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.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Toast To Winter, Part III: Coleridge

According to the vague information imparted by the high school English Literature course that I have mentioned many times before, and by scraps of independent reading since, Samuel Taylor Coleridge stood with William Wordsworth like the twin pillars of Gibraltar at the brink not of the Atlantic Ocean, but of the Romantic Movement. Returning their attention to the working man and his plight, their poems were expressed in simple language. They must have been unbearably shocking after the lofty vocabulary, the yoked heroic couplets, and the encyclopaedias' worth of classical allusions that peppered poems before this time.


Frost at Midnight
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

[. . .]
On the St. Ann's River Below Quebec
Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872)
via Wikimedia Commons

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw ; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.


Source: Frost at Midnight (Wikipedia)
Poem written February 1798.
Frost at Midnight (Wikisource)

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"