Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ode to the West Wind

by Percy Bysshe Shelley
First published: 1820

The first time I (knowingly — which is to say that I could have previously leafed past it in a poetry anthology) encountered "Ode to the West Wind" was in the last year of high school.* In hindsight this is equally fitting and ironic. It is ironic on the one hand because any schoolchild who bothers to think about it will probably find it peculiar to read a poem that has distinctly counterestablishment and freespirited tendencies in an academic environment. On the other hand it is fitting because the poem is an anthem of youth, and more specifically of the youth which enters university firmly believing itself possessed of unprecedented insights, of unique talent, and of the duty to change the world.
*(N.B.: At roughly the same time I was introduced to "Ozymandias" and "Ode to a Skylark," and every now and then have come across biographical sketches of Shelley, but aside from that my knowledge of the poet has mostly and quickly been picked up from the internet during the writing of this post. Caveat lector.)

When Shelley wrote the ode he was twenty-seven and evidently hadn't outgrown this phase. Though he had come so far as entering and surviving Eton, he was kicked out of Oxford in 1811 for a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, which episode bounded his formal education but certainly did not bound his enthusiastic espousal of objectionable sociopolitical ideas. After this point in life his family's visions of him as his father's successor as a Whig Member of Parliament became ever fainter, and even granting that the course set before a person by his parents is rarely calculated to realize a fully mature character, one might generally say that he never completed the natural progression into adulthood. He led an itinerant artistic existence, dabbling in society, earnestly provoking the ire of authorities and critics through his divers publications, and hobnobbing with the congenial Lord Byron. Despite a marriage, a (to put it bluntly) adulterous elopement eventually followed by another marriage, and children, he was evidently as far as ever from settling down by the time he died, still young, when his boat capsized off the Italian shore. (The circumstances of this drowning are still disputed but, though if homicide was the true cause it would be vexing that the perpetrators escaped with impunity, Shelley would probably have been pleased that he "departed this life" enwrapped in a romantic shroud of mystery.)

One advantage of such a Peter Pan existence is that Shelley's illusions and hopes about himself and the extent of his influence on an unfair and hostilely skeptical world probably remained intact. His arrogant proclamation that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" [N.B.: very unacknowledged indeed, and for good reason] set the bar of achievement rather too high; disappointment was inevitable. Besides he was doubtless happier off not knowing that, two hundred years later, he would principally and vaguely be remembered not as a dashing revolutionary artist, but as a stodgy "dead white male" poet whose most popular works are mainly and grudgingly read in schools.


("Krähen auf einem Baum," oil on canvas by Caspar David Friedrich, 1822)

The west wind, also known as Zephyr, is typically idealized as the wind of change, since it manifests itself when winter turns into spring — like a chinook in the North American prairies. The "Ode" itself therefore begins with a lyrical but peculiarly forceful nature-description, wherein Shelley departs from convention by envisioning the West Wind as a creature of autumn and not of spring, and one like Boreas in his potentially vicious destructive force. In addition Shelley's wind embodies not mere change, but liberty in all its facets: political, artistic, etc.

According to Shelley's note the ode was "conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains. They began [. . .] at sunset with a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the Cisalpine regions." (My mother and I once visited Florence and ascended a hill overlooking the Arno on whose crest there is a dense forest, in late October or November, and the scene did convey a peculiar sense of wilderness, but the weather was not windy.) And so the poem begins,
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: 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
— and here, finishing the line with the word "until" and then moving on, Shelley turns away from the autumnal Italian scene before him and paints a word-portrait of the gentler and earlier west wind, the "azure sister of the spring." Then he heightens the insistence with which he is addressing the West Wind by "calling" out: "Wild Spirit, which art moving every where; / Destroyer and preserver; hear, O, hear!"

The second canto broadens his scene-painting to an aerial view of the wind, which is necessarily ethereal in its imagery; and in the following extends the ocean-metaphor by tracing the wind to the Mediterranean shores. In both the poet indulges his tastes for Italy and Greece, classical and present, mythological and concrete. (These tastes are one way in which, like Keats, he is a link between — to exaggerate and generalize a little — the 18th-century and its love of antiquity and artificial nature with the 19th-century and its love of the medieval epoch and artistic nature.)

After that the poem briefly and weirdly resembles a hymn ("If I had the wings of a dove," or something like it) —
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee
— before the narrative voice recklessly steps over the divide between mortal and immortal being by entreating of the wind a share in its strength and itinerant self-sufficiency. (In Greek mythology such a daring request would likely lead the requester into the Aegean or a conflagration or some other sticky end.) Then Shelley, who is for all his atheism clearly not unwilling to take on Christian lore, flirts with outright blasphemy in a flamboyant bout of metaphor that sounds suspiciously Jesus-y particularly when it reaches this histrionic peak:
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
Then, like any good essay-writer, Shelley recapitulates the thesis of his work, gradually and yet with a consistently warm enthusiasm:
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy!
But — with a triumphant effect of culmination which even good essay-writers rarely achieve, he finishes on a sudden note of uncertainty:
O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
* * *

This poem came rather late for the French Revolution, although evidently not too late for the backlash against the Revolution. As Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote (in a preface to a collection of her husband's works) whenever he aired and publicly defended his radical politics her husband struggled against the "scorn and hatred with which the partisans of reform were regarded" in the light of that upheaval. But the ode's language and sentiments not only effortlessly outlived the writer and the withering atmosphere of conservatism but also (presumably) remained a fresh expression of the prevailing spirit as long as the Romantic movement lasted. As others have noted, this movement is still not entirely past, and elements of the "Ode" like Shelley's visions of destruction that paves the way for a better world resonate with more recent ideologies such as Bolshevism. Even now — though its style and vocabulary may feel antiquated — the confident, crusading, and youthful mentality and feeling which animate the Ode are as true to life as ever; one could say that the very qualities that made Shelley immature are the ones that made him immortal.

From: Percy Bysshe Shelley: Selected Poetry and Prose (10th printing), Intr. by Kenneth Neill Cameron (USA: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966)


Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley []
Printed in 1914, but it includes two prefaces and more notes by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley from older collections.

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Ode to the West Wind [RPO, University of Toronto online]
Annotated text of the ode.

A Defence of Poetry []
Shelley's essay defining the role and nature of poetry. It's the source of the "unacknowledged legislators" quotation, and from what I've skimmed of it you could say that it's the thesis of "Ode to the West Wind" in lengthy prose form.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


By Unknown
First recorded: Late 10th/early 11th century

One of the problems of this blog is that I am "reviewing" works that are mostly so established in the literary canon, and whose worth is so entirely evident, that the praise seems presumption. But it's one thing to recognize the merits of a work and another to enjoy them, and it is the latter with which I am principally concerned.

Whether the old English epic "Beowulf" is well-known enough outside of literature courses to be in no need of trumpeting may, however, be questionable, despite the recent films and Seamus Heaney's fine translation. Its origins are obscure, reaching back to 1000 AD or even earlier, and though the consensus appears to be that the manuscript that remains to us was written by two monks, it is unknown whether it may not be rooted in an even hoarier tale that was passed on by Anglo-Saxon storytellers for centuries before it was finally transcribed and infused with Christian propaganda.

When we read excerpts of Beowulf in my high school English Literature class, my excellent teacher devoted a lot of time to giving us a conception of what life was like for the Anglo-Saxons. It was not a pleasant life, "nasty, short and brutish" as Thomas Hobbes put it, and overshadowed by the savagery and inexorable tedium of war, indigence, and hostile nature. The society was organized into clans which were led by cynnings, or ring-lords, and which formed alliances or enmities against each other as they saw fit. They lived in dark houses in a gloomy climate, and the untamed bogs and long winters as well as the uncertain seas made attempts at travelling into a fearsome ordeal. Beowulf itself testifies to the extent to which they mystified their environment; the bogs and the seas are peopled by all manner of outlandish monsters, and the whole is governed by the intangible and incalculable whims of wyrd, or fate.

Beowulf is in its way deeply preoccupied with fighting against the misery of the Anglo-Saxon world. It is too earthy and narrow in scope to be a convincing religious tract, in my point of view, but much like the Bible it records the history of a region's peoples and aims to distract its audience from the trials and imperfections of sublunary existence. Despite the loneliness that pervades the poem, it is obsessed with a sense of community. The kings and queens are set on pedestals as hazily perfect beings; the loyalty of the armed men to each other and to their leaders is implicitly extolled; the names and exploits of ancestors and distant acquaintances are summoned; and the dining-hall Heorot, a central setting of the tale, is a meeting-place not only for the Danes but also for visitors like the Geats [N.B.: pronounced "yats" according to my second-year English professor] under Beowulf. My high school teacher emphasized the exiled status of the first villain of the tale (the monster Grendel), his misery, and his resentment against "civilized" mankind. To be cast out from society was worse than death; the wild melancholy of that situation is also captured in the old poem "The Wanderer."

At any rate, the tale begins when the Danish king Hrothgar builds a mighty feasting-hall, named Heorot. At first all goes well, but then Grendel catches wind of its existence and, driven by his hatred of mankind, he prowls around at night and kills the men who frequent it, a couple at a time. Months pass, and from a place of rejoicing the hall has turned into a horrible abode of death. The news of these depredations eventually reaches the distant shores of Geatland (present-day Sweden, I think) and as a result Beowulf, a man of great courage and prowess, sails over with a company of men to provide assistance. The warrior is gratefully received and soon afterward fights singly with Grendel, who is immune to swords. With his bare hands Beowulf tears off the monster's arm and the monster betakes himself, bleeding copiously, to die pathetically in the depths of the swamp whence he came.

Grendel's mother is not pleased with these developments and comes marauding not long afterwards. But Beowulf, who evidently has the lung capacity of a zeppelin, dives down into the swamp and kills her with a magic sword he just happens to find there. Despite its implausibility, the mental images I have of this battle — the murky and mysterious and morbid waters, sunken treasures, hideous plants and monsters, and finally the fierce wrath of the ghastly and vengeful female — are deeply impressive. The third battle in the tale transpires when Beowulf has become king of Geatland, and he must fight a dragon that is laying waste to the countryside. He takes his followers with him, but, pursuant to the philosophy that "when the going gets tough, the tough get going," they run like the wind, with the sole exception of the comically nomered Wiglaf. The dragon and Beowulf both die and the tale ends with the grand obsequies of the defunct king.

The tale is told in typical Anglo-Saxon verse. Each line has four beats, which means that there are four syllables that are naturally emphasized, and this practice conveys a drumlike rhythm. There is no rhyming, but there is a lot of alliteration. The language is in my view rather pretentious and pompous, windbaggish to be precise, but I do like the kennings, which are essentially compound nouns that poetically describe objects, like "roof-tree" and "swan-road." I think it would be darnedly difficult to remember the whole poem, which is a couple thousand lines long and not precisely streamlined where the narrative is concerned, but it seems as if the ancient bards, or scops, managed it. Its tone is relaxed and rambling, as if the storyteller couldn't bear to end it and to leave the world in it. That world doesn't appeal to me and I find Beowulf a priggish ass, but it is undeniable that the tale is still weirdly compelling and likable.

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

* * *

Resources for the Study of Beowulf []
An introduction and links to all sorts of online Beowulf texts and background reading.

Beowulf []
A transcription of the original Anglo-Saxon text.

New York Times Film Reviews:
Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Beowulf (2007)

"Beowulf and Fate Meet in a Modern Poet's Lens" [New York Times]
A nice review of Seamus Heaney's translation by Richard Eder, from February 2000.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ballade des Pendus

Even the experience of studying a poem for school or university often fails to dilute its potency, and such was the case for me with François Villon's "Ballade des pendus," or "Ballad of the Hanged." (In Georges Pompidou's Anthologie de la Poésie française, which I have at hand, it is entitled, "L'Epitaphe Villon.") Though I may have analyzed the structure and extracted themes, the poem was, and is, still painful and striking to read. At the time I came across a recording where someone (Louis Jouvet?) recites it in a mournful, aged and broken tone, like what I imagine the literary "mendicants' whine" must be, and it deepened the impression. Anyway, while it is not precisely uplifting, the theme of death and the afterlife is timely given that today is Pentecost Sunday.

* * *

Villon is one of the interesting villains of French literature. [N.B. I'm taking the following information from an eminently readable article on Villon available here.] Born in Paris, 1431, he lost his father at an early age, and thereafter his name and education were bestowed upon him by the canon Guillaume de Villon. In university, though intended to study theology, he became enmeshed not only in the turbulent politics of that setting but also, apparently, in the circle of the criminal "Coquillards," who marauded certain regions of France in that day. In 1455 he fatally wounded a priest, presumably of similarly dubious piety, in some dispute, and fled Paris only to return when his friends procured two royal pardons on his behalf. Upon his return he alternately dabbled in burglary, to some effect, and poetized, principally for an ethically undemanding audience of adolescent criminals. In 1457 he was established in Charles of Orleans's court, writing milder verses in honour of his host's newly-born daughter and then writing less mild verses in dishonour of his host's poetic pen-pal, the latter of which caused his swift ejection.

Long story short, he spent a couple of years being in fair or foul favour with divers authorities and writing reams of ballads, one of which was often the consequence of the other. Then at last he returned to Paris, professing much remorse likewise expressed in the form of ballads, which did not prevent him from dabbling in burglary again, albeit more modestly. The upshot of this lifestyle was that he was condemned to be hanged at the approximate age of thirty-two, after a brawl in which he ironically appears to have been an innocent bystander. Whilst thus imprisoned he wrote the "Ballade des pendus." Then, in a surprising act of mercy, the court commuted his sentence to ten years' banishment. He wrote two final poems, went out into the countryside in the midst of winter in early 1463, and was never heard from again as far as posterity is concerned.

The ballad is spoken by gibbeted corpses to passersby, describing in graphic detail the decay of the hung bodies, which seems to metaphorically express the poet's profound feeling of debasement, and pleading for pity. At least the sense that I have is that the narrators are metaphorically tugging at strangers' clothes, to force them to look at them and recognize that they are also humans, as they repeatedly invoke the doctrine that we are all sinners and all in need of divine mercy. The refrain is "Pray to God that He might absolve us all."

The idea that the society of Villon's time would manifest consideration toward dead, convicted criminals may seem implausible given the judiciary system before the Enlightenment. But one of the more gruesome tales of the Grimm brothers, "Die beiden Wanderer," indicates that a superstitious respect was accorded to the gibbet and its occupants; the dew that falls on hanged men restores the sight of a tailor whose eyes had been gouged out (by a psychopathic cobbler who didn't like the cut of his jib). Of course this tale was published much later, in the 19th century, so it is unlikely that it would faithfully depict the situation in France five hundred years earlier. In the ballad itself, the narrators' fear of laughter, harassment and mockery is not promising.

* * *

Frères humains qui après nous vivez,
N'ayez les coeurs contre nous endurcis,
Car, si pitié de nous pauvres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tôt de vous mercis.
Vous nous voyez ci attachés cinq, six:
Quant à la chair que trop avons nourrie,
Elle est piéça dévorée et pourrie,
Et nous, les os, devenons cendre et poudre.
De notre mal personne ne s'en rie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

Si frères vous clamons, pas n'en devez
Avoir dédain, quoique fûmes occis
Par justice. Toutefois, vous savez
Que tous hommes n'ont pas bon sens rassis;
Excusez-nous, puisque sommes transis,
Envers le fils de la Vierge Marie,
Que sa grâce ne soit pour nous tarie,
Nous préservant de l'infernale foudre.
Nous sommes morts, âme ne nous harie,
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

La pluie nous a débués et lavés,
Et le soleil desséchés et noircis;
Pies, corbeaux, nous ont les yeux cavés,
Et arraché la barbe et les sourcils.
Jamais nul temps nous ne sommes assis;
Puis çà, puis là, comme le vent varie,
A son plaisir sans cesser nous charrie,
Plus becquetés d'oiseaux que dés à coudre.
Ne soyez donc de notre confrérie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

Prince Jésus, qui sur tous a maistrie,
Garde qu'enfer n'ait de nous seigneurie:
A lui n'ayons que faire ni que soudre
Hommes, ici n'a point de moquerie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

* * *

Here is what Pompidou has to say on the subject of Villon:
Le XVe siècle est un siècle triste. Comme toutes les civilisations à leur déclin, le Moyen Age s'attarde désespérément à ce qui fit sa grandeur ou son charme, et qui va mourir. De l'homme du Moyen Age, la poésie nous fournit deux types exemplaires. [. . .] Si Charles d'Orléans a toutes les grâces du Moyen Age, Villon en incarne les angoisses et les remords. Plus qu'une banale préfiguration des poètes maudits, cet étudiant bourgeois devenu bandit exprime la grande terreur du peuple médiéval en proie à la misère et à la maladie, angoissé par la mort et l'audelà, réconforté par les plaisirs élémentaires de la table et du lit et, parfois, par l'espérance. Il a peu écrit et encore y a-t-il dans son oeuvre beaucoup de vers inutiles. Mais les quelques centaines de vers qui comptent [. . .] suffisent à faire de lui l'un des grands parmi les grands, avant et avec Baudelaire, celui qui a su le mieux parler de la mort.
In English: "The fifteenth century is a sorrowful century. Like all civilizations at their decline, the Middle Ages linger desperately at that which constituted their greatness or their charm, and which will perish. Of the man of the Middle Ages, poetry furnishes us with two exemplary types. [. . .] If Charles of Orleans possesses all the graces of the Middle Ages, Villon incarnates its anguish and remorse. More than a banal prefiguration of the accursed poets, this bourgeois student turned bandit expresses the great terror of the medieval people — preyed on by misery and maladies, anguished by death and the beyond, comforted by the elementary pleasures of the table and the bed and, at times, by hope. He wrote little and in his work there are many useless verses still. But the several hundreds of verses which count [. . .] suffice to make of him one of the great ones among the great, before and with Baudelaire — he who knew best how to speak of death."

Source: Anthologie de la Poésie française, Georges Pompidou, ed. (Hachette: 1961), pp. 22-23

* * *

François Villon []
Collected works of Villon (French)

"Ballade des Pendus" [Textatelier Hess von Biberstein]
The French text of the poem, followed by a German, Basle-region dialect, and English translation, and then a biography of the poet.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual

"The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual"
(From: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes)
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

First published: 1893

Among my favourite works, the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes have figured for a very long time. To the devotee of Victorian (or Edwardian) England it is of course fascinating in every respect. To the non-devotee, the yarns are often rippingly good, the characters and style of course well fleshed out and distinctive, and as a treasury of zeitgeisty detail it is scarcely surpassable. What helps preserve the illusions of the fine Victorian order is that colonialism is relegated to a distance, spatially and temporally,* and that the criminal underworld is held firmly in its place.
[* I am thinking especially of The Sign of the Four, in which the scenes on the Andaman Islands are depicted as flashbacks.]

Nor are the Sherlock Holmes tales especially unsettling, despite the pervasiveness of crime in Conan Doyle's society – the perpetrators are beggars and baronets, country mice and city mice (or, as the unkinder French has it, rats), gentlemen and ladies, circus folk to bank clerks. In inviting contrast to the murder and mayhem that are beamed into our living rooms by the television nowadays, the reader is spared tales of sexual violence (which is at least in my view nastier than the other kind), nor is he requested to inspect maggots or attend post-mortems, nor are all possible pains taken to make the crime real to him. The hero, heroine, victim, and perpetrator are set up as reliably and distinctly as the dramatis personae in a play, and this play is fitted out with a scenic backdrop, a declaration of chronological and geographical setting, costumes, and extras with conscientious regularity. Then the recounting of the events is filtered through the sensible and stolid perspective of Watson, or the analytically detached and cool one of Holmes. In short, there is a formula. So one never forgets it is fiction.

If there is any agenda underlying the tales, I have failed to discern it. Clearly Conan Doyle was not opposed to capital punishment, as the deaths of many a culprit show, though neither death row nor the gallows appear anywhere, and it seems that a swift demise by gunshot is the preferred mode of disposal. Of course it is implicitly clear that crime does not pay, that retribution may be slow on its feet but is heavy on its impact, and (despite Holmes's amused contempt for the blundering policeman) that the law enforcement system works decently. Only when he writes of international crime organizations, like the sinister American freemasonry or the Italian mafia of his day, does Conan Doyle posit that there are forces against which individual resistance and the criminal justice system are impotent.

Among the screen versions of the tales, Jeremy Brett's television Sherlock Holmes is, of course, a classic, though to my recollection it is a little tedious in its relentless lack of true humour. I saw a portion of a recent film with Rupert Everett and thought it too self-conscious and sensationalist. Basil Rathbone oddly enough has left no impression whatsoever, perhaps due to my bad taste or to the fallacious tendency to expect absolute fidelity to the original character. My youngest brothers have watched the Russian Hound of the Baskervilles and evidently liked it; for a while afterwards they would greet each other with hearty slaps on the back, in imitation of the overly effusive Sir Henry character (whose manners were apparently formed in the Canadian logging industry), and exclaim, "Sir Genry!" The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which is of course a modern psychoanalytical take on the franchise, I liked, though at present I only remember the scene where Holmes is locked in a ring with the threateningly advancing Lippizaner horses. The Dudley Moore take on The Hound of the Baskervilles was diluted Monty Python for me, meandering and self-indulgent and not especially hilarious. But British humour is an acquired taste, after all. As for the animated series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, my family used to watch it regularly and it was very entertaining if not eminently intellectual. Its premise: the detective, having been pickled in honey, is revived in the far future, in a London where cars fly and women work at New Scotland Yard.

At any rate, to turn from generalities to specifics, the Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual is one of Sherlock Holmes's earliest cases, "before Watson's time" as he likes to put it. The detective visits a college chum at his countryside seat, and this chum, Reginald Musgrave, promptly presents him a riddle in the shape of a disappeared butler and maid. At the unsuspected heart of the issue is the Musgrave family ritual, in which each heir must recite a string of questions and answers:
"Whose was it?"
"His who is gone."
"Who shall have it?"
"He who will come."
"What was the month?"
"The sixth from the first."
"Where was the sun?"
"Over the oak."

Since the lineage has not borne the brightest bulbs, it is Holmes who (aside from the butler) first recognizes that the ritual is an enigma that points to the location of a treasure. A thorough session of triangulation and rapid deduction later – mathematics are apparently a useful life skill after all – a corpse has been discovered, the flight of a further person clarified, and the superficially anticlimactic booty duly retrieved from its hiding-place. This is what happens when servants Forget Their Place! (I'm joking, obviously.)

Last but not least, this story contains one of my favourite passages in Sherlock Holmes, which I and those of my siblings who have read the tale enjoy (partially) quoting at each other:
I have always held, too, that pistol practice should distinctly be an open-air pastime; and when Holmes in one of his queer humours would sit in an armchair, with his hairtrigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.
Illustration by Sidney Paget, taken from Wikimedia Commons. The quotations are taken from a Penguin edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1976). The story is likewise available at

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Donne's Meditation XVII

[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
John Donne is a staple of English Literature classes, as I know from personal experience. In my Lit class during the last year of high school we devoted a good day or three to the works of this so-called "metaphysical poet." The reign of Elizabeth I had ended, and Shakespeare was on the point of dying, when Donne flourished. But the "New Learning," the late English incarnation of the Renaissance, was unfolding a new leaf of learning and science, and a peculiar but fruitful intermingling of religion (vide George Herbert) and a fascination for science and exploration ensued in the arts. There was likewise already a strain of the earthiness and weighty seriousness which were, in my view, to distinguish the 17th century at its height.

The tale goes that John Donne was, when a young man, very fond of women and a trifle wild, and his breathlessly animated poetry of that period duly reflects it. What is indubitable is that he was also very fond of metaphysical "conceits." Maps and compasses, astronomy and metallurgy, and so on and so forth, furnish the metaphors which he, like his contemporaries, employed elaborately and lavishly in his verse to illustrate, almost as abstractly as possible, the felt and seen realities of life. Peculiarly enough he was no armchair traveller, but did in truth go on seafaring expeditions, and even whilst in England go to Oxford, study law at Lincoln's Inn, earn his bread as a secretary and diplomat, and otherwise lead a diverse and interesting life. Then he married. This was initially awkward, given the hearty un-consent on the part of the bride's father and a resultant stint in the clink, but the couple was happy and their children numerous.

Later, his wife having died and he being left alone, he became a minister of the church, and the passionate intensity with which he once celebrated love was redirected into the worship of God. Fortunately his sense of religion appears to have been a large-minded and open one, so that he did not figure among those who
Compound for sins they are inclin'd to,
By damning those they have no mind to.
The "holy sonnets" that he wrote after this conversion are interesting especially due to this intensity, which in some cases appears to be inspired as much by the old passion as the new. There is the very famous one, "Death be not proud," and then this one:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
[Poetry Foundation: John Donne]

Which sounds not a little masochistic; still, de gustibus non est disputandum, after all.

So far, at least, my favourite work is Meditation 17, which is famous in its own right as well as in its capacity as Ernest Hemingway's (last-minute) source for the book title, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Like the bells of a church, phrases of this sermon have the effect of echoing in one's memory long after one has encountered it, or at least that has been my experience. The thesis of the sermon is that we, as humans, are connected to each other, and that the good or bad that befalls one of us in a way befalls us all. So we cannot remain unmoved by the lives of others, and nor should we, and nor is it in our moral interest to do so. Donne is also of the opinion that "tribulation is treasure," i.e. that suffering improves us. [N.B.: This is not an opinion that I share; to me it's how we react to our suffering or happiness that improves us.]

At any rate, I should like to post the meditation in its entirety, but it is quite long, so here is an excerpt:
[A]ll mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
This is probably the most famous passage:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
* * *

Meditation XVII []
An e-text of the Meditation.

John Donne [Poetry Foundation]
An overview of Donne's life and writings, and links to much of his verse.

* * *

N.B.: To add a trivial note about Holbein's Ambassadors at the top of this post, it was one of the paintings in London's National Gallery that I already knew; so when my sister and I went there, I paid special attention to it and was shocked by the vivid, electric green of the curtains in the background. It was one instance where it may have been preferable if the painting were left in its natural, unrestored state. At any rate, I've included it for the sake of its concise illustration of the intellectual pursuits and scientific devices which fascinated Donne's contemporaries, and because my Lit 12 textbook employed it on the same grounds.
[The portrait of John Donne is likewise available at Wikimedia Commons.]

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Editor, the Watchmen, and the Housewives

In newspapers and magazines there tends to be, as everyone is probably aware, a good deal of mass-produced writing, which duly begins with a hook, is duly written in a conversational tone, and is duly polished, without there being very much originality or sincere enthusiasm discernible. Of course, it's a job, and the spring of the inspiration does not spout forth with clockwork regularity like Old Faithful. But then there are extremely well-written articles, and even writers who consistently bring something fresh and characteristic.

Reading the Globe and Mail online, a writer whom I've particularly come to admire is Elizabeth Renzetti, who first impressed me in the quietly friendly, observant, and intelligent sketch of John Le Carré, which was published in connection with Le Carré's latest book, A Most Wanted Man. In contrast to the snide belligerence or lavish adulation or prying impudence that unpleasantly tinge most interviews or sketches of the sort, it was very refreshing. More recently she wrote a portrait of the editor Diana Athill.

In the New Yorker the articles I most consistently read are the film reviews by Anthony Lane, which are delightfully satirical but not, or so I think, fundamentally mean-spirited. Whereas I like A.O. Scott's and Manohla Dargis's reviews in the New York Times, too, these do tend to differ in kind, and vague philosophizing riffs on a film are not nearly as helpful or satisfying as a reasonable overview of plot and a more serious and detailed look at the entire work. If they dislike or like the film, which in itself is at times not clear, it's nice to know why. On the other hand, they often implicitly refuse to pronounce a last, dogmatic opinion on a work, thereby perhaps admitting that the appreciation of films is to a great degree subjective. It should also be noted that they must publish reviews at a far greater rate than either of the critics at the New Yorker.

In any case, the last Lane review I've read is of the comic book-based film The Watchmen. The film has received very good reviews and very unfavourable reviews, but Lane's assessment seems to hit the nail on the head. The following quote may not altogether be very characteristic of his style, but in terms of the enjoyable snobbery and the trenchant insight it is.
Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights.
As for blogs, the writing I so far admire most has been in the Parisian cooking blog Chocolate & Zucchini, which is exquisite, and in the New York-based gossip website Gawker. Gawker's contributors each have their moments, but I especially like Richard Lawson's reviews of second-rate television programmes like The Hills and Gossip Girls and Real Housewives of New York. Evidently fuelled by a deep resentment against having to watch the tripe, but not entirely unsympathetic to the plights of the unreal or real or pretend-real characters, he gives free rein to his imagination. Even if one doesn't watch the shows, the "recaps" are like very, very amusing (though a little ribald) bedtime stories, where non- and fiction seamlessly come together. Richard's masterpiece so far is, I believe, this synopsis of the latest Real Housewives of New York episode.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

When I Consider How My Light Is Spent

"Milton Dictates Paradise Lost to His Daughters," Eugène Delacroix (ca. 1826)

Despite the articles on John Milton that appeared throughout the year, in the Guardian and the New Yorker, I managed to miss his 400th birthday on the 9th of the past December. In my English classes at school and university, I never managed to finish Paradise Lost, though phrases of it do engrave themselves upon one's memory, but did also read (and, for the sake of the English Literature exam, memorize) his sonnet, "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent." Its language is enigmatic, and it was years later, looking at it afresh, that I understood it better.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."


This sonnet is, of course, Milton's reflection on the loss of his eyesight, or, in his words, light.

The "talent which is death to hide" is a reference to a Biblical passage, Matthew 25: 14-30. The passage tells the allegorical tale of three servants who receive money (a "talent" is a very valuable coin, in this context) from their master; two of the servants invest the coins and make a profit, whereas the third buries his coin. When the master comes back he happily receives the old and new coins from his servants, but when the third servant presents the single coin, he vituperates and then banishes the unlucky man from his service. Anyway, it isn't the most sympathetic or logical story, but the intended point of it is that God gives us gifts and wants us to do something with them. In Milton's case, the metaphorical God-given talent to which he refers is, most likely, his literary skill.

Since Milton cannot read or write when he is blind (though, of course, he later compensates for this incapacity by employing his daughters as scribes and readers, as is depicted in the painting at the top of this post), he despairs of being able to continue with his self-appointed task, which is, if the opening lines of Paradise Lost are a fair indication, to "assert the Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to man." But then the thought occurs to him that God is so mighty as to be wholly independent of the actions of the individual; his work can be carried out by many divers emissaries.

To give my two cents, I don't particularly like Milton's world view. In my conception God (if he exists) created the world not as an exercise of his will, but because he wanted to have beings around whom he would make happy. Of course we are not always happy, but we grow, and even unhappy experience has a worth above superficial gaiety, if it ennobles and strengthens us. So we serve God by being happy and becoming better human beings, and by helping others to do the same, not by preaching about Christ or demanding punctilious observance of rituals. Since God is omnipotent anyway, there isn't much of a point to asserting his power the whole time.

At any rate, I do very much like the language of the poem, though considering the poet's future Roundhead sympathies his use of the adjective "kingly" is a little amusing. Especially the line "They also serve who only stand and wait" has often come to mind reassuringly in this indeterminate stage of my life.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Three Hostages

by John Buchan
First published: 1924

For a while John Buchan was one of my favourite writers and Greenmantle was one of my favourite books. I like reading some of his books as much as ever, not only the Richard Hannay books but also books like Huntingtower (set in Scotland) and The House of the Four Winds (set in an imaginary East European state). There are passages that are pretty politically incorrect, but in my point of view these are wisps of zeitgeist which are more stereotypes than true and ugly racism. Besides, to see Mahatma Gandhi implicitly referred to as a fanatic is, considering his presently sacrosanct status, shocking but amusing. Still, some of his books (e.g. The Half-Hearted) are uncongenial; and when I recently tried to read The Thirty-Nine Steps again, I was either in an exceptionally obdurate mood, or the breezily colloquial narrative voice is really a trifle obnoxious.

The Three Hostages, in common with these other books, is an intelligent spy thriller. It, however, is set in England after World War I; the world has returned to a peaceable order on the surface, but the damage that the war causes is still being wreaked in the minds of the people who were affected by it. A discussion of this phenomenon, of the supposed amorality that resulted from the war, and of the anarchic depths and powers of the subconscious, takes place in the opening chapters. The hero is Richard Hannay, who has retired from the army after becoming a general, and now lives in a rural manor with his wife Mary and their little son Peter. He feels that he is becoming settled in a quiet civilian life, perhaps to the detriment of his mental activity, but otherwise quite contentedly.

Perhaps wrongfully, Hannay reminds me of Watson. He does not possess a quicksilver intelligence, nor is he a quietly contemplative type, but he is up for adventure and sturdily British and fond of common sense. Where he differs from Watson is in his preference for the society of men who have been in the military or travelled a good deal or deservedly hold positions of importance in the world, and his eagerness to stand well with them. He likes hunting and politics, and is proud of his feats regarding the same. At least his sort of hunting is not a cruel sport, but an absorbing and suspenseful pastime that requires thought and ingenuity and physical dexterity. (Which obviously does not change the fact that the animals die.) Women, except for his wife, are rather beyond the pale of his interest. In his view, they are led by instinct rather than rationality, so if they exert any power in the political world it is through feminine enthusiasm or fascination and not so much through any respect inspired by their competence and understanding; besides, friendship or conversing with them as one would with other men is out of the realm of possibility. But possibly this is too severe a statement of the case. At any rate, Hannay is more resourceful and philosophical and, perhaps, perceptive than Watson.

The true story begins as a trio of unexpected visitors comes to Fosse Manor. They are all concerned in a spate of kidnappings, for which a shadowy criminal organization is responsible. This criminal organization is not intent on receiving ransom money, but on holding hostages who will ensure its safety until the organization is liquidated, its aims realized. One visitor is Julius Victor, an American businessman whose daughter Adela has vanished; the second is Macgillivray of Scotland Yard, who is investigating the case; and the third is the British soldier Sir Arthur Warcliff, whose little son David was also taken. All of them have come to ask Hannay for his assistance.

Hannay, at first convinced of his inability to help at all, finally agrees to attempt it. There is one clue: a poem that the kidnappers sent to the parents of the kidnapped oddly correlates to words that Hannay's friend, the doctor Tom Greenslade, let drop a day or two earlier. As it turns out, the doctor had heard those words from Dominick Medina, a rising politician who is very much in fashion. Hannay procures an introduction to Medina in order to follow up on this clue, and is impressed with his talents and intelligence. He promises to be a formidable ally. But the first uncertainty arises when Hannay's friend Sandy Arbuthnot (who was also in Greenmantle) turns up and profoundly distrusts him. Then Hannay visits Medina at home one day, only to find himself subjected to a hypnosis designed to mentally enslave him and make a tool out of him. Soon there is no other reasonable conclusion but that Dominick Medina is really a leading spirit in the criminal organization.

So Hannay must pretend that he is a brainwashed follower of Medina and at the same time strive to discover the victims of the kidnappings. Fortunately there are many friends and trusty minions of the law to work alongside him, each in their own way, and to unravel the complex net. This unravelling is quite suspenseful, the characterization excellent, and the settings of established England and chaotic London and remote Norway are employed to the customary good effect. In Buchan's best books the excitement derives as much from the diversity of the details and the quality of the writing style and the worthwhile nature of the thoughtful passages as it does from the vicissitudes of the plot. In my view this is one of those books.

N.B.: I cannot quite understand why villains in spy thrillers, for instance, must always be foreign. An English or German or Russian accent is in itself a sign of evil by now, and for whatever reason the antagonist is rarely permitted to be a compatriot. If an American or a Briton has ever been the archvillain in a James Bond film, I've forgotten it. In the case of The Three Hostages, Dominick Medina is of Irish origin. If Richard Hannay is to be believed, this explains a lot.

* * *

"The barriers between the conscious and the subconscious have always been pretty stiff in the average man. But now with the general loosening of screws they are growing shaky and the two worlds are getting mixed. It is like two separate tanks of fluid, where the containing wall has worn into holes, and one is percolating into the other. The result is confusion, and, if the fluids are of a certain character, explosions. That is why I say that you can't any longer take the clear psychology of most civilized human beings for granted. Something is welling up from the primeval deeps to muddy it."

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The Three Hostages [Arthur's Classic Novels]
An e-text of the book.
Review of The Three Hostages [John Buchan Society]
A brief evaluation, with a plot summary that may be too full of spoilers for some.
John Buchan Exhibit [Queen's University Archives]
A biographical sketch illustrated with letters, photographs, etc.