Sunday, April 29, 2012

Robert Frost: "The Vantage Point"

This is one of Robert Frost's earlier poems.  It appeared in his first collection of poetry,  A Boy's Will, which was published in April 1913 in London.

The Vantage Point

If tired of trees I seek again mankind,
   Well I know where to hie me--in the dawn,
    To a slope where the cattle keep the lawn.
There amid lolling juniper reclined,
Myself unseen, I see in white defined
    Far off the homes of men, and farther still,
    The graves of men on an opposing hill,
Living or dead, whichever are to mind.

And if by noon I have too much of these,
    I have but to turn on my arm, and lo,
    The sun burned hillside sets my face aglow,
My breathing shakes the bluet like a breeze,
    I smell the earth, I smell the bruised plant,
    I look into the crater of the ant.

I always have to be careful, if not wary, when reading a Frost poem.  I think I know what's going on, and then, at the end, he manages somehow to introduce a question as to just exactly what is going on here. This poem is no exception.  It seems very straightforward at first.  He is tired of looking at nature and wishes to see something of humankind. And, he knows the spot from where he can see homes and also cattle owned by humans.  But, then, there's those ". . . graves of men on an opposing hill."  He can think of  humans "Living or dead, whichever are to mind."   This strikes me as being a strange way when  "tired of trees"  to contemplate humankind.  To me, anyway, it suggests some sort of ambiguity in his attitude towards  his fellow humans.  It seems the only differences between the living and the dead are the ways in which one wishes to think of them or as Frost puts it --"whichever are to mind."

The second stanza now reverses his original thought, and now he's tired of humankind. He once again selects nature,  and all that is required is "to turn on my arm."  This is a very nice vantage point.  Now he has a view of nature--sun, earth, plants.  Then, comes the last line, the end of the poem:  "I look into the crater of the ant."  Is he drawing a comparison between the human habitations and the crater of the ant?  As is typical with Frost, one may think he's providing answers, but there's always that last line.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain LV

As I have mentioned before, Khayyam's references to wine and the grape has caused considerable controversy among those reading The Rubaiyat.  Is he referring to wine or as others insist, is the wine a symbol for grace?  Is it a religious symbol?  This quatrain does not help either side, for it can be read as simply referring to wine or grace.

First Edition: Quatrain LV

The Vine had struck a Fibre; which about
If clings my Being--let the Sufi flout;
   Of my Base Metal may be filed a Key,
That shall unlock the Door he howls without.

Second Edition:  LXXXII

The Vine had struck a fibre: which about
If clings my being--let the Dervish flout;
   Of my Base metal may be filed a Key,
That shall unlock the Door he howls without.

Fifth Edition: LXXVI

The Vine had struck a fibre: which about
If clings my being--let the Dervish flout;
   Of my Base metal may be filed a Key,
That shall unlock the Door he howls without.

For the most part, FitzGerald made only minor changes.  "Fibre" begins with an uppercase "F" in the first edition which is changed to lower case in subsequent editions.  The same change occurs to "Being" and with "Metal."

The second change is a word change; "Sufi" in the first edition becomes "Dervish" in the second and the fifth versions.   Sufism is the inner, mystical aspect of Islam.  It's followers turn away from the material world and focus solely on the Divine, just as the mystics of Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism, for example.  A dervish would be a follower of Sufism who use whirling dances and chanting as a way of gaining a mystic state in their worship of the Divine.  The "howling without" seems to be a sarcastic reference to the chanting  which is one of the practices of the dervishes.

Just a random thought here--that vine that clings to his body--strikes me as being almost snake-like, perhaps a reference to the Snake in the Garden of Eden.  This could refer to alcohol, for during the 19th century, the temperance movement began, and especially attacked "demon  rum" as being the root of the evils afflicting the lower classes and the cause of their poverty. 

In alchemy, base metals are those which are common, inexpensive, and easily corroded.  Iron, nickel, lead, zinc, and copper would be examples of base metals.    "Noble metals" are the opposite, and they include gold and silver.  One of the tasks of alchemists was finding a way of turning base metals into noble metals.  The most common example would be turning lead into gold.

In the last two lines of the quatrain, therefore, wine, or grace perhaps,  has transmuted the common elements of his body into something which could be turned into a key that would open the door to the mystic experiences that the sufi or dervish desires. This could  refer back to a previous quatrain, XXXII,  which also speaks of a key.

There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
    Some little Talk awhile of  Me and Thee
 There seem'd--and then no more of Thee and Me.

 In this quatrain, and previous quatrains, he has been inquiring of various teachers, saints, and mystics for the key to the door but obviously has failed.  Now,  it seems he himself, transmuted by wine, is the key.  This, of course, is clearly in the vein of mystical thinking that stretches from England all the way to Japan.  The Divine is within oneself.  To go looking for the Divine in some other place is a waste of time.

It seems, therefore, that he has succeeded in his quest where others using different methods have failed.   If it is wine, then the poet seems to suggest that all study and religious practices are useless.  Wine is much easier and much more successful in producing an ecstatic state.  If the wine is really Divine grace, then those who strive for the ecstatic state are wasting their time for the secret is within them--all they have to do is look.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford: The Inheritors

Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford: The Inheritors

Conrad and Ford: this has to be one of the strangest collaborations in literary history. Henry James, who knew both, is supposed to have said that the collaboration was like "a bad dream . . . their traditions and their gifts are so dissimilar." At one point, Conrad even rented a farm house owned by Ford. I remember reading somewhere (unfortunately my memory can't come up with specifics) that Conrad had asked someone, perhaps Edward Garnett (who was a close friend of both) to recommend one whom he might work with to improve his English. Conrad's native tongue was Polish, and he later learned French while in the French merchant marine. Ford was recommended; so occurred a strange collaboration that eventually produced two novels and one novella and considerable influence in the writings of both from that point on.

The Inheritors is the first of their collaborations that was published, although Ford had begun work on Romance, which became their second published work. However, Conrad at that time was too busy with Heart of Darkness, so Ford put it aside and began work on "a topical political fantasy" which was eventually called The Inheritors.

The tale is a first person narrative told by Arthur Granger, a struggling young writer who is determined to write literature. However, he struggles to get published and when he is offered a chance to do a number of short political propaganda portraits, he accepts the work, even though he feels it is beneath him. But, in the real world, one needs money. In addition, he, and most importantly, others will see him in print, perhaps making it easier for him to get his serious work in print. One can see his high principles beginning to slip a bit for he now sees himself as part of the real world, that of high stakes politics and business.

He is on his way to do his first "portrait" when he meets a strange young woman who insists she comes from the Fourth Dimension. She and others from the Fourth Dimension have appeared in England with the express purpose of taking control of England and eventually of the world. He goes along with her tale, primarily because he finds her very attractive and eventually falls in love with her.

As Granger travels about, interviewing various important people for his series, he encounters her more often as she begins to insinuate herself in the upper levels of the British ruling class. In fact, she eventually identifies herself as Granger's sister, and besotted as he is, he doesn't deny it. He professes his love for her, but she remains distant, only occasionally meeting him, in order to maintain her control over him. He will be, as she frequently reminds him, useful to her in furthering her plans for domination.

And she is right; she hasn't misjudged her control over him as, at the end, he betrays his friends when he goes along with her plans to bring down the present government. Circumstances had placed him temporarily in control of a politically powerful newspaper, and he does not print an article which would bring all her planning to naught.

[As was pointed out by Anonymous in a comment, I have suffered a mental spasm and reversed the sequence of events. While temporarily in control of the newspaper, Granger allowed an article to be printed which furthered her plans and brought down the government, and incidentally removed his friends from power. ]

Two themes are present in the novel: one is clearly Ford's, for it appears in several of his novels, while the other reminds me of a theme that Conrad brought into a number of his works, but most especially in Heart of Darkness.

In several of Ford's novels, one can easily distinguish the theme of replacement or perhaps displacement of the English ruling class by outsiders. In Ford's tetralogy, Parade's End, set during WWI, Christopher Tietjens, at one point, notes that the ruling classes are doomed and will be replace eventually be technocrats. In The Good Soldier, John Dowell, the American, replaces Edward Ashburnham, the good soldier, at the end, when he takes over Ashburnham's country estate and the care of Ashburnham's ward. This theme of replacement is spelled out very clearly in The Rash Act when an impoverished American takes the place of a wealthy Englishman who has been killed in an auto accident.

In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Kurz is the head of a trading post. He is supposed to make a profit for the Company by bringing in ivory. But, Kurz also is expected, by many, to civilize the natives. This is the White Man's Burden--to bring the joys of civilization to the benighted and savage members of the human race. In various works, Conrad sarcastically brings up this issue and shows that it's really just an excuse to exploit them, that the whites are far more savage than those they are supposedly enlightening.

In The Inheritors, we learn of the Greenland Project, a project which will enlighten and civilize the Esquimaux. While some have called it exploitation, its founder, Duc de Mersch defends it by pointing out its obvious financial importance to the English, not to speak of "the moral aspect of the work--it was unnecessary. Progress, improvement, civilisation, a little less evil in the world--more light! It was our duty not to count the cost of humanising a lower race."

And later, we learn more about the progress of the Greenland Project: "They had taught the natives to use and to value sewing-machines and European costumes. So many hundred of English younger sons had gone to make their fortunes and, incidentally, to enlighten the Esquimaux--so many hundreds of French, of Germans, Greeks, Russians. All these lived and moved in harmony, employed, happy, free labourers, protected by the most rigid laws."

It is ironic that the failure of the supporters to gain backing by the English government that ultimately brings down the government and brings in those backed by Dimensionist faction, aided, of course, by Arthur Granger's betrayal. At the end, Granger is alone. He has betrayed his friends and she tells him that they must go their separate ways now: "you, yours, and I, mine." She no longer has any use for him.

I wouldn't call The Inheritors one of their best novels. It lacks the depth that I've become accustomed to from each of them. The issues are there, but they haven't been explored to any great degree. I suspect that the collaboration process is at fault here. However, I would recommend it for those interested in something different, something not quite Conrad and not quite Ford, but a little bit of both and a little bit of neither.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Early Vietnamese Poetry

These are short poems, perhaps reflecting Japanese influence in Korea around a thousand years ago. They are reminiscent of Japanese haiku and other short Japanese forms, and many of the themes are also commonly found in Japanese poetry.

The body of man

The body of man is like a flicker of lightning
existing only to return to Nothingness.
Like the spring growth that shrivels in autumn.
Waste no thought on the process for it has no purpose,
coming and going like the dew.

-- Van Hanh --
(d. 1018)
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich with W. S. Merwin

We are just part of the natural process of life on this planet. Our existence has no more meaning then dew or lightning. I don't think he would understand those who believe the universe was created solely for humans, a testing ground for eternal happiness or pain and suffering.



Spring goes, and the hundred flowers.
Spring comes, and the hundred flowers.
My eyes watch things passing,
my head fills with years.
But when spring has gone not all the flowers follow.
Last night a plum branch blossomed by my door.

-- Man Giac --
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich with W. S. Merwin

Something still remains, even if most have gone on before--perhaps to remind us that the flowers and spring will come back again.


Spring view

The willows trail such glory that the birds are struck dumb.
Evening clouds balance above the eave-shaded hall.
A friend comes, not for conversation,
But to lean on the balustrade and watch the turquoise sky.

-- Tran Nhan-tong --
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich

One can always talk, but a night of beauty such as this comes rarely and shouldn't be missed.


A plough and a spade

A plough and a spade, that's all,
A row of chrysanthemums, and orchids,
A place to plant beans: that's all I need
Friends come, birds sing and flowers wave: welcome!
The moon walks with me when I fetch water for tea.
Old Po Yi stayed pure and stayed happy,
Yen-tzu stayed poor and liked it;
Let the world buzz,
I need no praise, I am deaf to laughter.

-- Nguyen Trai --
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich

A bamboo hut

A bamboo hut and a plum tree bower--
That's where I spend my days, far from the world's talk.
For meals, only some pickled cabbage,
But I've never cared for the life of damask and silk.
There's a pool of water for watching the moon,
And land to plough into flower beds.
Sometimes I feel inspired on snowy nights--
That's when I write my best poems, and sing.

--Nguyen Trai --
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich

What? No Ipad, no Blackberry, no computer, no forty-five inch TV, no Twitter or Facebook?


The stone dog

With a heavy paw he guards the frontier,
Squatting alone in the middle of the pass,
Paying no heed to the snow or frost,
Never asking for good food or payment.
Staring straight at the visitors' faces,
He is above listening to their gossiping tongues.
With one mind he serves his lord.
A thousand-weight strong, he cannot be swayed.

-- Emperor Le Thanh-tong
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich

And, no doubt he guarded that pass long after the emperor who had him created had gone, even perhaps long after the empire had disintegrated--perhaps an Asian Ozymandias?

All poems are taken from World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time, and edited by Katherine Washburn and John S. Major.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Michel de Montaigne: from Chapter XXVIII

This quotation is from Chapter 28: "All Things Have Their Season." One aspect of Montaigne's writings is that he generally states clearly and straightforwardly his thinking on various topics. This makes it relatively easy, therefore, to decide whether or not I agree with him. In this case, however, I have to disagree with him.

". . . The young man should make his preparations, the old man employ them, say the sages. And the greatest defect that they observe in our nature is that our desires constantly renew their youth. We are forever beginning anew to live. Our study and our desire ought some time to give evidence of old age. We have one foot in the grave, and our appetites and our pursuits are newly born.

The longest of my plans is not of a year's extent; henceforth I think of nothing but coming to an end; I rid myself of all new hopes and undertakings, take my last farewell of all the places I leave, and dispossess myself every day of what I have."

I suppose that attitude has meaning for Montaigne. And, he, and those who agree with him, should be free to live out their last years as they wish. However, it's not for me. If I agreed with him, I certainly wouldn't have purchased a new pickup, my first, when I retired at sixty-five, and spent almost a month driving from Arizona to Alaska and then back. And, I certainly wouldn't have begun this blog when I was a few months shy of seventy.

I have no idea of what comes after death, except that it is the end of my existence on this planet. Consequently I see little reason to spend any time contemplating what will come in its own time and in its own way. There is much to enjoy here and enjoying them seems to me to be a much better idea.

And you?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Several Spring Poems

I guess it's a truism that poetry is not about something but rather about the poet's perception of something. Glancing at the several poems below, all about spring, does show that each poet has a different perception about Spring. Even the titles suggest those varying viewpoints.


Always it happens when we are not there--
The tree leaps up alive into the air,
Small open parasols of Chinese green
Wave on each twig. But who has ever seen
The latch sprung, the bud as it burst?
Spring always manages to get there first.

Lovers of wind, who will have been aware
Of a faint stirring in the empty air,
Look up one day through a dissolving screen
To find no star, but this multiplied green,
Shadow on shadow, singing sweet and clear.
Listen, lovers of wind, the leaves are here!

-- May Sarton --

Loveliest of Trees,
The Cherry Now

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

-- A. E. Houseman --

Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossoms--
of years past.

-- Basho --

In Time of Silver Rain

In time of silver rain
puts forth new life again,
Green grasses grow
And flowers lift their heads,
And over all the plain
The wonder spreads
Of life,
Of life,
Of life!

In time of silver rain
The butterflies
Lift silken wings
To catch a rainbow cry,
And trees put forth
New leaves to sing
In joy beneath the sky
As down the roadway
Passing boys and girls
Go singing, too,
In time of silver rain
When spring
And life

Are new.

-- Langston Hughes --

All poems come from the following collection:

Art and Nature: An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry
Selected by Kate Farrell

It is a collection of seasonal poetry and paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a remarkable anthology.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Kenko: from Essays in Idleness

No. 13

The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known. The books I would choose are the moving volumes of Wen Hsuan, the collected works of Po Chu-i, the sayings of Lao Tzu, and the chapters of Chuang Tzu. Among works by scholars of this country, those written long ago are often quite interesting.

-- Kenko (1283-1350 approximate dates)
The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko (Essays in Idleness)

Chapter 13 reminds me of a poem by a Western poet, but unfortunately my failing memory can't come up with either a name or a title. Perhaps you can help me out here.

Kenko has an interesting reading list: poetry, Taoist texts, and ancient texts.

Kenko's Reading List

a poem by Po Chu-i


my lute set aside
on the little table
lazily I meditate
on cherishing feelings
the reason I don't bother
to strum and pluck?
there's a breeze over the strings
and it plays itself

Wen Hsuan: "A collection of poetry compiled by Prince Chao Ming of Liang (501-31). It was known as Monzan in Japan and exercised great influence." (Note from Essays in Idleness)

Lao Tzu: considered to be the first Taoist although he never considered himself as such. His work, The Book of the Way and Virtue, is the first and most important of all Taoist texts.

Chuang Tzu: the author of the second most important of the Taoist texts.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Baltasar Gracian: thoughts on campaign tactics

The following is from Baltasar Gracian's The Art of Worldly Wisdom.


"Never the cheap rival. Every effort to outshine an opponent lowers the standing, for competition resorts at once to mudslinging, in order to besmirch. They are few who carry on war in fair fashion, for rivalry lays bare the flaws which courtesy has covered over: many lived in honor, as long as they had no emulators. The heat of combat calls up, and brings to life infamies long dead, and digs up stenches forgotten: competition starts with a manifesto of slander, and calls to its aid whatever it can, and not what it should, and when at times, nay mostly, insults prove not the arms of victory, these men find a vile satisfaction in their spite, and bandy it about with so much air, that the dust of forgetfulness is shaken from old scandals. Men of good will were ever men of peace, and men of honor, men of good will."

After observing the primaries, I wonder just how nasty the presidential election will be. No doubt the candidates will take the high ground while their supporters are busy slinging the mud.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain LIV

This quatrain relates back to the previous quatrain with its reference to predestination. There's also a hint of astrology here.

First Edition: Quatrain LIV

I tell Thee this--When, starting from the Goal,
Over the shoulders of the flaming Foal
Of Heav'n and Parwin and Mushtara they flung,
In my predestined Plot of Dust and Soul.

Second Edition: LXXXI

I tell you this--When, started from the Goal,
Over the flaming shoulders of the Foal
Of Heav'n Parwin and Mushtari they flung,
In my predestined Plot of Dust and Soul.

Fifth Edition: LXXV

I tell you this--When, started from the Goal,
Over the flaming shoulders of the Foal
Of Heav'n Parwin and Mushtari they flung,
In my predestined Plot of Dust and Soul.

FitzGerald made only minor changes between the First and the Second Editions, and the Fifth Edition is identical to the Second. The "Thee" in the first version becomes "you" in the later versions, a change which he has consistently made in previous editions as he moved from a poetical language to more prosaic and contemporary usages. A second change is the replacement of the present tense "starting" with the past tense "started." It is now something that happened in the past, at his birth, but ironically, the initial point is the Goal, which is the end or object or destination of a movement. It almost appears as though he is suggesting that his end determines his beginning.

FitzGerald also moved "flaming" in the second line so that in the second and later editions, it modified "shoulders" instead of "Foal." Now, instead of the entire Foal being in flames, only its shoulders are. I'm not sure why he made this change. Perhaps he felt that "flaming shoulders" sounded better than "flaming Foal"; having two words in sequence both beginning with "f" didn't sound right to him.

In the second edition, FitzGerald dropped the "and" after "Heav'n." I suspect this was to clarify the meaning because the "and" after "Heav'n" suggested that there was a series which included "Heav'n and Parwin and Mushtara" which wasn't what he intended. "Heav'n" is part of the phrase "Foal of Heav'n" while "Parwin" and "Mushtara" were flung into his predestined plot. Removing the "and" makes it clear that the series included only "Parwin" and "Mushtara." I think it would have been even clearer if he had placed a comma after "Heav'n." The third line would then have read" Of Heav'n, Parwin and Mushtari they flung".

The final change involved the spelling of "Mushtara." The final "a" was changed to "i". It seems as though FitzGerald's source spelled it "Mushtara" while the more accepted spelling is "Mushtari." He later changed it when it was pointed out to him.

Three astronomical terms are included in this quatrain. The "Foal of Heav'n" is a reference to the small constellation Equuleus or as it is more commonly known today--Equus. "Mushtari" is Arabic for the planet Jupiter, while Parwin refers to the Pleiades. The reference to "predestined plot of Soul and Dust" brings in, to me anyway, an astrological element, in which the stars control our destiny. In astrology, of course, one's chart is computed by determining the day, hour, and minute of birth (if possible) and then consulting the charts to see which planets and constellations were prominent at that time. This configuration of heavenly bodies then has an influence on all aspects of one's life, including personality and future events.

I wonder if an astrologer would see something significant in the references to "the Foal of Heav'n," "Parwin," and "Mushtari."

My interpretation of this quatrain is that Jupiter, the Pleiades, and Equus were possibly present at his birth and that these three are significant in determining his personality and life in some way.