Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Two Drovers

The Two Drovers, by Sir Walter Scott

Some time ago, Scott's short story "The Two Drovers" was recommended to me as a way to step into the world of Waverley.  I've read Ivanhoe, but so far my (miniscule) efforts to  get interested in the Waverley novels have come to naught.  I think this is partly because I thought I had to start with the first one, and really I should start with Rob Roy or Heart of Midlothian, something like that.  Anyway, while I was looking for some Romantic stuff to read, I found "The Two Drovers" in that trusty old Norton anthology.  It's also found in Chronicles of the Canongate with two other stories.

Statue of a Scottish drover

Two drovers are setting off with their herds from the border of Scotland.  They'll walk to Lincolnshire to sell the cattle, and every night they'll rent fields along the way for pasturage.  Robin Oig is a Highlander, well-regarded and of a proud family, and he is good friends with the younger Englishman Harry Wakefield.  They often travel together.  This time, though, there is an altercation, and their differing cultural temperaments prevent a reconciliation.  Uh-oh.

Scott's idea in this story is to compare Highlanders, Lowlanders, and English--their differing traditions and cultures.  I guess you'd call it cultural psychology?  Both men are playing fair according to their lights, and yet one of them ends up dead.  Just how does that happen?

I suppose Sir Walter Scott is the preeminent English Romantic novelist.  England produced a lot of Romantic poets, but not so many novelists; they tended to go dark and Gothic.  (I'd certainly call Gothic a sub-set of Romanticism, though, so here I mean non-Gothic Romanticism, and oh dear this paragraph is out of control.)  Anyway, what with Ivanhoe and all those Scottish dramas, we've got some solid Romantic material here.

May will be Transcendentalism.  I'm afraid I don't like Transcendentalism, but I will try.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Some Wordsworth

Selections of poetry by William Wordsworth

I thought I would read some poetry by one of the quintessential Romantic poets, so I broke out my trusty Norton and chose a few pieces by Wordsworth, whose name is synonymous with Romanticism and sentiment.  I think he's the only one who lived long enough to make everybody tired of him while he was still around.  I tried to pick poems I've never read before, or at least ones that weren't all marked up in my book.

Tintern Abbey, certainly a place to visit
Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey has Wordsworth re-visiting the spot after a five years' absence.  He falls into a meditation on how often he has refreshed himself with memories of this spot, and how he has changed from a boy to a young man, and how now, in maturity, he does not just take in the scene with his senses, but adds his reason to his feelings.  Now, he not only loves what he sees, but uses it as his spiritual and moral anchor.
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,--both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
The "Lucy poems" are a series of short lyrics about Lucy (or, once, an unnamed 'she').  My book says this is not the same Lucy as in "Lucy Gray," which is a poetic account of a real incident in Germany.  In these poems, Lucy is a lovely innocent country girl who lives in some secluded spot, and dies young.  They are all mourning lyrics.  The most famous you will recognize:
She lived unknown, and few could know
   When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
   The difference to me!
The Ruined Cottage was written in 1797 and revised a few times after that.  Eventually it became Book I of The Excursion, but I don't have the whole thing; I just have a version of the Ruined Cottage dating from 1799, before it was expanded and put into the longer work.  This is supposed to be one of Wordsworth's very best pastoral poems, but it is a little different than the usual--it's melancholy, and forms a protest against undeserved suffering.  What do we do with the fact that so many people endure so much through no fault of their own?

The story is that the poet is traveling on foot and meets a fellow walker near an empty and ruined cottage.  His companion is older and once knew the inhabitants of the cottage.  He tells the story of Margaret and her husband, cheerful hard workers with two pretty children--until there were two bad seasons and a war together.  One piece of bad fortune followed another and the whole poem is a litany of good people brought low despite all their efforts.
O Sir! the good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust
Burn to the socket. Many a passenger
Has blessed poor Margaret for her gentle looks
When she upheld the cool refreshment drawn
From the forsaken spring, and no one came
But he was welcome, no one went away
But that it seemed she loved him. She is dead,
The worm is on her cheek, and this poor hut,
Stripp'd of its outward garb of houshold flowers,
Of rose and sweet-briar, offers to the wind
A cold bare wall whose earthy top is tricked
With weeds and the rank spear-grass. She is dead,
And nettles rot and adders sun themselves
Where we have sate together while she nurs'd
Her infant at her breast.

The only time I studied Wordsworth in school was in a class that surveyed, I think, late 17th to early 19th century English literature.  The professor was, as he put it, "a Marxist, of course," which was pretty funny considering it was about 1993 and Marxism had never been less popular.  For some reason he preferred us to read prose, so we had to read all these essays by Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and only a few of the most famous poems.  As a result, I am familiar with something like two poems each, but I've read Shelley on the necessity of atheism, Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (ugh), and Wordsworth's long Preface to Lyrical Ballads (but not most of the actual ballads).  I am grateful to Byron and Keats for not producing any boring prose on the superior sensibility and sensitivity of the poet...but I did have to read John Stuart Mill on What is Poetry?  if you can believe it.

Wordsworth is most famously associated with the Lake District, where he was born and where he lived from 1799 on.  That's in Cumberland.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

William Blake: Selections

Some things by William Blake

For this month's Romanticism theme, I thought I'd start at the beginning, with William Blake--especially with some things he wrote in the 1790s.  I've read Songs of Innocence and Experience a few times, and various other bits and bobs--Jerusalem of course--but I had never read these sort of mythic pieces, long poems or whatever they are.   Blake etched and printed these as illuminated books, as he did so much of his writing.  (I must confess that though I know I should properly read them in the watercolor-painted images, I always find that very difficult.  It's hard on the eyes!  So, Norton Anthology it is.)

 The Book of Thel is a mythic story about Blake's favorite theme of innocence and experience.  He was working on this at about the same time as the poems.  Thel is an airy spirit dwelling in "the Vales of Har," --at least, it's hard to tell.  She might be an unborn soul, or a desire not yet materialized.  I like the unborn soul theory myself, but at any rate she has not yet achieved real existence; she lives in a state of innocence, unable to understand physical life or death.  Thel meets a Lily of the Valley and a Cloud, who try to explain to her how happy they are in their places; she should be too.  But Thel longs for real experience; she is unfulfilled as she is.  She then meets a Clod of Clay--physical substance-- which introduces her to the Worm (her unborn child?).  The Clod doesn't know much, but invites her to try physical life.  In a short coda, Thel questions the senses and, frightened, flees back to her airy but unsatisfying shelter.

  Visions of the Daughters of Albion is another illuminated book, composed a few years later, featuring a very different heroine.  Oothoon, "the soft soul of America," is very much looking forward to experiencing life and love.  She sets off to meet her lover, the Atlantic Ocean, but is abducted by the villain in a thunderstorm, who robs her of her maidenhood.  Enraged, Theotormon (the ocean) ties them both up in a cave, and they all speak in turn.  Blake compares English people (especially women), oppressed by incorrect religion and society's mores, to the literally enslaved black people in America.  Oothoon, being America, is a revolutionary spirit who longs for freedom for both, and is seen as a black woman herself.  It's very strange, and moderns probably don't think much of the comparison.  Blake was really opposed to society's rules, to dogmatic and oppressive religion, to the subjugation of women, and to slavery.  He finishes off with a line he uses more than once: "...every thing that lives is holy!"

 I found the Marriage of Heaven and Hell even more confusing than the other pieces, though my book calls it "the most immediately accessible" of them.  Ha.  It also says it's "deliberately outrageous," and that's for sure!  Blake reverses much of the orthodox Christian vocabulary, and makes angels the villains, or at least a bunch of hypocrites.  Devils represent action, energy, and freedom.

Blake presents a series of vignettes--"argument"s, dialogues, "memorable fancies" which are kind of like visions, and more.  He reads the Proverbs of Hell, meets Isaiah and Ezekiel, and has an angel take him to Hell, which is only such when the angel is present (after a labyrinth of odd images representing the twisting of religion).  He even finds a skeleton in a mill which "was Aristotle's Analytics."  (In other words, Blake doesn't think much of logic.)  Finally, there is "A Song of Liberty," which ends "For every thing that lives is Holy."

I'm not sure what to make of all this, except that Blake had some really unusual ideas for his day--or any day, for that matter.

 Blake certainly fits right into Romanticism--well, better than anywhere else, at least.  He was a strange guy.  But in his love of nature and the world, his emotionalism and disdain for cold logic or philosophy, his belief in imagination as a purifying and supernatural good, and his mysticism, he is a Romantic.  Everybody should try a bit of Blake sometime.

He mostly lived in London, with a short stint in Sussex.  That would hardly seem to count, so I guess I'm out of luck for a new county.

Can You Forgive Her?

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

 Happy 200th birthday, Mr. Trollope!  I've read two novels this month and very good they were too.  Can You Forgive Her? is the first in the Palliser series, which is six books long and has a lot of politics in it.  I'm not sure how interested I am in the politics, but I loved Can You Forgive Her? and so I'm planning to read the rest of them too.

Alice Vavasor is engaged to be married to a perfect paragon of a man, Mr. John Grey of Cambridgeshire.  He is honest, kind, calm, respectful, and intelligent.  Alice rather feels in fact that he might be a bit too perfect to live with, and she allows her cousins Kate and George Vavasor to fan those doubts until she doesn't know what she thinks, except that when older people try to tell her what to do, she rebels.  Alice thus gets herself into the worst of muddles, making me wish to take her away for at least six months to someplace--a full-time job in retail, perhaps--where she will be completely distracted and no one will talk to her about boys.  Alice needs some perspective!  The title question is whether you, the reader, can forgive Alice for being so completely muddled for so long.

However, this is a 700+-page novel, so there is plenty of room for other plots.  Lady Glencora, pressured into her marriage with Mr. Palliser, is unhappy in her new life and headed for trouble.  George wants to run for Parliament, and he's sure to get in for Chelsea, if only he can come up with the cash.  Kate spends some months in Norfolk with her aunt, Mrs. Greenow, a pretty, wealthy, and shrewd widow with two men hoping for her hand.

 I just love Trollope, and now I love this novel.  For quite a while there in the middle I could hardly put it down, it was so exciting.  Although long!  And the story takes a while to get started.  This is not the title to pick if you're looking to give Trollope a try; it's more for the established fan.  Somebody else said that it takes a good 150 pages to really get going and I found that to be true--and well worth it.

This novel is long and complex and takes place in several locations, including London, Barsetshire, Norfolk, and Switzerland, but the Vavasor seat in Westmoreland is an important spot, so I'm going to count it for Westmoreland.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Dean's Watch

newly back in print!
The Dean's Watch, by Elizabeth Goudge

It's Elizabeth Goudge Week, and I've already finished a book!  This is the first of her "cathedral" books; it's set in about 1870 and is based on Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.  It took me a little while to get into it and figure out the shape of the narrative, honestly, but after a while I really got into it and read a huge chunk yesterday afternoon.

We have two protagonists, opposite yet parallel.  Isaac Peabody is a little, nervous clockmaker--a great craftsman, but prone to bouts of depression.  Adam Ayscough is the Dean of the Cathedral; one of the most eminent men in the city, yet miserable because he wants nothing more than to serve and truly connect with the people of the city, which his crippling shyness and intimidating appearance make almost impossible.  The Dean's watch--an actual watch--becomes the catalyst for a friendship between the two men that makes it possible for a lot of fairly miserable people to be rearranged into a pattern of peace and happiness, and finally for the Dean's watch--his calling to have the people of the city in his care--to be fulfilled in the way he wishes.

An interesting thing in a Goudge novel is that virtually no one, no matter how villainous, gets a comeuppance.  Nobody gets what they deserve; they invariably get something much better, and even the most awful people get some easing of their burdens, some way to be softened and become a bit better.  They don't usually repent completely and become wonderful people--she's more realistic than that even when writing a fairy tale. 

I quite liked The Dean's Watch.  Thanks to Lory for hosting this week, which prompted me to find a copy!  I have one or two other Goudge books from the library, so we'll see if I can manage another one.

Yeah, I'm going to need to visit this...

This book is based on the real-life Ely, so it counts for Cambridgeshire.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Dr. Wortle's School

Dr. Wortle's School, by Anthony Trollope

This was my first choice for Anthony Trollope's 200th birthday month, partly because my other choice was Can You Forgive Her?  and Dr Wortle is much shorter, so I knew I could read it in the time.  Sure enough, I'm over halfway through Can You Forgive, and I'm loving it but I don't think I'll be done by the end of the month!  Anyway, I read Dr Wortle in about two days; I couldn't put it down.  This novel has a really boring title, but it's a very good read.

Trollope tackles a moral question that people ran into more often before the days of fast communication, Internet, and credit cards.  What do you do when you discover that you're an accidental bigamist?

Mr. Peacocke is a classical scholar, newly appointed at Dr. Wortle's exclusive boys' prep school.  He has lived in America for the past several years and has brought his lovely American wife back to England, and they are well-liked but oddly reclusive.  Then Mrs. Peacocke's rotten brother-in-law shows up to try to blackmail them, and the secret is revealed; her first husband was not dead (as they believed) when she married Mr. Peacocke.  For several years, the Peacockes have lived in an intolerable moral dilemma: should they part, which would leave Mrs. Peacocke to starve, or should they continue to live together despite not being married?

None of this is really a spoiler; it's the setup for what Trollope is interested in, which is how to deal with the situation.  Another, more melodramatic author might have made the dreadful secret the point of the plot and used it as the climax, but Trollope wants to talk about what happens when honest people find themselves in an awful situation through no fault of their own. 

The Peacockes are a lovable, admirable couple.  Mr. Peacocke is Trollope's ideal husband, I think, and I love him.  Mrs. Peacocke is less of a personality; she has one and all, but her troubles have so weighed her down that it's hard for her to shine.  There are a lot of other important players, too.  Dr. Wortle, of course, has a lot of influence (pay attention to him; he's something of a self-portrait) and his wife isn't necessarily on the same page as he is.  Neighbors' reactions are examined closely; there's a lot of moral reasoning and judgement going on here (on Trollope's part) and not all of the neighbors are acting as they ought to.  Also, I think Trollope does kind of hint that while the Peacockes live together, they are not living completely as man and wife.

The resolution and tying-up of plot strands is too short and pat.  This isn't one of the best Trollope titles ever.  But I enjoyed this lesser-known novel quite a bit, and would recommend it to people wanting to give Trollope a try but intimidated by the giant chunksters he produced so often.  If you're already a fan, be sure to pick this one up someday.

Oddly, in the last week I've run into two more plots that mention an Enoch Arden kind of theme.  

O informs me that Dr. Wortle's school is based on Lowick in Northamptonshire.


Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht

Hey, everybody--I've been reading a good bit, but blogging has been just about impossible lately.  Still, I've got plenty to tell you and I'm determined to have my say for Elizabeth Goudge Week (starts today!) and Trollope's birthday month (go enter the giveaway!) before it's over.

And now, to Bertolt Brecht's famous play, Galileo...

I've figured it out.  It's all Brecht's fault.  I blame him.  Or at least partly.  It's Brecht's fault that everybody thinks that medieval people were anti-science and all that.  Because he wrote this play, which shows Galileo kind of knuckling under to the evil Catholic Church because of cowardice, and we've all seen that scene acted out.... 

But!  Brecht wasn't the least bit interested in showing a historically accurate Galileo.  In fact, he happily gets a whole lot about Galileo's actual life quite wrong.  What Brecht was interested in was using the Galilean legend to comment on the modern world--in the first version, Europe in the 1930s, and later, post-WWII world.  The second version is called the 'American' version and is what I read.

As a result, I had a hard time enjoying this play.  This is entirely my own fault; lots of people read Galileo and don't worry about stupid stereotypes about medieval people.  Oh well, at least I read it.

Grumble: just yesterday I was going through some new books at work, and there was a very pretty children's book about astronomical discoveries, Copernicus and so on.  Just to see, I looked up Giordano Bruno, and sure enough, he was described as a "scientist" burned alive because he accepted the Copernican theory.  Ahem.  Bruno was not a scientist.  He was a contrarian in almost every way, and liked heliocentrism largely because he was into neo-Platonism and sun-worship, not because he had done the math and weighed the evidence and thought it was a better descriptive model than the Ptolemaic.  But that wasn't why he got killed by the Inquisition; there was a whole lot more to it than that.  Obviously they shouldn't have burned him, but good golly, get your facts right.

Friday, April 10, 2015


Sanaaq, by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk

This book is one of the perks of my job.  Now that I get to buy literature, I can spend time searching for books from all over the world, and I can find neat stuff like this!

Sanaaq is an Inuit novel, the first written in the language.  It started off as a vocabulary exercise.  In the early 1950s, a priest studying Inuttitut asked 22-year-old Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, a respected member of the community, to write down some phrases for him to learn.  Instead of making a vocabulary list, Mitiarjuk starting writing little vignettes about Inuit life.  She invented characters, gave them a story, and over a period of years wrote an entire novel--without ever having read a novel in her life.  She re-invented the novel, in fact.

This is the story of the young widow Sanaaq, her young daughter Qumaq, and the people around them.  They go about their everyday lives, hunting, building, and producing just about everything they use.   There are accidents, marriages, good days and bad, and every so often the changing background of Inuit life shows up in encounters with the qallunaat (white people, literally Big Eyebrows, which is an excellent name)--missionaries, hospitals, and work away from home.

Nappaaluk's writing is economical and energetic, with a lot of dialogue.  There is not a lot of dwelling on emotional development or deep thoughts; it's there, but she puts it into a sentence or two instead of a whole page.  All the Inuit terms for objects and relationships are left in--that was the original point, after all, and is an integral part of the novel--so be prepared to look up a lot of words in the handy glossary.

It's a very cool read.  I enjoyed it a lot and recommend it.  Besides, can you resist that cover?  No, you can't.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Between the Woods and the Water

Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I've been putting this book off for a while.  I loved the first book of the three, A Time of Gifts, so much, but it also filled me with longings for travel (in Europe, in the 30s); so I was really looking forward to this one, but also saving it for a treat.  And it really was a treat.  It was a lovely vacation of a book.

Fermor spends the whole book in Hungary and Romania.  It's summer and he spends weeks at Hungarian manors, soaking up history, friendship, language, and fun.  Sadly, at 19 he felt that this was kind of cheating on his trip's rules, and he didn't keep his journal as assiduously as he should have, but he recreates a beautiful summer with lovely and interesting people.  All the while, the reader knows that within a very few years, Hungary will be conquered and all of this ruthlessly stamped out.

In Romania, Fermor tramps through endless forests, meeting all sorts of people and thinking about ancient Romans, Crusaders, and other historical figures.  This is just as wonderful-sounding as Hungary, in a different way. He ends by seeing some cities by boat and then traveling down the Danube to the Iron Gates, which are these huge stone cliffs on either side of the river.  All the wilderness he saw there is now drowned under a water reservoir built for Yugoslavia, though.  And Bulgaria is where he'll go next.

Romania, Iron Gates
 He's always describing all the different people he meets, who belong to all these different groups and religious sects and races.  And there's a lot of history, just sketched in so you know a bit of what's happened in the past.  It's all so beautifully rendered and sounds so wonderful.  You want to go and see it, and at the same time you feel terrible for all the awful things that have happened since.  Much of it just isn't there anymore.  But it's good to read about what once was and know.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The White Goddess

My 14yo asked me to hide the cover
The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, by Robert Graves

Oh, wow.  I could talk about this fabulously nutty book all day!  I had no idea when I picked it up what I was getting into.

The short version: Graves was looking for evidence of a European-wide goddess-worshiping  Ur-religion that he believed existed before all that male god patriarchy stuff came along.  He found his material in myth and poetry, and claimed that bards and poets disguised their lore by deliberately mixing it up.  All true poetry is based on the Triple White Goddess as Muse, and no monotheist can be a true poet.  Graves, being a true poet, realized all this through poetic intuition.

Now the long version: This is 500 extremely dense pages of speculation about myth, poetry, and ancient tribal movements, presented as plain fact deduced by intuition and research.  It's from the same school The Golden Bough, but Graves felt that Frazer hadn't gone nearly far enough.  And he goes very far indeed.  I'm not learned enough to be able to poke holes in the gigantic concoction of myth and cuckoo theory that Graves pours down on the reader's head, but from what I can find out, he was making most of it up.

The basis for much of this book is Graves' reading of early medieval Welsh poetry by Gwion/Taliesin in the Red Book of Hergest. Mind you, Graves cannot read Welsh; he is depending on a mid-Victorian translation that is admittedly a bit fuzzy. He then assumes that the poem is encoded to hide sacred mysteries, rearranges it, and finds what he wants to find. His authority to do this is that he is also a poet.  Out of this poem he digs a tree-alphabet and calendar, coordinated so that each month has a sacred tree, color, animal, letter, and number which can be arranged in a diagram around the entrance of a dolmen.  He does the same for the Middle East, sort of, switching trees to suit the climate.

One version of the diagram
As he does all this, he merges all the goddesses you've ever heard of into innumerable aspects of the Triple Goddess, who is the moon.  She is also five-fold and nine-fold--in fact there are few numbers and fewer animals that are not sacred to her and symbolic of some aspect of her.  Gods get the same treatment: Bran is Saturn (but not Cronos!), Arawn is Mercury, and so on, but eventually they are all condensed down into a twin-god that is the Goddess' lover and child.

Graves came right out and said that all his insight, the whole book, came from...poetic inspiration and intuition. He knows he's right about all of it because it all fits together, and also he set himself a riddle (the 666 one from Revelation) and solved it in a whole new way. Then he narrated a dream-vision he had in which two ancient Greco-Romans conversed about the meaning of the Pelops myth, Pallas Athena, and the Christian fish symbol.

That's the thesis, pretty much, of the book.  Graves wanders all over the place for his material, so it's a very diffuse book and I found it difficult to pick a clear argument out of all the stuff.   And just about everyone* read this book--a lot of them thought it was fabulous.  There are clear echoes of Graves'  White Goddess theories in a lot of 20th-century fantasy, and he was hugely influential in the whole area of Celtic lore.  Susan Cooper outright lifted some of the poetry for her Dark is Rising sequence.

Now, do not think that Graves thinks that the days of Goddess-worship were all peaceful and lovely.  No.  There was a lot of blood and killing.   But Goddess-worship is way better anyway, and Europeans, having some sort of genetic or cultural memory that has lasted millennia, will never be happy or satisfied until they go back to it.

Oh, and he's very irritating about quotations and attributions.  He tosses off all these statements but gives no proper attributions, so you can't  track them down.  Somewhere near the beginning, he quoted Giraldus Cambrensis' book on Wales--the one I just read--and the passage was familiar to me, but I couldn't find it without practically re-reading the whole book--and I knew which book it was!  Graves certainly didn't tell.  There are no footnotes whatsoever (a point of pride for Graves) and you're on your own if you want to find anything.

There are so many quotations that are just gold (often comedy gold), I can't put them all in.  You should see all the little sticky marks sticking out of my copy.  Here are a few:

It will be objected that man has as valid a claim to divinity as woman. That is true only in a sense; he is divine not in his singular person, but only in his twinhood. As Osiris, the Spirit of the Waxing Year he is always jealous of his weird, Set, the Spirit of the Waning Year, and vice-versa; he cannot be both of them at once except by an intellectual effort that destroys his humanity...and this is the fundamental defect of the Apollonian or Jehovistic cult. Man is a demi-god: he always has either one foot or the other in the grave; woman is divine because she can keep both her feet always in the same place, whether in the sky, in the underworld, or on this earth. Man envies her and tells himself lies about his own completeness, and thereby makes himself miserable; because if he is divine she is not even a demi-goddess -- she is a mere nymph and his love for her turns to scorn and hate.
Woman worships the male infant, not the grown man: it is evidence of her deity, of man's dependence on her for life. She is passionately interested in grown men, however, because the love-hate that Osiris and Set feel for each other on her account is a tribute to her divinity. She tries to satisfy both, but can only do so by alternate murder, and man tries to regard this as evidence of her fundamental falsity, not of his own irreconcilable demands on her.

 The result of the test [666 riddle] satisfied me, and I hope will satisfy others, that I had not slid into certifiable paranoia.
The revolutionary institution of fatherhood, imported into Europe from the East, brought with it the institution of individual marriage. Hitherto there had been only group marriages of all female members of a particular totem society with all members of another; every child's maternity was certain, but its paternity debatable and irrelevant. Once this revolution had occurred, the social status of woman altered: man took over many of the sacred practices from which his sex had debarred him, and finally declared himself head of the household, though much property still passed from mother to daughter. This second stage, the Olympian stage, necessitated a change in mythology.

 Hymns addressed to the Thunder-God [any male god], however lavishly they may gild him in Sun-god style--even Skelton's magnificent Hymn to God the Father--fail as poems, because to credit him with illimitable and unrestrained power denies the poet's inalienable allegiance to the Muse; and because though the Thunder-god has been a jurist, logician, declamator and prose-stylist, he has never been a poet or had the least understanding of true poems since he escaped from his Mother's tutelage.
...true poets do not find it consistent with their integrity to follow Virgil's example.

..woman is not a poet; she is either a Muse or she is nothing. This is not to say that a woman should refrain from writing poems; only, that she should write as a woman, not as if she were an honorary man...[she] should, I believe, either be a silent Muse and inspire the poets by her womanly presence...or she should be in turn Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd, and the Old Sow who eats her farrow...
The religious concept of free choice between good and evil, which is common to Pythagorean philosophy and prophetic Judaism, developed from a manipulation of the tree-alphabet. In the primitive cult of the Universal Goddess, to which the tree-alphabet is the guide, there was no room for choice...

*I do mean everyone, including the Doctor, since Graves calls time "an unaccountable wibble-wobble" !

Monday, April 6, 2015

R. U. R.

R. U. R. by Karel Capek

I was really looking forward to reading this play.  I have a collection of four Capek plays here and plan to read them all; they sound intriguing.  I first got hooked by R. U. R., when I found out that not only did it introduce the word and concept of robot* to the world, it also invented the robot apocalypse!

The story is that Reason's Universal Robots is a successful company that produces robots--mostly-organic workers with limited intellect and no will or emotion who are grown and constructed.  The owner dreams of a day when there will be such abundance in the world that there will be no poor and no-one will have to work hard for a living--the robots will do it all.

Lady Helen, young and elegant, comes to visit on an ideological crusade to educate the robots; she feels certain that if they are treated well and taught, they will be people.  She is disappointed to find that the robots are totally unresponsive to emotional persuasion and don't understand what she wants.  But she stays to marry one of the directors.

Years later, there are robots all over the earth, but the consequences for people aren't as idyllic as hoped.  And a change has been introduced into the robots' design...

It's a neat play and I'd love to see it performed.  Nearly a hundred years after Capek wrote it, R. U. R. is still an interesting meditation on the purpose of life and the implications of technology.

*In case anybody ever needs you to know this, it wasn't Karel who invented the word; it was his brother Josef, who often wrote with him.  Robot comes from the Russian for work, which is pronounced rabotaRabotnik would be 'worker.'

The Classics Club Spin Number...

Is 2!

Therefore, I shall be reading Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev.  I'm very excited!  I have no real idea what the novel is about, besides the obvious, but I enjoyed The Chosen very much and have been wanting to read more Potok. 

I suppose it's a little ironic that I loaded my slate up with long, difficult books and got the one title that will probably be a relatively fast read. 

Hope the rest of you Spinners got a good one too!

It was a good thing I checked for the Spin result fairly early this morning.  Just afterwards, the power went out...for hours.  An insulator at a large power station blew and the whole county went dark.  All is now well, but I'm glad I remembered to check before that happened!

Meanwhile, in other news, I've chosen to read Dr. Wortle's School for Anthony Trollope's 200th anniversary.  I also have the first Palliser novel, in case I suddenly get loads of time.  Dr. Wortle's School is in fact going very quickly and I'm loving it so it could happen.

I've also been trying to pick out some Romantic literature for Fanda's challenge.  I took a look through my Norton's and thought I'd read...some Blake that isn't Songs of Innocence and Experience, and a short story by Sir Walter Scott, and maybe some other things.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Essay on Man

Alexander Pope
The Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope

For Fanda's Literary Movements challenges, I wanted to read something else Enlightenment-style before moving on to the Romantics.  I decided to read Alexander Pope's poem, The Essay on Man.

Pope was known as a writer, but the Essay established him as a philosophical poet as well.  He wanted to express his theory of Man's place in the universe.  This is a long poem, divided into four parts, each tackling a different side of the question, and of course it is written in Pope's trademark heroic couplets.  (I'm always amazed at how much the poets of this period managed to produce in just one poetic form.  Then everybody got completely and utterly sick of heroic couplets and we hardly ever see them again, except in bad amateur schmaltzy poetry.)  It was to have been quite a bit longer and cover more material, but that never happened.

The first epistle is the most famous and makes the argument that God and the universe are good, that Man's place in it is the right one, and that "whatever IS, is RIGHT."  Human beings are not clever enough to be able to design a better universe, but are prideful and foolish enough to think they could.  There are a lot of lines in here that are generally familiar, including my favorite joke of the piece:
Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.
And ending the epistle with
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
The second epistle asserts that man can attain a virtuous life if Reason controls the passions, and contains a passage still quoted today:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
The third deals with man in society, and the fourth with happiness and virtue.

Pope's optimistic philosophic poem was very popular all over Europe.  The ideas in the poem were not original; they were all current and popular in Enlightenment thought.  Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant all thought it was great. Voltaire later changed his mind and wrote his satire Candide to counter these optimistic arguments, putting a rather mindless version of them into the mouth of Pangloss. 

It's probably easy to dismiss this optimism stuff as clueless blundering, but considering Pope's extremely difficult personal circumstances, I think it's pretty impressive that he thought so well of the universe.  Pope was no stranger to suffering, and he was no pampered aristocrat.  He was Catholic in England at a time when Catholics had few rights, and he was of middle-class origins--he became wealthy through his writing.  Having suffered tuberculosis of the spine as a child, he was less than five feet tall and had severe skeletal malformations along with many lifelong health problems.  In this state, he found it difficult to be taken seriously or to attract women.  That would be enough to embitter anyone, and certainly he had a fund of bitterness; but he also espoused this philosophy of optimism and became famous all over Europe for his work.

I enjoyed the Essay years ago when it was required reading in college, and I thought it would be fun to revisit it.  I had forgotten that I'd only read the first book and part of the second (oh, Norton anthology, how much you have to answer for), so I downloaded the whole thing and made sure to read all of it this time.  I enjoyed it again, and it put me in the mood to read all sorts of other things in my anthology...but then life intervened and I was lucky to get to read the whole Essay.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Upcoming events: a bunch of cool stuff!

There are some fun things coming up in April and May....

Lory at Emerald City Book Review had the brilliant idea of hosting an Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week!  This is fabulous news to Goudge fans like me.  I don't know whether to re-read an old favorite, or track down one I haven't read yet, or why not do...both?  Head on over to Lory's place and see if you can find an Elizabeth Goudge title to enjoy!

And all of April will be Anthony Trollope Month, for Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting a 200th birthday party for him!  I love Trollope and would very much like to be in on this event, but I've also discovered that I may have a little trouble getting the book I want in time.  I've put a hold on it though, so wish me luck.

In May, Cleo at Classical Carousel will be hosting a month-long readalong of Beowulf This will give us all plenty of time to read it carefully--it's not that long--and I think I will read the new Tolkien prose edition, which has been waiting patiently by my bedside for me.  I've read the Heaney version a couple of times already, and I may do it again, but I also have a different poetic translation around here that I might try.  Because, why not enjoy ALL the Beowulf

I certainly hope I can participate in all of these.  Because they are all fantastic.  Yay for book bloggers!

The Zhivago Affair

The Zhivago Affair: the Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee

The novel Dr. Zhivago has an amazing history!  Boris Pasternak was a beloved Russian poet, and he had this tendency to slither out of committing himself to Soviet demands.  He would fail to sign denunciations and so on, but Stalin kind of liked him anyway so he was relatively safe for a long time.  When Pasternak decided to write a novel about the civil war after the Bolshevik revolution, though, and he was putting in all this stuff about the value of the individual, Soviet authorities decided that they were not going to publish anything like that.  As a result, this highly-anticipated masterwork was smuggled out of the USSR (in a move of incredible slickness and luck) and published abroad.  And then the CIA decided to publish it too!

This is a really interesting history, covering Pasternak's life (and many loves), reactions to Dr. Zhivago, the Nobel Prize that sort of wasn't, and the consequences inflicted on Pasternak and his loved ones.  It's good stuff.

 Pasternak himself is quite a character, though he must have been pretty awful to live with.  Apparently he was incredibly charming, but on the other hand, he went through two wives and a mistress, and he was a little too assured of his own genius for that to be very charming. 

I had no idea of the stuff the CIA got up to during the Cold War.  That was fascinating reading, and worth reading all on its own.  They had figured out that they couldn't do anything terribly overt (like, say, saving oppressed Hungarians) without sparking a nuclear war, so they put an incredible amount of energy into...spreading ideas.  The CIA printed and smuggled as many books behind the Iron Curtain as they could--classic and modern literary works--because Soviet citizens were avid for them, and because the CIA wanted to spread ideas around.  Any ideas that involved the possibility for people to disagree and yet live together.  It also sponsored cultural events of all kinds, and ran Radio Free Europe and so on.  (I'm sure there was plenty of spying too, but this was focused on cultural stuff.)

I enjoyed reading this a lot.  And to finish, my favorite line:
...the conversation seemed to achieve the remarkable feat of leaving Trotsky a little flabbergasted.