Friday, December 02, 2011

Byron and All That's Best of Dark and Bright

ASIDE from the first, third and fourth lines I am indifferent to the poem, but sometimes one feels inclined obligingly to trot out a classic:


George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
British Romantic-era poet.

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!


THE poem was written in 1814, and alternately attributed to the pulchritudinous inspiration of Byron's cousin-by-marriage or (the version which I heard before consulting a certain online encyclopaedia) of his half-sister Augusta.

To me the poem lies oddly with the biographical details of its indicter, since Byron as the private individual is — either through the disservices of the society through which he passed, or by the succeeding morality of the Victorian Age, or through the boredom of the academics to whom the postmortem of his life has been assigned, or due to a nature which would be considered adventurous by the standards of any time — markedly characterized by his loose and disastrous relationships, most famously with Lady Caroline Lamb, Claire Clairmont, and his wife, and less famously with divers servants.

(Perhaps his upbringing meant that Byron had a confused notion of love, and mistook affection for physical attraction. Either way, in his poems reminiscing about Harrow, he writes
Ah! Sure some stronger impulse vibrates here,
Which whispers friendship will be doubly dear
To one, who thus for kindred hearts must roam,
And seek abroad, the love denied at home.)
AT ANY RATE, the term "Byronic hero" has of course come to mean someone who is brooding and troubled and a very romantic prospect, but not someone with whom one would want to interact regularly or much at all, in reality. (Byron himself was also famously attractive, though the example of a Byronic hero who comes to mind is Edward Rochester, who was supposed to be more rugged than picturesque, so it's not an inalienable attribute.)


THE poem reminds me of the paintings in which da Vinci depicts women: they are all haunted in a sense by a dark backdrop, and in his greatest paintings I think he endeavours to bring out the innate gentleness of Mary, the naive enthusiasm of young Cecilia Gallerani, etc., in a way to increase their outer beauty.

On the other hand, the insistence on "purity" and "innocence" is unprepossessing, since being inexperienced, vulnerable and naïve seems much more appealing to others than an asset, and it is only a little removed from the label of wellmeaning stupidity. If Byron did not define purity and innocence as naïveté, then the problem is that he does not give much indication as to what he meant instead.

There is a similar problem with the term 'platonic love.' It appears to refer to Plato's Symposium, which I've read and interpret to mean, rather, that Plato didn't like women and thought that relationships with men were less icky and more intellectually and emotionally rewarding, than that a completely asexual relationship is the apex of love. This might be attributed in turn to the unfashionableness of female education and female pursuits outside the home in ancient Greece, and to a surfeit of acidulous ladies in his circle, notably like Xanthippe.

Various articles on Wikipedia, "George Gordon Lord Byron: She Walks in Beauty" from Representative Poetry Online [Ian Lancashire, University of Toronto]

Monday, November 28, 2011

St. Nicholas's Trouble

by Felix Timmermans (1886-1947), Flemish author

"De nood van Sinter-Klaas" (1924, in Het keerseken in den lanteern) is a tale of St. Nicholas and his comrade Knecht Ruprecht, set in modern, 20th-century times:

Es fielen noch ein paar mollige Flocken aus der wegziehenden Schneewolke, und da stand auf einmal auch schon der runde Mond leuchtend über dem weißen Turm.

Friday, November 25, 2011

An Early 19th-Century Pastorale

"Landscape of a Couple Alone at Sunset," (19th cent.) by Cornelis Lieste (1817-61)
Oil on panel, 60 × 79 cm, in the Collectie Rademakers

From Wikimedia Commons

Keats (1795-1821)
English poet.

[Southampton,] Tuesday Morn [April 15, 1817].

My dear Brothers—I am safe at Southampton—after having ridden three stages outside and the rest in for it began to be very cold. I did not know the Names of any of the Towns I passed through—all I can tell you is that sometimes I saw dusty Hedges—sometimes Ponds—then nothing—then a little Wood with trees look you like Launce's Sister* "as white as a Lily and as small as a Wand"—then came houses which died away into a few straggling Barns—then came hedge trees aforesaid again. As the Lamplight crept along the following things were discovered

Friday, November 04, 2011

Beyond Strange



There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

(The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, Sc. V )
[From "Hamlet: Entire Play" [MIT])

Quoted often enough and interpreted easily enough; I will leave it at that.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Autumn, a Season and an Harmonie

CROWN'D with the sickle and the wheaten sheaf,
While Autumn, nodding o'er the yellow plain,
Comes jovial on


broad and brown, below,
Extensive harvests hang the heavy head.


till the ruffled air
Falls from its poise, and gives the breeze to blow.
Rent is the fleecy mantle of the sky;
The clouds fly different; and the sudden sun
By its effulgent glide gilds the' illumined field,
And black by fits the shadows sweep along


[Illustration: Autumn (1573) by Giuseppe Arcimboldo,
In the Musée du Louvre; via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Falcon

A Play by Alfred Lord Tennyson,
originally performed in 1879

[Note: I am describing the whole plot, so beware of spoilers.] 
[Stylistically revised November 4th, 2013.]

Jagdwesen & Jagd & Greifvögel (1695)
Wolf Helmhardt von Hohberg [via Wikimedia Commons]


THE Falcon's hero is Count Federigo Degli Alberighi, a poor Italian nobleman whose family has been unoriginally feuding with a neighbouring family. Fisticuffs in Florence between the present generation's grandfathers had begun the entire hullabaloo, confirming the adage that violence isn't the solution. He has long begun to find the feud untoward, logistically; he is in love with Lady Giovanna, the sister of the Ghibellines'* leader, now widowed and the mother of a little son.

(* They are not, in fact, the Ghibelline family; but Tennyson does not give them a name in the play, so "Ghibellines" will have to do.)

Count Federigo's nurse and foster-brother Filippo are the customary, domestic voices of reason; they are not much impressed with the state of affairs. Impoverished by purchasing a diamond necklace which the Count anonymously sent to Lady Giovanna, they live in a cottage near the castle in which his beloved resides. There is nothing left to eat now except scraps of milk, cheese, bread and bird (the egg is "addled" so hopefully was not eaten), and famishedness breeds discomfort. The Count relinquishes the scraps to his nurse, noblesse obliged; with regard to Filippo he observes, in a line-and-a-half that deserves to be farfamed:
As for him and me,
There sprouts a salad in the garden still.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mankind as Grandiose Gnomes

Sophocles (ca. 496–405 BC)
Greek dramatist.

Πολλά τα δεινά κουδέν ανθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.

(Spoken by the chorus in
Antigone, and taken from the Gnomokologikon.)

MANY a wonder lives and moves, but the wonder of all is man,
That courseth over the grey ocean, carried of Southern gale,
Faring amidst high-swelling seas that rudely surge around,
And Earth, supreme of mighty Gods, eldest, imperishable,
Eternal, he with patient furrow wears and wears away
As year by year the plough-shares turn and turn,—
Subduing her unwearied strength with children of the steed.
From: Sophocles: The Seven Plays in English Verse (1906) [Project Gutenberg]
by Lewis Campbell, M.A., from the University of St. Andrews

(Children of the steed = mules)


BY now the dominion of man over the earth has become a trite concept, and one might argue that the dominion is inevitably imperfect and therefore an inaccurate posit.

But, given the ambiguity of 'ta deina' which can also I think be translated as 'greatnesses' or 'terrors,' Sophocles' line can be interpreted as a sharp criticism of humans' destructive capacity, which is how I was taught it. (My class looked at the quotation in isolation, so I'd forgotten that it was by Sophocles and only figured out today that it comes from Antigone.)

While that idea is then too self-hating or smotheringly moody to do be fair or uplifting, at least it is comforting to have an expression to use in 'emo,' misanthropic moments. It is nicer besides than adopting a Malthusian philosophy or saying that mankind is a scourge, by which one generally means that one should like to have other people die and somehow be given an exception for one's superior, omniscient self.


Picture: Sophocles Bust, National Gallery in Oslo
Photographed by Cnyborg (via Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, September 09, 2011

War and Peace, Piecemeal: Round Three

Another installment at an unhallowed hour of liveblogged War and Peace (tr. by Rosemary Edmonds), starting with Chapter 16 at the name-day party for Countess Natalia Rostov and her daughter, little Natalia Rostov.

1:28 AM THE dinner draws to a close after a further heated discussion as to whether Russia should enter the war or not — Shinshin is against while Nikolai Rostov is filled with militaristic fervour and supports a colonel who declares otherwise — and Natasha's high-pitched and naughty inquiry — in the face of the dragonish Maria Dmitrievna, who waives her dragonishness for her little cossack, and of the entire assembled company — as to what will come for dessert.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

War and Peace, Piecemeal: Round Two

A live blog of my thirdish reread (minus the essay at the end) of Tolstoy's War and Peace in the Penguin edition. It is not a Thursday, where the book would fit into the classics category, but to reuse an analogy, I'm not good at issuing forth a stream of creativity with regularity, like Old Faithful. The story is continued from the end of Chapter 10.

 1:48 AM To hop over a lot, the party at the Rostovs' in St. Petersburg ends and Princess Drubetskoy with son Boris in two go forth in their carriage, hat in claw as it were, to mooch from Count Bezuhov. Bezuhov is on his deathbed but they don't much care, though Boris finds this humiliating. There they encounter fellow harpies Prince Vasili Kuragin and one of the count's nieces. Pierre is hanging out in his room in the absence of harpydom and in the presence of great discomfort.

Skipping back a few days earlier, Pierre has come back from Moscow and his disgrace not looking forward to much. His female cousins greet him with self-righteous contempt on the one hand and greedy schadenfreude on the other, and when he awkwardly asks whether he might see the Count, the eldest declares, "The count is suffering both physically and morally, and your only anxiety, it seems, has been to increase his sufferings." No, really, could I see him, repeats Pierre. Only if you want to see him die!! answers his cousin. (Obviously not in those exact words.) The next morning Prince Vasili comes hopping in and after similar self-righteousness and caution not to approach the count, etc., confirms Pierre in his mini-exile.

Returning to the present, a human is sighted on his threshold at last in the form of Boris, while Pierre is play-acting a Napoleonic tirade. Which is, I think, as embarrassing to the rightminded person as being caught solemnly dancing the can-can in undersized high heels. Boris seems to think so; at any rate he is quite condescending. After they are introduced, he is astute enough to painstakingly state that neither he nor his mother are after Count Bezuhov's money. Pierre mistakes this for painful honesty and that establishes Boris on a friendly footing with him, which was I think Princess Drubetskoy's purpose in sending Boris to Pierre's room and Boris's purpose in going. Anyway, I think Tolstoy conveys very well how nice, unassuming and clever as well as attractive Boris can be, without being wellmeaning, altruistic or intelligent.

When Boris has descended again, Princess Drubetskoy has been in Count Bezuhov's room, and oddly enough the Count hasn't joined the angels and struck a harp yet. So clearly the point in keeping Pierre away from the Count's bed is to keep his father from making a will in his favour. Before the Drubetskoys leave, the Princess promises to return and sit with the Count, who would do well to have a good stock of incense, a couple crosses and a vial of holy water (if these are all compatible with the Russian Orthodox tradition) at hand.

In the meantime Countess Rostov, who regards her friend Princess Drubetskoy as an impoverished unfortunate rather than an inveterate leech with unadmirable principles, asks her husband for 500 rubles, which they can ill spare. The husband asks his employee, Mitenka, for 700 rubles in 'nice clean' notes and then the Countess forks over the dough to the Princess. I guess it's worthwhile to remember that the Rostovs in themselves are a family of seven and that they have the servants in their household, grocers, fishmongers, dressmakers, etc. to support and compensate. While the Countess could be hardheaded, she appears to be brought up to find it unladylike to be too precise about finances.


Inspecting the Troops at Boulogne, August 15th, 1804
via Wikimedia Commons

(The Boulogne expedition, which Pierre debates one-sidedly with Boris, refers to Napoleon's plan to invade England from in and around Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he did train and quarter a large invasion force. It was also fortified and equipped with numerous barges, which were I think predecessors of the Allies' amphibious landing vessels. Obviously it fizzled. ["Napoleon's planned invasion of the United Kingdom" from Wikipedia] But, peculiarly enough, in 1840 his nephew Louis-Napoleon, Napoleon III, tried the same thing in the opposite direction with somewhat fewer soldiers. That fizzled too. ["Napoleon III" from Wikipedia])


Chapter 15

03:17 AM The evening party has begun at the Rostovs' and fearsome Maria Dmitrievna Ahrosimov — "le terrible dragon" — is expected. She is

Friday, September 02, 2011

Pope's Pardon

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
English writer and critic
To err is human; to forgive, divine.
— From An Essay on Criticism (1711)


Alexander Pope has been relegated, in my understanding and experience which is hardly broad enough for such an assessment yet, to one of the minor great figures, since he pursued grand substance less than coruscating wit. Besides the formality and artifice with which his works were associated seem to have run afoul of the Romantic movement and been whelmed beneath its depths, as it were, so that it was not only Marianne in Sense and Sensibility who valued (at least in Elinor's sarcastic character sketch) "admiring Pope no more than is proper."

Thursday, September 01, 2011

War and Peace, Piecemeal III

After a good night's sleep and the transit to work, the live blog of War and Peace (tr. by Rosemary Edmonds) resumes with the end of the sixth chapter.

11:19 AM In German one uses an expression, evolved from Luther, that one shouldn't draw the devil on the wall. It roughly describes Pierre's self-fulling inverse prophecy that evening; for he goes off to lark with the Kuragins as soon as he is out of Prince Andrei's periphery.

Anatole Kuragin's house is in a dissolute uproar, orchestrated among others by a sly army officer, Dolohov. He bets that he would be able to drink a bottle of rum in one go without turning dizzy enough to fall out of the window. The footmen who are standing by and will have to clean up all and any resulting messes are not entirely pleased but everyone else is until they become too worried. Dolohov wins the bet (which is easier to follow when one watches the film with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn) by a bloodcurdling hair. Pierre at first approves, then is apprehensive and then is unfortunately inspired to his own misdeeds. He drunkenly hugs and tries to dance with a bear who (likely more sensible than any of his human companions) has been pressed into entertaining the party, and that is where Tolstoy drops the curtain.

To anticipate, we find out in the next chapter that the young men stray from the house to paint the town red; and if it were a modern play one might hear, offstage, the menacing approach of a siren, or in a puppet play, espy th'impending constable's truncheon.


The Bear and the Apes, by Egyptian artist (ca. 1325-50)
Paper, 11,5 × 9,7 cm, Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
From 10,000 Meisterwerke der Malerei via Wikimedia Commons


12:10 PM In the meantime a nicer party is transpiring in the house of the Rostovs in Povarsky Street.

War and Peace, Piecemeal II

After a bite to eat, and at the rousingly early hour of 03:29 AM, and in the middle of Chapter 3, the attempt to liveblog War and Peace, in Rosemary Edmonds's translation, continues.

04:17 AM Anna Pavlovna is not pleased that an earnest and loud discussion has arisen between Pierre and Abbé Morio as to whether Russia should intervene to keep Europe from being swallowed whole by France. By twittering a commonplace question, she dumbs down the conversation entirely, much to her relief.

The newest arrival is Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who is polished and goodlooking and intelligent and blasé, and who treats his wife like a nitwit. He is consumed by important matters like his future military duty as an aide-de-camp to General Kutuzov. Despite their diametric opposition in some aspects, he is greeted warmly by Pierre and vice versa. I still find it hard to believe that he is so patient with Pierre and so impatient with the princess, and he does seem arrogant.

Outside the room an elderly guest, Princess Drubetskoy, whose circumstances are reduced as the cliché goes, hunts down Prince Vasili and humbly begs for her son Boris to be transferred into the Imperial Guard. He decides that he owes her a favour and besides (being a sort of military stage mother) that she could become a tremendous nuisance, then escapes. Rather like a successful KGB agent who has inserted an operative into a critical position, she returns inconspicuously to the party and is coolly calm.

In the meantime the discussion about Napoleon is becoming more heated. The vicomte says that it serves Prussia, etc., right if it is invaded, because the kings neglected Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and opines that Bonaparte is driving France and its aristocracy to hell in a handbasket. Pierre reveals the equivalent of commie tendencies, suggesting that many aristocrats support Napoleon. Then he argues fiercely that Bonaparte was right and courageous to have the Duc d'Enghien shot for the common good of a unified France, etc. Princess Bolkonsky #2 sees through the humbug and inadvertently raises the pertinent question: "Do you think murder a proof of nobility of soul?" Pierre then argues that the Revolution was right in theory. Which is a pretty gutsy or rude thing to say in front of a French emigrant. The discussion is gently suppressed.

The guests break up after a dead end anecdote by Prince Hippolyte, and Anna Pavlovna is presumably dancing on an imaginary grave as Pierre bids her farewell. Despite his contentiousness, he parts on excellent terms with himself and on fair terms with the others, who find him nice and harmless enough not to be too bothersome. Hippolyte and Princess Bolkonsky #2 flirt a little on the way to the carriage; Andrei Bolkonsky looks like he couldn't care less (which means that he is grumpy) and says goodbye to Pierre.


Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole (around 1801), by Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835)
Oil on canvas. 73 × 59 cm, in Versailles (one of several copies)
Art Renewal Center via Wikimedia Commons


04:33 AM Pierre goes straight to Prince Andrei's home and does a little light reading at random — Caesar's Commentaries — until Prince Andrei comes home and they recapitulate the evening and then Andrei nags Pierre about picking a career. Pierre was catapulted into St. Petersburg by his father for that particular purpose, three months earlier. Andrei brings up the army, Pierre says 'Meh' and comments that he has no beef with Bonaparte, and then Andrei hints that he himself is going to tread the old battlefield not out of holy conviction that Prussia must be succoured or that Napoleon is the devil, but because he is sick of his routine.

Terribly appositely, Princess Bolkonsky #2 makes her entrance and suggests that Prince Andrei could leave off this icky war thingy and instead wangle a position as aide-de-camp to the Emperor. Her husband is signally unimpressed and sternly silent. Then she complains about being offloaded to Andrei's sister and father in the countryside, that she is afraid regarding *cough*the baby*cough*, and then that Andrei doesn't love her any more. Pierre, of course, feels extremely uncomfortable.

Over dinner, by which time Lise (i.e. the princess) has left, Andrei recites a verse from the Timon of Athens primer on matrimony:
Never, never marry [. . .] don't marry until you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of doing, and until you cease to love the woman of your choice and see her plainly, as she really is; or else you will be making a cruel and irreparable mistake. Marry when you are old and good for nothing. Otherwise everything that is fine and noble in you will be thrown away. It will all be wasted on trifles. [. . .] If you marry while you still have any hopes of yourself you will be made to feel at every step that for you all is over, every door closed but that of the drawing-room, where you will stand on the same level as the court lackey and the idiot.
Then he says that, sure, his wife is faithful but she's pretty much the only one who would be. He'd rather she weren't his wife, though. And he really hates girly activities like parties and gossip when he'd rather be doing something grand. Which in his subtle way is as dishonourable and whiny as what his wife said.

Pierre is surprised that his friend, admirable in mental attainments and characterly strength, thinks that his prospects are so bleak, but says nothing. Andrei then asks why Pierre goes out so much with the Kuragins, especially Anatole and especially since the, er, wenching in that environment is not in the best taste. Pierre agrees more or less and says, you know what, I won't go tonight — which satisfies his friend.

That was the middle of Chapter 6 and the temporary end of this second liveblog.

War and Peace, Piecemeal

Empress Maria Fedorovna, by Jean-Louis Voille, late 1790s
Oil on canvas. Russian Museum in St. Petersburg
via Wikimedia Commons
[Portrait chosen because it conveys court dress, picks up on the mentions of the lady in the book, and depicts the immediate historical backdrop to the early stages of War and Peace.]

While beneath the dignity of one of the world's Great Novels, I thought that I could never write a decent overview of the entire book, so I am giving a "live blog" of my reading a try. (The most recent updates are at the bottom. And I am indeed up rather late. And I admit that the pun in the post title is rather bad.)

01:22 AM Finished introduction by Rosemary Edmonds, which says among other things that Tolstoy began writing this the year after he married (himself 34 years old) 18-year-old Sophie, which not only changed his mind about the overwhelming onset of decrepitude but also inspired a flowering of his authorial ability. He had been teaching the serfs on his estate and was apparently rather bored of it. He spent years writing and publishing (in increments) War and Peace, as Sophie spent the time copying it out by hand, and it was finally all out as a book in 1869. Apparently the argument of the essay at the end of the book (which I never finished reading during my previous conquests of War and Peace and whereof I only remember the argument that history is not guided by God toward some fulfillment because he could fulfill the world at once — which logic really impressed me at the time, though now I think I a) misunderstood it; b) would have to reread the passage; and c) disagree) is that the straightforward goodness of the Russian people won out over the artificial grandeur of a certain Corsican general and his French host.

01:54 AM

Setting: 1805, Russia under Tsar Alexander I and the dowager(?) Empress Maria

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Moon

From the Grimm fairy tales, a little cosmogony:


Once there was a land where the night was always dark and the sky was spread over it like a black cloth, for the moon never rose there and no star winked in the darkness. At the creation of the world the light of night had been sufficient. From this land, four lads once went wandering and arrived in another realm, where in the evening, when the sun had vanished behind the mountains, a glowing sphere stood on an oak tree, pouring out a soft light far and near. People could see and tell apart everything very well in it, even though it was not as bright as the sun. The wanderers stood still and asked a farmer, who was driving past with his cart, what sort of light that was. "That is the moon," the man answered. "Our mayor bought it for three Talers and fixed it to the oak tree. He must pour oil to it daily and keep it clear, so it always burns brightly. For that, we give him a Taler every week."

When the farmer had driven away, one of them said, "We've a use for this lamp. At home we have an oak tree that is exactly as large; we can hang it on there. What a joy it will be not to tap around in the darkness at night!"

"Do you know," said the second, "we'll fetch a cart and horse and carry off the moon. These people here can buy themselves another one."

"I climb well," said the third, "I'll fetch it down proper."

The fourth fetched a cart with horses and the third climbed up the tree, drilled a hole into the moon, pulled a rope through it and lowered it down. When the shining sphere lay in the cart, they covered it in a cloth so that no one would notice the theft. They brought it happily to their land and set it onto a tall oak. Old and young were happy when the new lamp sent its light glowing over all the fields and filled the halls and chambers with it. The dwarves came out from their caves, and the little brownies danced rings on the meadows in their red frocks.

The four supplied the moon with oil, cleaned the wick and received their Taler every week. But they became old men, and when one of them sickened and foresaw his death, he commanded that the fourth part of the moon be given into the grave with him, as his property. When he had died, the mayor climbed into the tree and cut off a quarter with his hedge shears, and it was laid in the coffin. The light of the moon fell off, but not noticeably yet. When the second died, the second quarter was given with him, and the light diminished. It was even weaker after the death of the third, who equally took his part with him, and when the fourth entered the grave, the old darkness set in again. When people went out without a lantern of an evening, they bumped their heads together.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Wild Swans

NOW that I'm older and haven't read the stories in a while, I tend to find Hans Christian Andersen's tales rather psychotic, and however the great Danish writer was in real life, I am grateful that I am not ensnared in the mindset that evolved stories like the one about the Vikings and the toad and the decapitated Christian priest. When I was small I found them interesting, but felt that he had the endings wrong. "The Little Mermaid" is the obvious example. Lacking in common sense and full of the gloomy masochism which leads characters to lead disappointing and very unhelpful lives. It is not a very convincing proponent for religion, and since everyone will die and be sorted into something or other anyway, the question remains why one should not make the most of terrestrial life and, if someone else is in a gloomy situation, try to take them out of it so that they can experience some good. The underlying problem is probably the doctrine of predestination, and Andersen's tales show clearly that whatever its accuracy may be as a metaphysical tenet, it is singularly unhelpful in reality.



Friday, August 12, 2011

The Darkling Thrush

Picture: "Cottage at East Bergholt" (ca.1833)*
by John Constable (1776-1837)
Oil on canvas, 87.5 x 112cm in Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool

From Wikimedia Commons
* (Relevant since there are tiny bird-like specks, in the British countryside, and the rainbow is an emblem of hope. (c: )


One of my favourite poems.


Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
English novelist and poet.

I leant upon a coppice-gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Lady of Shalott

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

There was an earlier version of this poem, from 1833; this one is the one I've seen in anthologies and school textbooks. It tells the story of Elaine, who in Arthurian legend was in love with Sir Lancelot; since this affection was not requited she died and went floating in a barge down the river to Camelot, where the court of Arthur discovered her. The tale is screwed up — it's fairly sick to parade one's corpse in front of a love interest, and the likelihood that the barge would arrow neatly to its destination is physically doubtful as Anne of Green Gables would discover — but I like the setting and atmosphere very much and particularly Tennyson's power of singling out words that give strong and concise pictures of their real or imaginary originals.

Tennyson interprets the tale gently to symbolize the vagueness of an inward-looking or confined life, where one looks at life through the lens of art, books, or some other medium; and is better fitted by nature or nurture to go on daydreaming than to struggle with life or to bear a contact with harsh realities when and if it comes. Whether he meant it to refer to poets like himself, or other artists, or whether he was applying it to broader social isolation, is unclear to me.


Picture: This in my view garish (but it was in my English Literature textbook, so the associations are there) painting by William Holman Hunt is "The Lady of Shalott," in the medium of oil on canvas, painted in 1905. It is housed in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Monday, August 01, 2011

General Prologue to the Hobbit

Purely commentary and no exposition:

This book is one which I read on my own a handful of times, a friend of the family read out loud to us once a week, and was taught to my class in Grade 7. In terms of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I prefer The Hobbit. At school we watched the animated Hobbit from the 70s or so, and I was not much taken with it; the reason why the book comes to mind is that I recently watched the three production videos for the future film and felt that it looks very promising. As long as Gandalf, intermittently comedic dwarves (and New Zealand) and a doughty hobbit are in it, it will hopefully not wander too far astray.

My Canada-residing grandfather had a copy of The Hobbit (Unwin Books's 1966 edition in the book's "Twenty-first impression 1969") bought obligatorily since it was in fashion; though he is (rather was, but the present tense seems right) mild in his likes and dislikes, he was sometimes displeased about things and The Hobbit was one of them; he once said that he considered the book cribbed from Norse mythology and not worth reading. I'm still not sure precisely what irritated him about it, or if he was in fact irritated rather than detached in his criticism. Dwarves, dragons, and gold are in fact not foreign to the sagas, but whereas I find the sagas too pontifical, ponderous, and unhealthily unmoored from the world itself, The Hobbit is grounded in Britishness, parochialism, characters and scenes on a less ambitious scale than the Lord of the Rings, and I like it. Besides I haven't read so many sagas or even Saxon things; English literature staples like Beowulf (despite the dragon in its final scenes) and The Dream of the Rood and The Wanderer are obviously in a different vein. To phrase it in undergraduate essay terms, though, the hearth/ale/song/comrade and wilderness/isolation/pain dichotomy are common to them all.

The same friend of the family who regaled us with The Hobbit also read retellings of Wagner's operas with all their deathly sickly sentimentality, among them the Ring cycle. These were interesting insofar as we found them abhorrently preachy, etc. While the rest of us suffered from a severe case of loving-to-hate she endured them with great equanimity, until we reached a consensus over the hideously frivolous Meistersinger von Nürnberg that enough was as good as a feast. It deepened the impression that Norse sagas are not my cup of tea.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Term of Life

"Three studies of a donkey" by Gerard ter Borch the Elder (ca. 1612)
Watercolour and ink on paper?, in Museum het Rembrandthuis (Amsterdam)
From Wikimedia Commons

"Die Lebenszeit" from the fairy tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm:


Monday, July 18, 2011

Bluebeard the Horrid

"Bluebeard" by Charles Perrault is one of the tales that is the embodiment of an archetype, and besides eminently "horrid." I have never thought that reading lurid things is particularly bad for children, since I think that they enjoy a strong plot before they learn to appreciate other things, and because they can divorce it from reality. But though in that sense I liked reading "Bluebeard" a little, it was never entirely my favourite since there was no friendly romance for the heroine to counterbalance the rather harsh remainder of the tale. When I was much older I read it in Perrault's delightfully lucid 17th century, original French prose. Retelling all of it is unnecessary since it is so well known, so the following is a self-indulgence, and of course I must warn that my understanding of French is not perfect in every detail.


THE story begins a little unsympathetically, when a young woman grudgingly agrees to marry a wealthy man whose matrimonial prospects had been hampered by his azure facial hair and his shady history of disappearing wives. After a month the husband goes off into the countryside for some six weeks, inviting her to ask her friends to the castle and enjoy herself, and leaving her with a bunch of keys to the luxurious furniture and money-trunks, a master key for the splendid apartments, and a tiny key to a little room which she is not to enter. He could have left the tiny key under a flowerpot or something, so as not to endanger his privacy or endanger her integrity; but he is likely either something of a sadist, or a misogynist who likes to reinforce his views of the flightiness of women corresponding to the old chestnut "varium et mutabile semper," or he badly wanted to test his wife on her own merits.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tennyson's Ulysses

Written in 1833
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

In English Literature 12 I encountered this poem of Tennyson's, a monologue from the perspective of Odysseus, written long after the sharpwitted Greek had sailed for the Trojan shore to preside over war strategy with Menelaus and Achilles, and returned to the island of Ithaca after interminable obstacles to find peace with his wife Penelope and their son Telemachus. Homer's Odysseus (I use the Greek instead of the Latin Ulysses since in terms of antiquity I am a Graecophile and Rome-skeptic) had a various and heroic life, and one would expect him to live out his old age with wisdom, a sense of having surfeited on travel, and intelligent reflection — perhaps even with an eager correspondence and traffic with voyagers through his territories.

In Tennyson's poem, however, he comes across ingloriously lesser. This perception and the following, however, may be coloured by the fact that I hate the guts of "Ulysses"'s mentality.

Photo: Odysseus from a marble sculpture group (Greek, c. 2nd century BC)
by Jastrow, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 17, 2011

Voltaire and the Tiny Diamond in the Rough

Voltaire (1694-1778)
French philosopher and author


Il y avait autrefois un grain de sable qui se lamentait d'être un atome ignoré dans le désert; au bout de quelques années il devint diamant, et il est à présent le plus bel ornement de la couronne du roi des Indes.

From Zadig ou la Destinée, histoire orientale (1752), Voltaire, éd. Flammarion, coll. Librio, 2004, chap. « Le Brigand », p. 43 via"Voltaire," Wikiquote


Portrait of Voltaire (1778 copy by Catherine Lusurier of 1718 work by Nicolas de Largillière; currently in the Musée national des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon) via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Hare and the Hedgehog

Walter Heubach (1865-1923) (via Wikimedia Commons)

When I had started going to school my uncle Pu used to read this tale to us, and I'm afraid that what particularly compelled me was "Halt das Maul, Weib," which is part of a tirade which strikes the adult eye and ear as misogynistic but seemed a lovely and reasonably wieldy insult to me back then. The following is my translation. Outside of the tale I've only ever seen hedgehogs referred to as "Igel" in German, so for an informal and singular effect I've rendered "Swinegel" as "hedgepig," borrowing from
Macbeth, though presumably Shakespeare's hedgepig is literally a different beast. As for the tale itself, it is brimful of class resentment, and not quite as hoity toity in its language as other Grimm fairy tales though the dialect is highly intelligible to the High German speaker, and I'm afraid that, being a snob like the hare, it strikes me as a little vulgar.

As always, the accuracy of the translation is rather a matter of fortuity than of certainty.


THIS tale must be told with a lying tongue, boys, but true it is after all, because my grandfather, from who I have it and who told it to me with great contentment, was wont to say thereby, "True must it be, my son, or else you could not tell it."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Home Thoughts, From Abroad

Robert Browning (1812-1889)
British poet.
Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark I where my blossomed pear tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge—
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
Quoted from Browning's Shorter Poems []


First a criticism: I dislike the last three lines. The rest of the poem is sentimental, conversational in tone and fairly light, so a philosophical or straightforward ending would likely ground it all. But "little" and "children" is far too much tweedom, especially taken with the exuberance in the further verse; aesthetically the last line hops discomfitingly out of line; the description is generic and slapdashingly worked out; and so it is rather incomplete.

Presumably Browning did not, however, intend this poem to be a sternly wrought masterpiece for the critical inspection of a twenty-five-year-old armchair skeptic, who is neither out-of-doors nor astray in the fair fields of Albion, nor inclined to exert the required imagination to pretend to be otherwise.

So the reason I am quoting the poem is that it expresses the joy of seeing flowers (any flowers!) after winter has given way to spring, uncommonly well, and it delineates the parochial-y attachment which people tend to form for the flowers, creatures, and foliage of their garden and the waysides beyond it, as they glimpse and visit them time after time when the season is at hand.


Spring (Apple Blossoms) by John Everett Millais, around 1856-9
From: Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

At the Time Appointed

By A. Maynard Barbour
Published in 1903 (Grosset & Dunlap)

A western novel among the mines. I originally wrote this post in October and revised it today. There was no real need, I admit, to give so many half-digested details of the plot but at any rate it's historical source material.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Pynche of Levitee

Since I am presently too lazy to reread Suetonius and write something intelligent, and since I would like to share the post irrespective of the weekday theme, here is a link to an interview — both contemporary and premodern — between Margaret Atwood and the mind behind Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, conducted in the late 14th century idiom.

Interview wyth Margarethe Atte-Woode

Via @MargaretAtwood