Thursday, December 01, 2016

A Toast To Winter: Part II, Shakespeare's Winter Sonnet

For years I have wanted to write about this poem, but it has come so freshly to mind every year and the different lines have had such different meanings — and have faded in and out of focus in relation to each other, some sometimes more distinct in my mind than others — that it seemed important to wait until the right moment. Or, perhaps, to write about it repeatedly from various perspectives.

First I encountered it in school; and in university when walking past the trees on campus when they had lost their leaf, looked blackened like the embers in the poem, and a wintry sun was sinking behind the buildings, I would think of it often. It also presented, retrospectively, a metaphor for the wasteland I felt I had passed through before I reached university.

But then it also had half a sacred aspect to me, with its choirs and the thought of eternity, and I pictured a ruined abbey or a church in the background of the scenery — even though I generally don't read Shakespeare for descriptions of scenery.

At any rate I felt that it is a poem that will likely reveal its meaning even more to me the older I am — even if the arc of Shakespeare's sonnets still seems to me to be a rather whiny paean to ego, adorned undeservedly with some beautiful verses, and more obsessed with (the narrator's own, and vicariously the narrator's through those of his love objects) youth and beauty, and by the grovelling fear of death, than ennobled by true love of another. That said, I am clearly forming a very harsh judgment and I haven't read any proper critics who have presented the sonnet cycle in a similar light.


'Ruins of the Oybin (Dreamer)'
Caspar David Friedrich, ca. 1835
Oil on canvas, Hermitage Museum
Via Wikimedia Commons

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
  This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
  To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


Wikipedia: "Sonnet 73"

A Toast To Winter: Part I, Matthias Claudius

The days have become so short now, and as grey as if dredged up from the seabed on a hazy northern morning, and at -6°C so cold by the measure of early German winters, that one solution to the chill fog that invades the mind too might seem to be to dive into summer literature. But instead I will try the cure by 'hair of the dog,' and mention books and poems and plays that celebrate, or at least describe, winter.

FIRST, a poem. Matthias Claudius is a German poet whose subjects take him through the everyday of a time span that seems broader, because I think it is still so relatable, than the swathe of the 18th and 19th century (1740 to 1815) that he personally knew. Transformed into songs, like Der Mond ist aufgegangen and, in the realm of the classics, 'Death and the Maiden,' his verse made him familiar even in my Canadian-German household in the 1990s.

To illustrate the poem I have chosen here, a figure of Winter would be far more appropriate, gnarled and foreboding or gleefully hard as described. But instead I have chosen some rather more tame and cheerful pictures by Ludwig Richter.


Ein Lied hinterm Ofen zu singen

Der Winter ist ein rechter Mann,
    Kernfest und auf die Dauer;
Sein Fleisch fühlt sich wie Eisen an,
    Und scheut nicht süß noch sauer.
War je ein Mann gesund, ist er's;
    Er krankt und kränkelt nimmer,
Weiß nichts von Nachtschweiß noch Vapeurs,
    Und schläft im kalten Zimmer.
Er zieht sein Hemd im Freien an,
    Und läßt's vorher nicht wärmen;
Und spottet über Fluß im Zahn
    Und Kolik in Gedärmen.
Aus Blumen und aus Vogelsang
    Weiß er sich nichts zu machen,
Haßt warmen Drang und warmen Klang
    Und alle warme Sachen.
Doch wenn die Füchse bellen sehr,
    Wenn's Holz im Ofen knittert,
Und um den Ofen Knecht und Herr
    Die Hände reibt und zittert;
Wenn Stein und Bein vor Frost zerbricht
    Und Teich' und Seen krachen;
Das klingt ihm gut, das haßt er nicht,
    Denn will er sich tot lachen. –
Sein Schloß von Eis liegt ganz hinaus
    Beim Nordpol an dem Strande;
Doch hat er auch ein Sommerhaus
    Im lieben Schweizerlande.
Da ist er denn bald dort bald hier,
    Gut Regiment zu führen.
Und wenn er durchzieht, stehen wir
    Und sehn ihn an und frieren.


A spur-of-the-moment translation by me. (The last verse is pure guesswork.)

A Song
to be sung behind the stove

Winter is an honest man,
Sound as a nut and long enduring;
His flesh feels firm as iron
And fears not sweet nor sour.

If ever a man was well, he is;
He falls sick or sickens never,
Night sweats or vapors knows he not,
And sleeps in a chilly chamber.

He pulls his shirt on in the open
And lets it not be warmed before;
And jeers at seepages of teeth
And colic of the bowels.

For flowers and the song of birds
He has no use whatever,
Hates warm throngs and hates warm tones
And hates warm things altogether.

Yet when the foxes bark in force,
The logs in the stove are crackling
And around the stove the man and master
Rub their hands and shiver;

When stone and bone crack in the frost
And ponds and lakes do shatter;
It pleases his ear, he hates it not,
For he wants to die of laughing.

His ice palace lies far away
At the North Pole near the shore;
And yet he has a summer house
In dear old Switzerland.

There he is — now there, now here —
To mount his regime well.
And when he passes through, we stand
And look at him and freeze.


Wikipedia: "Matthias Claudius" (English language)
Spiegel Online: Project Gutenberg: "Matthias Claudius: Der Wandsbecker Bote - Kapitel 164" (German language)

The poem was written in 1782 — "Ein Lied hinterm Ofen zu singen" (September 18, 2013) on the blog "Gedichtauswahl begründet"

Illustration of Der alte Turmhahn by Eduard Mörike
Adrian Ludwig Richter, 1855
Via Wikimedia Commons
Auszug der Sennen
Adrian Ludwig Richter, 1827
Oil on canvas
Via Wikimedia Commons
Matthias Claudius: Der Wandsbecker Bote
Lead pencil sketch by Adrian Ludwig Richter (1803-1884), Winter landscape with snowman and sleigh
via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, April 04, 2016

An Original Belle and A Young Girl's Wooing

Reading between the lines of romance novels can be rewarding in the brainiest of ways, and the novels of Edward Payson Roe are no exception. He was a Presbyterian pastor who wrote these books by way of educating the public, with a hefty dose of morality and (in my view) little realism in terms of his characters or their psychologies. But I like reading them as entertainment, and they can reveal a great deal about America at his time — at least from the vantage-point of the respectable educated person — that is rare to read elsewhere.

[Disclaimer: In part since I read many of the books a longer time ago, the information below may not be entirely accurate.]


An Original Belle (1885) is, I think, a 'text' on the American Civil War by a member of the generation who waged it; Edward Payson Roe was a chaplain for the Army of his home state New York. For instance, it demonstrates that modern conservatives who argue that the American Civil War was 'not about slavery at all at the time' are flatly mistaken. 'States' rights,' while he admires the patriotism of the South, are handled as a pretext. At the same time, he presents less idealized perspectives on the Yankee North and its unified moral purpose, by handling in detail an episode I had never heard of, namely the Draft Riots and the terrible violence against African Americans in New York City, 1863; as well as the less than magnanimous response to it by police and other authorities, which Roe however endorses.

(Given reactions after Hurricane Katrina and the London riots in 2011 or the Paris riots in 2005, for example, it becomes painfully clear that — in aspects like this, — his novels can still be relevant.)

An Original Belle is, I think, more justified than his other novels in the 'ripped from the headlines' sensationalism of its plot. Roe's first famous novel was set during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871,  and admittedly he writes that "I spent some days among the smoldering ruins," The Earth Trembled is set in Charleston, South Carolina, around the time of an earthquake in 1886. His novel about the effects of opium addiction on a family, Without a Home, is drawn from secondhand reports and in-person research. In his Civil War books he takes greater pains, perhaps, to honour the lived experiences of veterans and others who experienced the times, though his habit of interviewing high-ranking officers for 'definitive' versions of specific battles seems a little suspect to me. To be fair, as a complete novice I imagine after reading War and Peace and the scenes with Nikolai Rostov that the account of the 'ordinary' soldier in the ranks might be too empty of context, too diffuse and confusing, to explain much to the reader about the overall events of a battle. However it does drive me up the wall that he glosses over a great deal of the abuses that took place in the war in order to drive home the moral that there were 'good people on both sides' — undoubtedly true, but not very edifying if one had to live with the results of their teeny lapses in practice. ('The road to hell is paved with good intentions.') The irony is, however, that without reading these books, aspects of life in the 19th century U.S. that affected many people very badly, would be completely unknown to me. It probably doesn't help them any more, but perhaps there is merit to paying tribute to their facing of challenges like life in the tenements, the effects of an earthquake on 19th-century infrastructure, racism and warfare, that survives even the fictional treatment.

To encapsulate the rest of his fiction that I've read, in a nutshell, most others are set in peacetime. Nature's Serial Story is an example of the Thoreau-like cult of nature with, amongst other things, a rational acceptance of the Theory of Evolution that surprised me. In 2014, a Gallup poll determined that 42% of Americans profess the belief "that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago."(1) The novel — again, by a pastor — was published in 1884. His Sombre Rivals is a bleak portrait of the lasting damage of the War; it also treats the right to self-determination of mentally ill persons rather awfully, plot-wise.* Miss Lou also explores the American Civil War.


SOME OF ROE'S books are more theological than others. I find A Young Girl's Wooing surprisingly irreligious,  perhaps because it sets 'self-actualization' in a modern sense and not sheer religious perfection as its aim; and surprisingly feminist and at the same time not feminist. I like reading the website Smart B***s, Trashy Books, about modern romance novels, and as the writers there agree, one perennial enjoyment in the genre is its incredibly bizarre plots. A Young Girl's Wooing is a prime example.

The protagonist, Madge Alden, is a chronically ill girl who lives with her rich brother-in-law and her sister in New York City at the beginning of the book. One evening she realizes that she is in love with a younger brother-in-law. Realizing, too, that she isn't that sick after all, but suffering from an unhealthy lifestyle, she rushes off from New York City to California. There she enacts Pygmalion to her own Galatea, so that Galatea can attract said brother-in-law, Graydon Muir. There, too, she is chaperoned and hosted by an older couple, who teach her to swim, ride horses, and play all kinds of sports to grow into a healthy lady. Her secondary aim (a bit creepy, I think, since 'having common interests' is not the same thing as 'mini me') is to share Graydon's athletic hobbies. Besides she grows better educated, socially ept, and an excellent singer.

After the years pass, she travels back to the East Coast. Her sister and family-in-law are holidaying in rural New York State. Graydon Muir returns from Europe. When they meet again she abruptly tells her brother-in-law that she feels not like a sibling but like a friend, which befuddles the young man greatly, but makes sense in the historical context: relatives kissed each other on the mouth and were touchy-feelier in general, an awkward thing in her lot. Then she is a perfect person all around; attends church and sings in its choir; and is contrasted favorably with the young woman whom her brother-in-law has been pining after. This antagonist is Stella Wildmere, a fashionable businessman's daughter. She likes Graydon Muir, and is willing enough — as long as he is pretty rich —to marry him, which of course meant in 'good' 19th century circles that they would be stuck with each other for life.

I find the plot progressive and modern insofar as Madge Alden reflects on what her ideal is and turns herself into that person — without needing the advice of any man, or married woman like her sister. What I do not like so much is the way in which her sickness is despised; it foreshadows the Edwardian- and later-era obsession with societies full of individuals in perfect health, 'survival of the fittest,' etc. The sister is also not a greatly feminist figure either, since she is presented as a rather intellectually limited woman who is a good wife and mother but not somebody to trust with any kind of information or question.

Other iffy points, of course: the premise that a life hinges upon marrying or not managing to marry a man horrifies me. Secondly, that Graydon Muir 'must' love Madge Alden because she is there, endowed with virtue, and desperate. Even if that works, it's rather a steep proposition. Thirdly, that Extreme Goodness must be rewarded; and that Extreme Goodness is judged not entirely by progress toward an absolute ideal in the abstract, but is judged by comparing the heroine to someone who is Less Extremely Good; and that one person 'deserves' more than another. What I do think is pointful in a marriage — based on real-life observation — is never to treat one's spouse rudely in front of others, or ever purposely make them feel badly about themselves. Maybe one doesn't 'deserve' a marriage, but certainly 'deserves' to be happy and keep the other person happy, too.

Anyway, I feel for the hero in a romance novel who might likely be bored by his future wife's self-congratulation that she wasn't as mercenary as That Other Woman. Aside from the inconvenience to the hero, the idea that a fellow human being is a reward by Providence for merit, like a Victorian sugar plum, is also unlikely to be desirable in reality.


An Original Belle, to a lesser degree, shares the ideal of the self-made woman. Marian Vosburgh, the heroine, is a New Yorker society girl who likes flirting with her male peers. If they make a marriage proposal, she briefly sends them on their way. I have no doubt that there are Circes in real life, but what I can never understand is why their Odysseuses never appear to understand what their motivations are, when we need and use perception and reflection so often to figure out the actions of other people. Each suitor, at any rate, is apparently crushed to the soul to figure out that she likes them, but not in that way. Then the heroine discovers that she is being really mean, and (in a touch of classism) that she is not quite comporting herself like a lady. After that she tries to discover other interests, and to be an inspiring friend instead of a flirt.
Among the myriad phases of power, perhaps that of a gifted and beautiful woman is the most subtile and hard to define. It is not the result of mere beauty, although that may be an important element; and if wit, intelligence, learning, accomplishments, and goodness are added, all combined cannot wholly explain the power that some women possess. Deeper, perhaps more potent, than all else, is an individuality which distinguishes one woman from all others, and imparts her own peculiar fascination. Of course, such words do not apply to those who are content to be commonplace themselves, and who are satisfied with the ordinary homage of ordinary minds, or the conventional attention of men who are incited to nothing better. (2)
IN REAL LIFE, I can hardly imagine a more dire premise than that of Exerting a Beneficial Influence upon the people whom one meets; it would probably turn into a farce almost as bad as Shakespeare's play with the sets of twins whose title I can't remember. In this book, the heroine tries to encourage her friends to be patriotic and brave as the American Civil War worsens and New York, distant at first from the battlegrounds, is gradually threatened. This means that many of them Become a Man and, after their training, head off to the South to meet the horde of General Robert E. Lee.

One young man in her circle apparently refuses to Become A Man — the rich son of a now-dead Yankee and his rather awful southern-born widow. He — Willard Merwyn — sits in his Madison Avenue home like the raven over Poe's door, in company with two elderly domestic servants who were left behind like jetsam on the tide of war. He donates money to wartime causes and verbally supports the Yankee cause, but resists any exhortation to raise a rifle to his shoulder and take pot-shots at a few Rebs. 'War is a terrible thing,' the heroine tearily repeats, 'and I'd never tell anyone to fight.' (""No, papa, no," cried Marian, with suddenly moistening eyes. "I regret the war beyond all power of expression. I could not ask, much less urge, any one to go, and my heart trembles and shrinks when I think of danger threatening those I love. But I honor—I almost worship—courage, loyalty, patriotism.") Yet she can't accept Merwyn as her potential husband until at last he gazes down the barrel of a Richmond rifle in person and 'proves' that he is brave.

His mother asked him not to fight as a Yankee for the charming reason that she wants the South to beat the Yankees. I'd say that sense and the greater good would dictate that, except if I were a conscientious objector, I'd go off and face death like anyone else I knew.  But apparently Not Breaking the Promise is the greater morality here. Fortunately(?) the Draft Riots break out and he proves that, faced with a roaring mob who wants to beat him to death or worse, he can 'establish his authority' and kill people as easily as the next man. In the 18th-century periodical the Adventurer, a story appeared with the motto, 'No life pleasing to God that is not useful to man,' and for some reason it comes to mind.

This cheery plot again demonstrates how loose the term 'romance' is. Even Dame Barbara Cartland might have struggled to filter Roe's narrative through a rosy lens.

But** it also illustrates, as I think, that it is a tricky business to be another man's conscience, when there are hidden motives and processes that even the most triumphantly moralizing person might not understand; and illustrates the insufficiency of human understanding to evince the kind of omniscience that we like to arrogate from whichever gods or belief systems we observe.


(1) "In U.S., 42% Believe Creationist View of Human Origins" [Gallup], by Frank Newport (June 2, 2014)
(2) Preface, An Original Belle [Project Gutenberg], by Edward Payson Roe. First published in 1885.

* Spoiler (pass the cursor over the empty space to read it): The hero marries a heroine who is mentally incapacitated after the loss of her husband, to be in a position to give her better medical care. He is in love with her, but she married and loved his friend instead. When she has recovered again, she decides to make the best of things.

** (Please excuse the toplofty pretentiousness that follows.)

Information from "Edward Payson Roe," "New York City draft riots," "Great Chicago Fire," "1886 Charleston Earthquake" (Wikipedia); and from Barriers Burned Away, Without a Home and A Young Girl's Wooing (Project Gutenberg).

[Last edited April 4, 2016.]

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter in Swedish: Noisy Village of Astrid Lindgren

"Bullerbü (Bullerbyn), eigentlich Sevedstorp"
Photograph by Manuela Hoffmann
August 9th, 2009. On Flickr.
License: (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Listening in on a television programme about her World War II diaries,* I was surprised to realize that Swedish children's author Astrid Lindgren wrote her books against the background, as it were, of the Second World War.

Lindgren experienced the war on Sweden's 'home front' — and war indirectly, through her work and naturally through her relations. She was married then and at that time her husband was, of course, in the military. Trained as a secretary, she spent her time reading, i.e. censoring, German-language letters for Sweden's special intelligence service.

I guess that she was eager for 'pastures new' after the war. Because then she spent her time planting and tending — like a garden — literary worlds for children. These worlds were, by and large, freed from the cruelty and indeed any great influence of elders. Pippi Longstocking is doubtless her famous protagonist, now. But I have liked reading Ronia, the Robber's Daughter (Ronja rövardotter), Mio My Son (Mio, min Mio)** and Alla vi barn i Bullerbyn — The Children of Noisy Village — too.


AFTERWARD we were going to hunt for the Easter eggs filled with candy which Mommy had hidden. Every Easter Karl and Bill and I each get a large egg filled with lots and lots of candy. But this year Mommy said that if we would be satisfied with eggs that were a little smaller, she would buy some for Britta and Anna and Olaf too. Then we could give them as a surprise at our party. Of course we wanted to do this. It was hard to find the eggs, Mommy had hidden them so cleverly. Mine was in the cupboard where we keep the pots and pans. It was made of silver with little flowers. Inside there was a little chicken made of almond paste, and lots of candy.


The Children of Noisy Village
By Astrid Lindgren
Illustrations by Ilon Wiklund.
Translation by Florence Lamborn.
New York: Penguin, 1988 (124 pp.)
For children five years and up, I think. Puffin: "8-12."

* "Kriegstagebücher von Astrid Lindgren" [Radio Berlin Brandenburg: Stilbruch]
K. Wenzel et al. (October 15th, 2015)
[Note: The video is online — presumably just in Germany — until October 15th, 2016.]

** In this book the background of World War II was material, I imagine. It is sombre.


More information:
"Astrid Lindgren's second world war diaries published in Sweden" [Guardian], by Alison Flood (May 13, 2015)

I also consulted "Wir Kinder aus Bullerbü", "The Six Bullerby Children," and "Astrid Lindgren" on Wikipedia.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Earth-Centric Theory and the Regulated Mind

Arthur Conan Doyle:
His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
Theoria solis per eccentricum sine epicyclo.
From: Harmonia macrocosmica seu atlas universalis et novus, totius universi creati cosmographiam generalem, et novam exhibens.
by Andreas Cellarius (1661)
(Wikimedia Commons)

"YOU appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"
"Schema huius præmissæ diuisionis Sphærarum."
From: Peter Apian, Cosmographia, Antwerp, 1524
(Wikimedia Commons)

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."
From A Study in Scarlet (1887, Project Gutenberg)
— in the Sherlock Holmes series.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Poppies, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Study of Poppies, by John Constable
via V + A Museum website
They walked along listening to the singing of the bright-colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy's eyes.

"Aren't they beautiful?" the girl asked, as she breathed in the spicy scent of the flowers.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (1900)

The Wizard of Oz is familiar enough through the 1939 film with Judy Garland that an introduction to it is likely unneeded. Instead, then, I have taken this excerpt. In the Hollywood version, the flowers have been enchanted by the Wicked Witch of the West; in this version, the fragrance of the poppies in themselves is a sedative. When reading this chapter, I wondered, if in 1900, laudanum was still used as a medicine even for children. (Wikipedia: American patent medicine manufacturers were first required to list opium content in 1906; preparations of coca leaf and preparations of opium were roundly restricted by the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914, and Britain and France formulated their own similar restrictions a few years later.)

Illustration: Made in Great Britain, ca. 1832.
Maker: John Constable, born 1776 - died 1837. Oil on paper with a brown ground. Given to the Victoria and Albert museum by Isabel Constable. Museum number: 329-1888.

In honour of the exhibition: Constable: The Making of a Master, in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK), from September 20th, 2014 to January 11th, 2014. More information here.

Laudanum and Harrison Narcotics Tax Act [Wikipedia]
Text quoted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (New York: Alfred A. Knopf — Everyman's Library, 1992), p. 68

Friday, September 19, 2014

Burns's Shelterless Mouse

'To a Mouse' is one of my favourite poems, which I came across during school. Robert Burns wrote it in 1785, after he indeed met by putting athwart a nest of mice amid agricultural pursuits, according to his brother. He writes it from the point of view of marauding man, with a half-affectionate disrespect that is already in the first lines. I am guessing from a knowledge of English rather than of Scots, but he is naming the mouse 'little, sleek, cowering and timorous.'

Its Scots Wikipedia entry is worth citing here:
'To a Mouse' (Scots: Tae a Moose) is a Scots poem written bi Robert Burns in 1785 that wis includit in the Kilmarnock Volume, his first settin furth o musradry.


I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
                               Which makes thee startle,

Northumberland Bestiary: folio 33.
Between 1250 and 1260.
via Wikimedia Commons

WEE, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.