Missio Impossibile

“Over my dead body” is an example of the rhetorical figure known as “impossibilia” (“adynata” in Greek): an answer which accedes to a request while imposing an impossible or unthinkable condition. Such was the reply, according to legend, given by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, to his wife the Countess Godiva when she entreated him to reduce the tax burden on the residents of Coventry. His condition was that she should ride naked through the town. She chose to accept the mission, and the grateful townsfolk were moved to avert their eyes from her progress.

I’m on a day return to Coventry, and have a lot of catching up to do in a few hours. A “Guardian” article of 2001 by Maev Kennedy tells me:

“The tombs of Godiva and her husband, Leofric, would have been looted and destroyed. They were both recorded as buried in the small church they founded on the hilltop in Coventry. Around this grew an imposing cathedral, far larger than the cathedral destroyed in the Blitz or its modern replacement.”

Professor Daniel Donoghue points out that Godiva, or Godifu, lived in the latter part of the eleventh Century, and that “two centuries after her death, chroniclers in the Benedictine Abbey of St Albans inserted a fully developed narrative into their Latin histories…Nobody knows quite why…..but it does seem to function as a kind of myth of origin for the town of Coventry…..She is a member of the ruling class who nonetheless sympathises with the plight of ordinary people.”

John Collier’s 1898 painting “Lady Godiva “, in the Pre-Raphaelite style, hangs in Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery. (The Gallery is named after Sir Alfred Herbert, industrialist and Museum benefactor, who also funded the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. The competition to supply the architectural design of the new cathedral building was won by Sir Basil Spence.) I’m unsure if the Gallery’s invitation to “Discover Godiva ” is intended as a play on words.

Collier once commented: “As far as morality is intuitive, I think it may be reduced to an inherent impulse of kindliness towards our fellow citizens.”.

The William Morris Building of Coventry University began life in 1910 as a factory. It has been named after the founder of the Morris car company which used this building as part of its engine production unit. As 1st Viscount Nuffield, William Morris founded the Nuffield Foundation, the Nuffield Trust and Nuffield College, Oxford.

Thomas Mann, the noted trade unionist, was born in Foleshill, near Coventry, in 1856. From 1865-70 the young Tom worked at the Victoria Colliery, until its closure drove his family to leave Coventry for Birmingham. Once Tom had finished his apprenticeship there, he moved to London, where his foreman introduced him to the socialist ideas of (that other, earlier) William Morris, designer, poet and socialist activist.

In his own piece of “impossibilia”, Morris once wrote:

“Rewrite the lost trilogies of Aeschylus….and…..then you may “restore” Westminster Abbey.”

The young WB Yeats was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and personally encouraged by Morris. In an article for the William Morris Society, Peter Faulkner writes of their friendship. He quotes a 1901 article by Yeats:

“I would have Ireland recreate the ancient arts, the arts as they were understood….in every ancient land; as they were understood when they moved a whole people and not a few people who have grown up in a leisured class and made this understanding their business.”

The following year, Yeats wrote an essay “which again shows the influence of Morris “, comments Faulkner, “in its attack on “the timidity and reserve of a counting house”, that are said to have become characteristic of England since the Elizabethan period.”

Faulkner continues: “His spontaneity and joy were qualities that struck all who met Morris. For the highly self-conscious Yeats, there was splendour in Morris’ capacity for self-forgetfulness, his unconcern for the timidities of convention. The Morris who, Yeats recalled, flung “a badly baked plum pudding through the window upon Christmas Day”, was gloriously himself.”

Yeats captures the daring tone of defiance in his 1916 poem, “A Coat”:

“I made my song a coat

Covered with embroideries

Out of old mythologies

From heel to throat;

But the fools caught it,

Wore it in the world’s eyes

As though they’d wrought it.

Song, let them take it

For there’s more enterprise

In walking naked.”

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