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?


Monday, October 10, 2011

Lin Yutang: Oct. 10, 1895 to March 26, 1976

Would a different attitude or perspective on life make this a better world? Certainly today's headlines should make us wonder if something isn't wrong somewhere. Lin Yutang presents an idea that appears to be non-existent in the world's leaders and their followers.

The world, I believe, is far too serious, and being far too serious, it has need of a wise and merry philosophy. The philosophy of the Chinese art of living can certainly be called the "gay science,' if anything can be called by that phrase used by Nietzsche. After all, only a gay philosophy is profound philosophy; the serious philosophies of the West haven't even begun to understand what life is. To me personally, the only function of philosophy is to teach us to take life more lightly and gayly than the average business man does, for no business man who does not retire at fifty, if he can, is in my eyes a philosopher. This is not merely a casual thought, but is a fundamental point of view with me. The world can be made a more peaceful and more reasonable place to live in only when men have imbued themselves in the light gayety of this spirit. The modern man takes life far too seriously, and because he is too serious, the world is full of troubles. We ought, therefore, to take time to examine the origin of that attitude which will make possible a whole-hearted enjoyment of this life and a more reasonable, more peaceful and less hot-headed temperament.

-- Lin Yutang --
from The Importance of Living
Chapter One

Any thoughts?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain XLVI

Edward FitzGerald elaborates on his reference to the "Game" in the previous quatrain. In this quatrain, he diminishes the human race considerably. Our significance in the universe is no more than figures devised for entertainment.

First Edition: Quatrain XLVI

For in and out, above, about, below,

‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show

Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,

Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXIII

We are no other than a moving row

Of visionary Shapes that come and go

Round with this Sun-illumined Lantern held,

In Midnight by the Master of the Show;

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LXVIII

We are no other than a moving row

Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go

Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held,

In Midnight by the Master of the Show;

FitzGerald made extensive changes in wording when he published the Second Edition; however, the meaning is still the same. We are not real, but simply phantoms devised for the entertainment of the Master of the Show, a figure which does not appear in the first version. Instead, we are puppets who entertain some unknown viewer.

One difference is that in the first edition, the universe is included,

“For in and out, above, about, below,

‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show”

while in the later editions, it is only we who are the figures of a Magic show. The Candle which stands for the sun has become a “sun-illumed Lantern.” I think the significance might be that in the later editions the Master of the Show is part of the universe, perhaps a creature like us, but not the creator of the universe. This concept might be considered heretical or blasphemous by powerful religious figures and, therefore, dangerous.

There is another difference between the first and later editions. The first edition ends with a period, suggesting that this quatrain is complete. Later editions end with a semicolon, which indicates that the thought is not complete in the quatrain, but we must join it with the next quatrain for the full thought.

The “Magic Shadow-show” plays a role in another work, Proust’s monumental In Search of Lost Time. Early in the first volume, Swan’s Way, the narrator reminisces about his childhood, and how, when he was especially nervous, usually around bedtime, his parents would place a magic lantern atop the lamp in his bedroom. It was a multi-sided box with removable glass panels that had a picture story painted on them. The heat from the lamp would cause the device to rotate, so that the figures cast on the wall would traverse the room as the device rotated.

What seems most apt for this quatrain is that the figures had no real substance of their own, but would fill out or flatten according to what they were cast upon (such as a curtain or a dresser or a flat wall) as they traversed the room. They would take their reality, their fullness, from their environment, and not by any virtue of their own. In addition, the figures and their adventures were created by and existed only at the whim of someone else, the “Master of the show” in the second and fifth editions.

FitzGerald’s analogy also echoes that of Plato’s Cave, which Plato describes in his Republic. It is one of the Socratic dialogues in which, according to the Wikipedia entry, ”Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.”

In this quatrain, the poet-narrator is clearly Socrates’ philosopher for he alone has detected the real nature of the shadows and has returned to enlighten the prisoners—the rest of us.

That we are mere figures of entertainment refers also back to the previous quatrain in which the poet-narrator encourages us to “Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.” (Quatrain XLV, First Edition).

I suspect this quatrain would be very disturbing to those who believe that the universe was created solely for us, a place wherein we are tested to determine the goal for our immortal souls. Instead, we are reduced to mere shadow figures, and our sorrows and joys are nothing more than entertainment for others. In today’s terms, we are all figures in sitcoms and dramas produced solely to fill in the gap between commercials.

My preference? It would have to be for the First Edition, as usual. The First Edition version makes us part of the universe whereas from the Second Edition on, we just seem to be figures inserted there at the whim of the Master of the Show.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Serendipity: more autumn poetry from China

Listening to a Monk From Shu Playing the Lute
The monk from Shu with his green lute-case walked
Westward down Emei Shan, and at the sound
Of the first notes he strummed for me I heard
A thousand valleys' rustling pines resound.
My heart was cleansed, as if in flowing water.
In bells of frost I heard the resonance die.
Dusk came unnoticed over the emerald hills
And autumn clouds layered the darkening sky.

-- Li Po --
trans. by Vikram Seth

A lute seems the perfect instrument to capture the flavor of autumn. The only other instrument, I think, would be the flute--well--maybe a cello. That would make an interesting trio--a lute, a cello, and a flute. I wonder if there are any works composed for this trio.

from Autumn Thoughts

Leaves fall turning turning to the ground,
by the front eaves racing, following the wind;
murmuring voices seem to speak to me
as they whirl and toss in headlong flight.
An empty hall in the yellow dusk of evening:
I sit here silent, unspeaking.
The young boy comes in from outdoors,
trims the lamp, sets it before me,
asks me questions I do not answer,
brings me a supper I do not eat.
He goes and sits down by the west wall,
reading me poetry--three or four poems;
the poet is not a man of today--
already a thousand years divide us--
but something in his words strikes my heart,
fills it again with an acid grief.
I turn and call to the boy:
Put down the book and go to bed now--
a man has times when he must think,
and work to do that never ends.

-- Han Yu --
trans. by Burton Watson

One can't always live in the past; today is always interrupting, isn't it.

Both poems are taken from
World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our TimeKatherine Washburn and John S. Major, editors

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wallace Stevens: October 2, 1879 to August 2, 1955

An intriguing poem by Wallace Stevens. Actually, I'm not sure what to make of it.

The Silver Plough-Boy

A black figure dances in a black field.
It seizes a sheet, from the ground, from a bush, as if spread there
by some wash-woman for the night.
It wraps the sheet around its body, until the black figure is silver.
It dances down a furrow, in the early light, back of a crazy plough,
the green blades following.
How soon the silver fades in the dust! How soon the black figure
slips from the wrinkled sheet! How softly the sheet falls
to the ground!

The silver sheet--moonlight?

the black figure/green blades following: a god/deity responsible for fostering the growth of crops?