Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Evangel Of Peace

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold.

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold;
And to the presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?" The vision raised its head,
And, with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."

"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow-men."

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again, with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed;
And, lo! Ben Adhem 's name led all the rest.
—Leigh Hunt
English poet (1784-1859)

From Wikisource: "Abou ben Adhem" in Poems That Every Child Should Know, Mary E. Burt, ed. Doubleday, Page + Company.

"Mohammed receiving revelation from the angel Gabriel"
Rashid al-Din, 1307
In the Edinburgh University Library collection, Scotland
via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Toast To Winter: Part IV, Shelley Twice

After looking in the Lighthouse's archives, I find that a 2009 post here in fact expresses insights into Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode To The West Wind" that are far better than anything I could muster today. The Ode does feel like a fall poem rather than a winter poem, too, given the impressions of movement and the falling leaves, etc. But like the graves between the spring or summer flowers in a churchyard, Winter is a dark presence that pervades the poem.

Here are excerpts of the Ode, then. I am presenting them without further commentary. In them, the poet addresses the West Wind, 'thou,' as if it were a human being.

O, thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth,


Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O, hear!


Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"


"Prometheus Unbound; a lyrical drama in four acts with other poems/Ode to the West Wind" (Wikisource)
The Ode was first published in 1820.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Toast To Winter, Part III: Coleridge

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


Frost at Midnight
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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

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


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

Thursday, December 01, 2016

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Wikipedia: "Sonnet 73"

A Toast To Winter: Part I, Matthias Claudius

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

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

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


Ein Lied hinterm Ofen zu singen

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


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

A Song
to be sung behind the stove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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