Friday, May 28, 2010

Wordsworth: As We Plunge Toward the Conclusion of Book III

Wordsworth continues his theme of proper education and elucidates how one should be instructed.

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

Majestic edifices, should not want
A corresponding dignity within.
The congregating temper that pervades
Our unripe years, not wasted, should be taught
To minister to works of high attempt—
Works which the enthusiast would perform with love.
Youth should be awed, religiously possessed
With a conviction of the power that waits
On knowledge, when sincerely sought and prized
For its own sake, on glory and on praise
If but by labour won, and fit to endure
The passing day; should learn to put aside
Her trappings here, should strip them off abashed
Before antiquity and stedfast truth
And strong book-mindedness; and over all
A healthy sound simplicity should reign,
A seemly plainness, name it what you will,
Republican or pious.

"Majestic edifices, should not want//a corresponding dignity within."  The phrase makes one think of "white-washed sepulchres" as the diametric opposite.  Wordsworth argues here that the instinct to gather and to learn should be directed toward works of "high attempt"--challenges that can mean spectacular successes or equally spectacular failures.  One is reminded of a line from another, later poet here:

Ah, but a man's reach must exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?  (Robert Browning)


The theme is similar--here Wordsworth argues that the pliable mind, the mind absorbing knowledge must be encouraged to look far beyond, to works that exceed the possibilities of the person and the time--at least seemingly.--"works which the enthusiast would perform with love."  And one cannot help but wonder if Wordsworth is using that term "enthusiast" in the etymologically appropriate sense (to be inspired/possessed by a god).  This reading is perhaps reinforced by a subsequent line in which Wordsworth tells us that "Youth should be awed, religiously possessed//with a conviction that power waits//on knowledge."  But not on knowledge sought for power, but knowledge sought for the glory of knowing.  Here Wordsworth uses the word power not in the governmental or societal sense but in the clear sense of creative power--the ability to make things comes from the desire to know them intimately.  Wordsworth would have the cap of creativity and creative endeavor  be "a healthy sound simplicity. . . a seemly plainness. . . "  and one can't help but wonder if Wordsworth is using the word simplicity here in a Scholastic sense.  Perhaps he wants us to return to the idea of unity and a uniate will.  The simple mind is not the one untroubled by a thought, but the one in which all thought is brought together toward a singular goal--the creative act.  In other words, the greatest creative comes from the mind most like God's.

It is interesting that in the passage immediately following Wordsworth urges against mandatory attendance at chapel.  He has given some thought to the matter.

Was ever known
The witless shepherd who persists to drive
A flock that thirsts not to a pool disliked?
A weight must surely hang on days begun
And ended with such mockery. Be wise,
Ye Presidents and Deans, and, till the spirit
Of ancient times revive, and youth be trained
At home in pious service, to your bells
Give seasonable rest, for 'tis a sound
Hollow as ever vexed the tranquil air;

This could be argued either way, but the points made here have a certain coherence.  If not inclined to go and forced, have you created one way or the other anyone more divinely inclined, more religious, or more Christian?  But it is interesting to see this poised as the counterbalance to divine acts and the drive toward knowledge.

I include the next passage not for any deep meaning it may have in context, but because it is one of the more lovely passages in what has been a long run of philosophical and artistic argument:

A habitation sober and demure
For ruminating creatures; a domain
For quiet things to wander in; a haunt
In which the heron should delight to feed
By the shy rivers, and the pelican
Upon the cypress spire in lonely thought
Might sit and sun himself.
 Back to the pursuit of knowledge--for Wordsworth a single-minded act (simplicity again)  so much so that scholars become mendicants:

And often, starting from some covert place,
Saluted the chance comer on the road,
Crying, "An obolus, a penny give
To a poor scholar!"—when illustrious men,
Lovers of truth, by penury constrained,
Bucer, Erasmus, or Melancthon, read
Before the doors or windows of their cells
By moonshine through mere lack of taper light.

The quotation within the passage above is a specific reference to Belisarius who (apocryphally according to Gibbon) after his disgrace and blinding was said to have begged in the streets of Byzantium.  [Note source]  But my reason for placing it here was the lovely image of Erasmus and other great and ancient scholars so avid in their pursuit of knowledge, they read by moonlight for lack of money for a taper.

Let me conclude this day with one further passage.  I had hoped to conquer book III, but it appears I am forestalled by the terrible possibility of trying the reader's patience--if I have not already done so.

But peace to vain regrets! We see but darkly
Even when we look behind us, and best things
Are not so pure by nature that they needs
Must keep to all, as fondly all believe,
Their highest promise. If the mariner,
When at reluctant distance he hath passed
Some tempting island, could but know the ills
That must have fallen upon him had he brought
His bark to land upon the wished-for shore,
Good cause would oft be his to thank the surf
Whose white belt scared him thence, or wind that blew
Inexorably adverse: for myself
I grieve not; happy is the gownèd youth,
Who only misses what I missed, who falls
No lower than I fell.
 And so Wordsworth brings us to a summary.  While all that has gone before is the ideal and is the way that education SHOULD proceed, it was not so for Wordsworth himself, and so he reflects on his education to say, that perhaps the fact that it did not suit the ideal is not necessarily a bad thing--perhaps there is some good in it.  Posterity, in possession of the opus that is the result of Wordsworth's ignorance can proclaim that, indeed, it was good for all humankind that it should be so.  But Wordsworth could not be so certain.  He had outlived all of the Romantic generation and was seeing his work come to an end with the advent of subsequent Victorian poets who either built on or scattered the remains of the Romantic convictions and impulse.  The conceit of this short passage is one that we have probably all had--sometimes called sour grapes, sometimes called dodging the bullet.    But the line that truly impresses and is worth attention  "Good cause would oft be his to thank the surf//Whose white belt scared him thence. . . "  and "there but for the grace of God go I."

Stay tuned--future episodes will include the real end of Book III and then Wordsworth's return home, his visit to his surrogate mother,  and Wordsworth's face-saving dog.  There's a thrill a minute on this Wordsworthian roller coaster ride.  Be sure to join us in the continuing adventures.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dirda Reviews Robinson

Absence of Mind (via Books Inq.)

Sounds like a fascinating and engaging read.

Wordsworth the Slacker

Yesterday we witnessed Wordsworth partying with Milton's shade.  Today we see Wordsworth talking about the Cambridge experience:

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

The thirst of living praise,
Fit reverence for the glorious Dead, the sight
Of those long vistas, sacred catacombs,
Where mighty minds lie visibly entombed,
Have often stirred the heart of youth, and bred
A fervent love of rigorous discipline.—
Alas! such high emotion touched not me.
Look was there none within these walls to shame
My easy spirits, and discountenance
Their light composure, far less to instil
A calm resolve of mind, firmly addressed
To puissant efforts. Nor was this the blame
Of others, but my own;
So--these things have inspired students in the past, but gosh, I was immune from them.  "Alas! such high emotion touched not me."  And for this, we should be eternally grateful, for if he had been so inspired, we might not have some very, very fine poetry.

In the notes on the page from which I derive my daily excerpts there is a note from the writings of Dorothy Wordsworth (she speaks first of her brother Christopher and then of William:

"His abilities, though not so great, perhaps, as his brother's, may be of more use to him, as he has not fixed his mind upon any particular species of reading or conceived an aversion to any. He is not fond of mathematics, but has resolution sufficient to study them; because it will be impossible for him to obtain a fellowship without them. William lost the chance, indeed the certainty, of a fellowship, by not combating his inclinations. He gave way to his natural dislike to studies so dry as many parts of the mathematics, consequently could not succeed in Cambridge. He reads Italian, Spanish, French, Greek, Latin, and English; but never opens a mathematical book.... Do not think from what I have said that he reads not at all; for he does read a great deal, and not only poetry, in these languages he is acquainted with, but History also," etc. etc.   [source]
 And Wordsworth himself is glad to confirm as we move on through the poem:

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

For I, bred up 'mid Nature's luxuries,
Was a spoiled child, and rambling like the wind,
As I had done in daily intercourse
With those crystalline rivers, solemn heights,
And mountains, ranging like a fowl of the air,
I was ill-tutored for captivity;
To quit my pleasure, and, from month to month,
Take up a station calmly on the perch
Of sedentary peace. . . .


Not that I slighted books,—that were to lack
All sense,—but other passions in me ruled,
Passions more fervent, making me less prompt
To in-door study than was wise or well,
Or suited to those years.
I was too busy with the things I was interested in to be interested in the new things that were introduced to me.  I love how he likens himself to a "spoiled child" because his sister makes clear that it is true--this self-indulgent side of Wordsworth makes him much more in the Romantic mode than might otherwise be inferred from his work.  He couldn't trouble himself with what wasn't intrinsic to his nature--so at last we see a glimpse of Wordsworth's rebellion.  It expressed itself chiefly in the failure to get through Cambridge.  Of course, if one is busy running through the streets of Cambridge after the ghost of stripling Milton, it hardly comes as a surprise.

Yet I, though used
In magisterial liberty to rove,
Culling such flowers of learning as might tempt
Not what one would call every professor's dream student.  But true ultimately to himself and to his vision of things.  It is good to see that sometimes that can work in the real world.

Two Banville Moments

That may have something to say of the nature of the work:

from The Infinities
John Banville

Look at him now, unable even to know if his daughter-in-law, like Schrösteinberg's anxiously anticipant cat, is conscious or not, down there in her sealed chamber.

*****
She has had a shock, poor soul, though none here knows of it save she and I. It is said that she is a direct descendant of Charles Blount, eighth Lord Mountjoy and first Earl of Devonshire, that eccentric soldier whom Mary, Queen of Scots, great Gloriana, on her accession to the English throne after the beheading of her cousin, the upstart and treasonous Elizabeth Tudor, sent over at the dawn of the seventeenth century to pacify this most distressful country.
 In reviews I had not been led to expect what these passages entail.  I'll need to see if the conceit is unraveled as one continues through the book.

This constitutes the third of four possible reads in the realm of the Ancient Greek.  Let's see if I manage this one before attempting Alcestis.  The good part is that Banville's book, though dealing with weighty matters, seems to be a lighter confection than Malouf's magnificent and brooding meditation on the Iliad.

Dancing with the Stars

At Open Culture: Clouds, Stars, and Meteors over the Cotopaxi Volcano

And for true flat earthers evidence either of Earth's rotation or, more importantly the smooth and continuous, harmonious motion of the celestial sphere.

RAH--A Not Entirely Complemenatray Review

World of Fantasy: Conan the Barbarian and His Lily-White Women

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ransom--David Malouf

Ransom is gorgeous.  From first carefully and lovingly crafted sentence to last.  So beautiful at moments that it made me want to cry, and even in the recollection of it and writing this. . . beauty, loveliness, and heart-depth.

from Ransom
David Malouf

The sea has many voices. The voice this man is listening for is the voice of his mother. He lifts his head, turns his face to the chill air that moves in across the gulf, and tastes it sharp salt on his lip. The sea surface bellies and glistens, a lustrous silver-blue--a membrane stretched to a fine transparency where once, for nine changes of the moon, he had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence and was rocked and comforted. He hunkers down now on the shelving pebbles at its edge, bunches his cloak between his thighs. Chin down, shoulders hunched, attentive.

The story is simple--after Achilles' ungodly rage and the death of Hector, after ten days of dragging the hero's body around the city of Troy, after the desecration of the body, King Priam of Troy resolves to leave his city and go to beg the body of his son from Achilles.

As the subject matter reveals, the book is brooding, melancholy, meditative.  It is still and quiet and lovely, at times achingly so.  There are images that will remain with me for a long time--a King dipping his feet for the first time in a stream, and the fingerling fish gathering around them.

Ransom is a short book, an exquisitely carved book, a book of deep and harrowing emotion and a reminder of what is important in life.  I suspect that this is one of those books that will speak more to age than to youth--more to those who have had children and who know what it would feel like to make Priam's journey.  It is a book that longs to be unpacked and reread and unpacked again.  Its beauties are sturdy beauties, like the favored one of the team of two Donkeys that transport the tribute and the body.

The book serves to remind us that the Greeks of the Iliad are not all noble, nor are their actions all laudable.  Indeed, they are much like each one of us.

And again, I must say it--Gorgeous.

Highly Recommended-- *****

The Armadillo and the Skunk

The written correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Electronic Literature Directly

Directory for born-digital literature.  (via Books Inq.)

Milton and Drinking--More College Life

I could sense that you've been longing for today's installment of Wordsworth and so I offer it.  Perhaps it is just my quirky reading, but I find something very wryly humorous in today's passages.  It is as though Wordsworth is paying homage to the King of the Puritans in his own late eighteenth century way--that is, entirely inappropriately.

After a brief litany of previous poets including Chaucer and Spenser, Wordsworth gives us Milton:

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

Yea, our blind Poet, who, in his later day,
Stood almost single; uttering odious truth—
Darkness before, and danger's voice behind,
Soul awful—if the earth has ever lodged
An awful soul—I seemed to see him here
Familiarly, and in his scholar's dress
Bounding before me, yet a stripling youth—
A boy, no better, with his rosy cheeks
Angelical, keen eye, courageous look,
And conscious step of purity and pride.

It is one of those impossible images, rather as a child we wondered whether our own parents were ever children.  Is it possible that Milton was a child?  much less a "bounding. . . stripling youth."  Somehow I can't see the poet of Paradise Lost matching this description.  Indeed, it argues that Wordsworth's imagination was in keen form throughout his time here if he were able to see such a spectre.  It happens that Wordsworth has a friend who has been blessed with staying in Milton's former lodgings.  And so, of course, Wordsworth goes there to party:

Among the band of my compeers was one
Whom chance had stationed in the very room
Honoured by Milton's name. O temperate Bard!
Be it confest that, for the first time, seated
Within thy innocent lodge and oratory,
One of a festive circle, I poured out
Libations, to thy memory drank, till pride
And gratitude grew dizzy in a brain
Never excited by the fumes of wine
Before that hour, or since. Then, forth I ran
From the assembly; through a length of streets,
Ran, ostrich-like, to reach our chapel door
In not a desperate or opprobrious time,
Albeit long after the importunate bell
Had stopped, with wearisome Cassandra voice
No longer haunting the dark winter night.
 And we get the image of Wordsworth running through the dark English nights, the streets of Cambridge, no less, "ostrich-like."  I must suppose that Wordsworth intended this exactly as it comes off, slightly humorous and a bit endearing.  It's nice to think of fine, stodgy, "Daffodils" Wordsworth off on a tear.

Let us finish with a Wordsworthian flourish that seems to sum up college life both then and now:

In this mixed sort
The months passed on, remissly, not given up
To wilful alienation from the right,
Or walks of open scandal, but in vague
And loose indifference, easy likings, aims
Of a low pitch—duty and zeal dismissed,
Yet Nature, or a happy course of things
Not doing in their stead the needful work.
The memory languidly revolved, the heart
Reposed in noontide rest, the inner pulse
Of contemplation almost failed to beat.
Such life might not inaptly be compared
To a floating island, an amphibious spot
Unsound, of spongy texture, yet withal
Not wanting a fair face of water weeds
And pleasant flowers. 

You can hear him say, "We didn't go out of our way to be dissolute, and yet, dissolution was the order of the day."  "Memory languidly revolved, the heart//reposed in noontide rest, in inner pulse//of contemplation almost failed to beat."  In other words--life in all of its color, pageantry and demanding tones intruded.  And so for a while Wordsworth--as most college students--spent a season in the floating world.  Again, it isn't anything you associate with the poet who could produce lyrics as tedious and mawkish as "We are Seven" and "The Idiot Boy" and so, for that, all the more delightful.

I don't know where Wordsworth will take us on the morrow--but I hope that you find him sufficiently congenial a host to join us in the  journey.

Martha McPhee

A Novelist Looks at the Financial Meltdown

An Older Blog

It's a shame that The Wondering Minstrels appears to no longer be kept by the blogkeeper.  A Poem a day with commentary and if the numbers are any indications there are on the site something on the order of 2000 poems discussed.  So I can see the link as a kind of annotated anthology.  Go, enjoy.

Poetry by Heart

Memorizing poetry is the subject of this short article.  And it is a task to be taken seriously.  You'd be surprised how often it comes in handy.  Pardon a chauvinist moment as I explain.  Son and Father are sitting around waiting as Mother is doing whatever it is that women do that necessitates a nearly complete halt in the proceedings for a protracted period of time.  At that time, when the high, fruity voice emerges from the chamber announcing she is nearly ready to emerge, both son and father have recourse to Andrew Marvell--"Vaster than empires and more slow."

On other occasions, at parties where entirely too much nothing is being said about entirely too many people, and there are far too many poseurs standing about exhibiting everything they don't know, one can simply remember, "In the room women come and go//talking of Michelangelo."  The cautionary tales of Spoon River and "Miniver Cheevy" (among others) cannot be overlooked.  And how many times have we thought of our various CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CIOs, and others who make haste to lord it over everyone in ways that are simply de trop:


"`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

After a Century of Silence

Mark Twain speaks: his autobiography to be published.  via Books Inq.

No Man is an Island

A true loss to language and literature, the passing of Martin Gardner.  (via Books Inq.)

On the College Front

Now a few words from Wordsworth on the college experience.  To start he tells us about the transformation from country bumpkin to college lad and all that entailed.

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

It hath been told, that when the first delight
That flashed upon me from this novel show
Had failed, the mind returned into herself;
Yet true it is, that I had made a change
In climate, and my nature's outward coat
Changed also slowly and insensibly.
Full oft the quiet and exalted thoughts
Of loneliness gave way to empty noise
And superficial pastimes; now and then
Forced labour, and more frequently forced hopes;
And, worst of all, a treasonable growth
Of indecisive judgments, that impaired
And shook the mind's simplicity.

Simply enough--when the novelty of the sights and sounds of the Cambridge campus wore off, Wordsworth found himself a fish out of water--quiet thoughts now churning with new noise--meditation and deep thinking giving was to frivolous pastimes that slowly eroded simplicity and confidence.  Welcome to college late 18th Century.  It is fascinating to see that there is nothing new in the experience.  And even more so:

We sauntered, played, or rioted; we talked
Unprofitable talk at morning hours;
Drifted about along the streets and walks,
Read lazily in trivial books, went forth
To gallop through the country in blind zeal
Of senseless horsemanship, or on the breast
Of Cam sailed boisterously, and let the stars
Come forth, perhaps without one quiet thought.

"Read lazily in trivial books,"  what a great line both for college and for the majority of us who would like to make something of the reading life.  Too often I find myself with some "trivial" opus in hand, wiling away time that would be better served with better books.  And yet it is this palate cleanser that makes the appreciation of better books possible (I tell myself, because, of course, I want to read what I want to read and not what I think I ought to read.)  But the hidden tragedy of it for Wordsworth and for us all is in that last line, "perhaps without one quiet thought."  When we thrash through our reading speeding from one book to the next, whether trivial or serious, have we given the book time to work its magic and make itself know to us.  I can say that often I miss much in reading that comes back to me upon reflection--but if I'm stuffing my head with yet another book, where is the time for the "must give us pause. There's the respect."

And another result--perhaps tragic, perhaps not so if we consider that such slumber eventually gave rise to the work we have before us:

Imagination slept,
And yet not utterly. I could not print
Ground where the grass had yielded to the steps
Of generations of illustrious men,
Unmoved. I could not always lightly pass
Through the same gateways, sleep where they had slept,
Wake where they waked, range that inclosure old,
That garden of great intellects, undisturbed.
Place also by the side of this dark sense
Of noble feeling, that those spiritual men,
Even the great Newton's own ethereal self,
Seemed humbled in these precincts thence to be
The more endeared.

You would have to be a stone to have imagination sleep in a place where so many scholars, so many famous people had walked and left their imprint.  You would have to be dry as a river-bed not to see them at moments and not feel their ineluctable pull.

I'll pause here for the day, because the next little bit I want to cover deals with Milton, college drinking, and other aspects of college life.

Short Note re: Reading

Reading The Prelude has inspired me to consider other lengthy works of poetry that through boredom, neglect, lack of opportunity or interest, I have failed to read in the past.  The first of this panoply to introduce itself for my consideration is Browning's "The Ring and the Book," a novel in poetry written in twelve dramatic monologues--a form at which Browning excelled.

Also, I noted a few days ago the convergence this year of titles dealing with Greek myth.  I have reviewed one below and am presently reading David Malouf's Ransom hard and harsh and not nearly so easily enjoyable as The Lost Books of the Odyssey.  John Banville's The Infinities waits in the wings as a possibility and while perusing the local library shelves I came upon Katharine Beutner's Alcestis, a work I fear may come packed with agenda, but the first few pages of which were quite enjoyable.

"Let me count the ways. . . "

If you have never given it serious consideration, you owe to it yourself to read this week's poem of the week--Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese No. 43. Too often we leave it at its first line and think of it as a mawkish , love-sick paean to late-found romance (if we know enough to think anything at all about it).  But the power, beauty and stirring nature of this poem deserve a protracted consideration, because what is said is said well and truly and perhaps better than anyone of the 19th Century.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey--Zachary Mason

Starting to read this book, I didn't want to like it.  Indeed, I didn't like it--more cutesy postmodern turns on a phrase.  Another in an endless line of redactions and revisions expropriating the literature and culture of another time to our own twisted vision of self and society. No thank you.  I could do without that.

And yet as I read, the book gradually won me over.  The sheer cleverness of the scenarios presented one after another--their interconnections and disparities began to build a kind of mythic reality in itself.  The stories of Odysseus, Hector, Agamemnon, Achilles, Penelope, and all of those we had come to know and love from the Odyssey (and for that matter the Iliad) was appealing.  The view of the Iliad as an ancient manual for a chess-like game which required strict recitation for entry into the guild of chess-players was appealing.  But even more appealing were the cross-walks that Mr Mason built for us.  We meet all the characters of the Odyssey and more--Theseus is here and others who I dare not say for spoiling some of the fun of this romp.

The stories are well told and often contradictory.  We have three, four, five versions of the Death of Odysseus, two or three versions of Calypso, the Cyclopes, Circe, at least two versions of the suitors, and three versions of how Odysseus came to serve at Troy.  Three or four versions of the fall (or not) of Troy.  And each of these plays off of the other and off of the original in ways that show the power of myth to inspire endless riffs, endless take-offs, endless new stories, each plausible as the characters are plausible.

I started with, "I'm not going to like this, I'm going to throw this across the room."  And I ended by adding this to the list of books I must add to my own collection.  Get it, read it.  It's a book that can be read with anything from high seriousness to heavyish beach reading.  However you take it in, it is worth the time and the effort.

Highly recommended *****

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Tiramisu of the Classical World

My wife discovered Son up extremely early this morning, in bed, and listening to Vivaldi.  His comment:
"Vivaldi is good to listen to because it's like tiramisu because it's light and fluffy and it won't fill you up."

Which seems to describe some of the appeal of Vivaldi quite aptly.

A Day Without Wordsworth is like . . .

well, a day without Wordsworth.  There simply isn't a comparison.  And some of you--I'm not pointing any fingers here, would probably heave an enormous sign of relief if I were to grant you one.  But alas for you, there is to be no reprieve, because what I enjoy, I share in the hopes that I may bring others into the fold to enjoy it as well.

It is germane to start today's journey with a piece of Wordsworth's preface from the Lyrical Ballads.

from the Preface to Lyrical Ballads
William Wordsworth

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins,

This is germane because otherwise the power of book three of The Prelude falls out of perspective. Within it, Wordsworth is able to create some of the sense of disorientation and displacement he felt as he moved from his beloved lake country into the college town of Cambridge.  The reader may feel some of this as well--a falling off in pace, a sense, perhaps, of lassitude or casting about.  Not, of course in the magnificently constructed poetry, but in the direction, in the images, in the sense of what is going on.

from The Prelude: Book III
William Wordsworth

Yet from the first crude days
Of settling time in this untried abode,
I was disturbed at times by prudent thoughts,
Wishing to hope without a hope, some fears
About my future worldly maintenance,
And, more than all, a strangeness in the mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.
 "A feeling that I was not for that hour,//Nor for that place."  Wordsworth, the mystic, the loner, the isolated, forlorn in having been wrenched from what he so truly loved and taken to a place of learning which he could not despise, but which he could not love as he loved the lake, feels the disorientation of transposition.  He is frightened, hopeless--but not in the sense of despair, one feels, but rather in the sense of being in a vacuum.  It isn't depression and absence, but disorientation because one does not know what exactly to hope for in a place where doesn't exactly understand or perhaps complete agree with the why of being there.

But Wordsworth is not maudlin, nor is he uncommitted.  Immediately following on the quoted passage is this.

But wherefore be cast down?
For (not to speak of Reason and her pure
Reflective acts to fix the moral law
Deep in the conscience, nor of Christian Hope,
Bowing her head before her sister Faith
As one far mightier), hither I had come,
Bear witness Truth, endowed with holy powers
And faculties, whether to work or feel.

We see Wordsworth girding up his loins--why be cast down.  For whatever reason, you are here, so get to whatever work you are here for.  But what is remarkable is the capture of exactly that sort of meditative casting about and arriving at a resolution so long after the fact--meditating on the emotion and coming back to the essence of it through the poetry.   As a natural result of this disposition and resolution we find Wordsworth longing for, but not distracted by thoughts of, the Lake country:

And as I paced alone the level fields
Far from those lovely sights and sounds sublime
With which I had been conversant, the mind
Drooped not; but there into herself returning,
With prompt rebound seemed fresh as heretofore.


One can hear him say--I'm here for whatever reason, might as well make the best of it.  I can't be home, I can't be among my accustomed landmarks and ventures, so let us make new ones where I am.

There is so much more that follows, it is hard to pick a place to drawn the line on commentary.  But let me share a few more lines that I think sums up this motif and begins to send us into the next.


At least I more distinctly recognised
Her native instincts: let me dare to speak
A higher language, say that now I felt
What independent solaces were mine,
To mitigate the injurious sway of place
Or circumstance, how far soever changed
In youth, or to be changed in manhood's prime;
Or for the few who shall be called to look
On the long shadows in our evening years,
Ordained precursors to the night of death.
 Where you look to be comforted, where you look to find solace, where you look beyond yourself and into what encompasses you and gives you meaning, there you will find your home and the "independent solaces" of a thoughtful person engaged with what surround you.

Again and again, Wordsworth strikes home with a truth that sometimes must be disentangled from the rich web of thought and rumination--but what joy it is to do so.  And the very best reason for any reading is joy, because joy puts us in touch.

Always wanted to read Proust? . . .

but never found the time for the complete thing?  Visit Interpolations where a reader's map for condensing In Search of Lost Time is given.  Then expand by going to other reviews of the work of Proust.  Personally, I don't quite understand why one would wish to abridge the experience.  But then chacun á son goût.

An Appreciation of the Magnificent Sigrid Undset

via Books Inq.  An Appreciation of Sigrid Undset

Not enough good can be said.  And now that there is a one-volume updated and modern translation of Kristin Lavaransdatter, there's no excuse not to be in the know.  (The older translation is passable, but tedious and unfortunately, I suspect that much of the readership of Sigrid Undset has been disoriented by some of the odd choices made in that previous translation.  Beautiful, evocative prose.  I suspect my relative coolness toward Hilary Mantel's book is in part a result of my affection for the rich (and necessary) detail and profound sense of place that Sigrid Undset offers in all of her work.  (Mantel's book is great, but it doesn't "remake the historical novel" as so many have claimed for it. So, spend a little time in Medieval Norway and get to know what another great historical novel is all about.

Another Writing Workshop

Adichie in Abuja

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Wordsworth in Cambridge

The transition from book 2 to book 3 of The Prelude is a little difficult.  Not that the poetry is any less wonderful, but the setting had changed so dramatically that there is a kind of withdrawal into more abstract considerations--certainly worthy of those college years when the carefree days of youth begin to undergo greater codification and abstraction. 

But as I said, the quality of the poetry does not diminish, as in this excerpt that begins the transition from country life to town/city life.:

from The Prelude Book III
William Wordsworth

I was the Dreamer, they the Dream; I roamed
Delighted through the motley spectacle;
Gowns, grave, or gaudy, doctors, students, streets,
Courts, cloisters, flocks of churches, gateways, towers:
Migration strange for a stripling of the hills,
A northern villager.
What is intriguing here is the introduction of a kind of solipsism or early separation of Wordsworth from those with whom he will be associating.  "I was the Dreamer, they the Dream. . ." in the sense that they become the subject of the creative task and art.  But he is definitely, at this point at outsider, an observer and is "delighted through the motley spectacle,"  not merely of the people, but of the "flocks of churches, gateways, towers"  (and I find that turn of phrase delightful--the thought of all these non-animal things represented in the idiom of the country from which he is coming.  And Wordsworth himself recognizes the dislocation and alienation--"migration strange for a stripling of the hills,"  again, a wonderful natural metaphor for an unnatural transition.

A little further along, Wordsworth again gives us insight into the disorientation that comes from this transition.  Where once he sat in wide and woodsy silences contemplating the things that nature taught him, now:

Near me hung Trinity's loquacious clock,
Who never let the quarters, night or day,
Slip by him unproclaimed, and told the hours
Twice over with a male and female voice.
Her pealing organ was my neighbour too;
And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

You can almost hear Wordsworth knocking on the ceiling of his flat with a broom handle to get the noisy neighbors to shut up.   And again, rather than seeing what we would have seen through his windows in the lake country, here he sees and antechapel and the statue of Newton--the one who will stand for the transition from nature and union to analysis, atomization, and abstraction.  Those last three lines and particularly the lovely "the marble index of a mind,"  are striking.  But note also that the portrayal of Newton is not neutral, nor is it entirely positive--for that marble index portray a mind "voyaging through strange seas of Through, alone."  Here again, the phrasing is superb because even though preceded by a comma, it is possible to associate the word with "the strange seas of Thought" rather than with the person of Newton.  So, we have the "marble index of a mind for ever// Voyaging through stranges seas of Thought alone."  That is: not sensation, not emotion, not connection, thought alone.

Perhaps I wax rhapsodic over a minor point that has no substance in the remainder of the poem.  That is to be seen.  However, these are the Wordsworthian thoughts of the day.  I hope they help you appreciate the genius and perhaps encourage you to take him up again and engage with him.

Convergent Publications

Nearly every year it seems that there are subjects, unlikely in books of fiction, which are represented by two or more major publications.  The one I think of off-hand (and about which one of the participants, David Lodge, has written a book) is the publication of two or three major novels concerning the career of Henry James a couple years back (most notably Colm Toibin's The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author--I don't know the timing of Cynthia Ozick's Dictation).  This year it seems that it is the Greek Mythological Cycle that is getting the major attention.  I'm presently reading Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey with David Malouf's Ransom and John Banville's The Infinities on deck.  Mason reflects on incidents in both the Iliad and the Odyssey while Malouf meditates on the ransoming of Hector's body from vengeful Achilles.

I wonder how this thing happens.  Perhaps it is inevitable with so many books published, but it does seem like an interesting and odd undercurrent in publication.

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World"

Listening to "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," we hear from the back seat, "I don't want to rule the world: people would expect me to do stuff."

While coyly calculating, it was still extremely amsuing.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Lovely Literary Consideration

An appreciation and interpretation (broadly speaking) of the works of Francine Prose.

How We Decide--Jonah Lehrer

One of the few pleasures of traveling away from family is the fact that much reading can be done.  So on the plane flights to and from Chicago, I completed two books.  The first I've already reported on.  The second is for discussion here.

Jonah Lehrer is the keeper of The Frontal Cortex blog and the author of one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books Proust Was a Neuroscientist.  This book has joined the ranks of that and both Sway and Click, as an enjoyable, fascinating, and enlightening read. 

The title says it all--the book is about how different parts of the brain contribute to decision making and how we must allow them to do so.  It enters into the question of how to make extremely complex decisions and how to make simple ones--and it turns out that the means of making those decisions might be counter-intuitive.  Equally counter-intuitive to divided Western Man is Mr. Lehrer's reference to the emotions and emotional center as the brain's "super computer."  Indeed, he likens the intellectual capacity of even the most brilliant of people to a calculator,  perfectly capable of handling analysis of a limited set of data and arriving at the correct solution.  But for more complex investigation, we need to rely upon the trained sensibilities of our emotions.  To this end he briefly sites the magisterial and groundbreaking work of George Miller in "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two."

While the science is fascinating and the stories interesting and compelling, it seems important for one to keep a certain distance from the materialism that seems to drive it all and which, on some occasions give one pause in the reflection of the information Mr. Lehrer is placing before us.  For example, he notes that altruism is "hardwired" into the primate brain and "Thou shalt not kill" is a later codification for something we understand intuitively. The hardwiring consists of the fact that it feels good to act altruisitically--the brain responses to it in a soothing bath of feel-good chemicals.  The tone of this passage seems to call into question the validity of the revelation of the Ten Commandments--and that is perhaps overstepping the bounds of what research can tell us.  For even if the brain is hardwired to this end, one must contemplate the question as to why this might be.  One could argue evolution, but an equally valid argument could be made that hardwiring for "selfish geneism" would have better suited evolution.  That is, the elimination of competition is as valid an evolutionary end (perhaps more valid) than the preservation of society.  

So, while the arguments are interesting in what they do say, one must be aware of the inherent limits of what they can say.  This materialist-empiricist/religious tension seems to pervade much of Mr. Lehrer's work, and is would make sense that one dedicated to the chronicling of a scientific enterprise might lean heavily on the side of empiricism--but the reader must keep this in mind while perusing the arguments, lest one come to conclusions that do not strictly follow from the data.

All of that aside, the book is a delight.  It is compelling reading and its insights may help reintegrate the human being that the metaphysical poets saw as whole and the Enlightenment developers tore apart.  (Although Mr. Lehrer points out that the conflict in visions of the human person has been around at least since Plato  and probably since people have undertaken any sort of metacognition.)

Get it and read it.  It seems to be the harbinger of a new psychology and of a new understanding of HOW we are what we are in a physical and scientific sense.  Mr. Lehrer uses the data from science and the stories that he shares along the way to suggest some guidelines for decision making that might benefit each of us at different times.

Highly recommended *****

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

One Last Wordsworthian Word

I promise not to belabor the point, nor to make the reading of this blog a labor by my enthusiasm for a poet who has come to my attention as though for the first time.  That is what most intrigues me.  I've said in my ruminations before that while in college I forced myself through at least part of The Prelude and didn't much enjoy it.  But truth to tell, college courses are largely designed to enforce dislike of the subject matter--you have to read a hundred books in a semester and none of them are given the time that they are really worth.  A whole semester could be devoted to a careful and proper reading of Wordsworth's poem--and probably should have been.  To have it thrown in among a hundred other poems scarcely does the work justice.  In defense of the poor teachers, though, one needs to provide a broad sense of things before diving in deep and so this is a necessary risk in our reading.

College was then, this is now, and I find that Wordsworth speaks to me in the now because I can take as long as I like to wander with him through the Lake Country, through Cambridge and London.  I can listen to him again and again if I find I don't really understand something the first time.  There is nothing pushing me to get through the entire poem.  If I don't, well then, I don't, but I've lost nothing that I've obtained in reading so far.  All of these conditions make for much more congenial and relaxed reading.  Add to that greater maturity, greater experience, greater acquaintance with other related works, and authors whom we may have passed over in fretful youth are more welcome visitors with the passing of time.

And so I share this last point that helps to support the points made in the post below.  I think its purpose will be clear once you read it.

from The Prelude: Book II
William Wordsworth

How shall I seek the origin? where find
Faith in the marvellous things which then I felt?
Oft in these moments such a holy calm
Would overspread my soul, that bodily eyes
Were utterly forgotten, and what I saw
Appeared like something in myself, a dream,
A prospect in the mind.

If you follow from the previous post about the mystical approach to experience, I think the purport of this passage is both fairly clear and much in line with the mystical tradition from The Cloud of Unknowing through Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, and Julian of Norwich, down through William Law, Thomas Traherne, finally to Blake and Wordsworth himself.  Go back again to the previous post and note that all of these transports take place according to St. John of the Cross in "a dark night"  ("holy calm. . . that bodily eyes were utterly forgotten.")

Let's not belabor it.  I merely introduce the point to say that Wordsworth need not be read as Wordsworth himself may have intended, and explanations of Wordsworth that rely ONLY on his intent, are likely to become cumbersome (which is not to say that authorial intention is not important--but it is only part of the reading of any work--because in any work a great deal that an author does not intend makes it into the work as well.)

The Three Weissmanns of Westport--Cathleen Schine

Coming off of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, and finding mention of this book in the same set of reviews, and seeing that Schine had contributed a laudatory review blurb for the former book, I really wanted to love this book. Described as a modern reworking of the themes of Sense and Sensibility, it certainly seemed promising ground.

And for the first three-quarters of the book or so, it rambles along quite nicely, telling the story of a woman whose 78-year old husband asks her for a divorce after 50 years of marriage and throws her out of her Manhattan apartment to dwell in a small sea-side suburban house with two older daughters who come to join her.  The writing is light and engaging as are the characters and the story rolls along quite nicely.  However, it just doesn't seem ever to jell very well.  One finds oneself tiring of the self-indulgent mother who buys things from home shopping networks and the alternately virago/manipulative sister who bullies everyone.

There are touching moments throughout, but for me, the book, very disappointingly failed to come together in any meaningful way.  Perhaps this was because it was too faithful to its source (I think not), perhaps because the "innovation" and "insight" offered by the book is now almost as passé as the mores and manners of Ms. Austen herself. 

While the characters engaged and encouraged, the story was never allowed to breathe and be its own, and so ultimately, this did not work for me.  However, many might find it a light literary read, akin to Elinor Lipman and others of that ilk.  Don't dismiss it on my say-so, but dip your toe in--it won't take long to finish and you may find it more to your taste.  If so, I'd appreciate it if you'd come back and share.

Recommended for some with reservations ***

The Dark Night of the Poet?

Book Two of The Prelude has what is referred to by the editor as a notoriously difficult passage for Wordsworth himself and for the reader.  But I think the difficulty of this passage is exacerbated by trying to interpret it in the traditional Wordsworthian framework and not making allowances for vision that exceeds rational grasp.  That is, what is recorded in what follows sounds very, very familiar if you are acquainted with the via negativa.

from The Prelude: Book II
William Wordsworth

For now a trouble came into my mind
From unknown causes. I was left alone
Seeking the visible world, nor knowing why.
The props of my affections were removed,
And yet the building stood, as if sustained
By its own spirit! All that I beheld
Was dear, and hence to finer influxes
The mind lay open to a more exact
And close communion. Many are our joys
In youth, but oh! what happiness to live
When every hour brings palpable access
Of knowledge, when all knowledge is delight,
And sorrow is not there!

What is most interesting here is to compare Wordsworth to someone like, say, St. John of the Cross, also a poet and also capable of expressing this mystery in language that defies an explanation that is looking for critical apparatus.

Dark Night of the Soul
St. John of the Cross

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised--oh, happy chance!--
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my
heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me--
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies. 

Coming from a different and earlier tradition in poetry the links may be difficult to see and perhaps are better noticed with extensive reading in St. John of the Cross's commentary on his own poem.  But of particular interest here is the tight correlation between the "suspension of senses" in the last stanza but one and the "I remained."  This correlates nicely to the section of The Prelude highlighted in yellow above. The last stanza of "Dark Night of the Soul" corresponds well to the section of Wordsworth's poem highlighted in blue. 

Is it possible that what Wordsworth is describing here is a mystical experience?  One every bit as deep, but more highly orthodox than those that Blake brought on himself.  I don't know if Wordsworth is often seen as a mystic--but this passage suggest affinities with almost all writers of spiritual literature in which a limit is reached of what the senses can divine and the pleasure link with that sensual association vanishes for no reason.  What remains, however is all that occurred in the building of the mystical experience, and it proves a solid ground for building a higher level of the mystical experience? 

Perhaps, we might object, we don't see Wordsworth as particularly holy, religious, or pious in any meaningful way.  His poetic theory comes to within a breath of a pantheistic heresy.  But in that breath is all of the difference, and the Holy Spirit blows were He wist, so I don't know what kind of case you can make from that point of view.  Plus, this does provide a very nice solution to textual problems that writers looking at Wordsworth's poetic theory are tortured to explain. 

And perhaps a little credence can be granted this reading, if we look a little later in the poem:

from The Prelude: Book II
William Wordsworth

Thence did I drink the visionary power;
And deem not profitless those fleeting moods
Of shadowy exultation: not for this,
That they are kindred to our purer mind
And intellectual life; but that the soul,
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, whereto
With growing faculties she doth aspire,
With faculties still growing, feeling still
That whatsoever point they gain, they yet
Have something to pursue.


The interpretation offered in the notes of this passage suggests that the blue highlighted passage is a reference to the continuing creative and artistic impulse.  But given the passage discussed above and the section in yellow above, I would advance a different understanding.  The yellow highlighted passage is another common trope or image used in discussing the consolations of a life of communion with God, the sweet taste that lingers but is ineffable and undefinable in any useful sense of the word.  It is the taste that calls the pray-er onward.  The language in blue is the effect of the enticement and suspension of sensible consolations.  That is, however much you receive, you desire yet more--there is something more to pursue even though as you grow you feel yourself strengthening in the pursuit.  In the pursuit of union with the infinite, there can be no end except that union.

I think if we read the poem in a more mystical sense, many of the traditional interpretive problems evaporate and we come to perhaps a better understanding of the poem than the poet himself may have had. These are difficult things to express, but Wordsworth captures here clear, ancient, continuous, mystical language employed by the saints from the earliest days talking about seeking communion with  God.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Son's Birthday--Little Blogging

We go to celebrate--at Sea World and then with a tea-party at one of his favorite places of eat.  He'll be able to sit in "special seating" area and drink from the Alice in Wonderland Tea Set.  But first he must try to get Daddy to ride Manta with him.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand--Helen Simonson

In one word--magnificent.  But you will need more than one word.  So--it is beyond comprehension that this is a first book.  The elements of story, character, setting are so tightly bound, so perfectly intertwined, and so absolutely in-tune with one another.  It is as if one had taken the fine-tuned sensibility of a Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer and wedded it to the intricate series of incident and entanglement (but NOT coincidence) that makes up a Dickens plot.

Major Pettrigrew experiences the trauma of losing his younger brother.  In the moment of realization he is receiving a visit from Mrs. Ali who has come to collect the back-pay for the newspaper subscription.  This encounter sparks the action, such as it is of the book. which includes Lords of the manor, at least four romantic entanglements, a golf club party, a raid in Scotland, and a harrowing battle to save a life  But.  Don't look for sword fights and duels and chase scenes and surprises of that sort.  The surprises in the book are emotional--they are the revelations the characters themselves receive as the story flows along.  And they are surprises that ring true--not merely for the story, but for any of us who are paying attention.  Ms. Simonson's theme is the vagaries and the startling self-knowledge that comes from loving and being loved.  And she is absolutely on-target here.

For the men in the audience who fear a prissy romance--do not fear.  Major Pettigrew is a Major in Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the classical vein.  He could have been plucked from the sometimes-cardboard canvas of an Agatha Christie novel. However, the resemblance ends with that possibility, because there is nothing whatsoever cardboard about Major Pettigrew. So you won't end up with a Regency story post-Heyer.  Yes, it is a love story, but think Pride and Prejudice not Passion Under the Persimmon Tree.

Another perfection in the novel is the way that none of the characters is perfect. Every one of them has faults and broken places in need of repair.  And we come to love them all, although we think we cannot.  At one point in my margin notes, I had written that it would be hard for Simonson to redeem this character from that particular act.  And she doesn't--the act remains, the redemption as such comes from the reader who grows in acceptance of the human failings of the characters.  The book itself acts like a lesson in the art of learning to love.

This is NOT a romance, even though it is a classic love story.  It is a story centered around love and learning to love and understanding what love is and what love means, and by that understanding coming to forgive oneself one's shortcomings and to forgive the shortcomings so obvious in others.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that properly read, this novel can be life-changing in the best possible way.

Ms. Simonson has put together something I have longed for for as long as I've been writing this, and probably as long as I've been reading serious fiction.  I have wondered where the successors of Austen and Fielding and Sterne and other such have gone.  I have wondered whether there is absolutely no room in the world of modern serious fiction for a positive view of humanity and human interactions.  Elinor Lipman gives us a glimpse of this from time to time.  But Helen Simonson has set it in stone for us.

Beautiful prose, beautiful characters, beautiful story, magnificent writing, wonderful theme.  As close to perfection as a book can come (although I could take a moment to point out a few flaws--so that hubris might not set in--I sha'n't do so--an author of this caliber is fully aware of every blot, every blemish, no matter how small).

It's a shame that this is a debut novel because now I have no great backlog of books to run to and treasure.  Now I'm in the unfortunate position of having to wait until Ms. Simonson blesses us with another.

Go and get this book, read it, treasure it, cherish it, encourage Ms. Simonson to get moving on the next. And let us hope that her educated heart can open yet another world for us.

Highest recommendation *****

Wordsworth--Completing the Thought

Yesterday, I kept the excerpt short and to the point.  So short and to the point, that indeed, the point wasn't even there.  And so today, the point.

from The Prelude: Book II
William Wordsworth

Thus were my sympathies enlarged, and thus
Daily the common range of visible things
Grew dear to me: already I began
To love the sun; a boy I loved the sun,
Not as I since have loved him, as a pledge
And surety of our earthly life, a light
Which we behold and feel we are alive;
Nor for his bounty to so many worlds—
But for this cause, that I had seen him lay
His beauty on the morning hills, had seen
The western mountain touch his setting orb,
In many a thoughtless hour, when, from excess
Of happiness, my blood appeared to flow
For its own pleasure, and I breathed with joy.
 In his ecstasy of auto-mythmaking, Wordsworth recalls not merely his youthful relationship with all things natural, but that relationship as it was changed by aging and by a more materialistic view of the world.  He will go on to talk about how the scientific intellect is devoted to the division of things.  But here he describes the unity of things.  The sun is treasured not for what it can do or how is supports life, but rather for its simple beauty and being.  Encapsulated in this moment is one view of life which he will later oppose to the materialist/empiricist viewpoint. 

I can't help but liken it to the debate that rages today between the new-atheists and the almost theists who have lost their way.  Wordsworth here tells us how he was connected, how all things are, in fact a unity.  The sun was cherished because Wordsworth had "seen him lay//His beauty on the morning hills. . ."  it is the act of unifying sun and hills, of bringing everything into focus that is the center of the sun's beauty.

And so we continue.  Hope you all are enjoying Wordsworth as much as I am.  From the visit figures, ir hasn't been a blockbuster; but that's okay, because what is worth bringing forward is worth bringing forward, even if only for me to have a place to return to my own enjoyment of the work.  I share that enjoyment with you and hope that you will take it up and find your own way of appreciating this wonderful poem.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Neglected Books

Neglected Books links us to lost classics of the early 20th century

Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others name good books nearly no one has read.  I was gratified to see John Cowper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance on one of the lists.

Michael Dirda on Noir

Gresham's Nightmare Alley reviewed

On the basis of this review--obviously one that I'm gonna hafta read. 

Oh, and note the six-degrees-of-separation from C.S. Lewis.

The Discrete Charm of the Surrealiste

Images from the Codex Seraphinianus

and a longer article referenced in the above:

The Codex Seraphinianus

Bret Easton Ellils

An interview with Bret Easton Ellis--a writer whose work I have both admired and reviled.

Nature and Poetry: More Wordsworth

Made explicit a million times a million times, but so far in nothing so lovely as what follows:

from The Prelude: Book II
William Wordsworth

The garden lay
Upon a slope surmounted by a plain
Of a small bowling-green; beneath us stood
A grove, with gleams of water through the trees
And over the tree-tops; nor did we want
Refreshment, strawberries and mellow cream.
There, while through half an afternoon we played
On the smooth platform, whether skill prevailed
Or happy blunder triumphed, bursts of glee
Made all the mountains ring. But, ere night-fall,
When in our pinnace we returned at leisure
Over the shadowy lake, and to the beach
Of some small island steered our course with one,
The Minstrel of the Troop, and left him there,
And rowed off gently, while he blew his flute
Alone upon the rock—oh, then, the calm
And dead still water lay upon my mind
Even with a weight of pleasure, and the sky,
Never before so beautiful, sank down
Into my heart, and held me like a dream!

What then--the idea of rowing across a lake to the scene of a tavern--playing the day away in skill and blunder, and then rowing back--more slowly, exhausted by the revels.   "oh, then, the calm// And dead still water lay upon my mind//Even with a weight of pleasure. . .  "  And this is where line-breaks become so important because while calm can be read as an additional modifier to "dead still" it is also a reference to the calm that descends as the journey nears its end and one can come to appreciate the dead still water, not moving, not a breath of breeze--no ripple and no change.  Still meaning here as well, eternal--not merely unmoving but still in the sense of remaining and enduring--still here, still in the mind, still present.

And the whole poem is peppered through with moments like these that beacon the reader out of himself and into the world of the poet and the poem, into the world that Wordsworth builds to tell you how a poem is made and what it means.

No Reason for it: Wordsworth Again

Other than the fact that I thought it a profoundly lovely moment in the poem:

from The Prelude: Book II
William Wordsworth

When summer came,
Our pastime was, on bright half-holidays,
To sweep, along the plain of Windermere
With rival oars; and the selected bourne
Was now an Island musical with birds
That sang and ceased not; now a Sister Isle
Beneath the oaks' umbrageous covert, sown
With lilies of the valley like a field;
And now a third small Island, where survived
In solitude the ruins of a shrine
Once to Our Lady dedicate, and served
Daily with chaunted rites.

To refer to the lake as "the plain of Windermere" is just enough off that it makes for a profoundly stirring image (pardon the pun).  One can see the rowboats moving across the silvered water, and stopping here and there around the lake at little islands encased in trees: "Beneath the oaks' umbrageous covert."  Oh, how I wish that modern speech would allow me use of a word as delicate, as lovely, and as perfect as "umbrageous."

And a bit later another lovely bit:

Oh, ye rocks and streams,
And that still spirit shed from evening air!
Even in this joyous time I sometimes felt
Your presence, when with slackened step we breathed
Along the sides of the steep hills, or when
Lighted by gleams of moonlight from the sea
We beat with thundering hoofs the level sand.

Again, no reason, except to say that when we choose through prejudice, ignorance, or past bad experience to stay away from one so long acclaimed and loved, we deprive ourselves of some loveliness, some measure of beauty that cannot be found elsewhere because it dwells only here, with this one poet in this small space.  Oh, how I regret the many that I have not given proper chance to--those who, assigned in college classes, I raced through to be finished with the assignment.  What I missed out on by not giving them proper regard.  But, not everyone can appreciate everything at the same time--and it sometimes takes a while for the wisdom or insight of the poet to grow on one.

What Goes on in College Dorms

Light Shows, of course!

An Interview via The Literary Saloon

An interview with Amos Oz

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Our Daily Sojourn with Wordsworth

I am not a Wordsworth partisan.  If truth be told, I've always found him to be the wimpiest of the romantics, with a couple of good lines in a sprinkling of OK poems.  And now I find myself touting him.  And there is a certain pleasure in having been wrong and being able to discover it at this late date.

from The Prelude--Book II
William Wordsworth

A rude mass
Of native rock, left midway in the square
Of our small market village, was the goal
Or centre of these sports; and when, returned
After long absence, thither I repaired,
Gone was the old grey stone, and in its place
A smart Assembly-room usurped the ground
That had been ours. There let the fiddle scream,
And be ye happy! Yet, my Friends! I know
That more than one of you will think with me
Of those soft starry nights, and that old Dame
From whom the stone was named, who there had sate,
And watched her table with its huckster's wares
Assiduous, through the length of sixty years.
I'm told, by the notes on the Gutenberg Edition, that the town referred to is Hawkshead, which tells me very little more than I might have known on my own. By googling I discover that it is in or near the Lake District and seemingly a million miles from anywhere at all.  Here's a picture garnered from freefoto (under a creative commons license)




And so, on to the real point.  What Wordsworth touches upon in the excerpt above must be one of the most common of human experiences.  And this is what distinguishes this personal, biographical, and intimate poems from the school of the confessional poets.  While we can wrench some things fromt he confessional poets that could be construed to be widespread, if not universal, the only universals translated from the confessionals are emotional configurations.  But note how Wordsworth delivers these lines in an almost imagist way--letting the experience stand for itself and allowing the language to suggest the emotional tenor (usurped is most particularly suggestive).  It is in taking these common experiences and making something of them, that Wordsworth takes the intimate and the particular and moves it to the realm of universal experience.  He summons the image, we bring the emotional baggage and so our reading of Wordsworth is a combined work:  the poet proposes and we dispose.

But it is in the sustained reading of all the particulars that we get to the core of what Wordsworth wants to tell us.  As he mythologizes his childhood and youth, he tells us something about the reflection of age upon those experiences.  He tells us further more about ourselves than he does about himself, because it is our encounter with him that is actually the reading.  We become transformed in the experience and our experience and understanding is broadened in the encounter.

So, in an idle moment, with a few minutes to spare, take up The Prelude and encounter one of the great poetic voices of the centuries peeling back the surface of reality and exposing how it works for him.  You may not have the same experiences, but it may surprise you how many you have in common.

Found at The Little Professor



It does embed, but only poorly, so if you'd like to see it in full wide-screen action, try this.

Reading Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake treasure map

I have said before and reaffirm that I do not recommend Finnegans Wake to everyone; but neither do I not recommend it.  That is to say that I will evangelize for Ulysses but I will only sit in the sidelines and cheer when someone proposes to touch the Wake.  I do this because I recognize that the work of the Wake is not to everyone's taste.  I don't think it is outside of any literate person's ability, but I do think it is outside of most literate persons' scopes.  And so, while I don't recommend it aggressively, I am quietly encouraging anyone who has had a hankering for it to read the article referenced and perhaps a few sentences of the story itself.  You'll find yourself enjoying it before you know it. 

The Silliness of the Vinylists

How do you listen to a short story

It has been shown the the world's greatest wine critics simply cannot distinguish between an ordinary, off the shelf wine and the greatest of vintages in a blind test.  The great vintage is great by virtue of the hypnotism of labels.

I have listened to the various audiophile arguments about "depth" and "warmth" of sound from vinyl--how it differs not merely in qualitative ways, but the difference can be quantified.  I have owned (for a long time) music from both sources and can say, that I have striven with all due diligence to hear the difference between the two, and the only difference I do here is the lack of static, blips, and creaks in the vinyl, and the introduction of new skips, blips, and creaks in the CD.

A person can convince themselves of anything whatsoever on the slenderest of evidence--and if it gives one great pleasure to think that one is hearing something better, I suppose there's no harm in it.  And record players are coming back (even if only as transfer mechanisms to the digital milieu).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Piano Stairs

Taking the pain out of up

Lovely, Vaguely Asian Neo-Classical

Music worth listening to.

Via Books Inq.

Literary Podcasts

On Travelling by Boat at Night

Another passage of The Prelude reaches out and touches me.  Through this whole section I am hearing the poetry of St. John of the Cross (perhaps more about this later)--but then this image strikes and at once as I am thinking St. John of the Cross, I am also thinking of one of China's premier poets--Li Po.

from The Prelude: Book 1
William Wordsworth

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light.
 It is, at once, lovely and too lovely, perfect in the way that it conveys the sense of motion and the way one perceives that movement.  It is an imagist poem all to itself in the midst of a myth of considerable proportion.

Compare it to these moments from Li Po:


Autumn River Song
Li Po

The moon shimmers in green water.
White herons fly through the moonlight.

The young man hears a girl gathering water-chestnuts:
into the night, singing, they paddle home together.

*****

Alone and Drinking Under the Moon

Amongst the flowers I
am alone with my pot of wine
drinking by myself; then lifting
my cup I asked the moon
to drink with me, its reflection
and mine in the wine cup, just
the three of us; then I sigh
for the moon cannot drink,
and my shadow goes emptily along
with me never saying a word;
with no other friends here, I can
but use these two for company;
in the time of happiness, I
too must be happy with all
around me; I sit and sing
and it is as if the moon
accompanies me; then if I
dance, it is my shadow that
dances along with me; while
still not drunk, I am glad
to make the moon and my shadow
into friends, but then when
I have drunk too much, we
all part; yet these are
friends I can always count on
these who have no emotion
whatsoever; I hope that one day
we three will meet again,
deep in the Milky Way.

*****
Thoughts in a Tranquil Night
Athwart the bed
I watch the moonbeams cast a trail
So bright, so cold, so frail,
That for a space it gleams
Like hoar-frost on the margin of my dreams.
I raise my head, --
The splendid moon I see:
Then droop my head,
And sink to dreams of thee --
My Fatherland, of thee! 

Despite the sometime tortured translations, one can get the sense of where the image Wordsworth places either derives from or converges with some of the venerable Chinese poetry.  The moon is a common theme in poetry, so it is not unlikely that there is convergence, but neither is it unlikely that there is some sense of influence.  (One would need to demonstrate that Wordsworth not only had access to but actually used Chinese sources in his writing).  The point is, that the two strains converge, whether or not one feeds the other.

And more importantly, both are lovely.

A Borgesian Tale

What happens when theory intrudes literature departments.

How to Hold a Mughal Feast

After sampling the wares of the caterer who would supply the feast for the Golf Club dance, Grace remains hesitant.

from Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Helen Simonson

"I wonder if it might be a little spicy for the main course," said Grace, cupping her hand around her mouth as if making a small megaphone. "What do you think major?"

"Anyone who doesn't find this delicious is a fool," said the Major. He nodded his head fiercely at Mrs. Rasool and Mrs. Ali. "However. . . ." He was not sure how to express his firm conviction that the golf club crowd would throw a fit if served a rice-based main course instead of a hearty slab of congealing meat. Mrs. Rasool raised an eyebrow at him.

"However, it is perhaps not foolproof, so to speak?" she asked. The Major could only smile in vague apology.

"I understand perfectly," said Mrs. Rasool. She waved her hand and a waiter hurried into the kitchen. The band stopped abruptly as if the wave included them. They followed the waiter out of the room.

"It's certainly a very interesting flavor," said Grace. "We don't want to be difficult."

"Of course not," said Mrs. Rasool. "I'm sure you will approve of our more popular alternative." The waiter returned at a run with a silver slaver that held a perfectly shaped individual Yorkshire pudding containing a fragrant slice of pinkish beef. It sat on a pool of burgundy gravy and was accompanied by a dollop of cumin-scented yellow potatoes and a lettuce leaf holding slice of tomato, red onion, and star fruit. A wisp of steam rose from the beef as they contemplated it in astonished silence.

"It's quite perfect," breathed Grace. "Are the potatoes spicy?" The elder Mr. Rasool muttered something to his son. Mrs. Rassol gave a sharp laugh that was almost a hiss.

"Not at all. I will give you picture to take back with you," she said. "I think we have agreed on the chicken skewers, samosas, and chicken wings as passed hors d'oeuvres, and then the beef, and I suggest trifle for dessert."

"Trifle?" said the Major. He had been hoping for some samples of dessert.

"One of the more agreeable traditions that you left us," said Mrs. Rasool. "We spice ours with tamarind jam."

"Roast beef and trifle," said Grace in a daze of food and punch. "And all authentically Mughal, you say?"

"Of course," said Mrs. Rasool. "Everyone will be happy to dine like the Emperor Shah Jehan and no one will find it too spicy."

I leave it to the prospective reader to discover what the musical and decorative accompaniment to this evening of authentic Mughal entertainment shall be.

At the (Profound) Risk of Boring You

Harold Bloom cites The Prelude as one of the great works of poetry.  And it is.  It is by no means easy--a book-length poem that is semi-autobiographical but not in anything like a confessional sense.  One walks away with a feeling that one knows less about Wordsworth the person than one knows about what Wordsworth thinks about Wordsworth--the myth of Wordsworth as thought by Wordsworth.  And in knowing this, one comes to know better the act of creating a work of art, and wh

Be that as it may--the poem has many wonderful passages that spring upon one unawares.  One's eye travels down the page absorbing more or less standard romantic poetry and imagery and then the standard is shattered and the poem becomes something more.  As in this passage in which the poet laments his own ability to express the interior world that is so rich and so meaningful.

from The Prelude: Book I
William Wordsworth

Ah! better far than this, to stray about
Voluptuously through fields and rural walks,
And ask no record of the hours, resigned
To vacant musing, unreproved neglect
Of all things, and deliberate holiday.
Far better never to have heard the name
Of zeal and just ambition, than to live
Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour
Turns recreant to her task; takes heart again,
Then feels immediately some hollow thought
Hang like an interdict upon her hopes.
This is my lot; for either still I find
Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
Or see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting, so much wanting, in myself,
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In listlessness from vain perplexity,
Unprofitably travelling toward the grave,
Like a false steward who hath much received
And renders nothing back.

This passage strikes me as so completely just and so completely accurate a view of the poet's accomplishment while it is being produced that I can think of no better description of the trials and triumphs.  While Wordsworth speaks only for Wordsworth, he does describe, what seems to me to be a common thread in thought among the poets.


Immediately following this passage is another in which Wordsworth attempts to describe his muse, his source of inspiration, and his faith and spirit in some ways.  The 1850 version of the poem, from which I quote, was a lifelong redaction of a work principally finished in 1805; however, the 1850 work attempts to make more orthodox Wordsworth's thoughts about God and spirituality, but still, some elements creep through that cling to his earlier thoughts and earlier self.

                                               Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved
To blend his murmurs with my nurse's song,
And, from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flowed along my dreams? For this, didst thou,
O Derwent! winding among grassy holms
Where I was looking on, a babe in arms,
Make ceaseless music that composed my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me
Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind
A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves?


But this experience is not confined to infant years.  Indeed, it follows him throughout life and permeates his memories, if not, in fact the life as lived.  We must remember that the poet's memory is selective and what he chooses to show us, he shows us with intent appropriate to his theme.  Nevertheless:
Oh, many a time have I, a five years' child,
In a small mill-race severed from his stream,
Made one long bathing of a summer's day;
Basked in the sun, and plunged and basked again
Alternate, all a summer's day, or scoured
The sandy fields, leaping through flowery groves
Of yellow ragwort; or when rock and hill,
The woods, and distant Skiddaw's lofty height,
Were bronzed with deepest radiance, stood alone
Beneath the sky, as if I had been born
On Indian plains, and from my mother's hut
Had run abroad in wantonness, to sport
A naked savage, in the thunder shower.
Once again, it a passage with which a person in tune with nature and called to the poetic vocation can sympathize.  While I cannot myself recall the wild rambles that Wordsworth describes, I can think of myself in some of my childhood frolics as described in these last lines.  It seems the most logical and natural thing in the world.

Then, out of the blue, come two wonderful, pointed, poignant, powerful lines.  Lines that at once summarize what has gone before and forecast what you will read as you continue.

Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear:

Again, while we may not experience directly the actions and activities Wordsworth described, and while the disposition is not universal, there is something in these lines that sings to a poet's heart--indeed, if one is to judge by their words--to the hearts of of most poets.  Perhaps not, perhaps I overextend the myth and make universal the personal.  But there is certainly something here that speaks to me as poet and as person.

And I beg your indulgence for one last plunge into the Wordsworthian stream (at least for this post), in which he describes the physical act of theft and the exhilaration and fear that follows.  But what he describes is both more and less than theft.  We must keep in mind the Hemingway adage about what great writers do.

Sometimes it befel
In these night wanderings, that a strong desire
O'erpowered my better reason, and the bird
Which was the captive of another's toil
Became my prey; and when the deed was done
I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sounds
Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod.
 I hope, in these shorter, more approachable patches, I've given cause for others to seek out this magnificent poem.  Not every word nor every line will be to everyone's taste, but there is much here for those who love poetry, and it isn't exactly what one might think it would be.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Perhaps the Best Tribute. . .

to the passing of a great lady--Lena Horne sings Stormy Weather

A Bit More Wordsworth

An excerpt from this morning's reading

from The Prelude: Book I
William Wordsworth

    And now it would content me to yield up
Those lofty hopes awhile, for present gifts
Of humbler industry. But, oh, dear Friend!
The Poet, gentle creature as he is,
hath, like the Lover, his unruly times;His fits when he is neither sick nor well,
Though no distress be near him but his own
Unmanageable thoughts: his mind, best pleased
While she as duteous as the mother dove
Sits brooding, lives not always to that end,
But like the innocent bird, hath goadings on
That drive her as in trouble through the groves;
With me is now such passion, to be blamed
No otherwise than as it lasts too long.



  When, as becomes a man who would prepare
For such an arduous work, I through myself
Make rigorous inquisition, the report
Is often cheering; for I neither seem
To lack that first great gift, the vital soul,
Nor general Truths, which are themselves a sort
Of Elements and Agents, Under-powers,
Subordinate helpers of the living mind:
Nor am I naked of external things,
Forms, images, nor numerous other aids
Of less regard, though won perhaps with toil
And needful to build up a Poet's praise.
Time, place, and manners do I seek, and these
are found in plenteous store, but nowhere such
As may be singled out with steady choice;
No little band of yet remembered names
Whom I, in perfect confidence, might hope
To summon back from lonesome banishment,
And make them dwellers in the hearts of men
Now living, or to live in future years.
Sometimes the ambitious Power of choice, mistaking
Proud spring-tide swellings for a regular sea,
Will settle on some British theme, some old
Romantic tale by Milton left unsung;
More often turning to some gentle place
Within the groves of Chivalry, I pipe
To shepherd swains, or seated harp in hand,
Amid reposing knights by a river side
Or fountain, listen to the grave reports
Of dire enchantments faced and overcome
By the strong mind, and tales of warlike feats,
Where spear encountered spear, and sword with sword
Fought, as if conscious of the blazonry
That the shield bore, so glorious was the strife;
Whence inspiration for a song that winds
Through ever changing scenes of votive quest
Wrongs to redress, harmonious tribute paid
To patient courage and unblemished truth,
To firm devotion, zeal unquenchable,
And Christian meekness hallowing faithful loves.
Sometimes, more sternly moved, I would relate
How vanquished Mithridates northward passed,
And, hidden in the cloud of years, became
Odin, the Father of a race by whom
Perished the Roman Empire: how the friends
And followers of Sertorius, out of Spain
Flying, found shelter in the Fortunate Isles,
And left their usages, their arts and laws,
To disappear by a slow gradual death,
To dwindle and to perish one by one,
Starved in those narrow bounds: but not the soul
Of Liberty, which fifteen hundred years
Survived, and, when the European came
With skill and power that might not be withstood,
Did, like a pestilence, maintain its hold
And wasted down by glorious death that race
Of natural heroes: or I would record
How, in tyrannic times, some high-souled man,
Unnamed among the chronicles of kings,
Suffered in silence for Truth's sake: or tell,
How that one Frenchman, through continued force
Of meditation on the inhuman deeds
Of those who conquered first the Indian Isles,
Went single in his ministry across
The Ocean; not to comfort the oppressed,
But, like a thirsty wind, to roam about
Withering the Oppressor: how Gustavus sought
Help at his need in Dalecarlia's mines:
How Wallace fought for Scotland; left the name
Of Wallace to be found, like a wild flower,
All over his dear Country; left the deeds
Of Wallace, like a family of Ghosts,
To people the steep rocks and river banks,
Her natural sanctuaries, with a local soul
Of independence and stern liberty.
Sometimes it suits me better to invent
A tale from my own heart, more near akin
To my own passions and habitual thoughts;
Some variegated story, in the main
Lofty, but the unsubstantial structure melts
Before the very sun that brightens it,
Mist into air dissolving! Then a wish,
My best and favourite aspiration, mounts
With yearning toward some philosophic song
Of Truth that cherishes our daily life;
With meditations passionate from deep
Recesses in man's heart, immortal verse
Thoughtfully fitted to the Orphean lyre;
But from this awful burthen I full soon
Take refuge and beguile myself with trust
That mellower years will bring a riper mind
And clearer insight. Thus my days are past
In contradiction; with no skill to part
Vague longing, haply bred by want of power,
From paramount impulse not to be withstood,
A timorous capacity from prudence,
From circumspection, infinite delay.
Humility and modest awe themselves
Betray me, serving often for a cloak
To a more subtle selfishness; that now
Locks every function up in blank reserve,
Now dupes me, trusting to an anxious eye
That with intrusive restlessness beats off
Simplicity and self-presented truth.
Ah! better far than this, to stray about
Voluptuously through fields and rural walks,
And ask no record of the hours, resigned
To vacant musing, unreproved neglect
Of all things, and deliberate holiday.

I recall the long agony of early reading of this massive autobiographical poem--getting nothing from it but words and more words.  And there is a delight, a comfort, and a joy at now being prepared to spend some time with friend Wordsworth and hear from him what he has to say.

The full poem is available: The Prelude.