Friday, February 16, 2018

Keats's Charactery

John Keats was notoriously young, twenty-five years old when he died of tuberculosis in Rome, and at that time he was not basking in the venerable twilight of an acknowledged poetic master. He was, to some contemporaries, an upstart, and his readers partly ridiculed him.

I think it makes sense that the work he did influenced him to foreboding and a preoccupation with death, because besides writing poetry he also worked as a surgeon. His poem "When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be" I remember from Grade 12 English Literature class as a time-overleaping twin to John Milton's earlier 17th-century sonnet "When I Consider How My Light is Spent"; and it is a prime example of the poet's foreboding strain.

"Portrait of Keats, listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath"
Joseph Severn (ca. 1845)
via Wikimedia Commons

"When I have Fears" is from the year 1818; Keats likely had not developed tuberculosis yet, and he died years later in 1821. That said, Keats's brother had already been ill, offering reasonable grounds for Keats to feel a semi-medieval fascination with Death.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.-*
(I wonder what the last two-and-a-half-lines mean. Might they mean that death is so all-devouring that even we forget even the warmest desires in life, when its warning shadow overcasts our consciousness?)

* From: "When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be" on Wikipedia
further information from "John Keats" and "When I Consider How My Light is Spent"

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Mysterious Demises at Cornwall, with Sherlock Holmes

"High Cove Typical Cornish rocky cove, with small sandy beach"
by Mike Hancock, 1995
via at Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Thus it was that in the early spring of that year we found ourselves together in a small cottage near Poldhu Bay, at the further extremity of the Cornish peninsula.

It was a singular spot [...] From the windows of our little whitewashed house, which stood high upon a grassy headland, we looked down upon the whole sinister semicircle of Mounts Bay, that old death trap of sailing vessels, with its fringe of black cliffs and surge-swept reefs on which innumerable seamen have met their end. With a northerly breeze it lies placid and sheltered [...]
I realized afresh when I read this passage in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Adventure of the Devil's Foot, that one of the charms of the Sherlock Holmes tales is its perhaps semi-journalistic survey of Britishness. His stories are of their time, too, and feel at least to me very Victorian and very Edwardian. But I think that less time-specific aspects of England peep out, even if it is the description of an Atlantic-battered holiday getaway — Sherlock Holmes leaves London at the beginning of the story, so that he can recruit his health by the seaside — in western Cornwall.

Alongside a far from bashful self-advertisement of the short story — Watson claims that this adventure is a problem 'more intense, more engrossing, and infinitely more mysterious than any of those which had driven us from London' — Doyle also enumerates his set of characters with well-practiced celerity. For example, Mortimer Tregennis is introduced in this sketch: "his lodger strangely reticent, a sad-faced, introspective man, sitting with averted eyes, brooding apparently upon his own affairs."

Mortimer Tregennis and the vicar, Mr. Roundhay, are the ones who request Sherlock Holmes's professional assistance in this story. Tregennis's sister has died and his two brothers descended into madness, for no apparent reason, seated in the dining room after an evening game of cards. (What happened wasn't common knowledge. The housekeeper was the one who found the victims the next day, hours after the mysterious catastrophe had occurred.)

Watson, never one to dilute drama, writes that as he and Holmes — having accepted the request — were walking with the others to investigate the death scene, a carriage drives by to transport the maddened brothers to an institution. "As it drove by us I caught a glimpse through the closed window of a horribly contorted, grinning face glaring out at us. Those staring eyes and gnashing teeth flashed past us like a dreadful vision."

"Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Devil's Foot (1910), Illustration by Gilbert Holiday, in The Strand Magazine"
via Wikimedia Commons

That morning, Sherlock Holmes sifts the evidence at the Tregennis house. He wants to know amongst other things what might be behind the tale that a face had peeked in through the window, the previous night, at the card-players. There are no footprints near the window. Also, the night was too dark and a card-player in the room could not have seen very much. Eventually, Holmes leaves the Tregennis home again for his cottage, without pointing fingers at any culprit. But in his mind, the links have formed in a strong chain of evidence.

Ibid., here

Later, that afternoon, a neighbour of the Tregennises enters the scene, calling on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and wishing to keep informed about their investigation. He happens to be the Edwardian equivalent of a celebrity:
The huge body, the craggy and deeply seamed face with the fierce eyes and hawk-like nose, the grizzled hair which nearly brushed our cottage ceiling, the beard--golden at the fringes and white near the lips, save for the nicotine stain from his perpetual cigar--all these were as well known in London as in Africa, and could only be associated with the tremendous personality of Dr. Leon Sterndale, the great lion-hunter and explorer.
All of the dramatis personae are introduced to the story at that point; and Holmes speedily resolves the mystery. Retelling it would require many spoilers, which I won't mention here.


I don't know why this gruesome tale is the first one I think to post on Valentine's Day; but in a way I think the mystery, once resolved, doesn't make it an entirely undeserving candidate for this day. Loyalty and love, although mangled and lost under the violence of fictitious and sensational tragedy, are still at the emotional centre of the story.


"The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" is a later Holmes story, in The Last Bow, and was published in 1910.
The quotations are from the Project Gutenberg edition, here, and this is the Wikipedia article: here.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Montesquieu's Persian Letters and His Fellow Authors

The Persian Letters of Montesquieu have turned into one of the books that cause me to enter a subway train, read a few sentences, and then emerge befuddled as the train reaches my station barely — as I feel — seconds later.

It consists of an imaginary bundle of letters written by, of, or to a pair of Persian men — one younger, one older — who travel to Paris and describe the society they find. The coming excerpt from the 75th letter is not my favourite passage, since I think it is not particularly profound and not aimed at any crucial grievance in societies past or present.

I venture to think, too, that people read far fewer books than one might think from Montesquieu's representations. But it is funny enough to share generally, and personally a comfort to me for not achieving anything authorly by way of publication:

1721 Edition of the Persian Letters
From the Skoklosters Slott collection, Lake Mälaren, Sweden
via Wikimedia Commons

"La fureur de la plupart des Français, c’est d’avoir de l’esprit ; et la fureur de ceux qui veulent avoir de l’esprit, c’est de faire des livres.

"Cependant il n’y a rien de si mal imaginé : la nature semblait avoir sagement pourvu à ce que les sottises des hommes fussent passagères ; et les livres les immortalisent. Un sot devrait être content d’avoir ennuyé tous ceux qui ont vécu avec lui : il veut encore tourmenter les races futures ; il veut que sa sottise triomphe de l’oubli, dont il aurait pu jouir comme du tombeau ; il veut que la postérité soit informée qu’il a vécu, et qu’elle sache à jamais qu’il a été un sot.”

Source: Les lettres persanes, (Copyright Le Figaro, Éditions Garnier)


Rough translation: 'The rage of most of the French is to possess wit; and the rage of those who want wit, is to make books. Nevertheless there is nothing so ill conceived: nature wisely appears to have preordained that the nonsense of men be fleeting, and books immortalize it. An idiot should be satisfied with having annoyed all those who have lived with him; he wants to torment future generations still; he wants his nonsense to triumph over the oblivion by which he might have profited like the tomb; he wants posterity to be informed that he has lived, and to know forever that he was a fool.'

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Found Poem: Idyll in Southern Spain

Fachada de la Real Colegiata de San Hipólito
by Amoluc (?), via Wikimedia Commons
License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Poems can, at times, happen at unexpected places; and despite the tradition of Lieder and more subtle presences of literature in music, it was a surprise when I first leafed through our edition of the Chants d'Espagne by Isaac Albéniz to see the epigraph above "Córdoba."
En el silencio de la noche, que interrumpe el
susurro de las brises aromadas por los
jazmines, suenan las guzlas acompañando las

Serenatas y difundiendo en el aire melodías
ardientes y notas tan dulces como los
balanceos de las palmas en los altos cielos.
Roughly translated: In the stillness of the night, interrupted by the whisper of the breezes scented by jasmine, the gusles* resound, accompanying the serenades and diffusing into the air ardent melodies and notes as soft as the waving of the palms in the high skies.

(German-language Wikipedia: "Gusle")

(Note: In our G. Henle edition, the English translation is rendered so it is the musical notes that are 'in celestial heights' — or, as I put it, 'in the high skies' — and not the swaying palms. But I prefer to persist in my interpretation as it is!)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Paul Valéry's Féerie

Paul Valéry, 1871-1945.

Today° I made much progress in Voltaire's Zaïre and, to misquote Jane Austen's phrase, the reader can guess by the tell-tale compression of the pages that we are hastening to the final state of infelicity. But I've also taken a look at the poems of Paul Valéry. Aside from having the vague idea that he wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I made the conscious decision not to read anything about his work or his biography before I had read some of the poems; and then slipped the book that I found at home into the bag that I take to work. In the U-Bahn, therefore, I opened it for the first time: I saw my grandmother's name inked in the front, and that it had been published in 1944.

Eglinton Castle (c.1830s)
by John Fleming
via Wikimedia Commons
Then I read the poems. The 'pared-down' crystalline diction made me feel awed. I also admired the metaphors, although the meaning was often obscure and needlessly so, and the quality of the poet's mind.

I admired his 'Féerie' a lot, at any rate, even if my French is not reliable enough to understand if there is indeed a heavy erotic subtext there or not!
La lune mince verse une lueur sacrée
Toute une jupe d'un tissu d'argent léger,
Sur les bases de marbre où vient l'ombre songer
Que suit d'un char de perle une gaze nacrée.

Pour les cygnes soyeux qui frôlent les roseaux
De carènes de plume à demi lumineuse,
Elle effeuille infinie une rose neigeuse
Dont les pétales font des cercles sur les eaux…
[. . .]


(Translated based purely on guesswork,

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Evangel Of Peace

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold.

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold;
And to the presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?" The vision raised its head,
And, with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."

"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow-men."

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again, with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed;
And, lo! Ben Adhem 's name led all the rest.
—Leigh Hunt
English poet (1784-1859)

From Wikisource: "Abou ben Adhem" in Poems That Every Child Should Know, Mary E. Burt, ed. Doubleday, Page + Company.

"Mohammed receiving revelation from the angel Gabriel"
Rashid al-Din, 1307
In the Edinburgh University Library collection, Scotland
via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Toast To Winter: Part IV, Shelley Twice

After looking in the Lighthouse's archives, I find that a 2009 post here in fact expresses insights into Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode To The West Wind" that are far better than anything I could muster today. The Ode does feel like a fall poem rather than a winter poem, too, given the impressions of movement and the falling leaves, etc. But like the graves between the spring or summer flowers in a churchyard, Winter is a dark presence that pervades the poem.

Here are excerpts of the Ode, then. I am presenting them without further commentary. In them, the poet addresses the West Wind, 'thou,' as if it were a human being.

O, thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth,


Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O, hear!


Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"


"Prometheus Unbound; a lyrical drama in four acts with other poems/Ode to the West Wind" (Wikisource)
The Ode was first published in 1820.