Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"The Columbine" - Jones Very

I want to look at one poem here, and leave the context for later.

The Columbine

Still, still my eye will gaze long fixed on thee,
Till I forget that I am called a man,
And at thy side fast-rooted seem to be,
And the breeze comes my cheek with thine to fan.
Upon this craggy hill our life shall pass,
A life of summer days and summer joys,
Nodding our honey-bells mid pliant grass
In which the bee half hid his time employs;
And here we’ll drink with thirsty pores the rain,
And turn dew-sprinkled to the rising sun,
And look when in the flaming west again
His orb across the heaven its path has run;
Here left in darkness on the rocky steep,
My weary eyes shall close like folding flowers in sleep.

This is a strange poem. The poet looks at the columbine long enough and in such a way that he actually thinks he is a flower. This is a version of Emerson, immersed in Nature, becoming a transparent eyeball.

But here, look at the widening sensual range - the eye comes first, but then he feels the breeze, he nods his honey-bell and the bee comes, he drinks the rain and feels the dew and sun. A more complete sensory experience, even though one might think the sensual possibilities of a flower would be quite limited.

And then the eye returns at the end, as the poet remembers that he is a person not a flower - his eyes close "like" the petals. It's all just a metaphor, no matter how intensely experienced.

Note how the return to reality is reflected in the bumpiness of the last line. The first 13 lines of the sonnet have 10 syllables, but the last line has 12 (counting "flowers" as one syllable), to jar the poet back to himself.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

We are all wise.

“We are all wise. The difference between persons is not in wisdom but in art.”

R. W. Emerson, "Intellect", p. 421 of the Library of America edition.

Is this true? One thing you have to train yourself to do in order to read philosophy is to put that question on hold. If you stop whenver a premise is untrue, you would not get very far with a large share of philosophers.

Anyway, I don't think it's true. Some people are wiser than others, actually wiser, not just more artful. Some of us are not very wise at all.

Say I modify the statement a little. "Between equally wise persons, the difference is in art." That could be more euphonious. But now it looks true to me. The manner of expression of ideas or wisdom forms a crucial part of their effectiveness or impact. I may have made the sentiment too utilitarian for Emerson's taste, but I feel like I'm moving toward what he really meant.

That's why I'm writing here - working on the "art" side. Maybe it will lead to actual wisdom. Maybe it will only help me appear more wise. Maybe it's just vanity. I'll keep trying.

Monday, October 29, 2007

predictions, shmredictions

We give to much credit to predictions. Tocqueville has a single paragraph predicting that the two great powers in the future would be Russia and the United States. And he was right! For a while, at least. But people used this trivial sliver of his work to bolster his authority.

Similarly, Marx and Malthus made some terribly wrong predictions, which has undermined their authority among a lot of people. In the case of Marx, I am tempted to say, good. Anyway, other thinkers have pulled out the more valuable ideas. Malthus's mistakes certainly led to a lot of insights by later demographers and economists.

So predictions don't matter that much. The search for authority is a distraction from taking ideas seriously. Still, this is a good shocker from the Marquis de Custine:

"If ever they should succeed in creating a real revolution among the Russian people, massacre would be performed with the regularity that marks the evolutions of a regiment. Villages would change into barracks, and organized murder would stalk forth armed from the cottages, form in line, and advance in order…"

The Empire of the Tsar, p. 293.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sorrows neither few nor brief – Jorge Manrique

The logical place to end my tour of poetry in translation is in Spain, but I don’t know much about 19th century Spanish poetry. Just some names – Becquer, Ruben Dario – subjects for future research. So here’s a 19th century translation of a 15th century Spanish poet.

Jorge Manrique (1440-79) is remembered for one great poem, “Las Coplas a la muerte de su padre”, “Couplets on the death of his father.” Manrique’s father was a knight who died in combat against the Moors (this is before 1492 – still the age of chivalry and crusading in Spain). The son’s poem is an elegy, but also a way to ask what makes life meaningful. Here’s how it begins:

O let the soul her slumbers break,
Let thought be quickened, and awake;
Awake to see
How soon this life is past and gone,
And death comes softly stealing on,
How silently!

Swiftly our pleasures glide away,
Our hearts recall the distant day
With many sighs;
The moments that are speeding fast
We heed not, but the past,—the past,
More highly prize.

Onward its course the present keeps,
Onward the constant current sweeps,
Till life is done;
And, did we judge of time aright,
The past and future in their flight
Would be as one.

There is some relationship here with humanist ideas that I do not usually associate with Spain. The last stanza contains a sophisticated idea about the difference between the future and the past – why do we think of them so differently?

O World! so few the years we live,
Would that the life which thou dost give
Were life indeed!
Alas! thy sorrows fall so fast,
Our happiest hour is when at last
The soul is freed.

Our days are covered o'er with grief,
And sorrows neither few nor brief
Veil all in gloom;
Left desolate of real good,
Within this cheerless solitude
No pleasures bloom.

Thy pilgrimage begins in tears,
And ends in bitter doubts and fears,
Or dark despair;
Midway so many toils appear,
That he who lingers longest here
Knows most of care.

Manrique presents this dark view of life to argue with it, providing a list of examples from Spanish history of heores who lived and died in meaningful ways. He ends the list with his father:

He left no well-filled treasury,
He heaped no pile of riches high,
Nor massive plate;
He fought the Moors, and, in their fall,C
ity and tower and castled wall
Were his estate.

Here’s his end, and the end of the poem:

As thus the dying warrior prayed,
Without one gathering mist or shade
Upon his mind;
Encircled by his family,
Watched by affection's gentle eye
So soft and kind;

His soul to Him, who gave it, rose;
God lead it to its long repose,
Its glorious rest!
And, though the warrior's sun has set,
Its light shall linger round us yet,
Bright, radiant, blest.

The last line is perfect. This translation was done by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, young Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, in 1833, before he had published his own poems. The reputation of Longfellow, once one of the most popular poets of the 19th century, is not very high now. I don’t know his poems well enough to know why. But he was a superb translator of poetry, one of the best.

Manrique’s Coplas are one of the few works of any sort that I’ve read in two languages. Longfellow keeps the same form and meter. He changes the rhyme scheme a little (he uses AAB/CCB, while the original is ABC/ABC). He poeticizes some prosaic bits, and rearranges the order of sentences. He omits three stanzas. To me, the mood, the feel is just like the original.

Longfellow’s version is a masterpiece. I don’t know why it shouldn’t be as famous as Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat”. Too late for that now, I suppose. Longfellow also made marvelous translations of poems of Dante, Michelangelo, Goethe. I think they are models of poetic translation. Maybe a Longfellow revival is due.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Brushes on thirty different scales - Alexander Pushkin

Something a little different here. Pushkin (1799-1837) is Russia’s greatest poet, almost the founder of Russian literature. In his short life, he wrote in a number of styles, absorbing a range of Russian and international influences. Byron, most obviously, but really everyone he came across. Pushkin wrote a lot of satires, some smutty poems, some character sketches, not so much beeyootiful nature poetry, but some. His eye for detail was superb – here’s the equipment of a dandy (the hero, Eugene Onegin) preparing to go out on the town:

Eugene Onegin, Canto I, Stanza XXIV

Porcelain and bronzes on the table,
with amber pipes from Tsaregrad;
such crystalled scents as best are able
to drive the swooning senses mad;
with combs, and steel utensils serving
as files, and scissors straight and curving,
brushes on thirty different scales;
brushes for teeth, brushes for nails.
Rousseau (forgive a short distraction)
could not conceive how solemn Grimm
dared clean his nails in front of him,
the brilliant crackpot: this reaction
shows freedom’s advocate, that strong
champion of rights, as in the wrong.

Some of this is just a list, but a list that reveals the dandy’s vanity (the crack at Rousseau digs at a different sort of vanity). No surprise that Pushkin also proved to be a great fiction writer. Here’s another list, about Onegin’s country house, which he has just inherited. Here’s what he faces:

Canto II, Stanza III

The rustic sage, in that apartment,
forty years long would criticize
his housekeeper and her department,
look through the pane, and squash the flies.
Oak-floored, and simple as a stable:
two cupboards, one divan, a table,
no trace of ink, no spots, no stains.
And of the cupboards, one contains
a book of household calculations,
the other, jugs of applejack,
fruit liqueurs and an Almanack
for 1808: his obligations
had left the squire no time to look
at any other sort of book.

The boredom will obviously be crushing. Note the writer’s indictment, slipped in – “no trace of ink.” Onegin flirts with a local girl, who falls in love with him. He rejects her, and one of the consequences in an idiotic duel. Here’s the aftermath, a different kind of Pushkin:

Canto VI, Stanza XXXV

Giving his pistol-butt a squeezing,
Evgeny looks at Lensky, chilled
at heart by grim remorse’s freezing.
‘Well, what?’ the neighbor says, ‘he’s killed.’
Killed!... At this frightful word a-quiver,
Onegin turns, and with a shiver
summons his people. On the sleigh
with care Zaretsky stows away
the frozen corpse, drives off, and homing
vanishes with his load of dread.
The horses, as they sense the dead,
have snorted, reared, and whitely foaming
have drenched the steel bit as they go
and flown like arrows from a bow.

A nice mix of reporting and metaphorical language. Just the right mood. It’s hard to read this without wondering about Pushkin’s own death in an idiotic duel not too many years later.

Maybe I will write more about Pushkin later. He’s such a varied writer. I’ve read most of what he wrote, or at least most of what’s in English. All of his prose, his tragedy “Boris Godunov”, a substantial share of his poetry. But he’s like Hugo in this way - hard to grasp whole.

All of the stanzas I mentioned here are from the Charles Johnston translation. Who knows how this compares to the original. It’s lively, light, poetic. One hopes it’s also accurate, and sounds more or less like Pushkin.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Give me some powder and some shot – Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo (1802-85), a giant. By age 30, he was France’s most famous living poet, a leading playwright, and the author of Notre Dame de Paris, with Quasimodo, now more famous than his creator. And he would continue to write important books for another 50 years. Not someone you get to know by reading one or two books.

Hugo wrote poems about man and nature, the usual Romantic stuff. He also wrote a lot of poems about his children:

My Two Daughters

Twilight now with cool
shadows falling on the day
as two girls, one a swan,
one a dove, sisters, each
beautiful and both content,
sit on the threshold of the garden
in sweetness, at peace, when
above them white carnations –
their slender stalks set in a marble urn –
are taken by the wind,
lean trembling in the shade,
resembling a flight of butterflies
held there for a moment,
in rapture.

In French this is a ten line poem with regular end rhymes. Here, the translator has abandoned the original form and made Hugo into a free versifier. He keeps the images, the metaphors, the mood. I notice that the line “Voyez, la grande soeur et la petite soeur” (“Look, the big sister and the little sister”, I think) has completely disappeared. Translators have a lot of power.

Here’s a different side of Hugo:

The Boy

The Turks were here. Ruin. Grief.
Chios, island of vines,
now a charred reef –
Chios, once shaded with blossom,
Chios, whose tides advancing
mirrored great woods, slopes, palaces,
sometimes at dusk a chorus
of young girls dancing.

All is deserted. Save
near blackened walls where
one blue-eyed child, a Greek boy, sits
head bowed in shame. He has
for shelter, for support one
hawthorn, white-flowering,
like him in the havoc forgotten.

Will you smile again if I give you
a fair bird of the forests
singing more sweetly than the flute
more gaily than the cymbals?
What can I give you – flower, sleek fruit,
wondrous bird? The child then,
the Greek boys with blue eyes, said, ‘Friend,
‘give me some powder and some shot.’

That’s still a little shocking, I think, even though the politics of Greek independence are lost in the past.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Soft harp-music far away - Eduard Mörike

Eduard Mörike (1804-1875) spent his entire life in southwest Germany, a provincial clergyman and literature professor. He wrote a small number of poems, which were well enough known that more famous writers like Ivan Turgenev came to visit him. A lot of Mörike’s verse is sweet, gentle:

Intimation of Spring

Now again the earth with new
Long-familiar fragrance brings
Its sweet presage, and the spring’s
Sky-borne banner flutters blue.
Violets wake today
Dreaming their time is near.
-Oh listen: soft harp-music far away!
Spring, yes, I have heard you
Coming, you are here!

If this is not beautiful in some way, there is not much else to it. The range of senses is important – the fragrance, then the color of the sky, then the music. Some of the most beautiful poems in the language, Germans say. They say that about a lot of their poets, actually, but mostly because it’s so often true.

A Huntsman’s Song

Daintily a bird’s claw prints the snows
As upon the mountain heights it goes:
Daintily my darling’s little hand
Writes to greet me in a far-off land.

High the heron soars into the blue
Where no shot nor arrow can pursue:
And a thousand times so swift and high
To their goal the thoughts of true love fly.

Two ideas skillfully linked together, moving from the specific (claw and hand) to the more abstract (soaring heron, thought of love). But lest we think Mörike is just a charming nature poet:

Good Riddance

Unannounced, one evening, in came a visitor:
‘I have the honour to be your critic, sir.’
At once he took the lamp in his hand
And my shadow on the wall for a time he scanned,
From close, from a distance. ‘Young man, you must admit:
Your nose – now please, just take a sideways look at it;
That nose is an excrescence, by your leave.’
- What? Now, by God, I do believe
You’re right! Just fancy! How could one suppose,
Never in my life did I suppose,
That my face possessed so monstrous a nose!

The man said a few other things as well;
What they were, truly I now can’t tell;
He expected a confession, I don’t doubt.
Then he got up to go; I lighted him out.
And when the two of us reached the stair,
My high spirits were such that then and there
A parting present from me he got:
Just a little kick on a posterior spot –
Oh, my goodness me, what a tumbling,
What a totter and a clatter and a rumbling!
I never have seen, I do declare,
Never in my life, I do declare,
A man get so quickly to the bottom of a stair!

Meine Frau and I once saw Thomas Hampson sing the Hugo Wolf setting of this song with great energy, including some vigorous kicking.

The translations are from the Penguin edition. The German is on facing pages, to keep the translator honest. Even to the Ignorant Reader, the German is useful. In “Good Riddance” for example, the “tumbling,/… rumbling” line is “ein Gerumpel,/ Ein Gepurzel, ein Gehumpel!” which is surely in the same spirit.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Within a lovely grotto of salami – Giuseppe Gioachino Belli

Belli (1791-1863) was a Roman poet of the early 19th century. His subject was Rome, its corrupt Popes and Cardinals, its coutesans, its daily life. He was a satirist, in a long Roman tradition:

The Coffee-house Philosopher

Human beings in ths world are the same
As coffee-beans before the espresso machine:
First one, and then another, a steady stream,
All of ‘em going alike to one sure fate.

Often they change places, and often the big bean
Presses against and crushes the little bean,
And they all crowd each other at the entrance gate
Of iron that grinds them down into a powder.

And so in this way men live, soft or hard,
Mixed together by the hand of God
That stirs them round and round and round in circles;

And, gently or roughly, everyone moves, draws breath
Without ever understanding why and falls
Down to the bottom through the throat of death.

It’s hard for me to imagine what Rome was like at this time, directly ruled by the Pope, administered by Cardinals, policed by the Papal police. Repressive, backwards, a mix of palaces, hovels, and ancient ruins, teeming year round with religious and artistic tourists. Belli gives us a glimpse of this world:

The Gravediggers

Yaaa! whadaya mean, business? nobody’s dying:
A bit o’ bad air, and it’s gone already:
Everyone’s so attached to this stinking life…
Go, follow the gravedigger’s trade with love – who’s grateful?

O my poor black smock! there, growing mouldy.
An’ if things go on like this here, and the Lord
Don’t inspire some of those smart quacks
- The gravedigging profession is washed up!

The one swell year we had was in ‘Seventeen.
Then, in this square, it was really the good life
The dead filling up the carts like falling snow!

Well, that’s enough; who knows…? Yesterday Joe
Said a gravedigger friend had written him
That there’s a ray of hope from this cholera.

Belli wrote in all sorts of forms, but it’s his sonnets that have gotten the most attention, I think because they are generally about more universal scenes or ideas. Some of them are comical retellings of the stories of Noah or Abraham or Mary and Martha. Some are attacks on the Pope or some lecherous Cardinal. The two “Saint Strumpet of Piazza Montanara” sonnets are brilliant, about a true Christian, but highly obscene. But the depictions of ordinary life are the best, I think. Here’s Rome at Easter:

Tour of the Delicatessens

Of all the delicatessens where they put on
Great shows for the Easter of the Egg,
That of Biascio at the Pantheon
Is the best in Rome this year. There’s big

Columns of round cheeses, that would be
A hundred, to reckon low, support an alcove
Embroidered with sausages, and you should see
The animals in fancy forms! Above,

Among others, way up, there’s a Moses of lamb
Holding a club in the air just like a cop,
On the peak of a tall mountain of ham;

And under him, to get your appetite up,
There’s a Christ and a Madonna made of pastry
Within a lovely grotto of salami.

Belli was a dialect (Romansesco) writer, which adds one more obstacle to translation, as if there were not enough already. These translations are all by Harold Norse, a young Beat poet. On the back cover of my book, he actually says “This keeps me free from schools (beat or square)”, but only a Beat would say that. Norse is an interesting guy in his own right, and has recently (in his old age) gotten some attention as an important gay poet. I recently read someone criticize Norse as having translated Belli into Brooklynese. Well, that’s one solution to the dialect problem. And look at the sophisticated off-rhymes in “The Coffee-house Philosopher” – same/machine/stream, hard/God, circles/falls. He’s does rhyme “bean” with “bean”, which is less sophisticated. If someone has done better with Belli, I’d love to read him.

Friday, October 19, 2007

600 pages of aphorisms

As I read more Custine, it becomes easier to see why he's difficult to read than the typical travel writer. He is always striving for the pithy saying.

"To make a great nation is infallibly to create an architecture."

That's buried in the middle of a paragraph, when it should either begin or end one. Plus, I'm not sure it's true. His point is that the architecture of St. Petersburg is all borrowed from other countries, is not an authentic expression of the Russian culture. He's probably right about that.

Maxim de la Rochefoucauld and Nicolas de Chamfort are two of the greatest aphorists in history. Pascal and Voltaire weren't bad either. They make it look so easy. But they didn't bury their gems in 600 page tomes.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I'm thinking of switching to an all truffled turkey blog

You first parents of the human race that ruined yourself for an apple, what might you have done for a truffled turkey? But in your earthly paradise you had no cooks, no fine confectioners.

I weep for you!

Jean Antheleme Brillat Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, 1825, Chapter XXVII.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Emerson approves of my listmaking

"The simple knot of Now & Then will give an immeasureable value to any sort of catalogue or journal kept with common sense for a year or two. See in the Merchant's compting room for his peddling of cotton & indigo, the value that comes to be attached to any Blotting book or Leger; and if your aims & deeds are superior, how can any record of yours (suppose, of the books you wish to read, of the pictures you would see, of the facts you would scrutinize) - any record that you are genuinely moved to begin & continue - not have a value proportionately superior? It converts the heights you have reached into table land. That book or literary fact which had the whole emphasis of attention a month ago stands here along with one which was as important in preceding months, and with that of yesterday; & next month, there will be another. Here will occupy but four lines & I cannot read these together without juster views of each than when I read them singly."

Journals, April 15-16, 1839

I keep a sort of memorandum book, just jotting down the events of the day. Most days are pretty empty. I was inspired in some way by reading James Boswell's journals (the first volume, The London Journal, is a delightful masterpiece), but I don't include much real writing like he had. I assume I am keeping this for some future version of myself. That's what Emerson is really getting at here.

jars of truffled turkeys

"The landlord of the Bell - whose magnificent porcelain jars of truffled turkeys are exported to the uttermost ends of the earth -..."

Lost Illusions, p. 623 (Modern Library)

The novel is set in 1822. What might sealed, shipped meat have been like at that time?

The internet leads me to this supposed Rossini quote:

"I have wept three times in my life. Once when my first opera failed. Once again, the first time I heard Paganini play the violin. And once when a truffled turkey fell overboard at a boating picnic."

Would it kill someone to put a citation on this? Anyway, I would not mind a porcelain jar of truffled turkey for Christmas.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gaps in the canon

Sometimes gaps appear in the history of literature. The most notorious is in English drama. Shakespeare and his contemporaries produced an amazing, varied body of work, comedy, tragedy, all sorts of hybrids. The dramatic tradition was strong enough to survive a 20 year closing of the theaters, partly by borrowing new energy from the French and Spanish theater. But for some reason, the great plays begin to disappear. The bizarre, intense "Venice Preserved" by Thomas Otway is considered the last great tragedy (until the 20th century), from 1682. Comedy took longer to expire. "The Beggar's Opera", Goldsmith, Sheridan - the 18th century had some great comedies. But then that was it, for 100 years, until Gilbert and Sullivan.

What makes this puzzling is that the English theater itself was active and healthy. Plenty of good actors, too. And plenty of plays, thousands of plays. But none of them are performed anymore, and only a few read for their poetry (Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, for example, all wrote plays - Coleridge even had a hit). The same goes for the American theater, which didn't produce a decent play until the 20th century, and not for lack of trying.

I've just come across a new puzzling gap. Where are the great 19th century English short stories? They are not, for example, in anthologies of English literature. The list of great American short story writers, all much anthologized, includes Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Bierce, Crane, Jewett, Chesnutt, Twain, Wharton - a fair share of the best American writers, and a list that spans the century.

But in England? By the 1890s, Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle are writing short stories, soon to be followed by Maugham, Joyce, Lawrence - big names. Before that? The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, in entries for Trollope, Eliot, and Dickens, vaguely mentions the existence of short stories, often at the very end of a long entry. "The Christmas Carol" is a famous exception, maybe Dickens' other Christmas stories, as well.

The puzzle is twofold. First, the number of American short story writers seems connected to the explosion of magazine publishing in the early 19th century. But England was experiencing the exact same phenomenon. The early essayists like Hazlitt and Lamb were all magazine writers. Dickens, too.

Second, anthologists need short stories. You can't fit many novels into your Anthology of American Literature, but you can still represent every writer you want with a short story. Anthologies of English literature typically completely omit Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, Hardy, the whole crew.

Are the short stories of Dickens (Eliot, etc.) really not worth reading? I find that hard to believe. So I'm adding a note to my "To Read" list - I'll find out for myself.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Visual Emerson

I wondered earlier if Emerson's reliance on visual metaphors was idiosyncratic, or if he got it from his intellectual sources. From his journals:

"Musical Eyes. I think sometimes that my lack of Musical ear, is made good to me through my eyes. That which others hear, I see. All the soothing plaintive brisk or romantic moods which corresponding melodies waken in them, I find in the carpet of the wood, in the margin of the pond, in the shade of the hemlock grove, or in the infinite variety & rapid dance of the treetops as I hurry along."

Signet Classics Selected Writings of RWE, p. 83

Friday, October 12, 2007

Reading psychology

I was wondering why I was making so little headway in Lost Illusions in the last few days. I know realize it’s because I was coming up on a big party scene.

A Balzac party scene means indigestible speeches about whatever Balzac is worked up about, often with some sort of satirical intent, I guess. This one is about journalism. Journalists are cynical betrayers of all that is good in art and life, and publishers are even worse. OK. Now, on with the actual novel.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Familiar essays

Emerson’s essays can be hard traveling. He is not the friendliest companion. I’m not sure this should matter, but in the familiar essay, it does.

Michel de Montaigne is the master of the form. His style is genial and conversational. Many of his successors imitate this manner in some way – Addison and Steele, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Joseph Epstein. Plutarch, 1,000 years earlier, is similar. None of these writers are as profound as Montaigne can be, not remotely in some cases. But they all feel like they would make good friends. Or good dinner companions at least.

Is this necessary for a great essayist? Francis Bacon’s essays are more like instructional pamphlets, little lectures. Thomas DeQuincey is a brilliant showoff, and I would think he would be a trial at dinner. Emerson wants to be Montaigne’s successor, and match him in moral seriousness (which I think he does). His concerns seem very private, though. He presents a certain view of the world that is original, but perhaps too much his own. Or maybe he is the sort of intense friend who always wants to discuss serious things and gets mad when you just want to make fun of Tom Cruise. Very rewarding to meet once every couple of weeks over lunch, but too strong a presence to see every day.

I should try to dig into one of his essays more carefully. They’re worth the effore, but the effort is very real.

And all of this is flummoxed a bit by the essay I just read, “Prudence”, which begins “What right have I to write on Prudence, whereof I have little, and that of the negative sort?” which is just the sort friendly stuff I’m talking about.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Who is John Galt?

John Galt is a Scottish novelist, active in the 1820s. His novel The Entail is superb, and The Provost is almost as good. I want to write more about Galt later, but here I just want to express my resentment at the misappropriation of his name on this idiotic anniversary.

"The tall fellow came up with her cape and settled it on her shoulders as the admirers surged forward and the rest of us stood and stretched and began putting on our coats. All of us but one. Still waving his arm, Jaspers finally cried out, Miss Rand! Miss Rand! The room went quiet and she looked at Jaspers and he asked the question he’d been dying to ask. She jerked her head back as if she’d been slapped. All the dark-dressed men and women turned on him in utter loathing – a court of ravens about to eat the eyes out of the whey-faced, homesick boy with his chewed-up fingernails and puppyish need to be in on everything, who in his need had asked Ayn Rand the very question I had been itching to ask and probably would’ve if she hadn’t skunked me for mentioning Hemingway.

Who is John Galt?"

Tobias Wolff, Old School, pp. 87-8.

Astolphe de Custine, bad traveller

The Marquis Astolphe de Custine was an interesting fellow. His grandfather was one of the greatest Revolutionary generals, behind Lafayette, which did not save him from the guillotine. Custine's father also died on the guillotine. His mother barely escaped it, and was famous as a sort of Revolutionary martyr. Mme de Stael’s novel Delphine is named after her. Custine himself was a friend of Heine, Balzac, and the rest of literary Paris.

Custine made a 3 month trip to Russia that was in some sense inspired by the publication of the first volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. A comparison between the two writers is inescapable, but what damage it does to Custine. Tocqueville was a brilliant thinker, gifted at generalizing. A real social scientist. If Democracy in America is not the most exciting book to read today, it is because many of Tocqueville’s insights have been so thoroughly absorbed by modern political science and sociology.

Custine, by contrast, oh boy. Custine is an entirely conventional thinker, with no original ideas at all. Which does not stop him from constantly interrupting himself with the meaning of this and that aspect of Russia. The edition I am reading is abridged by about 15%. There’s another edition available that cuts the book down to 50%. I should have gone with that one.

Because Russia in 1839 is a very interesting book when read as a conventional travel book, an account of anecdotes and adventures in a strange place. Democracy in America has virtually no conventional travel writing, but is a book of ideas. Custine, not having enough ideas, tells a lot of good stories.

Custine is a sour traveler. He hates Russia and everything about it. This can be tiresome, but also fun. A few years earlier, Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (short version: Americans have no manners) had been a huge hit in England. Custine’s book has a similar character. On one page he criticizes Russian flower arranging (“the flowers are not placed in such a manner as may render the interior of the apartment more agreeable, but so as to attract admiration from without”), then two pages later he attacks Russian furniture-moving (“the roads and bridges crowded with carriages, drowskas, and carts engaged in the removal of furniture, all the different kinds of which are heaped together with a slovenliness and disorder natural to the Slavonian race”). There is attention to detail in his dislike.

Arriving at his inn, Custine, exhausted, throws himself on the sofa, where he rests for three minutes before the bugs become unbearable. The innkeeper tells him every sofa in Russia is like that, of course you don’t sleep on the sofa. From then on, Custine sleeps with a bowl of water under each leg of his bed.

Russia in 1839 has been popular to readers interested in the Cold War as a way to see which aspects of Soviet culture were really just Russian. For example, Custine can’t enter the country until just the right official arrives, which doesn’t stop a dozen other officials from going through his baggage. Then he is assigned a completely inescapable “guide” for his entire trip. Sounds familiar.

The edition I am reading includes a woodcut of a bear playing a sort of heavy metal guitar. I have not gotten to that part yet, I guess.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

“pedantry, ponderosity, pretentiousness, bad taste and charmless form”

This is a description of Balzac’s work by Henry James. Many people, I suspect, think that at least three of the five terms apply to any given piece of classic literature. How unfair. James himself, for example, is merely ponderous.

James’s description of Balzac is exactly right in a way. It’s also exactly what I had assumed Balzac was like before I had really read him. We create versions of writers in our head before we read them, picked up from stray remarks and prejudices and book covers. John Crowley recently tried to get his readers to discuss their positive illusions about writers they had not read, but they just wanted to sneer at contemporary best sellers – Crowley himself was thinking of Karl Kraus, who must be savagely witty but untranslatable. But of course!

Maybe Dickens is a more universal example. You do not have to have read him to know that he is at turns funny and sentimental. See any version of The Christmas Carol. That’s not wrong, but the new reader will be surprised at the sophistication of his rhetoric and narrative voice, and the stringency, the moral seriousness of much of his best writing.

Balzac wrote 92 novels and stories* in less than 25 years. Even leaving aside some early hackwork, some of these must be trivial, and many more must be sloppy and hastily-written. Even his better books are affected: Lost Illusions, for example, includes several pages of an encyclopedia-like history of paper and printing. That’s pedantry.

But what about “The Passion in the Desert,” his graceful story about a man who falls in love with a panther? Or the perfect Eugénie Grandet, as flawless a novel as I’ve ever read? I’ll organize my thoughts about Balzac’s best work, and see if I can figure out what he’s doing.

The James lecture on Balzac (“The Lessons of Balzac”), by the way, is actually a rave, an exhortation to read more Balzac, to put him closer to the center of the history of the novel.

* Or, other sources tell me, 92** novels, which is not at all the same thing.

** Or, per Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 91 novels and stories.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Your bloody Hamlet

“At a party of English department academics, for example, someone might begin by confessing that he has never read a novel by Norman Douglas. The next person might claim never to have read, say, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. Someone then chimes in with the admission that she has never read the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘Hopkins hell,’ someone else says, ‘I’ve never read a poem by Yeats.’ Everyone agrees that is fairly impressive, until a full professor says ‘Yeats, Schmeats, I’ve never read The Faerie Queene.’ A sucking in of the breath is heard around the room. Then a woman off in the corner, the department’s resident Marxist, admits that not only has she never read Chaucer, but she isn’t even certain of the century in which he lived. Suddenly a quiet man, the head of the school’s American studies program, strides forth, obvious pride in his posture, to announce , 'I hate to break up these festivities, but I’m afraid that’s just what I’m about to do. You ready for this? I have never read a play by Shakespeare – and that includes your bloody Hamlet.'"

From “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan”, collected in Once More Around the Block, by Joseph Epstein.

There are many interesting things in this passage, not the least of which is that Epstein stole the whole thing from the David Lodge novel Changing Places (unread by me). The Lodge scene is the most famous thing he has written – can it now have been retold so many times that people present it as fact? Or is Epstein having a little joke with us, or is he retelling it so he can write “Yeats, Schmeats”, an obvious improvement. Anyway, the story always ends with the confession by some Professional Reader of not having read “your bloody Hamlet.” In Lodge, the confession comes from a poor sap up for tenure the next day, who should, it turns out, have kept his mouth shut.

Some of my bloody Hamlets: In English lit, Middlemarch and Jane Eyre. In American, The Scarlet Letter. In French, with The Red and the Black recently checked off, probably Les Miserables. My judgment here is based on reputation, not a strong sense of missing something. In Russian, the biggest holes are the third and fourth (most famous) big Dostoevsky novels The Devils and The Idiot, or whatever they’re calling them these days. I think I’d be happier spending more time with Turgenev, but Dostoevsky is the bigger name now. Which would be more valuable, a new read of The Scarlet Letter, or a reread of Moby Dick, last seen at age 15, with minimal comprehension? But regardless of the quality of the reading, Moby Dick has a checkmark by it.

Then there’s the whole Henry James issue. And Zola, who I suspect I will hate. And 8 or 9,000 pages of unread Dickens. And I haven’t mentioned a single poet. Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, just as examples, a sort of terrifying list.

I'm still young and foolish enough to assume I will fit this all in someday. If the Neurotic Reader keeps on with the 19th Century business at his current pace, he will think himself well read (in the century) in 7 to 10 years. Then he can either move on to something else or will have discovered that his standard was wrong.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Farewell to minor early Victorian poet week

Well that was fun.

This cohort of minor poets (Browning and Tennyson as well), so different from each other, were all directly inspired by and in their earliest poems imitated either Keats or Shelley or both. It’s interesting that barely twenty years after the revolution of Lyrical Ballads both Wordsworth and Coleridge were already old fogies. And don’t even bother with Byron. These young geniuses wanted the new stuff.

It’s easy to overdo the “influence” business. Professional Readers have a sophisticated way of discussing the issue that I don’t really know how to use. In the case of these poets, though, it’s obvious how direct the Keats and Shelley influences were at the beginning of their careers. During his first 10 years as a poet, Browning wrote nothing but two long poems, “Paracelsus” and “Pauline”, that look like direct imitations of Shelley’s long poems, except that they’re even less comprehensible. And this is a poet who would later become one of the most original in the language.

Meanwhile, in Russia, in France, in Italy, the only British poets who counted were Scott and Byron. Especially Byron, always in French translation. For Pushkin and Lermontov, Byron was the early influence they had to shake off. Alfred de Musset actually wrote a poem replying to critics who had dismissed him as a Byron imitator. Again, all of these poets outgrew or overcame or escaped Byron’s influence. Any poet who did not is probably forgotten now.

Let’s have one more poem. Here is a poem about a mouse by John Clare, a major early Victorian poet. Maybe I’ll write more about him some other time:

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied somthing stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheats
With all her young ones hanging at her teats.
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood.
Then the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water oer the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Thomas Lovell-Beddoes: minor early Victorian poet

I’m saving the best for last. Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-49) was an itinerant medical student and political radical, son of another doctor (Thomas Beddoes), himself an important figure in English medical history. Shelley is the touchstone, again. Lovell-Beddoes had an unusual, death-obsessed imagination, leading to highly original poetry, often in the form of songs. Here a pair of crows, Adam and Eve, tell us how they plan to spend a rainy day:

Old Adam, the Carrion Crow

Old Adam, the carrion crow,
The old crow of Cairo;
He sat in the shower, and let it flow
Under his tail and over his crest;
And through every feather
Leaked the wet weather;
And the bough swung under his nest;
For his beak it was heavy with marrow.
Is that the wind dying? O no;
It's only two devils, that blow
Through a murderer's bones, to and fro,
In the ghosts' moonshine.

Ho! Eve, my gray carrion wife,
When we have supped on kings' marrow,
Where shall we drink and make merry our life?
Our nest is queen Cleopatra's skull,
'Tis cloven and cracked,
And battered and hacked,
But with tears of blue eyes it is full:
Let us drink then, my raven of Cairo.
Is that the wind dying? O no;
It's only two devils, that blow
Through a murderer's bones, to and fro,
In the ghosts' moonshine.

This song is from “Death’s Jest-Book”, a sort of play. Much of Beddoes best poems are actually fragments from plays, some never completed. The plays have some relationship to those great, terrifying masterpieces of John Webster and Cyril Tourneur, but Beddoes is not afraid to be even more bizarre and less coherent.

Here a fellow, who thinks he has poisoned himself*, takes time out for another song:

A cypress-bough, and a rose-wreath sweet,
A wedding robe, and a winding-sheet,
A bridal bed and a bier.
Thine be the kisses, maid,
And smiling Love's alarms;
And thou, pale youth, be laid
In the grave's cold arms.
Each in his own charms,
Death and Hymen both are here;
So up with scythe and torch,
And to the old church porch,
While all the bells ring clear:
And rosy, rosy the bed shall bloom,
And earthy, earthy heap up the tomb.

Now tremble dimples on your cheek,
Sweet be your lips to taste and speak
For he who kisses is near:
By her the bride-god fair,
In youthful power and force;
By him the grizard bare,
Pale knight on a pale horse,
To woo him to a corse.
Death and Hymen both are here,
So up with scythe and torch,
And to the old church porch,
While all the bells ring clear:
And rosy, rosy the bed shall bloom,
And earthy, earthy heap up the tomb.

This is hardly Beddoes’s strangest stuff. His poems are full of gibbets and skeletons. Curious how all of this death-stuff can be so enjoyable. That’s one thing poetry can do:

Thread the nerves through the right holes,
Get out of my bones, you wormy souls.


Dear and dear is their poisoned note,
The little snakes of silver throat,
In mossy skulls that nest and lie,
Ever singing ‘die! Oh die.’

Or the famous description of a crocodile and its companion:

Hard by the lilied Nile I saw
A duskish river-dragon stretched along,
The brown habergeon of his limbs enamelled
With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl:
And on his back there lay a young one sleeping,
No bigger than a mouse; with eyes like beads,
And a small fragment of its speckled egg
Remaining on its harmless, pulpy snout;
A thing to laugh at, as it gaped to catch
The baulking, merry flies. In the iron jaws
Of the great devil-beast, like a pale soul
Fluttering in rocky hell, lightsomely flew
A snowy trochilus**, with roseate beak
Tearing the hairy leeches from his throat.

Thomas Beddoes is a very narrow poet in some ways. But what riches.***

* Poor Beddoes actually poisoned himself, age 45.

** The crocodile bird is not actually a trochilus. Poetic license, or possibly ignorance.

*** I should have saved this post for Halloween. Don’t forget to join the Thomas Beddoes society!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

George Darley: minor early Victorian poet

George Darley (1795-1846) revered both Keats and Shelley, and imitated both here and there. He was a mathematician as well as a poet, although I don’t detect any math in his poems. His poetic art is in his music. Imagine you’re reading them aloud.

Here’s one of a series of poems about mermen and mermaids, maybe my favorite poem of Darley’s:

The Mermaidens’ Vesper Hymn

Troop home to silent grots and caves
Troop home! And mimic as you go
The mournful winding of the waves
Which to their dark abysses flow.

At this sweet hour, all things beside
In amorous pairs to covert creep;
The swans that brush the evening tide
Homeward in snowy couples keep.

In his green den the murmuring seal
Close by his sleek companion lies;
While singly we to bedward steal,
And close in fruitless sleep our eyes.

In bowers of love men take their rest,
In loveless bowers we sigh alone,
With bosom-friends are others blest, -
But we have none! But we have none!

Is this actually about anything? Loneliness, sexual restlessness (or a fantasy of female restlessness). But also, mermaids. When I see a poet described as “musical”, I can’t always hear it. I sure can with Darley. Some of his poems are close to pure song, meaningless, merely beautiful.

Darley’s one long work, Nepenthe, is another fantasy, with an incoherent mythological plot, and a dozen beautiful poetic nodules:

From Nepenthe

Hurry me, Nymphs! O, hurry me
Far above the grovelling sea,
Which, with blind weakness and base roar
Casting his white age on the shore,
Wallows along that slimy floor;
With his widespread webbed hands
Seeking to climb the level sands,
But rejected still to rave
Alive in his uncovered grave.

If I remember correctly, the dreaming poet is being flown from Egypt to, um, somewhere else, over the Mediterranean. Here, there is not just music but original imagery. The sea foam is the ocean’s “white age”, the waves on the beach are “his widespread webbed hands”, the blind ocean raves “Alive is his uncovered grave”. Obscure is too kind a description of the story of Nepenthe, but it’s full of passages like this one which live independently from the whole.

Darley frequently published anonymously, and his most famous poem was mistaken for a genuine early 17th century production. It begins:

A Ryghte Pythie Songe

It is not beautie I demande,
A chrystalle browe, the moone's despaire,
Nor the snowe's daughter, a whyte hand,
Nor mermaide's yellowe pryde of haire.

You might think that the title would signal that the archaicisms are a joke, but for decades Palgrave’s Treasury had this authored by “Anonymous 17th Century”. All of those extra “e”s clouded the anthologist’s mind.

Hey wait, there’s another mermaid.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Thomas Hood: minor early Victorian poet

Thomas Hood (1799-1845) is better known than Wade. He’s still anthologized, and in reference books. Hood was an early Keatsian, but made his living as a magazine writer, where he developed his gift for satire and light verse. Example:

On the Death of a Giraffe

They say, God wot!
She died upon the spot;
But then in spots she was so rich, -
I wonder which?

Hood was notorious for puns. In “The Waterloo Ballad”, Patty Head searches the battlefield for her feller Peter Stone. When she finds him, dying, he goes on at length – at great length - like this:

‘Alas! A splinter of a shell
Right in my stomach sticks;
French mortars don’t agree so well
With stomachs as French bricks.*

‘This very night a merry dance
At Brussels was to be; -
Instead of opening a ball,
A ball has open’d me’

Etc. I think this is pretty funny, but the taste for puns can vary.

Many of his best poems are stories. “The Last Man” is a last-man-on-earth fantasy, “The Dream of Eugene Aram, the Murderer” is a grisly thing, “The Bridge if Sighs” is about a suicide. All are worth reading.

His most famous poem now seems to be his last, not such light verse:


Farewell, Life! My senses swim:
And the world is growing dim;
Thronging shadows cloud the light,
Like the advent of the night, -
Colder, colder, colder still
Upward steals a vapor chill -
Strong the earthy odor grows
I smell the Mould above the Rose!

Welcome, Life! The spirit strives!
Strength returns, and hope revives;
Cloudy fears and shapes forlorn
Fly like shadows of the morn, -
O’er the earth there comes a bloom -
Sunny light for sullen gloom,
Warm perfume for vapour cold -
I smell the Rose above the Mould!

Besides some topical references, Hood is easy to read. Clever, funny, that sort of thing. Victorian England was unusual for having a real mass audience for poetry. The genial, delightful Thomas Hood did as much to create that audience as anyone.

* I did not know what a French brick was until I ate one in Normandy last fall. It's a meat or cheese or vegetable pie in a fillo-like dough.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Thomas Wade: minor early Victorian poet

Thomas Wade (1805-1875) has a Wikipedia entry lifted from a public domain encyclopedia. I found two of his sonnets on the web, printed below. He is omitted from the Oxford Companion to English Literature, at least the edition I have, and I have not been able to find his poems in any anthology published after 1910 or so. Harold Bloom includes him in his lists in The Western Canon. An unappreciated English professor assembled his collected work twenty years ago, an obscure press published it, and the University of Chicago library acquired a copy, which I read. Wade is not quite forgotten, but it’s a close thing.

Here’s one of the poems I found at

The Uncharmed
My piercéd life was all ablood with sorrow
For, suddenly, the veil of beauty thrown
By glorifying youth over sweet to-morrow
Fell, and disclosed to me the future's frown;
Within the wrinkles of whose unread brow
There was a lurking something which till then
I dreamed not hung before the lives of men,
Ready to fall upon them as they grow
Into the longer knowledge of brief years:
Blank vacancy; and doubt; and strangled tears
That never reach the eyelids; vanishing
Of all sweet things we love; death-beds; and graves;
And shadowy wrecks, where pale hopes trembling cling,
Heart-faint, and stifled by continual waves!

This is not an easy poem. Grammatically, it’s one sentence, with multiple clauses and phrases, which would be hard to read in prose. It may take two or three tries to discern that the subject is straightforward – the onset of a midlife crisis. The last five lines are a list of the horrors the poor fellow sees in his future. The form is a standard English sonnet, the rhymes are nothing special. If this is a good poem, it’s because of the effect of that list, and the surprise that the death-beds and graves don’t end the list, that there’s even worse to come.

Wade’s first little book was pure Shelley, completely derivative. Wade got out from under Shelley’s shadow through a narrow formalism – almost all of his best poems are sonnets. Nature poems, married love poems. Some political poems, not so interesting now. But he wrote a dozen or more as good as “The Uncharmed.” Here’s another.

"Julian and Maddalo"
I read of 'Julian' and 'Count Maddalo'
Till in their spirits' presence stood my soul;
And blending with their sympathy of woe
A tempest woke my thoughts, and they gan roll,
Billow on billow, toward eternity--
And passion's cloud hung over the vast sea.
Where is the essence now that thought and spoke?
Absorbed like water, the frail vessel broke
That held it trembling from the sand awhile?
Or doth it quiver still; and, quivering, smile
At the now cleared-up mystery of creation?
Which shook it once even to its mortal seat,
Which seems the brain and heart, that burn and beat
Till life pants darkly for annihilation.

Maybe this one’s even better. But it requires some specialized knowledge. You need to know that the poet is reading a Shelley poem, in which stand-ins for Shelley and Byron have an encounter in Venice. The poet’s thought turn to the early deaths of Shelley and Byron, particularly Shelley’s death by drowning when a storm sank his sailboat. You also have to know that Shelley was a notorious atheist for the puzzling over what happened to his ”essence” to have any meaning. Not everyone knows all this, and why should they, but this poem is pretty much lost without this background.

In a typical sonnet the last four lines are a unit, some sort of culmination. In the first poem, it’s the last five lines, in the second, the last three. This is how formalists innovate, pushing and pulling within the form.

* All of the early Victorian poets we still read sprung directly from Shelley and Keats, one reason the reputations of those two poets, barely known during their own short lives, is so high.