Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XLII

Quatrain XLII is the fourth in a series of six linked quatrains, joined by references to the grape or wine.

First Edition: Quatrain XLII

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,
Came stealing through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and 'twas-- the Grape!

Second Editioin: Quatrain LX

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,
Came shining through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and 'twas-- the Grape!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LVIII

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,
Came shining through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and 'twas-- the Grape!

I can see only one difference among the three editions--the substitution of "shining" in the second edition for "stealing" in the first edition. The fifth edition is identical to the second edition. "Stealing through the Dusk" suggests a surreptitious movement, involving something illicit or perhaps immoral. And that's not an angel but "an Angel Shape", which could be an Angel from God or perhaps one of the fallen angels, a tempter in other words. This would fit nicely with "stealing through the Dusk." Alcohol, in any of its forms, definitely could be a temptation, especially to Moslems who were forbidden to drink alcohol, if I'm not mistaken.

The change, however, from "stealing" to "shining" is perplexing. It transforms the suggestion of something in the first edition that is best kept hidden to the complete opposite in the later editions--to something "shining" in the Dusk, and something the shines in the Dusk is even more obvious or noticeable than something shining in daylight. This leads us back to the second and third quatrains which mention a Tavern and dry customers clamoring for the door to open.

Perhaps a later quatrain might clarify the confusion here, or perhaps the confusion is a local confusion only--in me.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Paul Lawrence Dunbar: June 27, 1872--Feb. 07, 1906

A simple poem, almost childish, until the last stanza.

The Poet and His Song

A song is but a little thing,
And yet what joy it is to sing!
In hours of toil it give me zest,
And when at eve I long for rest;
When cows come home along the bars,
And in the fold I hear the bell,
As Night, the shepherd, herds his stars,
I sing my song, and all is well.

There are no ears to hear my lays,
No lips to lift a word of praise;
But still, with faith unfaltering,
I live and laugh and love and sing.
What matters yon unheeding throng?
They cannot feel my spirit's spell,
Since life is sweet and love is long,
I sing my song, and all is well.

My days are never days of ease;
I till my ground and prune my trees.
When ripened gold is all the plain
I put my sickle to the grain.
I labor hard, and toil and sweat,
While others dream within the dell;
But even while my brow is wet,
I sing my song, and all is well.

Sometimes the sun, unkindly hot,
My garden makes a desert spot;
Sometimes a blight upon the tree
Takes all my fruit away from me;
And then with throes of bitter pain
Rebellious passions rise and swell;
But--life is more than fruit or grain,
And so I sing, and all is well.

The poet/narrator is a hard-working farmer, and his songs help him through the day and through the hard times. But, the last two lines

"But--life is more than fruit or grain,
And so I sing, and all is well."

suggest something more profound than simple escapism.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

George Orwell: Rules on writing well

Here are George Orwell's six basic rules for writing. They are taken from his essay, "Politics and the English Language." If you haven't read the essay, then I strongly urge you to do so. Politicians are still abusing the English language, and I doubt they will ever stop.

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

How well do these rules work? Well, below is an example of Orwell's own prose, taken from a short work titled "Shooting an Elephant," which I also strongly urge you to read. How well does he follow his own rules? Do you think this is an effective piece of writing?

(When a young man, George Orwell joined the colonial police and was stationed in Burma, which was part of the British Empire at that time. One day, a working elephant ran amok, and Orwell as the local police officer was called on for help. He felt forced by his audience to take some definite action, since he was part of the ruling establishment, and had to show them that he was in control of any situation and ready to take necessary action. One couldn't lose face in a situation like this. So, he decided that he had to kill the elephant.)

"When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick--one never does when a shot goes home--but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time--it might have been five seconds, I dare say--he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him.  One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse, but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head dropping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skywards like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay."

Each time I read this paragraph I can see and feel what Orwell saw and felt. Joseph Conrad in the introduction to one of his novels said that above all what the writer must do is make the reader "see." Orwell succeeds here, at least for me, for I can "see."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Something to chuckle about

The following comes from The Sayings of Confucius:

The Master said: "The young should be dutiful at home, modest abroad, heedful and true, full of goodwill for the many, close friends with love; and should they have strength to spare, let them spend it upon the arts."

Yes, just like their parents.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer Solstice

It's that time again--the Summer Solstice, the First Day of Summer, and the Longest Day of the Year. I thought the following quotation from Joseph Wood Krutch would be appropriate to begin the day. It is from The Voice of the Desert, and the voice speaks from Tucson, Arizona.

"On the brightest and warmest days my desert is most itself because sunshine and warmth are the very essence of its character. The air is lambent with light; the caressing warmth enfolds everything in its ardent embrace. Even when outlanders complain that the sun is too dazzling and too hot, we desert lovers are prone to reply, 'At worst that is only too much of a good thing.'"

. . . . . .

"It so happens that I am writing this not long after the twenty-first of June and I took especial note of that astronomically significant date. This year summer began at precisely ten hours and no minutes, Mountain Standard Time. That means that the sun rose higher and stayed longer in the sky than on any other day of the year. In the north there is often a considerable lag in the seasons as the earth warms up, but here, where it is never very cold, the longest day and the hottest are likely to coincide pretty closely. So it was this year. On June 21 the sun rose almost to the zenith so that at noon he cast almost no shadow. And he was showing what he is capable of.

Even in this dry air 109 Fahrenheit in the shade is pretty warm. Under the open sky the sun's rays strike with an almost physical force, pouring down from a blue dome unmarked by the faintest suspicion of even a fleck of cloud. The year has been unusually dry even for the desert. During the four months just past no rain--not even a light shower--has fallen. The surface of the ground is as dry as powder. And yet, when I look out of the window the dominant color of the landscape is incredibly green."

Well, today is June 21st, the summer solstice. It hasn't rained for 72 days now, and it looks as though we have a good chance of reaching 80 days if the weekly forecast is accurate. The high for today is predicted to be 102, Wednesday 110, and Thursday 109.

That's Joseph Wood Krutch's thinking about summer. Following are some different reflections.

with a short night's sleep:

summer in the world:
floating on the lake
over waves

Both haiku are by Basho
Basho's Haiku
trans David Landis Barnhill


Come, bring the children. Let them
feel for a moment the rhythm
of the hoe. Let them experience
the wonder of green shoots emerging
from earth, earth given us
in guardianship from the Creation.

Body, mind, and spirit full to bursting
with ripe, sweet berries, the first
tender green beans, and corn. We give
thanks, and thanks again. The twin
concepts of Reason and Peace are
seen in each kernel of an ear of corn.

Perhaps we repair our lodges
as do the beavers living close by.
Our children swim like river otters
and as their laughter reaches us,
we join them for a while
in these hottest of summer days.

- Peter Blue Cloud (Aronialwenrate)
Mohawk , b. 1935
from When the Seasons


When friendly summer calls again,
Calls again
Her little fifers to these hills,
We'll go--we two--to that arched fane
Of leafage where they prime their bills
Before they start to flood the plain
With quavers, minims, shakes, and trills.
"--We'll go," I sing; but who shall say
What may not chance before that day!

And we shall see the waters spring,
Waters spring
From chinks the scrubby copses crown;
And we shall trace their oncreeping
To where the cascade tumbles down
And sends the bobbing growths aswing,
And ferns not quite but almost drown.
"--We shall," I say; bug who may sing
Of what another moon will bring!

-- Thomas Hardy --

No. 122

A something in a summer's Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer's noon--
A depth -- an Azure --a perfume --
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer's night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see --

Then veil my too inspecting face
Lest such a subtle -- shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me --

The wizard fingers never rest --
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes its narrow bed --

Still rears the East her amber Flag --
Guides still the Sun along the Crag
His Caravan of Red --

So looking on -- the night -- the morn
Conclude the wonder gay --
And I meet, coming thro' the dews
Another summer's Day!

-- Emily Dickinson--
from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson


I would arise and in a dream go on--
Not very far, not very far--and then
Lie down amid the sunny grass again,
And fall asleep till night-time or next dawn.

In sleepy self-sufficiency I'd turn;
I 'd seek new comfort and be hard to please--
Far in a meadow by an isle of trees,
All summer long amid the grass and fern.

Forests would have to be all round about,
And the mead silent, and the grass deep,
Else I might not gain such a tireless sleep!
I could not slumber if the wains were out!

-- Robert Frost --

Summer has many faces. Robert Frost's summer is closest to mine. Which one is yours?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ben Sanders: The Fallen, a mystery

Author: Ben Sanders
Title: The Fallen
Mystery Type: Police Procedural
Detective: Sean Devereaux
Location: Auckland, New Zealand
Time Period: Contemporary

I have to thank Craig Sisterson of Crime Watch Blog (see blog list at right) for introducing me to Ben Sanders. Crime Watch focuses on crime writers, mostly on NZ writers as to be expected, but he also includes interviews and news about crime writers from around the world. If you're not familiar with NZ crime writers, check out Crime Watch.

The Fallen is Sanders' first novel, and it's a strong one. I'm waiting for the second one now and hoping it will be available for us in the US. Unfortunately the book distribution system in the US is rather provincial and has yet to learn that there are great books out there that haven't been published in the US. Well, maybe some day it will change.

Sanders opens the novel with three chapters that appear to belong in separate books. Of course, we know that somewhere down the road, all three will mesh somehow, leaving Devereaux with really only one case, right?

Chapter One begins:

"Traverne came to slowly. Unconsciousness was a new experience, and the transition to reality was not pleasant.

His vision improved gradually; contrast returning as lines sharpened like stone etched with acid. Certainly that's how he felt, like he'd been bathed in something corrosive. Skin abraded, recollection stripped bare. His left knee ached, and when he tried to raise his hands to his face, he realized his wrists were secured at the small of his back.

He lifted his head off the carpet, and as he did there was a tacky, adhesive sound like masking tape peeling free, and from the rich coppery stench he inhaled he knew he must have been bleeding."

Traverne obviously is a captive of ??? Who is Traverne? Who knocked him out and tied him up? Why?

Chapter Two begins:

"Like any form of employment, detection has its downsides. Not that I'm complaining: criminal investigation is inherently recession-proof, so lack of activity is never an issue. It's the nature of the work that sometimes proves problematical. Homicide, in particular. Murder leaves a mental imprint that tends to linger. It keeps your innocence, ignorance and sense that all is right with the world firmly pinned down, and sends you home at the end of the day with creases in your brow.

Pollard called me at home about the Emma Fontaine case on a Saturday afternoon cast grey by fairly typical July weather. I was alone in the living room, stereo set to a discreet low. The window that gave onto the front lawn was open, and a chill breeze filled the curtains periodically, bringing with it the smell of recent showers.

'You're not allowed to call me on my day off,' I said, when I answered my cell.

'Sorry.' He didn't sound apologetic. 'What's that, The Verve?'

'Echo and the Bunnymen,' I said. 'Fools Like Us.'

Quiet on the line.

'Is this a social call?' I asked him.

'Purely business,' he replied. 'Someone found a body.' "

This is obviously the main plot line for the novel. A body has been found, and Devereaux is going to get the case.

Chapter Three begins:

"My house is a small, two-bedroom unit nestled beyond a rise east of Mission Bay, on the outskirts of the central city. . .

It was dark by the time I [Devereaux] turned into my driveway at a little after six. I parked beneath the branches of the Norfolk pine which serves as the centrepiece of my property, walked back along the driveway to check my mail, then went to unlock my front door, pausing only when I realized the woman next door was sitting in the front porch.

I halted, mid-step, surprised by her presence and the fact that she hadn't said anything. My security light blinked on and I feigned casual, using the search for my key as a distraction to avoid her gaze, speaking only when I was within a metre of her.

'Hi, Grace.'

She let the greeting hang a moment before responding. 'Hello, Sean. How are you?' "

As Grace is not the most forthcoming of people, it takes Devereaux awhile to find out what she wants.

" 'What is it I can help you with, Grace?' I asked

There was a pause. 'There's been a man watching me,' she answered quietly. 'And I'm terrified.' "

The three threads: a sixteen year-old-girl has been murdered; Traverne, whoever he is, is someone's prisoner; and Devereaux's neighbor is being stalked by someone. Are they related?

Devereaux is a police officer who feels that rules are only guidelines and sometimes one has to step outside those lines to a certain extent, but only to a certain extent. Fortunately for Devereaux, he has a good buddy who isn't a cop and who isn't constrained by the rules of correct police procedure.

His buddy is John Hale, an ex-cop, who now runs his own security service. Being a good friend of Sean, Hale is ready to help out, especially when Sean can't go any further beyond those guidelines. And he's a good buddy to have around, for, like Devereaux, Hale also spent time in Vietnam, except that there's no record of Hale's activities while he was there, if he really was there. There are certain situations when military records seem to conceal far more than they reveal, and Hale's record seems to be one of them. And another reason why Devereaux's lucky to have Hale around is that Devereaux's investigation appears to be pointing at some senior members of the police department.

Overall Rating: Very good-- so far it's the best first novel I've read in a long time: excellent plotting; a simple low-key writing style that pulls one along; an interesting and thoughtful main character; and a good buddy relationship that is one of the strengths of the novel. I'm looking forward to the second in the series.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Robert Silverberg: Roma Eterna, an SF Novel

I'm not a great fan of alternate history works, but there are a few exceptions. One is Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. Of course, I'm a great fan of Robinson, so that might partially account for it. Maybe. Another exception is this one: Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna. The basic theme is that Rome didn't fall but remained the pre-eminent power into the 20th century, or at least until the late 1960's when the novel ends.

Spoiler Warning: I will reveal significant events and themes in the work.

The significant turning points in the novel, at least as I see them, are as follows.

The Hebrews never escaped from Egypt. The Pharaoh's army reached them before they got to the Reed Sea, killed most of them, and returned the rest to slavery in Egypt. Consequently they never reached the Promised Land and established their own homeland. Christ, therefore, never appeared and Christianity did not emerge as the dominant religion in Europe. Rome managed to defeat the Vandals, and the Roman Empire did not fall in the 455 AD as it did in our world. Finally, Islam, like Christianity, never materialized to become the dominant power that it did in our world.

The novel is a series of 9 short stories and one novella-length story, "Getting to Know the Dragon." I had read the novella in an collection of short works and that's what tipped me off about this work.

One interesting aspect of the work is the way Silverberg frequently manages to tie in his fictional world with our world. Part of the fun in reading the work was searching for these links. Some I will mention below, but there's others that I missed. If any of you have identified some that I missed, I would appreciate hearing about them.

Silverberg adopts the convention of using the Roman calendar and therefore using the Roman notation for the years. Since the Romans began counting the years approximately 754 years before the Christian era, all one needs to do is subtract 754 from the dates to convert to our calendar. I will use the Roman years--AUC-- but will place the Christian Era year in brackets--754 AUC [1 AD]


PROLOGUE: 1203 AUC [449 AD]

Two historians get into a discussion of their topics--one is researching religious cults and in this way, Silverberg tells us of the failure of the Hebrews to escape. There is also some discussion of what might have happened if the Hebrews had escaped.



This takes place some 70+ years after Rome had fallen in our world. An ambassador from the Byzantine half of the Empire is in Rome to arrange a political marriage between the son of the Roman Empire and the daughter of the Byzantine Empire. Since the Emperor is dying and the eldest son is away hunting, it falls to Maximilianus, the second son, and his drinking and carousing friend, Faustus, to entertain and negotiate with the ambassador. During the visit, the Emperor dies and the eldest son dies in an hunting accident. Maximilianus now is the emperor, something he always claimed he had no interest in becoming.

For an interesting comparison, you might read Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Pt 2. In Shakespeare's play, Prince Hal, heir to the throne associates with bad companions, especially Falstaff. When Henry IV dies, Falstaff thinks he will become a powerful person for he is Prince Hal’s (now Henry V) drinking buddy. When he meets Henry and acts as he always did with Prince Hal, Henry says, ‘ I know thee not, old man.”

Similarly, when Faustus meets Maximilianus after he becomes Emperor, he begins to talk to him as they did in the past. But, Maximilianus responds: “You speak as though you know me. Do you? And do I know you?”



A member of the Roman Emperor's court has incurred the Emperor's wrath and is sent to Mecca, which is actually not even a part of the Roman Empire at that time. He is to keep watch on the economic maneuverings of the Byzantine Empire and to protect the economic interests of Roma. However, his overriding goal is to get back to Roma. Shortly after he arrives in 1365 AUC [611 AD], he meets an idealistic and charismatic religious teacher and eventually begins to see him as a future threat to the Empire.

In our world, Mohammad, who was born c.570 was in Mecca in 611 AD. In 1364 AUC [610 AD], he had a vision and believed that God has called him to be a prophet and to begin preaching the word of God. Around 615 AD, Muhammad flees to Medina, for he has made numerous converts and more powerful enemies. By 622 AD, he has converted most of Medina, and within a decade of so he has conquered much of Arabia. This never happens in Roma Eterna.



This is the story of the second attempt to conquer the Mexican and Peruvian empires in the western hemisphere, and the second attempt ends even more disastrously for Roma, both economically and militarily. Roma is so weakened by the second failure that the Byzantine

Empire is now considerably stronger by comparison



This takes place some ninety years after the previous story and details the consequences of the failure to conquer Mexico and Peru. Roma has been so weakened by the failure, that the Byzantine Empire is now much stronger and is poised to conquer Roma. The story is told from the point of view of an official in the Roman government and his mistress. With Byzantine armies approaching from two directions and a Byzantine fleet in place to land another army where it chooses, the two attempt to decide just what they should do--remain in Rome and be subject to the Byzantine Empire or flee, and if they flee, where should they go?



Some two hundred and fifty years later, the fortunes of the two empires have been reversed. Decadent rulers of the Byzantine Empire allowed Roma to break away and once again become independent. Then in 2196 AUC [1443 AD], Roma defeats the Byzantine army and conquers Constantinople, thus bringing about the fall of the Byzantine Empire and reuniting the two halves under Roma. In our world, the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 when the Turks captured Constantinople.

This tale is told from the point of view of a wealthy and attractive widow in Venice and focuses on her changing views of the Roman conquerors, especially those who are rich and powerful.



Draco is an accomplished painter, sculptor, poet, architect, engineer, and historian. His patron is the son of the ailing Emperor. Draco is Latin for Dragon. In this story we learn about Draco, and his illustrious ancestor, Emperor Trajan VII. At one point he feels he was born too late; he is now the last Renaissance Man. Draco, I think, is loosely based on Leonardo da Vinci, who was also a painter, architect, sculptor, and an engineer, with journals and notebooks that were hard to read. Draco lived about three hundred years after da Vinci, who was considered to be an ideal Renaissance Man.

At one point Draco wonders what his legacy will be. Perhaps his notebooks, if anybody could read them, may save his name for posterity. The Wikipedia entry about da Vinci's journals point out that they are difficult to read and explains: “The journals are mostly written in mirror-image cursive. The reason may have been more a practical expediency than for reasons of secrecy as is often suggested. Since Leonardo wrote with his left hand, it is probable that it was easier for him to write from right to left.”

Draco's dream is to write a history about the Emperor Trajan VII and his epic journey around the world. Trajan was sufficiently confident about the stability of the Empire at this time that he saw no problem in leaving Rome for several years.

Trajan's journey around the globe began in 2278 AUC [1524 AD] and ended in 1529 AUC [1529 AD] In our world, Ferdinand Magellan began his trip in 1519 AD and ended in 1522 AD. Trajan and Magellan both began their journeys in Seville, Spain. Trajan ended his in Seville 5 years later, while one of Magellan's three ships also returned to Seville. Magellan, of course, died along the way while Trajan survived.



Two consuls initiate a reign of terror in their attempt to prevent the overthrow of the emperor by democratic forces within the empire.

In our world, the French Reign of Terror lasted from 1789-1799 AD, bringing about the fall of the French monarchy. In 1799 Napoleon initiates a coup and declares himself First Consul.


VIA ROMA: 2603 AUC [1849 AD]

A visitor from the province of Britain comes to the heart of the Empire. In his naivete, he completely misses the political intrigue about him and is shocked when the Emperor is overthrown by democratic forces who establish, or rather claim that they are re-establishing the Roman Republic as it was thousands of year ago.

In our world, the 1840s were years of unrest in Europe as numerous popular uprisings attempted to overthrow various monarchies and principalities and establish republics--all were unsuccessful at that time. Italy itself was in turmoil as several competing factions attempted to gain political control.



Several children discover an old man living in an abandoned hunting lodge that once belonged to the emperor. Those who were responsible for the overthrow of the emperor thought they had killed every member of the family, but rumors persisted that one child had survived. If he had survived, he would be in great danger for the new government could not allow any member of the emperor's family to live and possibly become a focal point for a counter-revolution. This is sort of a male version of the Anastasia legend that came out of the Russian revolution.



In our world, Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon, took place in 1969. In a way, Silverberg ends Roma Eterna the way he began it, with the Hebrews.

Overall Rating: Very good. The central character is the Roman Empire, and it is what unites the various short works. The focus is upon the stories of the characters which is set against the background of the Empire.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Carl Sandburg: "Wilderness"

This is a very strange poem I just discovered. Perhaps it's strangeness is mostly because I didn't expect something like this from Carl Sandburg--which shows that forming expectations before I've read a considerable amount of a writer's work is risky. I think of Sandburg as being a poet of urban life, of industry, and of agriculture. This poem, I think, is quite different.


"There is a wolf in me . . . fangs pointed for tearing gashes
. . . a red tongue for raw meat . . . and the hot lapping
of blood--I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it
to me and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fox in me . . . a silver-gray fox . . . I sniff and
guess . . . I pick things out of the wind and air . . . I
nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and
hide the feathers . . . I circle and loop and double-cross.

There is a hog in me . . . a snout and a belly . . . a machinery
for eating and grunting . . . a machinery for sleeping
satisfied in the sun--I got this too from the wilderness and
the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fish in me . . . I know I came from salt-blue water-
gates . . . I scurried with shoals of herring . . . I blew
waterspouts with porpoises . . . before land was . . . before
the water went down . . . before Noah . . . before
the first chapter of Genesis.

There is a baboon in me . . . clambering-clawed . . . dog-
faced . . . yawping a galoot's hunger . . . hairy under
the armpits . . . here are the hawk-eyed hankering men
. . . here are the blond and blue-eyed women . . . here
they hide curled asleep waiting . . . ready to snarl and
kill . . . ready to sing and give milk . . . waiting--I keep
the baboon because the wilderness says so.

There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird . . . and the eagle
flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights
among the Sierra crags of what I want . . . and the
mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew
is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of
hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes
--And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the

O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my
bony head, under my red-valve heart--and I got something
else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart:
it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-
Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where--For I
am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and
kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the

I think I have to rethink my Sandburg.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

In Memoriam: Edward FitzGerald--March 31, 1809 to June 14, 1883

Following are the last two quatrains of the Second Edition of Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Quatrain CIX

But see! The rising Moon of Heav'n again--
Looks for us, Sweet-heart, through the quivering Plane:
How oft hereafter rising will she look
Among those leaves--for one of us in vain!

Quatrain CX

And when Yourself with silver Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
And to your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!


Friday, June 10, 2011

Lin Yutang: Human Dignity and the Scamp

The following quotation gives us some idea of Lin Yutang's thinking about two seemingly different concepts: dignity and the scamp. They seem opposed, but as usual with Yutang, he doesn't see things the way most do.

To me, spiritually a child of the East and the West, man's dignity consists in the following facts which distinguish man from the animals. First, that he has a playful curiosity and a natural genius for exploring knowledge; second that he has dreams and a lofty idealism (often vague, or confused, or cocky, it is true, but nevertheless worthwhile); third, and still more important, that he is able to correct his dreams by a sense of humor, and thus restrain his idealism by a more robust and healthy realism; and finally, that he does not react to surroundings mechanically and uniformly as animals do, but possesses the ability and the freedom to determine his own reactions and to change surroundings at his will. This last is the same as saying that human personality is the last thing to be reduced to mechanical laws; somehow the human mind is forever elusive, uncatchable and unpredictable, and manages to wriggle out of mechanistic laws or a materialistic dialectic that crazy psychologists and unmarried economists are trying to impose upon him. Man, therefore, is a curious, dreamy, humorous and wayward creature.

In short, my faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth. Human dignity must be associated with the idea of a scamp and not with that of an obedient, disciplined and regimented soldier. The scamp is probably the most glorious type of human being, as the soldier is the lowest type, according to this conception. In in my last book,
My Country and My People, the net impression of readers was that I was trying to glorify the "old rogue." It is my hope that the net impression of the present one will be that I am doing my best to glorify the scamp or vagabond. I hope I shall succeed. For things are not so simple as they sometimes seem. In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty, probably only the scamp and the spirit of the scamp alone will save us from becoming lost as serially numbered units in the masses of disciplined, obedient, regimented and uniformed coolies. The scamp will be the last and most formidable enemy of dictatorships. He will be the champion of human dignity and individual freedom, and will be the last to be conquered. All modern civilization depends entirely upon him.

. . . . .

Speaking as a Chinese, I do not think that any civilization can be called complete until it has progressed from sophistication to unsophistication, and made a conscious return to simplicity of thinking and living, and I call no man wise until he has made the progress from the wisdom of knowledge to the wisdom of foolishness, and become a laughing philosopher, feeling first life's tragedy and then life's comedy. For we must weep before we can laugh. Out of sadness comes the awakening and out of the awakening comes the laughter of the philosopher, with kindliness and tolerance to boot.

One of the most common characters found in myths and legends and folklore is the Trickster. The following quotations come from the Wikipedia entry on the Trickster, and the Trickster sounds a lot like Yutang's scamp.

"In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster is a god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphic animal who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior."

"In later folklore, the trickster/clown is incarnated as a clever, mischievous man or creature, who tries to survive the dangers and challenges of the world using trickery and deceit as a defense."

"Modern African American literary criticism has turned the trickster figure into one example of how it is possible to overcome a system of oppression from within."

The quotations come from Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living which was first published in 1937. It's almost 75 years later, and his warning still seems relevant today, even though the threats are internal rather than external. For a short story which best exemplifies Yutang's theme, I would recommend Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."

Who or what is our best defense against the threats to freedom and civil liberty--the Soldier or the Scamp/Trickster?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Gwendolyn Brooks: June 7, 1917--Dec. 3, 2000

The following poem by Gwendolyn Brooks is stark and bare. Some poems may match, but I doubt any can surpass it. The speakers look at their future with a cold, unblinking eye. Even the name of the pool hall is prophetic.


The Pool Players
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

At first I thought it was a sad poem. But, now . . . I think it goes beyond sadness.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thomas Mann: June 6, 1875-- August 12, 1955

Thomas Mann is one of my favorite writers, and The Magic Mountain would be one of the ten desert island books that I would choose to take with me.

It begins quietly:

An unassuming young man was travelling, in midsummer, from his native city of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the Canton of the Grisons, on a three weeks' visit.

The novel ends:

Farewell--and if thou livest or diest! Thy prospects are poor. The desperate dance, in which thy fortunes are caught up, will last yet many a sinful year; we should not care to set a high stake on thy life by the time it ends. We even confess that is is without great concern we leave the question open. Adventures of the flesh and in the spirit, while enhancing thy simplicity, granted thee to know in the spirit what in the flesh thou scarcely couldst have done. Moments there were, when out of death, and the rebellion of the flesh, there came to thee, as thou tookest stock of thyself, a dream of love. Out of this universal feast of death, out of this extremity of fever, kindling the rain-washed evening sky to a fiery glow, may it be that Love one day should mount.

Castorp plans to visit Joachim, his cousin, who is in a TB sanitarium in Switzerland, but the projected three week visit lasts seven years for Castorp is discovered to have a "moist spot" that could be dangerous. His journey, therefore, has one more stage: from visitor to patient. His visit ends only with the beginning of World War I, when Castorp feels he must answer his country's call. He leaves and enlists in the army.

But during those seven years, Hans Castorp, manages to experience the various ideas, philosophies, and attitudes, along with issues of life, death, and love, prevelant in Western Civilization and, still prevalent today. Much of this is possible through the presence of two of the most unique mentors found in literature: Prof Settembrini and Herr Naptha. Their long-ranging debates? monologues? arguments? cover every possible topic, from the existence of God to politics to art to history to . . . Sometimes I think that by the end of one of their impassioned debates, the two have switched positions and now argue vehemently against their former positions

Overall reaction: What happens between the two quoted paragraphs can be tedious and also frustrating at times, but still it is one of the most fascinating novels I've ever read and reread and reread . . . and I will take it up again. It's well worth the time spent.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain XLI

This is the third quatrain in a set of six that are linked together by the mention of wine or the grape in various ways.

First Edition: Quatrain XLI

For "Is" and "Is-not" though with Rule and Line
And "Up-and-down" without, I could define,
I yet in all I only cared to know,
Was never deep in anything but--wine.

Second Edition: Quatrain LVIII

For "Is" and "Is-not" though with Rule and Line
And "Up-and-down" by Logic I define,
Of all that one should care to fathom, I
Was never deep in anything but--wine.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LVI

For "Is" and "Is-not" though with Rule and Line
And "Up-and-down" by Logic I define,
Of all that one should care to fathom, I
Was never deep in anything but--wine.

FitzGerald has made some interesting changes, but none that really affects the basic theme of the quatrain--that he was very familiar with Logic and Reason, but all that he really cared for was wine.

In the first line, the only change in the second and fifth editions, I can detect is that "with" is no longer in italics, as it is in the first edition, and the same is true for "without" in the second line. The addition of "by Logic" in the second and fifth editions might be made to clarify the meaning. I suspect there were many who didn't understand what he was referring to by "Is" and "Is-not" and "Rule and Line," so he provided the phrase to make his point more accessible to readers.

In the third line, he plays a little game with a word that has disparate, but related meanings. "Fathom" has several definitions: one, when a noun, is that of a measurement of marine depths, while another, when a verb, is "to get to the bottom of" or to "penetrate to the meaning of." In the second and fifth editions, "cared to know" is replaced by "care to fathom. So, what he was most interested in (care to fathom) was getting to the bottom or or meaning of is wine, for he "Was never deep in anything but--wine," a reference to nautical depth.

Again the theme of the uselessness of logic or reason makes its appearance--another attack on the long-winded, sometimes acrimonious, and fruitless discussions about issues we can know nothing about: where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thomas Hardy: June 2, 1840 to Jan. 11, 1928

The following poem is titled "Nature's Questionings." But, of course, Nature doesn't question, it exists and leaves the questionings to us. Sometimes I wonder if that isn't the reason why we are here--to ask the questions that the universe can't or is too busy to ask. Hmmm--another question.

Nature's Questionings

When I look forth at dawning, pool,
Field, flock, and lonely tree,
All seem to gaze at me
Like chastened children sitting silent in a school:

Their faces dulled, constrained, and sore,
As though the master's ways
Through the long teaching days
Had cowed them till their early zest was overborne.

Upon them stirs in lippings mere
(As if once clear in call,
But now scarce breathed at all)--
"We wonder, ever wonder, why we find us here!

"Has some Vast Imbecility,
Mighty to build and blend,
But impotent to tend,
Framed us in jest, and left us now to hazardry?

"Or come we of an Automaton
Unconscious of our pains? . . .
Or are we live remains
Of Godhead dying downwards, brain and eye now gone?

"Or is it that some high Plan betides,
As yet not understood,
Of Evil stormed by Good,
We the Forlorn Hope over which Achievement strides?"

Thus things around . No answerer I. . .
Meanwhile the winds, and rains,
And Earth's old glooms and pains
Are still the same, and Life and Death are neighbours nigh.

These are what some have called the Perennial Questions--first asked thousands, if not tens of thousands of years ago and while some know they have the answers, others still ask.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ono No Komachi, a poem

I sometimes read something--an aphorism, a part of a novel, someone's comment, or a poem-- that causes me to stop and reread it again, and sometimes several times. Frequently I don't know why that particular utterance intrigues me, and sometimes I'm not even sure what it means. But, it happens, and this poem is one that caused me to halt when I read it yesterday. And, I'm not even sure of what it means. Perhaps it's an illustration of the last lines of Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica"

A poem should not mean
But be.

Perhaps. But here is the poem, a short one:

A thing which fades
With no outward sign--
Is the flower
Of the heart of man
In this world!

-- Ono No Komachi --
from The World's Best Poems
Mark van Doran and Garibaldi M. Lapolla, eds.

Is the poet sad here, or resigned?