Thursday, March 23, 2017

Blogging Note: responding to God's summons

This is my final posting. I know that I have said that a dozen times in the past, but this time it is most definite. Let me explain.

Life here at Casa Davis has been so overfilled with harrowing challenges in the last couple of years (and even more dramatically in recent days) that I can think of only one way to deal with it all in the coming days: one day at a time.

Yes, that phrase and my submission to a Higher Power saved my life in the past (more than twenty-five years ago) when I was nearly completely lost. Now those words and the Higher Power must be my guiding lights once again.

But the added challenge is this: how should I best use my time each day?

Well, friends, blogging cannot be included. As much as I have enjoyed my occasional discussions with a small corps of loyal blog visitors -- thank you, Frank, Fred, Margot, Marly, Mudpuddle, CyberKitten, Sharon, Stephen, Brian, George, James, and a few others whose names my Swiss-cheese mind cannot recall at this moment -- I have much larger responsibilities to my wife and myself.

You see, my wife and I are much preoccupied with life's endgame and God's summons, so I cannot in good conscience use time each day concocting insignificant postings and engaging in pleasant, time-consuming discussions. Yes, blogging, such a pleasant diversion from life's challenges, must be abandoned.

Well, there you have my final posting. Now without further feckless babbling, I must respond to God's summons and turn my attentions to other matters.

Carpe diem!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Crime-detective-mystery fiction is now on the menu

Good afternoon, friends. In my previous posting, I announced a suspension of blogging activities; that information was predicated upon the R&R travel plans my wife and I had made for the next two weeks.

Well, reality, that monstrous beast, has raised its ugly head once again, and our travel plans have been postponed (because an acute onset of my wife's chronic medical condition has trumped all plans for a while), so I guess I will for better of worse persist in blogging here for the foreseeable future.

But, beyond making the foregoing announcement, I want to explain where I will be going in my reading and blogging:

Crime-detective-mystery fiction is on the menu.

What do I mean by that statement? Well, in the coming weeks and months, even though I realize any plans for the future might be folly, I want to attempt (again) a systematic reading and discussion of the history of crime-detective-mystery fiction.

Let me begin by sharing this background information:

In March of 1841, Graham's Magazine published Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the first of his five detective stories (including "The Mystery of Marie Roget," "The Gold Bug," "The Purloined Letter," and "Thou Art the Man"); considered together, Poe's five stories -- his tales of ratiocination as he called them -- are widely understood by many readers to have established the conventions of character and narrative formats which have determined the conventions of crime-detective-mystery fiction in the last 176 years.

So, where I should begin my systematic reading plan seems obvious:

I will begin with Poe's five stories. And I will preview the next posting (one in which I will focus on "The Murders in the Rue Morgue") by making this argument:

The story, whatever its merits might be, has almost no value as a story about crime because the story's value can be found elsewhere.

With that as the enigmatic, provocative opening gambit, I turn the discussion over to you. Perhaps you will have some thoughts about my argument, about Poe, about crime-detective-mystery fiction, or about something else that suits your fancy.

So, what's on your mind?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Speaking of challenges -- "temporarily out of service"

My previous posting features a poem by Emily Dickinson, one in which the challenges of a person's existence are explored. Well, speaking of challenges, I must go on a much needed "spring break" from blogging because I -- continuing to live the myth of Sisyphus -- will be "temporarily out of service" for an indefinite period of time beginning tomorrow morning. And so it goes.

Emily Dickinson and the challenge of existence

First there is this from Emily Dickinson:

     To be alive—is Power—
     Existence—in itself—
     Without a further function—

     To be alive—and Will!
     'Tis able as a God—
     The Maker—of Ourselves—be what—
     Such being Finitude!

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

What do I understand when I read this poem? I read that there may be no afterlife and no higher power, which means people in the here and now are responsible for making the most of their own finite, everyday lives. Indeed, because life on earth might be all there is, giving oneself over to an omnipotent force somewhere beyond the self might be little more than surrendering to irrational personal insecurities and exposing the limitations of oneself. In other words, carpe diem!

Well, that is my creative reader-response to the poem. I might be quite wrong. In fact, there may be difficult-to-detect ironies in Dickinson's poem that I am not comprehending; in that case, because I often do not "see" Dickinson's ironies, my reading above would be completely wrong. However, tomorrow I might read the poem and respond differently. That, my friends, is often the challenge to me when I read Emily Dickinson's poetry. No reading is absolute and immutable. 

Does any of this make sense? What do you think?


Monday, March 20, 2017

Crime and punishment in the story of Cain and Abel

Here is an excerpt from an essay by Elie Wiesel:

"Cain and Abel: The first two brothers of the first family in history. The only brothers in the world. The saddest, the most tragic. Why do they hold such an important place in our collective memory, which the Bible represents for so many of us? Mean, ugly, immoral, oppressive—their story disturbs and frightens. It haunted mankind then and still does, working its way into our nightmares.

At first we become attached to Cain. He shares with his younger brother, Abel, the generous idea of offering gifts to the Lord. But for this, Abel might never have felt the need to do the same. For reasons the text does not bother to explain, however, God accepts the gift from Abel after refusing the gift from Cain.

An unjust Creator of the World? Already? How can we understand this favoritism? What did Abel do so great, beautiful or praiseworthy as to merit the divine sympathy denied to his brother? Cain, innocent victim of unprecedented heavenly discrimination—how can we not wonder about his fate?"

Read the rest of Elie Wiesel's important essay at this link.

* * * * *

And here is a personal postscript:

I am convinced that the story of Cain and Abel has important lessons for all of us, and Elie Wiesel's brilliant exegesis gives us much to ponder. However, I would add one more important point. Notice that God's punishment of Cain did not include a death penalty. If the first, most unforgiveable murder did not merit capital punishment, why should human beings now support or impose the death penalty on anyone? Yes, I think that is an important lesson in the story of Cain and Abel.

Well, now, what do you think?

Spring and All -- something for the vernal equinox

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

Today is the first day of spring, the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The Earth is tilted on its axis, so as it travels around the sun each pole is sometimes tilted toward the sun and sometimes tilted away. It is this tilt that causes the seasons, as well as the shortening and lengthening of daylight hours. On this day, the North and South Poles are equally distant from the sun, so we will have almost exactly the same amount of daytime as nighttime.

     Emily Dickinson said:

"A little Madness in the Spring / Is wholesome even for the King."

     Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

"Spring still makes spring in the mind,
When sixty years are told;
Love wakes anew this throbbing heart,
And we are never old."

     Mark Twain said:

"It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want - oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!"

* * * * 

And there is this poem, one that means the most to me on the first day of spring:

Here is a selection from Spring and All by William Carlos Williams (1923).

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast -- a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines --

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches --

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind --

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined --
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance -- Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken

* * * * *

Personal Postscript:

When I think of poems about spring, I almost always think first of the foregoing by William Carlos Williams. The poem's dramatic juxtaposition of "the contagious hospital" -- a scene of despair and death -- and the signs of renewal in the "sluggish dazed spring" leave me disturbed and hopeful; yes, for me, that paradox -- promise of renewed life in spite of the threatening presence of death -- speaks volumes about the human condition.

Well, now it is your turn. What poem about "sluggish dazed spring" do you think is most worth remembering today?


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Looking for Lilith -- the female night demon

Let's talk about Lilith. No, I do not mean the character portrayed by Bebe Neuwirth in Frasier (the TV series). I am talking about the one who is (sort of) in the Bible. Well, let me explain.

You see, I once heard the name Lilith mentioned in connection with Adam (normally associated with Eve and the Garden of Eden), but I had trouble finding her in the Bible because I was looking in all the wrong places. Now I have tracked her down. 

First, here is a bit of whimsy:

Lilith and Adam
fought night and day in Eden.
Now he is with Eve.

                                          * * * * *

Now, more seriously, there is this excerpt from an interesting article:

One talmudic reference claims that people should not sleep alone at night, lest Lilith slay them (Shabbath 151b). During the 130-year period between the death of Abel and the birth of Seth, the Talmud reports, a distraught Adam separates himself from Eve. During this time he becomes the father of “ghosts and male demons and female [or night] demons” (Erubin 18b). And those who try to construct the Tower of Babel are turned into “apes, spirits, devils and night-demons” (Sanhedrin 109a). The female night demon is Lilith.

Read much more about Lilith and the rest of the fascinating story, via this link.

Biblical origins of pi?

Do you want to know more about pi and its ancient history, including Biblical background? 

Consider this:

Calculating the value of pi has been a puzzle for millennia. One of the earliest implied values is given in a Biblical passage describing the construction of a huge basin for Solomon’s Temple: “Then [Hiram of Tyre] made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high. A line of thirty cubits would encircle it completely” (1 Kings 7:23). In other words, pi = 30÷10 or 3.

Read more about it here.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Abraham's Curse - a book review

This review is reprinted from my 2008 original at BookLoons. Read the reprint below or read the original posting at BookLoons via this link.

Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam  by Bruce Chilton (Doubleday, 2008)

Let's face it, violence is ubiquitous and persistent throughout human history, and the violent impulse has appeared in many forms, including but not limited to 'a knife thrusting or slashing, punches thrown, a firearm discharged, or an explosion detonated.' Bruce Chilton, author of many scholarly articles and books, including the acclaimed Rabbi Jesus and Mary Magdalene, now offers a fresh and disturbing perspective on violence, the behavior (arguably the unique province of humans) that has been a part of every society, beginning with mankind's earliest primitive beginnings and continuing through the present as a frightening religious conflict threatens to engulf the world.

Chilton begins his persuasive argument in Abraham's Curse - a provocative work of religious scholarship - by offering a powerful analysis of the famous Abraham and Isaac story as it is found in Genesis 22. The story of Abraham's absolute obedience of God's command to sacrifice his innocent son Isaac, as most readers of the story would agree, is one of the most disturbing of all Biblical stories; after all, at least three important issues arise (and remain disturbingly unresolved) in the story. First, readers must confront the question about why God would order Abraham to kill his beloved son (a child who had represented an important covenant between God and his loyal servant Abraham). Second, and perhaps more challenging, readers must deal with the horrifying problem of why Abraham would so willingly and so quickly acquiesce to the bloody sacrifice of a small child. And a third issue arises when we more closely examine the thoroughly unsettling fact that in some interpretations of the ancient story, Abraham actually killed his son.

The Abraham and Isaac story is much more than an idiosyncratic ancient tale of obedience and sacrifice in an early monotheistic society; it is representative of ancient traditions in which sacrifices in the name of religion (even the actual sacrifices of children) were common and accepted practices in societies (which is born out through the author's presentation of anthropological evidence). More significantly, as Chilton carefully explains in his stimulating argument, the Abraham and Isaac story serves as the template for understanding beliefs, teachings, and behaviors that have dominated societies for all of recorded history since the era of Abraham; in fact, by thoroughly understanding what is at stake in the Abraham and Isaac story, we as readers can more correctly understand a wide range of seemingly disparate historical events: the crucifixion of Jesus, the martyrdom of Christians (and other religious adherents), the Crusades of the middle ages, modern world wars, militant Zionism, Islamist suicide (homicide) bombings, the 9/11 attacks upon the United States, and American invasions of Kuwait and Iraq.

Chilton carefully makes the brilliant case that the Abraham and Isaac incident was something much more significant that an ancient, primitive aberration of otherwise sensible human behavior. The incident, in fact, serves as an example of religiously motivated violence that enables readers to more clearly understand that the sacrifice of children (either with Abraham on Mount Moriah in the name of Yahweh or with warriors on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq in the defense of the Christian west against the inscrutable zeal of radical Islam), has been, remains, and will always remain 'a fundamental part of our lives and culture.'

Here is the bottom line: You could read hundreds of books that explain war and violence (especially current events) in terms of politics, economics, geography, and (or) religion, but you will not find a better book than the extraordinarily well-written and thoroughly fascinating Abraham's Curse for giving you a more accurate and compelling perspective on violence (and sacrifice) in our past, present, and future as a frighteningly immutable and inescapable fact-of-life.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Important: ignore the previous, anticipate the next

Ignore last night's strange posting, which -- in any case -- I have deleted, and anticipate my future postings by answering this urgent question: 

                   What is the most important, most influential book ever written? 

This is not a trick question. 
I am very interested in your answers. 
Let the comments and discussions resume!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Scarlet Letter: background, statement, and challenge

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, was published (books by this author).

He was living at a time when there was almost no such thing as American literature, in part because the American publishing industry was so behind the times. In order to publish a book, a single printer would edit the manuscript, set the type, operate the printing press, bind the pages into books, and then sell them. It was remarkably inefficient, and so it was almost impossible to produce a best-seller, since so few copies were available to be sold.

But by 1850, books were being printed by machines. Long, continuous sheets of paper were fed into steam-powered printing presses, and factories of workers folded, pressed, and stitched the pages into books. The Scarlet Letter became the first great American novel in part because it was the first novel that could reach a large audience.

Hawthorne began the novel shortly after he was fired from his position at the Salem Custom House, and he spent almost all of his time working on it from June 1849 through February 1850. His wife, Sophia, said she was "almost frightened about it. ... He has written vehemently morning & afternoon & has not walked as much as he used to do. He has become tender from confinement & brain work."

Hawthorne had long been fascinated by America's Puritan history, especially since one of his own ancestors had been a judge in the Salem witch trials. Ten years before starting The Scarlet Letter, he had read a historical account of a woman who had to wear the letter A on her chest as a punishment for adultery. He used that woman as the main character of the novel, and he named her Hester Prynne.

He finished writing the book on February 2, 1850. He was exhausted and felt sick from spending so much time indoors, without exercise. The next evening, he read the conclusion to his wife; he said, "It broke her heart, and sent her to bed with a grievous headache, which I look upon as a triumphant success."

Hawthorne thought The Scarlet Letter was too bleak to be published by itself, and he planned to include it in a collection with a few other short stories. His publisher thought it was good enough to stand alone, but Hawthorne still had doubts about it. He wrote: "Is it safe, then, to stake the fate of the book entirely on this one chance? A hunter loads his gun with a bullet and several buck-shot. ... It was my purpose to conjoin the one long story with half a dozen shorter ones; so that, failing to kill the public outright with my biggest and heaviest lump of lead, I might have other chances with the smaller bits."

On March 16, 2,500 copies of The Scarlet Letter were published, and they sold out within 10 days. Critics loved it, and it established Hawthorne as one of the best writers in America. Henry James would later call it "the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in this country."

The Scarlet Letter begins with Hester Prynne emerging from the town prison as a crowd of people look on. Hawthorne wrote: "When the young woman - the mother of this child - stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A."
* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

Here is a provocative statement and challenge:

Statement: The Scarlet Letter remains a commonly assigned and taught novel in high school English classes, but I think that is a mistake for a number of reasons. 

Challenge: Why do you think I make such a loaded, cryptic statement?

(Hint: I spent fifteen years teaching English composition and introduction to literature courses to college freshmen and sophomores, and I have a good understanding of the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills among students who go beyond high school to college.)

So, am I right or wrong in my assertion?

We can discuss my assertion, the novel, Hawthorne, high school curricula, and more.

Tell me your thoughts.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

All roads lead to Rome

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

Today is the Ides of Marchthe day Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by conspirators in 44 B.C.E.

The ambitious Julius had a tense relationship with the Roman Senate. The Senate felt he was a threat to the Republic, and that he had tyrannical leanings. The Senate had the real power, and any titles they gave him were intended to be honorary. They had conferred upon him the title of "dictator in perpetuity," but when they went to where he sat in the Temple of Venus Genetrix to give him the news, he remained seated, which was considered a mark of disrespect. Thus offended, the Senate became sensitive to any hints that Julius Caesar viewed himself as a king or - worse - a god. The tribunes arrested any citizen who placed laurel crowns on statues of Julius, and Julius in turn censured the tribunes.

Senators Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus formed a group called the Liberators, who met in secret to conspire against Julius. Several assassination plots were put forward and rejected for one reason or another, but finally they settled on attacking him at a meeting of the Senate in the Theatre of Pompey. Only senators were allowed to be present, and knives could be easily concealed in the drapery of their togas.
In the days leading up to the assassination, several people warned Caesar not to attend the meeting of the Senate. Even his wife Calpurnia begged him not to go on the basis of a dream she had had, but Brutus convinced him that it would be unmanly to listen to gossip and the pleadings of a mere woman, so Julius set off. According to Plutarch, he passed a seer on his way. The seer had recently told Julius that great harm would come to him on the ides of March. Julius recognized the seer, and quipped, "The ides of March have come." The seer remarked, "Aye, Caesar; but not gone." When Julius arrived at the Senate, he was set upon by Brutus, Cassius, and the others, who stabbed him dozens of times. He slowly bled to death, and for several hours afterward, his body was left where he fell.

The assassination that was meant to save the Republic actually resulted, ultimately, in its downfall. It sparked a series of civil wars and led to Julius' heir, Octavian, becoming Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

And there is this from Marly Youmans' Rolypoke News:

13 Ways of Looking at Form

The double helix and the nautilus shell and spiral galaxies, the number of petals in a flower, the spiraling patterns on pine cones and pineapples: the presence of the golden ratio or Fibonacci sequence suggest that the energies of our universe tend toward shapeliness and order. So, too, poetry and stories lean toward form, and a vibrant connection exists between truth, beauty, and form. Tropes and forms can be generative, and a single writer working in multiple modes can find them to be transformative, as one form fertilizes another. The pursuit of shapeliness in fiction and poetry leads to questions about the connection between shapes and modes of thought, clarity of form vs. essential mystery, tightness of craftsmanship and formal invisibility, etc. A devotion to form and words may even lead to larger changes in form--in the maker, the culture, and Creation.

Then there is this personal postscript:

Marly contemplates the essence of form, we "celebrate" the Ides of March, and I am sent by both considerations on the road to Rome; I soon will be reading Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and I will be particularly interested in looking at the ways form and structure determine meaning in the famous play. 

(Note: Marly's musings and the snippet from The Writer's Almanac are typical of the breezy catalysts that send me off on new roads to new reading challenges; whirligig that I am, my itineraries and destinations are frequently subject to abrupt detours, but this different direction demands my attention. I wonder what I will discover along the way.)

Now, perhaps you have something to say about the Ides of March, Marly's musings, or my meandering. Let the conversations begin!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"The Snow-Storm" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

First, on the occasion of today's near-panic in the American northeast about a snow-storm, here is an 1841 poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson (a 19th century writer who deserves more attention now in the 21st century).

"The Snow-Storm"

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.
The steed and traveler stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind's masonry
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structure, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

Whatever else you might take from this blank-verse poem by Emerson, I invite you to consider carefully the final six lines; "Art" and "frolic architecture" become dominant concepts in the poem, expressions of transcendent Nature as an otherwise ineffable aesthetic which is paradoxically both superior to and compatible with human existence.

However, you might have either more of something different to say about Emerson's poem. So, now it is your turn.

And, by the way, I hope everyone in the northeast somehow survives the much ballyhooed snow-storm (which will probably be "full of sound and fury / signifying nothing").

Monday, March 13, 2017

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "darken'd veil"

First there is this, “Oh could I raise the darken’d veil,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne:

Oh could I raise the darken’d veil,
Which hides my future life from me,
Could unborn ages slowly sail,
Before my view—and could I see
My every action painted there,
To cast one look I would not dare.
There poverty and grief might stand,
And dark Despair’s corroding hand,
Would make me seek the lonely tomb
To slumber in its endless gloom.
Then let me never cast a look,
Within Fate’s fix’d mysterious book.

                                        Source: The Spectator (1820)

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

I should avoid judgments when it comes to poetry, so I will defer to others on that score, but Hawthorne's poem leads me to several simple conclusions:

(1) he chose wisely when he abandoned poetry and concentrated instead on prose fiction;
(2) a person's Fate, both fortunately and unfortunately (without intending any pun within that paradox), cannot and should not be foretold or previewed (i.e., simply take life one day at a time and hope for the best);
(3) I must read much more about and by Nathaniel Hawthorne in order to look beyond his "darken'd veil" to better fathom his apparent fascination with "Despair" and "gloom."

So, with those three conclusions offered for your consideration, I now open the door to you by asking, "What do you think?"

In the meantime, while waiting for your comments, I will be putting together my Nathaniel Hawthorne reading list. "Twice-Told Tales" will be a good beginning.

Also, if you are interested, you can read more about Hawthorne via this Poetry Foundation link.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Written on Sunday Morning"

First there is this from Robert Southey, "Written on Sunday Morning":

Go thou and seek the House of Prayer!
I to the Woodlands wend, and there
In lovely Nature see the GOD OF LOVE.
The swelling organ's peal
Wakes not my soul to zeal,
Like the wild music of the wind-swept grove.
The gorgeous altar and the mystic vest
Rouse not such ardor in my breast,
As where the noon-tide beam
Flash'd from the broken stream,
Quick vibrates on the dazzled sight;
Or where the cloud-suspended rain
Sweeps in shadows o'er the plain;
Or when reclining on the clift's huge height
I mark the billows burst in silver light.

Go thou and seek the House of Prayer!
I to the Woodlands shall repair,
Feed with all Natures charms mine eyes,
And hear all Natures melodies.
The primrose bank shall there dispense
Faint fragrance to the awaken'd sense,
The morning beams that life and joy impart
Shall with their influence warm my heart.
And the full tear that down my cheek will steal,
Shall speak the prayer of praise I feel!

Go thou and seek the House of Prayer!
I to the woodlands bend my way
And meet RELIGION there.
She needs not haunt the high-arch'd dome to pray
Where storied windows dim the doubtful day:
With LIBERTY she loves to rove.
Wide o'er the heathy hill or cowslip'd dale;
Or seek the shelter of the embowering grove,
Sweet are these scenes to her, and when the night
Pours in the north her silver streams of light,
She woos Reflexion in the silent gloom,
And ponders on the world to come. 

                               * * * 

And there is this personal postscript:

I also seek the answers to life's biggest questions in places beyond churches. The answers are there if you know how to look and listen. Perhaps Robert Southey can be your guide on this Sunday. He is a nearly forgotten poet who ought to be read by more people in these troubled times. 

What do you think?

Read more about Robert Southey in my review of W. A. Speck's highly recommended biographical study via this link to The American Spectator.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"Things to Think" by Robert Bly

First there is this from Robert Bly:

Think in ways you’ve never thought before.
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.

Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he’s carrying on his
A child of your own whom you’ve never seen.

When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.

"Things to Think" by Robert Bly from Eating the Honey of Words. © Harper Collins, 1999.

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

Sometimes I think I think too much. Some thoughts puzzle me, and some thoughts disturb me.

But this poem, with its lovely lyricism, especially the last line, reminds me of a haunting prayer and an unpleasant memory: "Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take."

Honestly, I prefer Robert Bly's poem to my childhood prayer. That nighttime ritual of prayer taught me that death was my constant companion. And I think that is a terrible companion for a small child. Shame on my parents for encumbering me with that terror. Perhaps I am being too harsh on them. They thought they were doing the right thing. In any case, death, thanks to many factors, is still a difficult companion for me as an adult.

Now, though, as I think more about Bly's poem, trying to step away from my childhood prayer, I wonder what you think. Yes, let's talk about thinking.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Wordsworth: A Life by Juliet Barker

Here is a reprint of my BookLoons review (original version linked here) of a highly recommended book: 

Wordsworth: A Life by Juliet Barker (Ecco, 2005)

Born in Cockermouth, England, on 7 April 1770, William Wordsworth - one of five children born to John and Ann Wordsworth - would go on to become the poet who is arguably the most important figure in English Romanticism. In the poet laureate's own words, written originally for The Ruined Cottage but later subsumed into The Prelude, the immensely important autobiographical poem ...

He was a chosen son:
        To him was given an ear which deeply felt
        The voice of Nature in the obscure wind,
        The sounding mountain and the running stream.
        To every natural form, rock, fruit, and flower,
        He gave a moral life; he saw them feel
        Or linked them to some feeling.

How Wordsworth became the chosen son and how he went on to achieve true greatness as one of the finest poets in the history of English literature is the story brilliantly and passionately told in Juliet Barker's wonderful new biography.

The story begins, naturally enough, with Wordsworth's childhood, the formative years filled to overflowing paradoxically with both stifling sadness and boundless joy that Wordsworth would later poetically allude to when he famously declared that 'The Child is the Father of the Man.' Throughout his formative years as a young student with demanding school-masters at Hawkshead Grammar School and during his unorthodox studies at St. John's College (Cambridge), Wordsworth - as carefully documented and argued by Barker - impressed everyone with his streaks of 'obstinacy and defiance' and his commitment to become a person who 'read more, reflected more, felt more, and settled into habits more promising' even though Wordsworth's family - particularly his beloved sister Dorothy - became increasingly concerned (and disappointed) about young William's indecisiveness about his vocation.

During Wordsworth's critically formative years in the 1790s, the energetic young man traveled twice to Europe, met and had a relationship with Annette Vallon (the mother of Wordsworth's illegitimate daughter Caroline), and reunited with Dorothy from whom he had been separated since childhood because of foster-care placements with relatives (and from whom he would never again for any significant period of time be separated). Wordsworth also during this period, perhaps largely due to Dorothy's influence, finally settled upon a vocation: Eschewing all other practical options urged upon him by his family, Wordsworth would become a poet.

Equally significant during the 1790s, Wordsworth was reintroduced to two people whom he had met only briefly years earlier: Dorothy's close friend Mary Hutchinson (who would become Wordsworth's wife); and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the friend and poet with whom Wordsworth collaborated on Lyrical Ballads (1798), one of the most curiously conceived and remarkably original publications of Wordsworth's career as a poet (and, of course, monumentally significant in the history of English Romanticism, especially when viewed in light of the central poem in Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth's manifesto, the strikingly creative and extremely significant Tintern Abbey).

Beyond the publication of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth in the remaining half century of his life would experience more, achieve more, and influence others more than I could possibly recount in the brief space allotted to me in this review. So, while I could go on and write more about Wordsworth's life and times, doing so here and now would merely be feeble paraphrase of Juliet Barker's magisterial biography.

No amount of effusive praise (which I could - at considerable length - justifiably lavish on Barker's fine work) would be adequate. Wordsworth : A Life is more than a comprehensive outline of the great poet's life and works. It is a remarkably adroit and vivid portrait of places and people, art and politics, culture and commerce during a tremendously important period of English literary and cultural history; and Juliet Barker's clear prose, richly detailed images, easy-flowing narrative, and carefully considered and well-placed excerpts from Wordsworth's (and others') writings combine to make this highly recommended book a very pleasurable and informative experience. If you care at all about Wordsworth, poetry, or literature, you cannot afford to miss this book!

* * * * *

And here is a personal postscript:

When I divide Wordsworth's poetry in two halves -- early and late -- and I am a devoted "fan" of the first half but not too enthusiastic about the second half. Moreover, if I were forced to choose my favorites among English Romantic poets, I would have to put Wordsworth in second place behind John Keats; the mad genius William Blake on some days forces Wordsworth into third place on my list.

But, of course, those rankings are personal, subjective preferences, and they have little or nothing to do with the relative aesthetics merits and poetical skills of those poets; I do not think I am qualified to make aesthetic judgments about poets and poetry, but I do know what I prefer reading, and personal preference is what really matters. Right?

Now, though, I open the floor to others' ideas: What are your opinions?