Thursday, May 26, 2016

Chi Wu-ch'ien: a poet

A Boat in Spring on Jo-ya Lake

Thoughtful elation has no end:
Onward I bear it to whatever come.
And my boat and I, before the evening breeze
Passing flowers, entering the lake,
Turn at nightfall toward the western valley,
Where I watch the south star over the mountain
And a mist that rises, hovering soft,
And the low moon slanting through the trees;
And I choose to put away from me every worldly matter
And only to be an old man with a fishing pole.

-- Chi Wu-ch'ien --
from The Jade Mountain
trans. by Witter Bynner from
the texts of Kiang Kang-Hu 

I read it, thought about it awhile, and went on to the next one.  I came back and read it again and then went on to another poem.  I came back again.  There is something here, but I cannot speak it and I cannot write it.

Make of it what you will. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Kenko: tricks the mind plays on us

No. 71

"As soon as I hear a name I feel convinced I can guess what the owner looks like, but it never happens, when I actually meet the man, that his face is as I had supposed.  I wonder if everybody shares my experience of feeling, when I hear some story about the past, that the house mentioned in the story must hare been rather like this or that house belonging to people of today, or that the persons of the story resemble people I see now.  It has happened on various occasions too that I have felt, just after someone has said something or I have see something or thought of something, that it has occurred before.  I cannot remember when it was, but I feel absolutely certain the thing has happened.  Am I the only one has such impressions?"

-- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness
Donald Keene, trans.

I think I am more text-oriented than visually-oriented, for I really don't attach a face to a name upon hearing it.  In fact, I am more likely to do this when I hear a voice on the radio or a phone.   And, seldom do I "see" a place that I think is just like a place that I already know, except in a very general sense.  There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare.

However, I do have the the deja vu experience occasionally, which is quite common as I think that most people I know have had this happen to them one or more times.  It's quite uncanny when it does, for I can never figure out when it may have happened and in some cases, it even appears to be impossible to have occurred.  


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Fergus Hume: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Fergus Hume
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

This is one for those of you who enjoy old and forgotten mysteries.  Fergus Hume certainly doesn't seem to be a household name, at least in the circle I bumble around in, and as for old?  Well, this book was first published 1886--yes, that's not a typo--1--8--8--6.  As you can tell from the title, it's a mystery involving a hansom cab, shades of Sherlock Holmes. It's set in Melbourne, Australia.

This is the cabbie's testimony, the driver of the hansom cab of the title. It's late at night, and he pulls up to two men, one of whom is very drunk. The drunken man suddenly lifts his face into the light, and the other recognizes him.  Disgusted he leaves.  Struggling, the cabbie finally gets the intoxicated man into his cab when the other man returns. He gets into the cab.  The cabbie drives off, and when the sober man gets off, he tells the cabbie to take the other man home.  When the cabbie gets to the destination, he discovers the man is dead and calls the police.

Detective Gorby of the Melbourne Police is assigned the case which sets up the first part of the novel as a police procedural.  We follow Detective Gorby as he follows up the clues and finally makes an arrest.

However, we haven't even come close to the halfway point, so obviously there is more to come.  There is and it's Perry Mason, or the Australian equivalent there of,  one Duncan Calton.  He takes on the defendant's case and begins his own investigation.

He comes up with some interesting bits of information but is stymied because he lacks the resources and the authority to really chase down those clues.  But, all is not lost, for Calton is shrewd, and  he knows something about the Melbourne PD.  There are actually two top detectives on the Force and Gorby is one of them.  The other is Detective Kilsip, and they hate each other.  This is not the friendly rivalry one might expect from comrades-in-arms but pure hatred.

Calton, the lawyer, takes his information to Detective Kilsip.  Kilsip believes that Gorby did arrest the right person, but there's this information given him by Calton.  Suppose there was something to this, and he could embarrass Gorby  by proving that Gorby had arrested the wrong man, and that someone else had committed the murder.  Calton now has the aid of one of the top detectives on the force.

It's a bit creaky here and there, but overall I found it an intriguing and perplexing and enjoyable read. There's also considerable humor here, some sly and some not so. 

According to the Intro, this was Hume's first novel and it was an instant success.  However, he went on to write another 140 novels, all of which were quickly forgotten.  Several of his books are available on-line, but I'm going to try the InterLibraryLoan method first.  I'm curious to discover whether this work was an accident or whether he was unjustly ignored.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Ray Bradbury: "The Night"

Folks, spoilers follow, so if you haven't read the story and prefer to read it with no foreknowledge, you should stop here.

As I've mentioned in the past, too many times I suspect, Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite short story writers, regardless of the genre. He is probably best known for his SF and fantasy tales, but many of his stories stray far afield.  This is an example of a tale of his that doesn't fit easily into any category, except that of an excellent story that makes its point quickly and clearly.  "The Night" (perhaps "The Ravine" would be just as appropriate) is a short and simple tale, one of those that many might complain that "nothing happens."

It's a warm summer evening in a small town.  Doug is an eight-year-old boy who has just returned from getting ice cream at the local grocery.  His mother is busy ironing.  They are the only ones in the house. Father is at a lodge meeting and won't be back until around midnight.  Skipper, Doug's older brother, is out in another part of town, playing with some friends. He is late and should have been home some time ago.

Just as Doug is getting ready for bed, his mother decides to look for Skipper.  They set out along the path that Skipper will probably take on his way back.  They drop down into a ravine and about half way through, they hear Skipper and his friends laughing and giggling.  She scolds him for being late and they return home. Doug and Skipper go to bed.  Shortly afterwards, father returns from his lodge meeting.

Did anything happen?

This story is included in the collection The Stories of Ray Bradbury which the unknown editor describes as Bradbury's  best one hundred stories  (there a couple of stories missing that I would include).  Why is this story included?

Perhaps something did happen, something that only Doug experienced.  While Bradbury can do the obvious monsters and demons and horrors with the best, what I like is his grasp of what goes on inside the characters.  Many times I have recognized myself in his tales, something that doesn't happen with most writers.  Perhaps the following quotation (my apologies for its length, but Bradbury says it much better than I could)  may explain why this tale was included as one of his best one hundred.  At least, I think so.

Doug and his mother are on the path, expecting to meet Skipper on his way back.   The narrator tells us:

"You are only eight years old, you know little of death, fear, or dread.  Death is the waxen effigy in the coffin when you were six and Grandfather passed away--looking like a great fallen vulture in his casket, silent, withdrawn, no more to tell you how to be a good boy, no more to comment succinctly on politics.  Death is your little sister one morning when you awaken at the age of seven, look into her crib and see her staring up at you with a blind blue, fixed and frozen stare until the men come with a small wicker basket to take her away.  Death is when you stand by her high chair four weeks later and suddenly realize she'll never be in it again, laughing and crying, and make you jealous of her because she was born.  That is death.

But this is more than death.  This summer night wading deep in time and stars and warm eternity.  It is an essence of all the things you will ever feel or see or hear in your life again, being brought steadily home to you all at once.

Leaving the sidewalk, you walk along a trodden, pebbled, weed-fringed path to the ravine's edge.  Crickets, in loud full drumming chorus now, are shouting to quiver the dead.  You follow obediently behind brave, fine, tall Mother who is defender of all the universe.  You feel braveness because she goes before, and you hang back a trifle for a moment, and then hurry on, too.  Together, then, you approach, reach, and pause at the very edge of civilization.

The ravine.

Here and now, down there in that pit of jungled blackness is suddenly all the evil you will ever know.  Evil you will never understand.  All of the nameless things are there.  Later, when you have gown you'll be given names to label them with.  Meaningless syllables to describe the waiting nothingness.  Down there in the huddled shadow, among thick trees and trailed vines, lives the odor of decay.  Here, at this spot, civilization ceases, reason ends, and a universal evil takes over.

You realize you are alone.  You and your mother.  Her hand trembles.

Her hand trembles.

Your belief in your private world is shattered.  You feel Mother tremble.  Why?  Is she, too, doubtful?  But she is bigger, stronger, more intelligent than yourself, isn't she?  Does she, too, feel that intangible menace, that groping out of darkness, that crouching malignancy down below?  Is there, then, no strength in growing up? no solace in being an adult? no sanctuary in life? no flesh citadel strong enough to withstand the scrabbling assault of midnights?  Doubts flush you.  Ice cream lives again in your throat, stomach, spine and limbs; you are instantly cold as a wind out of December-gone.

You realize that all men are like this.  That each person is to himself one alone.  One oneness, a unit in society, but always afraid.  Like here, standing.  If you should scream now, if you should holler for help, would it matter?"

This ordinary walk in a quiet town has turned into something else.  Is this a horror story?  Or a growing up story when Doug climbs another step towards maturity and most likely doesn't realize it?

Any thoughts? 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Baltasar Gracian: Let's sit this one out

Something to think about today.

No. 138
THE SENSE TO let things settle.  Especially when the public, or the private, sea  is  most turbulent.  There come whirlwinds into human traffic, storms of passion, when it is wise to seek a safe harbor with smoother waters: many times is an evil made worse by the remedies used; here leave things to nature, or there to God: the learned physician needs just as much wisdom in order not to prescribe, as to prescribe, and often the greater art lies in doing nothing; the way to quiet the turbulence of a mob is to withdraw your hand, and let it quiet itself, to concede today, may be the best way to succeed tomorrow; it takes little to muddy a spring, nor does it clear by being stirred, but by being left alone:  there is no better remedy for turmoil, than to let it take its course, for so it comes to rest of itself. 

-- Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom

I think today could certainly be considered turbulent times, especially in the political world.  The major conflict seems to be centered around Donald Trump.  The country seems polarized between the pro- and  anti-Trump forces.  Is Gracian saying we should disengage ourselves from the conflict and adopt a superior view from on high, being above the conflict?

I don't think so.  It is one thing to express one's opinion quietly and thoughtfully and quite another to engage in vicious verbal attacks, whether based on facts or rumors or just plain lies.  It is almost as though there are two distinct conversations going on: one conducted by those who speak or write quietly and rationally and the other by the most passionate adherents in both camps who spend their time shouting and yelling at each other, hardly bothering to listen to anybody else but their own voices. 

It seems to me that a particularly unwise action, one that has already resulted in so far only minor violence, is the appearance of anti-Trump demonstrators at his speeches.  What purpose is served by these counter-demonstrations at the time of the event?   There are strong emotions on both sides which are bound to flare up into violence given some small and probably trivial incident.  Is this what both sides want?

Some may argue that these demonstrations are necessary to show the strength of the feelings against Donald Trump.  Is this really necessary?  That the Republican Party itself is split for and against him, it's own presumptive nominee for president, should surely tell anybody that he is a controversial individual even in his own party.  Those feelings are strong enough for some to come out and directly oppose him, while others temporize by saying there are serious issues to be resolved.  In addition, there are those who have said that they will not attend the Republican nominating convention this summer.  Is it really necessary to engage in a direct confrontation at this time?

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXV

This quatrain was added in the Second Edition but had been removed by the time the Fifth Edition was published.  Frankly, I'm puzzled by it.


If but the Vine and Love-abjuring Band
Are in the Prophet's Paradise to stand,
    Alack, I doubt the Prophet's Paradise
Were empty as the hollow of one's Hand.

The problem, for me anyway, are the verbs adjure and abjure. Adjure means to encourage or earnestly entreat others to do something, almost a command, while abjure means to forbid or to abstain from something.  I have two copies of The Rubaiyat and in one, the verb is adjure for Quatrains LXIV  and LXV and in the other, it is abjure. The logic of Quatrain LXIV suggests that the verb should be abjure, that one should abstain from alcohol.

That is why this quatrain is puzzling.  The poet suggests that if those who abjure or abstain from the Vine and Love.  .  . gain Paradise, then the poet doesn't think (doubts) that Paradise would be empty.  This suggests that those who abjure wine and love will go to heaven, but it doesn't say anything about those who don't abjure the Vine and Love. Could it be that it doesn't make any difference what one believes?  All will go to Paradise.

I suspect my problem is caused some changes in meaning in one or more words in the quatrain. Or perhaps what puzzles me is what caused FitzGerald to eventually drop this quatrain.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Flowers: One at a time, please

Being in a contrary mood this morning, I thought I would post something contrary.   


One flower at a time, please
however small the face.

Two flowers are one flower
too many, a distraction.

Three flowers in a vase begin
to be a little noisy. 

Like cocktail conversation,
everybody talking.

A crowd of flowers is a crowd
of flatterers (forgive me).

One flower at a time.  I want
to hear what it is saying.

-- Robert Francis --
from Art and Nature
Kate Farrell, Editor

Any comments? 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Robert Louis Stevenson: Too simple to be profound?

It often happens that while reading a story or a novel or an essay, which is moderately interesting, the author will say something that stops me immediately.  I go back, read it again, meditate a bit, and move on. Yet, even as I move on, that statement or comment will remain in the background.  And it will remain with me for several days or even longer.  Such is the following brief comment or analogy by Robert Louis Stevenson in one of his essays:

Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child .  .  .

Robert Louis Stevenson
"A Gossip on Romance"
from The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays

There are innumerable essays, theses, books on the nature of fiction and its popularity or the reason for its existence.  I think a collection could easily take up several very large bookcases.  I have read a number of essays and have several books gathering dust in my TBR bookcase which I will get to, probably, one of these days. But, Stevenson's brief comment--Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child .  .  .  so resonates with me that I may never get to those dusty books awaiting me.

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."  We read this in the King James Version of Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians, and it seems to fit.  Many adults put away those childish things, one of which is play, and they become very serious and solemn; life becomes a grim struggle.

But, this isn't true of all, for some (and that includes me), have exchanged that childish play for fiction.  A child at play is lost somewhere in there, and that child is thoroughly wrapped up in the game, whatever it may be.  The child is now on a different plane of existence.    How different is this from when I settle down with a book and travel off to far planets or to the future?  or work out how someone managed to murder a thoroughly nasty character and escape from a locked room?  or follow the destinies of a young man or a young woman who struggles to become a mature adult and not just a carbon copy of the neighbors? 

As a child, the call to "come out and play" was an invitation to another world; as adults, some of us have substituted "Once upon a time.  .  ."

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Eric Hoffer: More! More! More! More!

No. 22

"MORE!" is as effective a revolutionary slogan as was ever invented by doctrinaires of discontent.  The American, who cannot learn to want what he has, is a permanent revolutionary.  He glories in change, has faith in that which he has not yet, and is ready to give his life for it. 

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind and other Aphorisms 

Frankly I have some doubt about part of the following assertion:

He glories in change, has faith in that which he has not yet, and is ready to give his life for it. 

I agree that we have faith in that which we don't have and might give up our lives to gain it, depending, of course, upon what it is we think we don't have and must have, but I do think Hoffer goes a bit overboard here.

What I most disagree with is that part about glorying in change.  This may be true for some Americans, but based on how I read the papers and listen to politicians, there appears to be a very large portion of the American populace who do NOT glory in change, but fear it instead.  They glory in stasis and fear any change and are much more likely to give their lives to maintain a static existence or even return to a mythical Golden Age (and what's worse, are ready to give the lives of others also).

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Robert Frost's commemorative poem: Edward Thomas March 3, 1878--April 9, 1917

Sadly, Edward Thomas is another of those artists, from many countries, whose artistic life was cut short during the Great War.  He enlisted in the army in 1915 and was sent to France as an artillery officer at the end of January 1917.   Thomas was at a forward observation post when he was killed.

I posted a sample of his poetry on June 8, 2014 and Dec. 23, 2013 and prose on March 20, 2015.   Robert Frost, a friend and mentor, published the following poem in 1923 in his collection, New Hampshire

To E. T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you.

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained--
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge, and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you--the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?
 -- Robert Frost --

"E.T. . . .British essayist Edward Thomas . . ., a close friend of Frost's in England, began writing poetry with Frost's encouragement.   He joined the army in 1915, the year that Frost returned to the United States.   Several of Thomas's poems were published pseudonomously  from 1915 to 1917 and Frost succeeded in having a collection of Thomas's poems published in America."
from "Notes"
Robert Frost:  Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays
Richard Poirier and  Mark Richardson, Editors

Following is one of Thomas's last poems, written on December 24, 1916, while in England at home with his family.

Out in the dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Then the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned,

And star and I and wind and deer
Are in the dark together, -- near,
Yet far, -- and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

 -- Edward Thomas --
The "Notes" regarding this poem in Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems suggest that Thomas Hardy's poem, "The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House," may have been influenced by Thomas's poem.  As Hardy is another favorite of mine, I must take a look at his poem.  It's intriguing to find Thomas as sort of a link between Frost and Hardy, both favorite poets of mine.   And, that "If" at the end sounds a note of ambiguity that is reminiscent of  both Hardy and Frost.
You will be seeing more of Edward Thomas's poetry here in the future.  If you haven't read anything by him yet, I would recommend you take a look.   And, thanks again to Stephen Pentz at "First Known When Lost" for introducing Thomas to me. 

It's a remarkable poem, considering it was written some four months before his death, and he knew he would be sent to France within the month.  Is it prophetic?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXIV

Another in a series of posts regarding quatrains that Edward FitzGerald added when he published the Second Edition of The Rubaiyat.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXIV

I must abjure the Balm of Life, I must,
Scared by some After-reckoning ta'en on trust,
     Or lured with Hope of some Diviner Drink,
When the frail Cup is crumbled into Dust! 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXII
I must abjure the Balm of Life, I must,
Scared by some After-reckoning ta'en on trust,
     Or lured with Hope of some Diviner Drink,
To fill the Cup--when crumbled into Dust! 

The first three lines of the two are identical, and the only modification appears in the last line where we read

Second Edition:  "When the frail Cup is crumbled into Dust!"
Fifth Edition:      "To fill the Cup--when crumbled into Dust!"

The "Cup" and its fate is a reference to other quatrains in which the Potter is seen fashioning cups out of clay, much as the Creator created humans out of dust or clay and at the end will return to their original state.  In yet another quatrain, a cup remarks that if filled with wine, it might return to life again.

Is there a difference, perhaps even a subtle difference, between the two versions?
It seems to me that in the Second Edition, there is the hope that after death, there might be "some Diviner Drink," with no reference to the body.  The last line in the Fifth Edition suggests something quite different, or so it seems to me:

". . .some Diviner Drink,
To fill the Cup--when crumbled into Dust!"

This seems to say that the "Diviner Drink" will fill the "Cup" after death, possibly a reference to the resurrection of the body after death, a belief that Moslems hold, as do Christians, and Jews, as far as I can tell. 

This quatrain is linked to the previous quatrain in which the Poet defends drinking wine by arguing that it's God's creation, which cannot, therefore, be evil.  In this quatrain, he points out that the ban against alcohol is really based on "trust," or faith that either one might be punished or rewarded in an after-life.  Of course, the Poet has already made the point in previous quatrains that nobody really knows what happens after death, that nobody has ever returned to tell us, and that all such theories are just guesses based on nothing substantial.

The Poet's attitude about the virtues of drinking wine are expressed quite clearly and openly, once again, when he refers to it as "the Balm of Life," something which is comforting.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Kenko's advice


"A man who has determined to take the Great Step should leave unresolved all plans for disposing of urgent or worrisome business.

Some men think, 'I'll wait a bit longer, until I take care of his matter,' or 'I might as well dispose of that business first,' or 'People will surely laugh at me if I leave such and such as it stands.  I'll arrange things now so that there won't be any future criticism,' or 'I've managed to survive all these years.  I'll wait till that matter is cleared up.  It won't take long.  I mustn't be hasty.'  But if you think in such terms the day for taking the Great Step will never come, for you will keep discovering more and more unavoidable problems, and there will never be a time when you run out of unfinished business.

My observation of people leads me to conclude, generally speaking, that even people with some degree of intelligence are likely to go through life supposing they have ample time before them.  But would a man fleeing because a fire has broken out in his neighborhood say to the fire, 'Wait a moment, please!'?  To save his life, a man will run away, indifferent to shame, abandoning his possessions.  Is a man's life any more likely to wait for him?  Death attacks faster than fire or water, and is harder to escape.  When its hour comes, can you refuse to give up your aged parents, your little children, your duty to your master, your affections for others, because they are hard to abandon."

 -- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness
Donald Keene, trans.


Kenko's advice is universal; don't stall around but take that Great Step, whatever it might be.  One should always act when the enthusiasm is high. The second paragraph contains Kenko's reasoning:  if the individual delays to resolve some issues or handle some problems, there's a good chance the person will never take the Great Step. If the individual waits to solve some problem, then a new one will arise which must also be solved and so on.  As Kenko writes, " But if you think in such terms the day for taking the Great Step will never come, for you will keep discovering more and more unavoidable problems, and there will never be a time when you run out of unfinished business."  Therefore, don't delay, do it now.

The third paragraph expresses a very common theme--one probably known, again universally, and expressed in most of the world's religions.  We don't know the time of our death--it may be the next minute, the next hour, the next day or week or year or decade.  So, again, don't wait, act now before it's too late.

Do you think it remarkable that advice given in the 14th century Japan by a Buddhist monk is so relevant today?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker

I suspect Olaf Stapledon is one of those SF authors more celebrated than read.  His language is dense, and the vocabulary is considerably above the 10th grade level of most Americans.  His diction can be formal and imposing.  Reading his best known work, Last and First Men, is like reading an abridged historical account of the human race.  That being said, the sheer sweep of Stapledon's imagination is sufficient to overcome those difficulties.

However, I am not going to comment on Last and First Men but on a more accessible work, Star Maker.  In this work, Stapledon does provide us with characters and some dialogue.  It is much closer to a traditional novel than is Last and First Men. It is a quest novel, in which the major character journeys in search of the answer to the ultimate or perennial question--what is this all about?  After having read the work, or actually part way through it, I got the idea that Stapledon was strongly influenced by Dante's Divine Comedy when he wrote Star Maker.

The subject matter is essentially the same, and both narrators are undergoing a crisis which initiates their journeys.

Midway life's journey I was made aware
   That I had strayed into a dark forest,
   And the right path appeared not anywhere.
Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed,
   This wood, so harsh, dismal, and wild, that fear
   At thought of it strikes now into my beast.
So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer.

-- Dante --
Inferno, Canto 1, ll 1-7
The Portable Dante,  
Laurence Binyon, translator

Star Maker begins--

One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out onto the hill..  .    .

. . . there was bitterness.  And bitterness not only invaded us from the world;  it welled up also within our own magic circle.  For horror at our futility, at our own unreality, and not only at the world's delirium, had driven me out onto the hill. 

-- Olaf Stapledon --
Star Maker.  page 1.

It is at this point that the voyage of discovery begins for both narrators.  Both find mentors or guides.  Dante is guided by Virgil, while the Canine species philosopher acts as companion and guide to the anonymous narrator.   While Dante experiences a wide variety of behaviors from various individuals, both wise and foolish, Stapledon's narrator visits a variety of species which exhibit, like individuals, cultural patterns that are wise or foolish or a mix.  And, at the end of their journeys, Dante and Stapledon's narrator meet the Creator. 

Both works provide the reader with three levels, explicitly in Dante's work, of course, and implied in Stapledon's novel.  The first level would include Dante's Inferno, whose inhabitants' behavior has condemned them to eternal torment, and in the Star Maker, the narrator visits those species that will never achieve contact with the Star Maker and are doomed to a miserable extinction.   The second level includes Purgatorio and those species that have survived their mistakes, and now the individuals in Purgatorio and those species in Star Maker are on their way to achieving contact with the Creator/Star Maker some time in the future. The third and desired level would be Paradiso and those species that have achieved the ultimate goal: direct contact with the Creator/Star Maker.

At the end, after finally meeting the Star Maker, Stapledon cleverly sidesteps the issue as to which of the various creation myths promulgated by religions is "true" by  showing that all are true, for the Englishman (as the anonymous narrator refers to himself) recounts many of the creations of the Star Maker that he experienced in the encounter. Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and Gnosticism show up in various guises throughout.

Stapledon also includes every scientific theory  promulgated (as well as a few he made up, I suspect) about the creation of the universe.   Some, I think, he made up were later seized upon by cosmologists.  To be sure of  this, I'd have to research just when these theories appeared. 

The novel is heavy going, not only because of the content--ideas, theories, philosophy, speculations--but also because of the style, which is mostly narrative and has very little dialogue throughout.

Again, I find the imaginative sweep of the novel to be worth the effort of working one's way through a work that is not an easy few hours' read.

Recommended for those looking for something radically different, unlike anything published today. In fact, I doubt it could be published today, unless it was self-published.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Edward Thomas: Birdsong

I had just learned of Edward Thomas a few years ago, thanks to Stephen Pentz, at his blog, First Known When Lost  (see sidebar for link).  Consequently I knew little of him except for his poetry.  According to the brief biography, he was already known for his many fine essays, critiques, and writings in natural history, when he met Robert Frost in 1914 who encouraged Thomas to write poetry.  Thomas took his advice and had produced many fine poems when, unfortunately, he was killed in action in WWI in 1917.

Therefore, I was surprised to find him in Nature Writing: The English Tradition, another of the unexpected authors in that anthology whom I had known from other genres.  The following comes from the excerpt found in that anthology, and I can see why Frost had encouraged him to write poetry.

"At the lower margin of the wood the overhanging branches form blue caves, and out of these emerge the songs of many hidden birds.  I know that there are bland melodious blackbirds of easy musing voices, robins whose earnest song, though full of passion, is but a fragment that has burst through a more passionate silence, hedge-sparrows of liquid confiding monotone, brisk acid wrens, chaffinches and yellowhammers saying always the same thing ( a dear but courtly praise of the coming season), larks building spires above spires into the sky, thrushes of infinite variety that talk and talk of a thousand things, never thinking, always talking of the moment, exclaiming, scolding, cheering, flattering, coaxing, challenging, with merry-hearted, bold voices that must have been the same in the morning of the world when the forest trees lay, or leaned, or hung, where they fell.  Yet I can distinguish neither blackbird, nor robin, nor hedge-sparrow, nor any one voice.  All are blent into one seething stream of song.  It is one song, not many.  It is the spirit that sings.  Mixed with them is the myriad stir of unborn things, of leaf and blade and flower, many silences of heart and root of tree, voices of hope and growth, of love that will be satisfied though it leap upon the swords of life." 

Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
from The South Country
Excerpt comes from Nature Writing, edited by Robert Finch and John Elder 

What do you think?  Is there something "poetic" about the above excerpt?  Was Frost being perceptive?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Nature Writing: The Tradition in English

Robert Finch and John Elder, Editors
Nature Writing:  The Tradition in English
1100+ pages
131 authors and 157 selections

I came across this by chance while browsing the local library catalog.  It's actually the second edition.  The first edition was titled The Norton Book of Nature Writing and was published in 1990.  This is an expanded version which was published in 2002.  It's a large volume, as you can see, and unfortunately there are eight holds on the only copy the local library possesses.  My plan is to read it until I have to return it and then immediately put it on hold again, and hope I will see it again sometime this year. As there is only one copy, there's a good chance it will go "missing."

The range of authors is extensive, beginning with the Englishman Gilbert White (1729--1793) and ending with Janisse Ray  (b. 1962) of the United States.  The selections by Gilbert White were first published in 1789 while the selection by Janisse Ray came out in 1999, which is about right since this volume was published in 2002.

Many of the names are familiar:  Loren Eiseley, Joseph Wood Krutch (two of my favorite all-time writers), John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, N. Scott Momaday,  and Edward Abbey are among those I thought might be included.  However, there were others whose names I recognized, but I didn't expect them to be in here as I was familiar with them from other genres.

I wasn't aware of the prose works of the following poets:  Edward Thomas, Walt Whitman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I was surprised to find a number of contributors whom I know through their fictional works: W. H. Hudson, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen, D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles, Ursula K. Le Guin, and John Steinbeck, as well as a number of others.  In addition, there are some whose names I have run across but have yet to read anything by them, or if I have, it is lost:  Aldo Leopard, Ernest Thompson Seton, Edwin Way Teale, Peter Matthiessen, and Barry Lopez are among those I'm looking forward to getting at least a brief exposure to their works.

For the most part though, a  majority of the names are unfamiliar, so this will a two-fold exploratory expedition.  First, I will be exploring a variety of subjects covered in the selections, and second, I will be exploring the world of nature writing, or what used to be called natural history, if I'm not mistaken.

Even though my TBR list is impossibly long right now, I expect to add a few more names.  One will be Aldo Leopold whose excerpt from A Sand County Almanac interested me.

Well, I'm now at page 416 and the book is due today,  March 16.  Eight people are waiting for this the only copy.  I will return it and go back on the waiting list and expect to see it again in five or six months, if it doesn't go "missing" before then.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Second Edition, Quatrain LXIII

The following is another of the quatrains Edward FitzGerald introduced into his Second Edition of the Rubaiyat and remained through all subsequent editions.   

Second Edition, Quatrain LXIII

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
      A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a Curse--why, then, Who set it there?

Fifth Edition, Quatrain LXI

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
      A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a Curse--why, then, Who set it there?

I see no differences between the Second and the Fifth Editions.

This is probably one of the quatrains that caused Khayyam to be attacked and reviled as a heretic and destined for eternal damnation by religious authorities.  Wine, of course, was forbidden the faithful as the handiwork of Satan, and, in this quatrain, Khayyam not only defends drinking wine and calls it "A Blessing" but insists God, not Satan, created it.

If Allah created everything, that must include grape vines, so how could that be bad or evil?  Would God create something evil?  I have read attempts to defend Khayyam from the charges of heresy by insisting that he really didn't mean wine at all.  When Khayyam refers to wine, he really means God's grace!  What is never explained is why Khayyam didn't simply refer to God's grace and, instead, substituted something forbidden, something condemned as evil for God's grace.

There are some quatrains where this interpretation could work, but there are too many where it makes no sense at all.  And in this quatrain, it doesn't even come close to being reasonable for I don't see how one could argue that Khayyam really meant God's grace.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Robert Louis Stevenson: "The Philosophy of Umbrellas"

Robert Louis Stevenson
"The Philosophy of Umbrellas"
from The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays

I stumbled across an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson some time ago which surprised me.  I was most familiar with his fiction and wasn't aware that he had also written a number of essays.  I searched around and found a collection of a number of his essays, The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays.  "The Lantern-Bearers" was the essay that I had encountered, so I decided to invest some money and, now, some time in the book.  My tentative plan is to work my way slowly through the book and occasionally report on an essay that strikes me fancy.  It turns out that this, the very first essay in the collection, is one that does so.  The following is the first paragraph of the essay.

"It is wonderful to think what a turn has been given to our whole Society by the fact that we live under the sign of Aquarius, -- that our climate is essentially wet.  A mere arbitrary distinction, like the walking-swords of yore, might have remained the symbol of foresight and respectability, had not the raw mists and dropping showers of our island pointed the inclination of Society to another exponent of those virtues.  A ribbon of the Legion of Honour or a string of medals may prove a person's courage; a title may prove his birth; a professorial chair his study and acquirement; but it is the habitual carriage of the umbrella that is the stamp of Respectability.  The umbrella has become the acknowledged index of social position."

While reading this I couldn't help but think of the Avenger's John Steed, the epitome of respectability, even though he is a secret agent.   The leather-clad Mrs. Peel presents a somewhat different image.

The remainder of the essay follows along the course set by the  first paragraph--a mock solemnity with tongue firmly planted in cheek.  Stevenson tells us that Robinson Crusoe, instead of rigging up a belfry and "a mimicry of church-bells," shows that "Crusoe was rather a moralist than a pietist, and his leaf-umbrella is as fine an example of the civilised mind striving to express itself under adverse circumstances as we have ever met with."

However, Stevenson also warns us that the umbrella isn't an infallible sign of one's civilized or respectable status for "...alas! even the umbrella is no certain criterion.  The falsity  and the folly of the human race  have degraded that graceful symbol to the ends of dishonesty.  .  .(some umbrellas) from certain prudential motives, are chosen directly opposite to the person's disposition.  A mendacious umbrella is a sign of great moral degradation . . . Might it not be said of the bearers of these inappropriate umbrellas that they go about the streets 'with a lie in their right hand?'

All in all, "The Philosophy of Umbrellas" is a fine, worthy, and instructive effort with which to begin this assemblage of reflections on the human condition.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Theodore Sturgeon: "Helix the Cat"

Theodore Sturgeon (1918--1985)
"Helix the Cat"   a short story
from The Ultimate Egoist:  Volume 1, The Complete Stories

This is one of Theodore Sturgeon's short stories, one that I hadn't read before.  As usual, it's a bit quirky, as most of his tales are. It is an early story, written in 1939 and rejected at that time and finally published in 1979.  Why? I don't know.  I think it's a delightful little tale with an interesting cast.

It's a first person narrative, and it takes place in the home of Pete Tronti, the narrator.  Pete has a small lab at his place, and that's the cause of what happens in the story.  Most of the story happens there.

Another character in the cast is Helix.  Pete tells us, "Ah, he was a cat.  A big black tom, with a white throat and white mittens, and a tail twice as long as that of an ordinary cat.  He carried it in a graceful spiral--three complete turns--and hence his name.  He could sit on one end of that tail and take two turns around his head with the other.  Ah, he was a cat."

The third character is a soul, the soul of a dead man, Wallace Gregory, and he, or actually his soul, turns up because he was trying to escape from Them, the Soul Eaters!  This is why we find Pete in his lab, apparently talking to an empty bottle.

To be brief, Pete has invented a new type of glass and has just completed making a bottle of  it.  It is a flexible glass that bounces when dropped, and it has other properties, as Pete unfortunately discovers.  Wallace, or his soul,  explains that when a person dies, the soul leaves the body, and this is when They, the Soul Eaters, enter the scene.  They eat the souls of dead humans, but not all dead humans.  Something happens to the souls of people who know they are about to die.  Wallace doesn't know what--maybe grow a protective cover or something.  Any way, They don't go after the souls of those who had known they were about to die.

Wallace explains that he didn't know he was about to die, and therefore his soul didn't have enough time to get protected.  They were about to grab him when he spotted Pete's latest invention and somehow realized that the glass bottle would protect him, so he dived into the bottle.  As long as he stays inside the bottle, he will be safe from Them.  Perhaps some time in the future, he will find a human who is willing to die and let Wallace occupy the now empty body.

All goes well until Wallace gets bored.  The thought of spending an eternity in a bottle doesn't excite him any more than it excited the various djinn or genies we hear about in various tales.  He is getting desperate trapped there. But, he has an idea.  He tells Pete that by making some appropriate changes, he could occupy the body of a small animal, such as a dog or a . . . cat.

Pete looks at Helix and is horrified.  " 'You 're being emotional,' said Wally scornfully.  'If you've got any sense of values at all, there'll be no choice.  You can save my immortal soul by sacrificing the life of a cat.  Not many men have  that sort of an opportunity, especially at that price.' "

Pete makes his choice, and sadly, he makes the wrong one.  He's somewhat appeased when Wally tells him that Helix's soul is in no danger from Them.  His soul will just leave and go where animal souls go.  And, since Wally's soul is in telepathic communication with Pete's soul, Helix is unaware of Wally's existence and therefore, Wally's plans for him.

Wally modifies Helix (souls can do all sorts of things that they can't do while in a live body), so that eventually Helix is able to talk and read and write, and now it's time for the Great Transformation.

But, things did not progress as planned, by anybody. This should have been expected since deception was a part of the plan and that never bodes well.  In fact, everybody involved was deceiving somebody--the double-cross was SOP in the Great Transformation.  Another complication is that several of the cast knew things that the other members didn't know that they knew, but they didn't know everything.  The outcome, once again, disproved that old adage, because, let's face facts,  "what you don't know CAN hurt you."

But it did show, as usual, that another old adage is true:

 "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
       (and cats and souls and Them)
   Gang aft a-gley."

However, the situation ended, and contrary to Shakespeare, it did not end well.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Rubaiyat, Second Edition: Quatrain LIX

This is another in a series of brief posts about quatrains that Edward FitzGerald added to the second edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and included, perhaps in a modified form, in the fifth edition.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LIX

Ah, but my Computations, People say,
Have squared the Year to human compass, eh?
     If so, by striking from the Calendar
Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday.

 Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LVII
Ah, but my Computations, People say,
Reduced the Year to better reckoning?--Nay
      'Twas only striking from the Calendar
Unborn To-morrow, and  dead Yesterday.

FitzGerald made no changes to the first and fourth lines of this quatrain, but made several to the second and third lines that clarify his intentions.  "If so"  in the second edition suggests that the poet has doubts about what people say, but if they were right, then it was the result of removing
                .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .   from the Calendar
                Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday.

He changes that If so to 'Twas, which removes the doubt and replaces it with the dismissive 'Twas.  In other words, he did what people say, but it really wasn't that important or significant.

Not knowing Persian, I don't know if the pun? joke? in the second line of the second edition was Khayyam's or was introduced by FitzGerald, whom many critics have accused of taking considerable liberties in his rendering of the Rubaiyat, or simply another example of over-reading on my part.  "Compass" has several meanings:  one refers to a tool that makes circles while another refers to an area of human understanding,  The year is frequently referred to as cyclic, so he could be saying that the people say that he squared the  circle, an exceptional feat indeed. 

In the fifth edition, he changes that to simply stating that they claimed he had     Reduced the Year to better reckoning.  Regardless of his reaction, what had he to do with the calendar?  In  the Introduction to my copy of the Rubaiyat, we are told that Khayyam was a highly respected astronomer, so much so that "(w)hen the Malik Shah determined to reform the calendar, Omar was one of the eight learned men employed to do it. . ."

What I get from quatrain is that he manages to fit those changes in the calendar into one of the prevailing themes of the Rubaiyat: only the present exists, for yesterday is dead and to-morrow is yet unborn.  Longfellow would agree here,  for in his poem  " A Psalm of Life,"  he tells us    

                                 "Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
                                   Let the dead Past bury its  dead!
                                   Act,--act in the living Present!"

To be brief, this quatrain holds forth once again on the theme that living in the present is really all that we can do, for it is all that we actually have.  

Introduction to text
No editor listed
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Rendered into English verse by Edward FitzGerald
Garden City Books, Garden City, NY              

Friday, February 26, 2016

N. Scott Momaday: "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee

In their own way, poems teach the reader.  Frequently they teach the reader something about the reader, sometimes about the subject of the poem, and sometimes about poetry itself.  Some poems are relatively straightforward in that one can get an idea of what the poem is about early on and finds no surprises when one reaches the end.  Others?  Sometimes one has an idea of the poem and suddenly one line changes the way one views the poem and frequently forces one to go back and read it again.  Robert Frost does that, regularly, and so regularly that I now read his poems and wait for the turn near the end. 

This is one of those poems that at the end suddenly produces a surprise. It is by N. Scott Momaday, and  I thought I knew what the poem was about, but that line near the end changed my view of the poem.

The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee

I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star 
I am the cold of the dawn
I am the roaring of the rain
I am the glitter on the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things

You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive

-- N. Scott Momaday --
from In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems

What do you think?  Is there a line that changed your idea about the poem?  Did you go back and read it again?  Do you think this is a major or a minor change?   Does it add something or take away something or does it really make no difference to you?