Crimson and Codex


Been doing one of my fairly regular spins through the King Crimson canon this week. I love their records to pieces (see here for my comparitive review), and there are numerous spine-tingling musical moments for me, but I think the one that stands above all the rest is in “Fracture” from the Starless and Bible Black album. There’s a quiet interlude in the middle of the song that ends with an absolute explosion of three-piece rock fury, and that moment when the silence is shattered is breathtaking, one of the most dynamic moments in recorded music history, honest. Must hear stuff.

Poetry Analysis

I’ve had several people ask me questions about my poem, “Codex.” While I won’t explain it exactly, I can I suppose offer insights into the arcana I stuffed into it.

Here it is in its entirety:

Aethelwulf wrote
on the skin of a goat:
“cecidit corona capitis
nostri; vae nobis,
quia peccavimus,”

dipping the hollowed quill of a goose
in iron gall ink and thick
gum arabic.

Candle wax fell
in the monastic cell
as the parchment was laid out and dried;
the new Jeremiad
was illuminated
with figures Aethelwulf created
during dark ergot dreams
of profane things.

Here are some questions and answers:

What is a codex? A precursor to the book, the succesor to the scroll: a codex was a stack of parchment that allowed you to “surf” right to the page you wanted, rather than having to unroll the whole scroll to find what you were looking for.

Who was Aethelwulf? “Aethelwulf was the son of Egbert and a sub-king of Kent. He assumed the throne of Wessex upon his father’s death in 839. His reign is characterized by the usual Viking invasions and repulsions common to all English rulers of the time, but the making of war was not his chief claim to fame. [Key Text:] Aethelwulf is remembered, however dimly, as a highly religious man who cared about the establishment and preservation of the church. He was also a wealthy man and controlled vast resources. Out of these resources, he gave generously, to Rome and to religious houses that were in need. He was an only child, but had fathered five sons, by his first wife, Osburga. He recognized that there could be difficulties with contention over the succession. He devised a scheme which would guarantee (insofar as it was possible to do so) that each child would have his turn on the throne without having to worry about rival claims from his siblings. Aethelwulf provided that the oldest living child would succeed to the throne and would control all the resources of the crown, without having them divided among the others, so that he would have adequate resources to rule. That he was able to provide for the continuation of his dynasty is a matter of record, but he was not able to guarantee familial harmony with his plan. This is proved by what we know of the foul plottings of his son, Aethelbald, while Aethelwulf was on pilgrimage to Rome in 855. (Ed. note: my idea for “Codex” was that Aethelwulf lived the life of a simple monk while in Rome, transcribing and illuminating sacred texts). Aethelwulf was a wise and capable ruler, whose vision made possible the beneficial reign of his youngest son, Alfred the Great.”

Why was he writing on the skin of a goat? Because that’s what parchment was made out of. If it was made of the skin of a veal, it was vellum.

What does the latin text mean? It is from the Bible, Lamentations 5:16, translating to: “The crown is fallen from our head: woe unto us, that we have sinned.” Since, as noted, this is Aethelwulf on pilgrimage to Rome, not sitting as King of Wessex, so his crown his gone, and he is a sinner.

What is iron gall ink? What is gum arabic? An ink that came into common use in the Middle Ages, although its roots go back further than that: “Iron gall ink is created from four primary ingredients: Tannin, vitriol (iron sulfate), gum Arabic and water. Different products were included in the recipes over time, but using these ingredients alone will produce a fine ink.” The gum arabic served as a binder to the ink: you could write without it, but it made the ink easier to work with and caused it to stay on the parchment better.

What’s a Jeremiad? Lamentations was written by the Prophet Jeremiah. He was known to be a gloomy sort, and his dour and sour proclamations (and others like them) are often called Jeremiads.

What do you mean by “illuminated”? Is it the candles that are illuminating the Jeremiad? Illustrated, not lighted. Aethelwulf was drawing pretty pictures next to his words.

What is ergot? See here. The key line is: “Another form of ergot poisoning involves severe hallucinations and madness, caused by pschoactive alkaloids in the sclerotia.”

Okay. Got it? That’s a lot of explanation for a tiny poem. Either it was terribly incomplete, or I managed to squeeze a lot into a small container. You can decide.

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