On 'Colloquy in Glaschu'

by Paula Jansen

In 'Colloquy in Glaschu' Morgan shows us a fictive account of the meeting between two monks, Kentigern and Columba. It is not completely clear who the persons are and what they are talking about at first sight. Two names are given: Columba and Kentigern and the fact that they are monks can be traced back in the sonnet by the form of address "Frater". Who are these monks?
A lot can be said about these two men. Saint Columba, also known under various other names under which he is also known, was born in Ireland around 521. He died on 9 June 597 and became one of the three great saints of Ireland, together with Patrick and Brigid. It is said that Columba came from a race of kings and was destined for priesthood from early on. After he was ordained he spent the next 15 years preaching and teaching in Ireland. He founded many monasteries and churches in Ireland. Columba was also a poet and he allegedly wrote down the Latin poem Altus Prosator and the book the Psaltair. It is not sure why Columba crossed the Irish Sea, but he did in 563 with some companions and landed on a desert island now known as Iona. This became "the center of Christian enterprise"(1). From there he went into the north and converted the Picts, the Scots and the Northern English.
Saint Kentigern, also known as Saint Mungo, was born around 528. Most of what we now know about him is not very reliable, since his life was not written down until the eleventh and twelfth centuries. His parentage is doubtful and not much is known of his ordination. It is said that he travelled westward, ultimately taking over the unfinished work of St. Ninian near Glasgow. He is known to be the founder of Glasgow. Because of political disorder he was driven into exile in Wales and founded a monastery there. After some years the Christian King Rederech of Strathclyde, around 573, called him back to the north. He returned to Glasgow and stayed there until his death. He was buried where the Cathedral of Glasgow now stands, that is built on a well. This well is also mentioned in the sonnet (line 14).
The only saint's life that is known about Saint Kentigern is that by Jocelyn of Furness and was probably written around 1180. In this hagiographical work an account is also given of the meeting between Kentigern and Columba:

In that time when the blessed Kentigern was placed on the candelabrum of the Lord as a lamp burning with heavenly desires and shining with health-bringing words and examples of virtues and wonders, he gave light to all who were in the house of God. And the holy abbot Columba, whom the Angles call Columkillus, a man wondrous in doctrine and virtues and well-known for his prophecies of future times, indeed a man filled with the spirit of prophecy, lived in that glorious monastery which he had built on the island of Iona. And he wished to rejoice, not for one hour but unceasingly, in the light of Saint Kentigern. For having heard for a long time the rumors of his holy fame, Columba desired to go to Kentigern, and to visit, to see, and to be received into a more private familiarity with him, and to consult the sanctuary of his holy breast concerning those matters which were near to his own heart.
[…]
The holy bishop took delight in these things which were told to him concerning them, and he joined his clerics and others to him and likewise dividing them into three groups, he went out towards them with spiritual songs.
[…]
Therefore these two God-like men hastened to unite in mutual embraces and holy kisses, and having fattened themselves first with a spiritual feast of divine words, they afterwards restored themselves with bodily food. But how great was the sweetness of divine contemplation within their most holy breasts is not for me to mark down nor is it given to me or to one similar to me to inquire into the manna hidden and, as I suppose, unknown to all except those who taste it (2)

As can be concluded from the chapter cited from Jocelyn, it is not exactly known what they were talking about, only that it concerned "divine matters". There is mentioning of the singing of spiritual songs, as Morgan tells us in the sonnet (line 12-13).
In the conversation in the sonnet four different languages are used, namely English, French, Latin and Scots. To get a better understanding of the sonnet, it is useful to translate the non-English parts into English. This would give us the following sonnet:

Colloquy in Glasgow

God but the sound of the horn, Columba sighed
to Kentigern, is sad at the far end of the woods!
Brother, said Kentigern, I see no harm.
I love the sound of the horn, when day has died,
deep in the woods, and oystercatchers rise
before the fowler as he trudges home
and the speech of the wolf loosens the grey loam.
At the far horizon is paradise,
it disappears in silence, the horn sounds -
- and dies, Columba mused, but Kentigern
replied, is born again and lives on. The cell
is filled with song. Outside, the boy sings.
Come hunter sings the bold fellow.
The saints dip startled cups in Mungo's well.

Some words have another meaning as well. Thus, "Veni venator" means "come hunter", but it can also be the title of a hymn, in which the hunter would represent Christ.
"Sermo Lupi", on the other hand, refers to a medieval sermon from 1014 named "Sermo Lupi ad Anglos" made by Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York and Bishop of Worcester in which he "describes the desolation of the country brought about by the Danish raids and calls for repentance and reformation"(3). So different allusions to religion are used as well. Morgan clearly makes use of different sources and elements to compose his sonnet.
The sound of the horn can be seen to represent life. When reading the sonnet, it becomes clear that Columba and Kentigern have a different perspective on this "son du cor". Whereas Columba does not like it and connects it to sadness ("triste", line 2) and death ("et meurt", line 10), Kentigern replies that it "renaît et se prolonge" or is born again and lives on. This can be connected to the life after death in Paradise.
A possible reason for Columba to be so pessimistic is because it is said that due to him hiding a refugee, war broke out between the clans of Ireland and many died. He experienced a profound conversion due to this event, became an exile and eventually began his converting mission.(4) Then the sound of the horn can be connected to the sound of war and then the link with sadness and death is easily made.
So Morgan shows us the pessimistic viewpoint of Columba and the optimistic point of view of Kentigern. With the hymn, Morgan gives a reference of the Last Judgement and this is connected to Kentigern's belief in life after death. At the end, Morgan shows an event that has implications for the future; by naming Mungo's well, he links the sonnet to the founding of Glasgow.

 

(1) http://users.erols.com/saintpat/ss/0609.htm#colu

(2) Jocelyn, a monk of Furness on Kentigern:

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/Jocelyn-LifeofKentigern.html

(3) Bibliotheca Augustana:

http://www.fh-augsburg.de/~harsch/anglica/Chronology/11thC/Wulfstan/wul_intr.html

(4) http://users.erols.com/saintpat/ss/0609.htm#colu

 

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