Swithin and Sewanee

This morning, ironically enough, it is not raining in Oxford. It is St. Swithin’s Day, July 15th, and according to an English proverb,

Saint Swithun’s day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain
Saint Swithun’s day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ’twill rain no more.

As you may know, Britain has been experiencing its rainiest summer ever, and everyone is exasperated about it. In yesterday’s Times, one columnist lamented, “Worst of all there is no one to blame; no minister to haul on to Newsnight to explain why the front destined for Scandinavia has been stuck for weeks; no calls for a Weatherson Inquiry.” The fact that back in Tennessee it has been hotter than blazes has assuaged my own wet and chilly feelings only a little.

So far, the saint is doing right by us, but there’s plenty of time left in the day for him to screw this up. Swithin was a bishop of Winchester, only an hour or so’s drive from Oxford, and is venerated there particularly in the famous cathedral.  Closer to home, there’s a girl’s school called St. Swithin’s in Oxfordshire and a quad named for him at Magdalen College, which I have not now seen.  Interestingly enough,  the image I know best of this saint is in All Saints’ Chapel back in Sewanee (pictured to the left).  He’s holding a bridge, his traditional iconographic attribute, to represent the bridge he ordered built over the River Itchen and where he performed a miracle.  Why this entitles him to represent “Civil Engineering,” as the window states, is beyond me, but then, Sewanee hasn’t had a department of civil engineering for a long time, if ever, so it’s probably just as well.

Truthfully, I think Sewanee’s program in Environmental Studies ought to adopt the St. Swithin’s window in All Saints. There is a great tradition of rationalizing weather-lore, and everything I’ve read about the inherent wisdom of the Swithin’s Day proverb discusses the jet stream’s position in early summer. This year, the jet stream has not moved north to leave Britain relatively dry but is instead squatting damply in the south. Why is the jet stream behaving this way?  Probably for the same reason it’s so damned hot in Sewanee this summer: changes in global climate. The fact is, there is somebody to blame, as the Times columnist wanted, and it is all of us. If skeptics won’t listen to scientists about these matters, perhaps they’ll listen to St. Swithin, and maybe his bridge can be re-interpreted as a symbol of dialogue. That would be miraculous, even more so than this morning’s sunshine.

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About Uncomely and Broken

I teach Latin and Greek at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Emblems, England, Mythology, Oxford, Poetry, Saints, Sewanee, Tennessee. Bookmark the permalink.

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