Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Kilkenny Cats

When I came across this poem, I seemed to be reminded of something, but I don't know exactly what it might be. Does it remind you of anything?

The Kilkenny Cats

There wanst was two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many,
So they quarreled and they fit,
They scratch'd and they bit,
Till, barrin' their nails,
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats, there warn't any.

-- Anonymous --

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain L

This is Quatrain L, the fiftieth of seventy-five quatrains in the First Edition. I hope to be able to do the final one-third next year.

First Edition: Quatrain L

The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Right or Left as strikes the Player goes;
And He that toss'd Thee down into the Field,
He knows about it all--He knows--HE knows!

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXV

The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Right or Left as strikes the Player goes;
And He that toss'd you down into the Field,
He knows about it all--He knows--HE knows!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LXX

The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that toss'd you down into the Field,
He knows about it all--He knows--HE knows!

The changes are minimal. The "thee" in the third line of the first edition becomes "you" in the second and fifth editions. "Question" is no longer capitalized in the second and fifth editions. The last change I can see is the substitution of "Here" and "There" for "Right" and "Left" found in the first and second editions. I guess the substitution of "you" for "Thee" modernizes it somewhat, getting away from the thees and thous and making it less self-consciously poetic. However, I prefer the "Thee" for it adds a more serious touch to the quatrain, at least in my view anyway.

Why "Here" and "There" instead of "Right" and "Left"? Perhaps the poet felt that the directions were too limiting, providing only two possibilities while "Here" and "There" provided more uncertainty--one could be moved in any direction at the Player's whim.

This quatrain follows up on the theme introduced in the previous one in that again the Player determines what happens and neither the Ball nor the chess pieces have any choice except to be moved about. This certainly sounds like predestination to me: one does good because the Player has so decided and one does evil for the same reason. And, what does this mean when one considers what both Islam and Christianity teach--that our freely chosen actions determine whether we shall achieve an eternal reward or an horrific eternal punishment?

One other point is the reduction of what so many believers have struggled with, of what so many have died for, and of what so many have killed for, to a game.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Born on this day:

Ludvig van Beethoven in 1770

Some Favorites:

Violin concerto in D
Five piano concertos
9 Symphonies

Jane Austen in 1775

Some Favorites

Mansfield Park
Sense and Sensibility
Pride and Prejudice
Northanger Abbey

Arthur C. Clarke in 1917

Some favorites:

Rendezvous with Rama
Tales from the White Hart
The City and the Stars
"The Sentinel" (basis for the film 2001: AD)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Russell Hoban: February 4, 1925 -- December 13, 2011

A sad day -- Russell Hoban is no longer with us. His numerous books for children and his novels for adults remain a legacy that enriches all who have read them.

A Partial Listing of his works

The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz
Turtle Diary
Riddley Walker
The Medusa Frequency

Mr. Rinyo-Clacton's Offer
The Mouse and his Child
The numerous "Frances" Books for Children

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Eric Hoffer: Something to think about

No. 4

It seems that we are most busy when we do not do the one thing we ought to do; most greedy when we cannot have the one thing we really want; most hurried when we can never arrive; most self-righteous when irrevocably in the wrong.

There is apparently a link between excess and unattainability

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind

Why excess? Perhaps we hope to distract ourselves?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Langston Hughes: some short poems gathered at random

The following poems come from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. These are the ones that I stopped to read a second time as I browsed through the book, opening randomly at various pages. As I write this, I'm not sure why they interested me, though. Perhaps another reading might give me a clue.


Today like yesterday
Tomorrow like today;
The drip, drip, drip,
Of monotony
Is wearing my life away;
Today like yesterday,
Tomorrow like today.

It ends the way it begins--does that suggest monotony? He resists the impulse to make a logic chain of the two repeated lines. He could have written--

Yesterday like today
Today like tomorrow

which gives us the following progression: Yesterday-->Today-->Tomorrow

Instead he gives us-- Today-->Yesterday-->Tomorrow-->Today

Perhaps it's because the one I suggested shows a direct line from yesterday to today to tomorrow, which denotes a progression, while what he gave us was more like a circle from today to yesterday to tomorrow and back to today--no beginning and no end--monotonous.


Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Without dreams, we can't leave the ground. Without dreams life cannot come forth. It seems that dreams are elusive and transient, and we must "Hold fast" to them. Could the cure for monotony be a dream?


The ivory gods,
And the ebony gods,
And the gods of diamond and jade,
Sit silently on their temple shelves
While the people are afraid.
Yet the ivory gods
And the ebony gods,
And the gods of diamond-jade,
Are only silly puppet gods
That the people themselves
Have made.

I think he forgot the most prevelant gods that the people make and worship and fear: entertainers, athletes, politicians, the past . . .

The Dream Keeper

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamers,
Bring me all of your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.

When I read The Dream Keeper, I immediately thought of the earlier one, Dreams. This poem also suggests that dreams are transient and fragile, which is why they belong off this earth, castles in the sky.


Poetry should treat
Of lofty things
Soaring thoughts
And birds with wings.

The Muse of Poetry
Should not know
That roses
In manure grow.

The Muse of Poetry
Should not care
That earthly pain
Is everywhere.

Treats of lofty things
Soaring thoughts
And birds with wings.

Is there a touch of irony here?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jorge Luis Borges: Possession of Yesterday

This is one of the most evocative poems that I'm aware of that treats of the human preoccupation with memories and time passing and a Golden Age. Other poets have and have done it well, but this one seems special and that last line . . .

Possession of Yesterday

I know the things I've lost are so many that I could not begin to count them
and that those losses
now, are all I have.
I know that I've lost the yellow and the black and I think
Of those unreachable colors
as those that are not blind can not.
My father is dead, and always stands beside me.
When I try to scan Swinburne's verses, I am told, I speak with my father's
Only those who have died are ours, only what we have lost is ours.
Ilium vanished, yet Ilium lives in Homer's verses.
Israel was Israel when it became an ancient nostalgia.
Every poem, in time, becomes an elegy.
The women who have left us are ours, free as we now are from misgivings.
from anguish, from the disquiet and dread of hope.
There are no paradises other than lost paradises

-- Jorge Luis Borges --

There are no paradises other than lost paradises.

How many cultures look back to a Golden Age?
Now that I've somehow stumbled into my eighth decade, how many times do I begin with "Back when I was . . ." or "many years ago . . .?

trans. Nicomedes Suarez Arauz
from World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time
Katherine Washburn and John S. Major, eds.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain XLIX

This quatrain refers back to earlier ones that say that we are not masters of our destiny but only characters in a play or pawns in a game controlled by . . .?

First Edition: Quatrain XLIX

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXIV

Impotent Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days,
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LXIX

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days,
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays

The most significant differences that I can see among the three editions occurs in the first two lines of the quatrains. In the first edition, the poet begins with a reference to the game--"'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days"--and then brings us in as the "Pieces" moved about at the whim of the player, whereas the second and fifth editions refer immediately to "impotent Pieces" or "helpless Pieces" in the first line. The focus has shifted from the Game to our role as either "impotent" or "helpless" pieces.

In the first edition, humans are pawns of Destiny, a theme found in most cultures around the globe. Even Oedipus, perhaps the one who, in Western literature, has been the most ill-favored of all by Destiny, still has an aura of a tragic nobility or grandeur about him. However, even that disappears in the second edition when humans are portrayed as "impotent" which suggests at least an attempt to do something which turns out to be a failure, and even worse, in the fifth edition, when humans are portrayed as helpless, or unable to even attempt to act.

The other change is the replacement of He for Destiny. It is no longer a god--Destiny or Fate-- or a blind force that controls us but "He." In an earlier post, I brought up two poems, one by Robert Frost and one by Thomas Hardy, that spoke to this difference, as to whether it was blind chance or a deliberate act by a "person," divine or demonic.

The last two lines in the three versions are identical, except for the substitution of "checks" in the second and fifth edition for "mates" which is found in the first edition. While the game is played on a "Chequer-board," which suggests a game of checkers, the terms "mates" and "checks" actually belong to chess. Perhaps FitzGerald used "Chequer-board" instead of the more accurate chess board, because he needed the extra syllable.

"Mates" connotes the end of the game when the king is mated or taken or slain, which could be seen as redundant since he also refers to "slays" in the same line. On the other hand, to "check" means to put the king in danger of being taken, and the player whose king is checked has to do something in the next move to prevent the king from being taken. In either case, though, the king can do nothing on his own, for it is up to the player to defend the king or resign and place the king "back in the Closet."

My preference: As usual, I prefer the First Edition.

It seems a very bleak view of humanity's role--certainly far from those who argue that the universe was created solely as a testing ground for us, which makes us the center of and sole purpose for the universe. Isn't there a warning in the Bible about this sort of attitude--something about pride going before a fall?

This quatrain reminds me of "Invictus," a poem written by W. E. Henley. Henley is also a 19th century writer. His dates are 1849--1903, while FitzGerald lived from 1809 to 1883. I wonder if they had read each other's work.


OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
Howe charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

-- William Ernest Henley --

It, if anything, is even bleaker than FitzGerald's view of us as helpless pieces. In both our fates are seen as dictated by outside forces. Henley though seems to see life, as well as the afterlife, as horrific--"Beyond this place of wrath and tears/Looms but the horror of the shade." What was it about England in the 19th century that brought about this view in, at least, some of the English poets?

Are there any poets today who could or would write:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Pt. 2, an informal glossary

This informal glossary has two sections. The first is a listing of words, phrases, and names that refer to something outside of the story but which adds depth and connections to the story. The second section contains a list of the pilgrims and some commentary about them, their names, and their tales.

This is by no means a complete and exhaustive listing for I suspect that I've missed many other allusions, either because I just didn't see them or because I was unaware of their significance. If you are aware of any that I have missed, I would appreciate a comment regarding them.

All Thing: the name of the galactic-wide legislative assembly in the novel.
--Norse/Germanic reference: the annual assembly of all communities and free peoples.
--ding, ting, thing: names of local assemblies of the free peoples in small communities.

Amalfi Schwartz: character in the novel.
--Amalfi: significant character found in James Blish's "Cities in Flight" quartet of novels, he is the Mayor of NYC which now travels in space powered by "spindizzies."

Balthazar, a refugee from Alexandria: Balthazar was a tutor for Martin Silenus, one of the pilgrims.
--Balthazar: one of the significant characters in Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet" and the title of one of the four novels. Silenus makes a point of mentioning that his tutor was not homosexual whereas in the AQ Balthazar was homosexual.

--In Beowulf, the monster

--In Beowulf, the king whose kingdom is terrorized by Grendel

"He side, 'Syn I shal begynne the game.' " Martin Silenus, one of the pilgrims, recites this as the priest in the novel begins his tale, which is the first told by the pilgrims.
--This quotation comes from the first tale of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Betty's Ford: a location on the river on Hyperion up which the pilgrims must travel on the pilgrimage.
--Betty Ford: possibly a reference to the wife Gerald Ford who became president when President Nixon resigned. This may simply be a coincidence, but the novel is filled with allusions and references, so I thought I would include it anyway.

John Carter:
--John Carter: hero of Edgar Rice Burrough's novels that are set on Mars.

Cat Key: location on Hyperion, major city is named Felix
--The cartoon strip "Felix the Cat"?
-Catalina Island?

Clovis points:
--Pre-historic Paleo-Indian culture that appears around 11,500 BP years on the North American continent.

Heremis Denzel: character in novel
--I have no idea of what this may allude to, but it sounds as though it should--so I included it.
Perhaps someone may educate me as to its significance.

Father Dure:
a significant character in the Priest's Tale
--Dure: archaic verb that means to sustain or to endure, very appropriate name.

The Dying Earth: first significant long poem published by Martin Silenus, one of the pilgrims.
--Title of SF novel written by Jack Vance.

Endymion: see Simmons' third and fourth novels in the series
--Endymion: Greek mythology, lover of Selene, the moon goddess, also title of unfinished poem by John Keats

Equus, Aquila, Ursa: continents on Hyperion
--Latin for horse, eagle, bear, also constellations

Flame Trees of Tesla: death-dealing trees on Hyperion--they store electricity and electrocute anything that moves in their vicinity.
--Tesla: Thomas Alva Edison's great rival
--Flame Trees: several varieties found on various continents on Earth, named because of their fiery red leaves.
--Flame Trees of Thicka: novel by Elspeth Huxley.

Gisonian Matrix
and Cowboy Gibson
--William Gibson: felt by many to be the father of the cyberpunk sub-genre in SF. His novel, Neuromancer, is considered to be the first real cyberpunk novel and the first to develop the concepts of AIs, cyberspace, ICE defense systems, and human/computer interfacing.
--a significant character in Neuromancer is called "Cowboy." "Cowboy Gibson" in Hyperion is obviously an example of confusing/conflating an author with his characters.

Meina Gladstone:
one of the most powerful members of the ruling government of the Hegemony.
--William Gladstone: British statesman and prime minister, 19th century.
--Golda Meir: Israeli prime minister, 20th century
--Meina Gladstone--MG and Golda Meir--GM

Hawking drive:
--Stephen Hawking, 20th and 21st century theoretical physicist and cosmologist.

Sherlock Holmes:

Hoolie River:

--Another example of a name that I can't find anything relevant, but feel that there should be something.

Horse who could talk
--popular Russian folk tale

Hyperion: name of most significant planet in the novel.
--Greek mythology: the Titan who was the Sun God and replaced by Apollo
--title of a long unfinished poem by John Keats
--title of the film based on the novel, expected out in 2013

Hyperion Cantos: in the novel, the title of a long unfinished poem by Martin Silenus.
--the Cantos, parts of which are known as the Pisan Cantos, a long unfinished poem by Ezra Pound.
--the canto: the basic unit of Dante's Divine Comedy, each of the three major books--Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso contains 33 cantos or chapters. The 100th Canto follows the 33 in Paradiso.

John Keats: a cybrid, a flesh-and-blood construct of the AIs, developed to gather information about human society, based on biographical records and poetry of the poet.
--John Keats: 19th century English Romantic Poet, wrote several long, unfinished poems whose titles and Greek mythic background are important elements in Simmons' four novels.

Lycius: character in the novel.
--Lycius: significant character in Keats' poem "Lamia."

--see Shakespeare

Last best hope on earth:

--see President Abraham Lincoln's Annual Address to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862

: sometime lover of Kassad, one of the pilgrims
--Moneta: goddess in Roman mythology who is associated with Greek goddess Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses and the goddess of memory.
--in Keats' poem Hyperion, Mnemosyne is teaching Apollo and responsible for Apollo's awakening to his true nature, therefore she is indirectly related to the fall of Hyperion, the Titan Sun God.
--Moneta is also a name given to Juno, the chief Roman goddess and consort of Jupiter, also the Latin source for many English words, including money.

Naiad: a river port city in the novel.
--naiad: Greek mythology, nymphs who presided over fountains, wells, springs, streams, and brooks.

Port Romance: a port city in the novel

Ezra Pound: early cybrid, (see entry for John Keats), a failure, reportedly went mad.
--Ezra Pound: during the first half of the 20th century he was an important poet and critic, was important in advising and helping a number of poets become recognized, including T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost.

Sad King Billy: secondary character in the novel, a patron of the arts who created a city for artists, writers, poets, sculptors . . . He had his features carved into a mountainside-
--Mt Rushmore?

Ernest Shackleton:
--Ernest Shackleton: Antarctic explorer

Ship of Fools:
--title of poem by D. H. Lawrence, the quotation is from his poem.Bold

a murderous creature found on Hyperion. It's 3 meters tall and metallic, covered with spikes and blades. It appears and disappears mysteriously, sometimes leaving a shredded body behind and sometimes abducting the individual. Nothing is known of the creature save that it kills without warning and apparently without any purpose. It is thought to be associated with the time tombs in some fashion. Legend has it that the missing individuals are hung up on the spikes and blades of a metallic tree called the thorn tree.
--Shrikes on earth are medium-sized birds, with hooked beaks. In some places they are known as the butcher bird because of their habit of impaling their prey on thorns to keep them from scavengers.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

--Teilhard's theory is that the universe is evolving, from basic matter to chemicals and elements to life to consciousness to Supreme Consciousness incorporating the entire universe--the Omega Point--at this point the universe has evolved into the Godhead.

The Templars: a quasi-religious order or brotherhood who transport pilgrims to and from Hyperion. Their religious book is called The Writings of Muir.
--Quasi-religious/military order, founded during the Crusades, initially to protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. It became very wealthy and powerful during the 12th and 13th centuries and incurred the displeasure of the French King Philip IV who had the order destroyed.

The Writings of Muir: the most significant book for the Templars.
--John Muir, 20th century naturalist, author, and early advocate of the preservation of wilderness in the US. His numerous letters, essays, and books constituted a powerful force in the protection of the wilderness areas of Yosemite Vally, Sequoia National Park and other wilderness areas. He is the founder of The Sierra Club.

Yggdrasil: a tree ship owned by the Templars. It is the one transporting the pilgrims to Hyperion.
--Norse mythology, a gigantic ash tree, the world tree around which the nine worlds existed. The branches of Yggdrasil are supposed to have extended far into the heavens and the tree is supported by three roots that extend far into other locations.

The Pilgrims

The Priest's Tale:
Father Lenar Hoyt, a Catholic priest.
--His tale: "The Man Who Cried God"--perhaps an echo of Christ's last words on the cross, very apt if true.
--Father Hoyt tells the story from the journal of his mentor, Father Dure. Fr. Dure discovered a group of people who had become immortal, or perhaps more appropriately, cursed with immortality, for there was a price to be paid.

The Soldier's Tale:
Fedmahn Kassad, retired military officer. Nickname: The Butcher
--His tale: "The War Lovers" which is the title of a war novel buy John Hersey, as well as the title of the film based on the novel.
--It's the story of his encounter with Moneta, a mysterious woman who becomes his occasional lover and his encounter with the Shrike.
--Kassad reminds me of the Fighters found in Frank Herbert's Dune.

The Poet's Tale:
Martin Silenus, a poet, usually has a drink in hand.
--Silenus, Greek mythology. Silenus was a devoted follower of Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine. Silenus is frequently pictured as being drunk. He is also depicted as having powers, for in one of the versions of the story of King Midas, Silenus is supposedly the one who gave Midas the golden touch.
--His tale: "The Hyperion Cantos"
--It's a brief autobiography, which includes his encounter with the Shrike.

The Scholar's Tale:
Sol Weintraub, sometimes called The Wandering Jew
--His tale: The River Lethe's Taste is Bitter," the story of his daughter Rachel.
--Rachel, at around age 25, was working on a excavation at the time tombs. She was trapped by the sudden appearance of a time wave and began aging backwards from that point on. She is now less than a month old. Sol occasionally has dreams (visions?) in which a voice speaks to him and commands that Rachel be sacrificed--an echo of the story of Abraham and his son Isaac from the Old Testament.
--The River Lethe: Greek mythology, all those who drank of the River Lethe experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe is also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion who is often associated with the River.

The Detective's Tale:
Brawne Lamia: she is a private investigator.
--Brawne is the last name of the woman John Keats was engaged to -- Fanny Brawne.
--Lamia is the title of a poem written by John Keats. It's based on the Greek myth of a woman turned into a serpent or a serpent who was turned into a woman. She seduces men and then destroys them.
--Her tale: "The Long Good-Bye" It is the account of her last case, involving her client John Keats, the cybrid.
--"The Long Good-Bye" is the title of a mystery novel written by Raymond Chandler, who is considered, along with Dashiell Hammet, to be one of the creators of the hard-boiled detective story. A film of the same name was based on this novel. Another of Chandler's novels, The Big Sleep, was also filmed, starring Humphrey Bogart as Chandler's PI, Philip Marlowe.

The Consul's Tale:
The Consul: an official in the Hegemony.
--The Consul is the POV character, and we don't learn his true identity until the very end of his tale.
--His tale: "Remembering Siri" The title may seem familiar for it was published as an independent novella years before it was incorporated into the Hyperion universe.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dan Simmons: Hyperion, an SF Novel

Dan Simmons: Hyperion, an SF novel
Dan Simmons has created a rather unique work in Hyperion, the first novel in a four novel set. It is composed of three major themes—Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Greek mythology focused primarily on the Creation myths, and the poetry and to some extent the life of John Keats, the 19th century English Romantic poet. The novel also includes a dash of Norse mythology, a sprinkle of contemporary allusions, and a pinch of SF in-jokes. I must admit that at times I lost track of the story as I wandered sometimes far astray following one allusion or another. Eventually I decided to simply make notes and do the research after finishing the novel. I did so and ended up with 4+ pages of notes. I will list them in a second post, for those who are interested in such arcane activities.

The Three Major Themes:
Most obvious is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Seven strangers meet and discover they have been invited by the Church of the Shrike to make a pilgrimage to its most sacred spot, the Time Tombs. Such pilgrimages had been banned for some time, but now unexpectedly the Church has granted permission for these seven to form a party. Some have been trying for years to be accepted but have always been denied permission, up to now. Others found themselves successful on their first application while at least one individual had never even applied for permission and is going only because he was ordered to go. He was a government official, and a high ranking member of the Hegemony (the government that controlled the numerous planets settled by humans) orders him to accept the invitation and investigate the strange behavior of the Church.
Upon meeting for the first time in the ship carrying them to their destination, the planet Hyperion, the pilgrims decide, more or less willingly (some more than others), to tell their stories in hopes of finding some common thread that would clear up this puzzle—why a pilgrimage now and why them?
Hyperion, therefore, consists for the most part of six tales told by the pilgrims of their sometimes direct and sometimes tenuous relationship to the Church of the Shrike. The tales are linked by the typical hardships encountered by travelers on their journey and the usual by-play among the travelers as they go through the process of getting to know each other, for they will be spending considerable time in each others’ company.
The second major theme consists of Greek mythology, especially the Greek Creation myth. Briefly, in the beginning was Chaos, an unformed mass. Out of this mass emerged Uranus, the Sky God, and Gaea, the Earth Goddess. Their offspring were the Hundred-Handed, the Cyclops, and the Titans. Uranus found it necessary to punish the Hundred-Handed and the Cyclops. Gaea feels this is unfair and appeals to the Titans to interfere.
The Titans rise up and overthrow Uranus. Saturn (or Chronos--the God of Time) now replaces Uranus as the chief god and Rhea becomes the ruling goddess. The other titans take various positions: Hyperion becomes the Sun God while Oceanus becomes the god of the Ocean. Other titans are given other realms to rule.
However, peace is hard to achieve, even among the gods, for Chronos learns of a prophecy that he will be displaced by one of his offspring. He feels this is unfair (forgetting how he got his present position) so each time Rhea, his consort, gives birth, he immediately swallows the newborn. You may see a pattern here as Rhea eventually becomes upset with such behavior. Finally she takes action and when her next child is born, she takes a child-sized rock, wraps it in swaddling clothes, and hands it off to Saturn/Chronos who immediately swallows it. Satisfied, Chronos wanders off and Rhea takes the child and raises it on a deserted island, somewhere in the Mediterranean.
When the child is old enough or rather big and strong enough, Rhea tells him some facts about their family history and encourages him to rescue his brothers and sisters. The son, actually it’s Zeus, goes to his father and forces him to disgorge his siblings. Together they attack, defeat, and assume the Titans' roles in the universal hierarchy, with Zeus now becoming the chief god, thus fulfilling the prophecy.
One of the significant issues in the Creation myth is the conflict among generations with the older generation being replaced by their descendents, and they, in turn, being replaced by their own. Gods, like humans, I guess, don’t learn from history. This clearly is foreshadowing of the coming events in the novel.
The third significant element consist of the poetry and some aspects of the life of John Keats, the English 19th century poet. One of the pilgrims is Martin Silenus, a poet, who frequently recites, at appropriate and sometimes inappropriate moments, fragments of his poetry, supposedly from his as yet uncompleted masterpiece, The Hyperion Cantos. However, the fragments are really from two of John Keats’ long but unfinished poems, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, and two excerpts from two of Keats’ shorter but finished poems. The one excerpt that is not from Keats’ poetry is quoted by the pilgrim who is the first person to tell his tale, and he appropriately enough begins with a quotation from the first tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Background and Setting:
The novel is set far in the future when the human race has spread throughout the galaxy. Earth no longer exists. Humans destroyed it when some scientists made what everybody euphemistically calls The Big Mistake. It had something to do with a black hole escaping and sinking down into the center of the planet. It then proceeded to devour the planet over a long period of time, which allowed all, but a few who decided to remain, to escape.
All is not peaceful though. Three groups are engaged in a power struggle for control. One such group is the Hegemony, the government which now rules the existing human civilization. The second group consists of the AIs at TechnoCore. These are artificial intelligences which have evolved from the evolution of computers and have become self-aware. Centuries earlier they had removed themselves from human domination and gathered at a secret place known only as the TechnoCore.
The AIs themselves are split into several groups. One group wishes to eliminate the human race immediately before the humans develop sufficient technology to destroy them or perhaps regain control of them. A second group counsels patience for they believe that humans will do the job for them and eventually destroy themselves. A third group, however, argues that they should pay more attention to events taking place on the planet Hyperion, for their projections had not mentioned either the Shrike or the time tombs, which seemed to be traveling backwards in time, and therefore were visitors from the future. Before the AIs took any action, they argued, the mystery of Hyperion needed to be solved.
How can there be a civilization that doesn’t have barbarians hammering away at the city gates? Well, Simmons has provided them also—the Ousters, people who fled the Hegemony and developed their own culture and technology, and the belief that the Hegemony is holding back the human race from further development. They are the third group in this three-way struggle for dominance. The Ousters have now decided that something significant for the development of the human race is taking place on Hyperion, so they also are headed for Hyperion. Once the Hegemony discovers that the Ousters fleet is pointed at Hyperion, the government decides it’s time to solve the Ouster problem once and for all. It sends a huge fleet to Hyperion and its mission is to completely wipe out the Ousters.
As you can see, everybody who’s anybody is going to Hyperion.
Simmons apparently had some problems with the novel. He spent so much time developing this complex universe with its various contending forces and novella length stories by the pilgrims that he was unable to finish the tale in one novel. Consequently the novel ends at the point when the pilgrims have reached a point a few kilometers from the site of the time tombs, their ultimate destination. To say that nothing has been resolved is an understatement for there is at least one more tale to be told. In addition, it’s not clear yet just what the overall purpose of the pilgrimage is supposed to serve, nor why these people were chosen. I also have the feeling that I don’t know enough at this point to pose other significant questions. This is why I recommend that anyone who chooses to read Hyperion should also get The Fall of Hyperion at the same time, where presumably there will be a resolution, of some sort.
I’m not going to reveal the ending, inconclusive as it may be, because Simmons concocts an outrageous last chapter. All I will say is that it is one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, and for some weird reason, it really works. I had to go back several times and reread it, just to make sure I was reading what Simmons had done and not filling in my own delusions.
The planet Hyperion is significant and a puzzle for two reasons. One is the existence of the time tombs, strange empty structures that look as though they might be tombs. At regular periods distortions in time occur in the vicinity of the tombs, and the scientists have decided that the tombs are actually traveling backwards in time.
The second reason is the presence of the Shrike. The Shrike is a tall, some 3-4 meters in height, metallic-appearing creature, humanoid in shape but covered with sharp spikes and blades. The Shrike appeared only some time after humans settled the planet and initially only in the area around the time tombs. Consequently it is believed there is some connection to them. Recently the Shrike has appeared in various parts of the planet where its presence is made known by the discovery of bodies that have been dismembered. Sometimes the person just disappears and is never seen again.
The Church of the Shrike consists of those who believe the Shrike is a god and therefore worships it.
Overall Rating: I found it very interesting. Each of the seven pilgrims is a unique individual, some likeable and some less so, but all have very intriguing tales to tell. At this point, it's difficult to talk about it because I really don't know much about the plot and other significant issues. This novel appears to be one long, extended introduction, and I presume the second novel, The Fall of Hyperion, will provide more information about just what is going on.
I will post another entry shortly regarding this work: it is a glossary of allusions from the novel that I’ve been able to identify. The allusions Simmons includes provide an unusually rich depth to the novel, considering the prevalence of references to Greek and Norse mythology, the use of Chaucer's pilgrimage as a structure, English poets, and contemporary individuals, as well as connections to some significant SF authors.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Joseph Wood Krutch: November 25, 1893 to May 22, 1970

Beauty and joy are natural things. They are older than man, and they have their source in the natural part of him. Art becomes sterile and the joy of life withers when they become unnatural. If modern urban life is becoming more comfortable, more orderly, more sanitary, and more socially conscious than it ever was before--but if at the same time it also becoming less beautiful (as it seems to me) and less joyous (as it seems to nearly everyone) -- then the deepest reason for that may be its increasing forgetfulness of nature. She is often none of the good things which the city is, but she is almost always, nevertheless, somehow beautiful and somehow joyous.
-- Joseph Wood Krutch--
from Baja California and the Geography of Hope

Krutch seems to feel we are giving up something precious for a life that may be

more comfortable, more orderly, more sanitary, and more socially conscious than it ever was before.

Is this a fair trade or is it even true? Are people as joyous as they have been in the past?

I think perhaps William Wordsworth is saying something very similar here.

The World Is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The wind that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

-- William Wordsworth

Monday, November 21, 2011

Abraham Lincoln: a quotation

Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.

Abraham Lincoln 1858

I wonder what he would think today after reading the headlines.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thomas Hardy: "At Day-Close in November"

Here's a poem by Thomas Hardy that I just discovered by accident. I opened up the book, The Works of Thomas Hardy, to the middle, approximately, and found this aptly named poem.

At Day-Close in November

The ten hours' light is abating,
And a late bird wings across,
Where the pines, like waltzers waiting,
Give their black heads a toss.

Beech leaves, that yellow the noon time,
Float past like specks in the eye;
I set every tree in my June time,
And now they obscure the sky.

And the children who ramble through here
Conceive that there never has been
A time when no tall tress grew here,
That none will in time be seen.

A simple little poem with some lines that I like: "Beech leaves, that yellow the noon time." I didn''t realize that "yellow" is a verb, as well as a noun. It's an apt use of it here. I also like "in my June time." Perhaps it's the ambiguity here. Did he mean he set the tree during June or during the June time of his own life? Or both?

And, of course, the last stanza where Hardy comments on the shortness of memory and also the inevitable transience of all creation. Those trees, which for the children have always been there, will be gone some day, something equally unthinkable for those children, and for us too. How much of what we see about us has "always been there" and will "always be there"?

I guess maybe this poem isn't quite that simple after all.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain XLVIII

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain XLVIII

While the main point of the quatrain doesn’t change, FitzGerald has varied the tone and focus of that message in the second and fifth editions.

First Edition: Quatrain XLVIII

While the Rose blows along the River Brink,

With old Khayyam the Ruby Vintage drink:

And when the Angel with his darker Draught

Draws up to Thee—take that, and do not shrink.

Second Edition: Quatrain XLVI

So when at last the Angel of the drink

Of Darkness finds you by the river-brink,

And, proffering his Cup, invites your Soul

Forth to your Lips to quaff it—do not shrink.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XLIII

So when that Angel of the darker Drink

At last shall find you by the river-brink,

And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul

Forth to your Lips to quaff—you shall not shrink.

I think the point made by all three versions is fairly clear. At some point, we will die and when that time comes, we should accept it gracefully and courageously. What has changed though, at least so it seems to me, is the tone of the quatrain as it goes through the various versions.

In the first version, the first two lines portray an almost idyllic if not Edenic scene with a river and wine and friendship and flowers. The Garden of Paradise is frequently described in this way in Moslem writings.

“While the Rose blows along the River Brink,

With old Khayyam the Ruby Vintage drink:”

But this idyllic scene is suddenly and without warning rudely interrupted in lines three and four--:

“And when the Angel with his darker Draught

Draws up to Thee—take that, and do not shrink.”

--and the tone immediately shifts to a far darker mood with “the Angel and his darker Draught” and the interjection of Death. Moreover, the poet narrator employs a very harsh, or at least, commanding tone—we are ordered to “take that [darker Draught], and do not shrink.”

Fitzgerald made a number of changes in the Second Edition, though I think the message is still the same—death will come. The idyllic situation found the in first two lines of the first edition has almost completely disappeared in the second edition. What is left is simply a location—the river-brink. The wine, the flowers, and the companionship have disappeared. We just happen to be by a river when the Angel appears. We are now not shown what is lost by death. Perhaps FitzGerald felt the contrast to be too threatening or depressing.

The depiction of the drink has also changed from a “darker Draught” to “the drink of Darkness.” The drink is not just darker but it is the drink of Darkness, a much less euphemistic reference to death. The poet also suggests something definitely not in the First Edition. The appearance of the Angel was sudden and unexpected in the First Edition, but that changes in the Second Edition. The Angel now finds us “at last,” which suggests that we have been expecting this and perhaps even possibly looking forward to it, or at least somewhat relieved that the Angel has finally appeared.

“So when at last the Angel of the drink

Of Darkness finds you by the river-brink,”

There is also a change in tone in the three and fourth lines. Where in the first version we are ordered to take it, we now see the Angel offering his Cup and inviting us to take it. It is not simply given to us, but it is offered and we are invited to take it. We seem to have a choice here, one that we didn’t have in the first version. But, again, we are told that we should accept our fate and not draw back from it.

"And, proffering his Cup, invites your Soul

Forth to your Lips to quaff it—do not shrink."

The Fifth Edition is very close to the Second as FitzGerald kept most of the changes he made then. However, there are two changes worth noting. FitzGerald possibly felt that the “Drink of Darkness” was too harsh or threatening, for he returned to the phrasing of the First Edition when he changed it to “the darker Drink.”

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XLIII

So when that Angel of the darker Drink

At last shall find you by the river-brink,

And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul

Forth to your Lips to quaff—you shall not shrink.

The second change occurred in the last two lines. Instead of ending with “do not shrink,” a plea? or perhaps an order, the poet now tells us “you shall not shrink,” which is clearly closer to a command, much closer in tone now to the First Edition.

The versions are an interesting interplay of two changes in tone that actually go in opposite directions through the editions. The first is the reference to the drink, from a relatively nonthreatening darker drink to the Drink of Darkness and then a return to the gentler darker drink. The second occurs in the last line, from the command to "take it, and do not shrink" to the offering of the drink and the invitation (invitations can be refused) in the second to the invitation again in the fifth edition, but the admonition that you shall not shrink from taking it--again almost an order, in spite of the invitation.

It is unfortunate that we do not have any notes or commentaries by FitzGerald regarding the changes he made over the years. I think those would have given us considerable insight into changes in FitzGerald's own thinking. The changes in his poetry may reflect changes in him, but the rationale is not easily seen, at least by me. Others may be more perceptive.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Paul Lawrence Dunbar: "By the Stream"

Considering the hectic pace of life today, the incredibly fast transmission of news (usually a catastrophe or something equally bad), the intolerance and hatred of so many leaders cloaked in the name of patriotism, and the raucous demands of various, competing interest groups, perhaps we should take some time out and meditate on something a bit slower and natural and relaxing--something as simple as leaving all of our electronic naggers at home and finding a tree to sit down and lean up against that happens to be (or perhaps maybe just the tree alone)

By the Stream

By the stream I dream in calm delight, and watch as in a glass,
How the clouds like crowds of snowy-hued and white-robed maidens pass,
And the water into ripples breaks and sparkles as it spreads,
Like a host of armored knights with silver helmets on their heads.
And I deem the stream an emblem fit of human life may go,
For I find a mind may sparkle much, and yet but shallows show,
And a soul may glow with myriad lights and wondrous mysteries,
When it only lies a dormant thing and mirrors what it sees.

Sometimes maybe a fantasy break would be healthier for us than a coffee break.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Kenko: Essays in Idleness

Chapter 2

The man who forgets the wise principles of the reigns of the ancient emperors; who gives no thought to the grievances of the people or the harm done the country; who strives for the utmost luxury in everything, imagining this is the sign of magnificence; who acts as if the world were too small for him seems deplorably wanting in intelligence. You will find in Lord Kujo's Testament the instruction, "Make do with whatever you have, from your court costume down to your horses and carriages. Do not strive for elegance." Again, you will find among the writings of the Retired Emperor Juntoku on court ceremonial, "The clothes worn by the emperor should be simple and unassuming."

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

I think Kenko and the Greeks who argued for "moderation in all things" would understand each other here. What's interesting is that Kenko even suggests that emperors and others in power would find this an intelligent way of acting politically, that such behavior might be harmful to the country, especially if one doesn't listen "to the grievances of the people." Kenko differs from the Greeks though in that, while a Greek would support the proposition by reasoning to it, he quotes ancient emperors and other members of the nobility for his support.

Kenko doesn't argue for giving up what one has, but simply to

Make do with whatever you have, from your court costume down to your horses and carriages. Do not strive for elegance."

Today, we have considerable numbers of people in this country who are demonstrating in various places against the ways things are. I wonder if anyone is listening to them.

"Kujo-dono was an appellation of Fujiware no Morosuke (908-950). His Testament (or Admonition) is translated in G. B. Sanson, A History of Japan to 1334, pp. 180-83."

"The Emperor Juntoku (1197-1242) wrote Kimpisho, a study of court precedents and usages, between 1218 and 1221. Kenko's quotation is approximate."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Thomas Mann: The Transposed Heads

Thomas Mann: The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India

This is not only a short novel by Thomas Mann, it’s also a very unusual novel for him. It’s set in India, in mythic times, so, therefore, it must be true. I’ll let Mann introduce the novel, for he does it much better than I ever could.

The story of Sita of the beautiful hips, daughter of the cattle-breeder Sumantra of the wqrrior caste and of her two husbands (if one may put it like that) is so sanguinary, so amazing to the senses, that it makes the greatest demands on the hearer's strength of mind and his power to resist the gruesome guiles of Maya. it would be well for the listener to take pattern from the fortitude of the teller, for it requires, if anything, more courage to tell such a tale that to hear it. But here it is, from first to last, just as it fell out:

As you may have guessed, this is a tale of the eternal triangle and the way it worked itself out in India of mythic times—the tale of Sita, Shridaman and Nanda.

Young Shridaman was a merchant, and the son of a merchant; Nanda, on the other hand, both a smith and a cowherd, for his father Garga not only kept cattle on the meadow and in the byre, but also plied the hammer and fanned the fire with a bird’s wing.

Shridaman followed in his father’s footsteps after “having previously devoted some years to grammar and the elements of astronomy and ontology, under the supervision of a guru or spiritual preceptor.

Not so Nanda, son of Garga. His karma was otherwise; and never, by either tradition or inheritance, had he had to do with things of the mind . . . His work as a smith had made powerful his arms; that as a shepherd had been further an advantage, for he had a well set-up body, which he loved to rub with mustard oil adn drape with gold ornaments and chains of wild flowers.

Shridaman, on the other hand, had a thin aristocratic face and a soft body, not hardened by exercise. It was the perfect body for "a noble and knowledgeable head piece." Nanda's head to the contrary was merely a "pleasing appendage" for the body was "the main thing."

In spite of, or perhaps because of, these differences Shridaman and Nanda became good friends. All was well until they met Sita, she of the beautiful hips. Both became enamored of her, but it was Shridaman who spoke first. She accepted his proposal, but they did not live happily ever after. Shortly after the wedding, Sita began to wonder if she hadn’t made a mistake, especially after seeing Nanda, for he was a frequent visitor. Eventually both Nanda and Shridaman became aware of the situation.

Six months after the wedding, the three went to visit Sita’s parents. On the trip, they found a temple to Kali. Shridaman said he wished to pray a moment and entered the temple. There he prayed to Kali and then cut his head off (obviously with Kali’s help), thus freeing Sita to marry Nanda.

Eventually Nanda goes looking for Shridaman and finds his friend. He realizes instantly why Shridaman has done this and feeling guilty as the cause of his best friend’s suicide, he resolves he cannot do anything but to follow his friend into death.

After a while, Sita becomes concerned and enters the temple in search of them. She finds them and although confused as to how it happened, she understands very well why it happened. She decides also to commit suicide by hanging herself. While she stands there with the noose around her neck, Kali appears and tells her to take the noose off or she will get her “ears boxed.”

Kali tells her that all will be well, for all Sita has to do is put the heads carefully back on the bodies and she (Kali) will do the rest. Sita does but in her sorrow and grief makes one minor mistake—she puts the heads back on the wrong bodies.

At first Nanda and Shridaman are happy with the transposition, for both had been afflicted with “the grass is greener” longings—Shridaman for Nanda’s physique and Nanda for Shridaman’s intellectual bearing and appearance. But, you may be surprised to learn (or perhaps not surprised) that all still is not well with the threesome.

From this point on, three issues are worked out in the story: (1) to whom is Sita married?; (2) what happens to Shridaman’s fine aristocratic head and intellectual capacities on Nanda’s strong young body?; and (3) what happens to Nanda’s broad happy face and rather ordinary intellect on Shridaman’s intellectual and clerkly body?

The ultimate question addressed here, therefore, is which creates and rules the person—the mind or the body?

Overall Reaction: an unanswerable question that Mann handles with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Lots of fun if you are looking for a novel that plays with ideas.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gwendolyn Brooks: The Bean Eaters

A very quiet and simple poem by Gwendolyn Brooks:

The Bean Eaters

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full
of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco
crumbs, vases and fringes.

Age and poverty and isolation? It appears at first a sad poem about two old people who seem merely to be going through the motions, waiting to die. But, in the second stanza, they are putting things away. What are those things? Do they put them in their rented back room with the "beads and receipts and dolls . . ."? Are they putting away more memories for a later day?

"Mostly Good"--Brooks capitalizes the phrase, emphasizes it this way--not great saints, but not really bad people. They are more good than bad, perhaps the best that can be said of most of us.

And then--the last stanza, "And remembering." They have their memories and those are mixed memories--"with twinklings and twinges"--as are the memories of us all. What is more, those are shared memories.

Perhaps there is more here than is visible at a cursory first glance.

Perhaps it is best simply to read the poem . . .

The Bean Eaters

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full
of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco
crumbs, vases and fringes.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

William Shakespeare: Sonnet LXXIII

One of my favorite sonnets by Shakespeare


That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
      This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
      To love that well which thou must leave ere long

The images in this sonnet are simple and striking and apt: autumn, twilight, and the dying embers of a fire to symbolize one's later years. I realize others may differ, but I consider the first four lines-- autumn--to be among the best, if not the very best, in Shakespeare's sonnets.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

What are your favorite lines from Shakespeare?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Loren Eiseley: We Are The Scriveners

We Are The Scriveners

I have not seen her in forty years.
She is old now, or lies in one of those midwestern
farm cemeteries where
no one remembers for long, because everyone
leaves for the cities. She was young, with freckles
and a wide generous mouth, a good girl to have
loved for a lifetime but the world
always chooses otherwise, or we ourselves
in blindness. I would not remember so clearly save that here
by a prairie slough sprinkled with the leaves of autumn
the drying mud on the shore shows the imprint
of southbound birds. I am too old to travel,
but I suddenly realize how a man in Sumer
half the world and millennia away
saw the same imprint and thought
there is a way of saying upon clay, fire-hardened,
there is a way of saying
a way of saying
"where are you?" across the centuries
a way of saying
"forgive me"
a way of saying
"We were young. I remember, and this, this clay
imprinted with the feet of birds
will reach you somewhere
if it take eternity to answer."
There were men
like this in Sumer, or who wept among the
autumn papyrus leaves in Egypt.
We are the scriveners who with pain
outlasted our bodies.

-- Loren Eiseley --
from Another Kind of Autumn

Writing is a way of talking with someone, not only separated by distance, but also by time. Sometimes there's no way of answering; the best one can do is listen and pass on the message to someone who has yet to come. The spirit of the poem reminds me of one of my favorite poems by Walt Whitman--"A noiseless patient spider," the last stanza of which follows. You can read the complete poem if you scroll down to the bottom.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to
connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

I think Eiseley and Whitman would understand each other.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain: XLVII

Edward FitzGerald made several changes in this quatrain as the editions progressed from the First to the Fifth, but the most significant one is the simple removal of one word. This brings about a substantial change in tone-- a change that impinges on theological issues important to several religions.

First Edition: Quatrain XLVII

And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in the Nothing all Things end in--Yes--
Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be--Nothing--Thou shalt not be less.

A rather bleak stanza--the end of everything, including us is nothing. The only consolation, if it can be called that, is that if all we do ends in Nothing, then we won't be any less in the future, when we will be Nothing. Theologians from various religions may wish to dispute the poet-narrator's bleak view of existence and its aftermath.

Perhaps the "if" in the first line of this rather convoluted stanza offers some hope. "If" it all ends in Nothing--it's not a definite statement, but suggests only a possibility that all may end in Nothing. However, the previous stanzas that relegated us to the status of playthings and actors in a drama created by the Master suggest that since our only role is that of entertainment, this would hold little hope of anything beyond that, except perhaps to be taken out of the box for another game. That doesn't strike me as much of an eternal reward, although it may be an improvement over eternal punishment.

Second Edition: Quatrain XLV

And if the Cup you drink, the Lip you press,
End in what All begins and ends in--Yes,
Imagine then you are what heretofore
You were--hereafter you shall not be less.

The poet-narrator no longer refers to "Nothing" in this stanza. Instead, it is left open. Our ultimate end shall be the same as our beginning, unknown. We are what we were and we shall not be less in the future. Taoists would agree here for in the Tao Te Ching, it is written that all come from the tao and ultimately return to the tao. And the tao is unknowable, as is told in the first stanza of Chapter One (traditional order)

The Tao that can be told of
Is not the Absolute Tao,
The Names that can be given
Are not the Absolute Names.

Fifth Edition: XLII

And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press
End in what All begins and ends in--Yes;
Think then you are To-day what Yesterday
You were--To-morrow you shall not be less.

The most significant changes between the second and fifth editions are the substitution of Yesterday, To-day, and To-morrow for reference to the beginning, the present, and the future. As does the second edition, this version also leaves open just what our status was in the beginning and in the future, and it also suggests that our status is the same for all three--yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

What does "the Wine you drink, the Lip you press" end in? --the same that everything begins and ends in . . .

Why the change from "Nothing" to ambiguity? Perhaps comments from religious leaders?

The quotation comes from The Wisdom of Laotse, translated by Lin Yutang.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Michel de Montaigne: an observation

I generally consider Michel de Montaigne to be a realist, but at times I wonder if he is also a bit of a cynic.

It is well to be born in a very depraved age; for, in comparison with others, you are reckoned virtuous at small cost. He who, in our days, is merely a parricide and sacrilegious is withal a worthy and honourable man.

-- Michel de Montaigne --

from "Of Presumption"
The Essays of Montaigne

In our day, how many times have you heard someone attacking a politician and someone, in defense, will say: "Well, at least, he/she hasn't . . ."? It's sad when the best defense one can offer is that the individual could be worse.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Eric Hoffer: Reflections


Due to the imperfection of man's instincts there is a pause of faltering and groping between his perception and action. This pause is a seedbed of the apprehensions, the insights, the images, and the concepts which are the warp and woof of the creative process. A shrinking of the pause results in some degree of dehumanization. This is as true of highly grained specialists and dogmatic True Believers as of the mentally deficient.

Both iron discipline and blind faith strive to eliminate the pause of hesitation before action, while the discipline that humanizes and civilizes aims at widening the interval between impulse and execution.

Art humanizes because the artist must grope and feel his way, and he never ceases to learn.

-- Eric Hoffer --
from Reflections on the Human Condition

Some interesting thoughts here.

One could speculate that during that widening pause between impulse or perception and action or response, people could conceivably think differently than they did the last time and therefore might change their ideas. That suggests that changing one's mind now and then when felt necessary is more human than never changing one's mind at any time. So, those who insist on attacking others for changing their minds are actually complimenting them, are calling them more human and civilized. A strange thought.

Michel de Montaigne put it much more succinctly.

Only fools are certain and immovable.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Han-shan: a poem

Han-shan is a classic example of China's hermit Zen/Tao poets. His poetry carries elements of both Zen Or Chan, as it was called in China, and Taoism. Just who he was is not known. His adopted name, Han-shan, means Cold Mountain, which is where the cave in which he lived was located.

His poetry was discovered, according to tradition, after he died, written on the walls of his cave and the trees, rocks, and walls in the area and near several villages. His poems, some 300 of them have been preserved, are generally short and simple. Perhaps that is why I like them. The most common themes are nature and human behavior, frequently remonstrances against pretension and greed and pleas to turn to the good or virtuous life.


The Cold Mountain Road is strange
no tracks of cart or horse
hard to recall which merging stream
or tell which piled-up ridge
a myriad plants weep with dew
the pines all sigh the same
here where the trail disappears
form asks shadow where to

-- Han-shan --
from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
trans. Red Pine

Translator's note: "The last line is also indebted to T'ao Yuan-ming's Form, Shadow, and Spirit,
in which Form and Shadow turn to Spirit for a solution to their transient existence.

In a note, Red Pine describes his visit to Han-shan's cave on Cold Mountain years ago, and it doesn't seem to be any easier to find or get to today than it was in the 8th and 9th centuries when Han-shan lived there.

The last line puzzles me for it seems almost as though a line is missing or perhaps an infinitive.

"form asks shadow where to _____"

Han-shan has a number of poems in which he describes the difficulties of reaching his shallow cave on Cold Mountain. Perhaps he's trying to discourage people from visiting him. But, his poetry really wasn't widely known until after his death, so perhaps that may be only a part of the reason. Whatever the reason, I get a clear sense of the rugged wilderness in which he lived and how easily I could get lost.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

KING KONG . . . Kong . . . kong

Hollywood again exercises its creative powers by remaking a classic film. This time it’s one of the best monster films ever made—King Kong. So far there have been two remakes since the original came out in 1933--one in 1976 and the latest, so far, in 2005.

Warning: I shall reveal significant plot events and the ending.

The plot, to summarize, is thus: “civilized” people are on their way to exploit the “savages” of an uncharted island in the south Pacific. The inhabitants of the island worship a giant ape and decide the female aboard the ship would be a perfect sacrifice. So they kidnap her one dark and stormy night. The giant ape, King Kong, is pleased with her and takes her off to his lair. Those aboard the ship get up a rescue party, and the hero single-handedly rescues her from her large, hairy admirer. Enraged, Kong follows, is captured, and is brought back to New York. Put on display for the entertainment of the depression era citizenry, Kong breaks free, grabs the heroine, and climbs the highest building around, where he is attacked by aircraft and ultimately plunges to his death.

King Kong I (1933): According to, the original King Kong has two directors (both unaccredited), Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoesack. This version is characterized by its setting—dark, moody, threatening. The landscape is bleak and ominous. The film is in black-and-white which adds to the darkness of the story and its setting. Its special effects, while primitive compared to today’s technology, still are very effective. Moreover, they do not distract from the story so that the viewer spends more time marveling over the effects and forgets about the story.

King Kong II (1976) John Guillerman is the director of the second version. He attempts to update it by changing the purpose of the voyage to an oil exploration expedition. It is in color, so it lacks that dark grim tone that characterized the first version. He also changed the site of Kong’s death by moving it from the Empire State Building to the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The male lead also has long hair, an obvious attempt to play to the young crowd. Guillerman also brought into the open the sexual undertone that lurked beneath the surface in the first version, especially the celebrated scene by the waterfall. The special effects, as to be expected, were superior to the first version, but really added little to the overall effect of the film which has become just another action-oriented film, one among many..

King Kong III (2005) Peter Jackson directed this version, and based on what he did to King Kong, I fear for the fate of The Hobbit, which he is, no doubt, busy improving on what JRR Tolkien had written. It’s due in 2012. This version of King Kong is a farce, a mockery of both versions, but especially the first. It lacks both the dark undertone of the first or the overt sexuality of the second.

In this version, the story seems to be mostly an excuse for the special effects, which ultimately become ludicrous. The fight dangling amidst the vines strains the imagination to its limit. The dinosaur stampede, while technically well done, is a joke. How could humans on foot escape being trampled by the lumbering dinosaurs in that narrow area bordered by high walls? Rather than inducing tension and fear in me, I laughed throughout both episodes. Moreover, Kong, throughout the film, hops about like a squirrel monkey or a young chimp, rather than a huge ponderous gorilla. To add to the farcical nature of the film, Jackson adds a chase scene at the end with Kong chasing the hero who’s driving a car--a car chase scene! It ain’t Bullitt, that’s for sure.

The endings of the three, surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), demonstrated some significant differences. One is the length of the time that lapses from Kong’s escape from the chains to his death. In the first version, this took approximately twelve minutes while the second and third versions stretched it out to over 25 minutes. In the first and third versions, Kong clearly is shot and, as a result, falls from the top of the Empire State Building. The films ends with Denham’s last line—“It was beauty that killed the beast.” In the second, the ending, to me anyway, is bit ambiguous. Did Kong fall from the World Trade Center tower because he was shot or did he simply give up and let go, thus committing suicide? Guillerman dropped the last line.

In the first version, Ann Darrow clearly fears Kong, while in the later versions, she attempts to save his life, even at the risk of her own in the third version. In fact, instead of avoiding him, she goes to meet him in the Jackson version (2005), and the viewer is treated to a comic interlude with Kong doing pratfalls on the ice. Well, at least Jackson didn't have them racing in slow-motion across a flower bedecked field to meet each other.

One other difference concerns the relationship between the Ann Darrow character and the male lead. In the first and third versions, there’s the sense they will be together, while the second version is far more ambiguous. She is surrounded by the press and the crowd; she has become a celebrity which can’t help but be seducing since she, in this version, is a starving actress who had gotten in trouble for stealing a loaf of bread to ease her hunger. He, at the same, time, is struggling to get to her but can’t because of the crowd of admirers and the press. I can easily see this as symbolic of their future relationship, if any.

As you may have guessed, I definitely prefer the first version and will choose that one when I choose to see it again. If I’m interested in a more erotic version, then I will go for the second. I see no reason to see the third unless I encounter some disagreement about what I think I saw in it, and then it will be only to double-check my memory.

P.S. A thought just occurred to me. During the ‘30s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s, heroines were wont to refer to significant males, especially at tender moments, as “you big lug,” or “you big galoot,” or “you big ape.” I wonder. . . No, probably just a coincidence.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Something to think about

Since philosophy has been able to find no path to tranquillity which is open to all, let every man seek it for himself

Michel de Montaigne (Feb. 28, 1533--Sept. 13, 1592)
from "Fame"
The Essays of Michel de Montaigne

I guess Montaigne has never listened to any of those social-political-religious prophets who are always preaching that "one size fits all" is the only path to paradise.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


The Red Cockatoo

Sent as a present from Annam--
A red cockatoo.
Coloured like the peach-tree blossom,
Speaking with the speech of men.

And they did to it what is always done
To the learned and eloquent.
They took a cage with stout bars
And shut it up inside.

Po Chu-i (772--846)
from World Poetry
Arthur Waley, trans.

I wonder what kind of cage our society uses today. What takes the place of those stout bars?