Friday, February 29, 2008

Cowper - milk, and oats, and straw

Epitaph on a Hare (1783), William Cowper

Here lies, whom hound did ne'er pursue,
Nor swifter greyhound follow,
Whose footprints ne'er tainted morning dew,
Nor ear heard huntsman's "Hallo,"

Old Tiney, surliest of his kind,
Who, nursed with tender care,
And to domestic bounds confined,
Was still a wild jack-hare.

Though duly from my hand he took
His pittance every night,
He did it with a jealous look,
And, when he could, would bite.

His diet was of wheaten bread,
And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
With sand to scour his maw.

On twigs of hawthorn he regaled,
On pippins' russet peel;
And, when his juicy salads failed,
Sliced carrot pleased him well.

A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
Whereon he loved to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
And swing his rump around.

His frisking was at evening hours,
For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching showers,
Or when a storm drew near.

Eight years and five round-rolling moons
He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out his idle noons,
And every night at play.

I kept him for his humor's sake,
For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
And force me to a smile.

But now, beneath this walnut-shade
He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
Till gentler Puss shall come.

He, still more aged, feels the shocks
From which no care can save,
And, partner once of Tiney's box,
Must soon partake his grave.

This is a poem a grown man wrote about the death of his pet hare. The second rabbit, Puss, died three years later.

I'll do a whole week of Cowper poetry some time. Then I might have something to say. For now, I'll just quietly weep for poor Tiney.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Swift - softly stole to discompose her own

A Description of the Morning

Now hardly here and there an Hackney-coach
Appearing, showed the ruddy Morns Approach.
Now Betty from her Masters bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own;
The Slipshod Prentice from his Masters Door
Had par'd the Dirt, and sprinkled round the Floor.
Now Moll had whirled her Mop with dext'rous Airs,
Prepar'd to Scrub the Entry and the Stairs.
The Youth with broomy Stumps began to trace
The Kennel-edge, where Wheels had worn the Place,
The Small-coal Man was heard with Cadence deep,
'Till drowned in shriller Notes of Chimney-sweep:
Duns at his Lordship's Gate began to meet,
And Brickdust Moll had screamed through half the Street.
The Turnkey now his Flock returning sees,
Duly let out a Nights to steal for Fees.
The watchful Bailiffs take their silent Stands,
And Schoolboys lag with Satchels in their Hands.

A short, lovely Jonathan Swift poem, as published in 1709, Germanic capitalization and all. We start on the street, presumably in London, move inside a rich man's house (into his bed, actually), then into his courtyard, then return to the street.

There are a lot of good jokes here, for such a short poem. The servant Betty sleeping with the boss, the debt collectors (Duns) up early to squeeze out what they can, the prisoners returning to prison after a night of crime and dissipation. That last part's not really a joke. And we end a step away from the corruption and dirt, with the curiosity and liveliness of the schoolboys.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sir Patrick Spens - O wha is this has done this deid

"Sir Patrick Spens" exists in several versions, and dates from who knows when. It could be from a quite old source, or it could be as new as the 17th century. Sometimes I think it's the greatest poem in the language. It's a little long for this sort of post, but that won't bother anyone - Greatest Poem in the Language!

Sir Patrick Spens

The king sits in Dunfermling toune,
Drinking the blude-reid wine:
O whar will I get guid sailor,
To sail this schip of mine?

Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the kings richt kne:
Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That sails upon the se.

The king has written a braid letter,
And sign'd it wi' his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the sand.

The first line that Sir Patrick red,
A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick red,
The teir blinded his e'e.

O wha is this has don this deid,
This ill deid don to me,
To send me out this time o' the yeir,
To sail upon the se!

Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
Our guid schip sails the morne:
O say na sae, my master deir,
For I feir a deadlie storme.

Late, late yestereen I saw the new moone,
Wi' the auld moone in hir arme,
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
That we will com to harme.

O our Scots nobles wer richt laith
To weet their cork-heild schoone;
Bot lang owre a' the play were playd,
Thair hats they swam aboone.

O lang, lang may their ladies sit,
Wi' their fans into their hand,
Or eir they se Sir Patrick Spens
Cum sailing to the land.

O lang, lang may the ladies stand,
Wi' thair gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for their ain deir lords,
For they'll se thame na mair.

Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
It's fiftie fadom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spens,
Wi the Scots lords at his feit.

It's the two stanzas in the middle that really do it, right? It's the laugh of Sir Patrick, followed by the tear. Maybe it's just the laugh. There's a narrative compression here that one can find in the Old Testament, and in early Spanish ballads. Probably other places, but not many. The real story is packed into a few lines, a few words.

UPDATE: There are a half dozen versions of this poem. I prefer the minimalist version. A discerning commenter prefers more shipboard action:

We hadna sailed a league, a league,
A league but only twa,
Till cauld and watry grew the wind,
Come hailing owre them a’.

We hadna sailed a league, a league,
A league but only three,
Till cold and watry grew the wind,
And grumly grew the sea.

‘Wha will come,’ the captain says,
‘And take my helm in hand?
Or wha’ll gae up to my topmast,
And look for some dry land?

‘Mount up, mount up, my pretty boy,
See what you can spy;
Mount up, mount up, my pretty boy,
See if any land we’re nigh.’

‘We’re fifty miles from shore to shore,
And fifty banks of sand;
And we have all that for to sail
Or we come to dry land.’

‘Come down, come down, my pretty boy,
I think you tarry lang;
For the saut sea’s in at our coat-neck
And out at our left arm.

‘Come down, come down, my pretty boy,
I fear we here maun die;
For thro and thro my goodly ship
I see the green-waved sea.’

And I was worried it was too long. It's so good people just want more.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Robert Herrick - the tempestuous petticoat, a careless shoe-string

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was a parish priest who wrote a book of delicate, light-hearted love poems, the Hesperides (1648). I suspect he's best known for his mild-mannered smuttiness, the reason he ended the book like this:

To his Book's end this last line he'd have plac't,
Jocond his Muse was; but his life was chaste.

I'd like to put the mock lament "His Farewell to Sack" here, but it's a bit long. A fragment:

Let others drink thee freely; and desire
Thee and their lips espous'd; while I admire,
and love thee, but not taste thee.

Herrick was a jolly fellow. How about "Delight in Disorder":

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A Lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring Lace, which here and there
Enthrals the Crimson Stomacher:
A Cuff neglectful and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly:
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when Art
Is too precise in every part.

Read it aloud: this poem is not as smooth as Drayton. "Kindles in clothes a wantonness" or "The tempestuous petticoat" - I can hear the "wild civility" the poet sees. Any Herrick collection will have two dozen poems as good as this one.

A bonus Herrick poem for a lucky reader:

The Coming of Good Luck

So Good-luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless Snow; or as the dew of night:
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are, by the Sun-beams, tickled by degrees.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Michael Drayton - thou might'st him yet recover

I took a (totally fair) crack at Michael Drayton (1563-1631) a couple of weeks ago. I'll make it up to him by having him lead off Favorite Pre-19th Century Poems in English week. Here's a sonnet from the 1619 edition of Idea:

Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part;
Nay I have done, you get no more of me,
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free;
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one lot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of love's latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, passion speechless lies,
When faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And innocence is closing up his eyes,
Now if thou would'st, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might'st him yet recover.

The last six lines are tangled, and easy to read in a way that gives the sense but misses the weirdness of the scene. Passion is personified, and dying, personified faith is at his side, personified innocence closes passion's eyes. Pretty strange. But he's not dead yet - "thou" might save him.

Clumsy attention can crush poetry, so I want to be careful. Some gentle appreciation: the opening line is perfect, just monosyllables. Also excellent, "cleanly" - he doesn't really mean it. This light and liquid poem is heavy on "l"s - "last gasp of love's latest" is where they're loveliest.

Drayton is a minor poet because unlike Shakespeare or Sidney or Donne, he only wrote a few poems as perfect as this one.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A final note on Harlot - it is one of my little weaknesses to be interested in magnetism

Esther loved Lucien at a glance, and gave up everything for him. Monsieur de Nucingen loved Esther at a glance. The great criminal Vautrin renounced everything for Lucien. Lucien and Esther are somehow under Vautrin's power.

All of this just has to be taken at face value. That's part of the Romantic side of the novel. Most readers will do what they can to fill in the psychology - it's clear enough, for example, that Vautrin patronizes Lucien (and Rastignac way back in Pére Goriot) because he's homosexual. That doesn't explain much, though, and this isn't Chekhov, where small details provide ambiguous but real psychological clues to behavior.

Things get stranger, though. Lots of people, not just Esther and Vautrin, fall instantly in love with Lucien. Vautrin has a sort of gang that is absolutely devoted to him - his aunt Asia, his servant Europe, and others. Other criminals, the most dangerous men in France, are held by his gaze. So are the magistrates and prosecuting attorneys. What is going on?

A chapter near the end is called "Observation on the subject of magnetism" (421-4). Balzac interrupts the narrative to have one extremely minor character, a doctor, tell another about his recent experience with a hypnotist ("an experiment that made me shudder"). A mesmerized woman is ordered to squeeze the doctor's wrist:

"The pressure, at first barely sensible, continued without respite all the time adding new force to the pressure of a moment before; in short, a tourniquet could not have been applied with more precision than that hand changed into an instrument of torture. It seems to me clear, then, that, under the empire of passion which is will-power concentrated upon one point and brought to an incalculable idea of animal force, as the various types of electrical current may be, man's entire vitality, whether for attack or for resistance, can be concentrated in any one of his organs... We still don't know the extent of our vital forces, they derive from the underlying power of nature, and we draw upon them from unknown reservoirs!"

This looks like one of those passages an author uses to tell us how to read his book. My understanding is that Balzac believed this business. He also believed in phrenology and whatever other early 19th century pseudosciences were floating around. He wouldn't be the first intellectual to be seduced by nonsense like this. The question is, what does it mean for the book now? Should I treat the characters as under a mechanical influence - can they be explained by science? Or should mesemerism be treated as nothing but a metaphor? Or maybe the modern reader should just ignore it. Some meaning will be lost - Balzac didn't ignore it - but maybe we can extract something new.

Next week, just poetry. There's been too much prose here, thick blocks of prose. Time to cleanse the palate.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Balzac - it was so beautiful, and at the same time so full of horror

"What Love May Cost an Old Man" - that's the title of the second part of A Harlot High and Low, published in 1843, four years after the first part.* The old man is Baron de Nucingen, a banker, who longtime Balzac readers know from several earlier stories.

Nucingen catches a single glimpse (in the dark, somehow) of the retired harlot Esther, and begins to pine away from love. Esther has been living in a sort of love nest for five years, perfectly happy, renouncing everything but her beautiful Lucien. Lucien, by contrast, under the control of a sinister Spanish priest, spends his time in society, spending money, keeping mistresses, and trying to marry the wealthy daughter of a duchess.

The only obstacle to the marriage is money. Lucien and the priest need a million francs to buy an estate, so Lucien will look legitimately respectable. The Baron de Nucingen gives them the opportunity they need - they just need to sell Esther to the Baron for a million francs.

"Lucien cast upon Esther a begging look, the look of a weak, greedy man, his heart full of tenderness, his character that of a coward. Esther answered with a sign of the head which meant: 'I must listen to the executioner and learn how to place my head beneath the axe, and I shall die bravely.' It was so beautiful, and at the same time so full of horror, that the poet wept; Esther ran to him, folded him in her arms, drank the tear and said to him: 'Don't worry!' a thing said with the eyes and with a gesture, and with the voice of madness." (161)

Drank the tear, did she. Anyway, this is where part 1 ends. Part 2 mostly involves the negotiations among various parties over Esther's price. It's one of the crassest things I've ever read. There must be a monetary figure mentioned every other page.

"So the goldsmith will have to be paid thirty thousand francs and the pawnbroker another ten thousand before the plate can be got at. Total: forty-three thousand francs with expenses." (179)

On and on like this. The Baron is cheated and squeezed at every turn, although between the irritating accent Balzac forces on him, and the fact that he's essentially buying a slave, I would guess he does not find many readers who feel too sorry for him.

Fortunately, or tragically, or predictably, Esther has a final act of renunciation in reserve.**

That's the way the novel works, the collision between the purest Romantic love, and the most vulgar commercial and criminal life. Some of this is pretty ordinary irony - who's the true harlot? Sometimes the gulf seems too wide to comprehend. This is all in the same book? That friction, the clash between the high and low, is brought to life in A Harlot. However absurd the results, that's why we still read this book.

* A Harlot High and Low has a strange publication history. It is clearly one novel, but the four parts were published as separate volumes in 1839, 1843, 1845, and 1847.

** Boy, that's a lot of story. Maybe too much. And this just gets us through Part 2, ignoring subplots. There's still half of the book left, with at least as much activity.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Balzac's prose - the vegetable fate throws us today

Balzac, the prose writer. The Good, a description of Sanson, the executioner, a real person:

"Aged, at the time of our story, about sixty, this awful functionary was noted for his excellent attire, his quiet and composed manners, and for the contempt he displayed towards Bibi-Lupin and his acolytes, the machine's provision merchants. The only indication, in this man, which betrayed the fact that in his veins flowed the blood of medieval torturers, was a certain breadth and formidable thickness in his hands. Sufficiently well educated, much concerned with his duties as a citizen and a voter, very fond, it was said, of gardening, this tall, broad-built man, who spoke in a low voice, always calm and of few words, his forehead broad, rather bald, far more closely resembled a member of the British aristocracy than a public executioner." (p. 473)

Balzac the Bad:

No quotation for this one. It's too easy; there's too much. His longer novels are full of pedestrian passages. This is a symptom of the Comédie Humaine, Balzac's grand project to somehow write about all of life in his novels, to stuff everything in. In the last quarter of A Harlot High and Low, in particular, much concerned with prisons, police, and legal procedures, Balzac continually interrupts himself to fill us in on some essential piece of information about thieves' cant or the role of the magistrate or the architecture of the Conciergerie.*

It's not all bad - the passage about the executioner, a character never mentioned after the above description, is part of this stuffing process. But most of this sort of writing is far from deathless. If Balzac had not been a great novelist, he would have been a mediocre social scientist.

Balzac the Baffling:

"well! it will take more than talent to clean the vegetable fate throws us today". (p. 90)

* On the other hand, I had never been much interested in the tour of the Conciergerie (you can see Marie Antoinette's cell and I don't know what else). Balzac has made me reconsider.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Balzac and Oscar Wilde

I mentioned that I could imagine a reader who really loved A Harlot High and Low. Here’s one:

“One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempré. It is a grief from which I have never been able completely to rid myself. It haunts me in my moments of pleasure. I remember it when I laugh.”

This is Oscar Wilde. Yes, the same person who said:

“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.''

These supposed cynics are often themselves the worst sentimentalists, aren’t they? Little Nell perishes in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), which I will read post-haste, in order to gauge the hardness of my heart. The death of Lucien in Harlot wasn’t laugh out loud funny, but it was still a pretty good joke.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Harlot High and Low - it needs a miracle for a pure and wholesome love to blossom in the heart of a courtesan

"'All for love!' said the duchess proudly. 'Destroying oneself is a pleasure at the time.'" (Penguin, p. 494)

Roughly speaking, that sums up A Harlot High and Low* (1839-47) pretty well. It's a big, crazy, book. There is more incident than in any other Balzac novel I know. Grand passions, suicides, murders, disguises, police interrogations. The main characters are the most beautiful prostitute in Paris, the most beautiful young poet, the richest banker, the most evil master criminal. Here's the sort of novel it is - Balzac decided that having one famous criminal disguised as a priest was so good, that two would be even better. There must be two dozen instances of people in disguise.

I usually think of Balzac as an early realist, a cold-eyed dissector of society. Lost Illusions (1837-43) was realistic, mostly, exaggerated for satire.** Lucien Chardon comes to Paris with a book of poems and a historical novel, ready to be a famous writer. Things don't work out that way - see the title. Balzac uses Lucien's innocence to skewer book publishing, journalism, the theater, book reviewing, and so on.

A Harlot High and Low is the sequel, but it is an entirely different creature. Realism is not Balzac's only mode, far from it. Lucien is back in Paris, but somehow under the protection of a sinister priest. The literary satire is completely absent. Comparisons are made to The Arabian Nights, and James Fenimore Cooper.*** The first half of the novel is really the story of Esther, the titular harlot who renounces everything for the beautiful Lucien. In the second half of the novel, the disguised master criminal takes over the story. Everything is pushed to the edge, at the risk of hysteria, or nonsense.

Much of this book is more than a little ridiculous. I can imagine a reader, though, of different sensibilities, who thinks that this is the one where Balzac gets it all right, where he overcomes his restraints. I'm still sorting it out myself.

* The actual title translates as something like Splendour and Misery of a Courtesan. Less euphonious, but accurate. I don't know when the novel picked up this other English name.

** It's all a matter of emphasis, though, of ratio. Here's a fellow who has pulled all of the most Romantic bits from Lost Illusions.

*** “As there is certainly as great a distance between the customs she was giving up and those she was adopting as there is between the savage state and civilization, she exhibited the grace and simplicity, the depth, which single out the wonderful heroine of The Prairie.” (p. 55)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Puzzling over Prosper Mérimée

The puzzle about Prosper Mérimée (1803-70) is why he's not read more, outside of France. He wrote Carmen (1845), the source of the opera, which keeps his name around, but I don't know how often that translates into readers. Oxford World’s Classics has kept an edition of his stories in print, so someone is reading it. More people should. Here’s the beginning and ending of the first paragraph of Carmen:

"I had always suspected that the geographers were talking nonsense when they located the site of the Battle of Munda in the territory of the Bastuli-Poeni, near present-day Monda, about two leagues north of Marbella... While waiting for my dissertation to resolve once and for all the geographical problem which is holding all learned Europe in suspense, I want to tell you a little story. It in no way prejudges the fascinating question of the site of the battle of Munda."

The narrator follows this pedantry with a story of love, madness, sex, brutal murders, Gypsies and bandits. So it turns out that Mérimée is funny. I don’t think any of the classical geography made it into Bizet’s Carmen.

Mérimée specialized in the exotic – Gypsies, slave ship revolts, Corsica, Lithuania. Sometimes his stories have supernatural elements, and sometimes just wild people. The two Corsican tales, the novella Colomba (1840) and the tiny “Mateo Falcone” (1829) are both horrible tales of revenge. Walter Pater called “Mateo Falcone” “perhaps the cruelest story in the world.” Pater was a sort of human orchid, so not a trustworthy source, but in this case he is only wrong because he apparently was not aware of certain stories of Heinrich von Kleist. Colomba, though, is completely different. Maybe a sketch is in order.

The Nevils, father and daughter are bored by Rome. The hunting is bad, and the daughter can’t find anything that all of her friends haven’t already seen and sketched.* They by chance make their way to Corsica, which promises exotic hunting and sketching, and the excitement promised by the dashing Lieutenant della Rebbia. It looks like this will be the story of outsiders confronting Romantic Coriscan culture. But there's a bit of a trick – della Rebbia, returning from the Napoleonic Wars, is actually the outsider now. The core of the book is his struggle with his sister Colomba over how to revenge his father’s death.

This story has everything. Shootouts, revenge, romance, a final shocker. It's been filmed many times in France and Italy, as early as 1918, as late as 2005. A puzzle why it's not better known in English.

* "At the Hôtel Beauveau Miss Lydia had a bitter disappointment. She had brought back with her a pretty sketch of the Pelasgic or Cyclopean gate at Segni, which she believed the artists had overlooked. However, on meeting her in Marseilles, Lady Frances Fenwich showed Lydia her album, in which, bewteen a sonnet and a dried flower, the gate in question was to be found, embellished with lavish applications of burnt sienna. Miss Lydia gave the gate at Segni to her chambermaid, and quite lost her esteem for Pelasgic edifices."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Pickwick Valentine - that's the great art o' letter-writin'

Sam Weller is writing a valentine. His father is helping him:

'That's a wery pretty sentiment,' said the elder Mr. Weller, removing his pipe to make way for the remark.

'Yes, I think it is rayther good,' observed Sam, highly flattered.

'Wot I like in that 'ere style of writin',' said the elder Mr. Weller, 'is, that there ain't no callin' names in it--no Wenuses, nor nothin' o' that kind. Wot's the good o' callin' a young 'ooman a Wenus or a angel, Sammy?'

'Ah! what, indeed?' replied Sam.

'You might jist as well call her a griffin, or a unicorn, or a king's arms at once, which is wery well known to be a collection o' fabulous animals,' added Mr. Weller.

'Just as well,' replied Sam.

'Drive on, Sammy,' said Mr. Weller.

Sam complied with the request, and proceeded as follows; his father continuing to smoke, with a mixed expression of wisdom and complacency, which was particularly edifying.

'"Afore I see you, I thought all women was alike."'

'So they are,' observed the elder Mr. Weller parenthetically.

'"But now,"' continued Sam, '"now I find what a reg'lar soft- headed, inkred'lous turnip I must ha' been; for there ain't nobody like you, though I like you better than nothin' at all." I thought it best to make that rayther strong,' said Sam, looking up.

Mr. Weller nodded approvingly, and Sam resumed.

'"So I take the privilidge of the day, Mary, my dear--as the gen'l'm'n in difficulties did, ven he valked out of a Sunday--to tell you that the first and only time I see you, your likeness was took on my hart in much quicker time and brighter colours than ever a likeness was took by the profeel macheen (wich p'raps you may have heerd on Mary my dear) altho it DOES finish a portrait and put the frame and glass on complete, with a hook at the end to hang it up by, and all in two minutes and a quarter."'

'I am afeerd that werges on the poetical, Sammy,' said Mr. Weller dubiously.

'No, it don't,' replied Sam, reading on very quickly, to avoid contesting the point--

'"Except of me Mary my dear as your walentine and think over what I've said.--My dear Mary I will now conclude." That's all,' said Sam.

'That's rather a Sudden pull-up, ain't it, Sammy?' inquired Mr. Weller.

'Not a bit on it,' said Sam; 'she'll vish there wos more, and that's the great art o' letter-writin'.'

This was picked almost at random from Chapter 33 of The Pickwick Papers.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A useful comment, too good to lose.

The proprietor of Lizok's Bookshelf left a comment to my Lermontov notes over at the Russian Reading Challenge that is too good to leave to the usual processes of internet evaporation:

"Dear Wuthering,
I'm so glad you're enjoying Lermontov -- he was a wonderful writer and poet!

If you want to read more poetry, this page has English and Russian versions of some of Lermontov's most famous poems, along with audio:

By the way, Lermontov's "Demon" was a huge inspiration for painter Mikhail Vrubel: Vrubel's paintings are such a familiar part of Russian culture that the various "Demons" (and an "Angel") even play a role in a Ukrainian-produced soap opera that I've been watching!


Lizok's Bookshelf"

This is from a Professional Reader, a Russian specialist. The poetry site is useful, not just for Lermontov, but for selections from poets like Fet and Tyutchev, even more obscure in English.

And then there are those Vrubel paintings. See below, for his painting of Lermontov's Demon (1890), borrowed from the first-rate Wikipedia entry linked by Lizok. Russian painting from the 19th century has had trouble finding it's place in the standard art history story ("Abstraction Equals Progress Or, How Tiepolo Inevitably Led to Warhol"), despite its richness and innovations. The Mikhail Vrubel paintings demonstrate the problem - my first thought is "what are these"? A promising subject for future research.

Thanks for the links.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mikhail Lermontov, the poet

Lermontov wrote a number of narrative poems. These are well-suited to be read in translation. At least the translator can communicate the story, even if the poetry is lost. Charles Johnston has translated three good ones in Narrative Poems by Alexander Pushkin & Mikhail Lermonotov, all from 1837 to 1841:

The Tambov Lady – a gambler stakes his wife,
The Novice – a monk flees a monastery,
The Demon – Lucifer falls in love with a Georgian princess.

I've read that The Demon is often considered to be the greatest Russian poem. No way to judge that in translation, but here's a sample from Johnston:

He wandered, now long-since outcast;
his desert had no refuge in it:
and one by one the ages passed,
as minute follows after minute,
each one monotonously dull.
The world he ruled was void and null;
the ill he sowed in his existence
brought no delight. His technique scored,
he found no traces of resistance –
yet evil left him deeply bored. (Stanza II)

Pechorin, from A Hero of Our Time, could have said the same thing.

Lermontov's, anyone's, lyric poems lose a lot in translation, but Lermontov's wikipedia entry includes Vladimir Nabokov's version of Lermotov's "The Dream." In English, it's a perfect poem. Otherwise, I have not read his lyrics - any recommendations?

Also posted at the Russian Reading Challenge.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Mikhail Lermontov and A Hero of Our Time

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) lived and worked in the shadow of Pushkin. His verse forms, his subject matter, and his death in a pointless duel (age 27), suggest his older contemporary at every turn. For the last four years of his life, he was widely acknowledged as Pushkin's heir, Russia's greatest living poet. But Lermontov is very much worth reading for his own sake.

Lermontov's single short novel, A Hero of Our Time (1840), is a series of four adventures of Pechorin, the supposed hero of the title. The adventures are all set on the war-torn Caucasian frontier, and involve smugglers and Chechnyan bandits, kidnapping, Russian roulette, and dueling - exciting stuff. Why, then, is Pechorin always so bored?

That's the central irony of the novel - the adventures are all a result of Pechorin's boredom, his struggle against the meaningless of his life. The result is always some sort of disaster. Pechorin sows chaos, just to have something to do, and leaves a trail of casualties. Here's a sample of how he operates. Pechorin is trying to steal the Princess Mary from his friend Grushnitski, for sport:

"During all these days, I never once departed from my system. The young princess begins to like my conversation. I told her some of the strange occurrences in my life, and she begins to see in me an extraordinary person. I laugh at everything in the world, especially at feelings: this is beginning to frighten her. In my presence she does not dare to launch upon sentimental debates with Grushnitski, and has several times already replied to his sallies with a mocking smile; but every time that Grushnitski comes up to her, I assume a humble air and leave them alone together. The first time she was glad of it or tried to make it seem so; the second time she became cross with me; the third time she became cross with Grushnitski." (p. 121, Ardis edition)

The result, in this case, is one of the greatest, craziest, dueling scenes in Russian literature.

A Hero of Our Time has an indirect, modern structure. A Lermontov-like narrator first hears a long story about Pechorin, then, by chance, actually meets him. Then the last three stories are in Pechorin's own voice, from his journals. So the reader starts at a distance, but draws closer and closer to Pechorin.

Lermontov's hero is a relative of Goethe's Werther and any number of Byronic heroes, and his own descendants will be seen again in certain protagonists of Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky, and any other character who asks "What's the point of it all?"

This is cross-posted at the Russian Reading Challenge. I'm not sure it's any more useful or well written than Lermontov's wikipedia entry, but such is life.

The long "Princess Mary" chapter is the earliest non-English story I know set in a spa town. In England, I'm thinking of Jane Austen and Tobias Smollett. Who am I forgetting?

Friday, February 8, 2008

The whole world in a book

Landívar's Rusticatio Mexicana is part of a tradition of describing the whole world in a book. Anyway, some enormous chunk of it. Landívar's Latin poem on beavers reminded me that Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton wrote his own ode to the beaver* in his enormous Poly-Olbion (1613/1622), his attempt to describe all of England in verse - the history, the rivers, the animals, everything:

Being bodied like a boat, with such a mighty tail
As served him for a bridge, a helm, or for a sail,
When kind did him command the architect to play,
That his strong castle built of branchèd twigs and clay;

And then it goes on and on like that. And then on some more. Drayton claims the idea for the sled came from watching beavers drag branches across the snow.

The poly-whatever impulse goes back to Pliny, at least, but early modern writers really went to town with it. The all-time champion must be the 17th century German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher,** who wrote numerous books, on China, geology, music, and everything, and planned many, many more, mostly on enormous topics. If I remember correctly, one of his ideas was to write a book cataloguing the heights of all the trees in the world. Not all of the species of trees - all of the individual trees.

The idea is still alive. Here is Borges skewering Pablo Neruda's Cantos, in "The Aleph" (1945):

'Only once in my life have I had occasion to look into the fifteen thousand alexandrines of the Polyolbion, that topographical epic in which Michael Drayton recorded the flora, fauna, hydrography, orography, military and monastic history of England. I am sure, however, that this limited but bulky production is less boring than Carlos Argentino's similar vast undertaking. Daneri had in mind to set to verse the entire face of the planet, and, by 1941, had already dispatched a number of acres of the State of Queensland, nearly a mile of the course run by the River Ob, a gasworks to the north of Veracruz, the leading shops in the Buenos Aires parish of Concepción, the villa of Mariana Cambaceres de Alvear in the Belgrano section of the Argentine capital, and a Turkish baths establishment not far from the well-known Brighton Aquarium. He read me certain long-winded passages from his Australian section, and at one point praised a word of his own coining, the colour "celestewhite," which he felt "actually suggests the sky, an element of utmost importance in the landscape of the Down Under." But these sprawling, lifeless hexameters lacked even the relative excitement of the so-called Augural Canto. Along about midnight, I left.'

* In this case, a species of English (Welsh?) beaver, already extinct when Drayton was writing.

** For more on Kircher, I would go to Ingrid Rowland's The Ecstatic Journey, or the essays in Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, neither of which I have read.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Rafael Landívar, neo-Latin poet - shall I not now rush with spear upon the clever beavers

Neo-Latin literature* is the realm of specialists. A couple of books - Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and Erasmus's In Praise of Folly (1511) - are widely read, as they should be. What else? Harvard University Press has created a neo-Latin series to parallel their Loeb Classical Library, the I Tatti Renaissance Library. Pietro Bembo, Petrarch and Boccaccio's Latin work, Ficino's Platonic Theology in many, many volumes. I read reviews of these books with some interest, but I haven't been convinced that I should crack a spine myself. For specialists, mostly.

Andrew Laird's The Epic of America: An Introduction to Rafael Landívar's Rusticatio Mexicana (2007) is also for specialists, really. Landívar (1731-93) was a Jesuit priest, born in what is now Guatemala, educated in Guatemala and Mexico. He was a central figure in the small world of colonial humanism. When the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish empire in 1767, Landívar fled to Italy, where he wrote his major poetic work, the Rusticatio Mexicana (1781). Laird's book consists of a long essay** about Landívar and his work, and a reprint of the Latin poem, with a facing-page English translation.

Rusticatio Mexicana is essentially imitative. Of what, though? The base is Virgil's agricultural poem, the Georgics, itself an imitation of Hesiod's Works and Days. This explains why a poem about Mexico by a Jesuit priest is full of references to Venus, Orpheus, Phoebus, and so on. But Landívar is late in the neo-Latin tradition, so he is not just imitating Virgil, but also numerous earlier imitations of Virgil, along with many other works. Laird's introduction is very useful for sorting this out.

The poem itself is a fifteen canto practical description of Spanish Central America. "The Lakes of Mexico", "Cochineal and Purple"***, "Beavers", "Sugar", "Birds" - those are some of the canto titles. I know, it sounds thrilling, but does the poem live up to its promise?

How could it. For modern readers, the interest in Virgil's Georgics is in the digressions, images, and inset stories, not in the descriptions of Roman agriculture. The pieces of the Rusticatio Mexicana are unfortunately mostly just what they say they are. The canto on "Sugar" even includes labeled engravings of sugar mills, which does not make for dynamite poetry:

Orbita (a) tune axem (b) tignis compacta profusum etc.
[L]et a wheel (a), supported by braces, encircle the long axle (b)...

There are exceptions. The canto on the 1759 eruption of the Jurullo volcano has characters and a narrative, and imitates Old Testament prophetic books rather than classical sources. Some of the natural history and anthropology is interesting. And the section on beavers is sort of hilarious. It borrows heavily not just from the Georgics' description of bees but also from Utopia. The beavers all work together in a sort of communist society, except for the ones who have been driven from the community for their "crimes". Here's an unusually vivid metaphor:

"As a deranged step-mother prepares a cup of poison for her son’s wife and amiably offers her the cup to drink, and the latter, unaware of dire peril, takes the deceptive drink and drains the cup of black death with great relish, thus the beavers, deceived by the treacherous gifts, exchange their peaceful life for a violent death.” p. 170

The real reason to read this book, which is obviously not for everyone: it's evocation of the world of educated, humanist, 18th century Spanish America, all new to me. Laird's book, and Landívar's poem, fill in a little corner of the historical map.

I heard about this book from the Classical Bookworm. Thanks for the tip.

* Post-medieval Latin. Not Roman, not Thomas Aquinas.

** My favorite part of Laird's essay is where he says that indifference to his work is "not very far removed from the bigotry and prejudice shown towards the Americas and their peoples, which Landívar and his compatriots encountered in Europe in the 1760s." p. 7. Ha! Neo-Latinist scholars in England play rough!

** While enjoying Renaissance paintings in the Uffizi, try to forget that the canvases are smeared with ground up beetles

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Why I read Knut Hamsun, and why I don't

Here's a Sven Birkerts review of two Knut Hamsun novels, Hunger (1890) and The Growth of the Soil (1917).

Hunger is a first-rate novel, narrow but original and rich in ideas. It's about a starving writer who wanders the streets of Christiana (Oslo) thinking, about his writing, or about what he can sell to get money (for example, can he sell his buttons but keep the rest of his coat?). Over four chapters, his situation becomes worse and worse. But he refuses to surrender his integrity, however he defines it. The tension and hallucinatory, hysterical tone sometimes resembles Dostoevsky, but the attention to detail and the intellectual concerns of the novel are in a different world. A great book.

Growth of the Soil is an "agrarian" novel that won Hamsun the Nobel prize, but I haven't read it, for the simple reason that the Nazis liked it. This hasn't kept me from enjoying Wagner or Nietzsche, so there's no consistency here. I could be convinced. But for now, no.

Two movie recommendations:

1. Hamsun, in his old age, was a Nazi collaborator, actively supporting the Quisling government in Norway. The movie Hamsun (1996) covers this terrible story. Hamsun is played by Max von Sydow, reason enough to see the movie.

2. There's a Danish version of Hunger (1966) starring another superb Swedish actor, Per Oscarsson. The movie is a serious adaptation, trying to recreate the internal state of the character. Really well done.

These are both available through Netflix, amazingly.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Great Naturalists, a review

The Great Naturalists (2007, Robert Huxley, editor) is a collection of short biographies of naturalists, from Aristotle to American botanist Asa Gray (1810-88). The biographies range from 3 to 8 pages of text, and are good. The appeal of the book, though, can be seen on the left. That land crab is by American traveler and artist Mark Catesby (1683-1749). There's an illustrarion of comparable quality on almost every page. It's a beautiful book.

This book is a production of the British Natural History Museum, and most of the reproductions and photos come from their collection. I don't detect any British bias. A quarter of the entries are on ancient and Renaissance figures, half are 18th century, and the remainder are 19th century. There are probaby more botanists than geologists (Steno, Hutton, Lyell) or zoologists (Hooke, Lamarck) although this is the age of the gentleman amateur, so few of these scientists did just one thing. How do you classify Alexander von Humboldt, or Erasmus Darwin? The coverage is diverse. The painting on the right is by the early German entomolgist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).

I don't know how a specialist would feel about The Great Naturalists, aside from enjoying the thick paper and lavish illustrations. The little biographies are written by two dozen different people, and they're not all of equal quality or interest. But Mary Anning (1799-1847), self-taught fossil hunter, first person to assemble an ichthyosaur, who almost never left her little corner of southern England - she's pretty interesting. Or how about George Steller (1709-46), a German naturalist who explored Siberia and Alaska with the Bering expedition. There he is on the left, measuring Steller's sea cow (now extinct), all two tons of it.

Anyway, a lovely book. Recommended to anyone.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A kind reader sends along a Proust questionnaire

This version of the Proust questionnaire, which I may have changed a bit, was written by A Striped Armchair, and passed my way by the Incurable Logophile.

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?

Irrational! Cringe!

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?

Don Quixote, Faust (Goethe's), Don Juan (Moliére's). Dim sum lunch at Little Three Happiness in Chicago's Chinatown. Faust pays.

You are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realize it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?

Dr. Johnson: "Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment."

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it?

Invalid premise. See Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read. No, just see this review of it.

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realize when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book?

I'm suspicious of every children's edition of the classics I ever read. "Robinson Crusoe", "The Three Musketeers", "Great Expectations" - I now know that they all were massively edited. In some cases, to their advantage.

You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why?

VIPs only read non-fiction. I recently recommended Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn to a VIP. True story!

A mischievous fairy, say Puck, comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

The Collected Shakespeare.

I know that the book blogging community and its various challenges have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)?

Book blog world is nice world. It could use a little more acid. But not from me! This doesn't really answer the question.

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it.

The British Museum Reading Room.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Cooper - we live in a world of transgressions and selfishness

Poking around on the internet, I found a really good article by Hugh MacDougall, actually an address to the James Fenimore Cooper Society (membership is only $10 per year!),* that makes the case for The Deerslayer better than I ever could. Just a few points:

1. Rousseau's ideas about the Noble Savage are ridiculous, we can all agree about that. Cooper puts them to the test. Not with actual savages (although his characters use the word often enough). The Huron are the enemy in the novel, but they're not dehumanized (at least not by Cooper, or Deerslayer). The Iroquois have their own culture, their own ideas about honor and religion and warfare. They're savage in some ways, but so are the white settlers. Some people blend the worst aspect of both cultures and become real savages (scalping for money is the novel's example). The Deerslayer tries to blend the best of both cultures, which strangely makes him the real Rousseauvian ideal. All of that business about natural religion fits in here.

2. Even though The Deerslayer is the novel about the beginning of Hawkeye's career, it is suffused with loss. The whole series must feel this way. Settlers destroy the forests and the passenger pigeons, warfare and disease and resettlement destroy the Native Americans. Although Hawkeye himself is a tough survivor (he dies in The Prairie at age 80), everything he really cares for is lost. The genuinely tragic aspect is that he is complicit in the destruction - as a woodsman, he prepares the frontier for settlement, and he fights in the Indian wars. At the end of The Deerslayer, Hawkeye is rescued from torture and death at the hands of the Huron by a genocidal massacre. The horror of this event is not emphasized in the way we would expect from a modern writer. But it's not dismissed, either. As a happy-go-lucky adventure novel, The Deerslayer has some defects.

3. All of the Leatherstocking Tales are in print, published as Signet Classics. This usually means that the novels are used in high schools. Those poor kids! The overstuffed prose, the draggy (mostly) pace, the absurd incidents - I'm going to guess there are 20 young'uns who swear off old books forever to every one who falls in love. I myself am not in an enormous hurry to read more Cooper. But I did not expect to write about him all week. He's pretty interesting. I'm a lot more curious than I was before.

* You can email your Cooper questions to "Ask Fenimore".