems to me deserving a little bit more of an explanation today. That she is writing to the most important person in her life is clear – but for my point here it is the line after that is most telling:

A consolatory letter of yours to a friend happened some days since to fall into my hands. My knowledge of the character, and my love of the hand, soon gave me the curiosity to open it. 

The Letters of Peter Abelard and Heloise

The letter she refers to is, we assume, the lengthy account of his [sic] disasters: English text here. He complains that his walks are on the inaccessible shore of a sea which is perpetually stormy (a neat piece of psychogeography, I think, or at least a brilliant metaphor): I am at a loss to think how stormy her life was. And then some time after writing this, his autograph copy falls into Heloise’s hands, and in Waddell’s novel, Gilles de Vannes’ is acutely aware of this sudden news.

Gilles, with the small shrewd eyes, the reader (and hence representor of Waddell’s own scholarship) of classical and contemporary poetry and theology. Gilles whose role is to speculate, to guide, to offer food and wine and sympathy and then love for the younger generations who pass through his room. The linchpin of Helen Waddell’s version of the time Heloise and Abelard meet and fall into their life-wrecking relationship. The Canon of Notre Dame who observes all, and at the end of the book finds that he remains moved by the story he has witnessed years before.

And now I need to be honest. Gilles has always seemed to me to be a fictionalised version of the bookish, witty, music-loving character, hard-drinking man whose presence in Magdalen College in the late 70s made Magdalen what it was for me: a genuine Alma Mater. Waddell’s creation Gilles de Vannes predates Brian Findlay, our Dean of Divinity, I know – indeed it was Brian who taught me that Waddell was more than the writer of the novel Peter Abelard; he introduced me to her Medieval Latin Lyrics; he taught me about beer (I was not fond before College); he was accepting and sympathetic with my emotional turmoil; he could – and did – listen and joke and be serious and sarcastic and sing with us or share poems with us all in an evening until we moved out into the quad and off to our (usually several) beds. Go to him for a brief break in some work crisis or broken heart and find “something nourishing” (a nice malt, or a glass of port) pressed into your hand, and talk of Alcuin or a terrible chasuble. O blessed Gilles, as Pierre the Cluniac monk reflects, who always spoke of things and not of sentiment. And then onto why you had really dropped by. A good liturgist, an excellent preacher, a mentor. To sit with Gilles was to sit with Time himself, to whom a thousand years were as yesterday. “Hearing you talk,” he said suddenly and without embarrassment, “is the best thing I have got out of Paris.”

I got to know Brian well in my umpteen years as an undergraduate and graduate student, and it is Gilles who notes that It is hard to forgive one’s god for becoming flesh. For me the biggest gift (but in some ways a road less travelled, a path into the clouds) was the myth of medievalism, a carnival approach typical of Brian, which took in liturgy and music (that harpsichord!), and something much more – erm- Rabelaisian, perfectly pitched at the undergraduate mind. Distinctly complex: a man of stories and shadows who for me – even more than Garner or Cooper – explains why Oxford is the seed bed of British fantasy. Having Brian take me facsimile by facsimile through the palaeographical work on English court hand A.D. 1066 to 1500 when I was a young graduate student was a great time. I do wonder maybe if sitting listening to him – on matters political, musical or spiritual (or in his love for Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor, which encompassed both the last two) – was the best thing I got out of that particular part of Oxford. I certainly owe him a great debt for his throwing open the chapel to students not part of the Foundation Choir: part of why I still open my breviary in the mornings is down to his regular practice of the Office. Tomorrow I will, all being well, say Morning Prayer pro defunctis, although with a heavy heart.

In domum Domini ambilavimus in consensu.

And with him I found my friends. My God, I found my friends, and he was one and they have changed my life.

So tonight I have ‘phoned around and fielded some emails and had dinner and read a story to a granddaughter – yet I am flooded with memory of a time long gone. His beautiful parlour with hundreds of books on the wall is gone, and if our shadows roam the garden gravel still, I do not really think they will come again. So here I am with Waddell’s Gilles himself in remembrance of a glorious time of books, mentorship and piety:

At that memory it seemed to Gilles that he opened a door into an empty house that had been fire-lit once, and now was naked rafters under sky.

Rest in piece, Brian. In the heaven you worked for there is “Mass all day long, with breaks for Benediction in between.” And so at the end even of this, there will, I hope, be an invitation for us to have coffee.

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