Friday, October 19, 2012

An Enigmatic Verse on Fancy

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Poet and playwright of some note; English.

Tell me where is fancie bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head:
How begot, how nourished.
Replie, replie.

It is engendred in the eyes,
With gazing fed, and Fancie dies
In the cradle where it lies

From the Merchant of Venice.


I am very fond of the tests of characters which literary figures undergo in imaginary works like fairy tales, since they each have their own ingenious rationality. Sometimes it is a virtue to assist an elderly lady and other times an error, because one is transformed into stone by the lady (i.e. witch!) and must await the rescue of another and probably truer hero. Sometimes it is accounted a virtue to do their best to attempt an impossible endeavour — in one tale a maiden in a paper frock rather sillily goes out into the wilds of winter because her stepmother wanted her to do it — and in others the heroine can look at a pile of straw which is to be spun into gold, sit down and howl, and her fairy godmother or another benevolent entity will arrive shortly. Often the stories are divided upon whether people should deserve things — by means of virtuous positive effort or self-denial — or simply receive things if they have the gumption.


Illustration: Portrait of a lady by an unknown Italian painter (Florentine), dated 1475
in the National Gallery of Victoria, via Wikimedia Commons
The sitter is probably nobody's idea of Portia, but I find hers a very zeitgeisty portrait and her optimistic nose and strong chin seem to indicate some apportioned strength of will — and her attire seems to position her in the nobility.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

War and Peace, Piecemeal: Round Four

Fall of the Damned
Hieronymus Bosch
(ca. 1450-1516)
via Wikimedia Commons
THE LAST 'live blog' of War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds, took place quite a while ago, but we (or at least 'I') reached the 18th chapter. This was just before the death of Count Bezuhov, father of Pierre, who is the well-meaning social dromedary who unwisely dove into Russian society headfirst after he returned from his studies abroad. The death scene itself is impressive, because it is a milder version of a grand Hogarthian display of hypocrisy; its particular solemnity is ludicrous in light of its trivial, baseminded underpinnings. (It is not unlike the deathbed of Peter Featherstone in Middlemarch.) But it makes me a little uncomfortable.

The next scene is in the countryside, where Prince Bolkonsky is living out the rest of his stately aristocratic life in splendid isolation. His son Andrei (the friend of Pierre) has already escaped, and his father is very proud and fond of him; but Princess Maria, being a woman, is stuck in the position of being molded into the male heir whom her father had always fancied he would like to have. At least that's my reading of the situation. This enforced sobriety and manly strongmindedness which Maria is supposed to possess — they are not poor qualities in themselves but qualities which are best acquired or kept on one's own initiative — contrast pitifully with her self-doubt and romantic aspirations.

12:28 p.m. Maria Bolkonsky finds an ally in girlishness in her friend Julie Kuragin, who writes her the sort of youthful, gushing letter which shrivels under the scrutiny of adult persons. Among her maidenly woes is her plain face, which Tolstoy tritely redeems with a 'pair of fine eyes.' In Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the hero is compelled to change his opinion of the heroine thusly:
no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.
(Vol. I, Chapter 6, at

In War and Peace, the narrative voice says,
. . . Princess Maria sighed and glanced into the pier-glass which stood on her right. It reflected a slight, homely figure and thin features. Her eyes, always melancholy, now looked with particular hopelessness at her reflection in the mirror.
Her friend had written that she has beautiful eyes, but Maria doubts it. So the narrator steps in to explain,
the princess's eyes — large, deep and luminous (it sometimes seemed as if whole shafts of warm light radiated from them) — were so lovely that very often in spite of the plainness of her face they gave her a charm that was more attractive than beauty. But the princess never saw the beautiful expression of her own eyes — the expression they had when she was not thinking of herself.
and moralize: "Like most people's, her face assumed an affected, unnatural expression as soon as she looked in a glass."

As a former girl-teenager, these cogitations ring true to me; I was told that my eyes were pretty and I liked having long hair and doughty legs, but worried about everything else. But I outgrew it by sixteen and find it, in retrospect, horribly mopy and rather embarrassing. As for Tolstoy, he seems to be sermonizing (not unkindly) that feeling poorly about one's pulchritude is the price of vanity; but that characterization might do him an injustice.

13:45 p.m. Julie Kuragin proffers three important pieces of gossip. Firstly, Russia's war against Napoleon is underway and Nikolai Rostov (at whom she has been casting sheep's eyes, to use an amusingly terrible phrase) has enlisted. Secondly, Pierre Bezuhov is being beset by partis and their parents, who are casting sheep's eyes at his new inheritance. Thirdly, the adult relatives (e.g. Prince Vasili, one of the deathbed harpies) of Anatole Kuragin are thinking of palming him off as a husband on Marie. I don't know if this has been mentioned in the book yet, but Anatole Kuragin is — in modern parlance — The Absolute Worst, a glamorous society creep. So she is in great peril!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Aesop's Fables: Odo of Cheriton's "De Lupo, Vulpe et Asino"

Since I am not well informed, this precis on Aesop is a bit of an 'Aesop for Dummies' case:

AESOP was, according to Herodotus and by way of a certain online encyclopaedia, a slave who lived in Greece in the fifth century before Christ. It is also possible that the fables are cribbed from the lore of Mesopotamia or even more easterly lands, or that Aesop himself did not exist at all. Divers Latin translations already existed six hundred years afterwards, by Phaedrus, Ennius and Aphthonius of Antioch and others.