Monday 25 April 2016

Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

"I might as well tell you ----- this affair of Emil's was a great surprise to me."

As part of the Children's Classic Literature Event hosted by Amanda at Simpler Pastimes, the read-along for this year is Emil and The Detectives. I've been wanting to read this German translated children's book for years, so I was very glad when it was chosen.

Emil lives with his widowed mother in the small town of Neustadt.  As the story opens, he is bound for Berlin to visit his uncle, aunt and grandmother who live on 15 Schumannstraße. His mother works very hard as a hairdresser and has saved 140 marks, which she entrusts to Emil to give to his grandmother.  Emil is a good boy and determined to carry out his mother's request, but little boys can get tired on long train rides and Emil falls asleep.  When he awakens, the money he'd pinned inside his pocket is gone!  At first distraught, Emil spies the thief and takes off after him.  Thus ensues a riotous romp through the city of Berlin with Emil, the thief, and numerous boy detectives, all of whom are determined to help Emil with his plight.  Will Emil recover his stolen cash, or learn a valuable lesson instead?

In spite of the Emil's adventurous exploits and suspenseful situations, he also shows a deep understanding of human nature:

"Emil had known for a long time that there are always people who say, "Ah, well, things used to be much better."  So he paid no attention when anyone announced that formerly the air was much more healthful or that the oxen had bigger heads.  Because usually what they said wasn't true, and they belonged to the sort who refuse to be satisfied with things as they are for fear of becoming contented."

Emil also notices the differences in a large city with regard to the lack of closeness of community:
"The city was so big and Emil was so mall.  And no one cared to know why he had no money and why he didn't know where he had to get off.  Four million people lived in Berlin, and not one of them was interested in Emil Tischbein.  No one wants to know about other people's troubles.  And when anyone says, "I'm really sorry about that," he usually doesn't mean anything more than, "Oh, leave me alone!"

Here are a few of the places Emil visited in pursuit of the thief and justice:





This book was absolutely delightful.  Being translated from the original German, it had a somewhat different tone, but the action and the repartee from the characters leaves the reader both in suspense and laughing.  There are wonderful contrasts of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the young and the old, and the importance of loyalty, duty, perseverance and family.  It is a clever and adventurous tale, both endearing and diverting.

The author himself appears in the story, as an unidentified man who assists Emil with money, then he later returns to take part in the mystery.  Erich Kästner was a poet, author, screenwriter and satirist, and when he wrote Emil and the Detectives in 1928, the book sold two million copies in Germany and was translated into 59 different languages.  With the advent of the Second World War, Kästner opposed the Nazi regime but chose not to go into exile.  He was interrogated many times, and personally watched Goebels book-burning of May 10, 1933, his books being part of the kindling.  His home was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1944, and finally in 1945 he obtained permission to travel to the Tyrol for a fictitious moving filming, instead managing to avoid the Soviet assault on Berlin.  He was still in Tyrol at the close of the war; when he returned to Germany he moved to Munich where he lived until his death.

Friday 22 April 2016

The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway

"The Western Plains of New South Wales are grasslands."

Imagine a desert, dust from eroded topsoil, heat making images like a blurry glass as it bakes the ground.  Succulents dot the landscape like drops of batter on a cookie sheet, while bushes eek out a meagre existence on the landscape.  Earth meets sky, the rays of the sun unrelenting, yet there is life, animals and birds, and what's more, land, where a settler could come to scratch out a modest existence.  Into this landscape came the parents of the author, the Kers, her father's investment in 18,000 acres of drought-stricken land taking their every penny.  With no surface water, and only a few clumps of eucalyptus, they began their married life.

Jill Ker, the narrator, was the youngest of three children, with two older brothers named Bob and Barry.  Together they worked on their parents' farm, Coorain, an Aboriginal word meaning "windy place".  When the boys departed for boarding school, Jill, was left as the only child on the farm, but her life was filled with meaningful work, and many consolations:

"All in all, what might on the surface appear like a lonely childhood, especially after the departure of my brothers, was one filled with interest, stimulation, and friends.  It lacked other children, and I was seven before I even laid eyes on another female child.  Yet this world gave me most of what we need in life, and gave it generously.  I had the total attention of both my parents, and was secure in the knowledge of being loved.  Better still, I knew that my capacity for work was valued and that my contributions to the work of the property really mattered.  It was a comprehensible world.  One saw visible results from one's labors, and the lesson of my mother's garden was a permanent instruction about the way human beings can transform their environment.  My memories of falling asleep at night are to the comfortable sound of my parents' voices, voices which conveyed in their tones the message that these two people loved and trusted one another ..... It was an idyllic world."

However, Ker's contented and peaceful existence was soon to be shattered. Unremitting drought hit the area ---- years of it ---- and she had to watch the struggle of her parents as this calamity threatened to overwhelm them.  Finally, a tragedy occurred that sent her and her mother from Coorain into the city of Sydney, where Ker finally was able to attend school.  Misfortune still followed at their heels, as Ker watched her mother diminish from a confident, capable woman, to a bitter, dependent widow whose expectations of her daughter were not only unrealistic, but burdensome.  The last part of the book was filled with Ker's attempt to break free of the domination, and forge her own way, not only as an adult, but as an academic woman in the world of male Australian academia.  When she finally applied for a position in the more liberal United States, Coorain was still in her blood, the attachment to it never waning.

source The Age

Ker uses such lyrical, melodious language when describing Coorain and her childhood there, but upon leaving her home to begin a new life in the city, the narrative becomes more closed and technical and certainly more psychological.  Her struggles with the dominance of her mother and her attempts to carve out an identity as a female scholar become the primary focus and the book loses much of its charm.  Ker is quite forceful in maintaining that academics are the source of her life.  She becomes oddly annoyed with one boyfriend who wishes she would spend time with him, rather than her studies.  It's only when she meets a man who realizes that he'll come second in their relationship and supports her in her studies, that she feels she can accept him as a partner.  With the valuable relationships within her own early life, it is puzzling how Ker can put a "thing" before personal relations, but perhaps the tragedies in her life numbed some of her initial healthy human emotions.

On a note of interest, Coorain was still being run as a farm until at least ten years ago.  I found this article, where the recent farmer revealed that as of 2006, the farm had been in the throes of a drought that was the worst in 60 years, causing him to wonder if he could continue.  He did say that Jill Ker Conway still showed an interest in the farm, calling him regularly for updates:  "Once you have lived this life, it is in your blood forever."

In any case, I'm quite happy to be whizzing through these last biographies.  The initial biographies in this project were often focussed on people --- even the semi-reclusive Montaigne had a deep interest in them ----, whereas these last biographies emphasize ambition, personal success, revenge, and have a very empty echo within their pages.  I am not left with a very uplifting feeling.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Metamorphoses by Ovid

“My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
but since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes: may
the song I sing be seamless as its way
weaves from the world’s beginning to our day.”

Publius Ovidius Naso was born in Sulmo, east of Rome in the year 43 B.C.  As a son of an upper middle class family, his father sent him to be educated in Rome to distinguish himself in a career in law or government.  Ovid was known as an exemplary rhetorician and worked at minor magisterial posts before quitting his public career to pursue poetry. Immediate success followed his first published elegy and by 8 A.D., the year in which Metamorphoses was published, he was one of the foremost poets of Rome.

Suddenly, in the same year, the emperor Augustus Caesar banished Ovid from Rome, and the poet went into exile in Tomis on the Black Sea.  The only clues we have to his exile is from Ovid himself where he refers to his carmen, or songs, and his error, or indiscretion.  Speculations abounds as to these two causes.  His poem Ars Amatoria, or The Art of Love, was a poetic manual on seduction and intrigue, which Augustus may have viewed as corrosive to the moral structure of Roman society, and may very well be the carmen of his sentence.  Rome, at that time, was experiencing a period of instability and Augustus was attempting to re-establish traditional religious ceremonies and reverence of the gods, encouraging people to marry, have children, and making adultery illegal.  Ovid's earlier poetry espoused extra-marital affairs and Metamorphoses is ripe with a very pronounced, and oftimes strange, sexual element in the myths recounted. The treatment of the gods is not reverential and perhaps it wasn't surprising that Augustus wished to rid himself of the popular poet.  Lamenting his exile in his poem Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (letters to friends asking for help with his return),  Ovid died in Tomis in 17 A.D.

Ruins of Tomis
source Wikipedia

Along with O at Behold the Stars, Cirtnece at Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices ... and Jean of Howling Frog Books, I began to read Metamorphoses in January and what a read it has been!  Here are links to my posts for all of the fifteen books of Metamorphoses:

Book I / Book II / Book III / Book IV / Book V / Book VI / Book VII / Book VIII / Book IX / Book X / Book XI / Book XII / Book XIII / Book XIV / Book XV 

In Metamorphoses (Metamorphōseōn librī), or Book of Transformations, Ovid relates over 200 transformations.  Composed in the epic meter of dactylic hexameter, as a whole, Ovid's tales don't appear to follow an obvious chronological order:  stories break off and are continued in other books; some stories wrap back around on themselves, there is a curious lack of important detail in some (which we know from other sources); and often there are stories nested within stories told in a media res format.  Even how Ovid relates his stories speak of flux and change.

The tales themselves offer a smattering of myths from Greek and Roman legend, including Cadmus, Perseus, Jason, Theseus, Hercules, the heroes of Troy and Julius Caesar, although the narratives can also include mortals and lesser deities.  Murder, rage, hubris, affairs, rape, and judgement of the gods abound in his tales, leaving the reader shocked, disgusted, enamoured, sad, engrossed, irritated, and often, conflicted; Ovid can provoke a myriad of emotions within the same story, evidence of the efficacy of his writing.

Ovid Banished from Rome (1838)
J.M.W. Turner
source Wikimedia Commons  

While Metamorphoses is our primary source for some myths, such as Apollo and Daphne, Phaeton, and Narcissus, the playful and ironic tone of the work suggests that we can't always take Ovid seriously in his delivery, and the myths themselves could have been subject to his alterations.  In addition, the work was set out in fifteen books, rather than the usual twenty-four of the common epic standard, and certain important names and actions are missing from very important narratives, such as Dido, queen of Carthage, Jason and Medea, the Trojan War, etc.  I can't help but feel that Ovid was writing with an agenda.  Was he perhaps attempting to "metamorphoses" the traditional epic poem, the traditional myths and the traditional religious tenor of Rome as well?

Ovid Among the Scythians (1859)
Eugène Delacroix
source Wikipedia

Yet in spite of the speculation, the graphic description, the sexual inferences, the gratuitous narrative and even the confusion, Metamorphoses is unparalleled as a literary adventure.  Ovid's work is certainly one that has a life of its own and its owner a share of its fame.  However, as the poem ends, Ovid reveals that fame and glory were his original intent.

" ..... But with the better part of me, I'll gain
a place that's higher than the stars: my name,
indelible, eternal, will remain.
And everywhere that Roman power has sway,
in all domains the Latins gain, my lines
will be on people's lips; and through all time ---
if poets' prophecies are ever right ---
my name and fame are sure: I shall have life."

While Ovid's works went out of fashion for a time, in the late 11th century classic literature gained a new life.  Ovid's writings began to have a significant influence on culture, the 12th century often being called The Ovidian Age.  As cathedral schools flourished in the early Middle Ages, Ovid's work was widely read as moral allegories, with added Christian meaning.  William Caxton published the first English translation of Metamorphoses in 1480, and the poet's influence continued, imbuing Shakespeare with many of his comparisons.  In fact, the many Ovidian allusions within Shakespeare's works are part of what makes it difficult reading for modern day readers, unless they are familiar with this work.  Ovid certainly has approached a fame and regard worthy of a great poet, and perhaps has vindicated himself within the realms of classic literature.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

The Jane Eyre Read-Along

Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice is hosting one of her excellent read-alongs, this time on the most wonderful classic, Jane Eyre.

If you haven't participated in one of Hamlette's read-alongs before, you are in for a treat. They progress at such a slow pace, that it allow the reader time to read deeply, mull over what they have read, and come up with insights that would have perhaps been missed with a quicker read.  When you finish, you feel like you know the book backwards, forwards, and upside-down.  They are so beneficial!

This read-along will begin on May 29th and proceed through the summer until we finish. Having just read Brönte's Villette and being less than thrilled with it, I'm looking forward to re-visiting one of my all-time favourites.

Please visit this page if you want to see how Hamlette's read alongs work, and then please join us May 29th.  It's an experience not to be missed!

Monday 18 April 2016

Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez

"I have taken Caliban's advice.  I have stolen their books.  I will have run of this isle."

With the first sentence, in his allusion to Shakespeare's, The Tempest, Richard Rodriguez sets the tone for his memoir, depicting his life as the son of Mexican immigrants.  Is he a monster, an outcast who will use his adversaries' own weapons to gain power, an identity, and a place in the kingdom?

An avid reader from a very early age, Rodriguez was what he called a "scholarship boy," earning accolades for his intellect throughout his formative years.  He received his Bachelor of Arts, Master's Degree and was pursing his Ph.D. when he dropped out of academia to pursue other avenues, finally working as a teacher, a journalist and a writer.  His biography, Hunger of Memory traces the paths of his journey, which took him from the life of an immigrant to his integration as an American citizen.

Each chapter is an essay, as Rodriguez first spoke of his childhood in Sacramento, California, and the beginnings of his education.  As child of Mexican immigrants, as soon as he left his parent's home to attend school, the institution exerted expectations that slowly began to separate him from the culture from which he had grown, and therefore, his parents.  He recalls with clarity all the differences between the world he knew as a young child and his new American educational existence, from the competing sounds of English and Spanish, to the contrasting experiences between his home life and his life outside his family circle.  Yet Rodriguez's observations of the transformation of the immigrant led him to criticize the tendency of schools to promote bilingual education so students were able to keep connected to their culture.  Instead, he states that the mere fact that the connection needed to be maintained, already implied that it was lost, and in Rodriguez's eyes, it was irrevocably irretrievable.  Proponents of bilingual schooling wanted at the same time to help students to gain skills to ensure their public success, but they also wanted to give students an individual identity apart from the public success.  Rodriguez maintained that you cannot have it both ways.  By helping an immigrant maintain a bilingual immigrant status, one merely reinforced the feeling of public separateness, preventing the immigrant from accepting and conforming to his situation.  He is unable to find his public identity.

Downtown Sacramento
source Wikipedia

Rodriguez also explored the challenges of being a "scholarship boy".  The praise that was earned through his admirable scholastic performances, became like a drug, although he made the ordinary classmates surrounding him uneasy.  He acquired the facts, but not the ability to use them.  However, he continued on, using education to re-shape his life.  It is yet another emphasis of the differences between his old culture and the new.

Raised as a practicing Catholic, church was a integral part of Rodriguez's life, yet in this area too, he laments the shift in its cultural existence.  Rather than the ceremonial church that he was raised in, worshiping as one with other believes, the church shifted to a more Protestant model, "modernized ... demythologized, deflated."  In the church, too, he went from a private experience within a public group, to a more communal celebration that curiously left him feeling more isolated.

"I miss that high ceremony.  I am saddened by inappropriate music about which it is damning enough to say that it is not good enough, and not even the best of its authentic kind --- folk, pop, quasi-religious Broadway show tunes.  I miss the old trappings --- trappings that disclosed a different reality ......"
"In the abandoned Latin service it was the priest alone who spoke the affirmation of faith.  It was the priest who said, 'Credo ....," using the first person singular.  The differences between the old service and the new can be summarized in this change.  At the old mass, the priest's Credo (I believe) complexly reminded the congregation of the fact that each person stands before God as an individual, implying at the same time --- because the priest could join all voices in his ---- the union of believers, the consolation of communal faith.  The listener was assured of his membership in the Church; he was not alone before God.  (The Church would assist him.)  By translating credo into the English first person plural, we believe, the Church no longer reminds the listener that he is alone ...... We believe.  We believe.  This assurance is necessary because, in a sense, it no longer is true ..... 
......  I would protest this simplification of the liturgy if I could.  I would protest as well the diminished sense of the sacred in churches today.  I would protest the use of folk music and the hand-holding.  Finally, I cannot.  I suspect the reason I despise the new liturgy is because it is mine ...."

In spite of his dislike of the new practices, curiously, Rodriguez takes responsibility for his part in their development.  Once again, public obligation is emphasized in this philosophy.

source Amazon

The last couple of essays were on Rodriguez's struggle with his colour, or "complexion", and lastly his final years of schooling.  He vehemently protested again affirmative action, or the preferrential treatment he was given as a minority student.  The benefits he, and other minorities, received were not in keeping with the spirit of the assistance; he was not in need  ---- the disadvantaged Americans where those who were poorly schooled in elementary and high school, many not even reaching the realms of higher education. While he spoke out against it at the time, he still partook in its benefits. Here, he asks for forgiveness from "those many persons whose absence from higher education permitted me to be classed as a minority student."

Finally, he revealed his struggles with his memoir, dreading the disapproval of his parents.  Rodriguez had learned to live a public life, but the private life of his upbringing, still conflicted with his reality.  On one hand, he appeared to have a yearning for what he had lost, and it wasn't clear if the value of what he had gained overrode it. A feeling of collision and urgency were always within the pages, the dichotomy of living in the tension of what we call "life".

Saturday 16 April 2016

An Anglo Saxon Riddle for Poetry Month

For April Poetry Month, I've been hunting for a poem, a haiku that I wrote when I was fifteen to post here as a personal poetry selection.  Well, so far I've had no luck finding it, but while searching I found a poem written by my daughter,modelled on the epic, Beowulf, so I thought I would post it instead.  She wrote it in grade 5.

An Anglo Saxon Riddle

What lives in the cool, clear whale-road
That scuttles, catching slippery sea creatures.
What do the Lords and Ladies of Spain eat
On their full-loaded tea-table.

Although hindered for lack of four feet,
This marvelous Master of the swan-road
Is a wonderful and agile athlete,
With quickness of the heath-stepper
And back like an aged tortoise-house

When the barnacled-prows enter onto
The glassy-dark water and catch this
Magnificent creature, it’s life soon ends
On a platter with a melted-milk churned bath
Of salty cream, and he thinks of his life
In the cool, clear, whale-road.


Since trying to follow the Anglo Saxon meter (which goes by stress-count [stressed syllables] rather than syllable count, which would be two main stresses in each half of a line) was beyond her at that time, instead she focussed on alliteration and kennings.

Kennings create expressive imagery, using compound words and phrases that identify nouns.  They are often colourful to generate evocative images in the mind of the reader. Because of their usual quality, kennings help the listener/reader to remember important happenings or people and also were used to avoid superfluous repetition, making the poem more developed and creative.

And as to the answer to the riddle, you can find it in the following paintings:

Nature morte au crabe (1643)
Pieter Claesz
source Wikimedia Commons

Breakfast with a Crab (1648)
Willem Claeszoon Heda
source Wikimedia Commons

Still Life (1655-59)
Pieter de Ring
source Wikimedia Commons

Tortue et crabe (c. 1656)
Paolo Porpora
source Wikimedia Commons

Still Life with shrimps and crabs on a tin plate (1641)
Alexander Adriaenssen
source Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer
source Wikimedia Commons

Thursday 14 April 2016

Metamorphoses ~ Book XV

Book XV

Myscelus / Pythagoras / Numa / Egeria & Hippolytus / Tages / Cipus / Aesculapius / Ceasar / Epilogue 

Claude Lorrain
source Wikimedia Commons
Numa becomes king of Rome, and since he has cemented the laws and customs of Rome, he now decides to study the laws of nature. Leaving Cures, he travels to Croton where an elder tells him the story of the founding of the city. Hercules on his way back to Croton, stopped at Cape Lacinium. As he grazed his cattle, he pronounced a prophesy that in two generations time, a city would rise on that spot, and it came to pass. Myscelus, son of Alemon, was born, loved of the gods.  One night as he slept, Hercules stood over him, commanding him to seek the distant Aesar.  Myscelus found himself in a terrible conflict.  It was forbidden him to leave his homeland on pain of death, yet Hercules had issued threats if he did not obey.  Myscelus called out to the gods for help and their vote freed him. Reaching Aesar, he established Croton, building walls about it as Hercules commanded, founding this Greek town on Italian soil.

Born on Samos, Pythagoras fled the tyranny of his island, preferring exile.  Drawing near to the gods, they gave him in his intellect, what nature had denied to sight.  He could speak of what governed the universe and was the first to condemn the eating of animals, calling it monstrous to let another die so you may live.  It is fine to kill an animal if it is spoiling your crops or dangerous, but for heaven's sake, don't eat it!  There is quite a diatribe supporting vegetarianism.  At the end, Pythagoras cautions:

"But if, in any case, your mouths still crave
the limbs of butchered beasts, then be aware
that you're devouring your own laborers."

You'll stumble around if you lack reason, but Pythagoras will enlighten you.

He goes on to explain his idea of the principles of the universe, examining how all matter is continuously changing; there is no death only transformation.  This great thinker provides us with many examples, from people, to landforms, to the heavens.  This is the most (dare I say, only) scientific part of Metamorphoses.

Pythagoras advocating vegetarianism (1618-20)
Peter Paul Rubens
source Wikimedia Commons

When Numa learns all he is able from Pythagoras and other great thinkers, guided by the Muses, he rules the Latin state with his wife, Egeria.  He teaches the people the art of peace, as all they've known is war, and upon his death the populous mourns.  Egeria flees to the woods in the Aricia valley.

Weeping Egeria is confronted by Theseus' son, Hippolytus, who urges her to stop her grieving.  He tells her of his father's wife, Phaedra, who tried to seduce him and when he resisted, told lies about him in revenge.  A fugitive, he fled to Corinth where he came upon an enormous wave which terrified his horses.  Hurled from his chariot and dragged, he went down into the kingdom of the dead, before his life was saved by Apollo's son, Aesculapius.  Diana hid him, renaming him Virbius in case he was recognized.  Egeria's suffering cannot even compare to his, but she continues to weep, her piteous grief transforming her into an eternal spring with the help of Diana.

Hippolytus (1859)
Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema
source Wikimedia Commons

In an Etruscan field, a clod of earth takes human form, the augur, Tages.  He taught the people of Etruria to read the future, and Hippolytus is also amazed at how Romulus' shaft sprouted into a tree when he placed it in the ground, offering shade to all.

Yet Hippolytus is dismayed by Cipus, who looks into the sea and views horns upon his head.  He is amazed, uncertain if the unexpected appendages augur good or evil.  An augur prophecies that he must go to Rome and rule the great city, however Cipus prefers exile to power.  He is banished from the city, but given a plot of land in consolation.

The Greek god of medicine Aesculapius
An horrendous plague breaks out in Latium with dead bodies rotting everywhere.  The people appeal to Phoebus but are told they need to seek Apollo's son, Aesculapius (see Metamorphoses Book II). Travelling to Greece, the Roman senators ask for the god to be dispatched to Rome, relating the circumstances.  The Greek elders are divided as to how to act, but at the temple, the god himself appears in the form of a serpent.  Joining with the Romans, the Greeks worship him and the snake, hissing a blue-streak, slithers onto the Roman ship, a clear sign as to his decision.  And so the snake/god comes to Rome, the plague is lifted and all are saved.

The deeds of Caesar won him great triumph and in the end he turned into a comet. Ovid spews sycophantic praise on the man and through him, August Ceasar, his "son", then he relates Caesar's demise.  An hideous crime .... a sorry death .... and Venus was distraught beyond grief.  Many signs and omens appeared to expose the plot but blood was spilled in the Curia.  Ovid then links Augustus' name with the great hero, Aeneas. One day Augustus will join his "father" in the divine realms.  Lots of spectacular rhetorical flourishes in this part, which are a bit much to take.

The Death of Caesar (1867)
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart

Ovid's tale is now complete but for his epilogue:

" ..... But with the better part of me, I'll gain
a place that's higher than the stars: my name,
indelible, eternal, will remain.
And everywhere that Roman power has sway,
in all domains the Latins gain, my lines
will be on people's lips; and through all time ---
if poets' prophecies are ever right ---
my name and fame are sure: I shall have life."

In parting, Ovid rather deifies himself, and at the same time, confirms Pythagoras' theory: things to not die, they merely metamorphose.

❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ 

The last few chapters of Metamorphoses certainly didn't compare to the rest of the book. They have a rather bland resonance to them, are even more uneven and disparate than the other books.  I did, however, find a quote from this book that is a wonderful description of the work as a whole:

since I am now well launched on this vast sea
and, under full sail, with kind winds, can speed,
I add:  in all this world, no thing can keep
its form.  For all things flow; all things are born
to change their shapes.  And time itself is like
a river, flowing on an endless course.
Witness: no stream and no swift moment can
relent; they must forever flow, just as
wave follows wave, and every wave is renewed.
What was is now no more, and what was not
as come to be; renewal is the lot
of time ....."


Egeria  ❥  cool, eternal spring
Caesar ❥  comet

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

"Begin here."

Introducing Journal of a Solitude, another out-of-order book for my WEM Biographies Project.  I'm finding the remaining biographies heavy on U.S. content, and being a Canadian I wasn't at all familiar with May Sarton.  Born in Belgium, when German troops invaded the country, Sarton's family fled to England, then to Boston, Massachusetts.  As a writer, she wrote a number of novels, poems and memoirs, mostly a commentary on her life and experiences on aging, friendship, depression, lesbianism, doubt, failure, the simple pleasures of life, and other personal musings.

Published in 1973, Journal of a Solitude is a response to her novel Plant Dreaming Deep.  Sarton stated that in the latter novel, people felt that in her they had found an intimate friend, but with Journal, she attempted to shatter that image and produce a reality of herself that was stark and intense, yet honest.  Sarton's initial description holds a sincere, startling, simple candor:

"I am an ornery character, often hard to get along with.  The things I cannot stand, that make me flare up like a cat making a fat tail, are pretentiousness, smugness, the coarse grain that often show itself in turn of phrase.  I hate vulgarity, coarseness of soul.  I hate small talk with a passionate hatred.  Why?  I suppose because any meeting with another human being is collision for me now.  It is always expensive, and I will not waste my time.  It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours.  It is then that images float up and then that I plan my work.  But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show.  I will make every effort to find out the real person, but if I can't, then I am upset and cross.  Time wasted is poison."

".... I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day, or one drink too many.  My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there.  I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.  I write too many letters and too few poems.  It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears ...."

The Common, Nelson, New Hampshire, 1914
source Wikipedia

Sarton's journal covers one year and gives the reader a warm, intimate view into her life in rural Nelson, New Hampshire.  As she paints her life with words, her thoughts go deep, exposing the beauty around her but also the turmoil inside her:

"I think of these pages as a way of doing that.  For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision.  I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation.  But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.  I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose ---- to find out what I think, to know where I stand.  I am unable to become what I see.  I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt, 'won't go,' or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person's face." 

In spite of her success as a writer, depression haunted Sarton; it was a companion that she could not seem to shake and she admits to thoughts of suicide:

"Cracking open the inner world again, writing even a couple of pages, threw me back into depression, not made easier by the weather, two gloomy days of darkness and rain.  I was attacked by a storm of tears, those tears that appear to be related to frustration, to buried anger, and come upon me without warning ........."

Yet, in spite of the adversity of her regular despondency, Sarton managed to decorate her life and the pages of her book with stories of the death of a friend, her bird, the battles with the neighbourhood racoons and her intense love of gardening.  The tales resonated with insight, as Sarton was always examining life.  Even the letter of a twelve-year-old girl, produced a philosophical rumination:

"In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having psuhed her to ask my opinion.  This child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think.  But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft.  Instant success is the order of the day; 'I want it now!'  I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines.  Machines do thing very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn't start at first try.  So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value."

While Sarton lived in solitude, she at times travelled for speaking engagements and in each place she received something to ponder, whether it was the struggle of women, the advent of materialism, or the sometimes suffocating pressure that life laid upon her in the form of human contact. The journal skips along from day to day, emotion to emotion, task to task, her reflections personal, yet one senses a soul reaching out for something just beyond its grasp.  I've read numerous works on religious contemplative living, and each has been rich with a vibrancy that is quite startling contrasted with the starkness of their existence.  Sarton's journal reverses this observation; her existence is filled with what she craves --- writing, gardening, solitude ---- yet, her inner soul lacks peace.

While Journal of a Solitude was a mildly enjoyable book for me, I can't say that I'm going to rush out and read another by Sarton.  Even though, there was intimacy in her words, I never really grew to know her, perhaps because she didn't seem to know herself.  The searching quality of the work brought a type of disquiet, and while I had empathy for her struggles, there was a melody of despair that hovered around her and echoed long after the book was done.  Life was an unconquerable bête noire for Sarton, ever present and often discouraging.  Which was all rather sad.

In this book, there is an enlightening reference to Virginia Woolf, of whom Sarton was familiar, perhaps illustrating the unusual temperaments of authors such as herself:

"When I was young and knew Virginia Woolf slightly, I learned something that startled me --- that a person may be ultrasensitive and not warm.  She was intensely curious and plied one with questions, teasing, charming questions that made the young person glow at being even for a moment the object of her attention.  But I did feel at times as though I were 'a specimen American young poet' to be absorbed and filed away in the novelist's store of vicarious experience.  Then one had also the daring sense that anything could be said, the sense of freedom that was surely one of the keys to the Bloomsbury ethos, a shared secret amusement at human folly or pretensions.  She was immensely kind to have seen me for at least one tea, as she did for some years whenever I was in England, but in all that time I never felt warmth, and this was startling."

Why are so many artists tortured souls?  Is it because of the solitude they need to hone their skills, and the lack of human contact diminishes their souls?  With their art, are they sharing of themselves, giving of themselves and therefore becoming less?  The act of creation should be life-giving to both the giver and receiver, yet in many cases, why does one seem to benefit and the other is hindered?  Or have I asked the unanswerable question?  Sarton didn't know the answer and I believe this question was one of many that haunted her through her long yet productive life.

Saturday 9 April 2016

Narnian Suite by C.S. Lewis

For my second poem during National Poetry Month, I read C.S. Lewis' Narnian Suite.

Narnian Suite


March for Strings, Kettledrums, and Sixty-three Dwarfs

With plucking pizzicato and the prattle of the kettledrum
We’re trotting into battle mid a clatter of accoutrement;
Our beards are big as periwigs and trickle with opopanax,
And trinketry and treasure twinkle out on every part of us –
          (Scrape! Tap! The fiddle and the kettledrum).

The chuckle-headed humans think we’re only petty puppetry
And all our battle-tackle nothing more than pretty bric-a–brac;
But a little shrub has prickles, and they’ll soon be in a pickle if
A scud of dwarfish archery has crippled all their cavalry –
          (Whizz! Twang! The quarrel and the javelin).

And when the tussle thickens we can writhe and wriggle under it;
Then dagger-point’ll tickle ‘em, and grab and grip’ll grapple ‘em,
And trap and trick’ll trouble ‘em and tackle ‘em and topple ‘em
Till they’re huddled, all be-diddled, in the middle of our caperings –
          (Dodge! Jump! The wriggle and the summersault).

When we’ve scattered ‘em and peppered ‘em with pebbles from our catapults
We’ll turn again in triumph and by crannies and by crevices
Go back to where the capitol and cradle of our people is,
Our forges and our furnaces, the caverns of the earth –
          (Gold! Fire! The anvil and the smithying).


March for Drum, Trumpet, and Twenty-one Giants

                  With strumping stride in pomp and pride
                  We come to thump and floor ye;
                  We’ll bump your lumpish heads to-day
                  And tramp your ramparts into clay,
                  And as we stamp and romp and play
                  Our trump’ll blow before us –
(crescendo)     Oh tramp it, tramp it, tramp it, trumpet, trumpet blow before us!

                  We’ll grind and break and bind and take
                  And plunder ye and pound ye!
                  With trundled rocks and bludgeon blow,
                  You dunderheads, we’ll dint ye so
                  You’ll blunder and run blind, as though
                  By thunder stunned, around us –
By thunder, thunder, thunder stunned around us!

                  Ho! Tremble town and tumble down
                  And crumble shield and sabre!
                  Your kings will mumble and look pale,
                  Your horses stumble or turn tail,
                  Your skimble-scamble counsels fail,
                  So rumble drum belaboured ---
(Diminuendo)     Oh rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble drum belaboured!

C.S. Lewis 
Poems (1964)

The Giant Antaeus (1868)
Gustave Doré
source Wikiart

There is not much information on this poem to quench our curiosity as to how it ties to Narnia.  Tirian in The Last Battle sings a short "Narnian marching song", very much like it:

"Ho, rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble
Rumble drum belaboured."

The Last Battle was finished in the spring of 1953 but not published until 1956 and Narnian Suite was written in 1953.  Perhaps Lewis simply attempted to take the original marching song and expand it.  In any case, it's all speculation at this point; I may come up with some reference to it as I read through Lewis' letters (yes, three huge volumes with a fourth soon to be published).

Does anyone think that this poem sounds very much like Tolkien's poems in The Lord of the Rings?  I do, but I am reading The Lord of the Rings presently, so perhaps I have that tone lingering in my head.