Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Paul Laurence Dunbar: In Summer

In Summer

Oh, summer has clothed the earth
        In a cloak from the loom of the sun!
And a mantle, too, of the skies' soft blue,
       And a belt where the rivers run. 

And now for the kiss of the wind,
      And the touch of the air's soft hands,
With the rest from strife and the heat of life,
      With the freedom of lakes and lands.

I envy the farmer's boy
       Who sings as he follows the plow;
While the shinning green of the young blades lean
      To the breezes that cool his brow.  

He sings to the dewy morn,
       No thought of another's ear;
But the song he sings is a chant for kings
      And the whole wide world to hear.

He sings of the joys of life,
     Of the pleasures of work and rest,
From an o'erfull heat, without aim or art;
     'Tis a song of the merriest.
O ye who toil in the town,
     And ye who moil in the mart,
Hear the artless song, and your faith made strong
     Shall renew your joy of  heart.

Oh, poor were the worth of the world
         If never a song were heard,--
If the sting of grief had no relief,
        And never a heart were stirred.

So. long as the streams run down,
      And as long as the robins trill,
Let us taunt old Care with a merry air,
      And sing in the face of ill.

-- Paul Laurence Dunbar --
from Summer: A Spiritual Biography of the Season

The last two stanzas suggest something more is going on here than a simple paean to the joys of summer labor.  Singing can do something other than just reflect one's joy at that particular moment:

Oh, poor were the worth of the world
         If never a song were heard,--
If the sting of grief had no relief,
        And never a heart were stirred.
So. long as the streams run down,
      And as long as the robins trill,
Let us taunt old Care with a merry air,
      And sing in the face of ill.

Music bypasses the brain and goes directly to your soul.   You can feel the best music in your bones. Martial music and marches and national anthems are far more effective in moving people than any lecture on patriotism.  The most rousing speeches and sermons are almost sung or chanted.  If you listen carefully you can hear the music underlying the words and that's what moves the listeners.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Russell Hoban: Eau de Hippogriff

Russell Hoban
Angelica Lost and Found

Warning:  Spoilers Present

 Roger délivrant Angélique (1824) by Louis-Édouard Rioult depicts the scene of Orlando Furioso where Ruggiero rescues Angelique while riding on a hippogriff. 

Russell Hoban has fun with the medieval romance in general and Ludovico Ariosto's poem, Orlando Furioso, in particular.  Angelica Lost and Found  takes off from a subplot of Orlando Furioso and the subject of a painting by Girolamo da Carpi which depicts a young woman, Angelica, chained naked to a cliff on a small island as a sacrifice to a sea monster.  Ruggiero, a secondary character, aboard a hippogriff, comes to rescue her. 

Volatore, the hippogriff, having once seen all of Angelica's maidenly charms then falls madly in love with her.   He somehow manages to break free of the literary world and the painting and emerges in the 21st century, where he meets Angelica Greenberg, the owner of an art gallery in (where else) San Francisco.

As is typical of the medieval romance, the young lovers (well, for convention's sake they are the young lovers)  meet early in the work, plight their everlasting love for each other (well, sort of anyway), and then are separated for the rest of the novel.   Most of the novel, therefore, consists of a series of Angelica's adventures, many of which are brought about by Volatore as he strives to be reunited with her.  Volatore is seen only in very brief chapters from this point on. 

Angelica's adventures are rather unique.  She is searched out by a number of men, all of whom have, to a greater or lesser degree, the distinct hippogriff odor.  Volatore, now trapped in between the real world and the literary world, desperately searches for Angelica by tapping into the psyche of  males in her vicinity.   Unaware of  the source of their motivation, they respond by seeking her out.  But, the chemistry is not right, and Volatore must again look for another male who would be a perfect fit for a lovesick hippogriff.  

Medieval romances have happy endings, so you can guess how this one will end.  

I would rank this an interesting and enjoyable and a not-too-heavy read. 

On the other hand, there may be something going on here that I'm missing.  One should always be careful when reading anything by Hoban.  Consequently, Angelica Lost and Found is on the "must read again" list, just to see if I take a different view the second time around.

Friday, June 26, 2015



Not to say what everyone else is saying
not to believe what everyone else believed
not to do what everybody did,
then to refute what everyone else was saying
then to disprove what everyone else believed
then to deprecate what everybody did,

was his way to come by understanding

how everyone else was saying the same as he was saying
believing what he believed
and did what doing.

-- Clere Parsons --(1908-1931)
from A Poem a Day
edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery

I had never heard of him until I encountered this poem listed in the above mentioned volume.  While at Oxford, he edited the 1928 edition of Oxford Poetry and formed a group of poets that included Stephen Spender, Lewis MacNeice and several others.

I found the poem intriguing as it seems to suggest a strange intellectual journey from trying to be different to understanding that one really wasn't. I'm going to do a search to see if I can find any more of his poems on-line. 

A late thought--arriving some time after this was posted.  Could these three stages be considered levels of development which happens to many, if not to most people?

1.  Children growing up frequently demonstrate their individuality by taking a stand that is the opposite of everything their parents and other old folks accept and believe in.

Not to say what everyone else is saying
not to believe what everyone else believed
not to do what everybody did,

 2. As they grow and mature, they begin to come up with reasons for their opposition, reasons that support their positions and which go beyond mere opposition to the status quo. 

 then to refute what everyone else was saying
then to disprove what everyone else believed
then to deprecate what everybody did,

 3.  Then as they age and gain more experience of the world, they begin to change or modify their positions and finally find themselves as holding ideas which are common to many.  After all, there are only a limited number of positions that can be held on various issues:  completely for, partially for, partially against, completely against, and indifferent.

was his way to come by understanding

how everyone else was saying the same as he was saying
believing what he believed
and did what doing.

What do you think?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Summer Solstice

I thought I would post this, the first known poem in English about summer today, since it is the Summer Solstice, or the First Day of Summer. No doubt you have seen it before, as I have, but I enjoy it each time for its simplicity and brevity.

Cuckoo Song

Summer is y-comen in, 
  Loude sing, cuckoo!
Groweth seed and bloweth meed
  And spring'th the woode now--
                         Sing cuckoo!

Ewe' bleateth after lamb,
  Low'th after calfe cow;
Bullock starteth, bucke farteth.
  Merry sing cuckoo!

  Cuckoo, cuckoo!
Well sing'st  thou, cuckoo:
  Ne swike thou never now!

Sing cuckoo, now!  Sing cuckoo!
Sing cuckoo!  Sing, cuckoo, now!
                          -- Anon --


from the Wikipedia entry;
"The song is composed in the  Wessex dialect of Middle English.  Although the composer's identity is unknown today, it may have been  W. de Wycombe.  The manuscript in which it is preserved was copied between 1261 and 1264."

Here is one from the other side of the world--China--a poem by T'ao Chien (365-427 AD).

Reading the Book of Hills and Seas

In the month of June the grass grows high
And round my cottage thick-leaved branches sway.
There is not a bird but delights in the place where it rests:
And I too--love my thatched cottage.
I have done my ploughing: 
I have sown my seed.
Again I have time to sit and read my books.
In the narrow lane there are no deep ruts:
Often my friends' carriages turn back.
In high spirits I pour out my spring wine
And pluck the lettuce growing in my garden.
A gentle rain comes stealing up from the east
And a sweet wind bears it company.
My thoughts float idly over the Story of King Chou
My eyes wander over the pictures of Hills and Seas.
At a single glance I survey the whole Universe.
He will never be happy whom such pleasures fail to please.
-- T'ai Ch'ien --
from Summer: A Spiritual Biography of the Season
Edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch

 This is a repeat for I had posted this about three years ago, but I thought it captures the sense of summer--paradoxically a time of work and also play or rest or meditation or just being.

#172  Solstice

"The summer solstice is the time of greatest light.  It is a day of enormous power.  The whole planet is turned fully to the brilliance of the sun.

This great culmination is not static or permanent.  Indeed, solstice as a time of culmination is only a barely perceptible point.  The sun appears to stand still.  Its diurnal motion seems to nearly cease.  Yesterday, it was still reaching this point; tomorrow, it will begin a new phase of its cycle.

Those who follow Tao celebrate this day to remind themselves of the cycles of existence.  They remember that all cycles have a left and a right, an up side and a down side, a zenith and a nadir.  Today, day far surpasses night, and night will gradually begin to reassert itself.  All of life is cycles.  All of life is balance."
-- Deng Ming-Dao --
from 365 Tao

While the Summer Solstice inevitably brings to mind the Winter Solstice, the time of the longest night, we shouldn't let that thought spoil our enjoyment of the present.  Good times will be followed by sad times, but those sad times are no more permanent than are the good times. The wisest know that nothing is permanent: even the mountains will eventually erode away, and then, in some far distant future, will be raised up once again.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Nightfall: Lord Byron, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Silverberg

Lord Byron:                                             "Darkness"  1816, a poem
Ralph Waldo Emerson:                            "Nature"      1836, an essay  
Isaac Asimov:                                          "Nightfall"   1941, a short story
Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg:       Nightfall, a novel, 1990


Near the end of May I visited R.T.'s blog, Beyond Eastwood, which featured a poem by Lord Byron.  I'm not a great fan (or even a little fan) of Lord Byron, but I was curious to see what had interested R.T. to post this poem.  I got about 4 or 5 lines into it when I had to stop and go back to check that what I thought I was reading was really what I was reading.

In the poem the sun disappears, and chaos follows!   I couldn't help but think of Isaac Asimov's most famous short story, "Nightfall."  This, then, reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay, "Nature,"  and then the expanded version of the short story, Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg. 

 Following are three works--the poem by Lord Byron, an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Nature," and a quotation from Isaac Asimov's most famous short story, "Nightfall"-- all of which speculate about the effects of the sudden loss of the sun.

           "Darkness" by Lord Byron

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went -and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chilled into a selfish prayer for light;
And they did live by watchfires -and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings -the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other's face;
Happy were those which dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanoes, and their mountain-torch;
A fearful hope was all the world contained;
Forests were set on fire -but hour by hour
They fell and faded -and the crackling trunks
Extinguished with a crash -and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them: some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnashed their teeth and howled; the wild birds shrieked,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawled
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless -they were slain for food;
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again; -a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought -and that was death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails -men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assailed their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famished men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the drooping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress -he died.
The crowd was famished by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heaped a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage: they raked up,
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other's aspects -saw, and shrieked, and died -
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless -
A lump of death -a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal; as they dropped
They slept on the abyss without a surge -
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The Moon, their mistress, had expired before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perished! Darkness had no need
Of aid from them - She was the Universe!

To borrow from Spock: "Fascinating"

This is the Wikipedia entry about the poem:

" Darkness is a poem written by Lord Byron in July 1816. That year was known as the Year Without a Summer, because Mount Tambora had erupted in the Dutch East Indies the previous year, casting enough ash into the atmosphere to block out the sun and cause abnormal weather across much of north-east America and northern Europe. This pall of darkness inspired Byron to write his poem."

.  .  .

"1816, the year in which the poem was written, was called 'the year without summer', as strange weather and an inexplicable darkness caused record-cold temperatures across Europe, especially in Geneva. Byron claimed to have received his inspiration for the poem, saying he 'wrote it... at Geneva, when there was a celebrated dark day, on which the fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight.'  The darkness was (unknown to those of the time) caused by the volcanic ash spewing from the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The search for a cause of the strange changes in the light of day only grew as scientists discovered sunspots on the sun so large that they could be seen with the naked eye.  A scientist in Italy even predicted that the sun would go out on 18 July, shortly before Byron's writing of "Darkness". His "prophecy" caused riots, suicides, and religious fervour all over Europe."


From the Wikipedia entry on "Nightfall"
"According to Asimov's autobiography, Campbell asked Asimov to write the story after discussing with him a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

'If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!'"
--Ralph Waldon Emerson --
from Nature

Campbell's opinion to the contrary was: "I think men would go mad."

Isaac Asimov then wrote the story, which followed Campbell's opinion most closely:

"Theremon staggered to his feet, his throat constricting him in breathlessness, all the muscles of his body writing in a tensity of terror and sheer fear beyond bearing.  He was going mad, and knew it, and somwehre deep inside a bit of sanity was screaming, struggling to fight off the helpless flood of back terror. It was very horrible to go mad and know that you were going mad--to know that in a little minute you would be here physically and yet all the real essence would be dead and drowned in the black madness.  For this was the Dark--the Dark and the Cold and the Doom.  The bright walls of the universe were shattered and their awful black fragments were falling down to crush and squeeze and obliterate him."

-- Isaac Asimov --
from "Nightfall"

As you can easily see,  Asimov's story presents Campbell's and Lord Byron's views. In Asimov's story, after the suns have been eclipsed, the astronomers go mad and off in the distance a red glow appears in the sky over the nearby city.


 A later collaboration between Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg in 1990 expands the short story into a novel, with Silverberg's contribution being the first and last parts while Asimov's short story with some minor changes, becomes the middle section.  The last part  extends the story beyond the point where the short story ends and portrays the destruction of civilization after the stars emerge.  It is this extension that Bryon's poem could easily substitute for Asimov's or rather Silverberg's  depiction of the aftermath.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

William Butler Yeats: A birthday

William Butler Yeats
Born: June 13, 1865
Died:  January 28,1939

William Butler Yeats is another of those poets of whom I have heard much but sadly have read very little of his poetry.  However, of the little that I have read, the following is one of my favorites, and probably one of his most frequently anthologized.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall l have some peace there, for peach comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
                                               --  William Butler Yeats --

If you find this somewhat familiar, the following quotation from Yeats may help explain why:

"I had still the ambition," he wrote, "formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little trickle of water and saw a fountain in a shop window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water.  From the sudden remembrance came my poem 'Innisfree,' my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music."

Thoreau begins Walden Pond with the following words:

"WHEN I WROTE the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.  I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again."

And,  for those readers who are interested in something a long time ago in a place far, far away:

I chose a secluded place to live
Tientai says it all
gibbons howl and the stream fog is cold
a view of the peak adjoins my rush door
I cut some  thatch to roof a pine hut
I made a pool and channeled the spring
glad at last to put everything down
picking ferns I pass the years left
  -- Han-shan --                   

from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
trans by Red Pine (Bill Porter)

Han-shan is translated in English as Cold Mountain.
Tientai: as the result of the popularity of a 4th century work, Mount Tientai became symbolic of a "remote and magical wilderness."

Han-shan is a legendary hermit poet who lived during the T'ang Dynasty, possibly in the 9th century.  Aside from several stories and brief references to him by others, little is known of him today.  He lived on Cold Mountain and took that as his name. 

Among the many themes that seem inborn in the human psyche is the desire to escape civilization and live by oneself in remote places.  It's found in an American and an Irishman of the 19th century and a hermit poet from a thousand years earlier in 9th century China.  I don't doubt that it can be found in other cultures and in other eras.                 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Christie's novel--The Murder on the Orient Express--and the BBC Version with David Suchet

Agatha Christie:  Murder on the Orient Express, the novel
 Murder on the Orient Express,  a BBC dramatization with David Suchet
Murder on the Orient Express (1974), see earlier post

A short time ago I watched the BBC dramatization with David Suchet, after having seen the 1974 film.   I don't remember reading the novel, and perhaps that's what I should do next.

The two do differ in certain respects.  One difference between the two film versions is that Suchet's Poirot suffers through much more of a moral/ethical/professional struggle at the end than does Finney in the 1974 version, or so it struck me. 
I've only watched a few of the Suchet versions, and it struck me that this was the darkest interpretation of Poirot that I had seen in the past, and it actually begins at the beginning. The two incidents prior to boarding the train certainly affects him very strongly and probably plays a significant role in his decision at the end.

Unlike the 1974 version, the music and soundtrack are very traditional, the music suggesting the turning of the wheels and danger ahead.  Another difference is the length of the films.  The 1974 version was 127 minutes long while the BBC version with David Suchet is only 89 minutes in length.  What was lost in those 40 minutes?   Several of the interviews never happened as Poirot supposedly relies on his memory of the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong.

Several Weeks Later

I just finished reading the novel, probably for the first time as all of my memories of it come from the two films.  I could find little difference between the novel and the 1974 version of it, aside, of course, for the tone of the film.  The BBC version, of course, dropped some of the interviews, probably  because of  the length of the work.

Aside from the difference in  tone and the coverage of the novel, one other difference between the two films is Poirot's reaction at the end when he deceives the police as to his solution of the crime.  After having read the novel, I must conclude that the 1974 version is actually closer to the novel than is the BBC version, in which Poirot clearly is upset at his choice.  In the novel, he merely says which version he will give to the police and lets it go at that.  Perhaps other readers can find evidence that suggests he is very upset over his decision, and if so, I would appreciate being shown this in the novel.

This seldom happens, but I prefer the earlier 1974 version to the BBC adaptation.  

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain XLIV

This is another in my second set of posts about a favorite work--Edward FitzGerald's version? adaptation? interpretation? of Omar Khayyam's The Rubaiyat.  I am now concentrating on those quatrains that were added for the Second Edition and am including the related quatrains from the Fifth Edition.  Since the Fifth Edition had only one hundred and one, I expect that when I have completed my posts on the Second Edition, I will also have included all of the quatrains from the Fifth Edition.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XLIV

Do you, within your little hour of Grace,
The waving Cypress in your Arms enlace,
    Before the Mother back into her arms
Fold, and dissolve you in a last embrace.

This is a rather unique quatrain in that it was introduced in the Second Edition, but then was removed when the Third Edition appeared and was not included in any subsequent edition. It appears to be just another quatrain that advocates the oft expressed philosophy of eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.

The second line poses the most significant problem: The waving Cypress in your Arms enlace.  I don't remember any previous quatrain that referred to a "Cypress," so I looked at later quatrains and found this reference in Quatrain LV:

                                            And lose your fingers in the tresses of
                                       The Cypress-slender Minister of  Wine.

According to FitzGerald's notes, this refers to Saki, "A servant whose duties include pouring of the wine."  Again, life is short, enjoy yourself before you return to Mother Earth's "last embrace."

This quatrain really does nothing more than reiterate a theme that has been brought out already in numerous quatrains and, no doubt, will appear in future ones. This may be the reason why FitzGerald decided to discard this quatrain after its only appearance in the Second Edition.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

China Mieville: Railsea

China Mieville

  Railsea  is certainly one of his most straightforward and least complex novels, and 
has that YA feel to it.  But, what is unusual for a Mieville work, at least for the ones I've read, is that this one cries out for a sequel.  Not that this episode doesn't conclude successfully, but it strikes me as really being the first in a series, at least a trilogy anyway.  And, somewhere down the line, I can see a prequel coming.

Mieville has created a fascinating concept--a part of the world (Earth?) is almost covered with railroad tracks, especially the soft and non-rocky areas.  It is dangerous to walk where there's dirt because underground are all sorts of carnivores--large hungry carnivores with fangs.   Towns are build on the rocky places, much like islands in the sea, the sea of railroad tracks and  soft soil.  It's some sort of a post-holocaust world.

Sham, the main character,  is a young man who works on a moletrain, which goes out hunting for the huge moles--think whales and transfer their behavior to living underground rather than underwater.  Other trains are made up of merchants, salvage parties, pirates, war trains (war ships).  .  .

The captain of the train our hero is on has a prosthetic arm which she lost to a great grey mole, and now she's obsessed with killing Mocker-Jack.  Part of the fun of this novel is picking out the scenes that echo Moby Dick, and there are several, including one nightmarish butchery scene when a huge mole is killed (See Moby Dick). 

Railsea is not unique though in paying homage to Moby Dick.  I think Bruce Sterling's almost forgotten Involution Ocean should be seen as a descendent of Moby Dick, where on the planet Nullaqua (no water), the great dustwhales plow through a sea of finely ground silica on top of which sailing ships pursue them for Flare, a highly addictive narcotic. (link to my post regarding Involution Ocean   http://tinyurl.com/omjbbym).  And this of course must bring to mind Arrakis or Dune, where the drug Spice could only be found as it was a mixture of the excretions of the sandworms and water.

If Mieville desires, he has plenty of room for prequels and sequels, as very little is presented about how the world got to be this way.  And, while this episode is successfully ended, there is no clue as to what will happen to the train or the crew for little is known about what most of the world is like. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Silmarillion--"Valaquenta"

J. R. R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion
"Valaquenta"   Pt. 2
Account  of the Valar and Maiar
according to the lore of the Eldar

The second part of The Silmarillion is not a story.  It is more of an encyclopedic account of the Ainur who  "entered into the World at the beginning of time"  in order to fulfill the vision they had created at the behest of  Eru or Iluvatar.  In time they became known to the Eldar as the Valar and Maiar.

A strange combination of Biblical and pagan traditions, the Valar and the Maiar are much like angels from the Bible in that they are the creations of Eru or Iluvatar.  For the most part they act like angels in that they carry out the wishes of the Creator, except of course for the greatest angel, Lucifer, and his counterpart among the Valar, Melkor.

The Valar

However, few of the Biblical angels are singled out: we have names of some of them and little is known either of their creation or their activities.  This is in stark contrast to the pagan hierarchies that include numerous gods, such as the Greek, Roman, and Norse, as well as the Egyptian, Sumerian, and other religions of that area.  There the resemblance in many cases is closer to that of a squabbling family, with a head deity--Zeus, Jupiter, Odin.   Frequently, the various gods have special attributes attached to them.  The Roman god Neptune and the Greek god Poseidon are the gods of the sea, Roman Mars and Greek Ares are the war gods, while others are gods of the underworld or rivers or the sky or the Sun. Tolkien's Valar and Maiar  resemble the various pantheons in this way:  they are named and each has assumed responsibility for some part of the planet.

Some of the most important among the Valar are the following:

Manwe:  who, in the thought of Iluvatar, is the brother of Melkor, the mightiest of the Valar, but Melkor is no longer spoken of.  Manwe is the closest to the thought of Iluvatar and in consequence is now the Lord of  Earth and all that live within.  He is the Lord of the winds, the clouds, and "all the regions of the air," from the highest to the lowest, and his favorites among the creatures on Earth (Arda) are the swift birds.  Manwe can be seen as the Sky God.

Varda: the Lady of the Stars, she dwells with Manwe.  She also is the Goddess of Light. The Elves call her Elbereth and hold her most in reverence and love. 

Ulmo:  Lord of the Waters, the equivalent of  the Greek Poseidon or the Roman Neptune.  He dwells alone and seldom appears in human guise.

Aule:   the master of all the substances of which Middle Earth is made--a master craftsman and a skilled artisan, somewhat similar to the Greek god Hephaestus. 

Yavanna, the spouse of Aule, is the Giver of Fruits -- lover of all things that grow in the earth.

Orome:  the Great Huntsman and husband of Vana who was called the Queen of Blossoming Flowers and the Ever-young,

Mandos: Judge of the Dead and the Master of Doom, the equivalent of  the Egyptian Osiris, the Judge of the Dead,  and the Norse goddess Hel who presides over a realm of the Hel, where she receives a portion of the dead.

There are others, but these are the most significant,  I think.

 Have I left out one of your favorites?

The Maiar

The Maiar are powerful beings but less so than the Valar. The Maiar are associated with individual Valar, though the exact nature of that association is obscure.  Many have at least two names, one apparently their true name and one the name they became known by in Middle Earth.  Some of the significant Maiar are the following:

Curumo aka Saruman, initially associated with Aule the Smith.

Alwendil or Sauron, also associated  with Aule the Smith.

Radagast the Brown is associated with Yavana

Mithrandir or Gandalf is also associated with Manwe and Varda

Bolrogs are Maiar who have been corrupted by Melkor

Note:  it is curious that both Saruman and Sauron are associated with Aule the Smith.  In addition, Aule created the dwarves, whereas the Elves and Men were created by Iluvatar.

The Enemy 

Melkor:  perhaps the mightiest of the Valar, brother to Manwe.  He is no longer called by this name but is referred to as Morgoth, because he turned away from the Light and choose violence and tyranny instead.  He desired Arda (Earth) for himself, and when he could not have it he descended through fire and wrath into the great burning, into Darkness. "Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven," Milton's Lucifer/Satan declares in Paradise Lost.  Tolkien has tapped into a complex web of allusions here, especially among the various cultures and religious traditions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, far too many for this brief commentary.  (If you are curious, simple type "Lucifer"  into your search engine.)

Morgoth had many followers among the Maiar, the greatest of whom is Gorthaur the Cruel, perhaps better known as Sauron.  Little of Sauron is known in the early days because he served Morgoth, but after Morgoth's passing, Sauron came into his own.  His history then parallels that of his former ruler, and he follows the same path down into the Void. 

The Silmarillion is a work in progress.  Tolkien never finished it, and as far as I can find out, he never even completed a first draft. What we have here is Christopher Tolkien's reworking and editing of the material that Tolkien was working on when he died.