Friday, June 30, 2017

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Editiion, Quatrain CVII

This is the second of two linked quatrains, the previous being Quatrain CVI, with a similar theme.

Second Edition:  Quatrain CVII

Better, oh, better, cancel from the Scroll
Of Universe one luckless Human Soul,
    Than drop by drop enlarge the Flood that rolls
Hoarser with Anguish as the Ages Roll.

This quatrain does not appear in the Fifth Edition.  Perhaps, since its theme is the same as in the previous quatrain, FitzGerald decided it was repetitive and therefore unnecessary, and consequently dropped it by the time the Fifth Edition was published.

The theme is the same as in Quatrain CVI, and it is not found in the First Edition.  This idea, that it would be better that humans were not created, does not appear in the First Edition as best as I can remember, nor is there any reference to the pain and anguish of existence.  The First Edition was published in 1859 while the Second Edition appeared in 1868, nine years later.  Not knowing what happened to Edward FitzGerald in those nine years, I can't speculate whether the addition of this quatrain, filled with despair and pain, has any personal significance for him or just may be a translation of a quatrain that he didn't include in the First Edition and has no personal meaning for him.    

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Robert Frost's Invitation

The Pasture

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha'n't be gone long,--You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother.  It's so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha'n't be gone long,--You come too.

-- Robert Frost --
Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays
The Library of America

He's inviting us to go along, but to where or to what?

One place, obviously, is the pasture, to watch him do some simple, ordinary, uncomplicated things-- things of no great consequence. 

This poem is placed on a page immediately before the rest of his poetry, so I might say that this is an invitation to his poetry.  Perhaps I should read this first whenever I decide it's time for Frost.

Is there somewhere else he's inviting us to go?

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Minute Meditation

We are most likely to get angry and excited in our opposition to some idea when we ourselves are not quite certain of our own position, and are inwardly tempted to take the other side. 

-- Thomas Mann --

And it puzzle me to learn
That tho' a man may be in doubt of what he knows,
Very quickly he will fight. . .
He'll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!

"A Puzzlement"
Lyrics from the musical, The King and I

Obviously wrong, right?   For everybody knows that those who fight the hardest and shout the loudest have no doubts whatsoever . . . for they never give any sign that they might be wrong.   And those who admit that they have some questions or even doubts are the weakest in their faith.  It's obvious, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain CVI

This is the first of several linked quatrains which express the same theme: the pain of human existence.

Second Edition:  Quatrain CVI

Oh, if the World were but to recreate,
That we might catch ere closed the Book of Fate,
    And make The Writer on a fairer leaf
Inscribe our names, or quite obliterate!

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XCVIII

Would but some winged Angel ere too late
Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,
    And make the stern Recorder otherwise
Enregister,  or quite obliterate!

FitzGerald has made considerable changes to this quatrain by the Fifth Edition.   The theme seems to be the same, though.  But, there is a subtle difference which I didn't catch the first time I read them.  The Second Edition was published in 1868, about nine years after the First Edition.  The Fifth came out in 1889, so there was a twenty year gap between the Second and the Fifth Editions.

The subtle difference may simply be an accidental result of the changes in wording (over-reading again on my part), or it may reflect a change in FitzGerald's own world view that took place over that twenty year gap.  In the Second Edition, it seems as though Creation is fixed.  Note that the World has to "recreate" in order for us to catch the Book of Fate before it is "closed."  I understand that to mean Creation or Fate is now fixed and to make any changes we would have to begin again before any changes could be made.

It appears to be a different situation, though, in the Fifth Edition.   He wishes that "some winged Angel ere too late/  Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,"  This suggests to me that Fate is not yet fixed and changes could be made to "yet unfolded Roll of Fate."  The Roll is not yet folded, and therefore different entries could be made.  This seems to me to be a movement away from predestination.  Based on some earlier quatrains this is a change since some quatrains did suggest that this is a predestined world, and we had little to say about our fate.

Another interesting change occurs in the third line.  In the Second Edition, it is The Writer who will Inscribe our names, or quite obliterate!  The reference is to an objective or neutral scribe, while in the Fifth Edition, it is a stern Recorder who records our fate.  In the twenty years between the two editions, the depiction of the one who records our fate has gone from neutral to stern

Of the various themes in the Rubaiyat, this is probably the most despairing.  FitzGerald proposes two options: one would be to have "The Writer on a fairer leaf/ Inscribe our names, and if that is not possible then the Writer should quite obliterate our names from the Roll.  In other words, it would be better if we weren't born. If the " stern Recorder" doesn't change the Roll of Fate, then again the poet/narrator would prefer to be  quite obliterate.  In other words, with life being the way it is, it would be better not to have been born at all.

One question I do have: the responsibility of the Writer and the Recorder.  Do they decide our Fates or do they just follow orders and record them as dictated to them by another higher power?  I can't tell from the quatrains for they do not give a clue, or at least none that I can find.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dylan Thomas's Cat: Do Not Go Peaceable to That Damn Vet

Do Not Go Peaceable to That Damn Vet

Do not go peaceable to that damn vet,
A cat can always tell a trip is due,
Hide, hide, when your appointment time is set.

Wise cats who watched, and learned the alphabet,
And never let men know how much they knew,
Do not go peaceable to that damn vet.

Young cats who want to keep their claws to whet
On sofa legs, and save their privates, too,
Hide, hide when your appointment time is set.

Sick cats, poor things, whose stomachs are upset,
But hate to eat some evil-smelling goo,
Do not go peaceable to that damn vet.

Old cats who have no wish to sleep just yet,
And plan to live another life or two,
Hide, hide, when our appointment time is set

And though your human sweetly calls his pet
Or rants and raves until his face is blue,
Do no go peaceable to that damn vet,
Hide, hide, when your appointment time is set.

--  Dylan Thomas's Cat --
Henry Beard: Poetry for Cats

I always had trouble finding my cats when it was "vet time.I finally figured it out:  I had gotten into the habit of bringing out the cat carrier from the closet in the morning of a trip to the vet.  When I stopped, I had no problems after that.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Ryokan's Irony?

Done begging in a rundown village,
I make my way home past green boulders.
Late sun hides behind western peaks;
pale moonlight shines on the stream before me.
I wash my feet, climb up on a rock,
light incense, sit in meditation.
After all, I wear a monk's robe--
how could I spend the years doing nothing? 

                                                -- Ryokan --

  That last sentence makes me look again at the seven lines preceding it, and I have to wonder about them.  Is he being ironic here?  What, if anything, does this say about a monk's way of living?  Or, about Ryokan?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Minute Meditation

"If real people could cohabit with the creatures of their imagination--say, in a novel--then what sort of children would be the fruit of their union: changelings?"

  -- Lawrence Durrell --
  Constance or Solitary Practices

One of the joys of rereading--discovering little gems anew. This is the germ of the idea that describes part of the charm of  "The Avignon Quintet,"  for several of the characters in Blanford's novel interact with Blanford and  his friends.  Constance, for example, remarks upon meeting Sutcliffe that she was surprised because she thought Sutcliffe was a fictional character.

I wonder how I would react if I met characters from a novel I had read. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Willa Cather: Youth and the Bright Medusa, Pt. 3

Willa Cather
Youth and the Bright Medusa

These are the last two stories in the collection.

"The Sculptor's Funeral"

Prophets are not honored in their home towns and, so it seems, it is also true about sculptors.  Harvey Merrick, a highly respected award-winning sculptor, has died.  His body is  brought back from the East to the small town in Kansas where he was born and raised.  His coffin is accompanied by Steavens, one of  Merrick's students.  They are met at the station by a group of townspeople who take the coffin to the Merrick home.

Steavens is  shocked by Merrick's family, especially the mother.  However, the father utters what must be the understatement of the century:  "He was a good boy, Jim; always a good boy.  He was ez gentle ez a child, and the kindest of 'em all--only we didn't none of us ever understand him."

Later, Steavens joins the townspeople and is dismayed by the way they talk about Merrick.  He was a failure, a disappointment to them all, as they jokingly and gleefully and maliciously  recounted his life there as a child. He never paid attention to where he was, always daydreaming, he wasted his father's money on  book learning,  he drank too much,   One "mourner" commented, "'Where the old man made his mistake was in sending that boy East to school,' said Phelps, stroking his goatee and speaking in a deliberate, judicial tone.  'There was when he got his head full of nonsense.  What Harve needed, of all people, was a course in some first-class Kansas City  business college.'"

Yet, there is one there who speaks up for Merrick and utters his own critique of the town and its inhabitants.

"It's not for me to say why, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, a genius should ever have been called from this place of hatred and bitter waters; but I want this Boston man to know that the drivel he's been hearing here tonight is the only tribute any truly great man could have from such a lot of sick, side-tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks as the here-present financiers of Sand City--upon which town may God have mercy!"

I think Marshall McKann, who appeared in Cather's "The Gold Slipper" would feel comfortable with these people.


"A Death in the Desert"

I found this story, the last in the collection, to be the most complex tale, even though it is far from being the longest.  In Cather's "The Diamond Mine," the theme is the exploitation of the successful performer or artist by family, friends, and various parasites, as they selfishly use the performer to gain their own goals, be it psychological, emotional, or financial.  This story, "A Death in the Desert," tells the other side of the story, the way that some performers use, abuse, and finally abandon those who aid them as they strove to achieve their goals, be it for the art itself, fame, or financial rewards..  

Adriance  Hilgarde is a well-known composer and concert performer.  Everett is his younger brother who is cursed/blessed by his appearance: he resembles Adriance so closely that he can't go anywhere without being mistaken for him.

While stopping in Cheyenne, Wyoming on a business trip, Everette is mistaken for Adriance by Katharine, who becomes quite upset.   The next morning her brother comes to apologize, and it is at this point that Everette recognizes Katharine whom he hasn't seen in many years.  He had fallen in love with her when she was Adriance's student.  Adriance considered her to be the most talented of his pupils, and shortly afterwards, they left for a concert tour which eventually took them to Europe, and that was the last time he saw her.  Now, she was back, suffering from an incurable case of  consumption (TB).

Although he has finished the business that brought him to Wyoming, he stays because "No matter what his mission, east or west, by land or sea, he was sure to find himself employed in his brother's business, one of the tributary lives which helped to swell the shining current of Adriance Hilgarde's.  It was not the first time that his duty had been to comfort, as best he could, one of the broken things his brother's imperious speed had cast aside and forgotten.  He made no attempt to analyse the situation or to state it in exact terms; but he accepted it as a commission from his brother to help this woman to die. "

It isn't that Adriance is an evil or malicious person:  he is just so absorbed in himself that he never notices the way he uses those around him.  When Everett writes him about Katharine,  Adriance writes her a letter "full of confidences about his work, and delicate allusions to their old happy days of study and comradeship"  Everett thought that the "letter was consistently egotistical, and seemed to him even a trifle patronizing, yet it was just what she had wanted." 

 I wasn't sure until the very end as to who the protagonist was:  there are three for which some argument could be made.  The first, Everett Hilgardeis the point-of-view (POV) character, and, most often, the POV is the main character.  The second is Katharine Gaylord, and the title refers to her.  The third, Adriance Hilgarde, is the link that brings Everett and Katharine together, once in the past and now once again.  I would have to go with Adriance, even though he never appears, except through the memory of Everett and Katharine and that one letter. 

  In one sense, this is a variation of the popular plot referred to frequently as the eternal triangle (aka infernal triangle) in which A loves B, B loves C, and C loves A; only in this situation A loves B, B loves C, and C apparently loves C..

The story leaves some questions open:  what does Everett think about his role, going about comforting those injured by his brother?  What does he get out of it?  Why are people so willing to be used by Adriance, even though they get nothing out of it?  Or, do they?

It's a story to come back to again, perhaps after percolating deep down under for a year or so. 

Friday, June 9, 2017


Willa Cather
Youth and the Bright Medusa

The following are two more stories found in Cather's collection--Youth and the Bright Medusa

"Paul's Case"

The title provides a clue, for this story can be seen as perhaps a medical case or a psychological case or even a criminal case history.  Paul attempts to recreate himself with his lies about his parentage.  Perhaps he is a foundling, abandoned by rich and powerful parents for some reason.  He spends his time trying desperately to prove to all that he is superior to all: to his teachers, to his fellow students, to all about him.  His life is ruled by his desire to live life the way he thinks life should be lived, with every desire met. 

He steals money from his employer one Friday afternoon, knowing that his theft won't be discovered until Monday.  He leaves Pittsburgh for New York where he registers in at an expensive hotel and goes on a shopping spree for clothing.  He returns to the hotel, rests, and then changes into his new clothing.  It is now dinner time.

"When he reached the dining-room he sat down at a table near a window.  The flowers, the white linen, the many-coloured  wine glasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra all flooded Paul's dream with bewildering radiance.  When the roseate tinge of his champagne was added--that cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass--Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all.  This was what all the world was fighting for, he reflected: this was what all the struggle was about.   .    .    .    .    .  He had no especial desire to know any of these people; all he demanded was the right to look on and conjecture, to watch the pageant.  The mere stage properties were all he contended for."

I must admit that I don't understand Paul, for it seems that he is satisfied just by being able to exist on the periphery of this bright, glittering world.  He does not appear to want to become an active part of it.  Just being able to sit there with the others seems to be sufficient for him.

This story fits the title for Paul is the youth and his dream is the bright and deadly Medusa.

One can surmise that there will not be a happy ending to this tale.


"A Wagner Matinee"
A sad story wherein a well-meant gesture goes sadly wrong. 

One morning Clark received a letter from Nebraska.  His Aunt Georgiana had received a small inheritance and was coming to Boston for the settling of the estate.  He wondered what she would make of Boston after being gone for thirty years.  She had been a piano teacher when she met Harold Carpenter who wooed her and took her out to a Nebraska farm.  He himself had gone out there some years ago and worked for his uncle, so he knew what life on the Nebraska prairies was like.

Thinking to be kind, he purchased tickets for a matinee performance of the music of Wagner, but he wondered if perhaps he should forget about the concert.  Eventually he dismissed that thought and they went.   But. . .

"The first number was the Tannhauser overture.  When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim's chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched [his] coat sleeve.  Then it was [he] first realized that this for her broke a silence of thirty years.  .  . . and [he] saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond whee I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain gullied clay banks about the naked house.  .  ."   

And he now remembered that "(f)or thirty years [his] aunt had not been farther than fifty miles from the homestead."

While he lived with them she  taught him "scales  and exercises on the little parlour organ which her husband had bought her after fifteen years during which she  had not so much as seen a musical instrument."  Once, when he had spent considerable time trying to learn a favorite piece, she told him  : "Don't love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken away from you."

She said little during the concert, but he often could see tears in her eyes.  When the performance was over, the audience filed out and the performers put their instruments away.  She still sat there quietly, unmoving.  Finally he spoke to her, and he realized just what he had done when she "burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly, 'I don't want to go, Clark, I don't want to go!'  [He] understood.  For her, just outside the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door."

John Keats once said:

"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing."
from  Endymion

But, what happens when that "thing of beauty" is lost or taken away?  What happens to that joy?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Minute Meditation

 Today is the birthday of Thomas Mann, the author of one of my top ten favorite novels:  The Magic Mountain.  
"Music awakens time, awakens us to our finest enjoyment of time."
-- Thomas Mann --
The Magic Mountain
I would add this: Music is the Voice of Time.  



Monday, June 5, 2017

Gregory Benford: The Berlin Project

Gregory Benford
The Berlin Project

 The Berlin Project is an alternate universe tale that up to a certain point reads more like a docudrama, a depiction of real events that have been filled out in places by the writer.  The first part takes place in the days before WWII, of the beginnings of what was to become the Manhattan Project.   The movement of the scientists from the first implications of what "splitting the atom" to the realization that this could be a source of power and a destructive weapon unlike anything possible at that day.  There was at the same time the fear, supported by rumors and certain actions by German scientists, that Germany was also going along the same path.  Eventually it was decided to try to beat the Germans to the bomb.

Research then suggested that U235 would be the best for such a bomb.  The project then came to a decision point: what method would be most effective in separating out U235 from U238?  It is at this point, that the novel moves, at least as far as I can tell, completely into the alternate universe.  In the real world, it was decided to use the gas diffusion method, whereas in The Berlin Project, the powers-that-be went with the centrifuge method.

In the Afterword to the novel, Benford says that even by the '60s we knew that the centrifuge method would have been the best choice.  The decision in favor of the gas diffusion method  resulted in a delay of a year or more in developing the bomb, which then had little effect on the war in Europe.  The decision in the novel to use the centrifuge method gave the Allies the bomb a year earlier; in fact the bomb was ready just before the Normandy invasion.  This changed the outcome of the war.

I felt, to some extent that the novel had two parts.  The first, as I mentioned above, reminded me of a docudrama as it had considerably more detail leading up to the production of the bomb than I would normally expect in an alternate history tale.  What happens after the production and use of the first bomb is similar to what I usually find in an alternate history--a wide divergence from the events of the real world.   The detailed account of the scientific struggles to produce the bomb is over and is followed by a more action-oriented story and speculation as to the long-term effects of its use in the other world.

In the Afterword,  Benford tells us that most of the characters in the novel were real, including Karl Cohen, the POV character, who happens to be his father-in-law.  Considerable information obviously came from him.  In addition to physicists and mathematicians, other real people appear or are mentioned: James Benford (Benford's father was in the army during WWII) who appears in a walk-on role, as do these people who would be familiar to some, I suppose--Cleve Cartmill (author of a story that got the FBI interested), Anson McDonald (better known as Robert Heinlein, who also was the author of a story that got the FBI interested), John W. Campbell (who published both stories), Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, and Arthur C. Clarke.

And, at one point in the novel, a character remarks: "tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun."   Those familiar with the work of Alfred Bester will recognize this.

Overall I found it a very interesting read.  While the details of the research and succeeding struggle to produce the bomb did not happen that way in our world, it gave me more of an idea of what those efforts were like, and also a closer look at the politics and in-fighting that tool place within the Manhattan Project, something I had never heard of before.

As I mentioned above, Benford provides an 18 page afterward  with a brief discussion of  the major events as it happened in the real world, and a brief biography of the major characters in the work.  Benford says that several of the characters are still alive today.  He also points out the irony of the development of the bomb in that many of the important scientists in the Manhattan Project were refugees from Europe, fleeing the Nazis. 

If you have read a number of novels and short stories by Greg Benford, I think you will be surprised by this one.  It's not like anything I have read by him so far.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain CV

Second Edition:  Quatrain CV

Would but the Desert of the Fountain yield
One glimpse --if dimly, yet indeed reveal'd,
     Toward which the fainting Traveller might spring,
As springs the trampled herbage of the field! 

Fifth Edition: Quatrain  XCVII
Would but the Desert of the Fountain yield
One glimpse --if dimly, yet indeed, reveal'd,
     To which the fainting Traveller might spring,
As springs the trampled herbage of the field! 

FitzGerald made only minimal changes to this quatrain over the next three editions.  He added a comma in the fifth edition after "indeed," but that might have simply been adding one that had been left out in the second edition.  The other change was the substitution  of  "To" for "Toward" in the third line.  I think "To" makes it more specific as "Toward" suggests only moving in that direction, but not necessarily that being the destination.

Again, this quatrain brings up the theme that we don't know where we are going and laments that we can't even get a glimpse.  Robert Frost expresses the same idea in his poem "For Once, Then, Something." 

For Once, Then, Something

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike,
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths--and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

The mystery of existence has tormented and bedeviled the human race for thousands of years. This has brought about the various religious traditions, each with their own unique answer.  Each of these answers have their own adherents, but no answer to date has been shown to be satisfactory to the human race as a whole, except, of course, to its followers.

 Do I have an answer?  No.  But, like Khayyam and Frost, I keep looking and hoping.